Last week marked the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Though the event was immediately perceived as momentous, its memorialization took a few years to gain traction. The fifth anniversary of the uprising received little attention and few ceremonies were held. But while commemorative efforts lagged, the uprising garnered considerable attention in culture and in politics. John Hersey wrote a now famous and best-selling account of the uprising in 1950. The story was told as an example of resistance, a lesson for the battles then raging against communism.
By the tenth anniversary, memorial services had become more popular around the world. In America, the American Jewish Congress held a memorial with many prominent political figures.
In Poland, remembrance of the uprising was fraught with tension. Poland only nationally commemorated the day for the first time on the 15th anniversary. In 1968, the World Jewish Congress called for a boycott of Poland’s 25th anniversary ceremoy due to a rise in anti-Semitism in the country. Tensions also emerged over the question of “ownership” of the event. Was this a Polish, or just a Jewish event? By 1983, such conflicts had settled down. For the 40th anniversary, Poland welcomed thousands of Jews and promised complete protection and security during countrywide services.
The peak of commemoration came at the 50th anniversary, when Poland hosted thousands of Jews as well as then Vice President Al Gore and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After 1993, commemorations began to wane in both coverage and attendance.
On the American front, while the uprising was widely memorialized, the 1960s saw it become popularized through official government channels. In 1960, Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Mayor Robert Wagner, both of New York, issued proclamations declaring April 19 Warsaw Ghetto Day. In 1962, New York City officially changed Times Square to Warsaw Ghetto Square for the week of April 19, a tradition carried on for over ten years. President Kennedy followed suit in 1963 when he issued a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Though the uprising has become less prevalent in the international consciousness, in 2011, President Obama laid a wreath at the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in Warsaw. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the uprising, and the opening of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which will be accompanied by numerous ceremonies throughout the country.