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50 Years After Courageous Revolt, Thousands Return to Warsaw Ghetto

Fifty years after a small band of courageous Jews launched a desperate revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto against the Nazis, thousands returned to the site of the uprising to honor the warriors and pay homage to the victims of the Holocaust.

Among those taking part Monday in a somber ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of an uprising that began April 19, 1943, and lasted through mid-May were Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Polish President Lech Walesa.

Walesa praised the Jewish fighters, telling them: “You have not been defeated. The cause that you were fighting for has won.”

On a podium framed by two large, flaming torches, Walesa, Rabin and Gore addressed a crowd of 4,000 that packed a city block in the Warsaw neighborhood where the ghetto once stood.

A Polish military band played the music to Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, as the crowd, eerily silent, held up candles during the evening ceremony.

“We must be vigilant in fighting anti-Semitism wherever it appears, for it was, after all, anti-Semitism in its virulent form which created the tragedy that we remember here tonight,” Gore told those assembled.

The vast majority of the ghetto’s remaining Jews were deported to the Treblinka concentration camp after the Nazis finally crushed the rebellion ruthlessly and destroyed the ghetto.

Rabin, in his speech, paid tribute to the heroism of those who fought in the uprising and reminded the world never to forget the tragedy of the Holocaust.

The prime minister, who spoke in Hebrew, ended by saying, “I’m now going to close with the words that were on the lips of the Jews before they were killed.” He then put on a kippah and recited the Shma Yisrael prayer.

‘NEW CHAPTER’ IN RELATIONS WITH POLAND

Earlier in the day, Rabin, who became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Poland, met with his Polish counterpart, Hanna Suchocka.

In his statement after the meeting, the first of several scheduled sessions with members of the Polish government, Rabin said, “We can not forget the past. But at the same time, we must look forward to a better world.”

“We have opened a new chapter today in our relations with the Polish people and government,” he said.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, the Communist government of Poland severed diplomatic ties with Israel. Relations were only re-established in 1989, after the collapse of Communist rule. After the talks, Rabin extended an official invitation to Suchocka to visit Israel.

Rabin also laid wreaths Sunday at the Monument to the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other sites in the ghetto.

Some 50 or 60 wreaths were laid at the monument to the ghetto uprising heroes, with 10,000 people taking part, including many non-Jews, Holocaust survivors and their children.

On Monday afternoon, Rabin met with Walesa at the Belvedere Palace and afterward with Gore, before going to the evening ceremonies.

Included in the crowd Monday evening were several survivors of the uprising, including Marek Edelman, the only commander to survive the war.

One surviving fighter, Masha Putermilch, flew from Amsterdam to attend the ceremonies.

Before leaving for Warsaw, Putermilch said in Amsterdam that it was to be her first time returning to Poland, which she called “one big grave, a country whose soil is covered with Jewish blood.”

Remembering the uprising, Putermilch said: “The Germans walked in the middle of the street, surprised. I still recall the shouts of one soldier pointing at one of the windows behind which we were firing on them. ‘Look Hans, a girl who fights,’ he said. It was me he pointed to.”

The official ceremony here ended with a special sound and light show that simulated the burning of the ghetto, the sounds of gunshots and the chaotic violent struggle of the revolt.

Earlier Monday, a memorial monument for the Fallen Jewish Fighters whose Place of Burial is Unknown was unveiled in the Jewish cemetery on Okopowa Street here.

And the Jewish Historical Institute opened an exhibition of rare documents saved from the ghetto, entitled “Ringelblum’s Archives Saved.”

CEREMONIES IN OTHER CITIES

The 50th anniversary of the uprising was also noted in several other cities around the world.

In Jerusalem, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres spoke at a special commemoration. He pledged the Jewish people would “never become weak again.”

“If we had had a state (and) an army,” he said, “the Nazis wouldn’t have been able to do what they did.”

“Anti-Semitism is a non-Jewish malady, but weakness is a Jewish malady, and we have decided to cure ourselves of this malady,” said the foreign minister.

In France, Jews gathered in the Paris suburb of Drancy, the location of the transit camp from where rounded-up Jews were sent to Auschwitz.

In contrast to previous years, many Jewish youths attended the ceremony, which in the past attracted a dwindling number of elderly participants.

The French Union of Jewish Students decided to set the record straight and affixed a plaque at the site of the Drancy camp stating that Jews were deported from there by the police forces of the collaborationist Vichy regime. The previous inscription mentioned only the Nazis.

The main ceremonies to mark the uprising and Holocaust Remembrance Day were held in Paris at the Memorial of the Unknown Jewish Martyr, in the presence of Simone Veil, now a senior member of the new French Cabinet who was herself deported to Drancy and Auschwitz. A representative of French President Francois Mitterrand also attended.

Amsterdam was the site of large-scale Holo- caust and Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemorations as well.

Ceremonies took place Sunday in the courtyard of the old Hollandsche Schouwburg theater, which, from July 1942 to September 1943, served as a collecting site for Jews prior to their transfer to Westerbork concentration camp.

(Contributing to this report were JTA correspondents Henriette Boas and Ruben Vis in Amsterdam, Michel Di Paz in Paris and Cynthia Mann in Jerusalem.)

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