Yesterday we took a brief look at the Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and at Adam Czerniaków, the Jewish politician appointed by the Nazis to run it. If the ghetto in Warsaw was the largest one to be established by the Nazis in Poland, the very first such ghetto was the one in Lodz. Surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, it had a population of about 230,000, and the man whom the Nazis put in charge of the Judenrat, the ghetto’s ruling council, was Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish businessman who had previously been the director of an orphanage.
Like Czerniaków, Rumkowski chose the path of collaboration, working closely with his immediate superior, Hans Biebow, a German businessman turned Nazi officer. But in his efforts to please his Nazi masters, Rumkowski went even further than his counterpart in Warsaw. A stern taskmaster, he turned the Lodz ghetto into an industrial hub. Over a hundred “inmate workshops” churned out textiles, books, building supplies — “everything from children’s toys to military equipment.” In 1942 alone, the ghetto earned the Third Reich a profit of ten million marks. It is no exaggeration to say that the Lodz ghetto became a highly productive part of the Nazi war machine. And this was precisely Rumkowski’s intention. His assumption was that as long as the Jews of Lodz continued to be of such immense service to the Nazis, providing them with valuable wartime commodities, they would stay safe. What kind of an occupying power, after all, would want to harm people who were so useful to them? Little did he realize, at the start, that, as the regional governor, Friedrich Übelhör put it in December 1939, the Lodz ghetto, like all the other ghettos, was “only a transitional measure,” the ultimate objective being to “cleanse” Lodz of the “pestilential boil.” known as the Jews.
But Rumkowski was not exclusively, or even principally, perhaps, interested in saving the lives of his people. He was interested in power. Put in charge of the ghetto on October 13, 1939, he personally named the members of his own Judenrat, only to denounce all of them three weeks later to the Nazis for failing to be sufficiently subservient to him. The Nazis are known to have executed most of them forthwith; it is not clear what happened to the rest. Rumkowski then picked another Judenrat, which stayed in line, allowing Rumkowski to rule the ghetto like a king.
And a king he was, arrogant and tyrannical. In fact he was referred to as “King Chaim.” He confiscated private property. He personally controlled food distribution and the allocation of housing. He put his own picture on the stamps. He arranged in detail all cultural events. He even officiated at weddings (the Nazis had put the kibosh on the rabbinate) and changed the ancient Jewish marriage laws. Jews who incurred his wrath could end up with a brutal beating. Several women and young girls endured sexual molestation at his hands.
But that was just the start of Rumkowski’s infamy. We’ll get to the worst of it tomorrow and later this week.