On April 19, 1943, heavily armed Nazi troops penetrated into 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.
On Saturday, as they do every year, Poland's tiny Jewish community marked the anniversary with a small ceremony at the Ghetto Monument on the secular calendar date on which the uprising began.
The Polish government is hosting high-level official commemorations on April 29 and 30, 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 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as Yom HaShoah -- Holocaust Memorial Day. (This year it falls on April 29.)
"The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the first time in occupied Europe that civilians put up armed resistance against Nazi occupiers," said 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," Edelman added.
Commemorating the ghetto has also became 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 later this month, 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. "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 April 30 at the massive memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto heroes on the site of the ghetto, as well as a gala concert.
On April 29, Kwasniewski and Katsav will join thousands of teen-agers 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 more than 300,000 Jews made up about one-third of the city's population. The Nazis forced more than 500,000 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.
In his 1945 book "The Ghetto Fights," Edelman described what was going on behind the ghetto 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."
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