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Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski

“The President of the Judenrat's veins stood out in his throat, and on his forehead… `I know that sometimes you have to cut off a gangrened arm to save the rest of the body. Look at me. My whole life has been devoted to the welfare of children. But even I have to let a newborn baby die in order to save the mother's life. Now we have to give them fifty people, so that our dear Jewish children, our hope, our future, can live. Be brave! When a great boat is sinking, like the Titanic, not everybody can get into the lifeboats. Some have to stay behind.'

`But the captain of the Titanic went down with his ship.'

`Who said that? Who dared?'”

The words are fictitious, a passage from the novel “King of the Jews” by Leslie Epstein, but the source is apparent. The protagonist of the book, I. C. Trumpelman, is obviously based upon the character of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, and the unnamed town's ghetto which he rules is equally clearly rooted in that of Lodz. The extract quoted summarises in a few words both the rationale behind at least a part of Rumkowski's thinking, and the autocratic nature of his rule.

The figure of Rumkowski has excited more and greater controversy than any other Judenrat leader. Many viewed him as a traitor and collaborator. Others considered that his policies extended the life span of the Lodz ghetto, and that but for events over which he had no control, his strategy might have succeeded. As Isaiah Trunk has commented: “In August 1944, when the Soviet armies had already reached the environs of Warsaw, approximately 70,000 Jews still lived in Lodz (at a distance of some 75 miles). Had the Soviet Army not stopped its advance until January 1945, a large number of these 70,000 people would certainly have escaped the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”

Another positive factor in assessing Rumkowski's conduct was that the Lodz ghetto, the second largest in Poland, remained in existence longer than any other ghetto in Europe, other than Theresienstadt. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that the estimated 5,000-7,000 Jewish survivors of the Lodz ghetto represent the largest group of survivors of any of the Polish ghettos. Why then the intense hatred with which Rumkowski was regarded by the great majority of the ghetto population? The answer to that question lies in the history of the Lodz ghetto and the character of its leader.

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski was born in 1877 to parents of modest means in the village of Ilino, in the district of Wielka Luki in Russia. Apart from traditional tuition in a cheder (Hebrew Classes), his education consisted of only 4-5 years of elementary schooling. He became a merchant and manufacturer, but having achieved a comfortable position twice, contrived to lose everything on both occasions, once just before the First World War and the second time after the Russian Revolution. Married twice, he was widowed twice; each marriage was childless. Between the wars, having no means of financial support or a specific profession, he worked at a variety of occupations until becoming an insurance agent. In the early 1920s, supported by funding from the Joint Distribution Committee (the “Joint”) and donations from business contacts, Rumkowski began to build a new Jewish orphanage on a farm at Helenowek, outside of Lodz. He became the director of the orphanage, a prestigious position he maintained until the outbreak of the Second World War, as well as becoming involved in the administration of similar institutions within the city. In addition he also served on the board of the local Zionist party and as a member of the Lodz kehillah (Jewish Council) executive.

Rumkowski was considered both energetic and capable, but his irascible and aggressive temperament did not endear him to others. Those who knew him best said that he never had any friends among his colleagues. He had the reputation of being self-opinionated, a man with no regard for the views of others, who frequently engaged in conflict, even with those who might have been considered his allies. Just before the outbreak of war, differences of opinion with other political elements within the kehillah caused the Zionists to withdraw from the Council executive. Rumkowski, however, refused to accept the decision and remained in office until the outbreak of war, as a result of which he was dismissed from membership of his own party.

The Nazis occupied Lodz on 8 September 1939. Either before or immediately following the entry of the Germans into the city, many important office-holders of the kehillah, including the chairman Leib Mincberg (who had also been a member of the Polish parliament), fled from Lodz. On 12 September, the executive was hastily reconstituted. Avraham Leyzer Plywacki, former vice-chairman of the executive, was elected chairman of the kehillah, with Rumkowski as vice-chairman. As was their common practice throughout occupied Poland, having dissolved the existing Jewish community institutions, the Germans appointed in their place a Judenrat, in Lodz termed an Ältestenrat (Council of Elders), with a chairman called by the Germans Älteste der Juden – “Elder of the Jews”. It was soon apparent that the community's affairs were being controlled not by Plywacki, but by Rumkowski, and on 13 October Plywacki was dismissed as chairman with Rumkowski appointed in his place and instructed to choose the members of the Ältestenrat. As with so many other aspects of Rumkowski's life, the reason why the Germans chose him as Älteste is shrouded in mystery. Some suggest that he was chosen because of his distinguished appearance, others because of his ability to speak German. By way of contrast another unlikely reason speculates that he was actually chosen because of a misunderstanding arising from Rumkowski's poor grasp of German. (A Gestapo officer supposedly asked at a meeting of the kehillah board: “Which of you is the Eldest?” Rumkowski misunderstood this to mean: which of you is the oldest, and said that he was.) A fourth, and by no means final possibility, is that Rumkowski sought the nomination and solicited his appointment. In any event, Rumkowski chose 31 prominent Jews to serve as members of the Ältestenrat. On 11 November, all 31 were arrested and interned in the camp at Radogoszcz. Eight were later released; all others were murdered. Rumkowski was ordered to form a new Ältestenrat, this time under the close scrutiny of the Gestapo.

The second Ältestenrat had little or no influence on Jewish affairs. Israel Tabaksblat characterized its members as “people without moral beliefs who blindly executed all and any orders – selfish, criminal fellows.” The Germans gave wide personal powers to Rumkowski in all areas relating to the daily life of the Jewish population, which allied to his aggressive and dominating character, could only have one result. As time went by, Rumkowski became more and more dictatorial, developing what many assessed to be messianic tendencies. Oskar Rosenfeld described Rumkowski as a contradiction: “A well mannered man, tidy, peaceful, good, religious, a traditional Jew on the one hand and, on the other, sordid, ridiculous, ironic, slovenly, insidious, unpredictable, treacherous, murderous.” Whilst there could be no doubt that ultimately the fate of Lodz' Jews lay with the German occupiers, as events transpired it was Rumkowski who could be said to have had the power to decide individual destinies. To that extent he was literally able rule on questions of life and death, and it is the manner in which he exercised that power that led to his being loathed by so many ghetto inhabitants.

Plans for a ghetto in Lodz were secretly ordered by Friedrich Übelhör, governor of the Kaliz-Lodz district, as early as 10 December 1939. However, the public proclamation of the formation of the ghetto was only made on 8 February 1940 and its sealing completed on 30 April 1940. The ghetto is estimated to have initially contained 164,000 Jews. Rumkowski became directly responsible to the German ghetto administration (Gettoverwaltung) and its head, Hans Biebow. As far as the Germans were concerned, one man was quite sufficient to run the ghetto, so long as he obeyed orders, kept the Jews under control, and delivered a productive labour force. To all intents and purposes the Ältestenrat soon ceased to exist.

The Lodz ghetto was subject to conditions difficult even by the standards of other ghettos. The occupiers renamed the city Litzmannstadt, and the region in which it was situated, termed by the Nazis the Reichsgau Wartheland (Warthegau), was incorporated into the Reich. The Polish language was effectively banned in the region and the currency in use was the Reichsmark, not the zloty. A huge demographic change rapidly occurred as the region was Germanized at the expense of the Polish population. On the outbreak of war, Lodz had contained about 60,000 Volksdeutsche; by the time of the city's liberation this number had grown to approximately 143,000. Unlike many other ghettos, contact with the remaining Polish population became extremely difficult. Other than a very small number of people, who were employed on the “Aryan” side for a short period of time, Jews did not work outside the ghetto except in forced labour camps, so that smuggling, which elsewhere had provided some prospect of survival, was virtually impossible in Lodz, and severely punished by Rumkowski when discovered. The Jews of Lodz were therefore completely isolated in a manner unlike that in any other ghetto. So far as the Nazis were concerned the Jews could only continue to exist by being economically productive, a factor which acted to increase the despotic nature of Rumkowski's rule and ensured that the financial value of the ghetto to the Nazis was to become immense. At his trial in 1946, Arthur Greiser, the Governor (Statthalter) of the Warthegau described the Lodz ghetto as one of the largest industrial enterprises in the Reich. Nor were the profits arising from the ghetto accruing solely to the state. On 16 July 1941, Hepner, an official in the Warthegau government wrote to Adolf Eichmann: “It seems to me that Übelhör does not wish to liquidate the Lodz ghetto because it gives him a chance to make a lot of money. As an example, I cite the fact that the labour department of the Statthalterei paid out of a special fund 6 Reichsmarks for each working Jew, though the expense to maintain a Jew was no more than 80 pfennigs.” People worked to pay for their rationed food. Money became otherwise virtually useless, since the only other source of goods was the black market, and in no way could the pittance people earned pay those prices. Bread became the unit of currency, and Rumkowski controlled the provision of bread.

According to Jakub Poznanski, when shortly after occupying the city the Germans began seizing Jews off of the street for forced labour, Rumkowski was one of those who proposed delivering daily quotas of Jewish labour in order to prevent arbitrary roundups. So it is hardly surprising that as early as 5 April 1940, he was suggesting to the authorities that production units be established in the ghetto, where Jewish labour would be employed. These workshops would fulfil the orders of outside institutions and companies, which would supply the necessary raw materials. The wages due to the workers would be used to pay for food and other items essential for the survival of the ghetto. This can be seen as the beginning of Rumkowski's strategy of “survival through work.” Ostensibly this seemed entirely logical; if Jewish labour, working for no more than a bowl of soup and a few slices of bread continued to be available to produce goods that could therefore be sold at a handsome profit, what possible reason would the Nazis have to destroy the ghetto and its inhabitants? Unfortunately, Rumkowski either could not or would not recognize that he was dealing with a regime to which logic and reason did not apply. The concept of survival through work eventually became an obsession for him. In speeches delivered throughout the ghetto's existence he repeatedly exhorted his listeners that only through his program of “work and peace” was existence possible. Together with many others, he was unable to grasp that so far as Nazi thinking was concerned, the issue was not if the ghetto would be destroyed, but rather at what speed. From the very beginning, Reinhard Heydrich had ordered that the ghettos were to be no more than a temporary solution to the “Jewish Question.”

On 13 May, two weeks after the sealing of the ghetto, Rumkowski reported that he had a register containing the names of 14,850 skilled workers. There were more than 70 articles these workers were capable of producing, and orders were sought. On 21 May he produced a list of 3,345 additional workers and repeated his request for orders. Four days later Biebow ordered that factories be set up in the ghetto (Arbeitsressorte; work sections). In September 1940 there were 17 such Arbeitsressorte. By July 1941 there were 45. At that time, the aggregate number of workers of one kind or another totalled 40,000. In January 1943 there were 96 Arbeitsressorte, employing 78,946 workers.

The power given to him by the Nazis unquestionably went to Rumkowski's head. He refused to give experienced Jewish leaders any role to play in ghetto affairs, retaining every important decision for himself; nor was he a man plagued by any self doubt. He would normally only accept the views of others when they were presented as if his own, or if they referred to something he had allegedly said himself. He was more than happy to receive the homage of his acolytes, gladly accepting that his image was hung in every ghetto office, that his signature appeared on the ghetto currency (called “Rumkies” by the ghetto inhabitants), or that sycophants endlessly praised his wisdom and presented him with congratulatory poems, scrolls or sometimes paintings on his birthday and similar occasions. His likeness even appeared on a proposed ghetto postage stamp. In short, he was a typical example of what today would be called “a cult of personality” – or in another word, a megalomaniac. Rumkowski believed that he was destined to achieve more than merely saving the Jews of Lodz. He was convinced that he would ultimately lead the Jews of all lands to their own homeland, where he would assume his position as “ King”. On 6 September 1940, Emanuel Ringelblum recorded a visit by Rumkowski to Warsaw:

“Today… there arrived from Lodz, Chaim, or as he is called `King Chaim', Rumkowski, an old man of seventy, extraordinarily ambitious and pretty crazy. He recited the marvels of his ghetto. . He has a Jewish kingdom there, with four hundred policemen, three gaols. He has a Foreign Ministry, and all the other ministries too. When asked why, if things were so good there, the mortality is so high, he did not answer. He considers himself God's anointed.”

In his diary entry of 17 May 1941, Adam Czerniakow noted another visit by Rumkowski to Warsaw:

“… Rumkowski was recounting his activities in Lodz. The individual does not exist for him. He uses a Sonderkommando for the purpose of requisitioning… He is replete with self-praise, a conceited and witless man. A dangerous man too, since he keeps telling the authorities that all is well in his preserve.”

On 17 November 1940, Rumkowski authorised the foundation of the Lodz Ghetto Archives as a section of the so-called Departments of Population Records. The Archives was originally founded to preserve archival material relating to the pre-war Jewish community and institutions that had arisen in the ghetto but were now defunct. In time, however, the Archives became the repository of information relating to the overall history of the ghetto, including orders, proclamations, texts of speeches, statistical data, photographs and a wealth of other material. On 12 January 1941, the first of the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto bulletins was written. The Chronicle is an invaluable document, deliberately written in an unsensational, matter-of-fact style and presenting details in the manner of a newspaper. It provides a unique insight into the gradual destruction of a community, although only about one quarter of its content has been published in English. Whilst the German administration were aware of the existence of the Archives, they did not know of the Chronicle, which became in effect a kind of diary of the daily life of the ghetto with the addition of supplementary articles on a variety of subjects. Bernard Ostrowski reported that the Chronicle was seen daily by Rumkowski and was subject to his censorship. Thus the constant references to him are written in the most glowing terms; he and his actions were above criticism. He could only be described in superlatives and with the respect due to a wise and honourable man. He was infallible; anyone thinking otherwise was “an enemy of peace in the ghetto.” Leon Hurwitz delivered a damning verdict on Rumkowski:

“The ghetto's internal life is reminiscent of the feudal system of the middle ages… The peasants… are only machines to perform work… [Rumkowski] hops from one workshop to another, from one office to another, and everywhere… he sows fear and dread… [These visits)… always caused someone suffering… An office worker would have his face slapped or be deprived of work for a very long time, until the end of the Rumkowski dynasty, unless the barbed wire around the ghetto were to disappear first. And Rumkowski was glad to perform these sadistic and insane pranks in the presence of one `minister' or another. He should tremble for his own fate.”

Rumkowski himself was the subject of physical abuse by Biebow, although his mistreatment could hardly be compared to the suffering of others. There was a very definite hierarchy in the ghetto, from the Älteste at the top, through administrators and policemen to workers and finally the unemployed and unfit. A person's position in this chain determined their lifestyle; most of all, it dictated the quantity and quality of their rations and ultimately their chances of survival. Rumkowski had the sole right to issue supplementary food stamps and allowed no outside control over his allocations. This inequitable distribution of food was a source of constant grievance to ghetto dwellers, and was a principal reason for strikes and complaints about Rumkowski's administration. Rumkowski's response to such grievances was ruthless and uncompromising; organizers were first arrested, or sent from the ghetto for forced labour. Later they were included on deportation lists. Whether or not Rumkowski was aware of the full implication of what “deportation” meant (at least in the early days of the killings at Chelmno) is debatable. He certainly knew that deportation of any kind would not result in an improvement in the deportee's circumstances. To that extent, deportation was tantamount to a death sentence, and for that Rumkowski is unforgivable.

He was certainly not ashamed of his actions, as samples of his public pronouncements indicate:

2 December 1940 – In relation to a hospital strike: “And now, only force will be used. No one is going to deal with the nurses but me. I will break them… I have no intention of teaching people… I don't believe in educating the population!”

1 February 1941: “As for crimes committed by [administration] employees, I've decided to use the most radical measures with them: I will deport all thieves from the ghetto by using them for forced labour assignments. Their families will be treated as second-class citizens.”

15 May 1941 – In a speech delivered in the Warsaw Ghetto to former residents of Lodz: “Overnight I erected factories and created a working town… I have carried out my tasks alone, by force. Dictatorship is not a dirty word. Through dictatorship I earned the Germans' respect for my work… My ghetto is like a small kingdom, with all the good and the bad…”

4 January 1942: “At the present time, only those who are, in my opinion, deserving of such a fate will be resettled elsewhere… I will be merciless to the guilty.”

17 January 1942: “I assigned for deportation that element of our ghetto which was a festering boil. And so the list of exiles includes members of the underworld and other individuals harmful to the ghetto… Now, when I am deporting all kinds of connivers and cheats, I do it fully convinced that they asked for this fate… Only work can save us from the worst calamity.”

2 March 1942: “After painful deliberation and inner struggle, I've decided to deport the people on relief… Let's say I could save 10 or 100 people; it's meaningless when you take into consideration the overall numbers. We cannot treat each individual as a special case.”

17 October 1943: “I will remove troublemakers and agitators from the ghetto not because I tremble for my life, but because I fear for you all.”

13 February 1944 – The Germans had demanded 1,500 healthy men for forced labour; the men had gone into hiding: “After all, I cannot endanger the entire ghetto for the sake of 1,500 men. This is no time for mercy.”

A contrast to Rumkowski's attitude was that of Israel Milejkowski, a Warsaw physician who committed suicide by swallowing cyanide on a transport to Treblinka. In 1942 he wrote:

“A year ago, the head of the Lodz ghetto, Rumkowski, came to us [in Warsaw]… Rumkowski's basic premise is that the ghetto form enables those in the position of leadership to do something creative for the Jews condemned by fate to live there… He justifies the ghetto's existence with its spiritual walls, in that it can be useful for the Jews.

My entire being revolts against this position. This is exactly what I cannot come to terms with. The root of all the evil of our sorrowful existence stems precisely from our being confined in a ghetto – a deteriorating and demoralizing effect. This is the source of our physical and moral breakdown… All our other plagues and tribulations vanish in comparison with the ghetto. Indeed, the ghetto's chief curse lies in the fact that we cannot be creative here.”

Deportations had begun in December 1940 and continued throughout the lifetime of the ghetto. Until the beginning of 1942 the deportations were to forced labour camps, but in December 1941 Rumkowski was ordered by the authorities to draw up lists of candidates for deportation. He tried without success to get the Germans to reduce the number of deportees; on 16 January 1942, the mass deportation of Jews from the ghetto to the extermination camp at Chelmno began. In order to select persons for deportation, Rumkowski formed the “Deportation Committee”, afterwards known as the “Committee of Five.” This committee determined those subject to deportation, and listened to appeals. In many respects, this was among the most diabolical of the many directives imposed on the ghetto leadership by the Nazis, for it transferred the decision making process regarding “selection” from the Germans to the Jews, thereby ensuring the undying hatred of the Ältestenrat and its leader by those who saw their families disappear for ever. There was only one visible target for the ghetto's hatred – Rumkowski and his administration. On 17 January, Rumkowski made a public declaration:

“Based on statements of the authorities, I have firm hope that the fate of the resettled people is not going to be so tragic as has commonly been feared in the ghetto. They will not be put behind wires. Farming will be their task… I guarantee with my own head that the working people will be subjected to no injustice; and I am saying this not only in my own name, but my statement is based on the promises of qualified, competent persons.”

By 29 January, 10,003 Jews had been deported. Their number included Jews who had been transported from the Wloclawek region to Lodz the previous October, the families of those who had been sent to Germany for forced labour, prostitutes, and other alleged “undesirable elements.” By May 1942, the number of deported Jews had reached 55,000. 5,000 Gypsies who had been housed in the ghetto had also been sent to Chelmno. Bernard Ostrowski recorded in the Ghetto Chronicle: “Fear for our ghetto's fate is keeping everyone up at night. Our last hope is our chairman; people believe that he will succeed, if not totally, then at least in part, in averting the calamities that now loom ahead.” Whether the observation was ironic or intended to be taken seriously is impossible to know.

Even as orders for the deportations had been issued, on 27 December 1941 Rumkowski took the extraordinary step of marrying for the third time. His bride was Regina Weinberger, a lawyer some thirty years his junior. The couple were to adopt a son, Stanislaw Stein, who celebrated his Bar Mitzvah in the ghetto on 1 January 1944.

In September 1942, the Germans carried out another major deportation, this time without the direct assistance of the Ältestenrat. Between 5-12 September, 20,000 Jews were sent to Chelmno. By now, nobody was under any illusion about what was meant by “resettlement”. Among those transported at this time were patients in the ghetto's hospitals, children under ten years of age, and the elderly. On 4 September, Rumkowski addressed the inhabitants of the ghetto:

“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly… Brothers and sisters, hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers, give me your children! ... 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!'… We… thought first not about `How many will perish?' but `How many is it possible to save?' And we reached the conclusion that, however hard it would be for us, we should take the implementation of this order into our own hands. I must perform this difficult and bloody operation – I must cut off the limbs in order to save the body itself! – I must take the children because, if not, others may be taken as well, God forbid… They requested 24,000 victims, 3,000 a day for eight days. I succeeded in reducing the number to 20,000, but only on the condition that these would be children below the age of ten. Children ten and older are safe. Since the children and the aged together equal only some 13,000 souls, the gap will have to be filled with the sick... Deliver to me those sick ones and it may be possible to save the healthy ones instead... Common sense requires us to know that those must be saved who can be saved and who have a chance of being saved and not those whom there is no chance to save in any case…”

On 30 March 1943, the Chronicle recorded that yet another rumour had circulated within the ghetto. There were plans to fill out a transport with the critically ill. As a result a great many sick people went into hiding. In fact “only those with active tuberculosis were designated for resettlement. A number of people… were taken to Central Prison in horse-drawn carts. One such group sang `Hatikvah' en route.” From lists prepared by the Ältestenrat, between 23June and 14 July 1944, 7,000 Jews were transported to Chelmno. Biebow had told one group of deportees that they would be sent to a labour camp near Leipzig. “For you Jews who work diligently it will be good,” he lied. On 30 July, according to the Chronicle records there were 68,561 persons living in the ghetto. Because of the rapid advance of the Soviet Army, in early August the Germans took the decision to complete its liquidation. Beginning on 3 August, 5,000 people daily were to be deported - this time to Auschwitz.

At first Rumkowski had believed that his strategy of buying the right to live through work would save all of the ghetto population. Then in the face of German demands, this changed to the concept of saving at least some of the Lodz Jews. Finally came the realisation that no one could be saved. In the end, in a poster dated 15 August 1944 bearing his signature, Rumkowski even asked the Jews to volunteer for the transports bound for Auschwitz. “You will make your own departure easier,” the poster advised. How much of Rumkowski's efforts were designed with the survival of his family and himself in mind is impossible to say, but it would be surprising if at least the thought had not occurred to him.

Rumkowski's own fate remains an enigma. On 28 August 1944, the final transport left Lodz for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among the deportees were Rumkowski, his wife, their adopted son, Rumkowski's brother, Jozef, and Jozef's wife, Helena. All kinds of rumours circulated concerning Rumkowski's end, although no definitive evidence has ever emerged. Perhaps Leslie Epstein expressed it best when dealing with the fate of I.C. Trumpelman in “King of the Jews”:

“In one version of this story, there was an additional transport… and the Elder was on it. Another version has it that Chaim drove up in a special command car, just for himself. Many… believe he had a letter… that supposedly guaranteed him all sorts of favours in the camp. However, as soon as the letter was opened, Trumpelman was led to a wall, where he was shot. But other Jews say that, to amuse the Kapos and guards, the Elder was allowed to carry on as if he were still in the ghetto, strutting about, giving orders…There are people who swear they saw him on a hilltop… he got onto the end of the line and marched into the death house. Here is a different tale. Chaim tries to make himself as inconspicuous as possible, he crouches down, he wears a disguise. But he is recognized by a crowd… who beat him to death on the spot… The Jews from Oswiecim can't bear to think he died someplace else.”

In his interviews with anonymous survivors of the Shoah in 1946, a number of whom had been inmates of the Lodz ghetto, David P.Boder raised questions concerning Rumkowski and his personality. The answers were illuminating. Israel U., originally from Kalisz, was just eleven years old when he entered an orphanage in Lodz in 1939:

“One can't say we were badly treated there. It was better than [the rest of] the ghetto. Rumkowski became the president of the Lodz ghetto. He wasn't just president, he was an emperor, one might say… Us [children] he treated very well. But the town, that was terrible. One can say that 95 per cent of the ghetto hated him terribly… The worst thing in the ghetto was the deportations. In 1942 they began to send thousands and thousands of people away. Where to we didn't know… Without doubt this is Rumkowski's greatest offence. People who were sick, weak, and old were taken. People who couldn't walk… A document was sent to such and such family: On this particular day you have to report to the general prison… And when the man reported, he was sent away. If [the man] didn't report… a note was sent to the store where he received his food rations [saying] `So and so does not receive bread anymore.' And this man did not get anything more to eat… [he] was doomed.”

Some survivors attempted to draw comparisons between the behaviour of Rumkowski and that of Adam Czerniakow in the Warsaw Ghetto. Michael Etkind commented:

“Some resented Rumkowski's role in the ghetto, but many did not. Had he survived he would have been murdered after the war… Those he put on the deportations list, because they were not working, hated and resented him; but the people who because of him survived, were very grateful to him. Czerniakow in the Warsaw Ghetto was in the same position… [and when] the Warsaw Ghetto was being liquidated, he committed suicide, took poison and killed himself. What do you think of a captain of a ship who, when the ship is about to sink, takes poison or jumps overboard? It is impossible to judge.”

This, in a nutshell, describes the dilemma facing the Judenräte, and their chairmen in particular. In the face of such an implacable enemy, so completely dedicated to the annihilation of their communities, there was no correct response. Czerniakow's suicide did nothing to save the Jews of Warsaw; Rumkowski's sacrifice of the “unproductive” elements in the ghetto did result in the survival of a tiny minority of Lodz' Jews, but at a terrible cost. In his defence it must be said that, whatever Rumkowski's motives and methods may have been, he very nearly succeeded in saving many more Jews – although nowhere near as many whose deaths resulted from those same policies. Of course, many, if not all of these fatalities would have resulted with or without Rumkowski's cooperation. He was clearly an unattractive personality with a multitude of failings, but he was not alone in that among Judenräte leaders, nor in adopting the strategy of salvation through labour. In other words, he remains what he has always been – a paradox and a conundrum, a man whose controversial character and actions will continue to be the subject of intense debate in years to come. And as Isaiah Trunk in his study of the Lodz ghetto warned, “ 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.”

Sources and Further Reference:

Adelson, Alan & Lapides, Robert. Lodz Ghetto – Inside a Community under Siege, Viking Penguin, 1989

Arad Yitzhak, Gutman Israel and Margaliot Abraham, eds. Documents On The Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1999

Czerniakow, Adam, Hilberg, Raul (Ed.), Staron, Stanislaw (Ed.), Kermisz, Josef (Ed.). The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow : Prelude to Doom, Ivan R Dee Inc., Chicago,1999

Dobroszycki, Lucjan. The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1984

Epstein, Leslie. King of the Jews, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1993

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990

Niewyk, Donald L. Fresh Wounds – Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill & London, 1998.

Smith, Lyn. Forgotten Voices of the Holocaust, Ebury Press, London, 2005

Trunk, Isaiah. Judenrat - The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation, The Macmillan Company - New York 1972.




Mordecai Tenenbaum (Tamaroff)

Although only twenty-seven years of age when he died, Mordecai Tenenbaum, known as Jozef Tamaroff by members of the underground, had become among the most important and inspirational leaders of Jewish resistance to the Nazis. During his short lifetime he was a major influence on the initiation and organisation of the armed struggle by the Jews of eastern Europe against their oppressors.

He was born in Warsaw in 1916, the seventh child of a family of modest means, and attended a Tarbut, a secular school where lessons were in Hebrew. In 1936, he became a student at the Warsaw Oriental Institute. His knowledge of Turkic languages and formidable intellect were to subsequently prove of great value in occupied Poland. With the outbreak of war, he was able to obtain forged documents that identified him as Jozef Tamaroff, a Polish Tatar from the Vilna region. With these papers, and the protection of the Karaite and Tatar minorities, Tenenbaum was able to travel freely throughout German-occupied Poland.

Tenenbaum became politically active from an early age. He was a member of the Ha-Shomer ha-Le'ummi (National Guard) movement, before joining the Freiheit youth organisation (subsequently re-named Dror) in 1937. He trained for life on a kibbutz in Baranovichi, attending a course for teachers of Hebrew in Vilna as well as a military training course in Zielonka. In late 1938, Tenenbaum was summoned to the head office of the Warsaw Hehalutz, a worldwide federation of Zionist youth that encouraged young people to settle in Palestine and trained them for rural life there. The Hehalutz movement was to provide much of the active core of fighters in ghetto uprisings and Jewish partisan units.

In September 1939, Tenenbaum and his colleagues left Warsaw before the Germans occupied the city. They made their way to Kovel and Vilna, with the intention of eventually reaching Palestine. However, there were few immigration documents available. Tenenbaum provided forged papers for others, but chose to remain in Vilna himself. Once part of the Russian Empire, on 16 February 1918 the Lithuanian Council in Vilna had proclaimed an independent Lithuanian Republic. In the autumn of 1920, Vilna and the region to which it belonged were occupied by Poland. On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 Lithuania, originally to be occupied by Germany as part of the secret protocol attached to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, was ceded to the Soviet Union in exchange for German occupation of central Poland, which had initially been allocated to the USSR. The Red Army occupied Vilna on 19 September 1939. Lithuania and the Soviet Union signed a treaty of mutual aid, in accordance with which Vilna and the Vilna region were returned to Lithuania. In 1940, Vilna became the capital of Soviet Lithuania.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Vilna fell to the Nazis on 26 June 1941. The killing began in the city almost immediately. Tenenbaum wrote: “The first Aktion began in Vilna… From that day it was one Aktion after another. We still had no inkling that this would be the fate of all Polish Jewry…” Tenenbaum attempted to help many of his comrades by providing them with forged work permits, but he was only partially successful, and few escaped the clutches of the Germans. He sent his girlfriend, Tamara Sznaiderman, to Warsaw, where it was decided that the survivors of the Hehalutz kibbutz that had been organised in Vilna be transferred to Bialystok and Warsaw, where life was relatively peaceful. Tenenbaum was in no doubt concerning the necessity of the transfer:

“We are living without knowing what will happen tomorrow, what we can expect. If we stay here and struggle for existence from day to day, we shall face the eradication of the movement. Our aim and duty is to preserve it for future work… We must begin evacuation at once.”

The relocation was arranged by Tenenbaum with the assistance of Anton Schmid, a remarkable anti-Nazi Wehrmacht sergeant. Schmid had been an electrician who owned a small radio shop in Vienna; he had been drafted into the German army after the Anschluss of 1938. Schmid was in charge of a section called the Versprengten Sammelstelle, responsible for collecting German soldiers who had been separated from their units. The section's headquarters were located in three buildings near the Vilna railroad station. In the basements of the buildings were workshops where dozens of Jews were employed at repairing beds and mattresses and in tailoring shops, as well as in other trades. Schmid was appalled by the mass murders at Ponary, and determined to do whatever he could to help Jews to survive. In a letter to his wife, Stefi, Schmid described his horror at the sight of mass murder and of “children being beaten on the way”. He went on:“You know how it is with my soft heart. I could not think and had to help them.” During the notorious Gelbschein (Yellow Permit) Aktionen, Schmid hid many Jewish workmen in the basements beneath his headquarters. Subsequently, liaising with Tenenbaum, he arranged for Jews to be sent in military vehicles, not only to Bialystok and Warsaw, but to other ghettos in Voronovo, Lida, and Grodno, all at that time considered less hazardous than Vilna. Schmid arranged for the release of Jews incarcerated in the Lukiszki prison, smuggled some people out of the ghetto and supplied provisions and forged papers to other ghetto inmates. He had saved more than 250 Jews prior to his arrest in January 1942, when Jews from Vilna were discovered in the newly formed ghetto of Lida, and under duress, named Schmid as their saviour. He was tried before a military tribunal on 25 February and executed on 13 April 1942. His counsel had attempted to save Schmid's life by entering the defence that he had arranged for the transportation of Jews from Vilna to other ghettos because he wanted to preserve the workers for the Wehrmacht. Schmid completely rejected this supposed justification, unashamedly stating that he had smuggled Jews out of Vilna solely to save them from death. In 1967 Schmid was recognized by Yad Vashem as a 'Righteous Among the Nations'.

Even as this transfer of personnel took place, the idea of armed resistance began to take shape in Vilna. Tenenbaum knew that there was no hope of victory, but nonetheless the battle had to be fought. He wrote: “The force that has overcome Europe and destroyed entire states could cope with us, a handful of youngsters. It was an act of desperation… We aspired to only one thing: to sell our lives for the highest possible price.” But he was realistic enough to see that the remaining Jews of Vilna possessed neither the strength nor the will to fight. The resistance would have to be organized elsewhere. In early January 1942, the Hehalutz group left Vilna for Bialystok. Tenenbaum joined them after a brief visit to the Grodno ghetto, where his positive attitude revitalized the city's youth. Bronia Winitzki-Klibanski, a Dror activist in Grodno, related: “We were captivated by his personality, his courage, and his words, which already then emphasized the demand for resistance and struggle.” Meeting with the Grodno Judenrat, Tenenbaum made it clear that they had to prepare for a revolt against the oppressors. Those who believed that Jews were safe so long as they provided a source of cheap labour for the Germans were deluding themselves.

That March, Tenenbaum returned to Warsaw and reported on conditions in the ghettos he had visited. In particular, he pointed to Vilna as clear evidence that Nazi policy was to exterminate every Jew that they could find. Not all of his listeners agreed with his evaluation, but as news filtered through of the murder of Jews in the Lublin region and the establishment of the death camp at Chelmno, any doubts were dispelled. The numerous political parties in the Warsaw Ghetto agreed to put their differences aside and form a united underground movement. Tenenbaum became one of the founders of the short-lived Anti-Fascist Bloc, which on its effective dissolution in June 1942, evolved, at least to some extent, into the Jewish Fighting Organisation (Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa: ZOB), formed on 28 July 1942. Needless to say, Tenenbaum had been a prime mover in establishing this organisation too.

In November 1942, Tenenbaum was ordered to return to Bialystok in order to organize a resistance movement in that city. On arrival, he found the ghetto sealed and surrounded. Tenenbaum decided to detour to Grodno, but was stopped on his way by Germans, who discovered that his papers were false. Although shot in the leg in the resulting skirmish, Tenenbaum escaped and after sheltering with a peasant woman, was eventually smuggled into the remaining Grodno ghetto (the other having been liquidated). Despite his injury, Tenenbaum tried hard to recruit Jews for the underground. Then he set out once more for Bialystok, by that time the only other ghetto remaining in the region. His aim was to unite the various underground factions there and to acquire arms in readiness for the struggle he was certain was imminent. In this he was supported by the chairman of the Bialystok Judenrat, Efraim Barasz, who helped Tenenbaum raise funds and provided information, as well as assisting with the manufacture of arms.

In an amazing display of energy and determination, Tenenbaum was instrumental in establishing an underground archive in Bialystok. Zvi Mersik supervised the collection of testimony and personally interviewed the refugees from the Jewish communities of the Bialystok district that had been liquidated by the Germans in November 1942. Inspired by the activities of Emanuel Ringelblum and Oneg Shabbat in Warsaw, Tenenbaum and Mersik were determined to preserve a record of the suffering of the Jews of the region under the heel of their Nazi persecutors. German documents, minutes of Judenrat meetings, details concerning events in the region, even poems and songs composed in the ghetto were collected. Tenenbaum personally contributed a number of his own writings, including his diary, written in Hebrew. Known as the Tenenbaum–Mersik Archives, the collection is considered amongst the most important Shoah related documentary resources. In Tenenbaum's words, the archive was intended to serve as “a testimony for future generations.” Most of the archive is kept by Yad Vashem. Parts are also held by the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and by the Ghetto Fighters' House.

In January 1943, Tenenbaum dispatched Tamara Sznaiderman to Warsaw once again to report to the ZOB on the situation in Bialystok. Her arrival coincided with the initial Warsaw Ghetto uprising. She never returned to Bialystok. With her disappearance, contact between Warsaw and the city ceased. In the final letter left for his sister in Palestine, Tenenbaum described Tamara's bravery and resourcefulness:

“… She crossed the border into Ostland – formerly Lithuania – a number of times, into White Russia, and into the Reich in Bendzin, to the Ukraine (Kowel and Luck), the district of Bialystok (more than a dozen times!). She was familiar with every ghetto in Poland (wall and barbed wire), every Judenrat… She absorbed all the scenes of tragedy, sorrow, and suffering… She was a living encyclopaedia of the catastrophe and martyrdom of the Jews of Poland…”

A few weeks later, the deportation of the Jews of Bialystok began. Tenenbaum intensified his attempts to organize the resistance, saying: “Let us fall as heroes, and though we die, we shall live.” The archive contains the minutes of a meeting of Dror activists which took place on 27 February 1943, and involved a heated debate concerning whether it was better to fight in the ghetto or to join the partisans in the forests. Tenenbaum put the alternatives to those gathered:

“… This meeting may be historic, if you like, tragic if you like, but certainly sad. That you people sitting here are the last halutzim in Poland; around us are the dead. You know what happened in Warsaw, not one survived, and it was the same in Bendzin and in Czestochowa, and probably everywhere else. We are the last. It is not a particularly pleasant feeling to be the last: it involves a special responsibility. We must decide today what to do tomorrow. There is no sense in sitting together in a warm atmosphere of memories, nor in waiting together, collectively, for death. Then what shall we do? We can do two things: decide that when the first Jew is taken away from Bialystok now, we start our counter-action… Everybody will be mobilized for the job. We can see to it that not one German leaves the ghetto, that not one factory remains whole. It is not impossible that after we have completed our task someone may by chance still be alive. But we will fight to the last, till we fall. We can also decide to get out into the forest. The possibilities must be considered realistically… We must decide for ourselves now. Our daddies will not take care of us. This is an orphanage… Anyone who wishes, or believes or hopes that he has a real chance of staying alive and wants to make use of it, well and good. We will help him any way we can. Let everyone decide for himself whether to live or die. But together we must find a collective answer to our common question.”

None of those present had any illusions about the eventual outcome, whatever the choice. “We can expect nothing but death down to the last Jew,” said one. “We have before us two possibilities of death. The forest will not save us, and the counter-action will certainly not save us. The choice that is left us is to die with dignity. The outlook for our resistance is poor. I don't know whether we have the necessary means for combat. It is the fault of all of us that our means are so small, but that is in the past, we must make do with what we have. Bialystok will be liquidated completely like all the other Jewish cities…” In the end, following Tenenbaum's lead, the meeting decided that the underground would first fight in the ghetto. Those left alive after their inevitable defeat would continue to resist from the shelter of the forests.

In July 1943, Tenenbaum finally succeeded in organizing a unified underground in Bialystok, with himself as commander and Daniel Moszkowicz as his deputy. By this time, however, they no longer enjoyed Barasz's support. Like the chairmen of other Judenräte, Barasz believed in the strategy of “work to live.” He thought that because of their usefulness as a source of virtually cost-free labour, the remaining Jews of Bialystok could be saved. On 21 June 1942, he had explained his philosophy to a mass meeting of Bialystok Jews:“We have transformed all our inhabitants into useful elements. Our security is in direct proportion to our labour productivity... Steps have to be taken so that the existence of the ghetto will achieve justification, so that we may be tolerated.” In Barasz's eyes, German awareness of the existence and aggressive intent of the underground threatened the future survival of the ghetto. On 11 October 1942, by which time knowledge of Aktion Reinhard was sensed, if scarcely believed, Barasz had addressed fellow council members and the heads of ghetto workshops, saying:“It is imperative that we find means to postpone the danger, or at least reduce its scope.” Given their diametrically opposed views concerning Nazi intentions and the manner in which to respond to them, it was inevitable that Barasz and Tenenbaum would part company.

On 16 August 1943, anticipating the liquidation of the ghetto, Tenenbaum ordered the uprising to begin. At 10 a.m. the various cells of the underground took up their positions and were issued with arms. The plan was to break out of the ghetto and escape to the forest. For the ensuing five days the poorly armed and heavily outnumbered members of the resistance fought against overwhelming German firepower, which included armoured cars and tanks. Unable to break out of the ghetto, the fighters retreated into a bunker, which the Germans discovered on 19 August. All but one of the 72 fighters in the bunker was shot. The next day, as the last resistance positions fell, Tenenbaum and Moszkowicz died, probably by their own hand. A few of the ghetto fighters held out for another month, continuing to harass German forces at night.

The deportation of the remnant of the Jews of Bialystok began on 18 August and continued for 3 days. 7,600 Jews were transported to Treblinka; thousands more were sent to Majdanek, where a selection took place. Those found fit were transferred from to the camps at Poniatowa, Blizyn, or Auschwitz. More than 1,200 children aged between 6 and 15 were deported to Theresienstadt. Many died there. The sick were taken to the Small Fortress section of the ghetto and beaten to death. A few weeks later, the surviving children were deported again, this time to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where all of them were gassed on 7 October, together with the 53 adults who had volunteered to accompany them. In Bialystok itself a “Small Ghetto” was left, containing 2,000 Jews. After three weeks, it too was liquidated and its occupants sent to Majdanek. Among them was Barasz who, together with the few remaining Bialystok Jews, was murdered there on 3 November 1943 in the so-called Aktion Erntefest. Tenenbaum would have taken no comfort from the accuracy of his prognosis.

There is little doubt that, had he survived, Mordecai Tenenbaum would have become a prominent and influential figure in post-war Jewish political life. Israel Gutman described him as “a colourful, energetic, audacious young man.” He was not only a courageous fighter and skilful organizer, but also a talented and sensitive writer. In letters written to a friend in the last months of his life, he portrayed his acceptance of an inevitable fate in moving terms:

“… It is certain that I am the only living creature left of our family. Why this is so only God knows… The worst thing is to sit here and to know: I am death's messenger… When you come, I'll show you some beautiful things. Not just poems, I have stories, poems, long poems. For I am the only representative of the future left…”

Sources and Further Reference:

Arad, Yitzhak. Ghetto in Flames: The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust, Holocaust Library, New York, 1982

Arad Yitzhak, Gutman Israel and Margaliot Abraham, eds. Documents On The Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1999

Gutman, Yisrael, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990

Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989

Gutman, Yisrael. Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1994

Cedars of Lebanon: Three Letters from Bialystok. Commentary Magazine, Vol. 20, December 1955, No. 6





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