“A passive witness becomes an accomplice”. Anniversary of Marek Edelman’s death

Written by: Jewish Historical Institute
Today marks 13 years since the death of Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, participant in the Warsaw Uprising, cardiologist, and tireless eulogist of life.

20th April, 1947. Celebrations of the fourth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the so-called First Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. From the right: Stefan Grajek, Marek Edelman and Adolf Berman, Julian Łazebnik, Marek Bitter, Salo Fiszgrund, Józef Sack. Print in the Jewish Historical Institute collection


“Above all, we need to remember about one thing: what the Holocaust was. It’s not true that it was only a Jewish matter. It’s not true that it was a matter of those few szmalcownicy [people who blackmailed Jews hiding in occupied Poland]. Or dozen. Or several dozen. Or several hundred. It’s not true that it was a matter of a hundred or two hundred thousand Germans, who personally took part in those murders. No. It was a matter of Europe and a matter of European civilisation, who set up those death factories. The Holocaust is a catastrophe for civilisation. Unfortunately, this catastrophe did not end in 1945. This is what must be remembered. And everyone must remember this. […]

We always have a tendency to turn our heads away from unpleasant things. It was like this: a Jew was leaving the ghetto, there was a crowd of people with two blackmailers in it. There were only two of them, and only these two did what they did – the rest turned their heads away and didn’t want to see it. Because it’s a very sad thing. And yet they were witnesses. And a passive witness becomes an accomplice.

In extreme situations, being passive is a crime. In extreme situations, even fear isn’t a justification and passivity indeed becomes a crime. The whole world was passive during the war. And it’s not just the world of Europe. Great Britain was passive, America was passive – although they did not have to be afraid. Roosevelt recognised the Holocaust as the cost of the war to the Jews. Same as the costs borne by the French or the Russians. He said that when the war was over, the Jews would no longer be murdered.

But it wasn’t the same. Those death factories, where masses were murdered, brought contempt for human life. And that contempt has lasted until today. The best students of the French university did Cambodia. It was the same in Rwanda. This time, fortunately, France resisted the murders and sent an army to protect half a million people in Rwanda. It happened for the first time. It should be remembered that the first sin of omission was Hitler’s occupation of the Saar Basin. It was the beginning of weakness, fear of fascism, fear of strong power. If today we do not fight this fear within ourselves, we will continue to deal with terrorism, with genocide.

This is what we have to remember”.


Marek Edelman


Fragment of the speech at a colloquium which took place on 10th and 11th June, 1995 in Kraków, source: “Zagłada Żydów. Studia i materiały [The Holocaust. Studies and Materials]”, No. 5/2009, pp. 7-8.

Jewish Historical Institute