Exhibited here is a 1941 Rosh Hashanah official notice from Chaim Rumkowski to the Jews of the Łódź Ghetto (or “Litzmannstadt,” a German name he is credited with giving to it) regarding a special Rosh Hashanah treat for Jewish children:
THE JEWISH COUNCIL OF ELDERS IN LITZMANNSTADT
FATHERS AND MOTHERS!
I am sending you a nutrition card for daily evening bread from your children ages 2-7. (The deadline for publication will be announced through a special announcement.)
At the same time, you will also receive 5 covers of sugar from my factory. They are good and sweet, let them eat heartily!
I WISH THAT YOU BE INSCRIBED AND SEALED FOR A GOOD YEAR
MORDECHAI CHAIM RUMKOWSKI
Litzmannstadt, Erev Rosh Hashana 1941
YIVO has in its archives an album presented to Rumkowski on that very Rosh Hashanah – addressed to “Adonenu Hanasi” (“our master, the leader”) and containing the signatures of 14,587 schoolchildren and 715 teachers from schools in the Łódź Ghetto.
That Rosh Hashanah, he was royally borne to the ghetto synagogue in his customary imperial coach wearing his fancy cloak, ornate silver collar, and a crown-like eight-pointed hat in blue and white.
Sadly, and ironically, the man who gave bread and sugar to the Jewish children of Łódź Ghetto is the same man who would later cooperate with the Nazis in arranging their extermination.
Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski (1877-1944), born to Jewish parents in a shtetl near Vilna and schooled in a traditional cheder, was drawn to Łódź in the early 1900s by its booming industrial economy, where he made and lost fortunes as a manufacturer. A childless widower, he became an insurance agent, became passionately involved in local Jewish affairs, including Zionist politics, and founded and directed a Jewish orphanage from 1925-39.
On October 13, 1939, a few months before the Nazis sealed the Łódź Ghetto and essentially imprisoned 164,000 people, the Nazis appointed Rumkowski to serve as head of the Jewish Council of Elders in the Łódź Ghetto, in which capacity he transformed the ghetto into an industrial base manufacturing war supplies for the German Wehrmacht in the unshakable, but misguided, belief that productivity was the key to Jewish survival through the Shoah.
Often employing violent measures against his own people, he transformed the ghetto into a “city of labor” and the most efficient workshop of the German war machine in occupied Europe. Under his control, the ghetto became essentially a slave labor camp, with many Jewish workers literally collapsing, and some dying, from exhaustion and overwork. Rumkowski boasted, “My motto is to be always at least 10 minutes ahead of every German demand.”
His dedication was such that he conducted his own “selections” to remove “unproductive” Jews, including the old, the sick, and thousands of children under the age of 10; planned the logistics for several deportations to the Chelmno death camp; and personally selected the Jews to be deported (he claimed that he tried, but failed, to convince the Nazis to reduce the number of ordered deportees). In his infamous and contemptible speech, “Give Me Your Children,” he urged the Jews not to resist deporting 20,000 of their children to be exterminated.
Rumkowski proved very successful. In fact, Governor Arthur Greiser, a Nazi commander primarily responsible for organizing the Holocaust in Poland, testified at his 1946 trial that the Łódź Ghetto was one of Germany’s largest industrial operations.
The Nazis liquidated the ghetto in 1944; all remaining prisoners were sent to death camps in the wake of Germany’s military defeats on the Eastern Front; and, in August 1944, Rumkowski and his family joined the last transport to Auschwitz. By most accounts, he was murdered by Jewish Sonderkommando inmates from Łódź who beat him to death to avenge his role in the Holocaust; contemporary historians, however, challenge that account.
Rumkowski remains a controversial figure in the history of the Holocaust and continues to present a challenging problem for moralists and ethicists who still debate how he should be viewed through the lens of history. Although he was broadly viewed by the Jews as a hated collaborator and traitor, some contemporary historians have reassessed this judgment given his driving purpose: to ensure the survival of as many Jews as he could given the horrific conditions under which he was forced to live and operate.
Rumkowski supporters argue that he had no choice but to work with the Nazis who, in an instant, could decree the liquidation of the entire Łódź Ghetto. As Rumkowski himself put it, “I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself.” Thus, for example, he defended his removal of children under the age of 10 by maintaining that he had thereby saved Jewish children above that age who, absent his difficult but necessary action, would have been murdered along with their younger siblings by the Nazis.
Through his industrialization of the ghetto and promotion of its efficiency, Rumkowski sought to make “his Jews” indispensable to their Nazi taskmasters and thereby save them. By April 1940, it became evident that he had achieved some measure of success in this undertaking when the Nazis granted his petition for additional food for the ghetto community. In fact, he succeeded in facilitating the survival of the Łódź Ghetto – with its 70,000 Jews – until August 1944, two years longer than the Warsaw Ghetto survived and second only in duration to Theresienstadt.
Although only 877 Jews survived the final liquidation of the Łódź Ghetto, which was the last ghetto in Central Europe to be exterminated, there were more survivors of the Łódź Ghetto than any other Polish ghetto, and many scholars credit Rumkowski for their survival. With the Russians only 70 miles away when the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto, he almost saved many tens of thousands more.
Rumkowski set up a municipal government; created jobs for ghetto residents, which gave them a sense of purpose; and established social welfare programs and institutions that provided order and a sense of community so crucial to the semblance, if not the fantasy, of a meaningful and ordered life under the inhuman Nazi rule. He organized a fire department; cleaned the ghetto streets; and established welfare and health systems and administered seven hospitals, seven pharmacies, and five clinics employing hundreds of doctors and nurses.
Also unique to the Łódź Ghetto and due entirely to Rumkowski, the educational and cultural needs of the Jews were addressed through his establishment of 47 schools, which educated some two-thirds of the ghetto’s school-age children, and he was known to indulge the children with additional rations and sweets, particularly for the Jewish holidays (see exhibit).
He also created and maintained a Culture House where plays and orchestral performances were held, and he persisted in acting in what he perceived to be the best interests of the Jews despite being himself regularly beaten and abused by his Nazi overlords.
Exhibited here is a blank limited evening work pass for a Jewish worker issued by Rumkowski and his Council of Elders:
Resident ___________ Number ____
is The Council of Jewish Elders at Litzmannstadt
He is permitted to pass the streets within the streets in the Jewish residential area after the curfew and may not be used for any other work.
The Elders of Litzmannstadt
Litzmannstadt – Ghetto ______ 1940__.
But Rumkowski was also a ruthless monster. His rule, unlike that of the leaders of other ghettos, was marked by abuse of his own people and the physical liquidation of political opponents, as he deported people he personally disliked to the death camps. For example, after selecting 31 public figures to serve as Elders of the Ghetto Council, he denounced 20 of them to the Nazis because they failed to rubber-stamp his policies, leading to their execution; soon after, the remaining 11 “disappeared.” A new, more compliant council was subsequently appointed, but the Nazis authorized Rumkowski to serve as the sole authority in managing and organizing internal life in the ghetto.
The power-hungry Rumkowski maintained control through the brutal use of a 1,200-strong Jewish ghetto police force and elite private guard, and his reign was marked by absolute order, confiscation of Jewish property and assets, and coerced labor. Rumkowski prohibited all public expressions of dissent and, using his Jewish police, violently broke up demonstrations, even occasionally calling in the Nazis to break up rallies and kill protesters.
Those who somehow survived were punished by being barred from earning a living, which essentially condemned them and their families to death by starvation. Thus, by early 1941, there were no more protests against Rumkowski.
Meanwhile, he used his position to confiscate property and businesses that were still being run in the ghetto from their rightful Jewish owners while maintaining his own special shops for his own personal needs and awarding himself and his Council of Elders comfortable food rations and a high lifestyle.
To discourage smugglers from bringing goods into the ghetto and to allegedly “prevent the destabilization of the prices of basic commodities,” Rumkowski assured that these goods could not be paid for with regular currency by introducing the use of an ersatz currency bearing his image, which was nicknamed “Rumkies” by ghetto residents. The self-styled Jewish Messiah also put his face on ghetto postage stamps (see exhibit) and he granted himself the authority to conduct wedding ceremonies in which he unilaterally decided to alter the ketubah, which particularly infuriated Orthodox Jews in the ghetto.
In classic megalomaniac style, his image also appeared in all ghetto propaganda posters, artwork, and publications, which exalted his every activity and speech – and, ironically, touted his enormous love of the very children that he would later send to their deaths – all of which led to his earning the derisive and sarcastic ghetto nickname “King Chaim.” After meeting him during a brief visit to the Warsaw Ghetto, Emmanuel Ringelblum, the famous Warsaw Ghetto historian, characterized him as “an extraordinarily ambitious and rather bonkers man who tells tall stories of the Łódź Ghetto and considers himself G-d’s Anointed.”
As one commentator fittingly said: “Rumkowski identified so closely with his Nazi masters that the chairman became their Jewish counterpart – a Machiavellian fascist bent on separating ‘useless eaters’ from productive workers, all the while stoking his own cult of personality.”
The source of the Rumkowski controversy ultimately, therefore, has little to do with his belief that, to survive, the Jews of the Łódź Ghetto should work (under duress) for the Nazis. It is his history of coveting power, amassing it, and misusing it.
Many other Jewish ghetto leaders under duress assisted the Nazi war effort, but when Adam Czerniakow (head of the Jewish Council for the Warsaw Ghetto), for example, learned that the Nazis were not “resettling” Jewish deportees but murdering them, he took his own life rather than continue cooperating with the Nazis. Rumkowski, on the other hand, continued to not only force the Jews of the Łódź Ghetto to continue working for the Nazis, but also assisted in knowingly sending them to their deaths, including urging the Jews to cooperate in the deportation of 20,000 children to Chelmno.
Some scholars argue that Czerniakow’s suicide, though principled, did not save the life of a single Warsaw Ghetto Jew, while Rumkowski did save hundreds of Jews, albeit at a horrendous cost. As historian Yechiel Yishayahu Trunk writes in his well-respected study of the Łódź Ghetto (1962), “it would be too simple if we saw in Rumkowski simply a despotic aristocrat or someone who sought to save himself at the expense of tens of thousands whom he had sent to their deaths.”
However, Rumkowski never understood the true nature of the Final Solution and that nothing would ever deter the Nazis from fulfilling their prime directive: to murder every last Jew. Thus, on balance, his record of trying to increase the odds of Jewish survival in the ghetto, even if done with purely good intentions – which, given his hunger for power marked by unnecessary cruelty, is highly unlikely – is overshadowed by his appeasement of the Nazis and handing over virtually the entire ghetto population to Nazi death camps.