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Biography ghetto warrior / How Much Luck Can One Man Have?

Biography ghetto warrior / How Much Luck Can One Man Have?
By Dan Laor

Kazik (Simha "Shimek" Rathajzer ,later Rotem)
by Yonat Sened
Hakibbutz Hameuchad (Hebrew), 92 pages, NIS 62


"Each of us has a name / Given by the stars," the poet Zelda wrote. But which stars, then, named our hero "Kazik"?

It happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. Simha ("Shimek") Rathajzer (later Rotem) and a fellow fighter in the Jewish Combat Organization entered the home of a wealthy ghetto resident and exhorted him to give them money for weapons. Even at gunpoint, however, their demand did not make the necessary impression.

"And then," Yonat Sened writes, "the partner of the man known until then as Shimek came to his senses and called out in Polish: 'Kazik, tell him it's no laughing matter - that he's dealing with a goy, and with the goyim you don't fool around.' The trick worked, and Shimek and Kazik became one and the same."

Elsewhere, Sened explains that the subject of her book had the head of a sheygitz (Yiddish for "non-Jew"), which made the ploy possible. Over the years, an aura has formed around the name "Kazik," whose unusual, clearly non-Jewish sound adds a touch of mystery to it.

When World War II broke out, Kazik, who was born in 1925, was living with his large family in a suburb of Warsaw. The first bombings killed his brother, his grandfather and his grandmother, along with other relatives. He spent the early war years as a cowherd in a nearby village, and came to the ghetto in 1942, initially to locate his parents - who were, as it turned out, elsewhere - and later to perform a mission for the Jewish underground. When his parents were transported to the ghetto, he helped them get out; he later joined the Jewish resistance and took part in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of April-May 1943. Following the failure of the revolt, he moved to the city's Aryan side, under the command of Yitzhak ("Antek") Zuckerman, and served as a liaison looking out for those comrades who had escaped the ghetto; some of them lived in the woods, while others hid in apartments in Warsaw. Toward the war's end, Kazik joined the Warsaw uprising of 1944, and at some point was sent to Lublin by the Jewish resistance to join forces with the temporary Polish government operating under Soviet auspices.

In everything he did, Kazik showed himself to be a man of extraordinary courage, totally committed to his goals and possessed of a resourcefulness that saved many lives. At the end of the war, he joined Abba Kovner in retaliatory missions against the Nazis and was active in Bricha, an organization that helped Jewish refugees across Europe for eventual passage to Palestine. He finally moved there himself in 1946 on the immigrant ship Biriya; he was only 21 years old at the time.

The story of Kazik, now one of the last living Warsaw Ghetto fighters, has been told more than once before. In May 1944, while still in Warsaw, Kazik wrote a detailed account of the ghetto uprising and his part in it. This testimony, written in Polish, was conveyed to Melech Neustadt (later, Noy), a member of the Histadrut labor federation and the Mapai party, who published it in Hebrew translation in his 1947 book about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Neustadt's book was one of the first published testimonials about the Holocaust.

Then Kazik fell silent. Why? "Because I very quickly grasped that those who came from over there were regarded with suspicion," he explains in one of his candid conversations with Sened. "It was something like this, you see - 'How is it that you are alive? You must have done villainous things.'" His silence, at least in the public arena, lasted close to 40 years.

It was not until the early 1980s, under heavy pressure from Zuckerman, an indefatigable documenter, that Kazik, with great reluctance, agreed to tell his story. "I tell things as I normally speak, in the everyday language I use at home, at work, and with my friends. I prefer to remain Kazik in writing, too," he declared in the preface to his memoir, published in 1984 by the Ghetto Fighters' Museum (quoted here from the English translation by Barbara Harshav, "Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter," Yale University Press, 1994).

Around the same time, Kazik was invited by French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann to take part in his nine-hour Holocaust documentary "Shoah," which made him famous outside Israel as well. "The Last Fighters," a 2006 documentary directed by Ronen Zaretzky and Yael Kipper Zaretzky, once again put Kazik in the limelight, this time alongside the other "last fighters" of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Sened - writing this time without her literary partner and husband, the late Alexander Sened - has chosen to retell Kazik's story in a different way. The author, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and a longtime friend of Kazik's, held a series of intimate conversations with the book's subject in his Jerusalem home, which is itself incorporated into the fabric of the narrative. She reports on those conversations liberally, in an almost jittery manner; her words, filled with free association, literary quotations and philosophical musings, give herself a clear presence in the text.

Alongside the piecemeal report of events (some of them quoted from Kazik's own memoir), the author tries to take the measure of the man before her, to decipher the meaning of his words, to understand what really happened and to explore, among other things, the meaning of the James Joyce quote, "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," which is repeated throughout the book. All this is accompanied by ongoing commentary on writing itself, on its boundaries and limitations.

Like Lanzmann before her, "the writer, the hearer, the teller, the transcriber" (as Sened describes herself) wishes to accompany Kazik into the depths of the Warsaw Ghetto and to be by his side during that inconceivable moment when the failure of the uprising seemed inevitable and Kazik used the sewers to return to the ghetto from the city's Aryan side, hoping to extricate the last of the fighters. Sened quotes the facts from Kazik's memoir, in which he recounts gaining access to the ghetto through the sewers and then, having gone from bunker to bunker and encountering no one, assuming that there was no one else in the ghetto and that he was the last remaining Jew.

And now it is Sened's turn to make the moment real: "He lay down on the ruins, and a sudden peace descended on him. He was alone, and in the twilight of consciousness that occurs on the border of sanity saw himself as the last man. He wanted nothing but to lie like that until those others came, and for his pistol to work and kill, and that's it."

That moment also captured Lanzmann's imagination. "You were alone?" he asked Kazik, and the latter replied, with the half-smile of a man who has seen everything: "I was alone throughout. There was no one. Not a living soul in the whole ghetto. On my way back I felt utterly at peace. I thought I was the last man, the last Jew ... and this was the end." That was the statement with which the brilliant filmmaker chose to end his movie.

Despite the implication of the documentary, however, this moment was followed by another. "But he got up," Sened writes, "not really knowing how, and after a while continued to stumble through the ruins." With incomparable resolve, he descended back into the sewers, located the remaining fighters and brought them out of the ghetto. In broad daylight, before an astonished crowd of Poles and Ukrainians, he led them to a truck that would take them to a hiding place in the nearby woods.

When they were about to leave, Zivia Lubetkin, one of the leaders of the Jewish resistance, suddenly cried out that others still remained in another sewage tunnel. Kazik refused to turn back, knowing that they would all be killed if he did so. "The truck pulled away, and Zivia said: I want to shoot you," Sened quotes him as saying. "'No problem,' he said. 'We'll get to the woods, you'll shoot me and I'll shoot you, and the score will be settled.'"

The moment, however, still haunts Kazik, and in his conversations with Sened he tries to justify his decision: "She had no authority over me. Moral authority, yes, over all of us, but not operational authority. She was not my commander."

Kazik's field commander in the ghetto was Bund activist Marek Edelman, who would become an eminent physician in Lodz after the war. Edelman said nothing back then: "Marek was among those who lay on the bottom of the truck, silent. He did not have time to dwell on the question 'why.' Or perhaps he was simply exhausted."

Another event that fascinates Sened occurred later, after Kazik and some of his comrades - including Yosef Sak, Sened's father, who was a teacher in the ghetto high school - joined the members of the Armia Ludowa (the People's Army), based in Warsaw's old quarter, to prepare for the Warsaw uprising against the Nazi occupation. Kazik was ordered by Zuckerman to return to an apartment being used as a hideout by the Jewish Combat Organization. Kazik was supposed to retrieve the archive of the local Zionist movement, which Zuckerman considered to be of supreme importance. Sened writes of Kazik's recollection of that return trip: "Walking on the burning piles of rubble was a horrific experience, he ... said, his special voice alone stripping the words of their blandness, then as now."

As Kazik had warned, this was a mistake; the Germans arrived at the house a few minutes after he did, and, having ordered its residents to evacuate it - a call that he and his friends ignored - they set it on fire. The resistance fighters jumped out of the windows and hid in a nearby basement, where they spent several weeks. When they ran out of food and water, Kazik suggested a typically risky move: They should go outside, discard their weapons and intermingle with the Poles. Sak rejected the idea, but Kazik insisted; the ploy worked, and they were all saved.

"Tell me, how much luck can one man have in his life?" Kazik asks Sened, and the author is ever amazed by the courage of the man before her, by his deft maneuvering and his willingness to take chances, by his ability to impose his authority on others (qualities that in this case saved her own father's life).

Sened does not avoid bowing her head, here and elsewhere, before that great unknown: luck, the arbitrary workings of chance that helped seal the fate of so many during the Holocaust. She addresses the role of luck by quoting Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: "You were saved because you were the first. / You were saved because you were the last. / Alone. With others. On the right. The left. / Because it was raining. Because of the shade. / Because the day was sunny" (from the translation by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, in "Nothing Twice: Selected Poems," 1997).

Sened embarks on the journey through memory with Kazik while they are both sitting in the Rotem family's attractive home in the Abu Tor neighborhood of Jerusalem. Occasionally, Sened interrupts the tale of horror with deliberately idyllic descriptions of the Jerusalem home and its verdant garden - whose photographs are incorporated in the book, along with pictures of the manhole cover on Warsaw's Prosta Street through which Kazik got the fighters out of the ghetto, and of the devastated ghetto's burned houses.

"He listens, does not lift his steady gaze from the leaf of chard he is holding," writes Sened. "These plants are a new addition to his vegetable beds, and he is proud of their growth. But something in his face says that he is there again, in the place to which he cannot - and perhaps will not - stop returning, Prosta Street, only this time he does not say the name of the place, but instead, suddenly: 'Sometimes it seems to me that it never happened, that I was only dreaming.'" And in another conversation, held against a backdrop of blooming sunflowers, Kazik utters this succinct, encapsulating sentence, as though he is quoting from his memory: "The people [the Jews] I knew, they are gone, and will not be again."

Although most of the story focuses on the wartime years, Sened is also interested in what happened to Kazik once the war ended. After all, he was then in his early 20s; more than 60 years have passed since then. She communicates this postwar chain of events telegraphically: his reunion with his parents and sister, who survived the war; the revenge campaign he joined; his work in the illegal immigration movement; his journey to pre-state Israel; his time at the Atlit detention camp; his rehabilitation in Tel Aviv; his involvement in the Haganah pre-state strike force; the 1948 War of Independence; and then, again, a period of wandering - Moscow, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Brazil - whether on government matters or on business.

Like the hero of Aharon Appelfeld's story "The Iron Tracks," a Holocaust survivor who cannot find peace and whose life is a kind of "perpetuum mobile," Sened says of Kazik, too, that he "loved to travel, to move through the world, a free man in no hurry to return." Finally, normalcy won out: Kazik married, had children, made a home for his family, and spent 25 years as a successful manager of the Co-Op supermarket chain in the Jerusalem area. He retired and devoted himself to his house and garden, living his life - as Sened puts it, in an ironic allusion to Tolstoy - "as in families whose lives flowed on in tranquility and did not mix with the dreadful tide of history."

In his famous poem "Memorial Day and the Rebels," published in April 1954, Nathan Alterman challenged the cult of Jewish revolt, which, he believed, had assumed a place of excessive prominence in his era's discourse about the Holocaust. "The revolt is only one note in the affair. It was not its crossroads and purpose," the poet declared, daring even to attribute the words to the rebels and fighters themselves, who supposedly ask in the poem to come down from the pedestal on which they have been placed. Alterman's words met with strong public opposition, especially on the part of the left-wing Zionist movements, which then openly celebrated revolt. Years passed, and attitudes have changed - primarily because of the shift in collective consciousness that the trial of Adolf Eichmann brought about, along with other events.

Israeli society came to know the Holocaust in its many facets. Empathy toward the victims increased, Jewish leadership was newly appreciated, and the idea of resistance, previously associated only with active revolt, was reinterpreted as having a wide range of meanings - including a commitment to education, observance of Jewish tradition and defense of the family.

Holocaust historiography and other writings on the subject have since established a new agenda, which has given the uprising its due proportions and gradually even marginalized it. The rebel warriors, so idolized during the 1940s, 1950s and beyond, made room for other figures who represented other aspects of the Holocaust (such as Jakob Edelstein, the subject of Ruth Bondy's 1989 book "'Elder of the Jews': Jakob Edelstein of Theresienstadt," who led the Judenrat at that concentration camp).

Yonat Sened, somewhat contrary to prevailing fashion, restores Simha Rotem to center stage. At the beginning of the book, in a kind of dialogue with the reader, Sened describes her anguish since the death of her husband, with whom she wrote novels and stories over many decades and who was her partner in a rare model of joint authorship: "Three years, day after day, trying to extricate myself from insanity in its different gradations, from utter despair, stretching in a downward spiral to the bottom of the pit."

And then someone suggested that she write about Kazik as a kind of self-healing - "In your own way, they said." And she interprets: "I knew exactly what this meant: Accuracy in what is called the facts, and absolute freedom in storytelling." It took time, but eventually she undertook the task, exploiting the freedom granted her to the fullest extent possible. This can already be seen in the first pages. "You were a hero, I was not," the self-aware author writes, quoting the words she repeated, over and over, to her old friend - for she, too, was there. This statement, spoken, as she puts it, "with a fraction of a smile," is what largely sets the tone and in a way helps pave the path for her to tell Kazik's story.

Prof. Dan Laor is the author of ?The Struggle for Memory: Essays on Literature, Society and Culture,? recently published by Am Oved ?(in Hebrew?).