Connect to share and comment
Simcha "Kazik" Rotem was just 19 years old when the Nazis stormed the Warsaw ghetto, facing almost certain death in the gas chambers.
But 70 years on, he recalled how he and a few hundred other poorly-armed young Jews opted for what he described as a "more decent death", rising up in their own stand against the Nazi campaign of mass murder that wiped out six million Jews in World War II.
"We didn't think we were going to win against the Germans. That was clear," said 89-year-old Rotem, one of the last living survivors of the ill-fated Warsaw ghetto revolt in April 1943. "We knew we were sentenced to death."
"As for me, I wanted to choose a nicer, more decent death than at the gas chambers," he told AFP at a Holocaust-themed art exhibition in Warsaw on Wednesday, two days ahead of the anniversary.
Rotem flew in from his home in Jerusalem for the anniversary, which Poland will mark with events including the opening of a Polish Jews museum and a midnight concert at a monument dedicated to the ghetto fighters.
After invading Poland in 1939, Nazi Germany isolated Polish Jews inside ghettos across the country, before beginning their systematic campaign of mass murder in the Holocaust.
"It was hell on earth. What else could it be?" Rotem said.
On April 19, 1943, the Nazis began liquidating the Warsaw ghetto, where just 60,000 people remained after the vast majority of the 450,000 imprisoned had died of hunger or disease or had been sent to the Treblinka death camp.
It was on that day that Rotem -- then named Kazik Ratajzer -- and hundreds of other poorly-armed Jews rose up against their brutal occupiers in Europe's first urban anti-Nazi revolt.
"The Germans entered in the morning. At night they had surrounded the walls. Then it all started," Rotem said.
The small man with a crinkly-eyed smile said he and his comrades had no weaponry to compare with the German military might.
"Because what is a pistol or a rifle or a grenade when faced with the German army that conquered all of Europe?" Rotem said slowly, a pause every few words.
But against all odds, they held out for three weeks, with the Nazis finally using fires and explosives to crush them.
"We were awaiting death," Rotem said, and then: "A miracle happened when several dozen people survived."
Rotem masterminded and led an escape through the sewers and went on to take part in a second uprising by the Polish underground the following year.
Around 7,000 Jews died in the ghetto uprising, most of them burned alive, and more than 50,000 were sent to Treblinka.
The Nazis then razed the ghetto and marked their "victory over the Jews" by blowing up Warsaw's main synagogue on May 16, flattening the rest of the city after the second uprising.
Poland was once Europe's Jewish heartland, with a thriving community of 3.3 million Jews on the eve of the Holocaust.
By 1945, only 300,000 were left.