US President Barack Obama on Friday honored the memories of those slain in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against Nazis, telling one elderly man that the memorial was a “reminder of the nightmare” of the Nazi Holocaust.
The president also helped placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to all unidentified soldiers who have given their lives to Poland in past wars.
By paying homage to Poles who fell in World War II at two symbolically potent sites, Obama’s gestures were sure to carry great weight in a country whose identity is still profoundly shaped by the death and destruction inflicted on it by Nazi Germany.
In the final phase of his European trip, Obama greeted Holocaust survivors and leaders of Poland’s Jewish community at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. He smiled, shook hands and hugged those gathered under a light rain, including some who shared memories of having met Obama at earlier times.
“What a wonderful visit. I’ll have to bring my daughters,” Obama said as he exited the memorial.
The monument in the former Jewish ghetto commemorates the tens of thousands of Jews killed in a 1943 uprising against the Nazis during Germany’s brutal occupation of Poland during World War II.
Most of the insurgents in that uprising were killed, but the event bears great importance in Jewish history as an example of Jews bravely taking up arms to defend themselves against the Nazis. It’s also a key memorial in a country that before the Holocaust was home to Europe’s largest Jewish community.
Among those Obama met was Halina Szpilman, the widow of Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Holocaust survivor featured in Roman Polanski’s Oscar-winning film The Pianist.
Obama kissed Szpilman, a retired doctor who lost her husband in 2000, on both cheeks.
A leading member of the Jewish community, Monika Krawczyk, was heard urging Obama to do all he can to support Israel, saying: “It’s the only Jewish state we have.”
Obama assured her that the US would be there for Israel.
Obama arrived in Warsaw on a cool and cloudy Friday evening, hoping to inject some vigor into a relationship with an ally that has sometimes felt slighted by Washington.
At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Obama chatted warmly with elderly veterans in uniform who had fought Nazi Germany during World War II, including at least one woman. Several saluted him. He also greeted younger soldiers and veterans who served in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.
The president’s primary business of the night was a dinner with 17 central and eastern EU leaders. The president intended to emphasize how their experiences with democracy could offer real-life lessons to those seeking freedoms across North Africa and the Middle East.
Obama did not come bearing the news Polish officials wanted: Access to a visa waiver program for those traveling to the US. Obama aides said he would provide officials a status update on the effort but was not in position yet to offer more.