Perhaps one of the cruelest aspects of the Holocaust was the way the Nazis manipulated their victims into co-operating in their own demise. In every ghetto they appointed a Jewish council – a Judenrat – to administer civil affairs on their behalf. The Jews themselves became responsible for implementing the demands of the Nazis. At first this amounted to registering people, organising work, organising the distribution of food.
Then as the deportations to the death camps began the Judenrat were expected to select the individuals who would be ‘resettled in the East’. At first the thin fiction that people were genuinely going to be ‘resettled’ was maintained. But as the deportations continued more and more people left the ghetto on cattle trucks, never to be heard from again. Few now clung to the illusion that deportation was anything other than a death sentence.
In the Lodz ghetto, the Chairman of the Judenrat was Chaim Rumkowski, a man who firmly believed that by dealing with the Nazis he could mitigate the worst of their persecutions. He established the Lodz ghetto as a centre of numerous workshops that produced goods for the German war effort – believing that by making themselves useful they would be spared.
Yet his belief that he could deal with the Nazis was being undermined. On the 2nd September the Nazis had demanded that the sick from the hospitals be deported. Now they demanded most of the children under ten.
The crowd gathered in the Lodz ghetto noticed that Chaim Rumkowski had physically changed, becoming white haired and haggard over the course of a few days. As he stood to address them in the late afternoon of the 4th September 1942, it became apparent why:
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! [Transciber’s note – Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd.]
I had a suspicion something was about 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.
I did not know the nature of the danger. 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.