Ghetto Fighter’s Last Stand

Simcha Rotem cuts a lonely figure as he walks from the VIP section on the Warsaw Ghetto Plaza to the empty podium.   Age has given him a slight stoop, but there is confidence in his step.  The last survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto command group stands tall and still speaks in clearly enunciated Polish.   70 years to the day since the resistance to the Nazi’s burst into gunfire onto the streets adjacent to us, Kazhik, as he is lovingly known, recounts those days.   There is strength in his words, but no bitterness.  His speaks of his care for the fallen, pride that the Jews were the first to revolt, gratitude for the Poles that helped him survive, the sanctity of human life.

Kazhik was speaking in Polish, and so, after each paragraph he would pause for the translator to deliver the English translation.  After one particular Polish paragraph there was spontaneous wave of applause around the square.  I noted that was the only such applause during a poignant ceremony of dignified codas.  I waited for the translation wondering what had moved the Poles to clap with such enthusiasm.  I thought perhaps he was praising his motherland, or the strength of the Polish Underground, or those who were righteous among the nations from Poland.  Whatever he said had to relate to the Polish audience in some way. Then came the translation:  “I have a beautiful wife who is an artist, two children and five grandchildren.”  The Poles were applauding Jewish continuity, and the future.

Museum opens its doors adjacent to the Nathan Rappaport Memorial to the Ghetto Uprising on the 70th Anniversary today
Museum opens its doors adjacent to the Nathan Rappaport Memorial to the Ghetto Uprising on the 70th Anniversary today.

Today marked a turning point in Polish-Jewish history, quite literally as the doors of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw opened for the first time.  The Museum is a game changer, not because of its enormous scale, but because of how it represents a thousand years of Jewish history in Poland.  The museum is adjacent to Nathan Rappaport’s iconographic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument, which itself depicts the strength and self-determination of the Jews in the ghetto.  The museum symbolizes another form of self-determination – to tell the story of Polish Jews as a part of Polish history and to do that in Poland.  The museum is in fact an act of historiographical revolt.  It states clearly to the naysayers on all sides, that the story of the Jews of Poland can and will be told in Poland, where it belongs.

It is a turning point for the wider Polish community too, because the historical revolutionaries in Poland are not exclusively Jews – far from it.  I began my day today with five professionals from the museum, discussing the forthcoming resource center and education program, all of them Poles.  They aren’t pretending to be Jews, or whitewashing the past, or glorifying an horrific past.  They are a generation that wants to tell it straight and own the future of the past.

Standing near me, as Kazhik delivers his last stand – “War never more!  Human life is holy!” – is my long term friend and mentor at the Jewish historical Institute in Warsaw, Jan Jagielski.  He is a Polish Catholic and one of the most knowledgeable documentations on Jewish life in  Poland.  “It’s a good day for Polish-Jewish history!” I say, the new museum looming large behind us.   He looks at me knowingly above the rims of his glasses and replies “Nothing has changed.  History was always what it was.  We are just now learning how and where to tell it.”

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.