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The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow
Tyrone Schiff 11/24/2008
History 386: The Holocaust – Professor Howard Lupovitch and GSI Andrew Cavin
The Holocaust was a devastating episode of catastrophes that led to the demise of millions of people. A targeted group during the Holocaust was the Jews. Starting in 1933, with the rise of the Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, a strategy for the systematic genocide of European Jewry was implemented and almost successfully carried out. One of the particular means in which the Nazis organized Jews was through a strategy of Ghettoization. Ghettoes were extremely dense quarters in which Jews were localized. The living conditions of the Ghetto were horrendous. “Hunger, overcrowding, and a lack of sanitation caused epidemics,” which ultimately led to a highly inflated mortality rate (Bauer, 169). Ghettoes were in unusually poor, underdeveloped areas outside of the main area of town (Bauer, 160). Caged like animals with fences or walls surrounding the exterior of the Ghetto, Jews were forced to survive under these conditions. The reality of the situation, however, is that Jews did in fact find a way to continue their way of life in spite of all of these hardships. Within the Ghettoes, Jews devised a way of life that worked for them. Yet, there is much debate as to whether the Jews organized and achieved aims that furthered their own interests, or rather, were simply pawns of the Nazi regime. Within the Ghettoes there were mandated Jewish Councils called Judenrat. Reinhard Heydrich, a high ranking official in the Nazi Party, “decreed the establishment of Councils of Jewish Elders [in the Ghetto] composed of twenty-four ‘of the remaining influential personalities and rabbis’” (Bauer, 171). In effect, the Nazi Party was creating an entity through which they could centralize their demands. They banded the leaders of the Ghetto together so that actions dictated by the Nazis could be enacted swiftly and without much dissent. It was an effective plan of molding the actions and thoughts of the members of the Ghetto so that they would be in line with the Nazi Party’s decree of “The Final Solution.” The Judenrat was “responsible for the
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immediate and accurate execution of all Nazi orders” (Bauer, 171). This, in effect, shifted the accountability of some of the requests made by the Nazi Party on to the leaders of the Ghetto community, the Judenrat. This raises a phenomenally complex argument that will be at the core of discussion for the remainder of this paper. Considering that the Judenrat would often take orders from the Nazi Party and help execute their objectives, can one consider the Judenrat an organized body that intentionally collaborated with the Nazi Party, thereby assisting them in achieving their aims? This is quite a profound assertion. However, the intention of this paper will be to reveal beyond a reasonable doubt that the Judenrat was not in fact a collaborator with the Nazi Party. In order to illustrate this premise, the events, actions, and life of Adam Czerniakow (Czerniakow from this point forth), the leader of the Warsaw Judenrat, will be unpacked and discussed. In order to provide a complete picture detailing some of the decisions made by the Warsaw Judenrat, thoughts relating to both sides of the argument will be explored and weighed against one another. This holistic view of the assertion at hand should indicate conclusively that the Warsaw Judenrat was not collaborating with the Nazi Party. Instead, the actions of the Judenrat will reveal the council’s attempts at maintaining culture, identity, and safety, which will go a long way in refuting the contention of the Judenrat complying with the Nazi Party to actualize “The Final Solution.” In order to gain a sense of the Warsaw Judenrat, one has to begin the analysis with the leader, Czerniakow. Czerniakow became an active member of Polish Jewish public life prior to World War I (Hilberg, 1). Professionally, he was an engineer and was a member of the Engineers Association in Poland (Hilberg, 2). Prior to leading the Warsaw Judenrat, Czerniakow was elected to represent several organizations including the Jewish artisans on the National Jewish
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list in the Warsaw Municipal Council (Hilberg, 2). Furthermore, he was appointed to the Executive Council of the Warsaw Jewish Community as a representative of the Jewish craftsmen (Hilberg, 2). It is quite evident that Czerniakow was already a prominent figure in the Polish Jewish community. He had gained the respect of his peers and had worked hard to establish a reputation as a leader amongst them. Czerniakow provides modern day scholars with a unique perspective due to the diary or collection of notebooks he kept in which he provides an organized and logical account of the events that transpired while leader of the Warsaw Judenrat and Ghetto. The diary is in itself a massive collection of thoughts spanning from September 6, 1939, until July 23, 1942, the day before Czerniakow committed suicide. There are nine notebooks that comprise Czerniakow’s experiences which equate to over 1000 pages of primary documentation. Unfortunately, one of the notebooks, notebook five, has been lost. Despite the enormity of the task before him, Czerniakow expresses an understanding of the historic task facing him and his determination to meet the challenge (Hilberg, 2). On September 23, 1939, the day that Czerniakow took over the Judenrat, he writes in his diary, “Mayor Starzynski named me Chairman of the Jewish Community in Warsaw. A historic role in a besieged city. I will try to live up to it” (Hilberg, 76). Czerniakow’s moral fiber isn’t hard to find either as the events detailed in his diary make him “emerge as a man who tried to do his utmost to alleviate the suffering of [his] ghetto’s inhabitants” (Bauer, 179). At this point, it would be beneficial to begin the discussion of some of the occurrences that afflicted Czerniakow in his role as leader of the Warsaw Judenrat.
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One of the primary arguments made in favor of collaboration is the fact that the Judenrat worked hard to keep the members of their community alive, which gave the Nazis a continued supply of temporary labor (Bauer, 172). The contention made here is that due to the submission of the Judenrat, they essentially became a tool that the Nazi regime could manipulate in order to accomplish their goals. While Czerniakow is indeed guilty of trying to keep his community members alive, it becomes far more evident that his acts are like a nurturing father rather than a knifing collaborator. Perhaps one of Czerniakow’s most selfless acts was the negotiation and release of several members of the Warsaw Ghetto from Jewish prison. On two separate occasions, Czerniakow fought for the lives of Jewish prisoners. On March 11, 1942 and then a month later on April 10, 1942, Czerniakow orchestrated the release of hundreds of Jewish members from unlawful detention by the Nazis. Czerniakow writes on March 11, 1942, “At 3 PM I released from the Jewish prison 151 people […] I addressed the prisoners; everyone was deeply moved. A crowd of people gathered in the street to wait for the released” (Hilberg, 334). This example provides clear insight of Czerniakow’s intent of trying to save the lives of the members of his community. In stark contrast to a collaborating theory, one notices the deep sense of satisfaction he feels for saving life. The reason that Czerniakow provides details regarding the emotion of the prisoners indicates the empathy and compassion that he possesses for them. If he were releasing the prisoners to provide work for the Nazis, he would not reasonably care about their emotional state. Furthermore, Czerniakow also makes reference to the solidarity of his Warsaw community. He views this event as one that provides a great deal of hope to the people of his community which unites them. If Czerniakow’s intention was to supply his community members to the Nazis for labor alone, then he would not waste his time in taking note of the impact of releasing them.
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To add even further evidence of Czerniakow’s intentions, one can invoke his actions just a month later, when he “released 260 prisoners from the detention facility […]” (Hilberg, 341). To convince the Nazis to release prisoners was an uphill battle for Czerniakow and the entire Judenrat. It is not logical to deduce from this timeline of events that Czerniakow acts on the premise that another life is just another laborer. He cared very deeply about saving these people’s lives and worked tirelessly to free them of injustice and death, if only for a short while. Clearly, Czerniakow is not motivated by interests that are aligned with a collaborator whose sole purpose was to provide temporary labor for the Nazis. Rather, Czerniakow is a leader invested in the well being of his community who went through great lengths to save life. Another argument made about Judenrat and Nazi collaboration is that, “in keeping the Jews under control, the Judenräte were an instrument of the German bureaucracy” (Bauer, 172). This makes the case that by following the rules ordered by the Nazis, the submissive Judenrat was conforming to German and Nazi standards. Yet again, one will see from the actions of Czerniakow how erroneous this critique of the Judenrat actually is. Czerniakow was a huge proponent of maintaining and furthering Jewish culture in the Warsaw Ghetto; preserving Jewish identity in anticipation of a Jewish future. Czerniakow “backed actors, musicians, and artists,” in the Ghetto and worked hard for their public appearance (Hilberg, 8). On May 5, 1942 Czerniakow makes reference to the Jewish Children’s Holiday, Lag B’Omer, and the children’s performance that occurred on that day (Hilberg, 350). This was an extremely important aspect of Jewish life in the Ghetto that Czerniakow kept intact. Czerniakow realized that it was significantly important to the overall morale of the Ghetto to partake in cultural activities. This is quite revealing about Czerniakow’s thoughts on complacency of the Jewish character within the Ghetto. Although the Nazis had taken much
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away from the Jews in terms of rights and had forcibly lowered their standard of living, Czerniakow thought that it was vitally important to ensure that culture continued. With this stance, Czerniakow indicates that while certain provisions were made to maintain the peace between the Nazis and the Jews, he forbid the society from losing all sense of self by infusing culture into the life and times of the Ghetto members. Another way that Czerniakow refused to conform to institutional German and Nazi establishment was through his efforts involving the youth of the Warsaw Ghetto, specifically the education system. Czerniakow’s unremitting devotion to education is also reflected in his diary. The establishment of a network of educational institutions, schools, and professional courses in mechanics and chemistry were among his many accomplishments. Dozens of educational institutions, including elementary and high schools, worked in secret or semi-secret in the ghetto. Under cover of children’s homes run by Centos, an orphans’ aid society with 50,000 children in its various institutions, Jewish schools such as Tarbut, Zisho, Shulkult, Yavneh, Horev, and Beth Yacov held classes. (Hilberg, 7) Czerniakow cared deeply about continuing education for the children of his Ghetto. It is extremely important to focus on education as a defense of Judenrat collaboration with the Nazis, due to the fact that it reveals a belief in the continuation of the Jewish people. Education is essentially an investment in the future. If Czerniakow was under the impression that he, along with the members of the Judenrat and Warsaw Ghetto were inevitably going to be killed, he would not have gone through such great lengths to ensure that education was widely available in
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his Ghetto. The Jewish Council reported over 100 courses were taught to 4,300 students between May 1941 and May 1942 (Hilberg, 7). When it came to matters of education, Czerniakow did not spare labor or financial resources for students (Hilberg, 7). Czerniakow would even take part in lessons or discussion groups and was an avid participant in the various research studies that were done on starvation and typhus fever in the Ghetto (Hilberg, 8). Perhaps,for Czerniakow, education embodied hope. If Czerniakow was indeed a collaborator with the Nazis, he would have chosen to eliminate all traces of hope. Czerniakow believed that there was a way, and he tried to engrain these thoughts in his community members. A final analysis of the lack of collaboration between the Judenrat and the Nazis is embodied by the caring and compassionate nature that Czerniakow espoused throughout the course of his term as the Judenrat leader. One of the best illustrations of Czerniakow as a compassionate man is when he interacts with the children in the Ghetto. Depressed by their frail, malnourished bodies, he breaks down and weeps for them (Hilberg, 366). Czerniakow legitimately cares for their well being. To end his entry on June 14, 1942, he states, “Damned be those of us who have enough to eat and drink and forget about these children” (Hilberg, 366). Ultimately, Czerniakow cares very deeply about the people who are living in his Ghetto. He feels personally liable for them and is moved to points of physical distress when he sees that they are not doing well. This much emotional remorse cannot be attributed to collaboration with the Nazis. Finally, if there was still any lingering doubt whether Czerniakow’s actions were motivated by anything either than care and compassion for the members of his Ghetto, the final act of taking his own life dispels any such notion. After close to three years of leading the Judenrat of the Warsaw Ghetto, Czerniakow finds the emotional anguish and toll far too much
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and is forced to take his own life by ingesting a cyanide pill (Hilberg, 23). The event that pushed Czerniakow to this point was the expulsion of 4,000 members of the Warsaw Ghetto to death camps (Hilberg, 385). This was also just the first of many waves that were to occur over the coming week (Hilberg, 23). Death at this point was looming over Czerniakow and the entire Ghetto. The story of ‘expulsion’ to death camps arose like a rumor, and Czerniakow heavily doubted the reliability of the rumors and the accounts were even denied by the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto (Hilberg, 22). In an attempt to garner support for the continuation of the Warsaw Ghetto, Czerniakow wrote up a brief report in which he detailed the economic and industrial production of the Ghetto, which he thought would provide evidence of significant output that may hold the key to the Ghetto’s salvation (Hilberg, 22). Unfortunately, work was never the intention that the Nazis had for the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto. Panic spread throughout the Ghetto as Czerniakow attempted to keep people calm and tranquil insisting that there had been some sort of misunderstanding (Hilberg, 23). Just as had been rumored, the expulsion of the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps began on July 23, 1942. Czerniakow decided when first becoming the head of the Judenrat that if he ever received “an order which went against his conscience,” he would forcibly take his own life (Hilberg, 23). He could not reasonably hand over all of the hopeless children of the Ghetto, knowing that destruction awaited them (Hilberg, 23). He therefore took his own life. In a suicide note, he writes, “I am powerless, my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this. My act will show everyone the right thing to do” (Hilberg, 23). Czerniakow cared so deeply for his Ghetto. It is unfathomable to think that any of his acts or intentions was to collaborate with the Nazis. He, along with the Judenratand the members of the Warsaw Ghetto, was fighting for his life during the Holocaust.
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This paper explores the contention that the Jewish Council in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Judenrat, was collaborating with the Nazi Party. After assessing the historical situation of Adam Czerniakow, the leader of the Warsaw Judenrat, it can conclusively be determined that there was indeed no such collaboration between the two entities. There are several pieces of evidence from Czerniakow’s notebooks that support this point. First, Czerniakow never viewed the members of his Ghetto community as a labor supply. This is one of the prominent arguments in favor of collaboration. Instead, Czerniakow cared deeply for his community and worked hard to further their interests. Second, the Judenrat was not a body intended to further German or Nazi bureaucracy. The Judenrat acted in the best interests of the community. It provided them with education and Jewish cultural experiences, which collectively maintained hope and a sense of identity. These elements speak volumes about the nature of the Judenrat as a positive and helpful component of the Ghetto. Finally, the care and compassion exhibited by Czerniakow indicate just how invested he was in his community, and therefore, it is illogical to assume that he was a collaborator with the Nazis. It becomes especially clear that the ideas of the Nazis are not aligned with the Judenrat when their leader, Czerniakow, takes his own life in protest as thousands of members of his Ghetto are transported to Death Camps. The diary and notebooks of Adam Czerniakow tell a tragic story of a man and community regrettably destined for death.
Works Cited Bauer, Yehuda, and Nili Keren. A History of the Holocaust. NEW YORK: Franklin Watts, 2001. Hilberg, Raul, Stanislaw Staron, and Josef Kermisz, eds. The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow : Prelude to Doom. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 1999.
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