During the final phases of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a Jewish resistance fighter named Simcha Rotem smuggled survivors out of the burning ghetto through sewage tunnels. Then, he helped them hide in the forests and other secure locations.
“Some of them were killed in different operations,” Rotem later recalled in a conversation with the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. But others made it through the war; “[W]e brought some of them to Warsaw, we hid some of them in hiding places, and some stayed in the forest until the end,” he said.
One of the last known survivors of the uprising, a doomed but momentous act of defiance against Nazi persecution, Rotem died on Saturday, December 22, at the age of 94, reports Aron Heller of the Associated Press. Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev remembered him as “a special figure” and “a real warrior in the full sense of the word.”
Rotem, who was often known as “Kazik,” was born in Warsaw in 1924, reports the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He came of age during the early years of World War II. In 1939, Rotem’s younger brother and five other relatives were killed when the Nazi bombs hit his family home. Rotem and his mother were injured, and Rotem was subsequently sent to live with relatives in the town of Klwów. But the situation there was just as dire.
“[I]t was here that I saw for the first time a German killing a Jew and how his blood flowed,” Rotem told Yad Vashem. “He had been caught outside of the ghetto … That was the first time I witnessed killing.”
In 1943, Rotem returned to Warsaw and its infamous ghetto, where an estimated 400,000 Jews had been forced to relocate. By this point, the word had made it inside the ghetto walls that deported Jews were being sent to their deaths, and not to labor camps as the Nazis had promised. A group of mostly young individuals formed the Jewish Fighting Organization and began formulating plans for resistance. Rotem joined their ranks.
On the eve of Passover 1943, Nazi troops entered the ghetto with the intent to liquidate all of the inhabitants who still lived there. They were met by 750 fighters who had armed themselves with smuggled weapons. The rebellion was always doomed to fail; the Nazis were far more numerous, and far better equipped for a fight.
“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?” Rotem asked during his interview with Yad Vashem. “An absolute sense of powerlessness was pervasive.”
But the resistance fighters staved off defeat for nearly a month. During this time, Rotem both fought and acted as a liaison between bunkers in the ghetto, and those on the “Aryan” side of the city, according to Yad Vashem. All the while, the Nazis were burning the ghetto down, building by building, trying to force the rebels out of hiding. The uprising was crushed on May 16, 1943, when the resistance command bunker fell to the Nazis. More than 56,000 Jews were captured, 7,000 of whom were killed on the spot. Rotem was one of the few who survived, having led surviving Jews from the doomed uprising through the sewers of Warsaw.
“We understood that our only hope was the sewer," he told Yad Vashem.
In his later life, Rotem spoke publicly about his wartime experiences, and ultimately persuaded to chronicle his life in Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter. The Past within Me.
He was also active in Yad Vashem, serving on the memorial’s Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations, which honors non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust at great personal risk. In 2013, Rotem received the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, one of the Poland’s highest honors, for his role in the war.
“He was a courageous and resourceful young fighter,” said Shalev, the Yad Vashem chairman. “Our challenge remains to continue to imbue the memory of the Shoah with meaning and relevance in the absence of exemplary figures like Kazik.”