The last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising Simcha Rotem, also known by his underground nickname “Kazik”, died in Jerusalem Saturday at the age of 94, surrounded by his two children and five grandchildren.
During the 1943 uprising, the largest single act of Jewish resistance in the Holocaust years, Rotem fought and served as a liaison between the bunkers in the ghetto and the Aryan side of the city as a member of the left-wing Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB).
At the conclusion of the uprising Rotem, who was born in Warsaw in 1924 as Szymon Rathajzer, led the last fighters from the ghetto through the sewers, saving their lives. He kept them in hiding in the forest and in various apartments until the end of the war. Following the uprising, Kazik continued to function as a liaison and took part in the general uprising led by the Polish resistance in Warsaw in the summer of 1944.
“This is a loss of a special character since Kazik was a real fighter, in the true sense of the word,” said Avner Shalev, the chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. “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 a 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. “
Rotem, the eldest of four children, joined the Zionist youth movement Hanoar Hatzioni at the age of 15, while fascism and nationalism were on the rise in Europe.
With the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Kazik was wounded and lost one of his brothers and five other members of his family, during one of the first German bombings in Poland. Shortly after, the Jews were brought into the ghetto which initially housed 380,000 Jews and at its peak about a half million.
The Nazis entered the ghetto on 19 April 1943, the eve of the Passover holiday. The Jewish fighters struggled for almost a month before the revolt’s leader, Mordechai Anielewicz died in the ZOB command bunker on 18 Mila Street.
In 1946, with the end of the war, Kazik immigrated to Israel (Mandatory Palestine) as part of the Aliyah Bet and was imprisoned by the British in the Atlit detention camp. He then joined the Haganah and fought in the War of Independence.
He was an active speaker on the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem. In 1984, he published his memoirs as “Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter”.
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 and on the revolt’s 70th anniversary in 2013, he was honored by Poland’s president with the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta for his role in the war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin paid their respect to Rotem on Saturday.
“Kazik fought the Nazis, saved Jews, made aliyah after the Holocaust, and told the story of his heroism to thousands of Israelis,” Netanyahu said.
“His story and the story of the uprising will forever be with our people.”
Rivlin said: “Thank you for everything, Kazik. We promise to try every day to be deserving of the description ‘Human’”
By Mara Vigevani/TPS