Yellow daffodils honor ghetto heroes, brighten Warsaw

In Warsaw, sirens wailed and church bells rang on April 19 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

The official commemoration, held in a plaza between the Warsaw Ghetto Fighters Monument and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, was attended by Poland’s president and prime minister, as well as by Israel’s education minister. But half a mile away, a small group gathered under leaden skies at the entrance to Warsaw’s huge Jewish cemetery for an alternative memorial.

Carrying bunches of bright yellow daffodils, they walked down the main path and laid the flowers on the grave of Marek Edelman, the last surviving uprising commander, who died in 2009 in his early 90s. The group, most now in their 60s and 70s, has come together for decades to mark the anniversary of the uprising. Until his death, Edelman usually was with them, laying a bunch of daffodils at the towering, dark monument to ghetto heroes.

Visitors place daffodils at the spot in Warsaw from which Jews were deported in WWII. photo/jta-ruth ellen gruber

For years on the anniversary, Edelman had received yellow flowers, usually daffodils, from an anonymous person. Eventually the flowers became a symbol of the remembrance.

The group laying flowers on Edelman’s grave this year included an Italian who wrote a book about Edelman, several Polish Jews forced to leave the country during the Communist anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, and former dissidents and Solidarity activists.

One of them, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, served as Poland’s defense minister following the fall of Communism. In 1983, he was arrested and jailed for four months by the Communist regime for speaking at an anniversary ceremony organized by dissidents.

“We had all hoped that Marek Edelman would turn up and say a few words, but he was under house arrest in Lodz,” Onyszkiewicz said of that day 30 years ago. “I got up and delivered a speech [instead], and was arrested immediately.”

Yellow daffodils became a memorial motif, and a stylized daffodil was an official logo of this year’s commemorations. People placed daffodils at the foot of the ghetto memorial and at the monument at Umschlagplatz, the site from which hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Jews were deported to Treblinka. Pots and vases of daffodils decorated the new museum, where thousands of visitors flocked to see the striking new building.

Throughout the city, young volunteers handed out paper daffodils for people to wear on their jackets or lapels. All over Warsaw, people could be seen sporting the symbol, reminiscent of the yellow Star of David the Nazis forced Jews to wear.

“I think one of the most moving things I’ve seen in all my years in Poland was watching volunteers giving out the daffodils and watching Warsavians walking around the city wearing them, evoking the Star of David,” said Jonathan Ornstein, executive director of the JCC in Krakow. “It really felt as if the city was commemorating something from Polish history, not only Jewish history, and it made me aware that Poles realize the shared heritage.”

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.