The commemoration ceremony which took place in Warsaw on April 19th was the first such ceremony to take place following the death of the last Warsaw Ghetto Uprising veteran, Simcha Rotem, who passed away on the 22nd of December at the age of 94.
This year’s commemorations started with a quotation from Władysław Szlęga, a Polish poet and chronicler of life in the Ghetto. He died in the final days of the uprising.
“You hear, German God, as Jews pray in the wild homes, holding a crowbar or a rod in their hands, we ask you God for a fight full of blood and a rapid death -Władysław Szlęga.
On the streets of Warsaw, over 2,500 volunteers handed out paper daffodil flowers. This is the seventh edition of a campaign prepared by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews “Polin”. Besides the yellow paper flowers, the volunteers also shared facts and knowledge about World War II, the Ghetto and the heroes of the uprising of April 1943. The tradition with daffodils is associated with Marek Edelman, one of the last surviving commanders of the Ghetto Uprising who would receive daffodil flowers every year ahead of the anniversary of the uprising. The flowers were sent to him by an anonymous person and Edelman would place the flowers by the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw.
The uprising in the ghetto was a direct consequence of the decision taken by German officials at the Wansee Conference in January 1942 to exterminate the Jewish population in all areas under German control. The Jewish population of Warsaw and surrounding areas had been crammed into small area of Warsaw with the start of October 1940. By the time the Wansee Conference took place, more than 400 000 Jews were struggling to survive in the area consisting of only 3.4 km2 (1.3 sq mi) but which nevertheless was Europe’s largest ghetto.
In the summer of 1942, the genocidal campaign which the Germans had dubbed “the final solution to the Jewish question” began being implemented in Warsaw. Between two Jewish holidays, Tisha B’Av on July 23rd and Yom Kippur on September 21st 1942, between 250 000 and 300 000 Jews from the ghetto were transported by the Germans to death camps. The Jews were loaded onto trains at the Umschlagplatz (German for collection point) just outside of the ghetto. From there, more than 250 000 Jews were taken to the Treblina extermination camp located in a forest around 80 kilometers north-east of Warsaw.
By late September, the transportations to Treblinka from Warsaw stopped as the camp was used for a while to kill Jews from other areas such as the German protectorate in Moravia and Bohemia as well as the Bulgarian-occupied territories such in Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot. It had become apparent for the 50 000 Jews left in the Warsaw Ghetto that the previous transportations had been to death camps and that their own fate was sealed as well. After this realization, the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) was formed and quickly started building bunkers and stockpiling weapons in preparation for an uprising. A second group, the Jewish Military Union (ŻZW) also began preparing for an uprising. Both Jewish groups received training and weapons from the main Polish military underground organization named the Home Army.
However, relations between the Home Army and the Jewish Military Union were closer as the formation consisted of Polish-Jewish veterans who had fought in the Polish Army during the German invasion in 1939 and the group later united with right-wing nationalists of the Beitar organization which had been formed by the founder of the Revisionist Zionism movement, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Meanwhile, the Jewish Combat Organization tilted toward socialism and had close relations with the Soviet Union, one the two states which invaded Poland in 1939.
Despite the political tensions, when the Germans decided to restart deportations to the death camps from the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943, all groups fought shoulder to shoulder in the Ghetto Uprising. The Polish Home Army had some of its men join the Jewish resistence fighters inside the ghetto but mainly focused on attacking the Germans patrolling the ghetto walls. At one point, the Poles tried to blow up a part of the ghetto wall but were unsuccessful.
After a couple of days of hard fighting, the uprising collapsed and the Germans spent the following weeks torching one area of the ghetto after another. Most of the around 10 000 civilian victims died either under collapsed buildings or suffocated in the basements from smoke inhalation.
The Ghetto Uprising came to an end on May 16th when the Germans blew up the Great Synagogue of Warsaw in what became the last symbolical act of the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.
The around Jewish 40 000 survivors of the uprising were all sent to the Majdanek and Treblinka Death Camps.
Despite their superiority in number of troops and equipment, it took the Germans almost a month to gain full control of the ghetto. The bravery of the Ghetto insurgents greatly inspired the Poles who launched their own uprising in Warsaw a year later. The 63 days long Warsaw Uprising was finally defeated, with 20 000 Polish insurgents killed and another 200 000 civilian casualities.
Many of the Jewish insurgents who survived the Ghetto Uprising also fought alongside the Poles in the Warsaw Uprising.
Now, more than 70 years after the brutal events of the Second World War, the inhabitants of Warsaw put their heart and soul into commemorating the heroes and victims of the city’s two uprisings.