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Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (February 27, 1877 - August 28, 1944) was a Polish Jew and functioned as the German Nazi-nominated head of the Judenrat, or Jewish authorities in the Łódź Ghetto.

Before the Nazi German invasion of Poland, Rumkowski was a businessman and director of an orphanage. On October 13, 1939, the Nazi occupation authorities appointed him the Judenälteste ("Elder of the Jews"), or head of the Judenrat, in Łódź. In this position he reported directly to the Nazi ghetto administration headed by Hans Biebow and had direct responsibility for providing heat, work, food, housing, and health and welfare services to the ghetto population. He performed marriages when rabbis had to stop working, his name came to serve in the nickname of the ghetto's money, the Chaimki, and his face appeared in the ghetto postage-stamps.

Some remember him for his haunting and tragic speech, Give Me Your Children.

Rumkowski and his family were eventually deported to Auschwitz, where they died on August 28, 1944.

Contents

Background and History

Rumkowski testing soup

The well-known Judenrat member Chaim Rumkowski was a controversial figure due to his leadership role in the Łódź ghetto during the Holocaust. During World War II, the Germans forced the Jewish community to form Judenräte, or "Jewish Councils," in each ghetto in the General Government region of occupied Poland. The Judenräte acted as the local government of the ghetto; these leaders stood as the bridges between the Nazis and the caged population of each ghetto. In addition to running basic government services such as hospitals, post offices, and vocational schools, common tasks of the Judenräte included providing the Nazi regime with Jewish residents for slave labor, and the hardest task of all, rounding up quotas of Jews for "resettlement in the East," a euphemism for concentration and death camps.

Rumkowski dealt with the difficult task of being Judenrat leader in a very disputable way. Upon learning of the "Final Solution" and the real meaning of "resettlement," Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Judenrat of Warsaw, took his own life. Rumkowski, on the other hand, had a different approach. He was swayed by the slogan "Arbeit macht frei - Work sets you free" that appeared on the gates of several concentration camps. By industrializing the Łódź ghetto, he hoped to make the community indispensable to the Germans and save the people of Łódź. On April 5, 1940, Rumkowski petitioned the Germans for materials for the Jews to manufacture in exchange for desperately needed food and money. By the end of the month, the Germans had acquiesced in part, agreeing to provide food, but not money, in exchange for the labor.[1]

Rumkowski's plan also included making the ghetto more community-like, flourishing with work, schools, hospitals, mail delivery system, and other communal necessities. He believed in creating a ghetto in which it embodied a community of Jewish culture and nationalism (The Story). However, although these goals seemed lofty and benevolent, many people remember him very differently. For example, in the memoirs of Yehuda Leib Gerst, he writes: "This man had sickly leanings that clashed. Toward his fellow Jews, he was an incomparable tyrant who behaved just like a Führer and cast deathly terror to anyone who dared to oppose his lowly ways. Toward the perpetrators, however, 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. Either way, he did not properly understand his situation and positing and their limits." (Reassessment, p. 8)

Whether or not Rumkowski succeeded in saving the Łódź ghetto is open to debate. Łódź was the last ghetto in Eastern Europe to be liquidated (Judenrat, p. 413). While only 877 inhabitants survived in the city until liberation, about 7,000 ghetto residents lived to see the end of the war. Rumkowski's methods are still debated by scholars and historians, who disagree on whether he was a Nazi collaborator or sincerely trying to help the Jews of Lodz.

Recent research specifically done by Isaiah Trunk, in his work Judenrat, does not regard Rumkowski as a traitor (Reassessment, p. 9). Arnold Mostowicz, who once lived in the Lodz ghetto, justifies Rumkowski’s policies in his memoirs, saying that Rumkowski prolonged the ghetto's existence by two years, allowing more people to have survived from Lodz than from Warsaw. He concludes, "This is a horrific reckoning, but it gives Rumkowski a posthumous victory" (Reassessment, p. 11). He is described in two very different lights:

...aggressive, domineering (person), thirsty for honor and power, raucous, vulgar and ignorant, impatient (and) intolerant, impulsive and lustful. On the other hand, he is portrayed as a man of exceptional organizational prowess, quick, very energetic, and true to tasks that he set for himself (Reassessment, p. 13).

SS Brigadier General Friedrich Uebelhoer, on September 8, 1939, began the ghettoizing of Lodz. The top secret report stated clearly that the ghetto was only a temporary solution to "the Jewish question in the city of Lodz..." "I reserve to myself the decision concerning the times and the means by which the ghetto and with it the city of Lodz will be cleansed of Jews" (Documents, p. 194). Uebelhoer made the condition that they would provide for the Jews as long as suitable trade could be made, but never implied long-term survival. The Germans immediately replaced the local Jewish Community Council with the Nazis' official Judenrat, known as Council of Elders. Rumkowski was appointed head of the Lodz ghetto on October 13, 1939 (Yad Vashem). The ghetto was sealed on April 30, 1940 with 164,000 people inside. He reported directly to the Nazi ghetto administration headed by Hans Biebow, who had the responsibility of overall living conditions of the ghetto, including housing, heating, work, and food (Yad Vashem). Franz Schiffer, the mayor, in a letter to Rumkowski wrote:

I further charge you with the execution of all measures...necessary for the maintenance of an orderly community life in the residential district of the Jews. In particular you have to safeguard order in economic life, food supply, utilization of manpower, public health, and public welfare. You are authorized to take all measures and issue all directives necessary to reach this objective, and to enforce them by means of the Jewish police under your control... (Reassessment, p. 22).

On October 16, 1939, Rumkowski appointed thirty-one public figures to create the council, however, less than three weeks later, on November 11, twenty of them were murdered and the rest were arrested. Some claim that Rumkowski was indirectly responsible for these murders, claiming he complained about them to German authorities "for refusing to rubber-stamp his policies." This accusation, although never proven, shows the discontent and mistrust they had for Rumkowski, at such an early stage of the war. Because of the events that had transpired with the first round of Judenrat, many people feared such public positions. Although a new council was officially appointed a few weeks later, they were not as distinguished and less effective than the previous leaders. This gave Rumkowski full leadership and power, and left few to contest or restrain his decisions (Reassessment, p. 19).

Prior to the "Final Solution"

Even though the Germans, clearly, were the ones who gave Rumkowski authority, he was still the "sole figure authority in managing and organizing internal life in the ghetto" (Reassessment, p. 22). Rumkowski's power was due to the Nazis, in conjunction with his dominant personality, and the lack of a forceful council (Reassessment, p. 22). Biebow, at first, gave Rumkowski full power in organizing the ghetto, as long as it did not interfere with his main objectives; complete order, confiscation of Jewish property and assets, coerced labor, and his own personal gain (Reassessment, p. 23). Their relationship seemed to work perfectly. Rumkowski had more space to organize the ghetto according to his fashion, believing he was creating a better ghetto life, while Biebow sat back, reaped rewards, and had Rumkowski do all the dirty work (Reassessment, p. 23). In trying to keep Biebow happy, he obeyed every order with little inquiry, provided him with gifts and personal favors.

Token money in the ghetto with Rumkowski's signature

Because of the confiscation of cash and other belongings, Rumkowski proposed the idea of a new form of currency specifically for the ghetto - the ersatz. This new currency would be used as money, and using this alone, a person could buy food rations and other necessities (Reassessment, p. 27). This proposal was considered arrogant and illustrated Rumkowski’s lust for power. The currency was, therefore, nicknamed by ghetto inhabitants as the "Rumkin" (Reassessment, p. 28). It also dissuaded smugglers from endangering their lives to get in and out of the ghetto.

This was all because Rumkowski felt that full cooperation with the Nazis would improve their chances of survival. He also felt that smuggling would "destabilize the ghetto with regard to the prices of basic commodities" (Reassessment, p. 28). He needed to have full control of the ghetto economy. This further showed his arrogance.

Rumkowski was extremely serious about his position as Judenrat. He admitted to being a "Communist and a Fascist," confiscating property and businesses that were still being run by private owners. "He began to organize and take over all areas of life" (Reassessment, p. 29). This was very difficult to do. He had to build everything on his own - all from within the confining walls of the ghetto. With the help of his assistants, he maintained order and established numerous departments and institutions that dealt with all of the ghetto's internal affairs, from housing tens of thousands of people, to distributing food rations (Reassessment, p. 30). Welfare and health systems were also set up. They formed seven hospitals, seven pharmacies, and five clinics, employing hundreds of doctors and nurses. Although it was a great effort, many people could not be helped due to the shortage of medical supplies allowed in by the Germans.

Rumkowski worked extremely hard to establish an education system. Forty-seven schools were in service, schooling 63 % of school-age children. There was no education system in any other ghetto as advanced as Lodz (Reassessment, p. 30-31). He even "intervened and imposed his control in fields outside the realm of those essential to survival." For example, he set up a "Culture House," where cultural gatherings, including plays, orchestra, and other performances could take place. He was very involved in the particulars of these events, involving himself with hiring and firing performers and editing the content of the shows (Reassessment, p. 31-32). He, as well, became integrated in religious life. This integration deeply bothered the religious public. For example, since the Germans disbanded the rabbinate in September 1942, Rumkowski began conducting wedding ceremonies, altering the marriage contract (ketubah) (Reassessment, p. 32).

Although there were negative feelings toward Rumkowski, he still managed to build a strong establishment and organized industry in Lodz, in a relatively short period. Because of this order, more efficient and fair distribution of rations and other services could take place. He believed that any decisions to be made, were best made by himself, without consulting anyone.

"...he understood everything best and that only his way was correct and just... He treated the ghetto Jews like personal belongings. He spoke to them arrogantly and rudely and sometime beat them" (Reassessment, p. 33).

Due to Rumkowski's harsh treatment, and stern, arrogant personality, the Jews began to blame him, and unleashed their frustration on him, instead of the Germans, who were beyond their scope of blame (Reassessment, p. 33). The most important display of this frustration was a series of strikes and demonstrations between August 1940 and spring of 1941. Led by activists and leftist parties against Rumkowski, they abandoned their work and went to the streets handing out fliers:

...Brothers and sisters! turn out en masse to wipe out at long last, with joint and unified force, the terrible poverty and the barbaric behaviour of the Kehilla representatives toward the wretched, exhausted, starved public... The slogan: bread for all!! Let's join forces in war against the accursed Kehilla parasite...

Rumkowski would not allow these demonstrators to get away easily. With the help of the Jewish police, they violently dissolved them. On occasion, the Nazis themselves came in to break up the commotion, which usually resulted in murder. The leaders of these groups were punished by not being allowed to work, which in effect meant that they and their families were doomed to starvation. Sometimes the strikers and demonstrators were arrested, imprisoned, or shipped off to labor camps (Reassessment, p. 34-35). By the spring of 1941, almost all opposition to Rumkowski had dissipated.

Rumkowski implemented industry into the ghetto from the very beginning. Because most of the Jews in the ghetto were of lower classes, laboring for the Germans was the only means of supporting themselves. In the beginning, the Germans were unclear of their plans for the ghetto, for the arrangements for the "Final Solution" were still being processed. For that reason, the first few months the Nazis had no motive to help the ghetto out with Rumkowski's labor agenda. However, once they realized, by the summer of 1940, that their original plan of liquidizing the ghetto by October 1940 could not take place, they began to take Rumkowski's labor agenda seriously (Reassessment, p. 36). Forced labor became a staple of ghetto life, with Rumkowski running the effort. His slogan, "Labor Is Our Only Way" defined his belief. He said in a speech on February 1, 1941:

...I accepted the role of leading normal life at any price. The goal will be attained primarily by full employment. Therefore, my principal slogan was to provide work for as many people as possible... (Reassessment, p. 37).

He, without a doubt, believed that work would save them. In another speech he said, "...Work is my coin... In another three years the ghetto will be working like a clock..." (Reassessment, p. 38). "By the end of 1941, labor not only covered the costs of the ghetto's upkeep but also generated huge profits for the Germans" (Reassessment, p. 38).

Debate over Rumkowski's role in the Holocaust

Due to his active role in the deportations and his iron rule, Rumkowski's behavior remains a topic of bitter debate.

Some historians and writers see him as a traitor and as a Nazi collaborator. In all his activities, Rumkowski displayed great zeal and organisational ability, becoming increasingly dictatorial. Within the ghetto, Rumkowski overcame opposition with the aid of Nazi intervention. His attempts to satisfy all Nazi demands and to set up a model ghetto earned him comments such as "a man sick with megalomania", "King Chaim", "Kelsey's baby," "extraordinarily ambitious and pretty nutty". His 'rule', unlike the leaders of other ghettos, was marked with abuse of his own people. He and his council had a comfortable food ration, and their own special shops. The suffering of his 'comrades' was beneath him. He was known to get rid of those he personally disliked by sending them to the camps. On top of this, he sexually abused vulnerable girls under his charge.[2] Failure to succumb to his abuse meant death to the girl.

Others say that Rumkowski believed that some proportion of the ghetto would survive if they worked for the Nazis. They argue that Rumkowski believed that in order to save the majority of people, they had to cooperate with the Nazis' deportation demands. Following the setting up of the extermination camp at Chełmno in 1941, the Nazis forced Rumkowski to organize a deportation. Rumkowski claimed that he tried to convince the Nazis to cut down the number of Jews required for deportation and failed. Nevertheless, an estimated number of 5,000 to 10,000 Jews gave him some credit for their survival, and the Łódź ghetto lasted longer than other such establishments in occupied Poland. The Łódź ghetto was also the only ghetto not controlled by the SS.

It remains unclear whether, if he had survived the war, Rumkowski would have received thanks for saving the people he did, or a jail-term for allowing so many to go to their deaths. Primo Levi, an Auschwitz survivor, in his book, The Drowned and the Saved, gives considerable consideration to Rumkowski concluding that we forget that "we are all in the ghetto, that the ghetto is walled in, that outside the ghetto reign the lords of death, and that close by the train is waiting." At best, Levi viewed Rumkowski as morally ambiguous and self deluded. Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, was also scathing about Rumkowski.

Give Me Your Children

Rumkowski's "Give Me Your Children" speech pleaded with the Jews in the ghetto to give up children of ten years of age and younger, as well as the old and the sick, so that others might survive. Some commentators see this speech as exemplifying aspects of the Holocaust.

A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess - the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I've lived and breathed with children, I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!

Notes

  1. ^ "The Lodz Ghetto". Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/lodz.html. 
  2. ^ Auschwitz: the Nazis and the 'Final Solution Rees, L., especially the testimony of Lucille Eichengreen, pp, 105-131

See also

External links

Bibliography

  • "Lodz – The Last Ghetto in Poland," Michal Unger, Yad Vashem, 600 pages (in Hebrew)
  • "Juden im Getto Litzmannstadt: Lebensbedingungen, Selbstwahrnehmung, Verhalten," Andrea Löw, Wallstein: Göttingen, 2006
  • "Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City," Gordon J. Horwitz, Belknap Press, 395 pages
  • "De fattiga i Łódź." Steve Sem-Sandberg, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 662 pages (in Swedish)
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