“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 Master Race’s master builder

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Albert Speer on trial in Nuremberg

Leni Riefenstahl was an intimate friend of Hitler’s, and sculptor Arno Breker was like a son to him; but the artist who worked most closely of all with the Führer, and whose oeuvre is most inextricable from the Third Reich project, was Albert Speer.

A Nazi Party member since 1931, Speer was tapped by Hitler two years later to oversee the artistic and technical design of Nazi rallies. In 1934, Hitler, who saw Speer as a “kindred spirit,” made him the Party’s chief architect; in 1937, he put him in charge of inspecting buildings in Berlin. Speer designed the Zeppelinfeld stadium (where the annual Nuremberg rallies took place), the German pavilion for a world exposition in Paris, and a new Reich Chancellery. His biggest assignment of all – though it never came to fruition – was almost certainly the most massive architectural enterprise ever conceived. The goal was nothing less than to design an entirely new Berlin.

Speer showing Hitler his design for the German pavilion at the 1937 Paris exposition

The thoroughly transformed city would be called Germania, and would be the capital not only of Germany but of the whole civilized world, once it came under Hitler’s thumb. There would be new airports, two new railroad stations, four new ring roads, and new suburbs big enough to house 200,000 people. A building called the Grand Hall would have been the world’s largest enclosed space, with a dome sixteen times the size of St. Peter’s Basilica. Unveiled in January 1938, the plans for Germania – which envisioned a gleaming metropolis of white stone that was reminiscent of ancient Rome – provided a vivid measure of the scale of Hitler’s ambition, not to say megalomania. The demolition work necessary to clear the ground for the construction of Germania was carried out by about 130,000 prisoners of war and forced laborers between 1939 and 1942.

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Hitler and Speer inspect a scale model of Germania

Riefenstahl was able to get off scot-free after the war; not Speer. Tried for war crimes at Nuremberg, he was found guilty, but the judges bought his claim to have been unaware of the Holocaust while it was underway and thus sentenced him only to twenty years in prison instead of death by hanging. Not until 2007, sixteen years after his death, did a letter emerge, written by Speer in 1971, in which he admitted to having attended a speech by Gestapo and SS chief Heinrich Himmler outlining plans for the Holocaust. In short, he had known about the extermination of the Jews all along – and it was foolish of anyone to have believed otherwise.

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Germania

But they did believe. And consequently, during his prison years and afterwards, Speer underwent an considerable image boost. He came to be viewed as the “good Nazi” – as a gifted architect who had simply found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. This was sheer nonsense. Speer, as noted, had joined the Nazi Party early on. Although he lied about his knowledge of the Holocaust, he never denied having been an ardent believer in Hitler and a fervent supporter of the war. He looked forward to a world run by his Führer; their glorious plans for Germania, after all, would only have made sense if the city was the capital of the entire Western world.

Speer knew, then, the nature of the man he served; and he approved of that man, and dedicated his art to the singular task of glorifying him. He was no victim of circumstance, but a conscious instrument of evil – a stooge of the first order.