The University Record, November 26, 1997

Rotem: '. . . the Nazis also had robbed me of my humanity'

Simha Rotem, the University Wallenberg Lecturer. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

By Mary Jo Frank
University Relations

One of Simha "Kazik" Rotem's most painful memories is of the time he worked with other Jews to resist the Nazi invasion of his native Poland. While on patrol in the Warsaw ghetto, he searched through the rubble and found a young mother, dead, with a crying infant still in her arms. "I stopped for a moment and then went on," he said.

Speaking in hushed tones to an audience of more than 600 at the eighth University Wallenberg Lecture on Nov. 19, Rotem said in that moment he understood that in addition to annihilating thousands of Jews, the Nazis also "had robbed me of my humanity."

Rotem, who was only 15 years old in 1939 when he watched the Nazis enter Warsaw, fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, defying the Nazis for almost a month. He helped lead the few surviving Jews out of the ruins of the ghetto through the underground sewer canal system to the "Aryan" side of Warsaw and then into the countryside.

Posing as a gentile and using the code name "Kazik," Rotem was head courier for the Jewish underground and responsible for providing food and shelter for thousands of Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto. After the ghetto was destroyed, he fought with the Poles in the Home Army and the People's Army, continuing to aid the remaining Jews in Warsaw.

Rotem said he frequently is asked why Jews allowed the Nazis to lead them like lambs to the slaughter and why they waited so long to resist. What many don't realize is the speed with which the Nazis conquered Poland in 1939, he explained. It was captured within only four weeks. Although many Jews thought the discriminatory treatment would end and life would return to normal, Rotem said, "The first contact I had with the Germans, I felt a pending disaster."

For a thousand years of Polish history Jews had lived with discrimination in every area of their lives. "For us, ghettos and killings were not something new," Rotem said. However, during World War I, the Jews had been treated relatively decently by the Germans.

Explaining that it is impossible to adequately describe living conditions in the Warsaw ghetto, Rotem said Jews, who had lost their sources of income, were suffering from starvation and disease. The Nazis created tremendous confusion by separating the healthy from the sick, the young from the old, and the productive from the non-productive, he said. They also closed the schools and forbade cultural activities. "The goal," he said, "was to turn us into working cadavers."

Despite the German restrictions, Rotem said, "everyone tried to survive." Illegal schools opened and small children helped smuggle limited quantities of food into the ghetto.

However, when the first massive deportation was announced in 1942, tens of thousands of hungry Jews turned themselves in for "six pounds of bread and some jam." They had been hungry for so long that they didn't know what else to do. Also, most of them still didn't believe that the Germans planned to exterminate the Jews, Roten recalled.

Rotem shared vivid accounts of resistance activities, from making and planting bombs and other weapons to digging underground tunnels to using the sewer system to surreptitiously enter and exit the ghetto.

At the end of World War II, Rotem helped smuggle Jews out of Poland. He moved to Israel in 1946. Now retired, he is a former president and CEO of a chain of Israeli supermarkets and author of Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter: The Past Within Me.

Before the lecture, Irene H. Butter, professor emerita of health management and policy, recounted the life story of Raoul Wallenberg, for whom the annual lecture is named. A U-M alumnus who served as a Swedish diplomat in Budapest in 1944, Wallenberg helped save the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews by bargaining with Nazi officials, establishing safe houses, distributing false passports, disguising Jews in Nazi uniforms and setting up checkpoints to avert deportations. He was imprisoned by Soviet troops when they captured Budapest in 1945 and is believed to have died in a Russian prison.

In presenting the Wallenberg Medal to Rotem, President Lee C. Bollinger said the annual lecture and medal ceremony raise for each of us a perennial and everlasting question: What would I do if faced with a world of evil? The only right answer for most of us, Bollinger said, is "I hope I would be able to respond."

Bollinger also announced that Rotem has donated the honorarium normally presented to the Wallenberg Lecturer to the University to be used for prizes for an essay contest for U-M and local high school students. Students will be asked to write about some aspect of the Holocaust. Details will be announced early next year, Bollinger said.