Adam Czerniakow's Drama
Reduta Adama Czerniakowa
(Adam Czerniakow's Redoubt),
Gazeta Wyborcza, September 21-22,
Translated in FORUM ZNAK- Christian
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