Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski (February 27, 1877 – August 28, 1944) was
Polish Jew and wartime businessman appointed by
Nazi Germany as the
head of the Council of Elders in the
Łódź Ghetto during the German
Poland in World War II. He accrued exponentially
more power by transforming the
Ghetto into an industrial base
manufacturing war supplies for the
Wehrmacht army in the mistaken
belief that productivity was the key to Jewish survival beyond the
Holocaust. The Germans liquidated the ghetto in 1944. All remaining
prisoners were sent to death camps in the wake of military defeats on
the Eastern Front of World War II.
Rumkowski is remembered for his speech Give Me Your Children,
delivered at a time when the Germans demanded his compliance with the
deportation of 20,000 children to Chełmno extermination camp. In
August 1944, Rumkowski and his family joined the last transport to
Auschwitz, and were murdered there on August 28, 1944 by Jewish
Sonderkommando inmates who beat him to death as revenge for his role
in the Holocaust. This account of his final moments is confirmed by
witness testimonies of the Frankfurt
Ghetto history prior to the "Final Solution"
2.1 Give Me Your Children
3.1 Death at the hands of the Sonderkommando
4 Debate over Rumkowski's role in the Holocaust
5 See also
8 External links
Before the war, Rumkowski directed a Jewish orphanage in Łódź.
Before the German invasion of Poland, Mordechaj (in Polish) Rumkowski
was an insurance agent in Łódź; member of Qahal, and in 1925–1939
head of a Jewish orphanage at Krajowa 15 Street. It has been said that
his work at the orphanage was self-serving rather than charitable;
according to Dr. Edward Reicher, a
Holocaust survivor from Łódź, he
had an unhealthy interest in children.
Łódź was annexed by the
invading Germans into the Reich. It became part of the territory of
new Reichsgaue separate from the Generalgouvernement in the rest of
occupied Poland. Smaller Jewish communities were dissolved and
forcibly relocated to metropolitan ghettos. The occupation authority
ordered the creation of the new Jewish Councils known as the
Judenräte which acted as bridges between the Nazis and the prisoner
population of the ghettos. In addition to managing basic services such
as communal kitchens, infirmaries, post offices and vocational
schools, common tasks of the
Judenräte included providing the Nazi
regime with slave labor, and rounding up quotas of Jews for
"resettlement in the East," a euphemism for deportations to
extermination camps in the deadliest phase of the Holocaust.
On October 13, 1939, the Nazi Amtsleiter in
Rumkowski the Judenälteste ("Chief Elder of the Jews"), head of the
Ältestenrat ("Council of Elders"). In this position, Rumkowski
reported directly to the
Nazi ghetto administration, headed by Hans
Biebow. When the rabbinate was dissolved, Rumkowski performed
weddings. The ghetto's money or scrip, the so-called Rumki (sometimes
Chaimki), was derived from his name, as it had been his idea. His
face was put on the ghetto postage stamps and currency, which led to
his sarcastic nickname "King Chaim".
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 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. Although Rumkowski and other "Jewish elders"
of the Nazi era came to be regarded as collaborators and traitors,
historians have reassessed this judgement since the late 20th century
in light of the terrible conditions of the time. A survivor of the
Łódź ghetto, Arnold Mostowicz, noted in his memoir that Rumkowski
gave a percentage of his people a chance to survive two years longer
than the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, destroyed in the Uprising.
However, as noted by Lucjan Dobroszycki, the ultimate decision on the
future was not his to make.
Ghetto history prior to the "Final Solution"
The ghettoization of
Łódź was decided on September 8, 1939, by an
SS-Oberführer Friedrich Uebelhoer. His top secret document
stated that the ghetto was only a temporary solution to "the Jewish
question" in the city of Łódź. Uebelhoer never implied the
long-term survival. The ghetto was sealed on April 30, 1940, with
164,000 people inside. On October 16, 1939, Rumkowski
selected 31 public figures to form the Council. However, less than
three weeks later, on November 11, twenty of them were executed and
the rest disappeared, because he denounced them to the German
authorities "for refusing to rubber-stamp his policies." Although a
Judenrat was officially appointed a few weeks later, the men were
not as distinguished, and remained far less effective than its
original leaders. This change conceded more power to Rumkowski, and
left no one to contest or restrain his decisions. Rumkowski had the
Jewish Ghetto Police
Jewish Ghetto Police under his control also.
The Germans authorized Rumkowski as the "sole figure of authority in
managing and organizing internal life in the ghetto". Rumkowski
gained power by his domineering personality as much as by his words
and deeds. Biebow from the first gave Rumkowski full power in
organizing the ghetto, as long as it did not interfere with his main
objectives: absolute order, confiscation of Jewish property and
assets, coerced labor, and Biebow's own personal gain. Their
relationship seemed to work effectively. Rumkowski had leeway to
organize the ghetto according to his own lights, while Biebow sat back
and reaped the rewards. In trying to keep Biebow happy, Rumkowski
obeyed every order with little question, and provided him with gifts
and personal favors. Rumkowski is said to have boasted of his
willingness to cooperate with the German authorities: "My motto is to
be always at least ten minutes ahead of every German demand." He
believed that by staying ahead of the Germans' thinking, he could keep
them satisfied and preserve the Jews.
Łódź was the last ghetto in
Central Europe to be liquidated. However, only 877 inhabitants
survived in the city until liberation by hiding with Polish rescuers,
and Rumkowski had nothing to do with it.
Chaim Rumkowski in the
Łódź Ghetto, tasting soup.
Because of the confiscation of cash and other belongings, Rumkowski
proposed a currency to be used specifically in the ghetto - the
ersatz. This new currency would be used as money, and by this alone, a
person could buy food rations and other necessities. This proposal
was considered arrogant and illustrated Rumkowski’s lust for power.
The currency was, therefore, nicknamed by ghetto inhabitants as the
"Rumkin". It dissuaded smugglers from endangering their lives to
get in and out of the ghetto with goods, as people could not pay for
them with regular currency. Rumkowski believed that smuggling of food
would "destabilize the ghetto with regard to the prices of basic
commodities" and prevented it from taking place.
Rumkowski did not allow public protests expressing dissent. With the
help of the Jewish police, he violently broke up demonstrations. On
occasion, he would request the Nazis to come and break up the
commotion, which usually resulted in protesters being killed. The
leaders of these groups were punished by not being allowed to earn a
living, 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. By the spring of 1941,
almost all opposition to Rumkowski had dissipated. In the beginning,
the Germans were unclear of their own plans for the ghetto, as
arrangements for the "Final Solution" were still being developed. They
realized that the original plan of liquidating the ghetto by October
1940 could not take place, so they began to take Rumkowski's labor
agenda seriously. Forced labor became a staple of ghetto life,
with Rumkowski running the effort. "In another three years – he said
– the ghetto will be working like a clock." This sort of
"optimism" however, was met with a damning assessment by Max Horn from
Ostindustrie, who said that the ghetto was badly managed, not
profitable, and had the wrong products.
By the end of January 1942 some 10,000 Jews were sent aboard Holocaust
trains to Chełmno based on selections made by the Judenrat.
Additional 34,000 victims were sent there by 2 April, with 11,000 more
by 15 May 1942, and over 15,000 more by mid September, for the total
of an estimated 55,000 people. The children and the elderly as well as
anyone deemed "unfit for work" in the eyes of the
Rumkowski actively cooperated with the German demands hoping to save
the majority of the ghetto inmates. Such behaviour set him at odds
with the Orthodox observant Jews, because there could be no
justification for delivering anyone to certain death. Following the
creation of the extermination camp at Chełmno in 1941, the Nazis
ordered Rumkowski to organize several waves of deportations. Rumkowski
claimed that he tried to convince the Germans to reduce the number of
Jews required for deportation and failed.
Give Me Your Children
On German orders Rumkowski delivered a speech on September 4, 1942
pleading with the Jews in the ghetto to give up children 10 years of
age and younger, as well as the elderly over 65, so that others might
survive. "Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd"
could be heard, reads the transcriber's note to his parlance often
referred to as: "Give Me Your Children". Some commentators see
this speech as exemplifying aspects of the Holocaust.
A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They [the Germans] 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!
— Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942 
Chaim Rumkowski delivering a speech in the ghetto, 1941–42
Rumkowski was ruthless, using his position as head of the
confiscate property and businesses that were still being run by their
rightful Jewish owners in the ghetto. He 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. Welfare and health systems were also
set up. For a time, his administration maintained seven hospitals,
seven pharmacies, and five clinics employing hundreds of doctors and
nurses. Despite their effort, many people could not be helped due to
the shortage of medical supplies allowed in by the Germans.
Rumkowski helped maintain school facilities. Forty-seven schools
remained in operation schooling 63% of school-age children. There was
no education in any other ghetto as advanced as in Łódź. He
helped 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, including hiring and
firing performers and editing the content of the shows. He 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, and altering the marriage contract (ketubah). "He
treated the ghetto Jews like personal belongings. He spoke to them
arrogantly and rudely and sometime beat them".
Due to Rumkowski's harsh treatment, and stern, arrogant personality,
the Jews began to blame him for their predicament, and unleashed their
frustration on him instead of the Germans, who were beyond their
reach. The most significant display of this frustration and
resistance was a series of strikes and demonstrations between August
1940 and spring of 1941. Led by activists and leftist parties against
Rumkowski, the workers abandoned their stations 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... –
Demonstration Leaflet 
Death at the hands of the Sonderkommando
There are conflicting accounts regarding Rumkowski's final moments.
According to one contemporary source he was murdered upon his arrival
Auschwitz by the Jews of
Łódź who preceded him there. This
version of events however has been challenged by historians. Another
report, submitted by the
Sonderkommando member from Hungary, Dov
Paisikovic (de), states that the Jews of
Łódź approached the
Sonderkommando Jews in secrecy, and asked them to kill Rumkowski for
the crimes he committed in the
Łódź Ghetto, so they beat him to
death at the gate of the Crematorium No. 2 and disposed of his
Debate over Rumkowski's role in the Holocaust
Token money in the ghetto with Rumkowski's signature
In his memoirs, Yehuda Leib Gerst described Rumkowski as a complex
person: "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."
Historian Michael Unger in his Reassessment of the Image of Mordechai
Chaim Rumkowski (2004) explored the materials leading to what is being
said about him. Rumkowski is described "on the one hand, an
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." Research performed by
Isaiah Trunk for the
Judenrat attempted to revise the prevailing view of Rumkowski as
traitor and collaborationist.
Rumkowski took an active role in the deportations of Jews. Some
historians and writers describe him as a traitor and as a Nazi
collaborator. Rumkowski aimed at fulfilling the Nazi demands with the
help of their own Orpo Security Police if necessary. His rule,
unlike the leaders of other ghettos, was marked with abuse of his own
people coupled with physical liquidation of political opponents. He
and his council had a comfortable food ration and their own special
shops. He was known to get rid of those he personally disliked by
sending them to the camps. Additionally, he sexually abused vulnerable
girls under his charge. Failure to submit to him meant death
to the girl.
Holocaust survivor Lucille Eichengreen, who claimed to
have been abused by him for months as a young woman working in his
office, wrote, "I felt disgusted and I felt angry, I ah, but if I
would have run away he would have had me deported, I mean that
was very clear."
Primo Levi, an
Auschwitz survivor, in his book The Drowned and the
Saved, concludes: "Had he survived his own tragedy...no tribunal would
have absolved him, nor, certainly, can we absolve him on the moral
plane. But there are extenuating circumstances: an infernal order such
as National Socialism exercises a frightful power of corruption
against which it is difficult to guard oneself. To resist it requires
a truly solid moral armature, and the one available to Chaim
Rumkowski...was fragile." At best, Levi viewed Rumkowski as morally
ambiguous and self deluded. Hannah Arendt, in her book Eichmann in
Jerusalem, placed Rumkowski's egotism at the low end of the spectrum
of wartime ghetto leadership examples.
The Story of Chaim Rumkowski and the Jews of Lodz - a 1982 documentary
Adam Czerniaków, head of
Judenrat in the Warsaw Ghetto
^ a b c Carmello Lisciotto (H.E.A.R.T 2007), "Chaim Rumkowski".
Holocaust Research Project, 2007. Retrieved: 01.10.2011.
^ Dombrowska, Danuta (2007). "Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski". In
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(note 127). ISBN 3835302930. For the Dov Paisikovic testimony
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trials of 1965.
^ Helen Aronson (21 November 2011). Nazi Collaborators: Hitler's
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^ Dr. Edward Reicher (2013). Country of Ash: A Jewish Doctor in
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ISBN 1934137456 – via Amazon Kindle.
^ a b S.J. (H.E.A.R.T 2007), "The Lodz Ghetto".
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^ "Scholars: Polish PM distorts history by saying Jews participated in
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^ Dobroszycki 1984, The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, page 61.
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^ Unger 2004, Reassessment, p. 22.
^ Unger 2004, Reassessment, p. 19.
^ a b Unger 2004, Reassessment, p. 22.
^ a b Unger 2004, Reassessment, p. 23.
^ Hilma Wolitzer (September–October 2011). "The Final Fantasy".
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^ Unger 2004, Reassessment, p. 38.
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Isaiah Trunk (2008),
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