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President’s Blunder Sheds Light On A War’s Lesser Known Chapter

June 10, 1994

BERLIN (AP) _ Germany’s new president raised more than a few Polish eyebrows when he said last week he was looking forward to being in Poland on Aug. 1 for the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

President-elect Roman Herzog may be sincere about promoting healing between historical foes. But he mixed up his uprisings.

Many Poles are wondering how Herzog, who steps down as chief justice of Germany’s highest court on July 1, could mistake the desperate 1943 revolt in Warsaw’s walled Jewish ghetto for the equally tragic uprising a year later by Poland’s underground Home Army.

″Lots of German politicians preach in their Sunday speeches that the lessons of history should not be forgotten. But how can forgetting be prevented if events are so easily confused?″ Polish journalist Michal Jaranowski wrote in a Berlin newspaper this week.

Jaranowski instructed the Germans on the deeds of their fathers and grandfathers. Both Warsaw uprisings were ruthlessly suppressed by Nazi troops, the first in four weeks, the second in just over two months.

During the 1944 Home Army revolt, the Soviet army stood on the east bank of the Vistula River, letting the Germans destroy Polish resistance and reduce Warsaw to rubble.

The cost: 200,000 dead Poles, nine in 10 of them civilians.

The feebly armed Home Army, loyal to a London-based exile government, had wanted to liberate the Polish capital to forestall the Soviet domination that followed for the next 45 years.

Polish President Lech Walesa won praise even from political opponents last summer when he invited the leaders of Russia and Germany - along with the British, French and American heads of state - to this year’s 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Home Army Uprising.

The Polish leader decided to do what French and British leaders, as hosts for this week’s D-Day commemorations, did not: invite German and Russian leaders in the name of reconciliation.

Walesa took the political risk because here was a chance to try to close the book on the Cold War in the country whose 1980-born Solidarity movement precipitated more than any other the fall of the Soviet empire.

Intent on proving his country worthy of NATO membership, Walesa wants to show that Poland can be an anchor of democracy and stability in Europe.

But just as many Allied veterans didn’t want German politicians at D-Day commemorations, many of the Poles who took part in the 1944 uprising don’t want German or Russian leaders in Warsaw on Aug. 1.

For too many, the memories are too bitter: the Warsaw uprising pitted Boy Scouts with pistols against German armor, saw Nazi troops fill sewers with gasoline and kill underground combatants in infernos.

″These people do not feel they have been apologized to ... by both the Germans and Russians,″ said Hanna Staszkowska, an uprising veteran and spokeswoman for an alliance she says has 50,000 former Polish resistance fighters. The group plans to ignore the official commemorations, she said.

But others say Germany and Russia’s long history of dividing, conquering and plundering Poland is all the more reason for Poland to reconcile with the two nations.

″If we cultivate the idea that the Germans and Russians are eternal enemies then we are courting endless disaster,″ said Jan Nowak, 81, the London exile government’s emissary to the Warsaw insurgents during the Home Army uprising and a former head of Radio Free Europe’s Polish section.

President Boris Yeltsin of Russia told a Moscow news conference Friday that he had received the Polish invitation to attend the Aug. 1 ceremonies too late to be able to attend, since his calendar was full until the end of the year.

President Francois Mitterrand of France and Prime Minister John Major of Britain are coming, said Andrzej Zakrzewski, Poland’s state secretary for political affairs.

Zakrzewski said he expects Vice President Al Gore will attend, and President Bill Clinton is due in Poland for a state visit in early July.

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