Sirens wailed and church bells tolled in Warsaw 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 Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes.
The president was joined by officials from Poland, Israel and beyond as well as a survivor of the fighting, Simha Rotem, to honour the first large-scale rebellion against the Germans during the Second World War.
About 750 Jews with few arms and no military training attacked a much larger and well-equipped German force that was about to send the remaining residents of the ghetto to death camps. The revolt was crushed the following month, and the ghetto was razed to the ground, most of its residents killed.
"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, an 88-year-old 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 without a fight to the gas chambers.
"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, Komorowski bestowed one of the country's highest honours on Rotem - the Grand Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland. Later the two of them, with 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 to suffering and struggle, including Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, members of Poland's Jewish community and US Ambassador Stephen Mull with an American survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, Estelle Laughlin.