They left the burning ghetto through the sewers. "Kazik" Ratajzer – Symcha Rotem

10.02.2021
Written by: Przemysław Batorski
96 years ago, Symcha Rotem, or 'Kazik' Ratajzer, was born, the last participant in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It was he who, in May 1943, led the Jewish Combat Organization fighters out of the burning ghetto through the sewers. If it weren't for "Kazik", we might have learned almost nothing about the fights in the ghetto.
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Szymon "Kazik" Ratajzer, later Symcha Rotem (on the left), Icchak Cukierman in the background. Warsaw, 1943

 

Szymon Ratajzer was born on February 10, 1925 (according to some sources – 1924) in the Warsaw district of Czerniaków. He lived at Nowosielecka 8 Street, then at Podchorążych 24 Street, in a tenement house that belonged to his maternal grandfather, Jankiel Miński, who made his money trading food. Mother was an assimilated Jew, father – a Hasid. Szymek grew up in Powiśle, a district which was then notoriously known as the territory of thugs. Before the war, few Jews lived in Czerniaków, so the later “Kazik” knew life in the Polish community well.

In the fall of 1940, the Ratajzer family were forced to move to the emerging Warsaw ghetto. However, Szymek did not actually live in a closed district. He worked in houses occupied by the Germans, then on a farm in Odrzywół and in a "kibbutz" in Czerniaków. He had a "Polish" appearance, spoke Polish well, had obtained "Aryan" documents, and regularly crossed the ghetto borders. It was only after the great liquidation action in summer 1942 that Ratajzer moved to the ghetto, joined the Jewish Combat Organization, which was being formed under the conspiracy, and received the nickname "Kazik" (short of Kazimierz). He took part in the first JCO actions, extortions of money and attacks on collaborators. Thanks to his "good" appearance and accent, the only 18-year-old boy repeatedly pretended to be a Polish underground Home Army officer, and after the outbreak of the uprising he played the role of an SS officer during patrols[1].

The ghetto uprising breaks out

On April 19, 1943, after entering the closed district, the Germans came under fire – the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto began. After the first failures, the SS and Wehrmacht units began to burn down tenement houses one after another, leveling the city with the ground. The JCO command tried to renew contacts on the other side of the wall and check the chances of leaving the ghetto through the sewers. "Kazik" was offered to cross to the "Aryan" side as a liaison.

After leaving the ghetto, "Kazik" learned that there were practically no conditions for the evacuation of fighters in Warsaw. There were no apartments prepared, and the contacts maintained by Icchak "Antek" Cukierman, who was going through a mental breakdown, did not work.

The Jewish resistance movement received relatively little help from the Polish underground. The two main conspiratorial factions in the ghetto, the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military Union, were never merged – the reasons were political divisions and the reluctance to create a joint command. What is worse, shortly before the commencement of the final liquidation action, the Gestapo arrested Arie "Jurek" Wilner, a liaison between the JCO and the Home Army. Wilner, tortured by the Germans, was bought out, but the Home Army broke off relations with the JCO for security reasons, fearing both infiltration by the Germans and the Soviets (Poles often suspected Jews of cooperation with the Soviet Union). The Germans often took advantage of these sentiments – to attack official and unofficial Polish-Soviet relations and the Polish underground, on April 11, 1943, they announced the discovery of the mass graves of Polish officers murdered by the Soviet NKVD in Katyn.

"A rational argument"

In order to have a chance to survive in occupied Warsaw, Jews had to put themselves at risk and enter into unexpected alliances. Working of the fighters' exit from the ghetto, "Kazik" collaborated with Władysław Gaik, nicknamed "Krzaczek" [Bush], an officer of the left-wing Polish underground People's Guard. A few months later, in January 1944, Gaik was accused of collaborating with the Germans and shot by People’s Guard representatives. However, thanks to him, "Kazik" contacted the "king of szmalcownicy" ("Kazik" never knew his name[2]), who lived near the manhole at Prosta Street, on the corner of Twarda in Warsaw's Wola district –  through this manhole, the fighters would have been able to leave the ghetto. Also, "the king" wanted to contribute to the Polish underground. "Kazik" told him that he would help to get a lost Home Army unit out of the ghetto. In this way, the criminal responsible for catching Jews helped prepare the evacuation of the JCO fighters. The action was financed by the People's Guard.

"Kazik", together with Ryszard Maselman and Polish sewer workers, went back to the ghetto through dark tunnels, wading through waste. During the march, they feared gas grenades, which the Germans sometimes threw into the hatches. When the sewer workers did not want to go any further, "Kazik" bribed them with vodka or used the "rational argument": "Now you have two options: either you go, or I'll kill you here," he would say, taking out his gun.

Eventually they reached the ghetto. “Kazik” surfaced among the burning ruins at Zamenhofa Street: “despite his calls and whispered slogans, no sound of human speech can be heard. Just the humming of burning houses”[3]. He came across two exhausted men who told him there were no fighters in this place. "There is no one there anymore," [4] “Kazik” told Rysiek and their guides. Suddenly, they heard voices from the side sewer: there were ten fighters who had come from the vicinity of Miła Street. Then "Kazik" found in the sewers a group from Świętojerska Street, which included Marek Edelman and Cywia Lubetkin. They were also joined by a few people who had escaped from the Anielewicz bunker at 18 Miła Street, where the leader of the uprising and his people committed mass suicide. In total, 80 to 100 fighters were to leave the canals and get into a truck at Prosta street.

Critical half an hour

"Kazik" led the group to the exit from the sewers on Prosta Street. On May 9, he surfaced and called for a second truck: this delayed the entire operation. JCO men and women waited under the hatch for another whole day. Kazik told them that the evacuation would begin in the morning of May 10, after the curfew. That morning, however, the trucks did not arrive for several hours. The chances of evacuation were decreasing, and only 120 meters from the hatch there was a German gendarmes post. The action had to be fast.

When the truck finally arrived, "Kazik" knocked on the hatch. The exhausted JCO fighters came to the surface and lay down in the truck, one person on top of the other – so that everyone would find a place. A crowd of onlookers gathered around the hatch, a “blue" policeman (member of German-controlled auxiliary Polish order police) came. "Kazik" explained to him that it was "an action of the Polish underground" and showed that he had a gun in his pocket. It took half an hour for all the insurgents to get to the truck.

"Is anybody out there?"[5] – shouted "Kazik" into the canal, but no one answered. Cywia Lubetkin said there were still people in the side sewers. "Kazik" was furious because he had forbidden to separate from the group for fear of getting people lost in the sewers. He couldn't risk any longer and ordered departure. The truck moved towards Łomianki near Warsaw. JCO fighters survived.

On the same day, "Kazik" returned to Warsaw to search for about ten of the remaining fighters who remained in the sewers. He saw the bodies of two of them in the vicinity of Bankowy Square – they were shot by the Germans after exiting the sewers on their own. He decided that there was no chance of saving anyone else.

"Maybe more people would have been saved had it not been for the ghetto uprising?" - said Symcha Ratajzer-Rotem in an interview with Witold Bereś and Krzysztof Burnetka almost 70 years later. – “To be honest, I didn't think so then. All the time I was just wondering how I would die. I did not say and do not say that the uprising was for history, for the nation, for honor. I just didn't want to choke in the gas chamber. I really did not want to. So it's easier to die in battle. Faster.

But not to sacrifice your life for something.

No.

Human life is more important than honor."[6]

 

Out of the entire group led by "Kazik" from the burning ghetto, only eight people survived the war – Roman Bornstein, Tuwia Borzykowski, Marek Edelman, Chaim Frymer, Masza Glajtman-Putermilch, Pnina Grynszpan-Frymer, Chana Kryształ-Frykszdorf and Cywia Lubetkin.

Pomnik_ewakuacji_bojowników_getta_warszawskiego_Grycuk.JPG [203.02 KB]
Monument to the Evacuation of Fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto,
photo by Adrian Grycuk, Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Today, at Prosta 51 in Warsaw, there is the Monument to the Evacuation of Fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto.

After the war, "Kazik" Ratajzer moved to Israel and changed his name to Symcha Rotem. Until the last years of his life, he visited Warsaw. He died in Jerusalem on December 22, 2018 at the age of 94. He was the last surviving insurgent from the Warsaw ghetto.

 

Sources:

Witold Bereś, Krzysztof Burnetko, Bohater z cienia. Losy Kazika Ratajzera, Warsaw 2012.

Marcin Kołodziejczyk, Szymon Ratajzer „Kazik” – bohater z warszawskiego getta, „Polityka”, https://www.polityka.pl/tygodnikpolityka/historia/1540029,1,szymon-ratajzer-Kazik--bohater-z-warszawskiego-getta.read, access 9.02.2021.

Marcin Urynowicz, Pokazali, że potrafią walczyć, „Pamięć.pl Biuletyn Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej” no 4/2013, pp. 32-37.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Describing Kazik's experiences up to the ghetto uprising, I mainly use the book: Witold Bereś, Krzysztof Burnetko, Bohater z cienia. Losy Kazika Ratajzera [A hero from the shadow. The fate of Kazik Ratajzer], Warsaw 2012.

[2] According to some sources, the man's name was Tadeusz Karcz and he was an agent of the Kripo – Kriminalpolizei, the German criminal police, one of the cells of the Nazi occupation apparatus.

[3] W. Bereś, K. Burnetko, Bohater z cienia. Losy Kazika Ratajzera, Warsaw 2012, p. 66.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., p. 70.

[6] Ibid., p. 54.