Content warning: the following post contains references to sexual abuse.
Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski is perhaps one of the most controversial figures in Holocaust history. Born in in 1877 near Vilna (Vilnius), Rumkowski moved to Łódź in Poland around 1900, and was successively a failed businessman, an orphanage founder and director, and on the council and board of the Łódź Jewish community. When the occupying Nazis – having renamed the city Litzmannstadt – established the Łódź ghetto in February 1940, with a population of around 160,000 (which later rose to 210,000), they created a Judenrat (Jewish council) and installed Rumkowski as its head, appointing him as the Judenälteste (or Älteste der Juden; Eldest of the Jews).
Rumkowski believed that the Nazis would never kill productive workers, and so actively ‘cooperated’ with the Nazis, obtaining supplies and rations by demonstrating the productivity and usefulness of the Jews working in the ghetto. In some ways, he was right; the Łódź ghetto was the last in Poland to be liquidated, in August 1944. However, horrendous choices had to be made. Nowhere is this more glaringly demonstrated than by the speech Rumkowski made to the ghetto inhabitants on 4 September 1942.
Known as the “Give me your children” speech, the title sums up the premise. Having been ordered by the Nazis to submit lists of 20,000 Jews for deportation, Rumkowski concluded that those who were not ‘productive’ – and so not able to contribute to the perceived usefulness of the ghetto – would have to be on those lists. In his speech, he asked parents to hand over all children aged under 10, and the ghetto as a whole to relinquish its sick and elderly, arguing that limbs would have to be sacrificed in order to save the body. It’s not clear how much he knew about the death camps at the time, but it is clear that he knew those deported were unlikely to survive.
The ghetto inhabitants complied, and – perhaps surprisingly – there were no further major deportations from the ghetto between September 1942 and May 1944. Then, with the Soviets beginning to close in, the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghetto and its remaining population of around 75,000 Jews. In June and July 1944, some were deported to Chelmno; in August, virtually all the rest were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau – including Rumkowski. He is believed to have died there, although there are unsubstantiated rumours that he was beaten to death on the journey in revenge for his actions as head of the Judenrat.
So why was/is Rumkowski so controversial? His perceived cooperation with the Nazis is a cause of debate amongst historians: on one side of the argument, he did everything he could to ensure the ghetto’s survival; on the other, he relished, and abused, his power.
- While Rumkowski ensured the ghetto’s existence, there was hardly any running water or sanitation; working conditions were appalling; and overcrowding and starvation were rampant. More than 20% of the ghetto population died as a direct result of the living conditions. Rumkowski’s apparent enjoyment of what many see as his dictatorial powers included better living conditions for himself and his associates, including his use of a carriage for travelling around the ghetto.
- His seeming obsession with power included his image being featured on the ghetto’s money and postage stamps, and performing marriage ceremonies himself when rabbis were forbidden to do so.
- With his plan for the ‘survival of the fittest,’ he refused to even think about any form of resistance to the Nazis – for example, his police force and agents prevented people from smuggling in food.
- According to an article by Matt Lebovic for the Times of Israel, 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 […] had no qualms about deporting his political enemies from the ghetto.” While it should be stated that the claims of sexual abuse are unsubstantiated, it’s worth noting that these were made both before the war – when he was an orphanage director – and after the war, this time by survivors of the Łódź ghetto.
We should always, always be cautious about judging the actions of those being persecuted during the Holocaust. The situations and events they found themselves caught up in sit outside the realm of ‘ordinary moral’ judgement. With this in mind, and with the extent of the allegations laid at his door – particularly in relation to those of sexual abuse – I still find it difficult to decide when it comes to Rumkowski.
“Give me your children”
Today I’d originally planned to talk about Throne of Straw by Harold & Edith Lieberman. I will, but another time, because I stumbled across a great resource: actor Tobias Menzies reading Rumkowski’s “Give me your children” speech, and an associated lesson plan, in an initiative by the Almeida Theatre in London, and it’s too good not to share now.
It’s part of the Almeida’s Figures of Speech series, which, in their own words:
…brings together the most exciting artists to take risks; to provoke, inspire and surprise our audiences; to interrogate the present, dig up the past and imagine the future.
And so, we are on a quest to […] come together and experience the moments when men and women stood in front of people to find that words are electric […] and ideas can carve a path through history and into the future.
The series includes a brilliant and growing range of speeches, from those of Nelson Mandela and Harvey Milk to Angela Davis and Virginia Woolf.
Tobias Menzies’ reading as Rumkowski is measured and powerful (although I do wonder if an older actor might have been a better fit for the simple reason that Rumkowski was in his sixties, and especially as Rumkowski made reference to his own “old age.”) Menzies imbues the speech with the calmness of despair, and on one occasion seems to stumble over the words, which just makes it all the more painfully captivating. I have to admit that I couldn’t forget the allegations against Rumkowski while watching, which made the speech seem somewhat Machiavellian (shades of Regan and Goneril in King Lear) – especially when he talked about the ages of the children.
It makes a world of difference to ‘see’ the speech rather than just reading it, and the different camera angles keep the viewer’s attention, and stop what’s actually a really harrowing speech from becoming too much. The speech itself and the lesson plan open up interesting possibilities for students to explore different ways of delivering the speech themselves, and in different contexts, i.e. with other students reacting as ghetto inhabitants (I’m thinking especially of the moment where Rumkowski avows “I do not speak to hot-heads.”) It also presents possibilities for exploring other speeches of the time – although for obvious reasons, please, I’m begging you, don’t have your students performing speeches given by Nazis.
I really like the lesson plan, which includes having students break down the different aspects of the speech and consider the devices/rhetoric used. It ties in beautifully with the overall motivation of the Almeida’s series, and gets students thinking about how speech and speeches are used in the contemporary moment. The exercise about writing a diary entry as a ghetto inhabitant after hearing the speech feels a bit tired, as this device is often suggested for classroom use. Instead, why not try an improvised conversation, where someone who heard the speech is passing on the news to someone who didn’t…
Having watched the speech, there are two things that I found striking, and which could provoke some interesting discussions with students:
- Rumkowski declares that “I can barely speak” – then carries on speaking for another two minutes. What can, or do, we make of this?
- He proclaims himself to be “A broken Jew” – why? Why not ‘A broken man’? Is he unconsciously employing the language of the perpetrators in labelling himself? Or demonstrating to the ghetto community that he’s still one of them?
Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Ideas for a future post? Please feel free to leave a comment below, or get in touch.