Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Holocaust in Poland: Rumkowski and the Lodz Ghetto Jews

Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat, believed that if the Lodz ghetto was economically productive to the Germans, it would be safe from destruction.

The role of the Jewish council (Judenrat) during the Holocaust was an odious one. These men were responsible for making “selections” for forced labor and the eventual mass deportation to the death camps. They had to work hand-in-hand with the Germans to help them carry out their Jewish policy. They kept an in-depth census of all the Jews; rationed the pitiful food supplies; provided housing in the overcrowded ghetto, and crushed any resistance to the Germans.

Jews were forced to exist in the walled, barricaded ghetto, where their pauperization, untenable social and economic situation, starvation, disease and death, to their liquidation in the death camps were all part of the Nazi plan of total extermination. To that end, the Nazis gave the Jewish Council in Lodz an important role to play in their own destruction.

Chaim Rumkowski, the Elder of the Jews

It was at the age of 63 that he was given the position of “Elder of the Jews in Litzmannstadt.” The Germans must have seen potential in the old man with thick, bushy white hair and horn-rimmed black eyeglasses.

As the Jewish "Elder," he reported directly to the Nazi Chief of the Ghetto government, Hans Biebow. In Lodz, Rumkowski turned the ghetto into his own puppet state. In his role of head of the Judenrat, he had the power and autonomy to dictate policy and economic affairs. He oversaw an efficient and obedient administration with a massive bureaucracy (officials and clerical personnel numbered about 13,000).

"Employment for all" in the Lodz ghetto

The ghetto had its own judicial system, prison, social services, school system, currency, police department and a post office. Rumkowski hoped to save the ghetto by making it economically vital to the German war effort: “I have made it my aim to regulate life in the ghetto at all costs. This aim can be achieved, first of all, by employment for all. Therefore, my main slogan has been to give work to the greatest number of people.”

Thus Rumkowski eagerly pursued a policy of “full employment” in the ghetto. In 1940, about 7,000 people worked in the 18 factories. By 1943, however, over 70,000 (85 percent of the population) were employed in the 93 work places. Eighty percent of the ghetto’s economic activity was devoted to helping Nazi Germany’s war effort. If the ghetto was seen as efficient and productive to the Germans, thought Rumkowski, then its inhabitants would be kept alive and not deported to the death camps.

“Chaim the Terrible”

Rumkowski developed a horrible reputation both in Lodz and Warsaw. This was due to his traveling to the Warsaw ghetto, where he spoke to the Judenrat. Adam Czerniakow, the chief of the Warsaw Judenrat, documented Rumkowski’s visits: “For him [Rumkowski], individuals do not exist. He has a Sonderkommando for matters of requisitioning. He collects diamonds and furs. There are no poor people on the streets.”

Czerniakow wrote, “He is known as ‘Chaim the Terrible.' ” Rumkowski enjoyed his power as ‘Elder’ of the Jews. Ghetto resident Leon Hurwitz wrote in 1940: “Everybody in the clique Rumkowski has gathered around him sings paeans to his genius and his mission. Once, speaking to an associate about his mission, he declared, ‘What do you know about power? Power is sweet, power is everything, is life.’ And with a fanatical gleam in his half-crazed eyes, he finished, ‘But woe to him who makes the slightest attempt to wrest power from me.' ”

Working and Starving in the Lodz Ghetto

The focus on "rescue through work" made life even more difficult in the ghetto. People could buy very little food with their wages; they were working and starving. In January of 1942 deportations to the Chelmno death camp began. From January to May 1942, 55,000 Jews and 5,000 gypsies were sent there from Lodz.

Dawid Sierakowiak, a young man who perished in the ghetto, left behind several notebooks containing his diary. Hunger was a running theme and he wrote of it often: “Saturday, May 23 [1942]. There is nothing to eat again. The soup in the workshop is hopeless. As for sausage, one shouldn‘t even dream of it. People are getting swollen at a terrifying rate, while Rumkowski is demanding greater and greater productivity ... The less you eat, the more you should work.”

Rumkowski: "Give me your children!"

The darkest hour in the Lodz ghetto was between September 5 and 12 of 1942. Rumkowski told a crowd that 20,000 Jews were to be deported, including the ill, elderly, and, “I have to perform this bloody operation myself; I simply must cut off the limbs to save the body! I have to take away the children..." A monograph found after the war written by Jozef Zelkowicz discusses this Nazi action: “There is simply no word, no power, no art able to transmit the moods, the laments, and the turmoil prevailing in the ghetto...All faces are twisted, all heads are bowed to the ground, all blood weeps...”

The liquidation of the Lodz ghetto

And yet the work continued. About 77,000 Jews now remained in Lodz, over 90 percent of whom were working. Surprisingly, the deportations halted for 19 months, until May of 1944. Then they started up again. First to Chelmno, then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Rumkowski and his wife perished. In the end, 877 Jews were kept in a barrack to clean up the ghetto. Upon hearing they were to be shot, all them hid in the ghetto until they were liberated by the Red Army. Over all, about 7,000 to 10,000 Jews survived the Lodz ghetto.

In a logical world, Rumkowski's plan would have worked. Such a productive and profitable enterprise as the factory system would have protected the Lodz ghetto from harm. But the world of Nazism was illogical. In addition to the tons of military supplies produced in the ghetto, Berlin realized a profit of 46,211,485 Reichmarks from the Jews of Lodz.



Adelson, Alan (Ed.). The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto. Oxford University Press. New York and Oxford. 1996.

Brothers, Eric. Judenraete: Issues Surrounding the Activities of the Nazi-Imposed Jewish Councils During the Holocaust. Master of Arts Thesis. Lehman College (City University of New York). 1994. Unpublished.

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