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Last known surviving fighter of Warsaw Ghetto Uprising dies at age 97

Leon Kopelman fought the Germans in the ghetto; later joined the Polish resistance; he said his large family was his greatest victory over the Nazis

Leon Kopelman, in an undated photo. (Courtesy)
Leon Kopelman, in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

Leon Kopelman, possibly the last surviving man to have fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, died on Friday at age 97.

Kopelman was born in Poland in 1924 to a well-to-do family. When the Nazis took over the country and formed the Warsaw Ghetto, his family was forced into a tiny home there.

During his time in the ghetto, he began to be active in the Jewish resistance movement, the Jewish Combat Organization, or ZOB, which was committed to armed resistance against the Nazis.

He told Ynet in 2018: “I fought in the Warsaw Ghetto after the Aktions began, as Germans began taking Jews to annihiliation. In 1942, when I was 18 and my mother was 40, she was taken to Treblinka. One day I came back from work for the Germans and she was gone.”

He and his fellow fighters began killing German soldiers in the Ghetto, leading to battles and the final confrontation in April 1943, when the Germans entered the Ghetto in full force.

“When the big Aktion started, me and my friends were in a bunker,” he recounted. “The Germans began moving from home to home and declaring on a loudspeaker that they’re going to burn the houses and the rebels hiding in bunkers should surrender. We had no choice. We didn’t want to be burned alive so we came out and surrendered.”

Thousands of Jews died in Europe’s first urban anti-Nazi revolt, most of them burned alive, and nearly all the rest were then sent to Treblinka.

Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto are led by German soldiers to an assembly point for deportation to death camps, 1943. (photo credit: public domain)
Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto are led by German soldiers to an assembly point for deportation to death camps, 1943. (Public domain)

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the greatest incident of Jewish resistance to the Nazis, has become a monumental symbol in Jewish and Israeli lore. Unlike the rest of the world, which commemorates Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the day of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, Israel does so according to the Jewish date of the uprising (usually in April).

Kopelman was with dozens of captured men who were then sent to be killed in Treblinka, but several were sent to work as mechanics at a Warsaw garage. Kopelman lied that he had experience in such work, and thus was saved by being sent to work there for several months.

He was eventually sent to a prison but was freed by Polish resistance fighters in September 1944, and joined their efforts against the Germans. He was later caught again, but again managed to escape and remained free until the Red Army’s arrival in the spring of 1945.

Kopelman used false identities to eventually reach Italy and board an illegal ship to Israel.

In the Jewish state, Kopelmen met up with his sister and father, who had managed to survive the war. He joined the nascent Israel Defense Forces and fought in the War of Independence in 1948.

A young Leon Kopelman in an IDF uniform, in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

Shortly thereafter he met his wife Hava and the two were married for nearly 70 years. Kopelman said the large family he formed in the years since the war was his greatest victory over the Nazis.

Hava died several months ago. The couple left behind three children, nine grandchildren and three great-grandchldren.

Another Warsaw uprising survivor, Simcha Rotem, who died in 2018, was widely declared at the time to be the last living veteran of the fight. But Kopelman then came forward to note that he was still alive, and said that a few others may yet be alive as well.

At this time, however, he is the last known survivor to pass away.

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