Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Zdazyc Przed Panem Bogiem)

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Interview by Hanna Krall, 1977

Hanna Krall's Shielding the Flame (1986) was originally published as Zdazyc przed Panem Bogiem in 1977 in the Wrocław literary magazine Odra. In it the author, at the time a reporter for the Warsaw magazine Polityka, draws a portrait of Marek Edelman , the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Compared to the earlier report of the German SS leader Jürgen Stroop, Krall's work provides a view from the opposite side of this historic event. Krall had originally planned a report about Edelman and a surgical method he had invented in the 1970s. According to Krall, the idea to ask him about his role in the uprising occurred only during the interviews with him.

In the interviews Edelman reflected publicly on the events of the uprising for only the second time in his life. He initially opposed talking about the horrors of the ghetto, using self-irony and speaking "between clenched teeth." He emphasized the coincidental aspect of the events and insisted on talking about his friends and comrades instead of producing a hero's legend of himself. When, for example, he told about a red woolen jumper he had worn while breaking out of a hiding place, he said derisively, "Add two revolvers. When you look elegant you need a revolver and crossed belts." To him the revolt was a way of maintaining human dignity and securing freedom. Nevertheless, he felt woven into the culture of death: "People always believed that shooting is great heroism. That's why we had to shoot." Edelman disappoints the hope for a legend: "Thus he never meant to be a spokesperson, because he couldn't scream. And he never meant to be a hero, because he lacked pathos."

Edelman speaks at great length, while Krall's comments, specific questions, and reflections are added on the side. Other witnesses are included in the search for the past and to find an answer to the question "What sense is behind remembering?" Krall challenges the media, not only interviews but also films like those of Andrzej Wajda. In addition, she tests the culture of memorials, which are based on destroying the remembered: "There is a park on this site now; a hill, a stone, an inscription." The reactions and expectations of readers are included, as, for example, when they request that the memories be censored. One reader complains, "Such banal things should not be told about the commander." The text, however, ends up subverting the anticipation of a "common" story. Even though the readers pay close attention to "the historical facts and the course of events," the "historical course is, as it is shown, nothing else but the course of dying."

A creative form is essential in the work in order both to emphasize and to break the routine of remembering; the past must not rest on a conventional image. Thus, the past forces itself into the present, and both merge in the conscience of a survivor. Several images stand beside one another: a 22-year-old rebel, a heart surgeon in a Warsaw hospital, the men and women who died in the ghetto, terminally ill patients, comrades from the past, doctors who fight diseases in the present. Edelman names the parallels. He believes that his task is to save "as many of his patients as possible," and at some stage he realizes "that it was the same task as back then in the Ghetto," when the victims for the next transport were pulled together. "Back then I stood at the gate" delegated by the Jewish committee and, disguised as a messenger of the ghetto hospital, tried to "free single people from the crowd of the condemned." In both cases it is a race with death: "God would like to blow out a candle, but I must be quicker in shielding the flame and use his temporary inattentiveness. It should burn a little longer than He wishes." It is not a story about the dignity of death but one about the dignity of life: "All it is about is shielding the flame of life."

—Walter Schmitz

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Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Zdazyc Przed Panem Bogiem)

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