Last surviving Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fighter passes away at age 94

December 24, 2018 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The last surviving resistance fighter from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943 passed away on Dec. 22 in Jerusalem at the age of 94.

Simcha Rotem (Kazik) in Jerusalem on July 23, 2011. Photo by Flash90.

Simcha Rotem, born Kazik Ratajzer in Warsaw in 1924, joined the Warsaw Ghetto Jewish Combat Organization in 1942, after having been a member of a Zionist youth movement in his teen years and suffering the bombing of his family home by the Germans, which wounded him and his mother and killed his brother and grandparents.

Rotem fought under Mark Edelman when the Nazis began to liquidate the ghetto in 1943, believing that it was better to die fighting than to be killed in the gas chambers of Treblinka, where 300,000 Warsaw Jews had already been sent to their death.

In his testimony for Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum, Rotem said that the aim of the uprising was to “kill as many of them as we could, [but] we knew our fate was completely clear,” that they would not survive against the powerful German army.

On the left, Kazik (Simha Rotem). On the right, Stefan Szwarski, a Pole whose aunt hid Kazik in her house after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.   Photo: Yad Vashem

As the Germans began to defeat the fighters, Rotem was instrumental in assisting his comrades in fleeing to forests outside the city through the Warsaw sewer system.  He subsequently joined the Polish partisans and took part in the Warsaw Uprising, then joining Nakam, a group of fighters who attempted to exact revenge on Nazi war criminals.

After the war, Rotem made aliyah to Israel in 1946 and managed a supermarket chain until his retirement in 1986.

He was awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, one of Poland’s highest honors, for his part in the anti-Nazi war effort.

Rotem was quoted as saying that people are “all animals on two legs,” and that “among those animals on two legs there are some who are deserving of that description ‘humans.’ ”

 

 

President Reuven Rivlin commented: “This evening, we part from Kozik, the young man who became Simcha Rotem, the last of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. Kozik went back to the ghetto in 1942, at the age of 18, three months after his parents sent him to Radom so he could escape the fate of most Polish Jews. He heard what was happening in the ghetto and had to be there.

When he got there, he found himself wandering amongst the ruins, searching in vain for voices and faces. He only found death and destruction. ‘I sat in those ruins,’ he said in his testimony, ‘not knowing exactly where I was, but I knew I was in the ghetto. ….I imagined that I was the last Jew in the ghetto, or in all of Warsaw.’

Kozik was not the last Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto. He joined the uprising and helped save dozens of fighters, including two of its leaders, Antek Zukerman and Zvia Lubetkin. When he immigrated to Israel after the war, Kozik established a home and a family and served the country in a range of positions that he could only have dreamed of when he sat, head in his hands, desperate and terrified in the ruins of the ghetto. The man who thought he was the last Jew in the ghetto and in all of Warsaw, became the last living fighter of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

When asked about the message he would want to pass on to Israeli youth, he answered: “To be a human being. We are animals on two legs. No more than that – that’s what I think, that’s what I feel. But amongst us animals, the two-legged ones, there are some who are also human beings, and who deserve the name.”

Thank you for everything, Kozik. We promise to try, every day, to be worth of the name ‘human being’.”

Yad Vashem has paid a special tribute to Kazik.

“This is the loss of a special figure, because “Kazik” was a real fighter in the full sense of the word,” said Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev. “He was a courageous and resourceful young fighter. Kazik was not a political figure but a man who fought for the memory of the Holocaust in its purest form and did so as member of the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations. Today, we lost a very important voice. Our challenge remains to continue to imbue the memory of the Shoah with meaning and relevance in the absence of exemplary figures like Kazik. ”

Simcha Rotem (Rathizer), known as “Kazik”, was born in 1924 in Warsaw, Poland, the eldest of four children. At the age of 12, Kazik joined the Zionist youth movement Hanoar Hazioni. With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Kazik’s brother, Israel, and five other members of his family were killed when the Germans bombed his home, destroying it, and leaving Kazik wounded. After the incarceration of the Jews of Warsaw in the ghetto, Kazik’s parents sent him to live with relatives in the village of Klwów, near Radom, where he stayed for about three months.

In 1942, he returned to the Warsaw ghetto and was a member of the Jewish Fighting Organization(ZOB) and during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, fought and served as a liaison between the bunkers in the ghetto and the Aryan side of the city. At the conclusion of the Uprising, Kazik led the last fighters from the ghetto through the sewers, thus instrumental in saving their lives.  He kept them in hiding in the forest and in various apartments until the end of the war. Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Kazik continued to function as a liaison and took part in the Polish uprising in Warsaw.

In January 1945, he was sent to Lublin to contact the provisional Polish government. On his way there, he met a group of Soviet soldiers and found himself in an area that had just been liberated from Nazi occupation. Later he took part in the “Beriha” organization. In 1946, Kazik immigrated to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) as part of the Aliyah Bet and was imprisoned by the British in the Atlit detention camp. Once in Israel, Kazik joined the Haganah and fought in the War of Independence. After the establishment of the State, Kazik served in a number of capacities as an envoy on behalf of the State of Israel.

He was married to Gina, neé Olmer, and they had two sons and five grandchildren. In 1984, he published his memoirs as “Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter”. Since 1963, Kazik has been active on the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. In 2010, the Government of Poland erected a monument over the manhole at 51 Prosta Street, Warsaw, from which Kazik had emerged from the sewers with the fighters he had led out of the ghetto.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett announced: “I have instructed the Director-General of the Ministry of Education to hold a memorial day in his memory so we will remember that in the dark days of the Holocaust there was also great heroism, thanks to which we have risen from the Shoah to rebirth.”
He added, “Tomorrow, during the school day, students will learn about his life.”

This report sourced from JNS, GPO and Yad Vashem

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