The presidents of Germany and Poland opened daylong observances of the 80th anniversary of the start of World War II on Sunday with a ceremony filled with the spirit of reconciliation and Germany’s humility in the face of the suffering it inflicted during the war.
The ceremony was held in Wielun, a central Polish town that was the first target of Nazi Germany’s deadly bombings.
Attended by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda, the observances started at 4:40 a.m., the exact hour that, according to survivors, the war’s first bombs fell, killing civilians.
The presidents, local officials and residents, among them survivors of the bombings, observed a minute of silence in memory of an estimated 2,000 victims.
Speaking in German and Polish, Steinmeier asked forgiveness.
“I bow my head before the victims of the attack in Wielun, I bow my head before the Polish victims of German tyranny and I ask forgiveness,” Steinmeier said. “We are deeply grateful for Poland’s hand extended in a gesture of forgiveness.”
“As the president of Germany I want to assure you that we will not forget, we will always remember about this, we want to remember and we are taking this responsibility that our history has imposed on us,” Steinmeier said.
Duda thanked Steinmeier for attending the painful anniversary and said it was a form of giving “moral satisfaction.”
“Mr. President, thank you for your presence and your attitude,” Duda said. “I can see a man who has come with humility, a bowed head in order to pay homage … to share the pain.”
“Do you, gathered here, think it is easy to come to the town that has been destroyed by the Germans? To look in the eyes of those who have survived?” Duda asked of those attending.
Minutes later, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and European Union senior official Frans Timmermans led observances at Westerplatte Peninsula, on the Baltic coast, the site of the war’s first battle as Polish troops put up resistance.
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and many other leaders will also attend the main event in Warsaw.
The invasion of Poland by Nazi German troops on Sept. 1, 1939, marks the outbreak of World War II.
Poland remained under German occupation for more than five years and lost about a fifth of its population, including the vast majority of its 3 million Jewish citizens, Hy”d.
Today Germany is Poland’s closest partner in the EU and also in trade and economy.