"GIVE ME YOUR CHILDREN!"




Last Update: March 17, 2002

Dedicated to the memory of diarist Dawid Sierakowiak who in the prime of his youth, died in the Lodz Ghetto.

A CONTROVERSIAL FIGURE

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski's "Give Me Your Children" speech is a chilling example of the nightmarish aspects of the Holocaust. As head of the Judenrat of the Lodz Ghetto (or "Litzmannstadt Ghetto"), Rumkowski remains to this day a controversial figure. Within the Polish city of Lodz was held the second-to-largest concentration of Jews in Europe up to that time (the largest was Warsaw). Rumkowski was appointed "Eldest of the Jews" of the ghetto when it was established in Feb. of 1940. During his tenure, he was viewed with reverence by some and with disdain by others. Many saw him as a power-mongerer & quasi-collaborator. Teenaged-diarist Dawid Sierakowiak declares Rumkowski's words after a particular speech to be "The demagoguery of a man sick with megalomania." Sierakowiak unfortunately dies at the age of 19 in Lodz from complications due to starvation ("ghetto disease") - a passive murder induced by the German regime where they starved this potentially bright young star to death.
Emmanual Ringelblum, the famous diarist of the Warsaw Ghetto, mentions Rumkowski several times in his Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto...saying of Rumkowski (during a visit Rumkowski made to Warsaw to secure doctors for Lodz), "...Chaim, or as he is called, "King Chaim", Rumkowski, an old man of 70, extraordinarily ambitious and pretty nutty."
Rumkowski spent much energy appeasing German demands and in the process, he set up a near-dictatorship within his "ghetto kingdom" - which became a starving slave colony. His ghetto became a grotesque model of society, complete with socio-economic classes of the "haves and have-nots" - where being "connected" could keep one from being deported or could allow one to obtain extra food or secure an administrative job - not unlike the "organizing" that was required for survival in concentration camps.


RUMKOWSKI: "THE CHAIRMAN"

There are those who see Chairman Rumkowski as a tragic hero who did only what anyone else would do in the same circumstances. It could be argued that he did not initially realize the true mission of the ghetto: a collective staging area for transports to the annihilation camps. The very first killing center, Chelmno or Kulmhof (German) was established to liquidate the inhabitants of Lodz. There, "gas vans" were used since in these early days, the concept of the permanent gas chamber was not yet developed. These hermetically sealed vans (Renault models) carried the victims to mass graves while the exhaust from the van's motor was piped into the van's cargo area. By the time the driver made it to the burial pits, all occupants within were usually dead.

Rumkowski zealously organized the ghetto to satisfy the demands of the Germans for order as well as quotas for deportations. He thought that he could insure survival of himself and some part of the ghetto population by producing war-goods for the German Army. This, it could be argued, smacks of collaboration. Rumkowski himself allowed for executions (hangings) and imprisoned "shirkers". He incorporated "fluxes" in food rationing to control the starving ghetto masses as the need arose. He set up a complex internal "government" complete with his own infamous "Jewish Police" and deportation department (i.e., Office for Resettled Persons). Paper money called "Rumkies" was even printed as well as work certificates, food coupons, etc. This bureaucratic structure helped maintain his control and by default, the control of the German authorities.


RUMKOWSKI AND HIS PEOPLE TRAPPED

Rumkowksi continually bombarded the people with a "you work - you live" ideology - the very mirror of the German deceit of "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Will Free You) which prevailed in the concentration camps and killing centers. Rumkowski and the Jews in the Lodz Ghetto were in a desperate trap. The decision was: Resist and be killed now? or Cooperate and try to survive even in the face of inhuman treatment, brutality, starvation & murder? The decision was made to not resist and Rumkowski personally made it known that resistance would be punished. A final and important factor must be also considered: most devout Jews believed that suffering at the hands of Gentiles - which had been already going on for centuries - was the defacto state of Jewry and thus accepted suffering at the hands of anti-Semites as manifestations of God's punishments - which all proved that they were indeed the chosen people. A word even existed for those times when anti-Semites in a given community would rise up, persecute and kill Jews: pogrom. There was a popular Jewish saying at the time: "If a Goy strikes you, bow your head and he'll spare your life". Such ideologies caused those who desired resistance (e.g., Zionists) to be seen as "less Jewish" and such ideas like resistance were condemned by most elder Jews.
We can argue today (with our "wonderful" 20/20 hindsight) that most of the Jews in Europe, by not resisting, made it easier for the Germans to implement "The Final Solution" (Endlosung). Is it therefore inconsistent to single out individual Jews such as Rumkowski for blame as collaborators? The question is daunting.
However, the power that Rumkowski held over his ghetto was enormous, and although no one today could possibly envy him, it must be said that initially he surely must have felt somewhat vainglorious. Rumkowski's zest for the administration of his ghetto has many dark facets - his immersion into the power he held displays a sort of megalomania - and the truth was that Rumkowski's power existed only by the blessing of the Germans.
Rumkowski engaged much energy to appease the Germans and subsequently retain his power. It is for this reason I feel Rumkowski must share a commensurable blame for the "cooperativeness" and productiveness his ghetto provided to Germany and therefore he was, what I would call a quasi-collaborator. The blame for the deaths of the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto however, shall forever be upon the perpetrators.
Had Rumkowski not been chosen as Eldest of the Jews in Lodz, someone else would have ...and this sets up the question of What would have happened had there been no Rumkowski? Would it have been better? Worse? The answer lies in the track-record of all major ghettos during the Holocaust: Ghettos were simply collective points (staging areas) for Jews to be transported to killing centers. Therefore all ghetto inhabitants were marked for extermination. Revolt within a ghetto did occur...the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. Unfortunately it was too little, too late. The Germans moved in and militarily razed the ghetto there, killing nearly all the ghetto fighters. The German officer in charge, Josef Stroop, triumphantly reported at the end of the operation: The Jewish Quarter in Warsaw is no more!""


GHETTO CHRONOLOGY

There is a highly developed chronology of the Lodz Ghetto as well as Chairman Rumkowski due to the vast amounts of motion-picture film, photographs (many in color), diaries and personal recollections of both those who perished and those who survived. There exists also an official "Chronicle". This allows for intimate study, with much humbleness, of the struggle to survive in the Lodz Ghetto. Studying this fight for life compels us to appreciate the comparative rich life we live. A life that was denied those behind the walls of the Lodz Ghetto.


THE "DUALITY" OF RUMKOWSKI

This webpage is highly opinionated. I realize that opinions are like...(well, you know). I believe Rumkowski existed with a sort of "duality". Certainly, Rumkowski greatly loved his people. He put every ounce of his being into what he believed was his life's calling - to help "his people" in a most terrible time. I believe Rumkowski did not initially realize or believe that Germany's agenda was the total annihilation of European Jewry and then probably world Jewry - although this very prediction was made by Hitler before the Riechstag in 1939. Yet, I believe that at some point and time, Rumkowski must have realized the truth about the "deportations" from the ghetto even though the Germans were diligent at keeping it a secret. This idea has never been proven and is still being debated to this day. There are statements he made to persons close to him that cause me to believe he knew something. If so, what a terrible burden for him to bear! It then opens the door to the idea that "The Chairman" must have had to exist in a form of duality: Trying to save lives on one hand and yet appeasing the German demand for blood on the other.
With respect to the life-saving side of Rumkowski's duality, "The Chairman's" past endeavors shows that he had dedicated his life for the care of unfortunates. Prior to the war, Rumkowski was a diligent pioneer in the welfare, education and care for orphans like his counterpart & friend who operated an orphanage in Warsaw: Dr. Januz Korczak. Korczak's story, however, is that of an absolute martyr. Korczak will be forever remembered because even though powerful people offered him his life while his children boarded the trains in Warsaw bound for "the unknown"...he refused to leave them and rode with them to their collective deaths within the inky blackness of the gas chambers of Treblinka.
As for the other side of Rumkowksi's duality? There is the power-mongerer, the megalomaniac - the lord of his "small kingdom" who (like his counterpart in the Vilna Ghetto, Jacob Gens) zealously responded to German demands. Gens was murdered by the Germans when he was no longer seen by them as necessary. In Warsaw, the head of the Jewish Council was Adam Czerniakow - when asked to carry out Nazi orders to deport a large portion of the Warsaw Ghetto to be annihilated in July 1942, Czerniakow committed suicide by ingesting cyanide rather than cooperate with "the authorities". By these examples it can be seen that even the Jewish leaders were ultimately powerless to stop the extermination process - the Germans wanted all Jews to die - but to offer a thread of hope, the Germans decided, would allow the whole process to occur with less panic & disorder. Throughout the Holocaust in the major ghettos, after nearly every action, the Germans would assure the Jews that it was the last one.
Rumkowksi believed that satisfying "the authorities" was in the best interest of survival - to do anything in order to hopefully save a few! His goal it was said, was to save 10,000 people. Keeping the Germans happy meant starvation & slavery - but it also meant a reduction or staving-off of mass deportations of the ghetto population into "the unknown" (even though the Germans, in their efforts to get Jews to board the cattle-cars claimed the Jews were being "resettled" for work, most ghetto inhabitants were instinctively frightened). Rumkowski's efforts to mobilize the ghetto into a production facility were indeed recognized as valuable by the Germans especially in light of the lack of skilled labor in the Reich and the Generalgouvernement. In the meantime, Chelmno ceased to exist as a killing center and for a while, the Germans allowed the ghetto to exist - but in appalling conditions. During this period (1943 to 1944), under the worst conditions, the inhabitants of the ghetto literally starved and slaved for Germany's war-effort - many people starved to death. Within the ghetto, textile mills and even armaments plants operated. German uniforms were manufactured. Thousands of German uniform insignias were hand-embroidered by young girls in the sewing shops. Boots, belts and rain gear were made by slave labor and contributed to the German war effort. Rumkowski held to his belief that the Jews in the Lodz Ghetto would not be destroyed because they were too valuable . His dream was to have a ghetto made up of only workers...and in so doing, stave-off the "deportations". In the end it was only a dream - or worse...a nightmare so horrible that I assure you that neither you nor I can hardly conceive it.


DEMAGOGUERY AND MEGALOMANIA

Rumkowski specialized in proclamations, memoranda and speeches in order to control the masses. His many speeches bolstered and also pressured the Jews into accepting the agenda he and his council, which was called the Judenrat had decided would be in the best interest of the ghetto. Rumkowski often employed threats. In a speech about rumor-mongering about what the true fate of the ghetto inhabitants was, he said, "Once again a gang of scoundrels is spreading rumors...I would like to murder them!....The stories circulating today are 100% false!...Nothing bad will happen to people of good will". In another speech, he non-ashamedly admits being active in selecting those to be deported, "...I assigned for deportation that element of the ghetto which was a festering boil...", and still in another, "...I will remove the troublemakers. .." and in another speech, "...I would gladly get rid of several thousand individuals from the underworld. I have detailed lists of these fellows...". These warnings were constant, "...stop dealing in food! Stop the conniving! Remember that when more deportees are demanded, I will put all the parasites on the lists!...". Then there are two incredible statements Rumkowski uttered during a speech while visiting the Warsaw Ghetto (to secure doctors from there): "..Dictatorship is not a dirty word. Through dictatorship I earned the Germans' respect for my work." and "My ghetto is my small kingdom". In the end with the final roundup during the summer of 1944, Rumkowski exclaimed: "Jews of the ghetto, come to your senses! Volunteer for the transports!"
As for continuing to work in slavery for Germany, he said in a speech, "...only work can save us from the worst calamity... and in another speech, "...work protects us from annihilation..." and - "A plan on the threshold of a new year! The plan is work, work and more work!".
Work did not save the ghetto. In 1944, realizing the war would be lost, Himmler ordered that the ghetto be liquidated. By this time, the famous killing center Auschwitz was in operation and the entire ghetto (along with Rumkowski himself - on one of the last transports) was transported there by rail.
There is much argument on how Rumkowski himself died - some have claimed he was killed by his own people in the rail car enroute to Auschwitz. Others say he was immediately separated upon arrival at the center, then taken away and executed by the SS. Another claim is that he was beaten to death by fellow deportees from Lodz while in the "dressing room" awaiting to be gassed at Auschwitz. It is estimated that there were only 10,000 survivors of the 200,000 Jews who lived in the Lodz Ghetto. Of this number, about 800 did not report for the final deportations and hid until the liberation by Russian forces months later.


THE SPEECH THAT ROCKED THE GHETTO

Let us go back to 1942. Rumkowski's crystal ball has shattered as he faces the first hard-core aktions by the Germans within his ghetto. He mounts a platform to present a speech before the crowd. He is depressed and teary-eyed. Only a few days before, the SS raided the ghetto's hospital and loaded the sick onto trucks, throwing some children onto the trucks from windows, the victims were never seen again - this was one of the first noteworthy aktions performed by the Germans up to now. The Germans had shown the Jews of Lodz that they had no scruples when it came to killing Jews. Now, something worse is in store, Rumkowski has received a chilling demand from the SS: deliver 24,000 people to the train station for deportation within the next 8 days. So, here on Sept. 4, 1942, about 2 years after the ghetto was established and with the killing center Chelmno's castle gates ready and open for business, Rumkowski, using a PA system, weepingly solicits the ghetto's populace to feed the killing center Chelmno with a first batch: children, old & sick so that those able to work may be spared. This speech is a compelling example of the horrifying situation the Jews of Europe, and particularly within the Lodz Ghetto, found themselves:



RUMKOWSKI:
"A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They 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-1


I had a suspicion something was going to befall us. I anticipated "something" and was always like a watchman: on guard to prevent it. But I was unsuccessful because I did not know what was threatening us. The taking of the sick from the hospitals caught me completely by surprise. And I give you the best proof there is of this: I had my own nearest and dearest among them and I could do nothing for them!
I thought that would be the end of it, that after that, they'd leave us in peace, the peace for which I long so much, for which I've always worked, which has been my goal. But something else, it turned out, was destined for us. Such is the fate of the Jews: always more suffering and always worse suffering, especially in times of war.
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!". So the question became, 'Should we take it upon ourselves, do it ourselves, or leave it to others to do?". Well, we - that is, I and my closest associates - 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 limbs in order to save the body itself. I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well - God forbid.


.
Chaim-1


I have no thought of consoling you today. Nor do I wish to calm you. I must lay bare your full anguish and pain. I come to you like a bandit, to take from you what you treasure most in your hearts! I have tried, using every possible means, to get the order revoked. I tried - when that proved to be impossible - to soften the order. Just yesterday, I ordered a list of children aged 9 - I wanted at least to save this one aged-group: the nine to 10 year olds. But I was not granted this concession. On only one point did I succeed: in saving the 10 year olds and up. Let this be a consolation to our profound grief.
There are, in the ghetto, many patients who can expect to live only a few days more, maybe a few weeks. I don't know if the idea is diabolical or not, but I must say it: "Give me the sick. In their place we can save the healthy."
I know how dear the sick are to any family, and particularly to Jews. However, when cruel demands are made, one has to weigh and measure: who shall, can and may be saved? And common sense dictates that the saved must be those who can be saved and those who have a chance of being rescued, not those who cannot be saved in any case...
We live in the ghetto, mind you. We live with so much restriction that we do not have enough even for the healthy, let alone for the sick. Each of us feeds the sick at the expense of our own health: we give our bread to the sick. We give them our meager ration of sugar, our little piece of meat. And what's the result? Not enough to cure the sick, and we ourselves become ill. Of course, such sacrifices are the most beautiful and noble. But there are times when one has to choose: sacrifice the sick, who haven't the slightest chance of recovery and who also may make others ill, or rescue the healthy.
I could not deliberate over this problem for long; I had to resolve it in favor of the healthy. In this spirit, I gave the appropriate instructions to the doctors, and they will be expected to deliver all incurable patients, so that the healthy, who want and are able to live, will be saved in their place.
I understand you, mothers; I see your tears, alright. I also feel what you feel in your hearts, you fathers who will have to go to work in the morning after your children have been taken from you, when just yesterday you were playing with your dear little ones. All this I know and feel. Since 4 o'clock yesterday, when I first found out about the order, I have been utterly broken. I share your pain. I suffer because of your anguish, and I don't know how I'll survive this - where I'll find the strength to do so.
I must tell you a secret: they requested 24,000 victims, 3000 a day for eight days. I succeeded in reducing the number to 20,000, but only on the condition that these be children under the age of 10. Children 10 and older are safe! Since the children and the aged together equals only some 13,000 souls, the gap will have to be filled with the sick.
I can barely speak. I am exhausted; I only want to tell you what I am asking of you: Help me carry out this action! I am trembling. I am afraid that others, God forbid, will do it themselves .
A broken Jew stands before you. Do not envy me. This is the most difficult of all orders I have ever had to carry out at any time. I reach out to you with my broken, trembling hands and beg: Give into my hands the victims! So that we can avoid having further victims, and a population of 100,000 Jews can be preserved! So, they promised me: If we deliver our victims by ourselves, there will be peace!!!

(shouts from the crowd about other options....some saying "We will not let the children go alone - we will all go!!!" and such).
These are empty phrases!!! I don't have the strength to argue with you! If the authorities were to arrive, none of you would be shouting!
I understand what it means to tear off a part of the body. Yesterday, I begged on my knees, but it did not work. From small villages with Jewish populations of 7000 to 8000, barely 1000 arrived here. So which is better? What do you want? That 80,000 to 90,000 Jews remain, or God forbid, that the whole population be annihilated?
You may judge as you please; my duty is to preserve the Jews who remain. I do not speak to hot-heads! I speak to your reason and conscience. I have done and will continue doing everything possible to keep arms from appearing in the streets and blood from being shed. The order could not be undone; it could only be reduced.
One needs the heart of a bandit to ask from you what I am asking. But put yourself in my place, think logically, and you'll reach the conclusion that I cannot proceed any other way. The part that can be saved is much larger than the part that must be given away!"



NOTE: The Jewish Police were given extra rations for themselves and their families for their participation in the round-ups. Those with "connections" used all means possible to have themselves or their loved ones exempted...but the quota meant that someone else go in their place. The conditions in the ghetto were so terrible that soon the grief over the children simply absorbed itself into the everyday horror of what was happening - slow and utter starvation. The people were in such terrible condition that the loss of the children simply became another price paid to the Germans for survival. To ease the blow, rumors were spread that the children were alive and being employed as helpers in gardens...though most figured the worst. On subsequent deportations, trainloads of clothing in sacks began arriving every day exactly 10 hours after the trains would leave. Ghetto currency ("Rumkies") and papers were found by those sorting out the clothing for re-distribution. How could this be, the people in the ghetto asked? Only one horrifying conclusion could be reached.
One person, who had survived by hiding among the sacks and had made the round-trip, told how the transports were taking the people to a slaughterhouse at Kulmhof (Chelmno) - but hardly anyone could accept that it was the truth.
Nearly a quarter million people were murdered at Chelmno.


SUGGESTED READING:
Adelson, Alan (editor); The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak; Oxford
Adelson, Alan and Robert Lapides; Lodz Ghetto: Community Under Siege; Viking; (this book is the companion to the award-winning documentary of the same name)
Eichengreen, Lucille; From Ashes To Life: My Memories of the Holocaust; Mercury House
Dobroszycki, Lucjan; The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto; Yale Univ. Press

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