WARSAW – Sirens wailed, church bells rang and the presidents of Germany, Israel and Poland bowed their heads Wednesday before a memorial to Jewish insurgents who fought a mismatched, desperate battle against Nazi German forces in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Celebrations of the uprising's 80th anniversary honored the hundreds of young Jews who took up arms in the Polish capital in 1943, choosing to fight and die at a time and place not dictated by the Nazis. Most were killed, and none of those who survived the fighting are still alive.
“I stand before you today and ask for forgiveness,” German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the site of the former ghetto.
“The appalling crimes that Germans committed here fill me with deep shame. But at the same time it fills me with gratitude and humility that I can take part in this commemoration as the first German head of state ever.”
The leaders were joined by Holocaust survivors and their descendants, amid a poignant sense that the responsibility for carrying on the memory of the Holocaust is passing from the witnesses to younger generations.
A 96-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor, Marian Turski, told those gathered that German forces did the unimaginable in annihilating Jews, but that the “subsoil” of anti-Semitism existing for centuries made it possible for the Germans to kill so many. He warned against indifference in the face of rising hatred and violence in today's world.
“Can I be indifferent, can I remain silent, when today the Russian army is attacking our neighbor and seizing its land?" he said.
Steinmeier said the lessons of his country’s aggression offer a message amid the war.
“You in Poland, you in Israel, you know from your history that freedom and independence must be fought for and defended,” Steinmeier said. “But we Germans have also learned the lessons of our history. ‘Never again’ means that there must be no criminal war of aggression like Russia’s against Ukraine in Europe.”
Jewish and Christian clerics recited prayers and a torch burned from a part of the memorial resembling a Jewish menorah.
A large group held private unofficial observances at other sites across the former ghetto, placing yellow daffodils or wearing small paper daffodils that in recent years has become a symbol of remembering the uprising.
For some it was a boycott of the right-wing government for its policy of portraying the predominant response to the Holocaust as one in which Poles saved Jews. That approach has been a source of tensions with Israel, where many accuse the Polish government of ignoring modern scholarship, which paints a complex picture that also includes many cases of Polish betrayal of Jews.
The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and the next year set up the ghetto, the largest of many in occupied Poland.
Poland was home to Europe’s largest prewar Jewish population on the eve of the Holocaust, some 3.5 million Jews, most of whom were murdered. The Polish state preserves sites like the ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp, while also honoring the massive losses inflicted on the entire nation. Some 6 million Polish citizens were killed during the war, about 3 million of them Jews and the others mostly Christian Poles.
Israel’s President Isaac Herzog mentioned in his remarks the “disagreements and pain” that still exist between the Jewish and Polish people over their clashing historical narratives, and voiced hope their friendship would advance.
“The heroism of the resistance and the rebels and the imperative to remember that terrible chapter of history, when the Jewish people faced complete annihilation, and destruction rained down upon Poland and many other countries, offer a platform for important dialogue between Poland and Israel,” Herzog said.
Poland and German have faced tensions of their own, including over Polish demands for reparations for World War II. During Steinmeier's visit, the Polish culture minister presented him with a report on Polish war losses. Poland has been demanding $1.3 trillion. Germany has rejected that idea, saying it paid reparations already after the war.
The Warsaw ghetto initially held some 380,000 Jews who were cramped into tight living spaces, and at its peak housed about half a million people. Disease and starvation were rampant, and bodies often appeared on the streets.
The Jewish resistance movement in the ghetto grew after 265,000 men, women and children were rounded up in the summer of 1942 and killed at the Treblinka death camp. As word of the Nazi genocide spread, those who remained behind no longer believed German promises they would be sent to labor camps.
A small group of rebels began to spread calls for resistance, carrying out isolated acts of sabotage and attacks. Some Jews began defying German orders to report for deportation.
The uprising began when the Nazis entered the ghetto on April 19, 1943, the eve of the Passover holiday. Three days later, the Nazis set the ghetto ablaze, turning it into a fiery death trap, but the Jewish fighters kept up their struggle for nearly a month before they were vanquished.
Avi Valevski, a professor of psychiatry from Israel whose father, Ryszard Walewski, a doctor who led a group of some 150 warriors in the revolt, visited Warsaw with his wife, describing it as “more than an emotional moment.”
Valevski, 72, was young when his father became ill and died in 1971. Today he pores through the documentation his father left behind, and is trying to get one of his stories translated into English and published.
Some descendants of survivors feel an inexorable pull back to the land of their parents.
“I’m a New Yorker but there is something that keeps drawing me back here,” said Barbara Jolson Blumenthal, whose parents survived the Warsaw Ghetto after a Pole helped them to escape and hide, while many other members of their families were murdered.
“And although such horrible things happened here, I remember my parents saying that they loved it here, that it was so wonderful here, and I walk the streets and I wonder if this is where my family was and where they walked,” Blumenthal said.
Michal Dyjuk contributed reporting.