Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemorated on 80th anniversary

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“As German Federal President, I stand before you today and bow to the courageous fighters in the Warsaw ghetto,” Steinmeier said. “I bow to the dead in deep sorrow.”

And Poland, where Europe’s largest prewar Jewish population lived and which was invaded and subjected to mass death and destruction, carries out its responsibility of preserving 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.

“Dear President Duda, dear President Herzog, many people in your two countries, in Poland and in Israel, have granted us Germans reconciliation despite these crimes,” Steinmeier said, calling that a “miracle of reconciliation” to be preserved into the future.

Some of those participating in Wednesday’s observances traveled from as far as Australia and the United States to honor those who perished, but also the rich Jewish civilization that is their heritage. Many hold their own private ceremonies, paying tribute to those departed at the Jewish cemetery or at various memorials on the former grounds of the ghetto.

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, is working to carry on a history that his father rarely spoke to him about but also carries an emotional burden. He was young when his father became ill and died 1971, but today pores through the documentation his father left behind, and is trying to get one of his stories translated into English and published.

“He was quite proud of his fight against the ‘Nazi beast’ — his words — but I suppose that the feeling of apprehension entered my soul until now,” Valevski said.

The Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and the next year set up the ghetto, the largest of many in occupied Poland.

It initially held some 380,000 Jews who were cramped into tight living spaces, and at its peak housed about a half-million souls. Disease and starvation were rampant, and bodies often appeared on the streets.

The Jewish resistance movement in the Warsaw 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 that 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 brutally vanquished. That was longer than some countries held out.

“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 on the “Aryan” side of the city, 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.

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