Simcha Rotem, one of the last-known surviving fighters in the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, died Saturday in Jerusalem. He was 94.
The uprising among Jews — a half-million of whom were had been forced out of their homes into a cramped ghetto in Warsaw — is considered the single greatest resistance campaign by Jews during the Holocaust, one that inspired other Jews and non-Jews to similarly fight back against the Nazis.
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.
After the war, Rotem emigrated to what became Israel. He was later an active speaker and member of the Yad Vashem committee responsible for selecting the Righteous Among the Nations, non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. In 2013, on the revolt’s 70th anniversary, he was honored by Poland for his role in the war.
He is survived by his two children and five grandchildren.