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Across Warsaw, remembering Warsaw Ghetto heroes with yellow daffodils

Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a Solidarity activist and former Polish defense minister following the fall of communism,  wearing a paper yellow daffodil in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery.  (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Janusz Onyszkiewicz, a Solidarity activist and former Polish defense minister following the fall of communism, wearing a paper yellow daffodil in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Observers placing daffodils at the grave of Marek Edelman, a commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in Warsaw's Jewish cemetery.  (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Observers placing daffodils at the grave of Marek Edelman, a commander of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, in Warsaw’s Jewish cemetery. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

People laying flowers at Umschlagplatz at the Warsaw Ghetto, the monument at the site from which Jews were deported to Treblinka.  (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

People laying flowers at Umschlagplatz at the Warsaw Ghetto, the monument at the site from which Jews were deported to Treblinka. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

WARSAW, Poland (JTA) — In Warsaw, sirens wailed and church bells rang to mark the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a valiant but failed revolt by Jewish fighters against the Nazi occupiers who already had deported hundreds of thousands of Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp.

An official commemoration, held last Friday in a plaza between the monument honoring the ghetto heroes and the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews, was attended by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk, as well as Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron. But a half-mile away, a small group gathered under leaden skies at the entrance to Warsaw’s huge Jewish cemetery for an alternative memorial.

Carrying bunches of bright yellow daffodils, they walked down the main path and laid the flowers on the grave of Marek Edelman, the last surviving uprising commander, who died in 2009 in his early 90s. The group, most now in their 60s and 70s, has come together for decades to mark the anniversary of the uprising. Until his death, Edelman was usually with them, laying a bunch of daffodils at the towering, dark monument to ghetto heroes.

For years, Edelman had received yellow flowers, usually daffodils, from an anonymous person on the anniversary. Eventually the flowers became a symbol of the remembrance. The group laying flowers on Edelman’s grave this year included an Italian who wrote a book about Edelman, several Polish Jews forced to leave the country during the communist anti-Semitic campaign of 1968, and former dissidents and Solidarity activists.

One of them, Janusz Onyszkiewicz, served as Poland’s defense minister following the fall of communism. In 1983, he was arrested and jailed for four months by the communist regime for speaking at an anniversary ceremony organized by dissidents.

“We had all hoped that Marek Edelman would turn up and say a few words, but he couldn’t because he was being held under house arrest in Lodz,” Onyszkiewicz told JTA. “He only sent a letter that was read. I felt that everyone was waiting for something to happen, so I got up and delivered a speech, and as a result, I was arrested immediately.”

He added, “What was rather funny is that when the secret police agent arrested me, he was rather curious. He asked me, ‘Why did you come here, you’re not a Jew?’ I replied that no, I’m not — but so what!”

Yellow daffodils were a memorial motif; a stylized daffodil was an official logo of this year’s commemorations. People placed daffodils at the foot of the ghetto memorial and at the monument at Umschlagplatz, the site from which hundreds of thousands of Warsaw Jews were deported to Treblinka. Pots and vases of daffodils decorated the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, where thousands of visitors flocked to see the striking new building, attend concerts and films, and buy souvenirs in the gift shop.

Throughout the city, young volunteers handed out paper daffodils for people to wear on their jackets or lapels. All over Warsaw, people could be seen sporting the symbol, which was reminiscent of the yellow Star of David the Nazis forced Jews to wear.

“I think one of the most moving things I’ve seen in all my years in Poland was watching volunteers all around the city giving out the daffodils and watching Warsavians walking around the city wearing them, evoking the Star of David,” said Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of the JCC Krakow, who was in Warsaw for the commemorations. “It really felt as if the city was commemorating something from Polish history, not only Jewish history, and it made me aware that Poles realize the shared heritage.”

The anniversary proceedings attracted Jews with Polish roots from all over the world. Among them were Holocaust survivors and emigres — such as American philanthropists Tad Taube and Sigmund Rolat — and those who had fled during communism. Members of Poland’s contemporary Jewish community also turned out in numbers.

For many, this made it an old home week of sorts, filled with emotional reunions. The high-profile presence of visiting Jews created one of the more unusual sightings. Late at night after the Friday ceremonies, the tower of the Marriott Hotel in the center of Warsaw bore a message spelled out in lights that moved around the top of the building: kosherfood.pl.

The website, it turns out, is for the Marriott’s own kosher catering service.

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