April 19, 2013
A small part of the chasm in Polish-Jewish relations closed on Friday, when, to commemorate the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, alarm signals sounded across the city. Until now, sirens have sounded on August 1, in honor of the fighters of the city-wide Warsaw Uprising in 1944.
These alarms mark the moment when an important part of Jewish history—when a small group in the Warsaw Ghetto opted to choose their own deaths, to resist rather than go to the gas chambers—becomes a part of the narrative of Polish history.
Often the two narratives, of Jewish suffering and of Polish suffering at the hands of the Nazis, run along parallel lines never to meet.
Simcha Rotem, who was honored by Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski with the Grand Cross of the Polonia Restituta order Friday, is now one of only three still living ghetto insurgents.
“Poland was our country and we were all its citizens,” said Mr. Rotem early in his speech, with the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto rising behind him at official state ceremonies. Facing the monument was the newly-built, but not yet fully-open Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which is meant to emphasize the 1,000 years of shared history of Poles and Jews rather than the differences.
Mr. Rotem, whose nom de guerre during the uprising was Kazik, didn’t shy away from touching on sensitive issues for Poland. There’s an increasing acceptance in Poland that the country can’t move forward if it doesn’t take stock that some of its citizens were not just victims, but sometimes perpetrators of war-time crimes against Jews, even as others risked their lives to save them.
After it was clear that the uprising was coming to an end, “we had to leave the ghetto so as not to burn alive,” Mr. Rotem said, adding the Jewish fighters’ requests for help in escaping to the Polish Home Army went unanswered.
Yet almost in the same breath, he listed the Poles who helped him and others escape through the sewers and hide, calling them “human in the full meaning of the word.”
“I’ve often wondered if I would have been able to risk my life and the lives of my family members in a similar situation,” he said. In German-occupied Poland, helping or hiding a Jew was punished with death for that Pole and his or her family.
But the painful truth about a stratum of Polish society that wasn’t sympathetic with the plight of Jews during WWII didn’t escape Mr. Rotem’s mention.
“There were also those, who just for the pleasure of it, without threats to their lives, by pointing a finger, condemned a Jew to death,” he said. “I can’t and won’t understand these people.”
The contrast of good and evil, life and death, echoed again and again in his address to the government officials, foreign dignitaries and regular people present.
“The war took my brother, my sister, my grandparents, many relatives and friends,” Mr. Rotem said. “It took me a long time before I could live again.”
And yet, he did.
“I have a wonderful wife, a painter, two great sons, five grandchildren.”
He left the audience with an admonition.
“The world has not drawn conclusions from the horrors of the 20th century at the heart of Europe, the words ‘war nevermore’ mean little.”