‘Who is a hero?’ Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemorated on 80th anniversary

“Who is a hero? That is one of the core questions of Jewish existence. Here, the answer is clear. They were the heroes,” President Isaac Herzog said.

By Associated Press and World Israel News Staff

Presidents and Holocaust survivors and their descendants commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising on Wednesday with a poignant sense that the responsibility for carrying on the memory of the Holocaust is passing from the witnesses to younger generations.

Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said the lessons of his own country’s aggression hold a lesson as Russia’s attack on Ukraine has “destroyed the foundations of our European security order.”

“You in Poland, you in Israel, you know from your history that freedom and independence must be fought for and defended. You know how important it is for a democracy to defend itself,” Steinmeier said at a ceremony alongside presidents Isaac Herzog of Israel and Andrzej Duda of Poland.

“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.”

The anniversary honors the hundreds of young Jews who took up arms in Warsaw in 1943 against the overwhelming might of the Nazi German army.

There are no surviving fighters still alive. Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander, died in 2009. He remained in Poland and helped keep alive the memory of the revolt in his homeland. Simcha Rotem, a fighter who smuggled others out of the burning ghetto through sewage tunnels, died in 2018 in Israel, where he had settled.

The small number of elderly surviving witnesses today were mostly children at the time of the revolt.

The commemorations took place in front of the Memorial to the Ghetto Heroes where the fighting erupted, led by three presidents whose nations were forever shaped by World War II.

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‘I bow to the dead in deep sorrow’

Germany, which inflicted death and destruction across the vast areas that it occupied, has acknowledged its crimes and expressed remorse.

Steinmeier once again begged forgiveness.

“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.”

“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.

“Who is a hero? That is one of the core questions of Jewish existence. Here, the answer is clear. They were the heroes,” President Herzog said in his address.

“Not only here,” he continued, “but all across Europe. In the trails of tears, in the depths of carnage, in the confines of the ghettoes, and in the camps of extermination—in all nine circles of hell. In a world falling apart, in the shadow of death, under conditions of humiliation, famine, and forced labor, in the ghettoes, in the killing pits, on the death trains, in the gas chambers and crematoria, facing concentration camps and extermination camps—they succeeded, mothers, fathers, children, grandfathers, and grandmothers, in upholding human morality, mutual responsibility, faith, and basic humanity. And a love of humankind. They upheld the most fundamental and basic Jewish imperative: ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’

“They were not alone. With them, in a heroic battle against the Nazis and their accomplices, in every country, were the Righteous Among the Nations and members of the local resistance movements, including, of course, here in Poland, the Polish Righteous Among the Nations and members of the Polish underground, who risked their lives and chose to not stand idly by…

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“I stand here at these sacred moments, in a place where whole branches of our people were cut down, destroyed, tortured, and exterminated. In a place where Jewish hope and faith faced challenges the likes of which humanity had never known. And I cannot help but imagine the daughters and sons of my people, beloved and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths never divided (Samuel II 1:23).

“I imagine what they would have said, what they would have thought, if in those dark hours, in the stench of the sewers and suffocating cellars, staring down the barrels of guns and tanks, someone had whispered in their ears that eighty years later, we—the Presidents of Poland, Israel, and Germany—would be standing here and saluting their heroism and swearing an eternal oath together to their sacred memory, an oath with a singular core: Never Again.”

‘More than an emotional moment’

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.

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“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.