During the last few days we’ve been examining the supremely sobering topic of the Jewish ghettos in Poland during the Nazi occupation. We’ve seen how Chaim Rumkowski, installed by the Nazis as head of the ghetto in Lodz, pursued a policy of wholehearted collaboration. One survivor of the ghetto later recalled that Rumkowski, in his dealings with Jews, “was an incomparable tyrant who behaved just like a Führer and cast deathly terror to anyone who dared to oppose his lowly ways.” But with the Nazis, “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.” Rumkowski would presumably have argued that by responding to the invaders with docility – and by building up a vibrant local industry that supplied many of the material needs of the Wehrmacht – he would keep his people safe.
Yet Rumkowski’s assumption that a productive ghetto would remain a protected ghetto proved to be false. Eventually the Nazis began sending the Jews of Lodz to the death camps. And it was Rumkowski who personally made up the lists of names. He took the opportunity to consign to their deaths people he considered enemies. And he brooked no resistance. If anyone tried to escape deportation, Rumkowski made sure he or she ended up in Nazi hands. Even as the Nazis began draining the ghetto of Jews (the first large-scale deportation occurred in December 1941), Rumkowski continued to believe that his exceedingly meek and accommodating approach to the Nazis was the correct one.
So much was he hated by the residents of the ghetto that they organized several strikes and public protests against him over a period of several months. In response, Rumkowski ordered the Jewish police to shut the protesters down violently. Sometimes he even brought in Nazi muscle to enforce his autocratic discipline. In time, the protesters gave up. Rumkowski, secure in his power, bragged that the ghetto, in three years’ time, would be “working like a clock.” While most members of the Lodz ghetto were compelled to work long hours and to eke by on meager rations, Rumkowski lived high on the hog, socializing with his Nazi handler, Hans Biebow, and the other Nazis whose orders he not only followed but prided himself on anticipating. Some historians describe Rumkowski as having “identified so closely with his Nazi masters that [he] became their Jewish counterpart — a Machiavellian fascist bent on separating ‘useless eaters’ from productive workers, all the while stoking his own cult of personality.”
Ultimately, Rumkowski was confronted with the same challenge that Adam Czerniaków, his counterpart in Warsaw, had faced: the deportation of children. But Rumkowski took a different route than Czerniaków did. Whereas Czerniaków, as we have seen, responded to his failure to save the Warsaw ghetto’s orphans by taking his own life, Rumkowski helped arrange for the removal from the ghetto of 15,000 children under the age of 14 between January and May 1942. Later that year, when ordered by his Nazi superior, Hans Biebow, to round up another batch of children, Rumkowski gathered his ghetto’s residents together and delivered a now-infamous speech.
We’ll get to that speech, and finish up with this solemn topic, tomorrow.