Still from Agnieszka Arnold&squot;s "Rotem"  Still from Agnieszka Arnold's "Rotem"

Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews screens Rotem, director Agnieszka Arnold's extraordinary true story of Kazik Ratajzer, a protagonist of the Jewish resistance movement during the Second World War

He was fifteen when the war started. You couldn’t tell that Kazik Ratajzer was Jewish. He looked Polish and he spoke like a Pole. He was your ordinary scoundrel from the Czerniaków neighborhoud in Warsaw: he had a sly grin, an illuminated look and a smiling face. He wouldn’t have had trouble escaping Warsaw to wait out the occupation in a safe place.

"Inglourious Basterds" of the Warsaw Ghetto

But Ratajzer, who took the name Simcha Rotem after the war - which director Arnold uses to title her new film - had no intention of leaving. Warsaw was his home, the place where he was among Jewish friends and family. Together with them he was sent to the ghetto. He witnessed the deportation of over 300 thousand Jews who were later killed in Treblinka and Auschwitz. When the Germans prepared to destroy the ghetto, he took up arms alongside his peers. Their actions defied the once-popular opinion about the inability of Jews to fight back.

In an article for Polityka magazine in April 2013, Marcin Kołodziejczyk wrote,

Official Nazi propaganda of the beginning of the 1940s aimed to represent the Jewish people as passive and unable to fight. In the streets of Warsaw, German soldiers organise shows to lampoon the Jews – there is always a group of gawkers to see an elderly Hasidic Jew dancing to the command of Germans who laugh out loud or force the petrified man to stand on a barrel, and cut off his beard […] The conviction that Jews cannot fight quickly spreads throughout Warsaw.

Ratajzer helped prove the opposite: "We wanted to choose how to die". As a member of the Jewish Combat Organization, a resistance movement founded in July 1942 which was instrumental in engineering the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, he fought against SS battalions, attempted subversions and maintained contact with Polish Home Army forces outside the ghetto.

On the 19th of April 1943, when a German force of several thousand troops entered the ghetto and systematically burned and blew up buildings, Ratajzer searched for an escape route that would save the largest amount of people. Among those he saved was Marek Edelman, who became a cardiologist and a leading Jewish-Polish political and social activist. The director Arnold adds, "We have Rotem to thank for the fact that in Poland we had Marek Edelman, a man who served as an 'ethical compass' for over 60 years."

Ratajzer couldn’t come to terms with the injustice inflicted on Jews. To wreak postwar vengeance on the Germans, he joined a secret organisation founded by Abba Kovner called Jewish Avengers - also known as Nakam. They planned on poisoning water supplies in Munich, Berlin, Weimar, Nuremberg and Hamburg. When those plan didn’t pan out, they attempted to poison former SS men held prisoner in the Dachau and Nuremberg camps.

Animations by Agnieszka Polska

Rotem is based on fragments of conversations that Arnold conducted with Simcha Rotem over a period of 18 years, and features archival material from public and private collections around the world. Available resources were scarce for Arnold's work on illustrating the story of the man. Except for films ordered by Jürgen Stroop, the SS commander in charge of destroying the ghetto, little information is available on that destruction. Arnold chose animations to depict the drama of war, and to transfer human emotions instead of just illustrating events.

The director asked young video artist and photographer Agnieszka Polska, who regularly uses archival photographs in her work, to collaborate. She worked working under the supervision of the renowed artist Wilhelm Sasnal. Brought to life, interpreted and given a new meaning, the material is enhanced by expressive music of composer-pianist Zygmunt Krauze. The director commented on undertaking the project, at a press conference:

I had doubts whether I was the right person for the job. I thought I was too young. But when I watched the materials and saw the pictures I was meant to be working on, I felt I had to do it. Filming the scenes of the passing through Warsaw sewers I wanted to convey the feeling of claustrophobia and show the drama of the individual, not that of a group of people.

Although the Holocaust serves as backdrop to the events described in the film, war drama is not what interests Arnold most. As she elaborates, "I made a film about people, not about the ghetto, the Uprising and the Holocaust. Rotem is a fascinating person who went through hell but managed to keep in himself the essence of humanity".

Agnieszka Arnold (born 1947) is a Polish documentary filmmaker. She directed two documentaries on the Jedwabne pogrom during the Second World War, in which hundreds of Polish Jews in the town were massacred by their Polish neighbours.

Bringing the project to a close

Arnold met with her protagonist, talking with him and documenting their encounters for years. She began work on Rotem in 1997 but struggled to find a producer. The Cinematography Committee wasn’t willing to finance her project, and institutions that co-finance documentaries lacked money.

When she came back to the idea, Simcha Rotem was seriously ill so the search for money became a battle with time. Filming took off thanks to the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the first institution to invest in the project. Luckily Rotem was still willing to tell the story of his life as Kazik Ratajzer.

The premiere of Rotem takes place on the 20th of April 2013 at 12 pm and 2 pm at the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, as part of the new museum's "Daffodils" socio-educational campaign organised by to broaden awareness about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The 80-minute documentary screens with English subtitles. The museum's full opening is planned for early 2014, withning research and educational facilities begin their functions on the 20th of April 2013. A 57-minute version will appear on the Polish channel TVP 1 on the 23rd of April 2013 at 11 pm. Rotem will also screen at the Kraków Film Festival in June 2013.

For more information see: Museum of the History of Polish Jews

Author: Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by MJ, 12.04.2013