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 take up arms 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."

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

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 April 19 uprising 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," Rotem said.

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

Around 7,000 Jews died in Europe's first urban anti-Nazi revolt, most of them burned alive, and nearly all the rest were then sent to Treblinka.

Rotem survived 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 (them) and so we can thank them for what they did."

It was also the first anniversary to begin with a few minutes of bell tolls -- an important "gesture on the part of the Church", according to Piotr Kadlcik, president of the Jewish Community of Warsaw.

Three clergymen joined Schudrich in reciting a prayer at the ceremony, where participants wore daffodil pins.

That was a hat tip to Marek Edelman, an uprising commander who every year until his death in 2009 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 that was razed by the Germans and where the communist regime built housing 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.

The German parliament observed a minute of silence Friday in memory of the fighters.

"We recall with great humility the suffering, the self-sacrifice and the fight for freedom of the people of the Warsaw ghetto," Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Berlin.

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 opened Friday to bear witness to that thriving 1,000-year presence that was crippled by the Holocaust.

Crippled but not forgotten: On Thursday, hundreds of people gathered for a midnight concert 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.