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Adam Czerniakow's Drama

Reduta Adama Czerniakowa (Adam Czerniakow's Redoubt),

Joanna Szczęsna,

Gazeta Wyborcza, September 21-22, 2002

Translated in FORUM ZNAK- Christian Culture Foundation

Czerniakow, the chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council, was accused of not realizing the threat of extermination; in his suicidal letter dated July 23rd, 1942, during the second day of the liquidation of the ghetto, he did not call on Jews to resist and fight.


At that time it was not known that he had written two letters. One of them was private, to his wife Felicja; the second was addressed to the Council of the Elders of the Commune. In the latter he wrote: "They demanded to prepare transports of children. I cannot take it any longer, I cannot allow for death of innocent children; this is why I decided to go away. This is no cowardice or escape. I am powerless, my heart is splitting from sorrow and compassion and I cannot bear this any longer. My deed will show the truth to all and maybe it will encourage right actions. I am aware that I am leaving you with a difficult legacy". For Marek Edelman this was insufficient. According to him the letter should have been like this: "Jews! We are taken away to meet death. Defend yourselves!"


In September 1939 with the president of Warsaw Stefan Starzynski Czerniakow fixed up the status of the chairman of the commune. On September 23rd, in a diary he kept from the first days of the war, Czerniakow in the following words commented on his nomination: "A historical role in a besieged city. I hope I'll be up to it". When the Germans marched into Warsaw he used a business card that called him a "senator". Czerniakow explained he was on the list of the senate candidates and he needed that title in order to be respected by the Germans. For Wladyslaw Bartoszewski the fact that Czerniakow used a title he never had only proved Czerniakow's devotion to the Second Republic.


In his political sympathies Czerniakow was a mild supporter of Pilsudski. He considered himself to be not only a Jew, but also a Pole - a true Polish patriot. When he became the chairman of the commune all spectrum of political parties - from the Zionists, through the Bund up to the Communists - were joined by a common dislike for him. His predecessor Maurycy Mayzel left Warsaw in September 1939. Czerniakow was of the opinion that one does not abandon a sinking ship, leaving people without leadership. It is well known that at the beginning of the occupation he had the opportunity to travel to Palestine via Italy - however he never took advantage of that possibility. Also, when the ghetto was established, he did not take advantage of a similar opportunity.


Czerniakow was born in 1880 to a wealthy, well-educated assimilated middle-class family. At the Dresden polytechnic he achieved the title of a chemical engineer. Later he was an activist of economic councils and a member of the Warsaw City Council; in 1937 he joined the board of the Jewish Religious Commune. On October 4th, 1939 Czerniakow wrote in his diary that the Germans ordered him to find 24 people for the council of the commune; he was to become its leader. He did not refuse. He stressed that he was given this position by the authorities of the Second Republic, while the Germans only approved his status (in order to preserve continuity he always used the term gmina, i.e. commune, instead of "Judenrat"). In his office he deliberately placed a portrait of Pilsudski. He hoped the council would become some kind of a miniature parliament representing various political groups - however no one was interested (Bund, among others, refused to participate in this enterprise).


Czerniakow was very well familiarized with the German culture. For such people it was more difficult to believe in the criminal plans of the Germans. He knew from experience that it were the Russians who were savage - while he perceived the Germans as civilized people. His idea of war and its cost for civilians was shaped by the previous World War. He intended to do everything to minimize this cost. However the Jewish population never appreciated his efforts.


When in the ghetto the news spread about the liquidation of Jews from the Lubelskie province, Czerniakow went to the Gestapo to check these rumors. He was given no concrete information. After returning he stated that the Germans did not plan a displacement and personally calmed down people. Edelman and Antek Cukierman, a Zionist, one of the creators of the Jewish Military Organization, consider this to be the most serious accusation: that of possessing and hiding the knowledge about future fate of Jews.


Barbara Engelking, a historian of the Warsaw Ghetto, perceives such critique of Czerniakow as "intellectual laziness". It is worth thinking over - argues Engelking - according to what criteria he should be judged. It is essential to recreate what was known during his time. His judgment of the situation was based only on available information and experience. From his point of view the Holocaust had not happened yet and Czerniakow - he was not alone! - was unable to believe that it was really approaching. Only now are we aware how it all ended. I am of the opinion that he was not aware that the entire nation was doomed. And when he realized that it was - he committed suicide.


Czerniakow was a vain man; he liked official parties, parades, pompous speeches, official openings, the cutting of ribbons. The ceremonial aspect of being in power - he was the only inhabitant o the Ghetto allowed to have a car - gave him a lot of satisfaction. He had his shortcomings, just like any other person. According to Barbara Engelking they should not be taken into consideration when judging his actions. They only give his personality a human touch. I would judge him much higher than the Warsaw Judenrat. A naive idealist, Czernikow was not, unfortunately, a strong personality, capable of introducing high moral standards in his institution. But at the same time he was not demoralized or corrupted, he did not yield to the temptation. And the temptation was present and many succumbed to it. It is true that the situation overwhelmed him, but he did his best to cope with it. Various influences clashed in the Ghetto; there was a rivalry between the army and the SS for power, i.e. cheap labor. And he did his best to steer a middle course - for the good of the Ghetto and its inhabitants - never his own.


Czerniakow condemned the Ghetto underground. He considered it a threat to the survival of the community. However he was very different from Chaim Rumkowski, the leader of the Jewish community in the Lodz Ghetto, who was a primitive, brutal man, drunk with power. Czerniakow looked at the latter with disgust. In contrast to Rumkowski, who enjoyed absolute power, Czerniakow favored liberalism, so that people could show initiative - while he did not interfere. Hoewever Edelman accused him that under Czerniakow's rule the Warsaw Judenrat was nothing more than an administrative body and that he did not want to have anything to do with the underground.


His last redoubt was the protection of children from final liquidation. Until he had the hope he was able to do something, he did not abandon his post. He drank the poison when he realized the children were doomed to be exterminated.


The time after the war was not favorable for Czerniakow. He was perceived as a supporter of the hated Sanacja and accused of collaboration with the Germans. With time these judgments about the chairman of the Jewish commune became less harsh. This does not mean that he was ever perceived as a hero - which Bartoszewski finds regretful.