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Bells toll for Warsaw ghetto uprising 70 years on

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Sirens and church bells are set to ring across Warsaw Friday to mark 70 years to the day since hundreds of young, poorly armed Jews rose up against the Nazis in a doomed revolt.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski will lead a ceremony at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, with thousands of people including Holocaust survivors due to attend.

"The drama and the combat, this painful experience is part of both the Polish and Jewish traditions," the head of state said at a Holocaust-themed art opening ahead of the anniversary.

The crowd due to include European Parliament President Martin Schulz and Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron will proceed towards the Umschlagplatz monument where Jews were rounded up and taken to the Treblinka death camp.

In the massive ghetto purge of 1942, Nazi Germany dispatched around 300,000 Jews by train to its gas chambers.

Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich said the 70th anniversary is special not only for the round number but because "we still have among us those who actually fought.

"There's a sense that we have an obligation to make sure we really remember to pay tribute now while we still can hear from (the fighters) and so we can thank them for what they did," he told AFP.

One of the last surviving veterans of the revolt, 89-year-old Simcha "Kazik" Rotem flew in from his home in Jerusalem Wednesday to join in on the ceremonies in his hometown.

Rotem made it through the month-long uprising by masterminding an escape through the drain system with dozens of comrades. Polish sewer workers guided them to the surface.

But none of the fighters had expected to live when they embarked on Europe's first urban anti-Nazi revolt, with the odds stacked against them.

"Because what is a pistol or a rifle or a grenade when faced with the German army that conquered all of Europe?" Rotem told AFP.

"As for me, I wanted to choose a nicer, more decent death than at the gas chambers."

Through the weekend, hundreds of volunteers will hand out paper daffodils in the capital's streets in memory of Marek Edelman, the last commander of the uprising.

Edelman, who died in 2009, had a habit of marking each anniversary with a bouquet of the yellow flowers at the ghetto hero monument.

On Sunday, candles in hand, Warsaw residents will form a human chain where the ghetto walls once stood and of which little remains.

The Germans razed the neighbourhood and the post-war communist regime later built housing quarters directly on the rubble.

"Below the buildings, below the asphalt of the new streets, you'll find (the ghetto's) roots, with thousands of buried victims," tour guide Jacek Leociak told AFP.

Once Europe's Jewish heartland, Poland saw 90 percent of its 3.3 million pre-war Jews wiped out by 1945.

The Museum of the History of Polish Jews opens Friday to bear witness to that thriving 1,000-year presence that was crippled by the Holocaust.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130418/bells-toll-warsaw-ghetto-uprising-70-years