The Red Cross and the Nazis: a dark chapter

Gerald Steinacher

Sometimes the people who end up being useful stooges can be those who have – or who think they have – the noblest of intentions. A new book by University of Nebraska historian Gerald Steinacher, Humanitarians at War, draws attention to the lamentable conduct of the International Committee of the Red Cross during World War II. Founded in 1863, the ICRC was responsible for the conference that first formulated the Geneva Conventions, and during the wars that followed was permitted by all belligerents to operate behind their lines and take care of wounded soldiers and prisoners of war. The Red Cross, it must be said, was a remarkably modern and humanitarian conception.

Carl Jacob Burckhardt

But the execution has not always matched the conception. The ICRC’s record is not spotless, and the worst chapter in its entire history undoubtedly came during the Holocaust, when the ICRC was under the de facto leadership of its official second-in-command, Carl Jacob Burckhardt (its president, Max Huber, was largely out of commission during that period), a Swiss diplomat and anti-Semite. As Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, notes in a recent review of Steinacher’s book for the Wall Street Journal, Burckhardt’s fear of Communism caused him to view Nazism “as a bulwark of civilization and a necessary evil.” Although the ICRC, since 1933, had been receiving letters from German concentration camps making it clear just how horrible the treatment of inmates was, Burckhardt was determined to keep a lid on it all, praising the commandant of Dachau, for example, “for his discipline and decency.”

That was just the beginning. Not long after the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which Nazi leaders agreed on the objective of exterminating the Jews of Europe, the ICRC became aware of this resolution. But it said nothing about it and did nothing about it.

Samuel Moyn

To be sure, it could be argued that there was little or nothing the ICRC could have done to prevent the execution of Hitler’s Final Solution. But Burckhardt’s problematic attitude persisted after the war. Silent on the Holocaust, he spoke up against the Nuremberg trials, calling them “Jewish revenge.” “Red Cross officials,” writes Moyn, “attempted to whitewash the record of Nuremberg defendant and high-ranking Nazi diplomat Ernst von Weizsäcker. After the Holocaust, the ICRC—by then helmed by Burckhardt—even abetted the flight of Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele by providing them with travel papers.”

Adolf Eichmann

It has been known for a long time that the ICRC helped Nazis escape Europe; at first, the ICRC’s excuse was that a relatively small number of Nazis had successfully misrepresented themselves as innocent refugees and taken advantage of an overburdened Red Cross bureaucracy to evade justice. But Steinacher’s research on the subject, published in his 2011 book Nazis on the Run, showed that the numbers of Nazis helped in this fashion by the ICRC – as well as by the Vatican – were “much higher than thought.” Thanks to the ICRC, in fact, no fewer than “90% of ex-Nazis fled via Italy, mostly to Spain, and North and South America – notably Argentina.” As Steinacher has documented, individual ICRC officials and local ICRC delegations in Europe knowingly held out a helping hand to Hitler’s former henchmen. Their motives varied: some were acting “out of sympathy for individuals”; others had sympathy for the Nazi cause. Whatever the case, the Nazi chapter of the ICRC’s history is a profoundly tainted one, serving as a salutary reminder that even the most pristine of images can be seriously deceptive.

A gilded Cage

There are few people more gifted at the art of phony moral preening than your average Hollywood movie star. Most of them know next to nothing about anything, but a remarkable number of them are quick to weigh in on political issues and say whatever they think will make them look like pillars of virtue.

And yet one after another of these stars, who are already extremely well paid, are also quick to sell their services, for the right price, to any brutal dictator who comes down the pike.

Will Smith

We’ve seen, for example, that Will Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, have gone all-out to promote Dubai, which, of course, is one of the United Arab Emirates, where gays are executed and where straight tourists who engage in even the tamest public displays of affection are subject to long prison terms. We’ve discovered how Sting took a million or two dollars to perform for the daughter of murderous Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov and how Nicki Minaj cashed a $2 million check from the Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos for a similar gig.

Sharon Stone with Putin and unidentified girl

We’ve listed the names of several celebrities – among them Goldie Hawn, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, Paul Anka, Gérard Depardieu, Mickey Rourke, and Sharon Stone – who’ve taken money from Vladimir Putin to turn up at official events in Russia, and other luminaries – including Seal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Hilary Swank – who’ve accepted payments to entertain Putin’s puppet leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Now it’s time to add another Tinseltown name to this roster of shame: Nicolas Cage. Born Nicolas Coppola, a nephew of filmland’s master of nepotism, Francis Ford Coppola, Cage, now 53, has been one of the luckiest men in the business, reaping great rewards in exchange for a very modest talent. He gets millions of dollars per picture and is reportedly worth about $25 million.

Nicolas Cage in Kazakhstan with an official of the Eurasia Film Festival

In short, he is not a man in drastic financial need. Nonetheless, in exchange for an unknown but presumably hefty sum, he recently attended the Eurasia Film Festival in Kazakhstan, a country that has been ruled for over a quarter of a century by the tyrannical Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Some people will do anything for a buck. Cage, who invariably comes off on talk shows as something of a self-important jerk and all-around dimbulb, was willing to don a native Kazakh outfit that earned him widespread mockery online. “I would be pleased to participate in some film project on the territory of Kazakhstan,” Cage told local journalists during his lucrative visit. “I enjoyed the architecture of your capital. What I saw reminded me of an old black-and-white film that depicted the future.” These stars often make such dopey, ingratiating statements in these situations. It’s hard not to believe they are reading from a script. In any event, one thing is clear: Nicolas Cage didn’t go to Kazakhstan for his health.

“I must take children”: Chaim Rumkowski’s final solution

Jews being deported from the Lodz ghetto

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:

Rumkowski with his Nazi superior, Hans Biebow

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.

Rumkowski with Heinrich Himmler and several other Nazi officers

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.

Primo Levi

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.”

The Nazis’ most loyal Jew: Chaim Rumkowski

Chaim Rumkowski tasting soup

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.

Jews entering the Lodz ghetto after being evicted from their homes

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.

Rumkowski officiating at a wedding

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.”

A footbridge connecting the two parts of the Lodz ghetto

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.

 

“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.

The notorious Chaim Rumkowski

Chaim Rumkowski

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.

Entrance to the Lodz ghetto

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.

Rumkowski on a postage stamp

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.

Collaborating in Warsaw

German soldiers marching in Warsaw shortly after the start of the Nazi occupation

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.

Ruins in the Warsaw ghetto, 1943

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?

Adam Czerniaków in his office in the Warsaw ghetto

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.”

SS officers herding Jews during the crackdown on the Warsaw ghetto uprising

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.