It is International Holocaust Memorial Day today, and although it is not marked in Israel since we have our own Yom Hashoah after Pesach, this is a fitting time to both talk about the Shoah, to remember the different kinds of heroes who saved so many lives, and also to warn about the ugly resurgence of antisemitism today.
Just over a month ago Simcha Rotem, the last surviving fighter of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, passed away in Israel:
Simcha Rotem, last surviving fighter 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.
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.
What an incredibly brave man! It is hard to imagine the terror and helplessness that the Jews of Warsaw, of all of Europe, felt during those dark days, and yet there were such courageous men as Simcha who refused to lie down and die. It is the people like him who helped build the new State of Israel and rebuild the Jewish nation after the Shoah. May Simcha Rotem z”l rest in peace and may his memory be for a blessing.
A different kind of story in our own family was recently revealed to us. My husband’s cousin Susan Herold presented a collection of papers and memorabilia from the Shoah that belonged to her late mother Daisy Roessler z”l to Yad Vashem. Amongst the papers was a letter from Daisy describing her escape to England with the Kindertransport with the help of British officer Frank Foley (whom I blogged about previously) who issued visas to as many Jewish refugees as possible:
“If it wasn’t for these visas we all certainly would have died.”
The words of Lion ‘Bob’ Rubin, who along with his family was saved from Hitler’s murderous Nazi regime thanks to the bravery of Black Country war hero Major Frank Foley.
The MI6 officer used his role in the British passport control office in Berlin to help an estimated 10,000 Jews flee Nazi Germany, before retiring to live in the Black Country.
Among them was Mr Rubin, then aged two, and his Polish-born parents, Samson and Ettel, who Major Foley issued with papers that helped them to flee Germany for England just 25 days before the start of the Second World War.
Now the long lost papers showing how Mr Foley engineered their escape have seen the light of day for the first time in decades.
A suitcase containing the documents – including letters, birth certificates, memoirs and official papers – has been donated to the The World Holocaust Remembrance Center (Yad Vashem), in Jerusalem, Israel.
It had belonged to Mr Rubin’s then 12-year-old sister Daisy, who left for England a short time before the rest of the family via a train laid on through the Kindertransport rescue effort.In a letter she explained how her parents and brother had escaped in the nick of time – all thanks to the efforts of Mr Foley.”My family tried to emigrate to anywhere after the Austrian Anschluss [Nazi-occupation] in March 1938,” she wrote….
“They all arrived in England on the August 9, 1939. The war broke out on September 3. I have never forgotten this story and am happy to know the name of the person who saved the lives of my mother and brother 60 years ago.”Daisy – who died in 2011 – stayed in Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld’s hostel for Jewish refugee girls in Sunderland before reuniting with her family in London.
Mr Rubin, a former black cab driver who has lived in London since escaping Germany, said: “I can’t know how hard it must have been for my parents to send their daughter away on the Kindertransport – not knowing if they will ever see her again.
“But we were the lucky ones. None of the other girls [from the hostel] ever saw their parents again.” The suitcase and the items were presented by Daisy’s daughter, Susan Herold.
British spy Mr Foley’s bravery would later see him become known as ‘the British Schindler’.
You can read Daisy’s story in her own words in the Esra Magazine, which she wrote shortly before she passed away.
Frank Foley was one of the true heroes of the Shoah, and it is very good that he was finally recognized and honoured for his courage. Kol hakavod to Susan Herold for donating her mother’s papers to Yad Vashem for the sake of posterity – so that no one can ever say “it never happened”.
Outrageously though, there are indeed many people who say “it never happened”, Holocaust deniers who refuse to believe that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews and millions of other “undesirables”. They are but one example of the modern antisemites who have raised their heads and magnified their voices now that antisemitism is no longer unfashionable.
In Britain, the latest target of Labour antisemitism, about which I have blogged so many times in recent years, is the heroic Rachel Riley whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Rachel is a game show presenter who had no need to jump into the fray and could have remained a happy show-biz personality. But the courage of her convictions (real physical courage) led her to announce that she herself is Jewish and to investigate and denounce Labour Antisemitism. This has brought incredible amounts of opprobrium, hate mail, even death threats on her head. The fact that this is happening in 21st century Britain and doesn’t even seem to be investigated by the police is staggering.
Last week Rachel Riley delivered a brilliant speech at the Holocaust Memorial Event in Parliament. Watch the video:
You can read the full text of her speech in the Jewish Chronicle. Here are just a few excerpts:
If you told me this time last year that, come January 2019, I’d be standing in Parliament, addressing a room full of people at a Holocaust memorial event, describing the hideous abuse I’ve been receiving daily since I started speaking about the growing problem of antisemitism in the UK, I wouldn’t know where to begin with my incredulity.
I thought all Jew-haters were like them [Nazis], loud and proud, and acting through irrational hate which could neither be explained nor understood – and I also thought that that the horrors of the Holocaust would mean that antisemitism would never rear its ugly head again.
Sadly, I was wrong on both counts.
I first started following the story of antisemitism in Labour after the protest outside parliament in March last year. I started listening and I started reading. And the more I read, the more shocked I became.
Without irony, I’m shown just how little many people understand about antisemitism, simultaneously denying any evidence of it whilst actively participating in it – vilifying me, the Jew calling it out, as a paid Israeli shill, angrily comparing Israel to Nazis, or classing me as “Zionist racist scum” in response to me posting about anything but the subject of Israel and Palestine.
They cry “smear” or “anti-Zionist is not antisemitism” even in the face of outright Holocaust denial, finding new and obscene ways to explain or obfuscate it way, echoing the excuses often heard from their political heroes.
I’ve had to do so much research and learning to even begin to have the tools to fight this. I’ve read books, watched videos, taken an online course, spoken to experts, spoken to Jewish groups, spoken to Labour Party members and MPs. I spent 6 hours on Christmas Day watching education videos on the history of antisemitsm, including so much not so festive stuff about the Holocaust.
It pains me to revisit these atrocities, it tires me, it angers me, but knowledge and truth are our only weapons. If I can do this in just a couple of months, there is no excuse for any Labour official not to take-up the same kind of learning themselves, when they clearly still haven’t got to grips with understanding this problem.
You need to know next to nothing to propagate Nazi or Soviet Jew-hating propaganda, reframed to fit today’s narrative, which spreads like wildfire, and is dangerous. But you need to know nearly everything in order to combat it. The odds are stacked in the antisemite’s favour.
We need to re-stack those odds. No-one should have to risk their safety and jeopardise their career speaking out against antisemitism in Britain in 2019.
It’s lonely speaking out about this. And we can’t win this fight alone, nor should we have to try.
We’ve seen where antisemitism can lead from centuries of persecution. It never ends well.
This needs a bigger spotlight. This should be a national scandal. We need action rather than words. I call on all people, the media and politicians from every side to stand with us and Be Louder against antisemitism.
Enough is enough.
Rachel Riley’s word resonate loudly and are a battle cry and challenge for all of us.
We must never forget and always remember, so that history cannot be denied and the victims made victims once more.
As I always do on these days of commemoration, I invite readers to visit my pages on my family history during the Shoah.
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Sadly “Never again” has been pushed aside and instead used against Israel decrying our defense against Arab terror. The word holocaust has been corrupted and twisted by all the anti semitic , anti Israel campaigners (sadly often including our very own brethren). Europe is very good at pronouncing Never Again, but their actions disprove this.
Yes, and this is what campaigners like Rachel Riley amongst very many others (thank G-d) are protesting about.
A wise person once said that the “anti-Zionists” love dead Jews, just look at their beautiful Holocaust museums, but they have a big problem with living Jews who want to defend themselves. This applies both to Israel and to Jews in the Diaspora who are fighting antisemitism.
Thank you for a well written and illuminating piece. The men you describe are heroes in the true sense of the word. The memories of all of this must be kept.
Thank you for your kind comment and welcome to my blog.
I think I have mentioned this before, but another unsung hero is Sally Noach, a Dutch Jew who fled to Lyon after the Nazi invasion of Belgium and Holland (he was Dutch). In Lyon, he assisted the (non-Dutch speaking) Dutch consul and used (possibly “informal” – maybe forged) letters from the Consulate to spring imprisoned (by the Vichy officials) Dutch Jews (and other Jews) and got them across the border into Spain. Spain may have had a fascist regime (under Franco) but they weren’t noticeably antisemitic. Eventually, he had to flee himself, as the Nazis were closing in, and he got out vis Spain to Lisbon and then to London.
A notable British spymaster (surname Pinto?) debriefed him and declared that Sally was what he claimed to be.
Sally saved something like 450 people from the Nazi killing machine, although over 100 of his own family were killed.
There is a documentary about him (“The Forgotten Soldier”) which features his daughter and son seeking his story. I saw this at the 2018 Jewish Film Festival in London.
Fascinating story Brian. I’ve never heard of him. Thanks for bringing him to our attention.
Oh, and Rachel Riley is another hero: takes real guts in her position. Let’s hope her employers have the sense to face down the naysayers. As she says in a newspaper report (yesterday’s Times of London) whatever else she is, she’s hardly just a pretty face, etc: Degree in Maths from Oxford U, followed by a Master’s ditto.
My pal Jack Kuper (himself a Shoah survivor and author/film maker: “The Sun in My Eyes”; “Child of the Holocaust”) put me on to a very important film at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival: Roberta Grossman’s “Who Will Write Our History”. Grim viewing, but I recommend it unreservedly.
@ Goldfarb: Interesting. Again, far easier for her to have simply stayed shtum… Kudos.