Warsaw (AFP) – Polish President Andrzej Duda on Thursday honoured the young Jews who launched the Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis 75 years ago, but also used the occasion to reject claims that Poles had a hand in the Holocaust.
“I am strongly convinced that both Poles and also Polish Jews deeply care about having a single historical truth,” Duda said at a remembrance ceremony at the Ghetto Heroes Monument in Warsaw.
Hundreds of Jewish fighters launched their attack on April 19, 1943, after the Nazis began deporting the surviving residents of the Jewish district they had set up after invading Poland.
The insurgents preferred to die fighting instead of in a gas chamber at the Treblinka death camp where the Nazis had already sent more than 300,000 Warsaw Jews.
“They stood up proudly, arms in their hands, to demonstrate to the Germans that Jews would not be defeated so easily and trampled upon,” Duda said.
The head of state recalled that the fighters had help from non-Jewish Poles who gave them weapons and shot at the Germans outside the ghetto walls.
“There were Poles who helped Jews, treating them like brothers, like fellow citizens,” Duda said.
“And that is why I am sure that whenever anyone talks about the responsibility or co-responsibility of the Polish state for the Holocaust, that person hurts the feelings of Poles but also the feelings of Polish Jews,” Duda added.
“Not only is it slander but it also blurs the responsibility of the true executioners, the German Nazis.”
Duda’s statement appeared to be a reference to the new Holocaust law which came into effect last month.
The legislation, which penalises statements attributing Nazi German crimes to the Polish state with fines or a jail term of up to three years, was meant to protect the country from false accusations of complicity.
But the law has drawn strong criticism from Israel and Jewish organisations, which accused Warsaw of denying the participation of individual Poles in the genocide of Jews.
Israel also expressed concern that the law could open the door to prosecuting Holocaust survivors for their testimony.
– Sea of daffodils –
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder for his part spoke of “a special bond that cannot be broken by anyone” between the Polish Catholics and Jews who fought against the German Nazis.
He added however that “throughout Europe and in Poland there were brave non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jewish lives, as there were those… who betrayed the Jews and sold their property.”
Israel’s ambassador to Poland Anna Azari did not make reference to the touchy subject but instead mentioned that Thursday was also the 70th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel.
Scheduled for the same time as the official event was a march in Warsaw organised by anti-fascist organisations, during which several hundred people sang Yiddish songs and protested against what they called the hijacking of anniversary ceremonies by politicians.
Participants read a statement from 40 years ago by an uprising leader, Marek Edelman, who explained why he refused to take part in official ceremonies which he believed falsified history.
Warsaw resident Stanislawa Scibor, 82, said she took part in the protest because she did not agree with the formal nature of the ceremony.
“Before, there weren’t any barriers, anyone could go,” she told AFP.
Later Thursday the Shalom foundation plans to inaugurate the Tree of Tears, a weeping willow whose leaves are meant to symbolise the tears of Jewish mothers who handed over their children to Catholic mothers in order to save their lives.
Warsaw residents carried daffodils or pinned paper versions to their clothes in a tradition started five years ago by the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The daffodil is a reference to Edelman, the uprising commander who until his death in 2009 would receive a bouquet of the flowers from an anonymous sender on the anniversary and deposit them at the ghetto hero monument.
Because of their colour and form, daffodils also resemble the yellow star Jews were forced to wear by Nazis during the war.