Warsaw marks 70 years since uprising in ghetto

April 19, 2013 - 5:30 AM
Poland Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

People listen to a short concert as Julian Rachlin, the first violinist with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, plays a Bach sarabande in front of the monument to the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising in Warsaw, Poland, on Thursday April 18, 2013. The performance was part of an evening of commemorations on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1943 revolt. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Sirens wailed and church bells tolled in Warsaw as largely Roman Catholic Poland paid homage Friday to the Jewish fighters who rose up 70 years ago against German Nazi forces in the Warsaw ghetto uprising.

The mournful sounds marked the start of state ceremonies being led by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes to honor the first large-scale rebellion — and the largest — against the Germans during World War II. The president was joined by the city's mayor; two survivors of the fighting, Simha Rotem and Havka Folman Raban; and other dignitaries.

Komorowski bestowed one of the country's highest honors on the 88-year-old Rotem -- the Grand Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland.

Throughout Warsaw, national and city flags fluttered from city buses, trams and public buildings as authorities made an unprecedented effort to encourage Poles to remember the ghetto fighters and Jewish suffering during the war. Warsaw city hall said it is the first time that churches in the capital rang their bells to mark the anniversary of the uprising.

The events come exactly 70 years after about 750 poorly armed Jews began armed resistance to the German forces, who were sending ghetto residents to death camps. The revolt was crushed in May, and the ghetto was razed to the ground, its residents killed.

"The Nazis made a hell on earth of the ghetto," Komorowski said in a speech. "Persecuting the Jews appealed to the lowest of human instincts."

The events Friday followed an evening of commemorations. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta, performed works by Beethoven in Warsaw's Grand Theater in honor of the fighters- a gala event attended by Komorowski, Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Rotem. Before the concert, a cantor appeared on a stage designed to evoke the old ghetto and sang a prayer for Holocaust victims. The audience also rose and applauded Rotem.

Later, a less formal event took place around the ghetto memorial, beginning with the Israeli orchestra's first violinist Julian Rachlin performing a Bach sarabande, followed by more music and speeches.

Israel also marked the anniversary of the uprising on its Holocaust Remembrance Day, April 7, which coincides with the Hebrew date of the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising.