The life and legacy of Holocaust hero Simcha ‘Kazik’ Rotem

When Deborah asks Rotem if he thinks they’ll make it, he responds: “The only thing I can think of is how to blow the bastards up.”

In this file photo taken on April 18, 2013 89 year old Simcha "Kazik" Rotem (C) attends a commemoration ceremony in Warsaw  (photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)
In this file photo taken on April 18, 2013 89 year old Simcha "Kazik" Rotem (C) attends a commemoration ceremony in Warsaw
(photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI / AFP)
Schools across Israel will hold a memorial day on Monday in memory of Simcha “Kazik” Rotem, presumed to be the last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Rotem passed away over Shabbat.
We will remember that the Holocaust also had great heroism, and we have been rebirthed and grown from that Holocaust,” Education Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday during the weekly cabinet meeting, noting that he had instructed the director-general of the Education Ministry to hold the memorial day.
“We often use the word hero lightly, but sometimes you have true heroes, and Kazik was one of them,” said ex-Labor MK Einat Wilf, who was a close friend of Rotem for more than a decade, someone she invited to her Knesset swearing-in ceremony.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the act of Jewish resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto in German-occupied Poland on April 19, 1943, to oppose Nazi Germany’s final effort to transport the remaining ghetto population to death camps.
Wilf’s mother, screenwriter Miri R. Wilf, spent years interviewing Rotem for a feature film that has yet to be released. Miri Wilf shared exclusive excerpts from the screenplay with The Jerusalem Post, in which Rotem describes that Passover eve aktion of the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazis. The remaining Jews knew that the Germans would murder them, and they decided to resist to the last man.
At the time, the Jewish fighters were sitting on mattresses in hidden bunkers.
They are keeping themselves occupied to hide their fear, according to the manuscript. Rotem is playing with a Polish revolver. Suddenly, shooting is heard. Taking up positions by the windows, they watch the German soldiers approach the gate walking in an endless procession, while behind them are tanks, armored vehicles, light cannons and hundreds of Waffen-SS units on motorcycles.
“They look like they are going to war,” Rotem says.
His girlfriend, Deborah, who was killed in the war, tells Rotem she is afraid.
“I can’t wait to fight,” Rotem responds.
When Deborah asks Rotem if he thinks they’ll make it, he responds: “The only thing I can think of is how to blow the bastards up.”
The Germans advance closer, and then enter the tunnel leading to the bunkers. He lights a “fuse” of rope and gasoline and a tremendous explosion throws debris and crushed bodies of soldiers everywhere. The unit members start shooting at the Germans, and throwing Molotov cocktails from the windows. A few soldiers burst into flames, and they all retreated.
“Rotem helped lead the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the young age of 19,” Wilf said. “Often we forget that these fighters were kids. Some of them were in their teens or early 20s. He was 19 and he lived to be 94. With his death, we really have the end of an era.”
The Jewish fighters fought for nearly a month, fortifying themselves in bunkers and managing to kill 16 Nazis and wound nearly 100.
OUT OF THE ghetto, Rotem – a member of the Jewish Combat Organization (ŻOB) – served as a liaison between the bunker inside the ghetto and the underground on the “Aryan” side of the city.
Because of his fair appearance he was able to hide his Jewish identity.
Many of the Jewish fighters were killed in action. Rotem was one of the few that survived.
One of Rotem’s most important missions was smuggling the last Jews out of a burning Warsaw Ghetto through sewage tunnels.
In the manuscript, Rotem describes two sewer workers who lead the way for him and a fellow fighter to the ghetto from the Aryan side.
The sewage streams in a mighty flow, and every few meters they are forced to take a turn right or left. The side channels are small, and they sometimes must crawl to get through them. After a while, they hear German soldiers above. One of the sewer workers says it is too dangerous and he is going to go back, and the other agrees. But Rotem pulls a gun and threatens them and they unwillingly continue until they reach the ghetto.
Rotem climbs an iron ladder in the wall of the sewer, lifts the manhole cover and walks out of the sewer. He describes the streets of the ghetto as empty, buildings as burnt to the ground.
“A sudden calm surrounded me,” Rotem told Wilf. “I felt so peaceful among the ruins of the ghetto, near the bodies of those who were dear to me. I wanted to stay and wait for dawn until the
Germans come, kill a few of them and die. I saw myself fall in battle as the last Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto.”
But ultimately, he discovers survivors and they prepare to leave, carrying the wounded on their shoulders. Rotem leads the group to the sewage canal.
The fighters walk with a candle in one hand, carrying the wounded in turns and pushing each other to advance. The water of the sewage canal covers their body up to their waists until they reach the Aryan side.
After the war, Rotem moved to Israel and became involved in bringing illegal immigrants who had survived the war to what was at the time British Mandatory Palestine.
Later, he served as a manager in a supermarket chain until retiring in 1986. He married and had two sons. The oldest, said Wilf, is named Eyal – an acronym for “Irgun Yehudi Lochem,” the ZOB in Hebrew.
In 2013, Rotem was honored with speaking at the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising at the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes. He also accompanied former president Shimon Peres to Poland for the 65th anniversary commemoration of the uprising.
Following his passing on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed his sorrow at the loss of a man who “fought the Nazis, saved Jews, made aliyah following the Holocaust and told his story of heroism to many Israelis.” Netanyahu added that “his story will be with our people forever.”
Wilf said Rotem and the other fighters “realized at one point that the one choice they were facing was what kind of death to have. They did not think they were going to survive. They decided they were going to fight for one reason: so that it would be written in the history books that the Jews fought.”
He told Miri Wilf in his interview, “It’s time that we stop counting on others to do our job... If we want a world where Jews don’t get massacred, we have to make damn sure that those who kill Jews pay the highest price.”
Wilf said Rotem used to say that he could not believe himself what he accomplished as a young man in Poland.
“It was one of those realizations that extraordinary times make for extraordinary people, and he is one of those people that makes you really have faith in humankind,” she said. “That a young man can find it in him to be a true hero in the most basic sense of the word, to perform great acts of courage at the most critical moments – the ability to save his fellow fighters, the understanding that no matter how heroic, no one was going to help them, they would still have to fend for themselves.”
She said the most important thing Jews can do today is remember his story.
“For the fighters, it was how can we die in a way that will create a legacy for the Jewish people and the world,” said Wilf. “It is now on us to carry on this legacy.”