The date was September 4, 1942. The day before, the Nazis had ordered Chaim Rumkowski, the Jewish head of the Lodz ghetto, to hand over all of the residents of the ghetto who were sick, under the age of ten, or over the age of sixty-five. Rumkowski, knowing that these pdeople – 20,000 in all – would be sent to their deaths, gathered together the residents of the ghetto and delivered a now-notorious speech. Entitled “Give Me Your Children,” it read, in part, as follows:
A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly….Yesterday afternoon, they gave me the order to send more than 20,000 Jews out of the ghetto, and if not – “We will do it!” So, the question became: “Should we take it upon ourselves, do it ourselves, or leave it for others to do?” And, we reached the conclusion that…I must perform this difficult and bloody operation – I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself! I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well.
The residents of the ghetto wept and wailed. But over the next few days, the round-up was carried out by the Nazis with brutal efficiency. Every home was searched and emptied of its young and old and sick, with over 500 ghetto residents being killed in the process. The archives of the U.S. Holocaust Museum contain several eyewitness testimonies to this round-up, including the following by a sixteen-year-old girl:
I saw two wagons full of little children drive past the open gate. Many of the children were dressed in their holiday best, the little girls with colored ribbons in their hair. In spite of the soldiers in their midst, the children were shrieking at the top of their lungs. They were calling out for their mothers.
What happened to those children, elderly, and infirm Jews is described as follows on the museum’s website:
The deportation trains traveled 37 miles northwest to the Chelmno killing center. Arriving Jews were greeted by the camp’s German staff, who spoke of work, better food, and a shower. After leaving their clothes behind for disinfection, the Jews crowded into trucks to ride to the baths. Chelmno’s trucks, however, were engineered so that deadly engine exhaust filled the cargo compartments. German guards sealed the airtight doors, and the driver started the engine. After 5 to 10 minutes, the screams from the suffocating prisoners stopped. The bodies were dumped in mass graves.
Beginning in spring 1942, the gassed victims’ bodies were destroyed in one of two crematoria built two miles from the camp’s headquarters. The ashes of Chelmno’s dead, including the Lodz ghetto children, were buried in the nearby fields.
Rumkowski’s argument that he had to allow the children to be taken lest others be taken too proved to be meaningless, of course, for in the weeks and months that followed, others were taken. Less than two years later, in August 1944, Rumkowski and his family were among them. He had managed to get the Nazis to save them for the end – they were on the very last transport to Auschwitz. When he got there, Rumkowski was killed instantly – not by the Nazis whom he had assiduously served, but by Jewish inmates who could not forgive him for being such a loyal toady to the murderers of their people. As for Rumkowski’s Nazi overlord, Hans Biebow, he was tried after the war in a Polish court and executed in 1947.
“Had [Rumkowski] survived his own tragedy,” the distinguished author and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi would later write, “no tribunal would have absolved him, nor, certainly, can we absolve him on the moral plane.”