Chaim Rumkowski

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Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski
Chaim Rumkowski in the Łódź Ghetto, tasting soup
Born (1877-02-27)February 27, 1877
Died August 28, 1944(1944-08-28) (aged 67)
Auschwitz, occupied Poland
Nationality Polish
Ethnicity Jewish
Known for Head of Judenrat, Łódź Ghetto

Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski (February 27, 1877 - August 28, 1944) was a Polish Jew and wartime businessman appointed by Nazi Germany as the head of the Council of Elders in the Łódź Ghetto during the occupation of Poland in World War II.[1] He accrued exponentially more power as he transformed the Ghetto into an industrial base manufacturing war supplies for the Wehrmacht army in the mistaken belief that productivity was the key to Jewish survival beyond the Holocaust.[1]


Rumkowski served as director of Helenówek orphanage at Krajowa Street in Łódź before World War II

Before the Nazi German invasion of Poland, Mordechaj (in Polish) Rumkowski was an insurance agent in Łódź, member of Qahal, and in 1925–1939 head of a Jewish orphanage at Krajowa 15 Street. On October 13, 1939, the Nazi occupation authorities appointed him the Judenälteste ("Chief Elder of the Jews"), or head of the Ältestenrat ("Council of Elders"), in Łódź. 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 performed 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,[2] and his face was put on the ghetto postage stamps.[1]

Rumkowski is remembered for his speech Give Me Your Children, delivered in 1942 at a time when the Germans insisted on deporting 20,000 children to a death camp. In 1944, the Germans liquidated the ghetto in the wake of military defeats on the Eastern Front of World War II. In August, Rumkowski and his family voluntarily joined the last transport to Auschwitz,[3] and were murdered there on August 28, 1944. A family friend who in 1944 was a teenage resident of the Łódź Ghetto suggested that the Jewish Sonderkommando inmates may have beat him to death,[4] in revenge for his role in the Holocaust. This account of his final moments is confirmed by witness testimonies of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials.[5]

Although Rumkowski and other "Jewish elders" of the Nazi era came to be regarded as collaborators and traitors, historians have reassessed this judgment since the late 20th century in light of the terrible conditions of the time. A survivor of the Łódź ghetto noted in his memoir that Rumkowski kept it going for two years beyond the ghetto at Warsaw and gave more people from Łódź a chance to survive, although they were only a few thousand in number. He wrote, "This is a horrific reckoning, but it gives Rumkowski a posthumous victory."[6]

Background and history[edit]

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 ghettos; 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 rounding up quotas of Jews for "resettlement in the East," the most difficult task of all. The Jews learned that this was a euphemism for deportation to concentration and death camps.

Rumkowski's approach to being a Judenrat leader provoked controversy at the time, and it is still the subject of debate 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.[7] Rumkowski took steps to create infrastructure such as schools, hospitals and a postal system, and to preserve Jewish culture and nationalism.

In his memoirs, Yehuda Leib Gerst described Rumkowski as a complex person: "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."[5]

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.[8] 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 continue to be debated by scholars and historians, who disagree on whether he was a Nazi collaborator or sincerely trying to help the Jews of Łódź.[9]

Research performed by Isaiah Trunk on the Jewish Councils under Nazi occupation in his work Judenrat attempted to revise the traditional view of the leaders of the Judenräte as traitors and collaborationists, specifically with reference to Rumkowski.[10] Historian Michael Unger in his Reassessment of the Image of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (2004) explores the materials leading to the assessment 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".[6]

Rumkowski was described as " 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."[11]

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".[12] 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.[13] 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...[14]

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.[15]

Prior to the "Final Solution"[edit]

The Germans authorized Rumkowski as the "sole figure authority in managing and organizing internal life in the ghetto".[16] In addition, Rumkowski gained power because of his domineering personality, and the lack of a forceful council.[16] 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.[17] 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.[17] 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."[18] He believed that by staying ahead of German thinking, he could keep them satisfied and preserve the Jews.

Token money in the ghetto with Rumkowski's signature

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.[19] This proposal was considered arrogant and illustrated Rumkowski’s lust for power. The currency was, therefore, nicknamed by ghetto inhabitants as the "Rumkin".[20] 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. He believed that smuggling of food would "destabilize the ghetto with regard to the prices of basic commodities".[20]

He was adamant about his position as head of the Judenrat, confiscating property and businesses that were still being run by their rightful owners in the ghetto. He 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.[21] Welfare and health systems were also set up. For a time, his administration maintained seven hospitals, seven pharmacies, and five clinics employing hundreds of doctors and nurses. Despite their effort, many people could not be helped due to the shortage of medical supplies allowed in by the Germans.

Rumkowski helped maintain school facilities. Forty-seven schools remained in operation schooling 63% of school-age children. There was no education as advanced as in Łódź in any other ghetto.[22] He helped 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.[23] 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).[24] "He treated the ghetto Jews like personal belongings. He spoke to them arrogantly and rudely and sometime beat them".[25]

Due to Rumkowski's harsh treatment, and stern, arrogant personality, the Jews began to blame him for their predicament, and unleashed their frustration on him instead of the Germans, who were beyond their scope of blame.[26] 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.[27] By the spring of 1941, almost all opposition to Rumkowski had dissipated. In the beginning, the Germans were unclear of their own plans for the ghetto, as arrangements for the "Final Solution" were still being developed. They realized that the original plan of liquidating the ghetto by October 1940 could not take place, so they began to take Rumkowski's labor agenda seriously.[28] Forced labor became a staple of ghetto life, with Rumkowski running the effort. "In another three years – he said – the ghetto will be working like a clock."[29]

Debate over Rumkowski's role in the Holocaust[edit]

Chaim Rumkowski delivering a speech in the ghetto, 1941–42

Due to his active role in the deportations of Jews Rumkowski remains a hot topic. Some historians and writers describe him as a traitor and as a Nazi collaborator. Rumkowski aimed at fulfilling the Nazi demands with the help of their own Security Police if necessary.[30] His rule, unlike the leaders of other ghettos, was marked with abuse of his own people coupled with physical liquidation of political opponents. He and his council had a comfortable food ration, and their own special shops. He was known to get rid of those he personally disliked by sending them to the camps. Additionally, he sexually abused vulnerable girls under his charge.[31][32] Failure to succumb to his abuse meant death to the girl. Holocaust survivor Lucille Eichengreen who claims to have been abused by him for months as a young woman working in his office wrote: "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."[32]


By the end of January 1942 some 10,000 Jews were sent aboard Holocaust trains to Chełmno based on selections made by the Judenrat.[33] Additional 34,000 victims were sent there by 2 April, with 11,000 more by 15 May 1942, and over 15,000 more by mid September, for the total of an estimated 55,000 people. The children and the elderly as well as anyone deemed "unfit for work" in the eyes of the Judenrat would follow them.[33]

Rumkowski is said to have believed that at least some part of the ghetto would survive if they collaborated with Nazis. He actively cooperated with the German demands hoping to save the majority of the ghetto inmates. Such behaviour set him at odds with the Orthodox observant Jews, because there could be no justification for delivering anyone to certain death. Following the creation of the extermination camp at Chełmno in 1941, the Nazis forced Rumkowski to organize several waves of deportations. Rumkowski claimed that he tried to convince the Nazis to reduce 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.

Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, in his book The Drowned and the Saved, gives considerable consideration to Rumkowski, concluding: "Had he survived his own 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[edit]

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.[34] Some commentators see this speech as exemplifying aspects of the Holocaust.

A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They [the Germans] 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! — Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942 [35]

Death at the hands of the Sonderkommando[edit]

There are conflicting accounts regarding Rumkowski's final moments. According to one contemporary source he was murdered upon his arrival at Auschwitz by the Jews of Łódź who preceded him there.[5] This version of events however has been challenged by historians. Another report, submitted by the Sonderkommando member from Hungary, Dov Paisikovic (de),[5] informs that the Jews of Łódź approached the Sonderkommando Jews in secrecy, and asked them to kill Rumkowski for the crimes he himself committed in the Łódź Ghetto; so they beat him to death at the gate of the Crematorium No. 2 and disposed of his corpse.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Carmello Lisciotto, H.E.A.R.T, "Chaim Rumkowski". Holocaust Research Project, 2007. Retrieved: 01.10.2011.
  2. ^ Heart, S.J. "The Lodz Ghetto". Holocaust Research Project, 2010. Retrieved: 01.10.2011.
  3. ^ Dombrowska, Danuta (2007). "Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski". In Berenbaum, Michael; Skolnik, Fred. Encyclopaedia Judaica (2nd ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. fee, via Fairfax County Public Library. Retrieved 2011-11-21.  Gale Biography In Context
  4. ^ Helen Aronson (21 November 2011). Nazi Collaborators: Hitler's Inside Man (Television production). Military Channel. Event occurs at 58:29.  © MMX, World Media Rights Limited
  5. ^ a b c d e Unger, Michael (2004). Reassessment of the Image of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. Jerusalem: Keterpress Enterprises. 8, 57 (note 127). ISBN 3835302930. For the Dov Paisikovic testimony (de) on gas chambers see transcripts from the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of 1965. 
  6. ^ a b Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 11
  7. ^ "The Lodz Ghetto". Jewish Virtual Library. 
  8. ^ Judenrat, p. 413
  9. ^ Working against time
  10. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment", p. 9
  11. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 13
  12. ^ Documents, p. 194
  13. ^ "Rumkowski, Mordechai Chaim". Yad Vashem School for Holocaust Studies. Retrieved: 01.10.2011.
  14. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 22
  15. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 19
  16. ^ a b Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 22
  17. ^ a b Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 23
  18. ^ Hilma Wolitzer (September–October 2011). "The Final Fantasy". Moment Magazine. Retrieved October 3, 2011. 
  19. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 27
  20. ^ a b Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 28
  21. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 30
  22. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 30-31
  23. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 31-32
  24. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 32
  25. ^ Reassessment, p. 33
  26. ^ Reassessment, p. 33
  27. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 34-35
  28. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 36
  29. ^ Unger (2004), "Reassessment," p. 38
  30. ^ Isaiah Trunk (2008), Łódź Ghetto: A History, page 52. ISBN 0253347556.
  31. ^ Rees, Laurence,"Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution'", especially the testimony of Lucille Eichengreen, pp. 105-131. BBC Books. ISBN 978-0-563-52296-6.
  32. ^ a b Rees, Laurence."Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi state". BBC/KCET, 2005. Retrieved: 01.10.2011.
  33. ^ a b Shirley Rotbein Flaum (2007). "Lodz Ghetto Deportations and Statistics". Timeline. JewishGen Home Page. Retrieved 26 March 2015. Source: Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (1990), Baranowski, Dobroszycki, Wiesenthal, Yad Vashem Timeline of the Holocaust, others. 
  34. ^ "Transcript for "Give Me Your Children"". United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C., 6.01.2011. Retrieved: 1.10.2011.
  35. ^ Simone Schweber, Debbie Findling (2007). Teaching the Holocaust (Google Book, preview). Ghettoization (Torah Aura Productions). p. 107. ISBN 1891662910. Retrieved 24 March 2015. 


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