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Shielding a Flickering Flame

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Posted on Nov 24, 2013
AP/Czarek Sokolowski

A man lights a candle where a wall separated the Warsaw Ghetto from the rest of the Polish city during World War II. The photograph was taken on April 21 of this year during a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

By Chris Hedges

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 before 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.” 

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.

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