On July 23, 1942, the Nazis began mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camp of Treblinka. Over the next nine months, the Germans would send some 300,000 Jews from the Ghetto to the gas chambers – culminating with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April of 1943.
The Nazis were evil but not stupid. In each city where they packed the Jews into a ghetto, they appointed a Judenrat (German for “Jewish Council”) – usually a group of respected, senior members of the community who the Nazis knew were the “go along to get along” kind. No ideologues. No real leaders. Only those who could be bought or bullied. Through the Judenrat, the Nazis would give orders to the rest of the Jews. The head of the Warsaw Judenrat was a man named Adam Czerniakow; he had served in the Polish Senate before the war and no one in Warsaw’s Jewish community was better liked. Czerniakow knew how bad the Germans were, and believed that he could help make things better for the Jews. When the SS demanded the names and locations of every Jew in the Ghetto, the Judenrat complied – because there was no other choice. Every man on the Judenrat knew that if he refused an order he and his family would be killed, another person would be appointed to the Judenrat, and the order would be carried out anyway.
On July 22, 1942, the SS ordered deportations of Jews from the Ghetto to begin the next day and continue at a rate of 6000 people per day. The Judenrat, along with the Ghetto’s Jewish “police,” was responsible for meeting this quota under pain of execution. While Czernakow spent the next day trying with mixed success to win exemptions for various individuals and groups, one group he could not save were the hundreds of orphaned children in the care of Dr. Janusz Korczak. Two weeks after the deportations began, the children were marched off to the trains with Dr. Korczak – who had refused the opportunity to avoid deportation – at their head.
Unable even to save Jewish children, Adam Czerniakow went back to his office, wrote out notes to his wife and to another Judenrat member, and bit into a cyanide capsule. It was July 23, 1942. On the Hebrew calendar, it was Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar when Jewish communities remember the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem by listening to the mournful chanting of the Book of Lamentations.
To be clear, Adam Czerniakow was no coward. In 1939, when the SS had demanded delivery of 17 Jews to be held as “hostages” (the Nazis would “arrest” members of wealthy Jewish families and force their loved ones to pay a “fine” for their release), Czerniakow offered himself – the SS backed down.
But Czerniakow’s service on the Judenrat and suicide have come in for much debate over the decades. And, as we prepare again for tonight’s reading of Lamentations, the most useful lesson might be this one:
There is no requirement to cooperate with your own destruction. Trying to “make the best” of an existential threat eventually leads to a higher body count than if you had resisted in the first place. True, the person who leads by example may be taken out and shot, but, as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata famously said, “it is better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” And that’s fine when you are fighting a threat more powerful than you; then the morality is clear and easy. But what about when you are more powerful – even much more powerful – than your enemy? None of us wants to oppress others or mindlessly discriminate. But, at the very least, we can refuse to cooperate.