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Simha Rotem and Itzhak Zuckerman

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5048 | Film ID: 3745, 3746, 3747, 3748, 3749, 3750, 3751, 3752, 3766

Simha Rotem and Itzhak Zuckerman talk about their involvement in the Jewish combat organization in the Warsaw ghetto and the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The interview with both men takes place at the Ghetto Fighters House in Israel on October 4, 1979. Mr. Rotem was interviewed separately in his apartment in Jerusalem on October 6, 1979.

FILM ID 3745 -- Camera Rolls 1-4
Lanzmann says they are standing outside of the Ghetto Fighters House. Lanzmann has brought a model of the Warsaw Ghetto to reference when describing the uprising. Rotem joined the Jewish Combat Organization in 1942. He worked at a collective farm and was sent by the Jewish Combat Organization into the ghetto to make contact with the Zionist organization there. The director of the farm was named Czerniakow(?), and his farm had been authorized by the Germans to employ young people to make agricultural products for the war. The farm was at the edge of the Warsaw district.

The farm was not guarded, and the director had confidence that the young people working for him would not get him into trouble. Rotem was aware of his privileged position away from the ghetto. He was able to perform illegal resistance activities and received enough to eat. He stayed on the farm for three months until it was shut down at the end of 1942 and its occupants sent to the ghetto. Due to his resistance activities, he was able to visit his parents in the ghetto and witnessed the empty streets and gutted houses. He did not live in the ghetto during the first major deportation.

FILM ID 3746 -- Camera Rolls 5-7
The Germans did not expect the Jews in the ghetto to fight back. Rotem explains that none of the Jews could have imagined that a genocide would occur in the 20th century. On top of this, the Germans tried to mislead the Jews further with the establishment of model camps at Poniatow and Trawniki, which Jewish delegations visited. The Jewish Combat Organization was established on July 28, 1942. They were organized, but lacked arms and were only able to fight from January 1943 until April 19, 1943.

Mordechai Anielewicz, leader of the Jewish Combat Organization, sent Itzhak Zuckerman (referred to as Antek) a letter on April 22, concerning the search for arms for the uprising. Zuckerman has a copy of the letter that he translated at the time from Hebrew into Yiddish. Living on the outside, Zuckerman knew what was happening in the ghetto and understood more so than others the significance of the deportations. He had contacts in the ghetto, as well as with Jewish gravediggers.

Zuckerman left the ghetto six days before the insurrection on April 19, 1943. In the ghetto, Rotem describes how the occupants of the ghetto felt as if something was going to happen. The Germans entered the ghetto on Malevkins street and made their way to the factories. Rotem was outside of the combat zone. Zuckerman comments that Lanzmann has been able to get him to talk about things he does not like thinking about.

FILM ID 3747 -- Camera Rolls 8-9
A storm rages outside where the interview takes place. Inside, Zuckerman continues. The Germans entered the ghetto carrying a white flag and demanded a cease fire. Zuckerman describes this event as beyond unbelievable. The resistance fighters immediately opened fire, causing the Germans to retreat. Upon seeing three hundred SS enter the ghetto, Zuckerman exploded a mine placed at an observation post which injured dozens of Germans. The Germans would set fire to buildings and launch artillery from outside the ghetto. The morale of the resistance fighters was lifted when they saw how they had taken the Germans by surprise, and had killed dozens of them in the first three days of fighting. The Germans were afraid to enter the ghetto at night, and were disturbed by the deserted streets. The Jews in the ghetto hid underground in tunnels, basements and bunkers.

Zuckerman says the two most astonishing facts of the uprising were that people who were trapped had the spirit to fight, and that those in charge were so young. Rotem was 16 or 17, and Zuckerman about 20 at the time. Zuckerman tells Lanzmann how those who perished in the fight deserve to have their lives written about. Rotem adds that it is unfair for two or three people to be given all the honor and to be turned almost into a legend, for an event which was performed by hundreds.

FILM ID 3748 -- Camera Roll 10
After the war, Zuckerman critiqued Zivia for writing the entire account of the resistance fighter's escape in one single chapter of her book. He felt without all the details, the book did not portray the reality of what happened. Lanzmann tells Zuckerman that he is doing similarly by simplifying the events of the Holocaust for the sake of the film. Zuckerman nevertheless thanks Lanzmann for making the film while he is still able to recount his story.

FILM ID 3749 -- Camera Rolls 11-13
[Rotem is interviewed alone is his apartment and thus speaks for the remainder of the interview.] Human language is incapable of describing the horror of what was witnessed in the ghetto. The Jews in the ghetto were cut off from the world and isolated to the point where it was possible to lose the drive to keep fighting. Previous attempts to leave the ghetto had ended in death but Rotem and a friend, Sigmund, still decided to try. On April 29, Rotem escaped the ghetto through a tunnel and hid in a house. They met a Christian Pole who they managed to convince that they were also Christian Poles accidentally placed inside the ghetto.

The Polish man showed Rotem and Sigmund an escape route via a courtyard which had several days previously been the site of the Irgun fighter's massacre. The Irgun fighters resisted German control independently from the Jewish Combat Organization inside the ghetto. They were able to meet the contact on the Christian side of Warsaw, who advised that a rescue operation of Jewish fighters in the ghetto take place. They concluded the best way to achieve this would be through the sewers. Rotem met with Zuckerman and convinced him to wait until he learned the sewer system before re-entering the ghetto.

The men sought out sewer workers to assist them in maneuvering through the tunnels. This took about one week, after which they re-entered the ghetto on May 8 or 9. They could hear fighting and the sound of gunfire from outside the ghetto. Rotem describes returning to the ghetto as the most natural thing to do. He had left in order to seek help for his comrades, not to save himself. From his position outside the ghetto he saw the fires burning and snipers on the roofs. Meanwhile, the city of Warsaw continued functioning as normal. Even in uprising, the ghetto continued to exist as an isolated island. They re-entered the ghetto with the help of the "King of the Blackmailers," a Polish man who lived near the ghetto wall who trapped Jews trying to escape. Rotem and his comrades pretended to be members of the Polish Resistance whose comrades where stuck inside the ghetto. Along with a substantial bribe, the "King of the Blackmailers" helped the men re-enter the ghetto.

FILM ID 3750 -- Camera Rolls 14-16
Rotem, his comrade Richek (also spelled Rijek) and two sewer workers entered the ghetto through the sewer system. At times the sewer workers tried to turn around, and Rotem and Richek had to threaten them with their weapons. After about two hours in the sewers, Rotem arrived at the Franciskhanska quarter. Despite giving the password to enter the bunker where the Jewish Combat Organization was supposed to be, he received no reply.

The bunker the Jewish Combat Organization had been using was 22 Franciszkanska. Rotem had received no information about the ghetto in the eight days he was outside of it. Consequently, he did not know for certain where he could locate the other combat fighters when he returned to the ghetto.

Rotem first went to the bunker where Zivia and Mordechai Anielewicz had been eight days previously, in search of survivors. Not finding anyone there, he went to the other bunkers in the ghetto where he thought he may find survivors. Walking amongst the ruins, Rotem heard a women call for help. She had broken her leg and couldn't free herself. Unfortunately, in the dark Rotem could not find her. As he continued through the ghetto, he smelled smoke and the burnt flesh of those murdered. He repeated the password, "Jan" at each bunker he visited, but did not find anyone. He describes how he felt he was the last living Jew. He returned to the sewers and they retraced their steps.

FILM ID 3751 -- Camera Rolls 19-21
The bunkers were deep subterranean caves. They were extremely hot and often one had to lay face down to breathe.

On their way back through the sewers the four men heard a noise and feared they had were about to be attacked by Germans, who knew about the sewers. However, it turned out to be ten resistance fighters, all of whom Rotem says he knew personally.

Most of the bunkers in the ghetto had been prepared for the non-fighting citizens. As the headquarters of the insurrection, the bunker at Mila 18 had been given to the resistance fighters by gangster Samuel Ascher. The gangsters dealt with contraband commerce between the ghetto and larger Warsaw.

FILM ID 3752 -- Camera Rolls 22-24
Rotem remarks how fortunate their meeting with the ten other resistance fighters was, and that by a miracle they did not open fire on each other. They told Rotem that he was late returning to the ghetto by one day. Many of the fighters had committed suicide the previous day, before they could be captured by the Germans. Rotem, Richek and the two sewer guides left the sewer while the ten fighters went in search of surviving fighters in the ghetto. They agreed to rendezvous at a well-known manhole cover outside of the ghetto.

Meeting at their rendezvous point, the fighters who searched the ghetto told Rotem that there were survivors in the ghetto who wanted to escape. They could not hold out in the sewers for another day. However, Rotem was not prepared to help a large group of Jews escape from the ghetto so soon. The following morning, he had acquired a truck driven by the Polish communist Army man, Tchacktckek. Despite the tremendous danger, they began to bring the Jews out of the sewer and load them into the truck. Rotem recalls how a crowd of Polish spectators gathered. With about 40 people in the truck, they left the area. Zivia told Rotem there were still people in the sewers.

The Jews escaping the sewers were so weak they had to be pulled out and lifted in to the truck. Zivia demanded they return to rescue the remaining people in the sewers, but Rotem felt it would be too dangerous, and figured the second truck would rescue them. The fighters hid in the forest outside of the city, and Rotem returned to Warsaw to see if the remaining fighters had managed to escape. He found his comrade, Rickek, dead in the street. As the remaining Jews escaped through the manhole, Germans had arrived and killed them. Of those who escaped to the forest, Rotem believes about four men are still alive at the time of the interview. Many of them had joined the partisans after escaping the ghetto, and were killed in combat.

FILM ID 3766 -- Coupes (Roll 40 - white) -- 09:00:09 to 09:13:19
Mute shots of Rotem in the Ghetto Fighters House. 09:00:20 "Bob. 176" coupe of Lanzmann sitting on a couch, listening and interviewing to Rotem, smoking, close-ups. 09:05:42 Model of the Warsaw ghetto in the museum. 09:08:07 Historic photographs of ghetto inhabitants.

*** The following are audio reels ****

Film ID 3498 -- Rottem 132, take 1,2 -- 00:00:30 to 00:16:00
Film ID 3499 -- Rotem 133, take 3,4 -- 00:00:42 to 00:11:36
Film ID 3500 -- Rotem 134, take 5 -- 00:00:27 to 00:11:12
Film ID 3501 -- Rotem 135, take 6 -- 00:00:43 to 00:11:42
Film ID 3502 -- Rotem 136, take 7 -- 00:01:10 to 01:12:08
Film ID 3503 -- Rotem 137, take 8 -- 00:01:30 to 00:11:37
Film ID 3504 -- Rotem 138, take 9 -- 00:00:52 to 00:11:42
Film ID 3505 -- Rotem 139, take 10 -- 00:00:56 to 00:12:33
Film ID 3506 -- Rotem 140, take 11 -- 00:00:31 to 00:12:46
Film ID 3507 -- Rotem 141, take 12 -- 00:00:44 to 00:11:42
Film ID 3508 -- Rotem 142, take 13 -- 00:01:21 to 00:12:05
Film ID 3509 -- Rotem 143, take 14 -- 00:00:31 to 00:11:15
Film ID 3510 -- Rotem 144, take 16,17 -- 00:01:06 to 00:11:55
Film ID 3511 -- Rotem 145, take 18 -- 00:01:12 to 00:11:55
Film ID 3512 -- Rotem 146, take 19 -- 00:00:22 to 00:11:04
Film ID 3513 -- Rotem 147, take 20 -- 00:00:31 to 00:11:16
Film ID 3514 -- Rotem 148, take 21 -- 00:00:31 to 00:11:20
Film ID 3515 -- Rotem 149, take 22 -- 00:00:26 to 00:11:14
Film ID 3516 -- Rotem 150, take 22 sixte -- 00:00:32 to 00:11:15
Film ID 3517 -- Rotem 151, take 23 -- 00:00:41 to 00:13:19

Event:  October 4-6, 1979
Production:  1985
Jerusalem, Israel
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2022-07-28 22:02:33
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