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To Get to the Other Side

A journey through Europe and its anarchist movements

Pawel Lew Marek

(text adapted from two articles in issue #29 of Abolishing the Borders from Below, May 2007).

Recently, Polish anarchist Michal Przyborowski put out a book on the life of Pawel Lew Marek, illuminating the anarchist movement in Poland before World War II and the crucial participation of anarchists in both the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.  Pawel Lew Marek was born on the 16th of August, 1902, near Przemysl in southeastern Poland.  As a youth he threw himself into union organizing and labor unrest.  These were years of instability and tension.  The Soviet Union was trying to cement its control over communist movements around the globe, but in Poland, which had just fought a war for its independence from Germany and Russia, nationalist and anti-communist sentiments were in full bloom.  Much of Europe suffered economic depression after World War I, and the depression would soon become a full scale crash.  In several countries, fascism was on the rise.


Despite it all, anarchists in Poland continued to grow stronger. In 1926 Pawel helped form the Anarchist Federation of Poland and he served for several years as an editor of the illegal anarchist newspaper, Class Struggle. The heavy state repression in those years drove the anarchists to form the structures that would become crucial to their survival under fascist occupation.  In 1941, Pawel, as a Jew, was sent to the ghetto in Warszawa—Warsaw—but he managed to escape with his life before the ghetto was liquidated. Once they realized that the thousands of people who had been sent out with the first deportation wave in 1942 were not resettled in the East, as claimed, but exterminated, those who remained in the ghetto decided to resist the next wave. The Jewish Combat Organization, including many anarchists, seized weapons, smuggled them in, or made their own. On 18 January, 1943, hundreds of women and men in the ghetto rose up and halted the Nazi deportation efforts after a few days. With a small number of guns and molotov cocktailes, the resistance fighters took control of the Warszawa ghetto and defeated the first Nazi counteroffensives. Many Jews were able to escape, often with the help of Polish partisans.  Polish communists, anarchists, and nationalists smuggled in weapons and attacked Nazi guardposts on the wall around the ghetto.  The Nazis took hundreds of casualties in crushing the rebellion and had to devote several thousand troops direly needed on the Eastern Front.

On 19 April the Jewish fighters defeated another Nazi offensive.  But the Nazi leadership made it a priority to crush the rebellion; they had replaced the commanding officer and would not tolerate failure.  The Nazis pushed on, with superior forces and weaponry, but ultimately they had to burn the ghetto down block by block.  Throughout the process, they continued to lose troops.  Resistance fighters were also able to destroy several armored vehicles.  On 8 May the Nazis seized the main command post of the Jewish Combat Organization.  The people inside fought to the death or took cyanide to avoid capture.  The Ghetto Uprising was officially crushed on 16 May, 1943, but the Nazis did not win their final battle against armed Jews hiding out in the ruins of the ghetto until 5 June. In the meantime, hundreds of Jews had escaped to continue the fight against the Nazis in the city or in the forests, and those who did not survive had won a dignified death and contributed to the defeat of the Nazis.  The Allied governments, meanwhile, had given almost no support to the Uprising.   Later the same year, on Marek’s birthday, another insurrection broke out in the Białystok ghetto.

Pawel personally took part in the general uprising in Warszawa in 1944, which resulted in over 26,000 Nazi military casualties and perhaps 200,000 Polish deaths.  The Nazi commanders called the city at this time a “center of chaos” responsible for most of their problems on that front.  The plan of the Polish rebels was to liberate Warszawa before the Soviet Army arrived.  They knew the Allies intended to divide Europe into spheres of influence, Soviet-occupied or US-occupied, and they wanted to change the course of history.  But Stalin slowed the advance of his army, allowing the Nazis to free up the troops they needed to crush the uprising.   With the Soviet occupation, Pawel continued to be active in the labor movement and to work with a cooperative publishing house in Łodz and a union newspaper in Warszawa.  He died on the 7th of November in 1971, and is buried in Powazki Cemetery in Warszawa.

Today, Poland’s Anarchist Federation (FA) is alive again, and labor organizing in Poland is gaining strength as Western European countries move their factories here.  The FA has active sections in over a dozen cities, with the newest section created by Polish emigres in Ireland.  The FA has general meetings twice annually, while a coordinating section keeps the different groups in contact throughout the rest of the year.  In 2001, a network of labor activists, mostly within the FA, founded Inicjatywa Pracownicza, Workers’ Initiative, which later transformed itself into a trade union.  Workers’ Initiative organizes unions in several factories, and they also have a presence in the Polish Post.  They have been influenced by the Italian workers’ autonomy movement: they make use of illegal strikes and support wildcat strikes when these crop up.  The group has a presence in some of the most important factories in Poland.  Labor organizing in the West was co-opted across the board, and shaped into a tool to recuperate resistance and involve workers in managing their own exploitation.  Now, factory organizing in the wealthiest countries is generally obsolete because nearly all of the factories have moved to poorer countries.  Some anarchists have no more faith in unions. Others are waiting to see if movements in Poland and elsewhere can learn from past mistakes and develop surprising forms of resistance to capitalism.