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Rotem book cover

"The Fortunate Hero"

Book Essay on:
Kazik (Simha Rotem),
Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter

(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), 180 pages

by Justin Dougherty
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$13 & searchable
at amazon

About Justin Dougherty

I am a senior history major at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Throughout my education, especially in college, I have always taken an interest to European history, most notably World War I and WWII and the Holocaust. Over the years I have read various books and taken various lectures on the Holocaust and have been captivated in almost every one. This year, our class was privileged enough to hear survivor Thomas Blatt speak about his time during this era in history and what he had to endure and do to survive. Personally, I was awestruck by his story and wanted to learn more about other heroes and their survival stories, which was the main reason that I chose this specific book, and to also get a better sense of what people had to go through during this horrific time in history.

Abstract (back to top)

Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter is told by Kazik (Simha Rotem), who outlines life in the ghetto along with his role along with others in the Jewish uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto against the Nazis in Warsaw, Poland. Kazik was a leader of the uprising and responsible for saving the lives of many people who were trapped in the ghetto. Kazik goes on to help and organize the hiding of Jews, saving them from their oppressors. The book is truly a survival story but makes the point that heroes like Kazik, understood their skills and advantages and took it upon them to save as many people as possible. In my essay, I agree that Kazik is a courageous hero and commend him for it, but he possessed skills and attributes, such as his physical features that allowed him to accomplish the feats he did. Also, like all survivors, Kazik possessed a streak of luck that was just as beneficial as the rest.

Essay (back to top)

Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter is a story of one man’s survival and heroic actions during World War II, and Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, more specifically the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Polish/Jewish uprising events. Simha Rotem (better known as Kazik), a Jewish Pole, outlines for the world his life before the beginning of the war, during the uprising, to his various leadership roles pertaining to the Polish underground and the ZOB, the Jewish Combat Organization, part of a World War II resistance movement against the invading Germans. Kazik’s story addresses and covers many aspects of sheer survival and what it takes to not only live through this traumatic era in history, but also what is necessary to be there for your family, friends, and fellow mankind when they are in need, and actually play a vital role in saving their lives. Kazik is a special person and his success and determination should be accredited to the various attributes, physical features, and character which he holds. If it weren’t for these qualities and of course the luck and good fortune he was blessed to have, Kazik would have been just another statistic in one of the more horrifying historical eras the world has ever seen.

Luck and chance did indeed play a vital role in Kazik’s ability to survive this horrific era of his life but he himself possessed many qualities and attributes that helped him greatly along the way. Probably the most important was his physical appearance and upbringing. Although Jewish, he did not look like a typical Jew that were so frequently spotted and picked up by the Gestapo, other Poles, etc. He looked like an ordinary and accepted Pole with a Christian background, and time and again in his memoirs he describes how a person automatically took him for a Pole and did not realize he was a Jew. Other than his appearance, Kazik was a man of character and had great leadership qualities. He was very honorable and trustworthy to his friends (comrades) and family. He also possessed a natural ability to play a role when he had to save his life and the ones around him. He was constantly able to manipulate a situation to go in his favor, by acting a certain way, usually very authoritative, not showing any nervousness in tone or body language. Kazik would always be able to play the part, which is a demanding and important factor that we have seen not only in his specific case, but in other survivors of WWII and the Holocaust.

Like other Jewish WWII survivors, Kazik’s story is nothing short of miraculous, defying the Nazis time and time again when all odds looked to be against him. He and his fellow Jews helped resist the Nazis in the Warsaw uprising in any way they could, smuggling weapons, partaking in acts of resistance, and above all, rescuing many survivors who were still in hiding during and after the ghetto was being annihilated by the German forces. Life in the ghetto was harsh and starvation was one of the biggest problems facing the families within the walls. The rations that were given out were not suitable. Kazik says of the rations, “You couldn’t live on them, and those who had to make do with them were doomed to a slow death” (p. 12). Because of this need for food, Kazik, like so many other youths under the age of 16 in the ghetto, went into the business of smuggling, which was necessary for survival in the ghetto world as displayed by Kazik and his family. In certain ghettos it was estimated that smuggling “accounted for 80% of the food available” (Textbook, p. 219). By smuggling, Kazik took it upon his shoulders, even at an early age of just fifteen, and showed that he was willing to do what it took to help him and his family survive.

It wasn’t long before Kazik joined a group that shared his tenacity and willingness to fight against the Nazis. He joined the ZOB, a Jewish Fighting Organization (p. 23). In this group, Kazik went through training and performed daily operations. It would be with these “comrades” that Kazik would do his most notable work, participating in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Outside the ghetto, Kazik and his fellow fighters worked hard at smuggling food into the ghetto, but more importantly, raising funds for such things as weapons and ammunition. To raise this money, they often did large amounts of detective work, finding wealthy Jews who would donate to the cause, most of the time after being convinced by the ZOB (p.25). Some “convincing” took a little more effort than others. In one instance, Kazik, using his Aryan looks, forcefully demanded a sum of money from a Jew for the organization. The Jew, thinking that this man was a gentile, changed his attitude and gave in, ultimately giving them his “contribution.” This is a terrific example of the type of person Kazik is. He does not want to hurt the man in any way, but realizes that they need all the funds they could get, so he manipulates the situation to his favor (p. 29).

One of the first important jobs that Kazik participated in was freeing prisoners who were being held in a jail in the ghetto. The plan was to walk in with Kazik leading a group of masked and armed ZOB members, hold up the police and set the prisoners free. Once again, Kazik’s appearance played a large role in the overall success. Because he appears to be a normal non Jewish Polish person, he can get into certain places without suspicion. In this scenario, he walked in and began talking to the officers, distracting them so the rest of his team (all in masks) could infiltrate the grounds and go through with their plan. This event was also important because it gained popularity with the Jews in the ghetto. When the ZOB was growing there was somewhat of a power struggle between them and the Judenrat within the ghetto (p. 24). Unlike the majority, who chose the Judenrat for its passive approach, Kazik decided to become a part of an alternative overriding force, when choosing the ZOB over the Judenrat. It seems that he knows in his heart that there needs to be swift and hefty action against the Nazis, and the Jewish councils within the ghettos could not get that done. Hope was a pivotal mindset to the masses of people who faced this evil. It seems that Kazik was full of that hope in becoming and eventually being a top figure in a more radical group that was the main alternative to following the Judenrat. In an uncertainty to decide what would be the best way to go about attacking problems, Kazik went with his instinct which is a fighter’s attitude, fueled by strong morals.

Later, in order to save Jews who were still hiding in the ghetto, even when the Nazis were literally annihilating every structure, Kazik and a few others trekked through thousands of feet underneath the surface in the sewer system. Liquid filth would sometimes come up to their waists and Kazik had to threaten the sewage workers with his pistol to keep going and not to desert them while down there. During this time the Germans “were systematically destroying all its inhabitants” (p.47), but Kazik was only worried about one thing and that was rescuing survivors. His diligence was displayed as he ran around constantly, trying to find sewage workers who would take the risk in showing him where to go and meeting with his fellow ZOB fighters, making sure the plans were going through and strategically setting up new ones (p. 47). When their strategy was finalized, Kazik led a team in and out of the sewage system, rescuing many Jewish prisoners and transporting them out of the ghetto. It is one thing to save yourself in times like these, but Kazik continuously put everything he had on the line, thereby saving as many people as he possibly could. In doing so, he exemplified natural leadership qualities as well as pure selflessness and willingness to give up one’s life for that of another.

After his role in the uprising, Kazik was not done, as he joined up with the Polish underground resistance, eventually heading rescue missions and giving any type of aid for Jews in need, whether it be smuggling food or providing hiding places. Kazik became a kind of humanitarian courier, also instructing others on various errands and which missions to take up. Each courier had about a dozen people that he or she had to visit and take care of (p.97). Because of his appearance, Kazik became the head courier on the Aryan side of Warsaw (p. 66). He and his comrades’ tasks were very secretive and very dangerous. Among them was maintaining contact between people in the camps and ghettos, and free Jews, who knew the Polish underground, thus showing the prisoners that there was help and to encourage them. Also important was financially assisting any part of the organization, delivering forged documents, underground publications, and supplying weapons where uprisings were planned (p.67).

Because of his looks, Kazik was a rare Jew that could walk around quite freely outside amongst everyone else. He did take extreme precautions in his mannerisms and dress attire, however. On one occasion when he was meeting with some Jews in hiding that he was going to help, he had to explain that he really was on their side, for he dressed just like a Gestapo agent, “in a long black-leather coat, visored cap, and boots.” He even adopted the German way of walking, talking, and behavioral patterns. Because of this he had to be careful that none of these bands of hiding Jews got the wrong idea and decided to harm him or even kill him (p. 70). Fortunately that never happened, but it displayed how he had to manipulate his whole outer self to continue to be safe in public.

Kazik’s disguises also give shape to how dangerous the outside world was for Jews in hiding, who could either be stopped by a Gestapo or called out by a regular civilian. If and when people began to get suspicious of Kazik and yelled “jude” or something of that nature, he would always have a calm and collected response, proving that he was not a Jew. He never wavered his persona that he was playing and living up to. In one instance a group of people called out to Kazik and his ZOB associate, Lala. When a man claimed, “He’s a Jew,” Kazik laughed and replied, “If he’s a Jew, come on, we’ll take care of him together” (p. 69). To maintain your cool like Kazik frequently did requires so much self discipline as well as quick on your feet thinking which he used gracefully to get out of trouble continuously.

Overall, Kazik’s story is remarkable and full of courageous acts of survival and leadership, proving the fact that he is indeed a true hero. His versatility and knowledge of how to act the part combined with the luck of his physical attributes were the largest contributing factors in Kazick’s success. He intelligently manipulated the system in so many ways and turned things to his advantage. All of his actions though, no matter how minor, were spurred by his tenacity never to give in and put forth as much effort and time into making a difference and saving lives of those who couldn’t do what he did. Kazik realized that he had certain gifts that were valuable in this horrendous situation and he took it upon himself to make it his purpose in life.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/21/08)

Book Reviews:

  • Yale University Press, Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter, http://yalepress.yale.edu/bookprinter.asp?isbn=9780300057973
    This review was done by the book's publisher, Yale University Press. It gives a brief historical background of the Warsaw Ghetto as well as a lengthy quote by Kazik himself regarding the devastation and demolition the ghetto endured when the Nazis started bombing and annihilating every building within the ghetto. It then gives a short review of the memoir and outlines what Kazik discusses. The site also notes that Kazik (Simha Rotem) immigrated to Palestine after the war and now lives in Israel.
  • Bernstein, Michael, "Against Comfort," Times Literary Supplement. May 5, 1995, pg. 9.
    This review is in an issue of Times Literary Supplement with a few other reviews of books written on the Holocaust. Bernstein notes the powerfulness of Kazik’s story as well as the mass intrigue of the “single most famous armed Jewish insurrection against the Nazis.” It also points out that it will change the reader’s mindset of the supposed submissive Jews as victims in the Holocaust.
  • Hist 133D review by Dan Schneiderman

Web Sites: (all revision dates are the site’s last revision)

  • Wikipedia, “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” (Aug 5, 2004/ June 28, 2007), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising
    Although Wikipedia is vastly criticized by the masses, it is one of the largest free encyclopedias on the internet and contains very informative articles for the most part. This is a perfect example. Here, you will be able to learn about the uprising from almost every angle including background information, aftermath, and there even a few pictures posted. The site gives an abundance of useful and straight to the point facts which are perfect for individuals who want to learn about the event without going too far in depth in the early part of their research.
  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising” (Aug 4, 2003/March 26, 2005), http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?ModuleId=10005188
    This site gives a factual overview of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. One interesting part about it, is that it provides a link in the middle of the article to five individuals’ stories and encounters relating to the ghetto, such as Vladka Peltel Meed who was a member of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), just like Kazik was a part of. Overall, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum did an excellent job with the site, allowing the browser to click through a large amount of links on various topics about the Holocaust. The personal stories really help the average person visualize and understand the events that were taking place.
  • The Teachers Guide to the Holocaust, “Photos: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising I” (Aug 29, 2002/Aug 9, 2007), http://fcit.usf.edu/Holocaust/resource/gallery/G1941WGU.htm
    I enjoyed this site because it was a nice change of pace from the standard factual articles. It presents thirty thumbnail photographs of the ghetto, people, and uprising. The viewer can click on the thumbnail to expand the photograph. Each has a caption describing the photo and tells what signs say if they are in that specific photo. It is important for an individual to be able to visualize and actually see history because its helps the overall understanding of the topic. This gallery does a good job in displaying all facets of the uprising and the individuals who had to endure it. There is also a part II of the gallery as well as other galleries of different topics that the site provides. The second part of the gallery contains the same amount of thumbnails as the first gallery.
  • Polen, Nehemia, “Cultural and Religious Life in the Warsaw Ghetto” (dates N/A), http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/site/pp.asp?c=ivKVLcMVIsG&b=476145
    Nehemia Polen discusses how the Jewish people living in the Warsaw Ghetto, “rallied to preserve and foster the spiritual life of Judaism”. Among many other cultural regularities for the Jewish people, public prayer was banned within the ghetto by the Nazis and anyone who was caught taking part in it was subject to severe punishment and in some cases death. Polen describes how faith was kept alive even when facing death. The site also describes how small cultural and educational schools were secretly created and run by the Jewish people in order to maintain teaching the youth. The article teaches the strong will of not only a community but a people as a whole and giving everything they had to maintain their identity and way of life, at least culturally and religiously.
  • Jewish Virtual Library, “The Warsaw Ghetto Table of Contents” (Jun 25 th, 2002/May 19 th, 2007), http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/warsawtoc.html
    This virtual library is a Division of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. This page is a long list of topics regarding the Warsaw Ghetto. Each topic is a link which goes to another article, document, map, picture, or diagram. Here you can find the commanders of the uprising, a German battle diary referring to ghetto operations, and even a map of the ghetto itself. This site is very valuable because it provides a plethora of information regarding the ghetto in many areas that one would not think of immediately. It contains secondary as well as primary documents. It also provides profiles of notable individuals and various diaries of people. Every source of information provided on the site is also accompanied by where that information came from specifically.

Books and Articles:

  • Heydecker, Joe J. The Warsaw Ghetto: A Photographic Record 1941-1944. London: I.B. Tauris & Co, 1990.
    The author, Heydecker, was born in Nuremburg in 1916. The first thirty pages are all text in which the author outlines his life and how he is ordered to the Warsaw Ghetto as a photo-laboratory technician for the army’s propaganda company. He also describes various experiences when he was “behind the wall” of the ghetto. The rest of the book is all pictures, which were blown up in size for this publication. They are of various people in the ghetto, including Nazi soldiers. The range and large quantity of the pictures help encompass the ordinary life that these people had to endure everyday. The pictures are very powerful and will greatly intrigue the reader. One negative aspect of the book is that the photos do not have any captions below them.
  • Ringelblum, Emmanuel. Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. New York/ Toronto/ London: Mcgraw-Hill Book Company, 1958.
    This book contains the notes of personal experience of Emmanuel Ringelblum, beginning from January 1940 (three months after the occupation by the German Army) and spanning to the end of 1942. The entries mainly go by months, covering life before the ghetto, moving into the ghetto, and the breakup of the ghetto: July 1942-December 1942. Ringelblum’s notes are detailed and extensive; giving large amounts of information through his and other’s personal experiences. Like many of the ghetto inhabitants, Ringelblum unfortunately did not make it out alive; he was executed on March 7 th, 1943 alongside his wife and child. This book is an example of an excellent primary source that allows the reader to enter the mind of an individual who lived through this ordeal.
  • Georg, Willy. In the Warsaw Ghetto: Summer 1941. New York: Aperture Foundation, Inc, 1993.
    This book, like Heydecker’s, is a collection of photos of life in the Warsaw Ghetto. It differs in organization though. Many of the photos are accompanied by passages from another book, Warsaw Ghetto Diaries. These passages and captions help the reader understand better not only what is going on in the photograph, but also keys them in on historical information about how life really was inside the ghetto.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/20/08; last updated:
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