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Jewish Uprising's Heroes Honored in Warsaw

Leaders of Poland, Israel join hundreds of others to recognize those who fought the Nazis against all odds for nearly a month in 1943.

May 01, 2003|Ela Kasprzycka | Times Staff Writer

WARSAW — Hundreds gathered here in the sun Wednesday to remember those of the city's Jewish ghetto who in April 1943 led a desperate revolt against the overwhelming Nazi forces.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Katzav, laid wreaths at the imposing black granite monument commemorating the Warsaw ghetto heroes. One was made of white and red flowers, and the other of white and blue, the national colors respectively of Poland and Israel.

"By coming here, President Kwasniewski showed that it was an uprising by Polish Jews, that these were Polish citizens who revolted, that this is part of Polish history," said Marek Edelman, a doctor who remained in Poland and is the last surviving commander of the ghetto uprising. "It should be a warning to others in the future, so such a tragedy never happens again."

In October 1940, the Nazis decided to create a separate Jewish quarter in Warsaw. Poles were told to leave the area, and Jews moved in. It was then enclosed by brick walls higher than 10 feet. Thus the Jewish ghetto was created. No one was permitted to leave the area without a special pass. About 400,000 people lived in a place earlier inhabited by just over 100,000 residents. Killings, starvation, disease and deportations to concentration camps followed.

In April 1943, with only about 60,000 ghetto residents surviving, a group of young Jewish men and women decided to put up resistance in the face of final deportations and the liquidation of the ghetto. They fought for almost a month against all odds.

"All we had were grenades, some guns and bottles with flammable liquid. We were like ants attacking a regular army which had conquered all of Europe," remembers Masza Putermilch, 79, a Jewish ghetto fighter who returned to Poland from Israel at the invitation of Kwasniewski.

Putermilch said those who fought knew they were going to die but had nothing to lose. "We did it to honor all the Jews. It was our revenge," she said.

In May 1943, Nazis extinguished all Jewish resistance and systematically destroyed the ghetto. Most fighters were killed; some committed suicide. Only a small number was able to escape through the sewers to the so-called Aryan, non-Jewish side of Warsaw.

On May 16, 1943, the commander of the German troops in the ghetto, SS Gen. Juergen Stroop, blew up the main synagogue in Warsaw, symbolically destroying all traces of Jewish life in the Polish capital.

Six million Jews died in the Nazi Holocaust, and Poland's prewar Jewish population of 3.5 million fell to 300,000. About 20,000 Jews remain in Poland today.

As Putermilch observed the ceremony, she said there were moments she still couldn't believe she was alive. Her entire family was killed in the Holocaust. "I think I do not belong to this world. I belong with the 6 million Jews who perished in World War Two," she said.

Hundreds of young Israelis carrying national flags gathered at the memorial site to pay homage to the heroes who died in the uprising.

"We come here to ensure that such things as the Holocaust never occur again," said Oren Solomon, 17, a high school student from the Israeli town of Ashdod. After visiting concentration camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Majdanek, Oren said it was impossible for him to understand the logic of the Nazis. Today, he ponders whether "they were human or animals."

The young Israelis who came here are proud of the Jewish ghetto fighters. "This was the first urban uprising against the Germans. Not everyone was brave enough to stand up to the Germans," said Nathan Alpern, 16, a high school student. "They were heroes."

During a ceremony at the Grand Theater in Warsaw, Kwasniewski, whose personal efforts have brought about great improvement in Polish-Jewish relations, talked not just about the tragedy of the past but also its implications for the future.

"It is our duty not just to remember the heroes but also the cause for which they fought," the Polish president said. "Terrorism resulting from fundamentalism denies the right to exist to entire groups, nations, religions. It despises all laws. It wants to kill and destroy. We cannot remain indifferent. The lesson to be drawn from history is not just words. Above all, it's the courage to confront an ideology aimed against man and his rights."

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