Shielding a Flickering Flame
With the folly of the human race—and perhaps its unconscious lust for self-annihilation—on display at the U.N. Climate Talks in Warsaw, it is easy to succumb to despair. The world’s elite, it is painfully clear, will do little to halt the accelerating destruction of the ecosystem and eventually the human species. We have, through our ingenuity and hubris, unleashed the next great mass extinction on the planet. And I suspect the reason we have never discovered signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is because extraterrestrial societies that achieved similar levels of technological development also destroyed themselves. There are probably more wreckages of advanced civilizations, cursed by poisoned ecosystems, floating through the universe than we imagine.
The death spiral we face means that resistance will increasingly break down along two lines—those who have children and those who do not. It is one thing to sacrifice one’s self. It is another to sacrifice one’s children. No matter how grim and apocalyptic the world becomes, a parent is compelled to protect his or her child. One cannot totally give up hope. When resistance becomes an act of almost certain futility and suicide, and this is what is fast approaching, violent confrontation will mean the extermination of your children. And that is too much to ask of a parent. Parents—and I am one—do not make great revolutionaries. We have to go home to put a child to bed. Those who do not have children more easily rise up. Most parents, for this reason, are able to embrace only nonviolent protest. And nonviolent mass protest offers, as long as we remain in a period of relative stability, our best hope. Resorting to violence would, right now, make things worse. But as societies unravel, as desperation becomes worldwide, both nonviolence and violence will do little to alter our impending self-destruction. In the coming struggle against the global corporate elite there will be two sets of priorities—those of parents and those of fighters. These differing priorities will have to be respected if we are to build a cohesive movement. There are some things a mother or a father cannot, and perhaps should not, do.
The dichotomy between the role of parents and the role of fighters in times of extremity was delineated in Hanna Krall’s remarkable book “Shielding the Flame,” a narrative that drew on the experience of Dr. Marek Edelman, who when he died in 2009 was the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Edelman, 23 years old when he helped lead the April 1943 uprising, refused to hold up his actions as more moral than those who walked with their children to the gas chambers. After all, he said, by the time of the uprising he and the other resistance fighters knew that “it was only a choice as to the manner of dying.”
"There will come a time, if there is no radical change, when we too will be forced to choose how we will die, whom we will cling to, what we will risk."
The uprising lasted three weeks, ending when the Germans razed the Warsaw Ghetto. Edelman was the only commander of the uprising to come out alive. He escaped through the sewers and was carried away from the ghetto on a stretcher by some of the few remaining members of the underground, posing as members of the Polish Red Cross. A sign reading “Typhus” was placed on his body, and the terror of that disease among the German soldiers ensured his passage through checkpoints. One of the women carrying the stretcher, Dr. Alina Margolis, later became Edelman’s wife. During part of the 1979-1992 war in El Salvador, Margolis lived in my house in San Salvador. She was working in a refugee camp for Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, an organization she helped found. She and Edelman were fierce anti-Zionists, publicly denounced Israel’s occupation and repression of the Palestinians, and defended the right of Palestinian people to resist that occupation, even through violence. They saw in the Palestinian struggle their own fight against German occupation during World War II. I deeply respected them.
“... [T]o die in a gas chamber is by no means worse than to die in battle, and ... the only undignified death is when one attempts to survive at the expense of somebody else,” Edelman told Krall. He said of parents and children who were deported to the death camps: “Those people went quietly and with dignity. It is a horrendous thing, when one is going so quietly to one’s death. It is infinitely more difficult than to go out shooting. After all, it is much easier to die firing—for us it was much easier to die than it was for someone who first boarded a train car, then rode the train, then dug a hole, then undressed naked. ...”
And yet, at the same time, Edelman noted that everyone, even the young ghetto fighters, needed “somebody to act for, somebody to be the center of his life.” To be totally alone was to be drained of purpose and meaning. This was true even for those who faced certain death. “To be with someone was the only way to survive in the Ghetto,” he told Krall. “One would secret oneself somewhere with the other person—in a bed, in a basement, anywhere—and until the next action one was not alone anymore. One person had had his mother taken away, somebody else’s father had been shot and killed, or a sister taken away in a shipment. So if someone, somehow, by some miracle escaped and was still alive, he had to stick to some other living human being. People were drawn to one another as never before, as never in moral life. During the last liquidation action they would run to the Jewish Council in search of a rabbi or anybody who could marry them, and then they would go to the Umschlagplatz [where Jews were forced to gather for transportation to the death camps] as a married couple.”
“When one knows death so well, one has more responsibility for life,” he said. “Any, even the smallest chance for life becomes extremely important. A chance for death was there all the while. The important thing was to make a chance for life.”
Edelman noted the collective self-delusion that prohibited the Jews in the ghetto—as it prohibits us—from facing their fate, even as the transports were taking thousands daily to the Nazi death camp Treblinka. The Germans handed out oblong, brown loaves of rye bread to those lining up outside the trains. Those clutching the loaves, desperately hungry and overjoyed with receiving the food, willingly climbed into the railway carriages. In 1942 the underground sent a spy to follow the trains. He returned to the ghetto and reported, in the words of Krall’s book, that “every day a freight train with people would pass that way [to Treblinka] and return empty, but food supplies were never sent there.” His account was written up in the underground ghetto newspaper, but, as Edelman remarked, “nobody believed it.” “ ‘Have you gone insane?’ people would say when we were trying to convince them that they were not being taken to work,” Edelman remembered. “ ‘Would they be sending us to death with bread? So much bread would be wasted!’ ”
Edelman castigated the head of the Jewish Council, Adam Czerniaków, for committing suicide. The official killed himself by swallowing cyanide on July 23, 1942, the day after the mass deportation of the Jews to Treblinka began. “There was only one man who could have declared the truth out loud: Czerniaków,” Edelman said. “They would have believed him. But he had committed suicide. That wasn’t right: one should die with a bang. At that time this bang was most needed—one should die only after having called other people into the struggle.” Edelman went on to say that Czerniaków’s suicide was the “only thing we reproach him for.”
“We?” Krall asked.
"Me and my friends,” Edelman said. “The dead ones. We reproach him for having made his death his own private business. We were convinced that it was necessary to die publically, under the world’s eyes.”
Traditional concepts of right and wrong, Edelman pointed out, collapse in moments of extremity. Edelman spoke to Krall about a woman doctor in the ghetto hospital who poisoned the sick children on her ward as the Germans entered the building. “She saved children from the gas chamber,” Edelman said. “People thought she was a hero. So what, then, in that world turned upside down, was heroism? Or honor? Or dignity? And where was God?”
Edelman answered his own question. God, he said, was on the side of the persecutors. A malicious God. And Edelman said that as a heart surgeon in Poland after the war he felt he was always battling against this malevolent deity who sought to extinguish life. “God is trying to blow out the candle and I’m quickly trying to shield the flame, taking advantage of His brief inattention.”
“He is not terribly just. It can also be very satisfying because whenever something does work out, it means you have, after all, fooled Him.”
The forces of life, including the ecosystem, are being transformed into forces of death. The monster Typhoon Haiyan is only one of the first tragedies. Nature and global elites seeking to exploit the planet’s last drops of blood and its repressed masses are joining to make the days of descent squalid and terrifying. And in this extremity we will have to find our place. There will come a time, if there is no radical change, when we too will be forced to choose how we will die, whom we will cling to, what we will risk. There will be no moral hierarchy to resistance. We will be pulled one way or another by fate and love. And these different routes of resistance will all be legitimate as long as we do not, as Edelman said, attempt “to survive at the expense of somebody else.”
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