60 years later, Warsaw clash viewed as both tragic, inspirational

ROME — On April 19, 1943, heavily armed Nazi troops penetrated the Warsaw Ghetto with a grim goal: the liquidation of the ghetto and the deportation of the last remnants of Warsaw's Jews — some 40,000 men, women and children.

The German forces were met by something unexpected: a fierce attack by some 750 young Jews fueled by desperation and armed with a few machine guns, homemade grenades and makeshift Molotov cocktails.

The battle between the scrappy Jewish fighters and the mighty Nazi army has been described as a contest between an ant and an elephant.

But the Jews held out for a month before the ghetto was finally overwhelmed and burned to the ground, leaving a handful of survivors and a lunar landscape of devastation.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the uprising, which is commemorated on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, beginning Monday at sundown.

On Saturday, the secular calendar date of the anniversary, Poland's tiny Jewish community held a small ceremony at the Ghetto Monument, as it has done every year.

The Polish government is hosting high-level official commemorations on Tuesday and Wednesday, to coincide with Yom HaShoah.

During the past 60 years, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has come to symbolize both the horrors of the Shoah and the struggle against Nazi tyranny.

Five years to the day after the first shots were fired, a huge memorial designed by sculptor Natan Rapaport to commemorate both heroism and annihilation was erected on the site of the ghetto.

And in the 1950s, the Israeli government designated the 27th of Nisan, a date that was about halfway through the uprising, as Yom HaShoah.

"The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the first time in occupied Europe that civilians put up armed resistance against Nazi occupiers," says Marek Edelman, 82, the only surviving commander of the revolt.

"We wanted to show that the Jews, who were considered subhuman, were people like any other," Edelman, a cardiologist and human rights activist who still lives in Poland, told the Warsaw Voice newspaper last week.

"There was no talk about victory or avoiding extermination," he recalled. "It could only be about surviving with dignity, with arms in hand, for a few more days.

"We showed that you could fight against the occupier," he said.

"This was the first brick yanked out of the wall of Nazism in Poland. After our struggle, there were rebellions in the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps, in the ghettos of Bialystok and Czestochowa. We shook the conscience of the Polish underground army and international opinion. We started a process that later led to formulation of the idea of the fight for human dignity and rights included in the U.N. Charter."

Commemorating the ghetto has also become an international event.

Poland's President Aleksander Kwasniewski, Israel's President Moshe Katsav and other dignitaries, including the president of the European Jewish Congress, Michel Friedman, will take part in the ceremony next week, and the last living participants in the uprising will receive high state honors.

"Sixty years ago young men and women from the Jewish Fighting Organization here in Warsaw, in the Warsaw Ghetto, grabbed their arms and, creating an organized resistance movement, fought to defend their dignity and honor," Kwasniewski said in announcing the events.

"We all should remember that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the first organized anti-German eruption of this kind in the occupied Europe," he said. "In the face of the crushing power of the Nazis, a handful of Jewish young people by their desperate, three-week-long fight gave testimony to enormous heroism."

The official events, which will be nationally televised, include wreath-layings Wednedsay at the massive memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto heroes on the site of the ghetto, as well as a concert.

On Tuesday, Kwasniewski and Katsav will join thousands of teenagers at Auschwitz for the culmination of the annual March of the Living Holocaust commemoration, which is always timed to coincide with Yom HaShoah.

Memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising has cast a long shadow in a country where, under communism, discussion of Jewish issues was practically taboo and where anti-Semitism festered.

Poland was home to 3.5 million Jews before World War II, and Warsaw was Europe's biggest Jewish city: Its 375,000 Jews made up about 30 percent of the city's population. The Nazis forced more than 400,000 Jews into the cramped ghetto in Warsaw's old Jewish quarter.

At least 3 million Polish Jews, including almost all of Warsaw's Jewish population, were killed in the Holocaust.

"As a child in Warsaw, I grew up knowing that to be a Jew meant to come from a family that had undergone extermination and tremendous suffering," said Olek Mincer, 44, a Polish Jewish actor who now lives in Rome.

"But when I got older and learned that there had been a revolt in the ghetto, I felt a sort of relief to learn that Jews had done this," he said. "I felt pride, for example, riding a tram down the long street in Warsaw that is named after Mordecai Anielewicz, the leader of the uprising."

Lena Stanley-Clamp, the Polish-born director of the London-based European Association for Jewish Culture, says the Warsaw Ghetto and the uprising have also had a powerful influence well outside Poland's borders.

"They have become embedded in both memory and in popular culture and the arts," said Stanley-Clamp, who was one of more than 15,000 Jews forced to flee Poland in 1968 by the communist regime's "anti-Zionist" purges.

The latest example, she pointed out, is in Roman Polanski's Academy Award-winning film "The Pianist," which recounts the true story of a Jew who survived the war in Warsaw. In one scene, he is shown watching flames and destruction of the ghetto from his hiding place in the relative safety of the "Aryan" part of town.

Already in 1943, the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem, "Campo dei Fiori," that described how Poles outside the ghetto were oblivious to the fate of the Jews.

In it, he evoked an unforgettable image, a merry-go-round outside the ghetto walls happily spinning as the ghetto itself went up in flames and the wind blew charred bits of ash onto "the happy throngs on a beautiful Warsaw Sunday."

Two years later, in his book "The Ghetto Fights," Edelman described what was going on behind the walls: "The sea of flames flooded houses and courtyards," he wrote. "There was no air, only black, choking smoke and heavy burning heat radiating from the red-hot walls, from the glowing stone stairs.

"The omnipotent flames were now able to accomplish what the Germans could not do. Thousands of people perished in the conflagrations. The stench of burning bodies was everywhere.''