WARSAW, Poland – This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when Polish Jews fought to the death in 1943 against the Nazis who had imprisoned them in their own neighborhood.
In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland, and within a month occupied Warsaw, Poland’s capital, home to nearly 1.3 million people.
A year later – in November 1940 – the Germans sealed some 450,000 Jews from the city and elsewhere inside the Warsaw Ghetto.
Today, many reminders of that time can be seen in the city, including an assembly of bricks outlining the ghetto wall.
We visited the place where part of that wall remains. Inside were crammed one-third of the city’s population, along with other Jews, into less than 5 percent of the city’s area.
During the summer of 1942, the Germans deported close to 300,000 Jews and sent them to the death camp at Treblinka.
At a ceremony in Warsaw in March, Israeli President Isaac Herzog poignantly read the words of one Jewish victim:
“The end of the road. Calmly, I calculate, it is now 2:00 p.m. I look at the clear April skies. Come nightfall, we will be taken to Treblinka. When dawn breaks, I will no longer be alive. It’s a simple calculation: this is the last time I am seeing the blue skies between the clouds.”
Herzog concluded, “Today, exactly eight decades later, I think about that anonymous Jew. I look at the skies, like he did. The same cloudy April skies. And the pain pierces my heart.”
After the ghetto Jews saw what they were likely to face, those who remained decided to fight. They began to secretly build bunkers, smuggle weapons and train for the right moment.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19, 1943, when the surviving residents refused to surrender to the police commander, who then ordered the ghetto to be destroyed.
For nearly a month, the Jews fought a battle knowing they would not win.
In the end, 13,000 Jews died in the uprising; about half burned alive or suffocated. It would become the largest single Jewish revolt during World War II.
In the April ceremony, Herzog read another passage written by a Jewish woman, Zivia Lubetkin, who died in the uprising:
“It was clear to us that we had no chance of victory, in the usual sense of the word. But we knew that at the end of the day, we would emerge victorious. We are the weak ones. But our strength lay in this: we believed in justice. We believed in humanity.”
Herzog reflected on their stand, noting, “Zivia Lubetkin and her comrades were right, and doubly so. Most of the warriors of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising did not survive. But their spirit, the spirit of man, won here, on this soil, sanctified with the blood of our heroic brethren.”
Today, some 700 Jews remain in Warsaw, less than a third of one percent of the population.
In the annual April memorial ceremony, Herzog called it “the emblem of heroism during humanity’s darkest hour.”
He continued, “Here – at this place where we gather – stood the ghetto: cramped, bustling, and bursting with life. Nearby was the ‘collection point,’ or Umschlagplatz. It was there that the fate of 300,000 Polish Jews was sealed: children, the elderly, women, and men who were deported to the Treblinka Death Camp. When I close my eyes, I can see the brave warriors of the revolt, the members of the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union, the few hundred souls who faced the thousands of Nazi soldiers who stormed the ghetto to annihilate them.”
For the first time, a German head of state, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, participated in the ceremony that’s been held since 1948.
Steinmeier stated, “I stand before you today and ask for your forgiveness for the crimes committed here by Germans.”
He added that, as a German and the country’s president, it was difficult to be there.
“The terrible crimes that Germans committed here fill me with profound shame,” he said.
“Here in this square, by the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, I stand before you in grief and humiliation. I affirm our responsibility for the crimes of the past and our responsibility for our shared future.”
Although Israel, Germany and Poland still have their differences, Herzog, Steinmeier, and Polish President Andrej Duda shook hands in front of the monument to the ghetto heroes, a testimony to the bravery of the fighters and the power of reconciliation.