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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 April, 2003, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Remembering the ghetto fighters

Israeli President Moshe Katsav has arrived in Poland on a two-day visit to mark Holocaust Day, which is dedicated this year to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The BBC's Jan Repa recalls the events that led to it.

The bare facts are quickly told.

Jews accounted for 30% of Warsaw's pre-war population - mainly concentrated in a compact area west of the city centre.

A Nazi SS inspects a group of Jewish workers in April 1943 in the Warsaw ghetto
Tens of thousands died in the Warsaw ghetto

In 1940, the occupying Germans walled off much of the district, cramming in half a million Jews.

By April 1943, more than 100,000 had died of disease and starvation.

Some 300,000 had been transported to the newly-built extermination camps.

As the Germans moved in to clear the remaining 60,000, they were met with a hail of Molotov cocktails and small-arms fire.

The defenders, numbering a few hundred, decided to die fighting.

Over the next three weeks, bombs, shells and flamethrowers reduced the area to a charred ruin.

Marek Edelman, a leader of the Jewish Ghetto Uprising, now living in Lodz
Some leaders of the uprising survived and remain in Poland

From a purely military point of view, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising never stood a chance.

The German army was still deep inside Russia. Hitler's generals, having cleaned up the mess caused by the Stalingrad debacle, were planning a major new summer offensive.

Most of the weapons available to the ghetto fighters had to be smuggled in from the Polish side of the wall - despite misgivings on the part of the Polish underground army's military commanders, who regarded it as a waste of resources.

Five years after the Ghetto Uprising, the United Nations recognised the new state of Israel.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav (l) is welcomed by Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski
The Polish-Israeli relationship has improved enormously

The Holocaust is still presented as the crowning argument in favour of establishing a Jewish state in the Middle East.

But more than that - it provided young Zionists with a new cultural model of the Jew: virile, militant, and ready to fight for his rights.

The Holocaust was viewed with a certain embarrassment. How, it was asked, could Europe's Jews have allowed themselves to be massacred in their millions?

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising also arguably contributed to deepening the psychological gap between Jews and the Poles - who, allegedly, had "stood by" or turned away with indifference.

Despite a revival of interest in the country's Jewish heritage, Poland is unlikely ever again to be a major centre of Jewish life

As Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, put it earlier on Tuesday, "Never will we place our security in the hands of strangers, nor rely on the kindness of others."

The Poles, meanwhile, accuse Jews of failing to recognise the terror under which they themselves were living - and the difficulty of organising larger-scale help.

On the eve of World War II, 3.5 million Jews lived in Poland. Today there are just a few thousand. Despite a revival of interest in the country's Jewish heritage, Poland is unlikely ever again to be a major centre of Jewish life.

Meanwhile, relations with Israel have improved immeasurably since the days of the Soviet bloc, when Poland had to toe Moscow's anti-Israel line - with the arms trade a special area of interest.

Warsaw Jews mark uprising
20 Apr 03  |  Europe

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