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Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski (February 27, 1877 - August 28, 1944) was a Polish Jew and businessman who was appointed as the German Nazi-nominated head of the Ältestenrat ("Council of Elders"), or Jewish authorities in the Łódź Ghetto. He accrued power as he organized the ghetto as an industrial site, believing that productivity was the key to Jewish survival.
Before the Nazi German invasion of Poland, Rumkowski was director of an orphanage. On October 13, 1939, the Nazi occupation authorities appointed him the Judenälteste ("Elder of the Jews"), or head of the Ältestenrat, in Łódź. In all other ghettos, the head of the Jewish council was known as the Judenrat. In this position, Rumkowski reported directly to the Nazi ghetto administration headed by Hans Biebow, but he had direct responsibility for providing heat, work, food, housing, and health and welfare services to the ghetto population. When the rabbinate was dissolved, Rumkowski began to perform weddings. The nickname of the ghetto's money or scrip, the Rumki, sometimes Chaimki, was derived from his name, as it had been his idea; and his face was put on the ghetto postage stamps.
Some remember him for his haunting and tragic speech, Give Me Your Children, in 1942, when the Germans insisted on deporting 20,000 children to death camps. He was also remembered as an autocrat and tyrant who built a personal empire within the ghetto. He made work the basis of survival and created profit for the Germans, to preserve the Jews.
In 1944, the Germans proceeded to liquidate the ghetto in view of defeats in the East. In August, Rumkowski and his family voluntarily joined the last transport to Auschwitz, and were murdered there August 28, 1944. A family friend (who in 1944 was a teenaged resident of Łódź ghetto) suggests that Jewish inmates may have murdered him.
Although Rumkowski and other Judenrat came to be regarded as collaborators and traitors, since the late 20th century, historians have reassessed this in light of the terrible conditions of the time. A survivor of the Łódź ghetto noted in his memoir that Rumkowski had kept it going for two years beyond the ghetto at Warsaw, and given more people from Łódź a chance to survive, although they were a few thousand. He wrote, "This is a horrific reckoning, but it gives Rumkowski a posthumous victory".
Background and history
The well-known Judenrat member Chaim Rumkowski was a controversial figure due to his leadership role in the Łódź ghetto during the Holocaust. During World War II, the Germans forced the Jewish community to form Judenräte, or "Jewish Councils", in each ghetto in the incorporated territory and the General Government regions of occupied Poland. The Judenräte acted as the local government of the ghetto; these leaders stood as the bridges between the Nazis and the caged population of each ghetto. In addition to running basic government services such as hospitals, post offices, and vocational schools, common tasks of the Judenräte included providing the Nazi regime with Jewish residents for slave labor, and the hardest task of all, rounding up quotas of Jews for "resettlement in the East." The Jews learned that this was a euphemism for deportation to concentration and death camps.
Rumkowski's approach to being Judenrat leader provoked controversy, at the time and by historians and survivors since. Upon learning of the "Final Solution" and the real meaning of "resettlement", Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Judenrat of Warsaw, committed suicide. Rumkowski came to believe that the Jews could prove they were essential by being productive workers. He was swayed by the slogan "Arbeit macht frei - Work sets you free" that appeared on the gates of several concentration camps. By industrializing the Łódź ghetto, he hoped to make the community indispensable to the Germans and save the people of Łódź. On April 5, 1940, Rumkowski petitioned the Germans for materials for the Jews to manufacture in exchange for desperately needed food and money. By the end of the month, the Germans had acquiesced in part, agreeing to provide food, but not money, in exchange for the labor.
Rumkowski's plan also included making the ghetto more like a community, with infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, mail delivery system, and other communal necessities. He believed in creating a ghetto which embodied a community of Jewish culture and nationalism. Because of how he carried out his goals and abused his powers, many people remember him very differently. For example, Yehuda Leib Gerst's memoirs observe: "This man had sickly leanings that clashed. Toward his fellow Jews, he was an incomparable tyrant who behaved just like a Führer and cast deathly terror to anyone who dared to oppose his lowly ways. Toward the perpetrators, however, he was as tender as a lamb and there was no limit to his base submission to all their demands, even if their purpose was to wipe us out totally. Either way, he did not properly understand his situation and positing and their limits."
Whether or not Rumkowski succeeded in saving the Łódź ghetto is open to debate. Łódź was the last ghetto in Eastern Europe to be liquidated. While only 877 inhabitants survived in the city until liberation, about 7,000 ghetto residents lived to see the end of the war. Rumkowski's methods are still debated by scholars and historians, who disagree on whether he was a Nazi collaborator or sincerely trying to help the Jews of Łódź.
In the early years after the war, Rumkowski and others who had worked with the Nazis were considered to be collaborators and traitors. Research done by Isaiah Trunk on the Jewish Councils under Nazi occupation in his work Judenrat revises the view of the Judenräte, and specifically of Rumkowski, as traitors. The historian Michael Unger, in his Reassessment of the Image of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (2004) explores the materials leading to the reassessment of these leaders. Arnold Mostowicz, who once lived in the Łódź ghetto, justified Rumkowski’s policies in his memoirs, saying that Rumkowski prolonged the ghetto's existence by two years, allowing more people to have survived from Łódź than from Warsaw. He concludes, "This is a horrific reckoning, but it gives Rumkowski a posthumous victory".
Rumkowski provoked strong opinions. He was described by the following:
...aggressive, domineering (person), thirsty for honor and power, raucous, vulgar and ignorant, impatient (and) intolerant, impulsive and lustful. On the other hand, he is portrayed as a man of exceptional organizational prowess, quick, very energetic, and true to tasks that he set for himself.
SS Brigadier General Friedrich Uebelhoer, on September 8, 1939, began the ghettoization of Łódź. The top secret report stated clearly that the ghetto was only a temporary solution to "the Jewish question in the city of Lodz..." "I reserve to myself the decision concerning the times and the means by which the ghetto and with it the city of Łódź will be cleansed of Jews". Uebelhoer made the condition that they would provide for the Jews as long as suitable trade could be made, but never implied long-term survival. The Germans immediately replaced the local Jewish Community Council with the Nazis' official Judenrat, or Council of Elders.
Rumkowski was appointed head of the Łódź ghetto on October 13, 1939. The ghetto was sealed on April 30, 1940 with 164,000 people inside. He reported directly to the Nazi ghetto administration headed by Hans Biebow, who had the responsibility of overall living conditions of the ghetto, including housing, heating, work, and food (Yad Vashem). The mayor Franz Schiffer wrote in a letter to Rumkowski:
I further charge you with the execution of all measures...necessary for the maintenance of an orderly community life in the residential district of the Jews. In particular you have to safeguard order in economic life, food supply, utilization of manpower, public health, and public welfare. You are authorized to take all measures and issue all directives necessary to reach this objective, and to enforce them by means of the Jewish police under your control...
On October 16, 1939, Rumkowski appointed thirty-one public figures to create the council, however, less than three weeks later, on November 11, twenty of them were killed and the rest were arrested. Some claim that Rumkowski was indirectly responsible for these murders, saying that he complained about the men to German authorities "for refusing to rubber-stamp his policies." This accusation, although never proven, shows the discontent and mistrust the people had for Rumkowski, at such an early stage of the war. Because of the events that had transpired with the first round of Judenrat, many people feared such public positions in the ghetto. Although a new council was officially appointed a few weeks later, the men were not as distinguished and were less effective than the previous leaders. This change conceded more power to Rumkowski, and left few to contest or restrain his decisions.
Prior to the "Final Solution"
The Germans authorized Rumkowski as the "sole figure authority in managing and organizing internal life in the ghetto". In addition, Rumkowski gained power because of his domineering personality, and the lack of a forceful council. Biebow, at first, gave Rumkowski full power in organizing the ghetto, as long as it did not interfere with his main objectives: complete order, confiscation of Jewish property and assets, coerced labor, and his own personal gain. Their relationship seemed to work effectively. Rumkowski had leeway to organize the ghetto according to his fashion, believing he was creating a better ghetto life, while Biebow sat back, reaped rewards, and had Rumkowski do all the dirty work. In trying to keep Biebow happy, he obeyed every order with little inquiry, and provided him with gifts and personal favors. Of his willingness to cooperate with the German authorities, Rumkowski is said to have boasted in a speech, "My motto is always to be at least ten minutes ahead of every German demand." He believed that by staying ahead of German thinking, he could keep them satisfied and preserve the Jews.
Because of the confiscation of cash and other belongings, Rumkowski proposed a currency to be used specifically in the ghetto - the ersatz. This new currency would be used as money, and by this alone, a person could buy food rations and other necessities. This proposal was considered arrogant and illustrated Rumkowski’s lust for power. The currency was, therefore, nicknamed by ghetto inhabitants as the "Rumkin". It dissuaded smugglers from endangering their lives to get in and out of the ghetto with goods, as people could not pay for them with regular currency.
Rumkowski believed that full cooperation with the Nazis would improve the Jews' chances of survival. He also believed that smuggling would "destabilize the ghetto with regard to the prices of basic commodities". He wanted to have full control of the ghetto economy.
He was extremely serious about his position as Judenrat. He admitted to being a "Communist and a Fascist," confiscating property and businesses that were still being run by private owners. "He began to organize and take over all areas of life". This was very difficult to do. From the confusion of relocated people in the crowded ghetto, he tried to create a community within its confining walls. With the help of his assistants, he maintained order and established numerous departments and institutions that dealt with all of the ghetto's internal affairs, from housing tens of thousands of people, to distributing food rations. Welfare and health systems were also set up. His administration formed seven hospitals, seven pharmacies, and five clinics, employing hundreds of doctors and nurses. Despite the great effort, many people could not be helped due to the shortage of medical supplies allowed in by the Germans; in addition, deliberately limited food supplies by the Germans and poor nutrition reduced people's resistance to disease.
Rumkowski worked extremely hard to establish an education system. Forty-seven schools were in service, schooling 63% of school-age children. There was no education system in any other ghetto as advanced as Łódź. He "intervened and imposed his control in fields outside the realm of those essential to survival." For example, he set up a "Culture House," where cultural gatherings, including plays, orchestra, and other performances could take place. He was very involved in the particulars of these events, including hiring and firing performers and editing the content of the shows. He became integrated in religious life. This integration deeply bothered the religious public. For example, since the Germans disbanded the rabbinate in September 1942, Rumkowski began conducting wedding ceremonies, and altering the marriage contract (ketubah).
Although there were negative feelings toward Rumkowski, he managed to build a strong establishment and organized industry in Łódź, in a relatively short period. Because of this order, distribution of rations and other services could take place in a more efficient and fair way. He believed that he was the best one to make decisions without consulting others.
"...he understood everything best and that only his way was correct and just... He treated the ghetto Jews like personal belongings. He spoke to them arrogantly and rudely and sometime beat them".
Due to Rumkowski's harsh treatment, and stern, arrogant personality, the Jews began to blame him for their troubles, and unleashed their frustration on him instead of the Germans, who were beyond their scope of blame. The most significant display of this frustration and resistance was a series of strikes and demonstrations between August 1940 and spring of 1941. Led by activists and leftist parties against Rumkowski, the workers abandoned their stations and went to the streets handing out fliers:
- ...Brothers and sisters! turn out en masse to wipe out at long last, with joint and unified force, the terrible poverty and the barbaric behaviour of the Kehilla representatives toward the wretched, exhausted, starved public... The slogan: bread for all!! Let's join forces in war against the accursed Kehilla parasite...
Rumkowski would not allow these demonstrators to get away easily. With the help of the Jewish police, he violently broke up the protesters. On occasion, the Nazis came in to break up the commotion, which usually resulted in protesters being killed. The leaders of these groups were punished by not being allowed to work, which in effect meant that they and their families were doomed to starvation. Sometimes the strikers and demonstrators were arrested, imprisoned, or shipped off to labor camps. By the spring of 1941, almost all opposition to Rumkowski had dissipated.
Rumkowski developed industry in the ghetto from the very beginning, to prove the Jews could have value to the Nazis. In addition, because most of the Jews in the ghetto were of lower classes, laboring for the Germans was their only means to support themselves. In the beginning, the Germans were unclear of their plans for the ghetto, as arrangements for the "Final Solution" were still being developed. For that reason, in the first few months the Nazis had no motive to help Rumkowski achieve his labor agenda. By the summer of 1940 they realized the original plan of liquidating the ghetto by October 1940 could not take place, so they began to take Rumkowski's labor agenda seriously. Forced labor became a staple of ghetto life, with Rumkowski running the effort. His slogan, "Labor Is Our Only Way," defined his belief. He said in a speech on February 1, 1941:
...I accepted the role of leading normal life at any price. The goal will be attained primarily by full employment. Therefore, my principal slogan was to provide work for as many people as possible...
He believed that work would save them. In another speech he said, "...Work is my coin... In another three years the ghetto will be working like a clock...". As Michael Unger notes in his Reassessment of the Image of Chaim Rukowski (2004), "By the end of 1941, labor not only covered the costs of the ghetto's upkeep but also generated huge profits for the Germans."
Debate over Rumkowski's role in the Holocaust
Due to his active role in the deportations and his iron rule, Rumkowski's behavior remains a topic of bitter debate.
Some historians and writers see him as a traitor and as a Nazi collaborator. In all his activities, Rumkowski displayed great zeal and organisational ability, becoming increasingly dictatorial. Within the ghetto, Rumkowski overcame opposition with the aid of Nazi intervention. His attempts to satisfy all Nazi demands and to set up a model ghetto earned him comments such as "a man sick with megalomania", "King Chaim", "an old man of 70, extraordinarily ambitious and pretty nutty". His 'rule', unlike the leaders of other ghettos, was marked with abuse of his own people. He and his council had a comfortable food ration, and their own special shops. The suffering of his 'comrades' was beneath him. He was known to get rid of those he personally disliked by sending them to the camps. On top of this, he sexually abused vulnerable girls under his charge. Failure to succumb to his abuse meant death to the girl, as Lucille Eichengreen, who claims to have been abused by him for months as a young woman working in his office, testifies to:
"I felt disgusted and I felt angry, I ah, but if I would have run away he would have had me deported, I mean that was very clear."
Others say that Rumkowski believed that some proportion of the ghetto would survive if they worked for the Nazis. They argue that Rumkowski believed that in order to save the majority of people, they had to cooperate with the Nazis' deportation demands. (Such a move would have immediately set him at odds with Orthodox observant Jews, as there is no justification for delivering anyone to certain death.) Following the setting up of the extermination camp at Chełmno in 1941, the Nazis forced Rumkowski to organize a deportation. Rumkowski claimed that he tried to convince the Nazis to cut down the number of Jews required for deportation and failed. Nevertheless, an estimated number of 5,000 to 10,000 Jews gave him some credit for their survival, and the Łódź ghetto lasted longer than other such establishments in occupied Poland. The Łódź ghetto was also the only ghetto not controlled by the SS.
It remains unclear whether, if he had survived the war, Rumkowski would have received thanks for saving the people he did, or a jail-term for allowing so many to go to their deaths. Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, in his book, The Drowned and the Saved, gives considerable consideration to Rumkowski, concluding: "Had he survived his own tragedy...no tribunal would have absolved him, nor, certainly, can we absolve him on the moral plane. But there are extenuating circumstances: an infernal order such as National Socialism exercises a frightful power of corruption against which it is difficult to guard oneself. To resist it requires a truly solid moral armature, and the one available to Chaim Rumkowski...was fragile." At best, Levi viewed Rumkowski as morally ambiguous and self deluded. Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, was scathing in her opinion of Rumkowski.
Give Me Your Children
Rumkowski's "Give Me Your Children" speech pleaded with the Jews in the ghetto to give up children of ten years of age and younger, as well as the old and the sick, so that others might survive. Some commentators see this speech as exemplifying aspects of the Holocaust.
|“||A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess - the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I've lived and breathed with children, I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!||”|
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Ghetto Litzmannstadt.|
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - Online Exhibition: Give Me Your Children: Voices from the Lodz Ghetto, US Holocaust Memorial Museum
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - Library Bibliography: Łódź Ghetto, US Holocaust Memorial Museum
- Rumkowski's "Give Me Your Children" Speech, Jewish Virtual Library
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