Simcha (Kazik) Rotem, one of the outstanding and last surviving fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, died on Saturday at 94.
Warsaw-born in 1924, Rotem joined the HaNoar HaTzioni (i.e. Zionist youth) youth movement at the age of 12. German bombing raids destroyed his family’s home at the outbreak of World War II, killing his brother Yisrael, his grandparents, aunt and uncle. He and his mother were wounded in the raid.
“I remember that our house was bombed one day after Yom Kippur. Two bombs smashed through the building and many of the people were injured and killed. Of my family alone, seven close members were killed, including my grandparents and my brother Yisrael, who was younger than me by a year and a half. My mother was injured and I myself was badly wounded,” Rotem said in an interview with Yad Vashem.
“When I regained consciousness, I found myself under the wreckage of the house. Only after I managed to extricate myself did I see that our house was totally destroyed and no sign of life was to be seen. I got to the shelter of the neighboring house and found both my parents and my sisters. I learned that the rest of the family had been killed."
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After the Jews of Warsaw had been sent to the ghetto, he was sent to live with relatives in the town of Klwow.
“I remained there for three months, until mid-1942. Klwów had a ghetto without a wall and it was here that I saw for the first time a German killing a Jew and how his blood flowed. He had been caught outside of the ghetto and even though there was no wall, it was prohibited to exit the ghetto limits. The head of the Judenrat arrived and begged for the Jew’s life, but to no avail. They shot and killed him, departing on their horses. Simple. That was the first time I witnessed killing,” Rotem told Yad Vashem.
In 1943, he returned to the Warsaw Ghetto and joined the Jewish Combat Organization, which was commanded by the legendary Mordechai Anielewicz.
“We knew that something was about to happen. But to tell the truth, even at this stage, meaning in the final stage before the ghetto's liquidation, we probably still couldn't accept this thing... A total annihilation, in the twentieth century, in the very heart of Europe — something like this is just impossible. It was hard to accept this notion," he said.
The uprising began on April 19, 1943, and Rotem acted as a liaison between the bunkers in the ghetto and the Aryan side of the city.
“Right at the beginning, when I saw the mass of German forces enter the ghetto, my initial reaction — and I guess I wasn’t alone in this — was one of hopelessness. What chance did we have with our miserable supply of firearms to hold off this show of German force with machine-guns, personnel carriers and even tanks? With masses of infantrymen, hundreds if not thousands, of soldiers on motorcycles and ambulances and more… An absolute sense of powerlessness prevailed,” he said.
But the mood changed swiftly and turned into "extraordinary exhilaration," he said. “It had been for this moment that we had anxiously waited! In other words, our emotional reactions were like extreme swings of the pendulum, from hopelessness to great exhilaration... over the mere fact that we could handle the all-powerful Germans, whose mere sight imposed terror and fear and completely paralyzed you," he added.
At first the Germans retreated, after suffering losses and getting several of their troops wounded in attacks by ghetto fighters. "We thought they would keep entering [the ghetto] and we would have face-to-face battle. We would kill as many of them as we could, and we knew that our end was completely spelled out. But they did it differently. They retreated and did the destruction work from outside. And we had no means to handle that. Within three to four days, the ghetto was in flames," Rotem recounted.
He fought under Marek Edelman’s command. In May, Rotem fled the ghetto through the sewers to link up with Anielewicz’s deputy, Antek Zuckerman, in order to get outside help to continue the revolt.
On May 8, three weeks after the rebellion had begun, the command bunker at Mila 18 was attacked. Anielewicz, the leader of the revolt, continued to fighter there as well as the others. He and many of them committed suicide to avoid surrender.
Rotem headed the effort to rescue fighters from the burning ghetto: Among them were Edelman and another revolt leader, Zivia Lubetkin.
Later he would say in an interview that "At Mila 18, something took place that happened everywhere else in the end. Everything was destroyed and done with. My commander, Marek Edelman, he claimed that it was actually all a matter of understanding and thinking. And that they shouldn't have committed suicide there. It's hard to argue with that. He may be right. Nobody could argue one way or the other. It could be that they would have lucked out and they would have been able to get out with the group that left. Because after all, several dozens of people left. Not that it's a lot, among the hundreds of thousands who were in the ghetto... it was very much a matter of luck. And except for luck, you then you needed to make decisions within seconds, and either you decide well or you make a poor decision, and the price was high. That is all."
Rotem later joined the Polish rebellion in Warsaw, was part of a group that took revenge against the Germans and helped the Beriha movement of Holocaust survivor refugees seeking to immigrate to pre-state Israel. In 1946, he made aliyah and fought with the Haganah in the Independence war.
In 2013, in honor of the revolt's 70th anniversary, Rotem participated in a ceremony that was held in Warsaw, where he received a badge of honor from the Polish president.
“During the Holocaust I met people worthy of the adjective 'human beings,' even among the Poles. But there were also people who without any clear interest other than evil intent, sentenced a Jew to death in a word. I cannot and do not wish to understand them. Just as I do not wish to understand those who participated in the pogroms in Poland after the war,” he said.
Rotem is survived by children and grandchildren. His funeral will be held on Monday afternoon at Kibbutz Harel.