Vol. XVIII, No. 205, January 2019​​​​

How I Paid My Respects to
Victims of Warsaw Uprising

​​​​​By M. P. PRABHAKARAN

The Warsaw Uprising Memorial in Krasinski Square, Warsaw. The author visited the memorial on August 1, 2009, the 65th anniversary of the uprising, and paid his respects to all Poles who sacrificed their lives in their fight against the Nazis. Many more people came to the site on this day and paid their respects by placing flowers and lighting candles on the steps of the memorial. 



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August 1, 2009—Saturday​​

I was planning on sleeping longer this morning, but something that sounded like the shouting of slogans woke me up. When I looked out the window of my hostel room, I saw a procession, about 100-strong, heading to I didn’t know where. But I did know that it had something to do with Polish politics. Most of those in the procession were carrying the Polish national flag. I had a quick shower and went down to the reception desk to find out what it was about.

“Oh, they are celebrating the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising,” the lady at the desk said. “There will be a special ceremony at the Warsaw Uprising Memorial in Krasinski Square at five p.m. It’s an annual event held in memory of those killed in the uprising, which broke out exactly at five p.m. on August 1, 1944. Today, there will be various kinds of commemorative activities all over the city. Don’t be alarmed if you hear sirens blaring throughout the city at the stroke of five.”

I thanked the receptionist for the information. “The Warsaw Uprising Memorial in Krasinski Square will be one of the places I visit today,” I told her and went into the kitchen for a quick breakfast.

I broached the topic of the Warsaw Uprising with others at the breakfast table, hoping that some of them would be interested in joining me on my trip to Krasinski Square. None of them was, and I decided to go all by myself. Everything I had read about the Warsaw Uprising, especially the events that led to it, came to mind the moment I stepped out of the hostel.

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, marking the beginning of World War II. Throughout the war, Warsaw, and much of Poland, was under Nazi occupation. Though some kind of insurgent activity had been going on from the very beginning of the occupation, they remained subdued and underground.

The first open rebellion, later known as the Warsaw Uprising, started on August 1, 1944, when 23,000 poorly armed soldiers of the Polish Home Army attacked Nazi positions in Warsaw. The first shot was fired in Krasinski Square. When other underground units and Warsaw citizens joined the uprising, the insurgents’ ranks swelled to 50,000. But still, they were no match for the 1.5 million German troops that had spread across Poland.

The uprising was timed to coincide with the promised advance of Soviet troops toward the eastern suburbs of Warsaw. It was hoped that the Soviet advance would force the Germans to retreat. But the Red Army, on orders from dictator Josef Stalin, stood by on the east bank of the Vistula River while the Germans went about crushing the uprising.

Stalin also thwarted British and American efforts to airlift supplies to the insurgents; he refused permission for their planes to refuel at airfields under the Red Army’s control. His reasoning was that the uprising was an irresponsible act that would set back the Allies’ war efforts. The actual reason, it came to light later, was Stalin’s fear that a victory for the insurgents would lay the foundation for an independent postwar Poland, which in turn would frustrate his grandiose plan to bring all of Eastern Europe under Soviet domination.

It was commendable that, with little help from outside, the insurgents put up a brave fight for 63 days. When German troops—who were heavily armed and who vastly outnumbered the Polish Home Army—turned Warsaw into an inferno, the commander of the Home Army, Gen. Tadeusz “Bor” Komorowski, was left with no option but to surrender. By then, he had lost 15,000 of his men. The city, as a whole, had lost a quarter of its one-million population. On the German side, about 25,000 were reportedly killed, wounded, or missing in action.

After the uprising was crushed, the Germans ordered the surviving residents of Warsaw to leave the city, and then looted and destroyed what was left of it. About 85 percent of the city—including all of its Old Town area, the area that had been the historic center of Warsaw since the 13th century—was reduced to rubbles. Those who had refused to leave the city and were still alive were taken prisoner. Many of them were sent to Nazi concentration camps.

Germany Repairs Relations with Poland

Germany, after its reunification in 1990, has taken various steps toward making amends for the Nazi atrocities and repairing its strained relations with Poland. An important one was the touching gesture made on August 1, 2004, at the Warsaw Uprising Memorial, by the then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

It was the 60th anniversary of the uprising, and Schroeder—chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005—was the chief guest at the annual commemoration ceremony held at the memorial. At the ceremony, according to an Associated Press report, he bowed on the steps of the memorial and said, “Today we bow in shame in the face of the Nazi troops’ crimes. At this place of Polish pride and German shame, we hope for reconciliation and peace.”

On August 1, 2009, the 65th anniversary of the uprising, I stood on the same steps that Mr. Schroeder did five years earlier and bowed my head. While Schroeder bowed his head in shame, I did it out of respect for all the Poles who sacrificed their lives in their fight against the Nazis.

The bouquets and wreaths of flowers, placed on the steps by those who had come and paid their respects before me, were still lying there. Hundreds of candles lighted by them were still burning in urns of various sizes. The scene struck me as a reassurance that the world would never forget what the Nazis had done to Poland during their occupation and during their ruthless suppression of the uprising in Warsaw.

I headed for the Old Town area of the city, which was just a 10-minute walk from the memorial. While wandering in the area, I had to keep reminding myself that what I was seeing was a re-created version of the actual Old Town that I had read about in history books and heard a lot about. Looking at the monuments, buildings, and streets—the City Walls; the Cathedral of St John; the churches dedicated to Our Lady, St. James, and the Holy Trinity; the Royal Castle, which is now a museum; the Market Square, where regular fairs and festivals used to be held; and so on—I was amazed that they all looked exactly how they have been described in history books.

The re-creation of the Old Town, completed between 1945 and 1966, has been so thorough and meticulous that the UNESCO describes it as “an exceptional example of the comprehensive reconstruction of a city that had been deliberately and totally destroyed.” Poland has earned plaudits from around the world for this marvelous feat. In 1980, the UNESCO added the Warsaw Old Town to its list of World Heritage Sites.

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

My next destination was another memorial to another Warsaw uprising against the Nazis. Unlike the 1944 uprising, in which Poles of all religious persuasions participated—Poland was, and still is, 90 percent Catholic—this one was organized exclusively by Jews living in the ghetto of Warsaw. It stood out in one more respect: While the 1944 uprising was initiated by members of Poland’s Home Army who had some weapons and weapons training, this one was done by Jews living in the ghetto of Warsaw who had neither. (A few weapons were smuggled in later.)

What has gone down in history as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on April 19, 1943, and ended on May 16, 1943. It ended with the blowing up of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw by the Nazis.

There had been underground resistance movements among Jews living in various Eastern European countries ever since those countries came under Nazi occupation. There had also been uprisings in some of the 100 ghettos in which they lived. Notable among them were the uprisings in the ghettos of Poland, Lithuania, Byelorussia (now Belarus), and the Ukraine. They occurred between 1941 and 1943. The largest—and the most memorable—was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

Massive deportations of Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to the concentration and extermination camps set up by the Nazis at Treblinka, 50 miles away, began on July 22, 1942. More than 250,000 were deported in the following two months. Reports of mass murder taking place at the Treblinka camp enraged those who were still living in the Warsaw ghetto. When it became clear that the same fate was going to befall them too, a small group of them decided to fight back.

The leadership role in the fight was played by a 23-year-old Jew by the name of Mordechai Anielewicz. He hurriedly put together an organization called Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (the Jewish Combat Organization), or ŻOB. On April 19, 1943, German troops and police entered the ghetto and ordered the residents to assemble outside, for shipment to Treblinka. Some of them obeyed, but the vast majority—as was instructed by the ŻOB—defied the order. About 750 members of the ŻOB, under the leadership of Mr. Anielewicz, launched an attack on the Germans. That was the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

It is a testament to the character of the Jewish fighters that they chose to fight and die rather than allow themselves to be rounded up for eventual extermination. Remarkably, they managed to fight the Nazis, who vastly outnumbered and out-equipped them, for almost a month. On May 16, 1943, the survivors among them decided to stop fighting. That was the day the Nazis blew up the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. The Jews, once the symbol of their very being was destroyed, no longer had the will to fight. It is said that the destruction of the synagogue—which was considered “a jewel of 19th-century architecture”—was done on special orders from Hitler himself.

The Nazis shot and killed 7,000 of the more than 56,000 surviving ghetto residents. The rest were sent to Treblinka. After that, the whole Warsaw ghetto was razed to the ground.

All those chilling historical facts flashed through my mind as I approached the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. From a distance, the monument—unveiled on April 19, 1948—looked nothing more than a wall. But as I came closer, it became clear to me that it was a fitting tribute to the brave Jews who valiantly stood up to the Nazis and courted death.

On the 36-foot-tall wall are figures in relief, cast in bronze, of men, women, and children, armed with guns and Molotov cocktails. The figure of Mordechai Anielewicz, the young man who led the uprising, is very prominent. The wall of the monument is rich in symbolism. According to the late Nathan Rapoport, the sculptor whose brainchild the whole monument is, the wall represents the walls of the Warsaw ghetto as well as the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem, one of Judaism’s holiest sites.

A few yards away from the monument, construction activities were going on for a museum* that would preserve the history of the entire Polish Jewry, especially their triumphs and tribulations before the Holocaust. Before World War II and the Holocaust, Poland had 3.3 million Jews, making them the largest per capita Jewish population in any European country at the time.

I stood in silence before the monument and paid my respects to all the Jewish victims of Nazi atrocities—all those killed during the ghetto uprising and murdered at the Treblinka concentration camp. The number is between 870,000 and 925,000, according to the Holocaust Encyclopedia.

Celebrations on Nowy Swiat Street

On my way back to the hostel, as the bus passed by Nowy Swiat, a thoroughfare in Warsaw, I noticed that it was closed to traffic. There were crowds milling around. They too were celebrating the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising. I got off the bus and joined in the celebrations.

Nowy Swiat, which means “the new world,” has a storied past. It was the street where the nobles in the country had their manors and palaces. The Nazis pummeled them, and all other buildings on the street, in retaliation for the uprising. Post-World War II Communist rulers of Poland, to their credit, gave top priority to reconstructing all important buildings and restoring Nowy Swiat Street to its old grandeur—to the extent possible. Today, the street is known for its recreation centers, shops, boutiques, restaurants, and bars.

By the time I arrived there, the celebrations were winding down. A band was playing on a temporary stage set up on the side of the street. A banner, strung across the stage, read: “rockowo–motocyklowo.” I took it to be the name of the band. As I approached the stage, the band was playing a Polish song. I was frustrated that I could understand only two words from the song: “Polaski Poland.”

To my surprise and delight, however, the next song, which was the finale of the event, was in English. It ended thus:

They are beautiful.
You look beautiful.
Wonderful.

I walked toward the hostel, saying to myself, “My experience in Warsaw on the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising is wonderful too.”

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*To get slightly ahead of the story, the museum—called the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and funded largely by Polish taxpayers—was opened on April 19, 2013, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The Associated Press reported on the eve of the museum’s opening that, apart from preserving the history of Poland’s Jews, it also “dares to confront Poles with a truth many would once have strongly denied: that this country has had its own dark chapters of anti-Semitism.”

​​​(Published on January 2, 2019. This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 20 from the author's book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available online at amazon.com and Xlibris.com, and can be ordered through any Barnes and Noble store. The India edition of the book is available at amazon.in, Flipkart and Pothi.com))

(Comments from readers are welcome. Send the comments to 
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Reader's Response

Most Impressive Description

I did visit the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which you mentioned in the article, in 2014. It was still being “put together.” Your description of the two Warsaw uprisings against the Nazis and the historical facts you have incorporated in it are most impressive. They brought back a lot of memories.

I have shared your article with a grand-nephew of mine who visited Warsaw in early Dec. 2018, on his way to Krakow. Krakow is my favourite place in Poland, too. He is only 20 years old and so he will gain a lot from your insight. He was a student in Finland for one term and is now back in the U.S.

--Patsy George, via email from Canada, January 3, 2019

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​​Books by M. P. Prabhakaran​​

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