Germany asks Israel, Poland for forgiveness for Warsaw Ghetto liquidation

Herzog: Uprising was emblem of heroism • Duda: We bow our heads to those who fought hatred

 President Isaac Herzog together with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a joint handshake at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes at the end of the main ceremony (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog together with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Polish President Andrzej Duda, in a joint handshake at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes at the end of the main ceremony
(photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

WARSAW – Germany seeks forgiveness for crimes it committed in Warsaw during World War II, including the liquidation of the city’s Jews, the country’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said during a solemn ceremony Wednesday to mark the 80th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

“I stand before you today and ask for your forgiveness for the crimes committed here by Germans,” said Steinmeier, who was the first German head of state to participate in the annual ceremony, which dates back to 1948.

It is “difficult to come here as a German and as Germany’s federal president. The terrible crimes that Germans committed here fill me with profound shame,” Steinmeier said.

His presence lent additional gravity to the event, in which he was joined by his Polish and Israeli counterparts, Andrzej Duda and Isaac Herzog, respectively. The three leaders stood together next to the Rapoport memorial to the Jews who, against all odds, fought back against the Nazis from April 19 until May 16, 1943, in a vain attempt to prevent the final liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.

“Here in this square, by the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, I stand before you in grief and humility. I affirm our responsibility for the crimes of the past and our responsibility for our shared future!” Steinmeier said.

Moment of silence for the victims of the Warsaw ghetto on April 19, 2023

The trio – Steinmeier, Duda and Herzog – walked down a red carpet into the packed square by the monument erected in 1948, stood and sat together for the ceremony and shook hands next to its sculpted fighters of the Jewish resistors.

It was a handshake that transcended time and space, as Steinmeier represents a country that during World War II occupied Poland and a nation that under Nazi leadership killed six million Jews.

Now, 80 years from the date of the ghetto uprising and 78 years since the end of the Holocaust, the three leaders represent three countries that are strong allies.

They came together under a cloudy sky – which periodically darkened during the ceremony and opened into rain — to speak of the importance of memory, mourning and reconciliation.

The trio presented a unified presence, despite recent tensions in their relations over a Polish law criminalizing talk of Polish complicity with the Nazis during the Holocaust.

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But on Wednesday, they sought to heal past wounds and push forward into a stronger future.

After World War II, “many people in your two countries, in Poland and in Israel, gave us Germans the gift of reconciliation despite these crimes, despite the crime against humanity that was the Shoah,” Steinmeier said.

“It is the achievement of the generations before us, the brave, painstaking work of Israelis, Poles and Germans who reached out to one another across the abyss of the past – for a better future,” he explained.

As a result of that work, Steinmeier said, he can stand now with his Polish and Israeli counterparts in “remembrance of those who were murdered and in acceptance of our responsibility for the miraculous achievement of reconciliation.”

He recalled that he came from the same city as the SS officer Jürgen Stroop, who destroyed the Warsaw Ghetto and blew up its Great Synagogue and who was put on trial in Poland and hanged for his World War II crimes.

It is “true that far too few of the other perpetrators were held accountable after the war,” Steinmeier said.

“The crimes that the Germans committed here in occupied Poland, here in the Warsaw Ghetto, deserve a greater space in our memory,” Steinmeier said. For this reason, he said, “it is so important to me to be here today.”

Germans “are aware of our responsibility, and we are aware of the duty the survivors and the dead have left to us. And we accept it,” Steinmeier said.

There is “no line” for Germans that “can ever be drawn under the responsibility imposed by our history. It stays with us as a warning and a duty for both the present and the future,” he explained.

Germany has taken to heart the motto “never again” and has applied the imperative to the Ukrainian war. “Never again: that means that there must be no brutal war of aggression in Europe like that waged by Russia against Ukraine,” Steinmeier said.

It also means that “we, the liberal democracies, are strong when we act together and in unity,” Steinmeier said.

The ceremony started with several minutes of silence to the victims of the war and the ghetto uprising as the sound of a series of sirens and church bells enveloped the square. Those standing wore a small yellow paper cut out of a daffodil on the left side of their jackets and sweaters, in solidarity with the Warsaw Ghetto victims.

Duda spoke of the heroism of the Jewish fighters in Warsaw in 1943 and lauded their identity as Polish citizens, whose actions helped spark the valor needed to help end the war.

“Today we bow our heads before the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising,” Duda said. He paid homage to all those who he said “fought against hatred and Nazism for their freedom and dignity.”

As the president of Poland, Duda said, and to the country as a whole, they are “the symbol of courage, determination and bravery” as well as of “the will to fight for one’s freedom, the will to take decisions about one’s own fate” with “incredible fear and bravery and absolute determination.”

Duda said he believed that the Jewish ghetto fighters were inspired by their own ancient heroes such as the Maccabees and the modern-day Polish heroes.

“I always stress that perhaps there would not be freedom without a single drop spilled in blood and battle,” Duda said. “But perhaps there would be no victory without one gesture of resistance. We must never forget about the valor of these fighters,” he added.

“They are common heroes. They are the heroes of Israel. They are the heroes of Jews all over the world. They are the heroes of Poland and the Polish people, many of them later fought in the Warsaw uprising,” Duda said.

President Herzog said that the uprising was “the emblem of heroism during humanity’s darkest hour.”

A few hundred Polish Jews faced thousands of fully armed Nazi soldiers, Herzog recalled.

“Here, at this place where we gather, stood the ghetto, cramped, bustling, and bursting with life. Nearby was the ‘collection point,’ or ‘Umschlagplatz.’ It was there that the fate of 300,000 Polish Jews was sealed: children, the elderly, women and men who were deported to the Treblinka death camp,” Herzog said.

He recalled the words said at the time by Zivia Lubetkin, who was part of the revolt’s leadership. “It was clear to us that we had no chance of victory, in the usual sense of the word. But we knew that at the end of the day, we would emerge victorious. We are the weak ones. But our strength lay in this: we believed in justice. We believed in humanity.”

Those who fought the Nazis both in the ghetto and across Europe were inspired by “a love of humankind,” and in this, they upheld a most fundamental and basic Jewish imperative, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” They were joined by the non-Jewish righteous, including those from Poland “who risked their lives and chose not to stand idly by,” Herzog said.

Herzog thanked Duda for his efforts to remember and commemorate Jewish deaths in the Holocaust, including his support for Wednesday’s ceremony.

“We must remember: there is nothing postmodern or relativistic about Holocaust remembrance. Absolute evil existed, in the form of the Nazis and their accomplices. And absolute good existed, in the form of the victims and the rebels, from every nation. And in passing this heritage down to posterity, it must reflect this indisputable axiom; no ifs, no buts,” Herzog said.

The heroism of resistance against the Nazis and the imperative to remember that “terrible chapter of history,” Herzog said, offers an important platform for dialogue and friendship between Israel and Poland.

“A friendship that I believe and hope will flourish and develop and allow us to elucidate and analyze in-depth disagreements and pain, while also building important partnerships, not only on the foundations of the past but also on the basis of our shared future,” Herzog said.

While in Warsaw he held bilateral meetings with Duda and Steinmeier. He also visited the excavations of the bunker where the Warsaw Ghetto fighters led by Mordechai Anielewicz hid. After that visit, Herzog tweeted, “18 Miła Street. Depths of destruction. Peaks of heroism. Chilling.”