WARSAW, Poland – Marian Kalwary can still hear the faint chant of a thin little girl trying to sell insoles to people on a street of the Warsaw ghetto and get food. No one bought them and some days later the girl vanished from the street.
“Maybe she was too weak to come, or maybe she just died” of hunger, says Kalwary who spent two years in the ghetto as a boy before he was daringly led out in 1942, several months before the occupying Nazi Germans liquidated the ghetto, killing or sending its residents to a death camp.
On Thursday, the 87-year-old Kalwary will take part in daylong 75th anniversary observances honoring the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising who took up arms to oppose the German troops as they were moving in to end the ghetto’s existence.
The uprising broke out April 19, 1943, when about 750 young Jewish fighters armed with just pistols and other light arms attacked a German force more than three times its size. In their last testaments they said they knew they were doomed but wanted to die at a time and place of their own choosing.
Only a few dozen of the fighters survived, most killed when the Germans crushed the revolt, and of those, most are either no longer living or are no longer strong enough to attend the observances in Warsaw.
Kalwary recalled his own escape from the ghetto.
One July day in 1942, he was alone in the tiny room he had occupied with his mother in the ghetto and someone knocked on the door. It was a messenger from a nearby court, with a fake summons for him as a witness.
“Are you Marian Kalwary?” he asked. “Yes” the 11-year-old boy replied.
“There is a summons for you as a witness from the court, get dressed right away and go because they are waiting for you there,” he recalled the messenger saying.
He was then led by a bribed court guard through a labyrinth of narrow corridors to the Aryan side where a Polish friend of the family was waiting for him, and immediately took him to a hairdresser to have his black curly hair shaved off, a precaution to make him less likely to be perceived as Jewish.
He then went through an odyssey of moving among various hiding places, and he and his mother survived the war.
Looking back to his time in the ghetto, the horror of dead bodies lying in the street and sad-faced children begging, Kalwary says he is horrified to see violence in the world today and what he asserts is the rise in Poland of the same ideas that drove Nazi Germany into starting World War II and the Holocaust — notions that had long been condemned and seemed banished.
“I am terrified by the rebirth of fascism and nationalism and I can see nationalism being glorified and put on a pedestal as something noble,” Kalwary told The Associated Press. “Nationalism is being confused with patriotism.”
He gave as an example the recent veneration of some right-wing wartime resistance groups that killed civilians, including Jews, for political reasons.
He said he finds no explanation for that other than “stupidity and lack of empathy” and an upbringing in some families in Poland, where he contends that some say under their breath that Hitler was guilty of evil things but that he also “‘freed us from the Jews.'”
“I cannot understand that,” he said.
Before the war, about 10 percent of Poland’s population of around 35 million were Jews, the largest Jewish population in Europe. No one knows the exact number of survivors, but only 30,000 registered after the war with Jewish organizations.
Looking at the conflicts in the world today, Kalwary said sadly “We are living in nasty times. History is repeating itself.”