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People gather in Castle Square for a prayer service for Israel on Friday in Warsaw, Poland.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

It has become a rallying cry for many Palestinians and their supporters: The people of Gaza are only doing what Jews in the Warsaw ghetto did during the Second World War – fighting back against an oppressor. For them, Gaza is another Warsaw ghetto.

The comparison infuriates Jewish groups and people in Warsaw who have worked hard to preserve the memory of the city’s two uprisings against the Nazis. But it has become widespread since Hamas fighters launched their attacks on Israel last week.

Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in New York carried signs last week equating Gaza with the Warsaw ghetto, and last Tuesday Colombian President Gustavo Petro took to X to say: “Gaza appears today as destroyed or more than the Warsaw ghetto.”

The BBC was criticized after it aired an interview with Refaat Alareer, a lecturer at Gaza’s Islamic University, who made the same point. “This is exactly like the Warsaw ghetto uprising,” Mr. Alareer said.

In Warsaw, the memory of the Jewish uprising in 1943 and a second one by the Polish resistance a year later is still raw. Both events are memorialized in museums, monuments and annual commemorations.

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A visitor to Warsaw’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews views an exhibit of photographs from the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

The Nazis created the Jewish ghetto a year after invading Poland in 1939. They squeezed more than 400,000 Jews into a walled-off section of the downtown. As the Germans began deporting most of the ghetto’s population to the Treblinka extermination camp, a few hundred Jews took up arms in April, 1943. The fighters held out for almost a month before the Germans regained control and razed the ghetto.

A year later, some 45,000 members of the Polish underground launched an attack on the occupiers. The resistance hoped for support from the Red Army, which was closing in on Warsaw, but the Soviet troops halted their advance, allowing the Germans to crush the uprising within two months. About 150,000 people died, largely through mass executions, and the Germans destroyed the capital.

Comparing those events to the situation in Gaza hits a nerve among many Poles.

“It’s unthinkable. It’s a completely different story,” said Maciej Kozłowski, a former Polish ambassador to Israel who also served as the country’s ambassador at large for Jewish relations.

Dr. Kozłowski said that, unlike in the Warsaw ghetto, where Jewish fighters aimed their attacks at German soldiers, the Palestinian resistance has largely targeted Israeli civilians in an effort to demoralize Israel. “They are not bombarding military instalments,” he said of Hamas’s rocket attacks.

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Maciej Kozlowski, Poland’s former ambassador to Israel, says any comparison of the war in Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto uprising by Jews is unthinkable. 'It’s a completely different story.'Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

Dr. Kozłowski, who also helped build the city’s Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, has sympathy for the plight of the Palestinian people and worries about how the current war will end. “The problem is no one in Israel dares to say openly what is the final goal of military intervention,” he said.

Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, also recoiled at any comparison with the Warsaw ghetto.

“It’s not only offensive, it has nothing to do with history,” he said in an interview Friday after a prayer service in Warsaw’s Castle Square. “Jews were forced into the Warsaw ghetto. They were being sent to Treblinka,” he said. “The Israelis left Gaza. They said, ‘You guys take care of it now.’ ”

Mr. Schudrich added that when small number of Palestinians started attacking Israelis, “the reaction was ‘Sorry, we have to close Gaza to protect ourselves.’ ”

This isn’t the first time Warsaw has confronted the comparison.

In 1983, when Poland was under communist rule, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Polish mission participated in commemorations marking the 40th anniversary of the ghetto uprising.

“We consider the victims of the uprising to be hero Jews,” Fuad Yassin said after laying a wreath at a monument outside the Polin museum. “I have placed a wreath because the Jewish people were victims of Nazism and the Palestinian people are the victims of the new Nazis, the Zionists and Israel.”

His participation in the event caused an uproar among Jewish organizations and led the Israeli delegation to walk out.

Dominika Blachnicka-Ciacek, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Warsaw, said local Palestinians still draw some parallels with the uprisings, but it’s not their main focus. Their bigger concern, she said, is the unflinching support the Polish government has given Israel.

“I think the Palestinian case is sort of sacrificed because the Polish-Jewish dialogue is seen as a priority,” she said. “But having said this, I think there is a growing recognition in Poland that Israel is no longer this innocent, democratic country in the Middle East.”

Poles have begun to understand that “it’s possible to care about Polish-Jewish relations but also it’s possible to be critical of Israeli politics,” she added.

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Maria Potapczuk brought a Palestinian flag to a prayer service for Israel on Friday in Warsaw’s Castle Square. She says she is furious at what is happening to the people of Gaza and the West’s knee-jerk support for Israel.Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

At Friday’s prayer service, Maria Potapczuk stood silently near the back of the small crowd holding a Palestinian flag. For her the comparison to the Warsaw ghetto is entirely valid.

“I’m furious that the Jewish people, with all their history, are doing the same thing to people in Gaza,” she said. “The Israelis treat them like second-class people.”

Ms. Potapczuk has never been to Israel. But she said Gazans have been treated unjustly and believes the world is turning its back on them. “I’m afraid that all of the West is against Gaza and siding with Israel,” she said. “It’s very difficult.”

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