Simcha Rotem, an Israeli Holocaust survivor who was among the last known Jewish fighters from the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazis, died Dec. 22 in Jerusalem. He was 94.
Israeli government officials announced his death. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Rotem, who went by the underground nickname “Kazik,” took part in the single greatest act of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust. Though guaranteed to fail, the uprising symbolized a refusal to succumb to Nazi atrocities and inspired other resistance campaigns by Jews and non-Jews alike.
Mr. Rotem helped save the last survivors of the uprising by smuggling them out of the burning ghetto through sewage tunnels. The Jewish fighters fought for nearly a month, fortifying themselves in bunkers and managing to kill 16 Nazis and wound nearly 100.
“This is a loss of a special character since Kazik was a real fighter, in the true sense of the word,” said Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. “The challenge for all of us now is to continue giving meaning to remembrance without exemplary figures like Kazik.”
Mr. Rotem was born Szymon Rathajzer in Warsaw on Feb. 24, 1924, at a time when a vibrant Jewish community made up a third of the city’s population. After World War II broke out, he was wounded in a German bombing campaign that destroyed his family home. His brother and five other close relatives were killed. Shortly after, the city’s Jews were herded into the infamous ghetto.
The ghetto initially held about 380,000 Jews who were forced into tight living spaces, and at its peak housed about a half-million. Life in the ghetto included random raids, confiscations and abductions by Nazi soldiers. Disease and starvation were rampant, and bodies often appeared on the streets.
The resistance movement began to grow after the deportation of July 22, 1942, when 265,000 people were rounded up and later killed at the Treblinka camp. As word of the Nazi genocide spread, those who remained no longer believed German promises that they would be sent to forced-labor camps.
A small group of rebels began to make 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 vanquished.
Mr. Rotem, then still a teenager, served as a liaison between the bunkers and took part in the fighting. He also arranged for the escape of the few who did not join revolt leader Mordechai Anielewicz in the command bunker at 18 Mila Street for the final stand.
The Nazis and their collaborators ultimately killed 6 million Jews before the Allied victory in World War II brought an end to the Holocaust.
After the war, Mr. Rotem immigrated to pre-state Israel and fought in its war of independence. He was later a speaker and an active 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.
Israel’s annual Holocaust memorial day coincides with the Hebrew date of the Warsaw ghetto uprising — highlighting the role it plays in shaping the country’s psyche. The valiant ghetto battle offered a powerful contrast to the image of Jews being marched to their deaths in Nazi camps.
“Kazik fought the Nazis, saved Jews, immigrated to Israel after the Holocaust, and told the story of his heroism to thousands of Israelis,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “His story and the story of the uprising will forever be with our people.”
Mr. Rotem’s survivors include two children and five grandchildren.
With his death, there is only one known Warsaw ghetto uprising survivor left in Israel — 90-year-old Aliza Vitis-Shomron. Her main task in the ghetto had been distributing leaflets and smuggling weapons before she was ordered to escape and tell the world of the Jews’ heroic battle.
She said news of Rotem’s death brought tears to her eyes.
“It’s a difficult day because this really means that this is it,” she told the Associated Press after learning of Mr. Rotem’s death. “I’m the only one left and there is no one else to keep the story alive. He was the last fighter. I’ll keep speaking till my last day, but no one lives forever. After me, who will keep telling?”