WARSAW, Poland — The Jewish prayer for the dead echoed Tuesday across what was once the heart of the Warsaw ghetto as Polish and Israeli leaders marked the 65th anniversary of a doomed battle waged by young Jews against Nazi troops.
Israeli President Shimon Peres and his Polish counterpart, Lech Kaczynski, led a crowd of 1,000 gathered beneath the stark granite Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto in ceremonies honoring the Jews who rose up on April 19, 1943, in the face of imminent death and held off German troops for three weeks.
Survivor Hela Rufeisen, who was part of the fight as an 18-year-old, remembered the goal of the insurgency was simple.
"They are killing us, so we have to fight and hurt them, too," recalled Rufeisen, one of a few ghetto fighters who attended the ceremony.
Israeli and Polish flags fluttered in the afternoon breeze as Poland's chief orthodox rabbi, Michael Schudrich, read out the Kaddish, or Jewish prayer for the dead.
Then, to the beat of a military drum, Peres, Kaczynski and survivors of the ghetto uprising placed wreaths at the foot of the monument, which was flanked by two large iron menorahs.
'Victory ... over human bestiality'
Peres praised the young fighters, who he said displayed "a heroism that our children will proudly carry with them in their hearts."
"The majority of the uprising fighters died, murdered in cold blood. They lost the fight, but from the point of view of history, there has never been such a victory," Peres said. "A victory of men over human bestiality, of pure souls over fallen ones."
"Yes, the Germans won, thanks to thousands of soldiers shooting without thought and gassing bunkers," Peres said. "What did those terrible Nazis leave to the generations that followed?"
"Only shame, a curse and damnation."
Pnina Greenspan had already lost her entire family to the Holocaust when, at age 15, she joined the uprising against the Nazis in the ghetto.
Keeping the memory in alive
She said she came all the way from Tel Aviv to attend the ceremony in Warsaw, because it was important to keep the memory of the struggle alive.
"The world, which was indifferent then, should be reminded what the Nazis have done and that the Jews fought to defend themselves," Greenspan said.
Itamar Laist, a high school student from the village of Bene Atarot, near Tel Aviv, was among a group of Israeli teenagers who attended the ceremony.
"I believe it is very important for us, the young generation, to remember," the 17-year-old said.
The Israeli and Polish presidents were to meet with the former ghetto fighters and Holocaust survivors later in the day, and attend a concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta at Warsaw's national opera house.
The anniversary of the uprising's start falls on Saturday, but commemorations were moved forward to Tuesday to avoid coinciding with the Jewish sabbath.
On Saturday, the last surviving leader of the ghetto's struggle, 89-year-old Marek Edelman, will lay flowers at the ghetto monument, and the Jewish community is planning a seder meal in memory of the ghetto victims.
The uprising was the first act of large-scale armed civilian resistance against the Germans in occupied Poland during World War II.
The Nazis walled off the ghetto in November 1940, cramming 400,000 Jews from across Poland into a swath of the capital in inhuman conditions.
On April 19, 1943, German troops started to liquidate the ghetto by sending tens of thousands of its residents to death camps. Several hundred young Jews took to arms in defense of the civilians.
Outnumbered and outgunned, they held off German troops for three weeks with homemade explosives and a cache of smuggled weapons.
The Nazis killed most of fighters and then burned down the ghetto street by street.
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