The Jury Talks Back

12/30/2018

Last Known Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Fighter Passes Away

Filed under: Uncategorized — Dana @ 10:00 pm

[guest post by Dana]

This is my third post in a row about someone passing away. Entirely unplanned, I assure you. Lest anyone suspect I’ve developed a morbid fixation on death, I haven’t. But what I have done is learn about three individuals that I never had the pleasure of meeting, and from all accounts, they each seemed to understand that their worlds were bigger than themselves.

With that, news came last week that Simcha Rotem, a Jew who fought against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, passed away at the age of 94:

Born in 1924, Rotem was 15 when Nazi Germany invaded Poland.

The Warsaw ghetto initially held some 380,000 Jews who were cramped into tight living spaces, and at its peak housed about a half million.

Resistance began to grow after July 1942, when 265,000 men, women and children were rounded up and later killed at the Treblinka death camp. As word of the Nazi genocide spread, those who remained behind in the ghetto no longer believed German promises that they would be sent to forced labor camps.

A small group of rebels began to spread calls for resistance, carrying out isolated acts of sabotage and attacks. Some Jews began defying German orders to report for deportation.

The Nazis entered the ghetto on April 19, 1943, the eve of Passover. Three days later, the Nazis set the ghetto ablaze, turning it into a fiery death trap, but the Jewish fighters kept up their struggle for nearly a month before they were brutally vanquished.

“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,” Rotem said later, as quoted in Haaretz.

“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? … An absolute sense of powerlessness prevailed.”

The teenage Rotem served as a liaison between bunkers and took part in the fighting, before arranging for the escape of some of the last survivors through sewers.

This is from an article covering a lecture Rotem gave in 1997:

One of Simha “Kazik” Rotem’s most painful memories is of the time he worked with other Jews to resist the Nazi invasion of his native Poland. While on patrol in the Warsaw ghetto, he searched through the rubble and found a young mother, dead, with a crying infant still in her arms. “I stopped for a moment and then went on,” he said.

Speaking in hushed tones to an audience of more than 600 at the eighth University Wallenberg Lecture on Nov. 19, Rotem said in that moment he understood that in addition to annihilating thousands of Jews, the Nazis also “had robbed me of my humanity.”

Rotem, who was only 15 years old in 1939 when he watched the Nazis enter Warsaw, fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, defying the Nazis for almost a month. He helped lead the few surviving Jews out of the ruins of the ghetto through the underground sewer canal system to the “Aryan” side of Warsaw and then into the countryside.

Posing as a gentile and using the code name “Kazik,” Rotem was head courier for the Jewish underground and responsible for providing food and shelter for thousands of Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto. After the ghetto was destroyed, he fought with the Poles in the Home Army and the People’s Army, continuing to aid the remaining Jews in Warsaw.

Rotem said he frequently is asked why Jews allowed the Nazis to lead them like lambs to the slaughter and why they waited so long to resist. What many don’t realize is the speed with which the Nazis conquered Poland in 1939, he explained. It was captured within only four weeks. Although many Jews thought the discriminatory treatment would end and life would return to normal, Rotem said, “The first contact I had with the Germans, I felt a pending disaster.”

For a thousand years of Polish history Jews had lived with discrimination in every area of their lives. “For us, ghettos and killings were not something new,” Rotem said. However, during World War I, the Jews had been treated relatively decently by the Germans.

Explaining that it is impossible to adequately describe living conditions in the Warsaw ghetto, Rotem said Jews, who had lost their sources of income, were suffering from starvation and disease. The Nazis created tremendous confusion by separating the healthy from the sick, the young from the old, and the productive from the non-productive, he said. They also closed the schools and forbade cultural activities. “The goal,” he said, “was to turn us into working cadavers.”

Despite the German restrictions, Rotem said, “everyone tried to survive.” Illegal schools opened and small children helped smuggle limited quantities of food into the ghetto.

However, when the first massive deportation was announced in 1942, tens of thousands of hungry Jews turned themselves in for “six pounds of bread and some jam.” They had been hungry for so long that they didn’t know what else to do. Also, most of them still didn’t believe that the Germans planned to exterminate the Jews, Roten recalled.

It was an incredible life, and one lived on behalf of others. In 1946, Rotem moved to Israel, where he became a successful businessman.

In reading about Rotem’s passing, I am reminded of Bari Weiss’s excellent op-ed in the New York Times last month, which focused on the rising Anti-semitism in Europe and the disturbing number of individuals who are admittedly Anti-semitic and/or, shockingly, have very little knowledge, if any, about the Holocaust:

On Tuesday, a CNN poll about the state of anti-Semitism in Europe startled many Americans — and confirmed what Jews who have been paying attention already knew about the Continent.

Not 74 years since the Holocaust ended, a third of respondents said they knew only a little or nothing at all about it.

The poll, which surveyed more than 7,000 people across Austria, France, Germany, Britain, Hungary, Poland and Sweden, didn’t only discover ignorance. It exposed bigotry.

Nearly a quarter of the respondents said Jews have too much influence in conflict and wars. More than a quarter believe that Jews have too much influence in business and finance. Nearly one in five believe that most anti-Semitism is a response to the behavior of Jews. Roughly a third say Jews use the Holocaust to advance their own goals. Just 54 percent say Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state.

Many religious Jews in Paris and Berlin wear baseball hats instead of kippot in public. Nearly half of Dutch Jews say they are afraid to identify publicly as Jewish. Every French Jew I’ve ever met who can afford it has bought an apartment in Israel or Montreal.

As has been noted by many, as the aged eye-witnesses pass on, there is an increased danger that this insidious chapter of history will fade from view and that anti-Semitism will have its way. Again. Weiss is also concerned, yet suggests something more than just the silence of the survivors as the reason why:

The postwar generation who lived with the shame of the Holocaust is dying out. Their children and grandchildren are less abashed when it comes to the old prejudices.

In her forthcoming book, “Anti-Semitism: Here and Now,” the scholar Deborah Lipstadt discusses a 2013 study of overtly anti-Semitic letters, emails and faxes received over the previous decade by the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany. The study found that 60 percent of the messages “came from educated, middle-class Germans, including lawyers, scholars, doctors, priests, professors, and university and secondary school students.” Even more remarkable, most of the letter writers provided their names and addresses.

It is a must-read piece, especially as she discusses the hatred of Jews by Europe’s neo-Fascist right, popular Anti-semetic politicians, political groups who dismiss Nazis as “little more than a speck of bird poop,” radicalized Muslims, and “the fashionable anti-Semitism of the far left that masquerades as anti-Zionism and anti-racism.”

She sums up this “three-headed dragon” that the European Jews must now contend with, and points out that there is now the manifestation of these “three strains of hate” in the U.S. as well:

Physical fear of violent assault, often by young Muslim men, which leads many Jews to hide evidence of their religious identity. Moral fear of ideological vilification, mainly by the far left, which causes at least some Jews to downplay their sympathies for Israel. And political fear of resurgent fascism, which can cause some cognitive dissonance since at least some of Europe’s neo-fascists profess sympathy for Israel while expressing open hostility to Muslims.

In his eloquent essay from 2016, Jeff Jacoby lamented that eventually even the Holocaust would be lost to time’s passage:

For survivors like my father, and for the sons and daughters they raised, it goes without saying that “Never Forget” remains an ineradicable moral imperative. I have always taken the Holocaust personally, and always will. But the world, I know, will not. Eventually, everything is forgotten. Even the worst crime in history.

One certainly hopes not.

–Dana

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