WARSAW (AFP) - As Poles mark 70 years since insurgents launched a valiant but bloody and doomed rebellion against the Nazis, the Warsaw Uprising is still very much alive in hearts and minds, as is the belief that in the end, freedom wins.
"Today, there's a fierce battle for freedom in Ukraine. The same sacrifices and the human and economic toll is great, just like 70 years ago here in Warsaw," said Ewa Borkowska-Pastwa, the leader of Poland's national scouting organisation, heavily involved in this year's memorial ceremonies.
It was thanks to the "spirit of the Warsaw Uprising" that Poland shed communism and regained freedom a quarter century ago, but this time without a single shot being fired, she told AFP.
"That spirit remained alive throughout the communist era and inspired new generations of Poles to continue the fight. Even though it took until 1989 to win freedom (from Soviet domination), over the long term, the insurgency paid off, " Borkowska-Pastwa insists.
The Warsaw Uprising was launched on Aug 1, 1944, by Polish Home Army (AK) partisan commanders loyal to the Polish government-in-exile in Britain, in a bid to secure Poland's post-war independence.
The strategy was to eject German forces from Warsaw in order for Polish insurgents to gain control as the Soviet Red Army swept in with help from the east.
It could not have been a more tragic failure, prompting sharp criticism among some Poles who see the uprising as a suicide mission, an act of utter desperation.
Around 50,000 insurgents, mostly young men and women in their late teens and early twenties, scouts and even children, took up arms against the Nazis in the occupied capital, as the Soviet Red Army was poised to invade it.
Vastly better equipped, the Nazis slaughtered 200,000 Polish civilians, many in aerial bombardments. Sixty-three days of savage battles turned the capital into a smouldering pile of rubble.
What little was left standing was then razed to the ground on orders of Adolf Hitler as the Nazis fled Soviet troops streaming into the city centre from the east bank of the Vistula river, where they had waited patiently for the Germans to crush the Polish resistance.
The battle is widely regarded as the most tragic in Poland's bloody and turbulent history.
"We were horribly short of weapons and ammunition. Every bullet had to hit its target; not one could go to waste," said Leszek Zukowski, 85, one of the few Polish insurgents to survive.
He was just 15 when he volunteered to fight with partisans in the Wola unit, named after a western district of the capital.
"We were waiting for weapons promised by the Allies. We scanned the sky for Allied supply planes, but in vain, they never came," Zukowski told AFP.
"I was boy scout and I knew that district well. The (older insurgents) said: 'You can be a messenger for now - when you find a gun, you'll become a fighter'," he recalled.
"That was my greatest dream."
For the first six days of fighting Zukowski ferried messages from unit to unit and carried the injured to field hospitals. On the sixth day he found a weapon, a Berthier rifle, and became a fighter.
"In the beginning, spirits were high, people supported us and helped us. Then hope disappeared. Across the Vistula, the Russians didn't budge to help us," he told AFP.
When the Soviets imposed communism on Poland after the war, they were at pains to erase all memory of the uprising.
Under Stalinism, Polish insurgents were persecuted and executed, but today they are heroes and the uprising has inspired film-makers, graffiti artists, pop singers and rock bands from both Poland and abroad.
"All these initiatives are fantastic," said Zukowski. "Anything that helps to keep the memory of the uprising alive is important, because soon we'll all be gone."
Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski kicked off memorial ceremonies on Wednesday, decorating veterans.
"A free and independent Poland and united Europe will remain forever grateful to you," said Komorowski, who believes Poland's anti-communist Solidarity movement was born out of the ethos of freedom forged during the uprising.
"We also want to share our experience with other nations," he added.
Around 10,000 people flocked to the National Stadium in Warsaw on Wednesday for the premiere of Miasto44 (City 44), a new feature film chronicling the uprising.
"The revolutionary spirit is the same everywhere, whether in Warsaw 70 years ago, or now in Ukraine, in Egypt, or in Syria," Jan Komasa, the film's director told AFP.