Earlier in the summer semester, writer and director Ronen Zaretzsky joined our class to screen his documentary, The Last Fighters, which details the lives of the surviving members of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The 2006 film traveled to Poland, Israel and Canada to visit the aging fighters and get their views on both the past and the present. It centered on a reunion between many of the living members of the Uprising in Poland, where they were honored by the Polish government for their heroic acts on the 60th anniversary of the Uprising. Many of these fighters’ own communities and neighbors do not know their stories. It began with Marek Edelman, one of the icons of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who then was living in Lodz. His strong Bundist beliefs kept him in Poland after the war, where he became a heart doctor in order to help people after seeing the horrors of the war.
The film then brought the audience to Israel, where Zaretzsky interviewed Masha Futtermillech and Pnina Greenspan in Tel Aviv, Kazik Rotem in Jerusalem and Aharon Carmi in Kfar Saba. In the documentary, Carmi recalled jumping off a train carrying his family bound for Treblinka and returning on foot to Warsaw. Zaretzsky and his crew then met with Bronek Spiegel in Montreal, whose late wife Haika was also part of the Uprising. Spiegel spoke about his training and preparation for the fight while with the Eyal, a Jewish Fighting Organization created in 1942 after a mass liquidation of the ghetto which left mostly young people still in the ghetto.
In Poland at the reunion, the fighters relive the events of the April 1943 uprising. The film discusses the time-by-time and street-by-street play out of the uprising, how it happened, which building each of the fighters hid in, and when each detail occurred. All 220 fighters were divided into 22 groups, each group with a commander. They were all part of various Jewish youth movements, both Zionist and non. They then discussed their memories, as well as their relationship with the Jewish State and its role with Diaspora Jews.
As many of them were the only surviving members of their families, they needed to build their own lives from new at the end of the war. Pnina discussed the complicated feelings she had with returning to Poland, a country she once called home but then ran away from. After the film screening, Zaretzsky joined our cohort for a question and answer session. A student, Rotem, asked, “Why weren’t members of the Artzi, another movement in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, interviewed?” Zaretzsky said it was because most of them did not survive. Another student, Ziva, asked, “How do you think the movie affected the survivors?” Zaretzsky replied, “For Masha it affected her a lot. She asked me, ‘Why did it take you so long to talk to me?’ She was very willing to be interviewed, and we had more than 100 hours of interviews with her.” He ended by saying that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is one of the most unbelievable stories of the 20th century: a group of 200 young people who fight against the Nazi empire. It was the first instance of civilians fighting against the Nazis during the war.
Following this screening and after learning that one of the fighters from the movie, Kazik Rotem, is still living in Israel, our program organized a meeting between students and Rotem in Jerusalem. Our group traveled to Jerusalem to meet with him for the afternoon. He opened himself up for questions and discussion with our group, and told of his experiences during the uprising and his thoughts on life after the war. During the uprising, he was ordered to go to the Aryan side and make contact with Antek Zuckerman. He was only 19 years old at the time. He and his comrades hid in the sewers of Warsaw, walking 3km together with little rations, all while underneath the feet of the Nazis, to escape. While this happened, the Nazis discovered the bunker where the uprising fighters were hiding, including Mordecai Anielewitz, and killed them.
Rotem had successfully, but unknowingly, escaped. When students asked about what he felt at the time, he responded, “We had no intention or thought of surviving the uprising. I never thought I would make it out of there. But we knew we wanted to die fighting, like humans.” He recalled what it was like to take part in the action and spoke of the adrenaline the he felt. Rotem ended the meeting by talking with each student and asking about the diverse backgrounds that make up our program.
Our students unanimously felt that this was one of the most meaningful events of the year, one which left many students at an emotional loss for words. It was an incredible opportunity for our cohort to have an intimate, face-to-face meeting with one of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and to learn about history from someone who made the history happen. It was also a chance for our program to pay tribute to Rotem and his courageous acts.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/