European and Israeli dignitaries attended ceremonies in Poland on Friday to mark 70 years since the Warsaw Uprising. The armed revolt by Jews confined to a ghetto against occupying Nazi troops was crushed a month later.
The city will also open its new Museum of the History of Polish Jews to document 1,000 years of Jewish life that was crippled by the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany under Hitler during World War Two.
Poland and notably Warsaw was once Europe's Jewish heartland, forming a focal point of Ashkenazi Jewish culture and the Yiddish language.
Ninety percent of Poland's 3.3 million pre-war Jews were wiped out by 1945. A census conducted in 2011 showed that only 7,500 Jews live in Poland. Estimates of the number of Poles with Jewish origins are put at 50,000.
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski led Friday's ceremony at Warsaw's Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. Dignitaries invited included European Parliament President Martin Schulz of Germany and Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron.
They went towards the Umschlagplatz, a location where Nazi troops rounded up Jews before sending them to the Treblinka death camp. In the massive ghetto purge of 1942 300,000 Jews were sent by train to its gas chambers.
The Nazis set up and sealed off the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 and cut off medical and food supplies. Residents were also decimated by hunger and disease.
The uprising, Europe's first open revolt against Hitler's occupying forces, broke out on April 19, 1943, when the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto and intensified transports of some 50,000 remaining residents to Majdanek and other death camps.
The uprising itself culminated in the deaths of 13,000 Jews.
The fighters "knew that they had to die, but they wanted to leave a trace of their existence, hence those acts of heroism, a testimony to honor," said Jakob Gutenbaum, an 83-year-old survivor.
Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich said the 70th anniversary is special not only for the round number but because "we still have among us those who actually fought."
Escapes through drains
Another surviving veteran to return to Warsaw, 89-year-old Simcha "Kazik" Rotem, survived the month-long uprising by masterminding an escape through the drain system with dozens of comrades. Polish sewer workers guided them to the surface.
"Because what is a pistol or a rifle or a grenade when faced with the German army that conquered all of Europe?" Rotem told the news agency AFP.
"As for me, I wanted to choose a nicer, more decent death than at the gas chambers."
Through the weekend, hundreds of volunteers will hand out paper daffodils in the capital's streets in memory of Marek Edelman, the last commander of the uprising.
Edelman, who died in 2009, had a habit of marking each anniversary with a bouquet of the yellow flowers at the ghetto hero monument.
The Germans razed the neighborhood. Poland's post-war communist regime later built housing quarters directly on the rubble.
The museum, the first of its kind in Poland, is on a street that used to be part of the Warsaw ghetto. At the front, the building's undulating walls split apart, to symbolize the rupture of the Holocaust.
On Friday night, searchlights set up in front of the museum will cross their beams in the sky as a tribute to those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto and all those who perished in the Holocaust.
ipj/kms (AP, dpa, AFP)