Anniversary of uprising against Nazis recalls great valor in the face of death


April 18, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

WARSAW, Poland -- The generations come in awe and sadness, bearing fresh spring flowers and memorial candles to the monument for the Heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

It was the strongest resistance of Jews to the Nazis in the entire Holocaust.

The visitors here are strangers and survivors, and the children of those who didn't survive, their children and grandchildren and -- now great-grandchildren.

They are coming for the 50th anniversary of the uprising: Orthodox Jews, "righteous gentiles" who harbored Jews, the Israeli premier and the American vice president and the Polish president, and thousands of ordinary people who feel moved to celebrate the triumph of the fallen.

Thousands of young people are gathering today at the monument to mark Holocaust Day. Tomorrow, Vice President Al Gore, Polish President Lech Walensa and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin will lay wreaths at noon to commemorate the start of the uprising.

Spring flowers were blooming in Warsaw when Nazis and their henchmen marched behind their tanks into the ghetto at 6 a.m. on April 19, 1943.

The liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto was to be a present to Adolf Hitler for his 44th birthday on April 20.

"We knew it was the beginning," says Stefan Grayek, a survivor who is now president of the World Federation of Jewish Fighters, Partisans and Camp Inmates.

"The first day they came with tanks, and we threw grenades and Molotov cocktails from our positions on the fourth and fifth floors above them.

"A tank began to burn," Mr. Grayek says. "Our first victory. They had many killed and wounded."

The Jewish fighters had driven the Germans out of the ghetto.

"We felt for the first time we can take revenge for the Jewish people, our friends and families," Mr. Grayek says.

Before World War II, about 330,000 Jews lived in Warsaw. "Every third person was a Jew," says Mr. Grayek.

In 1940, the Germans enclosed the ghetto with a wall 10 feet high and brought in Jewish people from the small towns and villages in the region around Warsaw. When mass deportations to the Treblinka death camp began in July 1942, about 500,000 people lived in appalling conditions inside the walls. People were already starving to death.

At the time of the uprising, about 60,000 to 70,000 remained.

"We felt it was better to die with a gun in our hands than to take a train to Treblinka," Mr. Grayek says. He was just about 22 in 1943. His parents had already vanished into the gas chambers of Treblinka. "We knew it was not possible to beat the Germans. But we wanted to demand a high price for our lives."

The resistance had 500 to 600 fighters, including many women.

"We could have had many more," Mr. Grayek says. "We organized groups, but we had no arms. The number of fighters equaled the number of guns."

Nonetheless, after about three days, the Nazis realized that dislodging the Jewish combatants would be very costly.

"They began to burn every house, to burn the people inside," Mr. Grayek says. "Houses began to burn one after another."

Dr. Jakub Gutenbaum, a professor and head of the mathematical modeling department at the Polish Academy of Sciences, was 13 in 1943. He's president of the Association of Holocaust Children, people who were 13 or younger during the Nazi persecutions.

"When the deportations began, we were hidden in an attic," Dr. Gutenbaum recalls. "My mother and my younger brother and me. Then when the resistance began, they conducted us to a bunker.

"We were there in this bunker when, after their first defeat, the Germans burned down the house above us. It was terrible."

Some survived in bunkers until the general uprising of the Polish underground in August 1944. A few remained in the bunkers until the liberation of Warsaw by the Soviet army in January 1945.

In the first days of the deportations, Dr. Gutenbaum and his family could see the notorious "Umschlagplatz" -- the transfer point to the trains to Treblinka -- through a small attic window.

"We could hear the shooting and the screams," he says. "We saw Dr. Korczak and his children in the Umschlagplatz." Dr. Korczak went to the Treblinka extermination camp with the children from the orphanage he founded.

A gray and white marble monument now marks Umschlagplatz. The Nazi deportation center was across the street in a gray stucco building that is still there.

"All the Jews of Warsaw were deported from here," Dr. Gutenbaum says. As the Jewish Sabbath began this weekend, a candle burned beneath the names on the Umschlagplatz marble.

Dr. Gutenbaum and his family were in the bunker beneath their burned-out house 12 days when the Nazis found them.

"They opened the hidden door, and they came in with guns, and they ordered us upstairs. We came out with our hands over our heads. I was 13."

He was selected for a labor camp, separated from his mother by troops with dogs. "I have not seen my mother and brother again," he says. "I know they were burned and gassed in Maidanek."

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