BOSTON — He was nicknamed “King Chaim,” in honor of life, but Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski ultimately presided over the “resettlement” of more than 150,000 Jews deported to their deaths from the Lodz Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland.
As the Elder of the Jews tasked with running the ghetto’s Nazi-installed Jewish Council, Rumkowski, a 62-year old former orphanage head, thoroughly relished his authority. In the analysis of some historians, 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.
An exhibit featuring photographs from Rumkowski’s “kingdom” — “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross” — recently made its US debut at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Ross, both a photographer employed by Rumkowski’s Jewish Council and a clandestine chronicler of the ghetto’s appalling conditions, buried 6,000 of his negatives during the ghetto’s final days. After surviving the war, Ross returned to unearth his image trove, about half of which was not water-damaged during the winter underground.
Among the 300 photographs and ghetto-era objects on display in Boston through July, several items attest to chairman Rumkowski’s notorious rule in the ghetto, including postage stamps festooned with his white bushy-haired image. On ghetto posters and even during children’s performances, Rumkowski had himself depicted as the poor Jews’ messiah, a man whose toil and intervention with the Germans kept the ghetto alive despite impossible conditions.
In a typical propaganda poster, Rumkowski is surrounded by grateful ghetto inhabitants raising their arms to hail him. In the background, the chairman’s realm is depicted not as a dilapidated ghetto, but as a leafy, productive commune. The streets are devoid of beggars, and only the fecal workers hauling away people’s waste are out roaming. Between the hovering Rumkowski and his idyllic domain, hospital workers transport a stretcher-bound woman, all while the chairman observes his handiwork.
As attested to by survivors and contrary to Rumkowski’s own propaganda, the Lodz Ghetto was anything but peaceful under the rule of “King Chaim.” Rumkowski was known for crude bullying, as well as for sexually molesting women and children. He used the threat of deportation to silence some of his victims and — by all accounts — the Elder of the Jews had no qualms about deporting his political enemies from the ghetto.
“Rumkowski had essentially transformed the ghetto into a slave labor camp, exploiting Jewish workers to carry out his ‘survival of the fittest’ plan in an abysmally crumbling ghetto,” wrote Maia-Mari Sutnik in an essay for the “Memory Unearthed” exhibition catalogue published during the Art Gallery of Ontario’s showing of Ross’s photographs in 2015.
The Lodz Ghetto was established in 1940 and lasted until August 1944. Some 204,000 Jews passed through its confines, as well as a small Romani population.
With “work is the way” as his motto, Rumkowski made food rations dependent on labor. His police force and agents dominated every aspect of ghetto life, including their success in preventing inmates from smuggling food into the ghetto. Rumkowski rode around his realm in a carriage, and the ghetto’s various committees and workshops hastened to prepare annual birthday tributes for the leader, including lavish commemorative albums.
In his strategy to industrialize the imprisoned Jewish community, Rumkowski benefited from a convergence of interests between himself and Hans Biebow, the Nazi officer directly in charge of the ghetto. More than 100 inmate workshops producing everything from children’s toys to military equipment helped Biebow and Rumkowski consolidate their respective power bases — not to mention accrue profit.
However, by trading high-quality finished products for food and medical supplies, the ghetto was able to maintain its existence long after other ghettos in occupied Poland were “liquidated.”
‘Give me your children’
In September of 1942, the most studied episode of chairman Rumkowski’s reign occurred. Surrounded by an agitated crowd and guarded by his police force, the chairman delivered his emotion-packed “Give me your children” speech.
Following his “negotiations” with the Nazis, Rumkowski said he had been ordered to begin the removal of 20,000 Jews from the ghetto. The transports would be composed of children under age 10, the elderly, and disabled ghetto residents. Without knowing the exact details, most ghetto residents understood that “resettlement,” under these crude terms, meant destruction.
“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto,” Rumkowski said of the Germans’ orders to decrease the ghetto population. It had been swelled by the arrival of Jews deported from Germany as well as the addition of Roma and Sinti inmates.
‘A grievous blow has struck the ghetto’
“[The Nazis] are asking us to give up the best we possess — the children and the elderly,” said Rumkowski. “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 the assessment of historian Richard Rubinstein, the “Give me your children” speech “exemplifies Rumkowski’s mindset and modus operandi,” Rubinstein wrote in an essay on the Lodz Ghetto chairman’s moral culpability.
“Save for his favorites, [Rumkowski] has concern only for that remnant of the group likely to survive the ordeal of the war,” wrote Rubinstein. “He had no concern for the individual. To an extent apparently unsurpassed by any other Nazi-appointed Jewish leader, he was the Fuhrer of his tiny kingdom for much of his reign, a role he appears at times to have savored.”
‘I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands’
As deportations from the Lodz Ghetto continued, ghetto photographer Ross’s mission took on a new sense of urgency and focus. Gone were cheerful scenes such as Jewish policemen at play among the trees, or young couples in courting mode which Ross had staged during the ghetto’s first two years. Ross’s gaze now turned to the long processions of ragged deportees making their way through the ghetto to board death trains. The clandestine photographer sometimes hid in a warehouse near the train station to capture the faces of Jews who, later that day, would be gassed at the Chelmno extermination camp located 50 kilometers away.
Even as the meaning of “resettlement” became clear to most ghetto inmates, the Jewish Council’s chairman believed he could keep a remnant of Jews alive by producing goods for Germany. Rumkowski refused to consider any form of resistance to Nazi orders, certain that he would be hailed as the savior of Jews after the war — so long as his workforce could survive until the Red Army arrived.
Aided by his wife Stefania, Ross captured the ghetto’s slow demise through photographs that neither Rumkowski, as Ross’s employer, nor the ghetto’s Nazi masters, would ever have tolerated. The underground journalist’s initial deportation photographs are largely of children and those unfit for manual labor. Later photographs depict even healthy-looking, “productive” Jews boarding the trains.
Clearly, chairman Rumkowski had been dead wrong. The productivity of his workers had nothing to do with the Germans’ end-game, which was the elimination of all Jews.
“[Rumkowski] thought he knew that when the Germans spoke of Jews, they were speaking not of human beings, but of a potentially useful though basically repulsive raw material,” wrote Steve Sem-Sandberg in his 2011 novel, “The Emperor of Lies,” a fictionalized and sometimes graphic portrait of Rumkowski’s four-year reign.
‘I can no longer bear all this’
As one of the Holocaust’s most controversial Jewish leaders, chairman Rumkowski has been called a Nazi collaborator and Nazi-like by critics including philosopher Hannah Arendt. In his decision to cooperate with the Nazis until the end, Rumkowski did not take the path eventually chosen by Adam Czerniakow, chairman of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Jewish Council.
For three years, Czerniakow presided over the largest Jewish ghetto in occupied Poland. When the Nazis demanded he begin deporting several thousand Jews each day, the chairman pleaded for the exemption of orphans. After his request was denied, Czerniakow returned to his office and swallowed cyanide. Like his council head “peer” Rumkowski, Czerniakow understood that “resettlement” of children and the elderly meant murder.
In a suicide note to his wife, Czerniakow wrote, “They demand me to kill children of my nation with my own hands. I have nothing to do but to die.” To his fellow Jewish Council members, Czerniakow wrote, “I can no longer bear all this. My act will prove to everyone what is the right thing to do.”
In defense of Rumkowski’s course of action, the chairman’s status as a victim of the Nazis has been emphasized. Some assert that Rumkowski’s plans were only dashed because the war went on for much longer than expected. For instance, were the Soviet Red Army to have liberated Poland from the Nazis sooner, thousands of Lodz Ghetto workers might have survived the war, and Rumkowski would have been celebrated for organizing so many workshops.
Rumkowski and his relatives were ultimately sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they met the same fate as all but a few hundred of the Lodz ghetto’s 160,000 Jews. Several versions of Rumkowski’s death have been passed down, including one in which former inmates of his fiefdom recognized him on “the ramp” at Birkenau and decided to end his life with their own hands.
“Had [Rumkowski] survived his own tragedy… no tribunal would have absolved him, nor, certainly, can we absolve him on the moral plane,” wrote Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi in his account, “The Drowned and the Saved.”
In the assessment of Levi, “King Chaim” Rumkowski succumbed to the “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,” wrote Levi.