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Poland: Warsaw Commemorates Jewish Uprising Against Nazis

Warsaw, 20 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek and other top officials yesterday joined representatives of numerous Jewish organizations in paying a somber tribute to Jewish fighters who had launched a desperate uprising against German Nazi occupiers 55 years ago.

On April 19, 1943 hundreds of poorly armed inhabitants of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw rose in protest against the forced deportations by the Nazis of Warsaw Jews to death camps.

Yesterday, a handful of survivors of that struggle took part in a commemorative placing of wreath at the memorial of the rising.

No speeches were made at the memorial. A rabbi sang a prayer, and Polish military honor guard stood at attention amid the sound of rolling drums.

Subsequently, Stefan Grayek, President of the World Federation of Polish Jews, based in Tel-Aviv, talked to RFE/RL about his experience in the revolt.

"I was 20 years old when we were fighting against the German troops," he said. "We knew that we would die but we wanted the Germans to pay dearly for our lives."

Grayek described the despair of the Jews, who had watched the gradual evacuation of the ghetto population to concentration camps. He said that out of more than 400,000 herded in the ghetto area only some 70,000 remained when the uprising broke out.

Only some 500-600 decided to fight against more than 2,500 well-armed German Nazi troops.

More than 7,000 Jews were killed during the fighting which lasted for 28 days. About 56,000 Jews were seized by the Nazi troops and sent to the camps.

The Nazis lost about 400 soldiers and 1,000 of their soldiers were wounded.

Another Jewish participant in the commemoration, Jozef Lesch, 71, arrived in Poland from Israel for the first time since the end of the World War to pay tribute to the Jewish heroes. Lesch represents the World War II veterans in Israel.

"I know they, the ghetto fighters, were poorly armed but brave," he said.

As a 16-year-old boy, Lesch was forced by the Nazis into a ghetto in one of the Ukrainian cities. He ran away and hid in a forest for five months before joining a partisan group and later the Soviet Red Army. He fought against the Nazis in Poland and in Berlin. Following the war, Lesch deserted from the Red Army and managed to get to Palestine in 1946, before the Israeli state was formed in 1948.

Among the Polish officials taking place in the ceremony was former Polish Foreign Minister and current senator Wladyslaw Bartoszewski. He was one of the founders of an organization, called Zegota, which worked to save Jews from the Holocaust. Zegota was the only such group operating in German-occupied Europe.

Recently, the American Friends of Zegota placed a marble block near the Warsaw ghetto monument to commemorate those Poles who helped to save the thousands of Jews during World War II.

The monument is a massive marble section of wall 11 meters high, fronted by a sculpture of a group of men, women and children armed with firearms, hand-grenades and even paving stones breaking away from the burning ghetto.

Designed by sculptor Natan Rappaport, it is made of gray Swedish marble. Originally, the marble was ordered by Adolf Hitler for a monument intended to glorify the Nazi Third Reich. Now, it will commemorate the reich's victims.