While schoolchildren around the world were celebrating Christmas Eve, Israeli schoolchildren were holding a memorial day to honour the last surviving Warsaw Ghetto fighter, Simcha Rotem, who died on Saturday aged 94.
Mr Rotem, who emigrated to Israel in 1946, was just a teenager when the Nazis invaded his native Poland in 1939.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, announcing the memorial day, told Sunday’s cabinet meeting: “We will remember that the Holocaust also had great heroism, and we have been re-birthed and grown from that Holocaust”.
Rotem was born Kazik Ratajzer and used the name “Kazik” when he and a group of young resistance fighters were holed up in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Years later, in an interview in Israel, he recalled: “At the first moment when I saw the great German force entering the ghetto, my first reaction, and I’m sure not just mine — I felt we were nothing.
“What could we do with our pathetic, almost non-existent weaponry, when faced with the tremendous German firepower, with light canons and tanks and armoured personnel carriers and a huge infantry force numbering hundreds, hundreds if not thousands…I felt utterly helpless.”
But he said he and his group, the ZOB, [Jewish Combat Organisation] had decided “to choose the kind of death” they faced, and to stand up in defence of their fellow Jews. He said: “We’d kill as many of them as we could [but] we knew our fate was completely clear”.
As one of the few survivors of the revolt, escaping through a sewer tunnel, Rotem controversially went on to join Nakam, a group of Jews dedicated to finding and killing Nazi officials after the war.
Among the more unexpected tributes paid to Simcha Rotem was one from British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. On social media, he wrote: “The Jewish resistance hero Simcha Rotem has died, but he will not be forgotten.
“He was the last surviving resistance fighter from the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising against the Nazi Holocaust.
“The courage, solidarity and heroism shown by him and his comrades is an inspiration”.