"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?
have been better? Worse? The answer lies in the track-record of all major ghettos during the
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!""
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
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
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:
"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
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.
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
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
The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto; Yale Univ. Press
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