Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski
No one really knows why the Nazis chose Rumkowski at the Alteste ("Elder of the Jews") of Lodz. Was it because he seemed like he would help the Nazis achieve their aims by organizing the Jews and their property? Or did he just want them to think this so that he could try to save his people? Rumkowski is shrouded in controversy - did he help the Nazis murder his people or did he save lives?
Once the ghetto was sealed on May 1, 1940, a relative calm followed. It seemed to many residents that the sealing not only locked them in the ghetto, but it also precluded non-Jews from entering and tormenting Jews through forced labor and random beatings. Some thought that perhaps the sealing was a good thing - allowing Jews autonomy and protection from the outside world. What these people did not realize was that the ghetto was established simply as a temporary holding place until the Nazis could decide what they were going to do with Jews. The ghetto and its residents were completely at the mercy of the Nazis.
Rumkowski and His Vision
To organize and implement Nazi policy within the ghetto, the Nazis chose a Jew named Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. At the time Rumkowski was appointed Juden Alteste (Elder of the Jews), he was sixty-two years old, with billowy, white hair. He had held various jobs including insurance agent, velvet factory manager, and director of the Helenowek orphanage before the war began.
Rumkowski was a firm believer in the autonomy of the ghetto. He started many programs that replaced outside bureaucracy with his own. Rumkowski replaced the German currency with ghetto money that bore his signature - soon referred to as "Rumkies." Rumkowski also created a post office (with a stamp with his image) and a sewage clean up department since the ghetto had no sewage system. But what soon materialized was the problem of acquiring food.
With 230,000 people confined to a very small area that had no farmland, food quickly became a problem. Since the Nazis insisted on having the ghetto pay for its own upkeep, money was needed. But how could Jews who were locked away from the rest of society and who had been stripped of all valuables make enough money for food and housing? Rumkowski believed that if the ghetto was transformed into an extremely useful workforce, then the Jews would be needed by the Nazis. Rumkowski believed that this usefulness would ensure that the Nazis would supply the ghetto with food.
On April 5, 1940, Rumkowski petitioned the Nazi authorities requesting permission for his work plan. He wanted the Nazis to deliver raw materials, have the Jews make the final products, then have the Nazis pay the workers in money and in food. On April 30, 1940 Rumkowski's proposal was accepted with one very important change - the workers would only be paid in food. Notice, that no one agreed upon how much food, nor how often it was to be supplied.
Rumkowski immediately began setting up factories and all those able and willing to work were found jobs. Most of the factories required workers to be over fourteen years old but often very young children and older adults found work in mica splitting factories. Adults worked in factories that produced everything from textiles to munitions. Young girls were even trained to hand stitch the emblems for the uniforms of German soldiers.
For this work, the Nazis delivered food to the ghetto. The food entered the ghetto in bulk and was then confiscated by Rumkowski's officials. Rumkowski had taken over food distribution. With this one act, Rumkowski truly became the absolute ruler of the ghetto, for survival was contingent on food. The quality and quantity of the food delivered to the ghetto was less than minimal, often with large portions being completely spoiled. Ration cards were quickly put into effect for food on June 2, 1940. By December, all provisions were rationed.
The amount of food given to each individual depended upon your work status. Certain factory jobs got a bit more bread than others. But office workers received the most. Since an average factory worker received one bowl of soup (mostly water, if you were fortunate you would have a couple of barley beans floating in it), the usual rations of one loaf of bread for five days (later the same amount was supposed to last seven days), a small amount of vegetables (sometimes "preserved" beets that were mostly ice), and brown water that was supposed to be coffee. This amount of food starved people. As ghetto residents really started feeling hunger, they became increasingly suspicious of Rumkowski and his officials.