When the Nazis rolled into Poland in September 1939, starting World War II, they quickly crushed the Polish Army, occupied the cities, subdued the population, and eliminated politicians and intellectuals. Soon enough, of course, their attention soon turned to the Jews. There were many Jews in Poland, but the Nazi death machine had yet to be fully set into motion. As a temporary measure, therefore, in one Polish city after another, the Nazis evicted Jews from their homes and relocated them to neighborhoods that were then surrounded by high walls and vigilantly guarded. No one could leave, and no one could enter. These were the Jewish ghettos.
In each of the ghettos, the Nazis appointed prominent local Jews to serve as a council, or Ältestenrat – a.k.a. Judenrat – that was responsible for the ghetto’s internal administration and that was responsible for negotiations and other communications between the Jews and the Nazis. Each of these councils, in turn, was led by an individual who was given the title of Judenälteste. The men placed in these positions, needless to say, faced a formidable moral challenge. Aware of the vicious anti-Semitism at the heart of Nazi ideology, but perhaps not entirely aware – at first, anyway – of the form that Hitler’s Final Solution would take, the ghetto leaders were compelled to ask themselves how they could best serve the interests of their people. Should they try to find some way to openly resist the Nazis? Should they negotiate with them aggressively? Or should they be docile collaborators, going along and getting along in hopes that the Third Reich would eventually be defeated and their people freed?
Most of the ghetto leaders chose the path of collaboration. In the largest of the ghettos, the one in Warsaw, the Älteste was Adam Czerniaków, a former Polish Senator. He proved to be an obedient servant of the Nazis, believing this was the only realistic approach under the circumstances. Appointed in October 1939, he reliably followed Nazi orders for the next two years and nine months. Then, in July 1942, the Warsaw Judenrat was ordered to prepare for the “resettlement” of almost all of the ghetto’s inhabitants in some unidentified place or places to the east. Knowing these people were being sent to their deaths, Czerniaków negotiated. He won some small victories, with the Nazis agreeing to exempt certain categories of people from the deportation. But although he begged them to spare the ghetto’s orphans, they refused. Czerniaków then went back to his office, wrote notes to his wife and a fellow Judenrat member, and committed suicide by taking a cyanide capsule. “They demand me to kill children of my nation with my own hands,” he wrote to his wife. “I have nothing to do but to die.”
The deportations began – and so did an underground resistance movement inside the ghetto. On January 18, 1943, hundreds of Warsaw Jews rose up against the Nazis and managed to retain control of the ghetto for over three months before the Nazis finally put down the rebellion.
Czerniaków’s conduct has been the subject of much debate in the decades since World War II. Was he a useful stooge or just an honest man – and, ultimately, perhaps, a tragic hero – who sought to do his best in an impossible situation? Less debatable, however, was the conduct of Chaim Rumkowski, the notorious leader of the Judenrat in the Lodz ghetto. We’ll look at him tomorrow.