Bells toll for Warsaw ghetto uprising 70 years on

Sirens rang out and church bells tolled Friday as Poland marked the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising that saw young Jews rise up against Nazi German forces.

Hundreds of people including Holocaust survivors gathered at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes, where Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski called the revolt a "fight for dignity".

"But it was also an accusation of passivity and ineffectiveness of the whole free world, the world that could not bring itself to help," he said.

In attendance were European Parliament President Martin Schulz, Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron, along with one of the last three living uprising survivors.

Simcha "Kazik" Rotem, 89, recalled that by April 1943 most of the ghetto's Jews had died and the 50,000 who remained expected the same fate.

But rather than die in the gas chambers at the Treblinka death camp, Rotem and hundreds of his comrades launched the uprising April 19 to "choose the kind of death" they wanted.

"But to this very day I keep thinking whether we had the right to make the decision to start the uprising and by the same token to shorten the lives of many people by a week, a day or two," said Rotem.

"Nobody gave us authorisation to do that and that's the doubts I have to live with."

Around 7,000 Jews died in the ghetto uprising, most of them burned alive, and more than 50,000 were sent to Treblinka.

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

Poland's chief rabbi Michael Schudrich told AFP that the 70th anniversary is special precisely 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."

The 70th was also the first anniversary to begin with a few minutes of church bell tolls across the city.

"It's a very important decision and gesture on the part of the Church," Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw, told AFP.

Three clergymen also joined Schudrich on stage to recite a prayer at the ceremony, where participants wore daffodil pins.

That was a tip of the hat to Marek Edelman, an uprising commander who on every anniversary until his 2009 death laid a bouquet of the flowers -- yellow like the star marking Jews in World War II -- at the ghetto hero monument.

That memorial lies on the former site of the Jewish ghetto, of which almost nothing remains today, save for a chunk of wall, a couple of buildings and a synagogue.

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.

Crippled but not forgotten: at the ghetto hero monument, hundreds of people gathered for a midnight concert Thursday that included Jewish songs.

"Do you hear that? Cantors are singing. Jewish culture is undergoing a revival in Warsaw," Zvi Rav-Ner, Israel's ambassador to Poland, told AFP.

"A nation vanished, but the culture wasn't burnt to ashes in the crematoriums," added Polish-Jewish actress Golda Tencer.