Chaim Rumkowski led the Lodz Ghetto as head of the ghetto’s Jewish Council. Rumkowski remains a controversial figure in the history of the Holocaust. His detractors say that he used his position to advance his own power at the expense of others and that he betrayed his fellow Jews. The supporters of Rumkowski argue that he had no choice other than to work with the Nazis who controlled Lodz as they decided what went into the ghetto in terms of food and others supplies.
Chaim Rumkowski was born on February 27th 1877. Before the Nazi invasion of Poland on September 1st 1939, Rumkowski was a businessman who also ran an orphanage. As a Jewish resident of Lodz, Rumkowski was forced to live in the Lodz Ghetto where he was appointed head of the Jewish Council – a position that made him effective head of government in the ghetto. Rumkowski came to the decision that it was better to work with the Nazis to get supplies rather than not to do so. He developed a working relationship with the most senior Nazi administrator in Lodz, Hans Biebow. There is little doubt that Biebow used this working relationship for his own financial ends but for Rumkowski it was the only way for the ghetto to get food and other supplies.
Probably the most controversial issue surrounding Rumkowski was not so much his belief that the Jews should work (under duress) for the Nazis for their own survival but the power he acquired within Lodz Ghetto. To some he was ‘King Chaim’ who established a power base in the ghetto that was too great for one individual. The internal stamps used in the Lodz ghetto carried an image of Rumkowski and his friends and supporters in the ghetto always seemed to live better lives than his detractors – or so it seemed to them. Rumkowski also carried out marriage ceremonies when rabbis were forbidden to work. He also referred to Lodz by its new German name – Litzmannstadt as opposed to Lodz.
Rumkowski wanted to convince Biebow that the work done in the Lodz Ghetto was indispensable to the Nazis. He persuaded Biebow that he could lead the Jews in the ghetto into producing military equipment in exchange for food. By the end of April 1940, Biebow accepted his arguments and the people in the ghetto were given the equipment necessary for manufacturing military equipment. It is not known what people felt like knowing that they were producing equipment for those who had forced them into the ghetto. By the time the ghetto was freed by the Red Army in January 1945, there were only 900 survivors. However, those who did survive had their own views about Rumkowski who did not survive. Views are black or white with nothing in between. Survivors either supported what he did, which did lead to an extended life for the ghetto when compared to the Warsaw Ghetto as an example or they described him as a tyrant with a lust for power.
Rumkowski was in a difficult position from the start of the ghetto’s existence. The Nazis appointed him head of the Lodz Ghetto on October 13th 1939 and he had to report directly to Hans Biebow. If Rumkowski had refused his appointment, what would have happened to him? If someone else had been appointed, would the ghetto have been destroyed months or years earlier? Both are unanswerable questions and indicate just how difficult it is to judge Rumkowski and his behaviour.
His detractors saw Rumkowski as a dictator within the ghetto – or someone who had aspirations to be a dictator. Rumkowski was appointed head of the Jewish Council for the Lodz Ghetto. This meant that others were to be appointed to the Council to assist Rumkowski in running the ghetto. He appointed 31 men to help him run the ghetto in October 1939. By mid-November, 20 of these men were dead and the rest had been arrested. Some say that Rumkowski was involved in all of this because the men he appointed would not agree with the way he wanted the ghetto to be run. However, there is no proof of this. New members of the Council were appointed and they were far more willing to acquiesce to the suggestions of Rumkowski.
There can be little doubt that Rumkowski wanted what can only be described as effective control over the ghetto. There were two sides to this. He worked hard to establish medical facilities within the ghetto and in this he was successful. Seven hospitals and five clinics were established. However, it required the Nazis to hand over medicines and these were always in very short supply. Schools were also established for the children of the ghetto. Forty-seven schools were established. Plays were put on for those in the ghetto and an orchestra was created.
However, he also wanted the ghetto to become a powerhouse of manufacturing. Rumkowski believed that the Nazis had to be convinced that the work done in the ghetto was vital and as a result of this he pushed for long hours of work. This resulted in strikes, which if they continued for any length of time could have seriously undermined Rumkowski’s pledge to Biebow that the work done in the ghetto was very important. In response to these strikes, Rumkowski created a ghetto police force that was answerable to him. The ringleaders of the strikes were arrested. Their punishment was simple – they were refused permission to work. Without work, they had no food rations. With no food, they faced starvation. Such an autocratic approach had two results. The first was that it convinced Biebow that the work in the ghetto could continue to the benefit of the Nazis. The second was that the strikes had all but stopped by the spring of 1941. Most had come to accept Rumkowski’s slogan that “Labour Is Our Only Way”.
Rumkowski also carried out deportation orders without question. The head of the Jewish Council for the Warsaw Ghetto, Adam Czerniakow, committed suicide when it became obvious that those deported from Warsaw were not being resettled but were being murdered. However, Rumkowski still stayed with his belief that the only way for the ghetto in Lodz to survive was to ‘go along’ with the Nazis however distasteful this was. His most infamous association with the deportations involved the children of the ghetto. Ordered to deport 20,000 children from the Lodz Ghetto, Rumkowski made his ‘Give Me Your Children’ speech.
As the Red Army advanced across Eastern Europe, the Nazis made plans for the destruction of the ghettos – the so-called liquidation of the ghettos. In August 1944, Rumkowski boarded a train bound for Auschwitz. Specific details of what happened to Rumkowski at Auschwitz is not fully known. However, survivors of the death camp stated after the war that some of the Jews who had been deported from Lodz but who were still alive in Auschwitz recognised Rumkowski on his arrival. Apparently Rumkowski was so weak that he needed to be carried around in a litter. When told where he was it is said that Rumkowski replied, “Oh, my God” and started to recite a Jewish prayer. It is thought that he died on August 28th 1944.