(1877–1944), Jewish leader in Łódź, Poland, during World War II. The German occupiers appointed Khayim Rumkowski Judenälteste (or Älteste der Juden; Eldest of the Jews) with total authority and responsibility over Łódź’s Jewish population. All contacts between Germans and the Jews were to be through him and him alone. The occupiers thus diverted Jewish rage from themselves onto the Jewish leader.
Khayim Mordkhe Rumkowski, the head of the Łódź ghetto, on a visit to the Marysin, the "suburban" part of the ghetto where the retirement home, orphanage, schools, and communal gardens were located, ca. 1942. Photograph by Mendel Grossman. (YIVO)
Born in Ilino, near Vilna, Rumkowski had only a rudimentary education that left him fluent in Yiddish but with only imperfect command of Hebrew, Polish, German, and Russian. Drawn to booming industrial Łódź around 1900, he made and lost several fortunes as a velvet manufacturer before becoming an insurance agent. A childless widower, Rumkowski was intensely involved in local Jewish public affairs, Zionist politics, and child care at the remarkable orphanage he cofounded and directed in the suburb of Helenówek. Elected to the council and board of the Łódź Jewish community, he broke with his own party (the General Zionists) in 1937, refusing to join their mass resignation in their effort to force new elections. Unsubstantiated prewar rumors alleged that Rumkowski sexually abused a number of orphans and staff members at Helenówek; similar unconfirmed allegations about his wartime behavior were made by some survivors of the Łódź ghetto.
The 160,000 Jews sealed within the Łódź ghetto in 1940 were left with no means of livelihood. Rumkowski sought food and supplies from the Germans by demonstrating the productivity of Jewish skilled labor in a variety of fields. In exchange for supplying Jewish labor, he obtained vital though inadequate supplies that were very strictly rationed. However, some favored people received supplemental rations. Rumkowski’s strategy for survival presumed that the Nazis would not kill useful, productive workers. His inner circle of venal, corrupt, and often incompetent sycophants promoted a sort of personality cult of the leader. His picture appeared on ghetto money and postage stamps; he was praised in fawning speeches and articles in all ghetto publications and artwork.
Signatures on a page from an album of signatures of 14,587 schoolchildren and 715 teachers from schools in the Łódź ghetto presented to Khayim Mordkhe Rumkowski, head of the ghetto, on Rosh Hashanah, 1941. The majority of the children who signed the album were later deported to the Chełmno death camp. YIVO (YIVO)
Precisely when Rumkowski learned about the killing centers is unknown, but it is clear that he recognized that a majority of those deported in 1942 would not survive. Either on his own initiative or at German prompting, Rumkowski sought to remove “unproductive” elements, including the old, the sick, the unemployed, and those dependent on welfare, among them thousands of children under the age of 10. His declared goal was to save the bulk of the Jewish community even if it meant the sacrifice of certain of its segments.
Some have argued that Rumkowski was a power-hungry megalomaniac collaborating with the Germans. Others point out that the Jewish workshops serving the Germans kept 68,500 Jews alive until August 1944, when the Soviet Red Army was only 70 miles away. On 30 August 1944, Rumkowski asked to join a transport carrying his brother and family to Auschwitz, where the “Eldest of the Jews” died along with most of his former subjects.
Lucjan Dobroszycki, ed., The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941–1944 (New Haven, 1984); Lucille Eichengreen with Rebecca Camhi Fromer, Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz (San Francisco, Calif., 2000); Robert Moses Shapiro, “Jewish Self-Government in Poland: Lodz, 1914–1939” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1987); Isaiah Trunk, Łódź Ghetto: A History (Bloomington, Ind., 2006); Mikhal Unger, ed., Ha-Geto ha-aḥaron: Ha-Ḥayim be-Geto Lodz´, 1940–1944 (Jerusalem, 1995), in Hebrew and English; Mikhal Unger, Lodz: The Last Ghetto in Poland (Jerusalem, 2005).
RG 241, Nachman Zonabend, Collection, 1939-1944 (finding aid); RG 720, Julian (Yehiel) Hirszhaut, Papers, 1939-1945.