“Jew against Jew”: the legacy of Chaim Rumkowski

Chaim Rumkowski and other ghetto leaders

Yesterday we started exploring the unsavory story of Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish businessman who was appointed by the Nazis after their invasion of Poland to run the Jewish ghetto in the city of Lodz. As we’ve seen, Rumkowski was a man who enjoyed his power. He’s been described as “an obsessive…egomaniac” who set “Jew against Jew.” Although he ruled over a minuscule realm – one and a half square miles, inhabited by 160,000 people – he comported himself in the manner of a small-time emperor, traveling around the ghetto in a fancy carriage and with his own armed guards and official retinue. Every time his birthday rolled around, according to one source, “the ghetto’s various committees and workshops hastened to prepare annual birthday tributes for the leader, including lavish commemorative albums.” Rumkowski also oversaw the production of propaganda in which he was depicted as a messiah, the savior of the Jews of Lodz.

“In a typical propaganda poster,” according to one source,

Rumkowski is surrounded by grateful ghetto inhabitants raising their arms to hail him. In the background, the chairman’s realm is depicted not as a dilapidated ghetto, but as a leafy, productive commune. The streets are devoid of beggars, and only the fecal workers hauling away people’s waste are out roaming. Between the hovering Rumkowski and his idyllic domain, hospital workers transport a stretcher-bound woman, all while the chairman observes his handiwork.

Maia Mari-Sutnik

In real life, the people of the Lodz ghetto lived several to a room in dilapidated old wooden structures, most of them without plumbing. Everything was scarce. The sanitary conditions were perilous. Illness and malnutrition abounded. His motto was “work is the way”: if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. In a catalogue for a recent exhibition of photographs of the Lodz ghetto, curator Maia-Mari Sutnik states that Rumkowski “essentially transformed the ghetto into a slave labor camp, exploiting Jewish workers to carry out his ‘survival of the fittest’ plan in an abysmally crumbling ghetto.”

Richard Rubinstein

The ghetto’s work was done in twelve- to fourteen-hour shifts, and the food consisted mostly of bread and watery soup. Under Rumkowski’s supervision, moreover, the ghetto’s Jewish police were as fearsome as the Gestapo itself. In the prisons Rumkowski ran, “torture was inflicted on all Jews who evaded his laws or failed to execute his commands, chief of which was the command to work.” The concepts of Jewish brotherhood and Jewish mercy were alien to Rumkowski. “Save for his favorites,” Holocaust historian Richard Rubinstein has written, Rumkowski had “concern only for that remnant of the group likely to survive the ordeal of the war….He had no concern for the individual. To an extent apparently unsurpassed by any other Nazi-appointed Jewish leader, he was the Fuhrer of his tiny kingdom.” (Indeed, a 2011 novel about Rumkowski by Steve Sem-Sandberg was entitled The Emperor of Lies.)

More tomorrow.

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