German soldiers burn residential buildings to the ground, one by one, during the Warsaw ghetto uprising, April 19-May 16, 1943.
WARSAW (AFP)---The last surviving commander of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, Marek Edelman, on Thursday paid homage to those who died fighting the Nazis in the ill-fated Jewish revolt.
Edelman and other members of Poland’s Jewish community laid a wreath at the imposing monument in the heart of the former ghetto, in a ceremony marking the 64th anniversary of the three-week uprising.
On April 19, 1943 a few hundred young Jews decided to take up arms against the occupying Germans, resolving to fight rather than face near-certain death in the Nazis’ "Final Solution".
"We knew perfectly well that we had no chance of winning. Some 220 poorly-armed lads were facing a powerful army," Edelman told AFP in an interview.
Edelman’s underground Jewish resistance group had managed to scrape together a minuscule arsenal in the months before the revolt.
"All we had was a machine gun, some pistols, grenades, petrol bombs and two mines, one of which didn’t explode," Edelman said, his face lighting up with a smile.
The Warsaw ghetto, set up in 1940 by Poland’s Nazi occupiers to isolate the thriving Jewish community in the capital, originally contained over 450,000 people.
About 100,000 died inside from hunger and disease, and over 300,000 were sent to Nazi death camps, mainly at Treblinka in eastern Poland.
When the 20-something Edelman and his comrades decided to launch their revolt, the remaining population was down to the tens of thousands.
"We knew we were going to die. Just like all the others who were sent to Treblinka. But it was easier to die fighting than in a gas chamber.
"Their death was far more heroic. We didn’t know when we would take a bullet. They had to deal with certain death, stripped naked in a gas chamber or standing at the edge of a mass grave waiting for a bullet in the back of the head."
Edelman led a group of around 50 fighters.
"The Germans weren’t expecting resistance of any kind, let alone that we would take up arms," he said.
"But we managed to hold out for three weeks, thanks largely to the support of ordinary people, who were on our side and hid us. An urban guerrilla war, whether in Warsaw in 1943 or in today’s Iraq, is the most difficult kind to deal with."
The 24-year-old commander of the uprising, Mordechai Anielewicz, committed suicide on May 8, as Nazi forces closed in.
Edelman took his place.
The Germans, unable to snuff out the revolt as fast as they had expected, decided to burn down the ghetto.
"We were beaten by the flames, not the Germans," said Edelman.
Edelman escaped through the sewers on May 10 with a handful of comrades.
He joined the wider Polish resistance movement, which launched its own uprising in Warsaw on August 1, 1944.
That 63-day revolt and the Germans’ brutal response cost the lives of 200,000 civilians and fighters, and led to the near-total destruction of Warsaw by Nazi troops.