WARSAW — Sirens wailed and church bells tolled Friday as largely Roman Catholic Poland paid homage to the Jewish fighters who rose up 70 years ago against German Nazi forces in the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
The mournful sounds marked the start of state ceremonies that were led by President Bronislaw Komorowski at the iconic Monument to the Ghetto Heroes in Warsaw. The president was joined by officials from Poland, Israel, and elsewhere as well as a survivor of the fighting, Simha Rotem, to honor the first large-scale rebellion against the Germans during World War II.
About 750 Jews with few arms and no military training made their opening attack on April 19, 1943, on a much larger and well-equipped German force. The attack came after most of the ghetto’s nearly half million inhabitants had already been sent to die at Treblinka.
The insurgency came when it was clear the Nazis were about to send the remaining residents of the ghetto to die in the concentration camp as well. The revolt was crushed the following month, and the ghetto was razed to the ground.
‘‘We knew that the end would be the same for everyone. The thought of waging an uprising was dictated by our determination. We wanted to choose the kind of death we would die,’’ said Rotem, 88, who is among a tiny number of surviving fighters and was the key figure at the ceremony. ‘‘But to this day I have doubts as to whether we had the right to carry out the uprising and shorten the lives of people by a day, a week, or two weeks. No one gave us that right, and I have to live with my doubts.’’
Rotem’s uncertainty is in stark contrast to how the world remembers the revolt. Though a clear military defeat, it is hailed as a moral victory for the Jewish fighters, who refused to go to the gas chambers without a fight. It is prominently commemorated in Israel, part of a never-again ethos that stresses self-defense.
‘‘The Nazi Germans made a hell on earth of the ghetto,’’ Komorowski said in a speech. ‘‘Persecuting the Jews appealed to the lowest of human instincts.’’
During the ceremonies, the president bestowed one of the country’s highest honors on Rotem — the Grand Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland. Later, the two of them, joined by Israeli Education Minister Shai Piron and Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a Polish Auschwitz survivor who helped rescue Jews during the war, walked side-by-side to the monument and bowed before it as soldiers laid a wreath for them.
To a military drum, other dignitaries followed them in paying their respects at the memorial, including Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, members of Poland’s Jewish community, US Ambassador Stephen Mull, and an American survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, Estelle Laughlin.
It’s not clear how many of the fighters are still living, but the number is tiny, with Polish authorities saying they believe there are perhaps four.