In Warsaw there is a very moving trail of memorials to the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. It starts at the huge monument, designed by Nathan Rapoport and erected in 1948, and ends at the umschlagplatz where the inmates of the ghetto – hundreds of thousands of Jews, and between 1,000-2,000 Romany Gypsies – were deported to the death camp of Treblinka, mainly in 1942.
Along this trail, individual memorial stones recall individuals among the resistance led by the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa (ZOB – Jewish fighting Organisation). Formed in 1942, it was an alliance of competing left-wing political organisations in the ghetto – Bundists, Communists, Zionists – united in a common struggle for freedom and dignity, or as one of their leaders put it, “to choose our way of death”. When the Uprising started on 19 April, just a few hundred fighters were still alive, all between 13 and 40 years of age.
On 30 April, while the battle was still raging, two of the fighters left the ghetto through a secret tunnel. They were Simcha Rotem, a Zionist, known to his comrades as “Kazik”, and Zalmen Friedrych, a Bundist. They had been sent on a mission by their commander, Marek Edelman, also a Bundist, to reach ZOB resisters hidden outside of the ghetto, and to arrange a way of rescuing the fighters who were still alive by evacuating them through the sewers. They found their contacts and obtained maps and guidance from non-Jewish Poles who had worked in the sewers – part of the Polish Underground in every sense. Kazik organised the rescue of dozens of fighters, and, together with Friedrych, found hiding places for them in the forests, and in the city. He was just 19 years old at the time.
Yesterday, 22 December 2018, Kazik, the last surviving fighter of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, died in Israel where he had gone to live after the war. Friedrych had been killed by Gestapo and German police when he was taking a group to a hiding place in a village called Pludy in 1943. Those he was taking were murdered too. Edelman, the last surviving member of the Uprising command group, and who helped to lead the fighters through the sewers, died in Poland in 2009.
They spent 48 hours in total in pipes just 28 inches high. They had reached the planned exit on Prosta Street, beyond the south-western edge of the ghetto, at night, but the truck that Kazik had organised to collect them could not get there safely at that time because of a curfew imposed by the occupying Nazi forces. He had arranged for a truck that moved furniture. The driver was told that he would be moving the contents of a house. He was shocked to see that instead of furniture they would be loading people emerging from a sewer manhole.
A crowd had gathered around this remarkable scene, amazed at the sight of Jews emerging from the sewer-hole with sub-machine guns strapped to their waists. In his memoir, The Ghetto Fights, Marek Edelman wrote:
“…the trap door opened and one after another, with the stunned crowd looking on , armed Jews appeared from the depths of the dark hole… Not all were able to get out. Violently, heavily, the trap-door shut. The truck took off at full speed”
Edelman and Kazik were part of a unit of surviving ZOB fighters, hidden by non-Jews, who took part a year later in the general Warsaw Uprising led by Polish resisters in 1944.
The section of Prosta Street, where the fighters emerged, is a wide thoroughfare, overshadowed today by tall glass towers recently built by business corporations. It is far from the memorial route of Jewish martyrdom which crosses the north of the ghetto. Many visitors to Warsaw, following that memorial route in order to gain an insight into the history of the ghetto and the courageous resistance that fought there, do not reach this remarkable installation, unveiled in 2010, that stands where the fighters emerged from the sewers. It portrays a sewage canal rising vertically from the ground with disembodied hands symbolically climbing their way to freedom.
Next to it is a prism-shaped monument that lists those who escaped and survived the war, including Cywia Lubetkin, the sole woman among the uprising command group. It also lists those who escaped but died in combat during the war, and those who never made it out of the sewers.
The final panels commemorate Kazik (Simcha Rotem) and the group he collaborated with to achieve this incredible rescue operation, including the Polish sewer workers, Waclaw Sledziewskie and Czeslaw Wojciechowski. As we remember the heroism of Kazik and give thanks for his remarkable life which ended yesterday, we should remember too, all who fought for freedom and dignity in the uprising, and all who helped them beyond the ghetto walls.