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Poland marks anniversary of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Published April 19, 2023last updated April 19, 2023

April 19 marks eight decades since the Jewish resistance took on Nazi soldiers in Warsaw. Frank-Walter Steinmeier is the first German head of state to give a speech at the commemoration.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Steinmeier asked for 'forgiveness' for his country's World War II crimesImage: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has joined his Polish and Israeli counterparts, Andrzej Duda and Isaac Herzog respectively, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, when the Jewish resistance movement rose up against the German Nazi occupation of the city.

"As German Federal President, I stand before you today and bow to the courageous fighters in the Warsaw ghetto," Steinmeier said. "I bow to the dead in deep sorrow."

"I stand before you today and ask for your forgiveness for the crimes committed here by Germans," he added.

He also stressed how remarkable an achievement reconciliation was after those unprecedented crimes against humanity.

"Dear President Duda, dear President Herzog, many people in your two countries, in Poland and in Israel, have granted us Germans reconciliation despite these crimes," Steinmeier said.

"We must and we will preserve the miraculous achievement of reconciliation and carry it forward into the future," he underlined.

Wednesday's ceremony marked the first time that a German head of state gave a speech at the remembrance event.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising anniversary: A call never to forget

Herzog and Duda also gave speeches.

Duda paid tribute to those who took part in the uprising. 

"For me and for many Poles, they are above all a symbol of bravery, determination and courage," Duda said, adding that they "are the heroes of Israel, the heroes of the Jews all over the world, they are the heroes of Poland and the Poles."

Herzog described the uprising as an "emblem of heroism during humanity's darkest hour."

"The heroism of the resistance and the rebels and the imperative to remember that terrible chapter of history... offer a platform for important dialogue between Poland and Israel and for the advancement of friendship between our peoples," he noted.

The three presidents are set to hold bilateral talks on the sidelines of the event.

Stories of resistance need to be told: Christoph Heubner, International Auschwitz Committee

Remembrance for the victims of the uprising

Sirens blared out at midday to mark the beginning of the ceremony as those who had gathered in Warsaw stood in silence in front of the memorial to those who fell in the uprising.

"This year is very special because it is the first time that a German president will be holding a speech," DW correpsondent Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat said.

She also brought up the famous kneeling by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1970.

"It's of course not only a very important day for Jewish people and for Israel, but also for Polish people and for the citizens of Warsaw," Gwozdz-Pallokat added.

Marian Turski, president of the International Auschwitz Committee, gave the first words, reading a few lines from a poem — "Counterattack" — by a Polish Jew who had been imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Poland marks 80th anniversary of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

During his speech, Steinmeier also slammed Russia's current war in Ukraine, saying that President Vladimir Putin has made a mockery of values like the respect for international law and peaceful co-existence of human beings in freedom and democracy.

With his illegal invasion of a democratic, neighboring country, Putin has "destroyed the foundations of our European security order."

"This war brings immeasurable suffering, violence, destruction and death to the people of Ukraine," Steimeier said.

He reaffirmed Germany's commitment to stand firmly by Ukraine's side and provide it with humanitarian, political and military support, together with Poland and other allies.

What was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising?

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was a monthlong act of resistance against German SS units that began on April 19, 1943, after the Nazis deported some 300,000 Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp.

Around 1,000 Jewish resistance fighters from different groups launched an assault on Nazi soldiers who were planning on dissolving the ghetto when it became obvious that the only way out for the remaining 50,000 residents seemed to be the gas chambers.

The uprising lasted several weeks but was ultimately put down with brutal suppression. Tens of thousands of people were shot or sent to Nazi death camps.

ab/nm (dpa, AP)