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.

 

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.