Kensington writer recalls dictator of Lodz Ghetto

When Chaim Rumkowski, the Nazi-appointed head of the Jewish Council, beseeched his fellow Jews to hand their children over to the Germans, some thought he was doing the best he could under difficult circumstances. Others saw his actions as a radical betrayal.

Lucille Eichengreen of Kensington calls Rumkowski a "dictator" and an "egomaniac." She writes about her firsthand encounters with him in her new book, "Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz."

The writer was a teenager when she was sent from her home in Hamburg, Germany, to live in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland. Rumkowski, the elder of the ghetto, had been the director of the Jewish orphanage in Lodz. In the ghetto, Eichengreen met some of his former charges. They told her frightening stories of sexual abuse. Eventually, she worked for Rumkowski as an office clerk.

"As I started working with him, I was convinced that what they [the other children] told me was true because he molested me, too," Eichengreen said in an interview from her home.

Eichengreen is also the author of an earlier Shoah memoir, "From Ashes to Life: My Memories of the Holocaust." Now in her mid-70s, she finally decided to tell the story of her experiences in the Lodz Ghetto.

"It took me 55 years to tell it. It is the truth. It is what happened. There was no reason not to tell it. I should have probably told it sooner but I didn't. It was too difficult."

Eichengreen's father was killed in Dachau in 1941. Several months later she, her mother and sister were sent from their home in Hamburg to Lodz. In 1942, her mother died.

"Hers was a typical ghetto death: we had no tears, no family and no friends to mourn with us," Eichengreen writes.

She is unambivalent in her assessment of her former boss, Rumkowski.

"He was a dictator. He was an egomaniac. He had money printed with his name on it. He had a terrible temper. He would hit people when he was displeased. And he had power beyond anything reasonable, which meant if you displeased him he could have you deported so it was very, very frightening."

Eichengreen remembers Rumkowski saying that if he could save 100 Jews, everything would be worthwhile.

"I found that statement appalling to save 100 out of 200,000. How can you find this anything to be proud of?" she said.

"I felt devastated that he gave up 20,000 children to the Germans on German request, my sister among them, without inciting us to riot. I found it unacceptable then, I find it unacceptable now. You don't ask parents to give up [their] children."

Rebecca Camhi Fromer, a Berkeley writer and editor who collaborated on the book with Eichengreen, felt it was important to put Rumkowski in context. She points out that others in the Lodz leader's situation behaved very differently.

Among them were Eliyahu Myshkin in Minsk and Janusz Korcak in Warsaw, who risked their lives — and lost — in their efforts to save fellow Jews.

In the book's afterword, Fromer writes: "The role of the Elder was difficult and unenviable, particularly as it became clear he had inherited a post that called upon him to determine on a daily basis the fate of thousands of people. Could he preserve a delicate balance between life and death by acceding to German demands and turning over to them the young and the old, the weak and infirm…Was it to be: Life for an hour is also life?" or the injunction from Maimonides: "Better be all killed than one soul of Israel be surrendered?"

Fromer said Eichengreen wrote her second book for the children.

"Lucille was anxious to tell it from the point of view of lighting a candle for the children who were his victims. I believe her motive was to put a name on some of these children who were lost."