The deportations to killing sites presented Jewish communities with agonising dilemmas, nowhere more so than in Łódź, where Chaim Rumkowski was the chairman of the ghetto’s Jewish Council. In September 1942, the Nazis demanded that the Jewish Council hand over all children under the age of 10 and old people over the age of 65 for deportation to Chełmno extermination camp. In response, Rumkowski gave the following speech to the residents of the ghetto.
The ghetto has been struck a hard blow. They demand what is most dear to it − children and old people. I was not privileged to have a child of my own and therefore devoted my best years to children. I lived and breathed together with children. I never imagined that my own hands would be forced to make this sacrifice on the altar. In my old age I am forced to stretch out my hands and to beg: "Brothers and sisters, give them to me! − Fathers and mothers, give me your children..."
Yesterday, in the course of the day, I was given the order to send away more than 20,000 Jews from the ghetto, and if I did not – "we will do it ourselves." The question arose: "Should we have accepted this and carried it out ourselves, or left it to others?" But as we were guided not by the thought: "how many will be lost?" but "how many can be saved?" we arrived at the conclusion – those closest to me at work, that is, and myself – that however difficult it was going to be, we must take upon ourselves the carrying out of this decree. I must carry out this difficult and bloody operation, I must cut off limbs in order to save the body! I must take away children, and if I do not, others too will be taken, God forbid.
Rumkowski has been criticised by many as a collaborator. However, his dilemma illustrated the choiceless choices faced by many Jews during the Holocaust. Had he refused to cooperate, the children would have been deported anyway. By working with the Nazis, he believed that he could save the adults who worked in essential war industries in the ghetto. This strategy almost worked: Łódź was the very last ghetto to be liquidated, in the summer of 1944 when its inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where most of them, including Chaim Rumkowski, were murdered.
Photo: Chaim Rumkowski; Yad Vashem
Speech: Yitzhak Arad et al. (eds.), Documents on the Holocaust: Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland, and the Soviet Union (Yad Vashem, 1981)