Simcha Ratajzer - Rotem (aka Kazik) and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising—an account

Fotografia archiwalna, Powstanie w getcie warszawskim, 1943.
Bojownicy powstania w getcie warszawskim otoczeni przez niemieckich żołnierzy. Zdjęcie z raportu Jurgena Stroopa "Żydowska dzielnica mieszkaniowa nie istnieje!", fot. Instytut Pamięci Narodowej

"The Germans couldn’t hide the smoke, or the smell of the burning bodies. We knew that what was happening in Treblinka was also awaiting us. It made no sense to get caught and deported to the camp," says Simcha Rotem, member of Jewish Combat Organization and participant of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

"When a person gets killed by a bullet, it only lasts a second. In Treblinka, people suffocated for 15 minutes. I wanted to choose an easier death, if there is such a thing as an easy death in the first place. Death is death, but dying in gas chambers was simply horrific."

Simcha Rotem was born on February 10, 1924 in Warsaw. After WW2 broke out, he ended up in the Warsaw ghetto. He survived the Great Liquidation Action during which his family was deported to the Treblinka extermination camp. In the second half of 1942, he joined the Jewish Combat Organization. He was a part of Henoch Gutman’s group within the brush makers’ shop area. He was in the shop when the Uprising broke out on 19 April 1943.

Click here to see the full interview on POLIN Museum Oral History YouTube channel →

"The only thing we could do at that point was to resist the Germans, fully aware that, no matter what, death awaited us at the end of the road. It was the one sure thing. We had no illusions, it didn’t even cross our minds that we might survive. Nobody dreamed about it—neither at the beginning of the Uprising, nor towards its end. Jews were completely defenceless in the face of the Germans, who could do whatever they wished with us."

When the combat subsided, Simcha received an order from the Jewish Combat Organization commanders to evacuate the fighters from the burning ghetto. On 1 May, after crossing the sewers in the area of Bonifraterska Street, he and Zygmunt Frydrych reached the "Aryan" side. Once there, he made contact with Yitzhak Zuckerman.

"We didn’t know exactly where we were. It was a house occupied by Poles. Somebody left an apartment, and—upon seeing us—turned around and went back in. I tried to imagine how I must have looked to him—like a creature from another world. At first I didn’t know where to start. How do I get them out? How can I get back? I was seeking resources and people. There was no certainty that the plan would work. It took me few days. I was running like... how should I put this? People called me ‘crazy dog’ because I knew what I wanted!"

On the night between 8 and 9 May Simcha Rotem returned to the ghetto, but it was too late to rescue the fighters. He decided to go back to the so-called "Aryan" side. It was then that he encountered Marek Edelman’s group who had got lost in the sewers. He organized their escape through a hatch on Prosta Street.

"I didn’t find anybody in the ghetto, I was in a state of despair. I didn’t know what to do. When I met the first group in the sewers I told them: ‘Don’t move, everyone has to wait next to this hatch.’ They immediately started asking if I had transportation, if I had this and that. I told them: ‘I have everything, but you need to do exactly as I tell you.’ They waited, they had no other option. People were exhausted, on the verge of death."

On 10 May at 5AM, a group of several dozen Jewish Combat Organization fighters left the sewers through the hatch on Prosta Street, got onto a truck and drove off towards Łomianki near Warsaw. Among them were Marek Edelman and Cywia Lubetkin.

"We had one guy to help us. His name was Gajek, I think, but we called him ‘Krzaczek’. He ordered the truck and sat next to the driver. He told the driver he needed the truck to transport furniture. When the driver realized what the furniture really was, he wanted to run. But then he saw our weapons and understood this was no joke."

In 1944, Simcha Rotem, along other surviving ghetto fighters, participated in the Warsaw Uprising. He oversaw the evacuation of the fighting units through the sewers. After the war, he emigrated to Palestine and fought in the first Arab-Israeli War. The video above features Simcha sharing his recollections about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

  • Interviewer: Agnieszka Jęksa
  • Edited by: Mateusz Szczepaniak
  • From the POLIN Museum Oral History Collection
  • Date: 21 April 2013