Genocide Forum Opening Address - Dr Sev Ozdowski

Surviving Genocide - Personal Stories from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Welcome and Introductory Remarks

Dr Sev Ozdowski OAM
Director Equity and Diversity, UWS

Acknowledgments

It is my pleasure to welcome you all, particularly Ms Rhonda Hawkins, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Corporate Strategy and Services; our presenters Halina Robinson, Marcel Weyland and Phillip Hinton, other distinguished guests and especially the many young people that I can see here in the audience. Today we will deal with possibly the worst crime against humanity ever committed - the Holocaust. It is important to transfer this information from generation to generation as a warning that human nature is capable of committing genocide.

We have received many apologies. Today is Passover and some religious Jews could not attend and have sent their apologies. Apologies came from many politicians, including local members, and also from others.

Introduction

On 19 April 65 years ago, in 1943, an uprising started in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Today we have gathered here to commemorate it and to pay our respects to all victims of the Holocaust and in particular to those who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Before I introduce our speakers, I would like to provide you with a short factual account of both the Holocaust, and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, to put Halina's eye witness account and the poetry we will be listening to, into an historical context.

The Holocaust

"Holocaust" is a word of Greek origin meaning "sacrifice by fire."

In contemporary vocabulary, by the Holocaust we mean the genocide of Jewish people by Nazi Germany.

The Holocaust, like any other genocide, was a systematic, state-sponsored, well organised persecution and murder that resulted in death of approximately six million European Jews.

Despite our contemporary historical awareness - we have witnessed genocide in contemporary times - remember Cambodia, Rwanda, most recently Darfur - organised to destroy a class of people because of their ethnicity, religion, social status or political views.

Another characteristic of genocide is that it always has its deniers.

I initiated the topic of tonight's meeting to remind us that it could happen in the future again and in our region.

The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Germans were "racially superior". The Jews, deemed "inferior," were seen as an alien threat to German community. At that time there were about 9 million Jews in Europe.

During the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived "racial inferiority":

  • Gypsies,
  • the disabled, and
  • some of the Slavic people (Poles, Russians, and others).

Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioural grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals.

The Germans, for example, targeted the non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia and killed and deported millions of Polish civilians for forced labour in Germany. My family, both on my father's and mother's side, was deported from western Poland as early as in October 1939. My uncle, Father Narcyz Putz died in Dachau concentration camp in 1942.

Most of the killings took place between 1941 and 1944 in purpose build extermination camps, using specially developed gassing facilities. In fact it was first time ever that industrialised slaughter houses were build to kill people.

Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) were organised to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews and others. They murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others.

Many other people were murdered in concentration camps or died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.

By 1945, the Germans and their collaborators killed nearly two out of every three European Jews as part of the "Final Solution".

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The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The term "ghetto" originated from the name of the Jewish quarter in Venice, established in 1516, in which the Venetian authorities compelled the city's Jews to live.

During WW II, ghettos were enclosed city districts created by the Nazis as a temporary measure to concentrate and monitor the regional Jewish population in preparation for their extermination.

The Germans established at least 1,000 ghettos in German-occupied Poland and the Soviet Union alone. The first ghetto was established in Piotrków Trybunalski in October 1939.

Some ghettos existed for only a few days, others for months or years. With the implementation of the "Final Solution" beginning in late 1941, the Germans systematically destroyed the ghettos. They either shot ghetto residents and buried them in mass graves located nearby or deported them, usually by train, to the extermination camps.

The largest ghetto in Nazi occupied Poland was the Warsaw Ghetto, where over 400,000 Jews were crowded into an area of 4 square kilometres. Jews were required to wear identifying badges or armbands, perform forced labour and their living conditions were tragic because of hunger, lack of access to most basis services and brutalisation by Nazis.

Between July and September '42, the Germans deported some 300,000 Jews from Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka death camp. For the 60,000 Jews remaining in the Warsaw ghetto, deportation seemed inevitable.

In response to the deportations, several Jewish underground armed self-defence organisations were created, the key being the Jewish Fighting Organization (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa) and the ghetto population began to construct subterranean bunkers and shelters.

65 years ago, on 19 April 1943 the Germans entered Ghetto to begin deporting the remaining Jews. It was the signal for an armed uprising. They knew they cannot win, but some 220 mainly young Jews fought the Germans for nearly a month. Outnumbered and outgunned, they held off German troops for three weeks with homemade explosives and a cache of smuggled weapons. The Nazis killed most of fighters, and then systematically burned down the Ghetto street by street and reduced the Ghetto to rubble. The uprising ended when its main leaders - rounded up by the Nazis - committed suicide on May 8, 1943. About 40 fighters escaped through Warsaw's sewers and joined the Polish partisans.

Allow me to mention here Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. In an interview with The Associated Press, Edelman said the Nazis "wanted to destroy the people, and we fought to protect the people in the ghetto, to extend their life by a day or two or five." Then 24 years old, Edelman took command of one of the revolt's three groups. His fighters, between the ages of 13 and 22, scraped together guns and ammunition that they and the Polish resistance managed to smuggle in from the outside. His brigade included 50 fighters known as "brush men" because their base was a brush factory.

"I remember them all - boys and girls - 220 altogether, not too many to remember their faces, their names," says the 89-year-old doctor, who still works in a Lodz hospital. Edelman will lay a wreath in their honor at the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto on Saturday, the 65th anniversary of the uprising. "There weren't enough guns, ammunition. There was not enough food, but we were not starving. You can live for three weeks just on water and sugar," which they found in the homes of those deported to death camps, he said.

They adopted hit-and-run tactics. With time, as supplies and forces began to run low, they resorted to attacks at night, for more safety. "Every moment was difficult. It was two or three or 10 boys fighting with an army," Edelman said. "There were no easy moments." But they were outnumbered and outgunned. "It lasted for three weeks, so this great German army could not cope so easily with those 220 boys and girls," he said with a grain of pride.

The German Commander SS General Juergen reported to Berlin that he had captured 56,065 Jews and destroyed 631 bunkers. He estimated that his units killed up to 7,000 Jews during the uprising.

Mark Edelman, said in Warsaw recently that the Ghetto uprising is "a symbol of the fight for freedom. A symbol of standing up to Nazism and of not giving in."

Now it is my pleasure to introduce to you our tonight's speakers.

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Halina Robinson was born in Poland, the daughter of a well known Ear Nose and Throat specialist. She lost over 140 members of her family in the Holocaust. Halina lived in the Warsaw Ghetto, until September 1942 and then survived by living in 13 locations and had 4 sets of false documents. She was mostly under the care of the members of a branch of the "Armia Krajowa" (Home Army).

After the War Ms Robinson stayed in Poland, married, had two children, completed a degree in Psychology and worked as a broadcaster and editor. She then went to Israel with her family, before coming to Australia in 1961. For close to 5 years Ms Robinson worked as a nursing aide in lung cancer/tuberculosis hospital, whilst studying for her Library qualifications privately. She then worked many years in librarianship mostly in TAFE and Paramedical Studies and completed her Masters in Librarianship at Monash University. Following on from this she worked in the Federal Public Service and was one of the foundation members of the Ethics Communities Council of NSW.

Ms Robinson participated in the creation of Ethnic Radio, she has broadcasted in a voluntary Polish program and also as a paid broadcaster on SBS. Ms Robinson has contributed to the Polish press in Australia and in Poland and started also to write in English. Her first book 'The Cork on the Waves' covers her life story from 1930 to 1957 and was published in 2005. She was one of the first accredited interpreter/translators and as a CES worker registered thousands of Poles arriving after 1981. Twice married, Halina has two children and six grandchildren, and is the matriarch of a very large family.

Mr Marcel Weyland OAM was born in pre-war Poland. He fled the advancing German army, and probable death, to eastern Poland, then to Vilnius in Lithuania. When the Soviets took over Lithuania he was again forced to flee. He was given a Japanese Transit visa by the famous Japanese consul Sugihari, and travelled through Russia to Japan. Mr Weyland was interned throughout the war, with about 20,000 other Jewish refugees by the Japanese in Shanghai. He completed his schooling whilst in the camp. In 1946 Mr Weyland arrived in Australia, where he studied architecture and later law. He married Philippa and they have 21 grandchildren.

Mr Weyland translated Adam Mickiewicz's epic Polish poem 'Pan Tadeusz' first as a hobby and then as a compulsion. The book was published in Sydney in 2004 and in London and New York in 2005. Mr Weyland was the recipient of a Polish Government grant to produce in English an anthology provisionally titled '200 Years of Polish Poetry'. Whilst researching the book he came across a growing number of verses that had been written during and about the Holocaust. These versions have been published in a separate volume titled 'Echoes-Poems of the Holocaust'. Mr Weyland has been awarded the Order of Merit from the Polish Parliament and in 2008 he was honoured with the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his service to the Polish community "through the preservation and promotion of Polish cultural heritage".

Mr Phillip Hinton will recite poems found in the ruins of ghetto after WWII. The poems were translated into English by Marcel Wayland. 

Phillip Hinton was born in war-time Britain and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa
to where his parents emigrated in 1947. He is married to a professional dancer Ann Constant and they have three sons, Sean, Simon and Benjamin. After the Hinton family moved to Australia in 1975 and Phillip has continued his acting career on stage, television, films and in radio drama

Philip is an accomplished actor. His acting carrier started in 1963 in London where he has worked with some of Britain's leading directors including The Royal Shakespeare Company. He has also had guest roles in several US TV productions, The Flood, The Thornbirds, The Missing Years, Tanker Incident, Time Trax and Flipper. He is in great demand as one of Sydney's leading 'voice over' artists in radio and television advertising and for documentary narrations.

Philip is also committed to human rights and peace and has been associated since 1961 with the Bahá'í Community. His solo performance, Portals to Freedom, has toured major cities in Australia and USA and was performed in Haifa, London and Auckland.

Before I invite Halina to tell as of her experiences of day to day life in Warsaw Ghetto, and then Phillip to recite poetry created in the Ghetto and translated from polish into English by Marcel I would like to offer a final observation especially to young people in our audience.

As the Holocaust of WWII demonstrates, genocide is something that can and does happen under the right conditions. Think of post WWII genocides in Cambodia under Pol Pot, Rwanda, Srebrenica and most recently Darfur. It is up to each of us, as individuals, as a nation and as a community of nations, to ensure those conditions do not arise. To paraphrase 'the price of freedom from genocide is eternal vigilance'. Therefore it is so important to have commemorations such as today.

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