Simcha Rotem, one of the last surviving fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, died in Jerusalem Saturday at the age of 94.
Rotem, born in Warsaw in 1924 as Kazik Ratajzer, was active in Zionist youth movements by his early teen years. He was 15 when World War II broke out and Nazi Germany invaded Poland.
Early in the war German bombs destroyed his family’s home, killing several family members including his brother and grandparents. He and his mother were wounded.
In 1942 Rotem joined the Warsaw Ghetto’s Jewish Combat Organization, or ZOB, which was committed to armed resistance against the Nazis.
In April 1943 the Nazis began efforts to empty the Ghetto of its remaining occupants, leading to the outbreak of combat, with Rotem fighting under one of the leaders, Marek Edelman.
The insurgents preferred to die fighting instead of in a gas chamber at the Treblinka death camp where the Nazis had already sent more than 300,000 Warsaw Jews.
Speaking at a 2013 ceremony in Poland to mark the 70th anniversary of the uprising, Rotem recalled that by April 1943 most of the ghetto’s Jews had died and the 50,000 who remained expected the same fate.
Rotem said he and his comrades launched the uprising to “choose the kind of death” they wanted.
“But to this very day I keep thinking whether we had the right to make the decision to start the uprising and by the same token to shorten the lives of many people by a week, a day or two,” Rotem said.
“At the first moment when I saw the great German force entering the Ghetto, my first reaction, and I’m sure not just mine — I felt we were nothing,” Rotem recalled in a testimony to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum. “What could we do with our pathetic, almost non-existent weaponry, when faced with the tremendous German firepower, with light canons and tanks and armored personnel carriers and a huge infantry force numbering hundreds, hundreds if not thousands…I felt utterly helpless.”
But that feeling was followed by “an extraordinary sense of spiritual uplifting…this was the moment we had been waiting for…to stand up to this all-powerful German.”
However Rotem noted the rebels had no illusions about their chances. “We’d kill as many of them as we could [but] we knew our fate was completely clear.”
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.
As the Germans pounded the Ghetto and the uprising faltered, Rotem was instrumental in helping fighters flee to safety through the Warsaw’s sewer system to forests outside the city.
He continued to fight alongside Polish partisans and in 1944 participated in the Warsaw Uprising. After the war he joined avengers group Nakam, which was dedicated to exacting vengeance on Nazi war criminals.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the greatest incidence 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).
Rotem made aliyah to Israel in 1946 and served as a manager in a supermarket chain until retiring in 1986.
In 2013 Poland’s president awarded Rotem with the Grand Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, one of the nation’s highest honors, for his actions during the war.
Watch a Hebrew interview with Rotem
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday eulogized Rotem. “Kazik fought the Nazis, saved Jews, made aliyah after the Holocaust, and told the story of his heroism to thousands of Israelis,” he said.
“His story and the story of the uprising will forever be with our people.”
President Reuven Rivlin noted that in one interview, Rotem said his one message to Israeli teens would be “to be human beings.”
“We are all animals on two legs,” Rotem said. “That’s how I feel. And among those animals on two legs there are some who are deserving of that description — humans.”
Rivlin said: “Thank you for everything, Kazik. We promise to try every day to be deserving of the description ‘Human.'”
Rotem is survived by his two children and five grandchildren.
With his passing, there is only a single known remaining Warsaw ghetto uprising survivor left in Israel — 89-year-old Aliza Vitis-Shomron. Her main task had been distributing leaflets in the ghetto before she was ordered to escape and tell the world of the Jews’ heroic battle.
AP contributed to this report.
Update: This story originally identified Rotem as the last surviving fighter from the Warsaw uprising. However, this claim has since been contested.