Kosciuszko Foundation in Washington DC - Past Events

Let's Talk about Poland

Wednesday, April 20, 2016, at 6:00pm

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Marek Edelman: Being on the Right Side by Witold Bereś and Krzysztof Burnetko is the first biography of this hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, renowned physician, and defender of human rights. 

This book was almost 30 years in the making, from the moment when the authors first met Edelman. That was in the 1980s, when the opposition Solidarity movement was forced underground after the communists introduced martial law in Poland. Bereś and Burnetko, active in the democratic opposition, interviewed him for the first time on behalf of an illegal paper they published clandestinely. From that moment on, meetings with Edelman became a part of their lives.

It took a long time to finish the book. Edelman was not an easy man to deal with, moral issues were muddled under the communist dictatorship, and above all there was the vexed question of the Holocaust.

To top it all off, new eyewitness accounts and previously unknown documents kept surfacing.

Bereś and Burnetko ended up devoting no fewer than three books to Edelman (Marek Edelman: Just Life; Marek Edelman: Life to the End; and Marek Edelman: God Is Asleep). Each one was a bestseller, and translations were published in Israel, Germany, and Russia.

The English-language version of their biography of Edelman is based on all three of these books.  


He warned that "Man is a kind of beast in which it's very easy to awaken the hatred. It's easier for him to hate than to love." He knew what he was talking about. He was an eyewitness to the Holocaust. But then he would repeat: "Always, regardless of who's being assaulted—you  have to take their side."

Barely 20 years old, Marek Edelman joined the resistance movement in the Warsaw ghetto. When the uprising broke out there in 1943, he became one of its leaders. After the war, in contrast to his Zionist friends from the ghetto, he decided to stay in Poland.

He worked as a doctor. In time, his colleagues in medicine and his patients came to refer to him as the "doctor for hopeless cases" because he wasn't afraid to apply treatments that were risky, but effective. It was in the ghetto that he learned that you have to fight for human life until the end.

He also joined the anti-communist opposition movement. The secret police bugged him, tailed him, and then, under martial law in December 1981, jailed him. 

He continually cultivated the memory of his comrades from the Ghetto Uprising—and of all the victims of the ghetto. He explained that each one of them was a hero—not only the ones who dared to fight, but also the ones who traveled to the death camps.

When communism fell, he continued to work for human rights—in the war-ravaged Balkans, in Iran, in Cuba, in Tibet, and also in Europe.

He liked to say that democracy and freedom cannot be taken for granted, and until his last days, he warned about the resurgence of nationalism. 


Witold Bereś, film producer, and Krzysztof Burnetko, journalist, are the authors of many   non-fiction books that have won popularity in Poland, including interviews with a Catholic priest fighting anti-Semitism (A Headstrong Clergyman: Conversations with Father Stanisław Musiał) and a biography of a Jewish resistance fighter (Kazik Ratajzer: A Hero out of the Shadows).

Polish President Bronisław Komorowski awarded them the Knight's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, one of the highest Polish honors, for "building understanding between Poles and Jews." They have also been distinguished with The Honorary Award of the Cracow Center for Jewish Culture – Judaica Foundation.

Their books about Marek Edelman have also been published in German, Russian and Hebrew.


What was the most important thing for us in our meetings with Marek Edelman?

It's not about reaching some goal. It's about what Marek called  "walking on the sunny side of the street, on the right side." And about "trusting people, the ones going your way. That's the main thing. If you don't trust people, that means you're alone."

Witold Bereś and Krzysztof Burnetko


 For me, Marek Edelman is the embodiment of everything that is best about Poland. (VACLAV HAVEL)

Edelman is out of place in this world of complacency, fine gestures, and flattering words. (LECH WAŁĘSA)

- The presidents of the Czech Republic and Poland, on the first edition of the book.

 Marek Edelman was a friend to everyone who values freedom, and his life would suffice for several feature-length films. I myself have drawn on his story in my own work. I am elated  that this superb biography by Bereś and Burnetko will now be coming out in English. Perhaps it will inspire a young director to make a new film about the Jewish heroes who fought for their freedom and ours.

ANDRZEJ WAJDA, film director, recipient of an honorary Oscar for his contribution to world cinema

Edelman was a man with a beautiful life story. But Israel has trouble with Jews like Edelman. Because Edelman, by staying in Europe after the Holocaust, marked out a line of Jewish fate running parallel to the line drawn by the Zionists and the founders of Israel. It is going to take us a good while yet to come to terms with such life stories.

This book tries to explain such choices.

ETGAR KERET, writer, screenwriter, and author of story collections including "Missing Kissinger"

I am incapable of writing about those times without poignancy and exclamation points. Edelman dismissed emotionality with a wave of his hand. "Don't keep going on and on about it," he tells Bereś and Burnetko. "Nobody can understand it anyway."

So I won't go on and on about it either. This is a book that must be read.

Prof. IRENA GRUDZIŃSKA-GROSS, Princeton University

A rebel, a political activist, a renowned cardiologist, and a huge, utterly unique, human being (Mensch in Yiddish), Marek Edelman was all of these, and always on the right side. Among the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and a moral guide to the Polish revolutionary movement Solidarity, Edelman served as a role-model of civil courage, the obligation to say "no" to evil, and of humanism to innumerable people in and outside Poland, his country.

This biography which tells the incredible life-story of that hero of our times, is a must-read, and should be taught in schools worldwide. Some of the passages in this moving, sad, funny, sometime rude book are no less than sublime.

Prof. IDITH ZERTAL, historian, author of "Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood"

"Marek Edelman: Being on the Right Side", part biography, part extended interview, offers a rare insight into the mind of a complex man whose life was marked by both Nazism and Communism. A hero of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a political activist, a cardiologist, and most of all a humanist, Edelman never shies from speaking his mind on what matters to him the most: the plight of another human being in need. An important book!

Eva Stachniak, novelist, the author of the international bestseller "The Winter Palace"



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