Opinion

Hero Beyond Criticism: Warsaw Ghetto Fighter's Outstanding Courage and Initiative

Simcha (Kazik) Rotem, who died last week, spirited dozens of fighters out of the ghetto through its sewers, but years on wouldn't forgive those who fought with him, but were on different sides of the ideological barricades

Simcha Rotem in 2013.
Adrian Grycuk

Simcha (Kazik) Rotem, the last surviving Warsaw Ghetto fighter, has died. One of the great heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he saved dozens of Mordechai Anielewicz’s fighters, including Zivia Lubetkin and Marek Edelman, spiriting them out of the ghetto through its sewers.

>> Simcha (Kazik) Rotem, one of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising's last surviving fighters, dies at 94

Rotem was supremely loyal to his comrades in arms — especially Edelman, who remained in Poland after the war, even though they belonged to different youth organizations. The underground experience forged an inseparable, lifelong bond between them.

Rotem fought under Edelman’s command in the ghetto brush makers’ area in the first days of the uprising, before escaping with Edelman to a bunker in the central area of the ghetto.

Trapped in the bunkers as the Germans were burning the ghetto to the ground, Rotem decided to leave the ghetto and make contact with Yitzhak (Antek) Zuckerman, who had been sent to Warsaw before the uprising, in order to make contact with the Polish underground AK and had not been heard from since.

>> The story of the Warsaw Ghetto as told by the Jews, not the Nazis

Rotem found his way out of the ghetto through the tunnel dug by Pawel Frenkel’s Jewish Military Organization from 7 Muranowska St. to 6 Muranowska St., where Frenkel had established a military outpost. There Rotem found the remains of a battle between Frenkel’s men and German soldiers who had ambushed them there.

He continued to the “Aryan side” of Warsaw and found Zuckerman. His mission was to rescue the remaining Anielewicz fighters stuck in the bunkers. He organized transportation near a sewer manhole in Warsaw, entered the sewers and managed to reach some of the surviving fighters hiding there and rescued them, an act of outstanding courage and initiative.

I brought him my book “Flags Over the Warsaw Ghetto.” We became friends, but he never expressed an opinion on Frenkel’s fighters.

His hero was Edelman. He arranged for me to meet Edelman in Warsaw, but both men refused to recognize the important role played by Frenkel’s fighters in the underground.

Edelman and Frenkel met during negotiations on uniting the two fighting organizations. When I showed him a composite picture of Frenkel, he recognized him immediately. He considered him a fascist. There was no unity.

After I returned from my meeting with Edelman, I proposed that he be awarded an honorary doctorate from one of Israel’s universities. The idea was rejected by those who could not forgive him for staying in Poland. To Rotem, this did not matter. I represented the Israeli government at Edelman’s funeral in Warsaw some years ago.

He was adamant in his ways. When meeting Juta Hartman, who had fought with Frenkel’s men in the brush makers workshop alongside Edelman and Rotem, Rotem refused to acknowledge their participation in the fighting, bringing her to tears. That is how deep ran the rancor between men and women who had fought one of the great battles of history on different sides of the ideological barricades.

Among them all, Simcha Rotem stands out, a hero beyond criticism. The last of the fighters.