IN the September issue, we watched in horror as a noted gun-rights activist strove repeatedly to trade a basic right for a handful of government- granted privileges. He may have tried again by the time you read this. He sees himself as “making reasonable compromises.” People who are serious about rights see him as a fool and a traitor to freedom.
His actions bring up an eternal question: When is compromise reasonable and when does it become betrayal? We all have to decide for ourselves. But history provides some awful examples.
Let’s go back to the tragic 20th century and look at a man whose actions remain controversial to this day. To some, he remains the vilest sort of traitor—a man who collaborated with evil. Others defend him as a smart leader and good negotiator who was merely doing the best he could with a terrible situation.
His name was Chaim Rumkowski and he was the leader of the Lodz, Poland, ghetto in World War II.
Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski was already an old man when the Nazis blitzkrieged Poland. He had been an unsuccessful businessman but a very successful operator of an orphanage. He was a community leader known for his progressive policies and expert negotiating skills.
At first, the Nazis didn’t know what to do with the Jews of eastern Europe. Although the “Final Solution” may already have been in their minds, the camps and equipment for mass extermination weren’t yet in place. The Germans began by forcing all Jews (except those lucky enough to escape to the forest and join the resistance) into walled barbed-wire-enclosed ghettos. In Lodz, about 250,000 people were crammed into a slum area and left there without food, medical care, or other resources.
The Nazis left the day-to-day running of the ghettos to the Jews. To ensure that things were done as they wished, they mandated leadership councils (Judenrat) and chose the top man themselves. In Lodz, they chose Rumkowski.
He was faced with an unimaginable situation. People were literally dropping dead in the streets from starvation and disease. But the Nazis had chosen a competent and innovative man. Rumkowski came up with a plan that won the approval of the German leadership. He put the residents of the ghetto to work producing goods for Germany (particularly the German military) in exchange for food. Ghetto factories were soon turning out German army uniforms, helmets, boots, and even munitions.
Not only were ghetto residents being fed again, but Rumkowski and his counselors created a medical system, welfare plan, schools, and even a Jewish cultural center. The Lodz ghetto was the best-run of its kind. Residents hailed Rumkowski as a savior. The Nazis were thrilled because the Lodz ghetto was so useful to them.
In 1942, everything changed. By then, the Nazis had their extermination camps set up. Rumkowski was expected to help with the deportations. It became his job to choose who would be sent away. This was done in stages: 55,000 here, 20,000 there.
When transports to the death camps began in the spring of 1942, ghetto residents were told that those leaving were being “resettled” to work camps elsewhere in Europe. But by late summer, everyone knew what was really happening. No one who left returned or was ever heard from again. The dire rumors that spread through the ghetto were confirmed when they began to receive bundles of goods for what we would now call recycling.
Those tasked with processing them noticed that articles of clothing appeared to have been cut away, not merely removed by the wearers. The bundles included identity papers of people from all over Europe, some of which had been issued right there in the Lodz ghetto.
Rumkowski had made a terrible mistake. According to an excellent British documentary available on YouTube (www.youtube.com/ watch?v=evCyf9CMc3c), “Rumkowski had assumed the Germans would behave rationally. If the ghetto was productive, he believed the German authorities would have a vested interest in keeping it going. But he failed to grasp that for the Nazis, killing Jews was more important than economic gain.” But it would take time to empty the ghetto. And for that time, Rumkowski remained in charge.
Another mistake: When he had negotiated his labor-for-food deal, Rumkowski had not specified how much food for how much labor. Perhaps he had no power to do so. In any case, he trusted the Nazis to be reasonable in that, as in everything else. But now, the Germans put more pressure on those who remained in the ghetto. Rumkowski demanded more work with no increase in the food supply.
Workers rebelled. They organized strikes. This threatened both Rumkowski’s love of order and his position of power. He cracked down. He announced himself to be the ghetto’s dictator. He called all strikers criminals. He cut off their food. He selected them to go next to the camps. He sent his police in to round them up. He declared he would be like a surgeon, cutting off the diseased limbs to keep the heart beating (imagery remarkably similar to that the Nazis themselves used).
He also began to show signs of monomania. He had his own image put on the ghetto’s postage stamps and money. He ordered people to pray for his health, as though he were a monarch. The ghetto newspaper began printing poems effusive with praise for him, even as residents began to hate him. He referred to his headquarters as The Chancellory—the same term the Nazis used for Hitler’s HQ.
All the while, Rumkowski continued negotiating with the Germans. When they asked him to choose 20,000 to be transported, he tried to compromise, asking for just half that number. But when they issued their orders, he chose the victims. By September 1942, with the aid of Rumkowski’s police, the Nazis began to rid the ghetto of “the unproductive.” Hospital patients and several hundred children had already been sent away. But that month, the Nazis demanded that every child under ten and every adult over 65 be handed over for deportation.
Now comes one of the most infamous moments in the history of “compromise.” Although everyone—including Rumkowski—knew what the fate of these children and elders would be, he went before the mothers and fathers of the ghetto and gave a speech called “Give Me Your Children” that was recorded for posterity—or infamy.
In it, this former orphanage executive pleads with parents to surrender their children without protest or hesitation: “A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess—the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children, I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”
And so the children and the old were exterminated. Of course, the Nazis would have had their way regardless. Ghetto residents were trapped and entirely at their mercy. Had Rumkowski rebelled, he would have been killed and replaced.
Yet other ghetto leaders made different choices once they realized they were choosing which of their own people to send to death. In Warsaw, council leader Adam Czerniaków swallowed a cyanide capsule in July 1942 rather than send people to their deaths. He left his wife a suicide note saying that at least he could make himself an example of “the right thing to do.”
And who can say what might have happened had ghetto residents ever staged a mass rebellion before it was too late? Before most were already dead? Maybe they would have been crushed. Maybe more would have been saved to join the resistance. They could at least have hindered the Germans’ plans, made them more difficult and expensive.
Emptying the ghettos and annihilating the Jews took a long time. The job was still unfinished in 1944 as the Russians converged from the east and the Americans and other Allies from the west. Only at that point did Heinrich Himmler order the complete emptying of the ghettos.
The Lodz ghetto was then the largest left in Europe, because Rumkowski had made “his” Jews more valuable to the Nazis than most. But there was still to be that final transport, and by then everybody knew what that meant. Did Rumkowski understand? Did he finally realize it was past time to stop cooperating and compromising?
Far from it. Instead, he pleaded with the last of the Lodz ghetto dwellers, “Come to your senses. Volunteer for the transport.”
The Germans herded all but 750 privileged residents (those favored by Rumkowski) off to their deaths. The few hundred were left to salvage goods to be cleaned, sorted and sent into Germany. Even they knew that, once the cleanup was done, they’d all be transported. Only the arrival of the Russian army saved them.
And Rumkowski? Questions surround his fate. We know he ended up on the last transport. One eyewitness describes him as stunned and disbelieving when told he had arrived at Auschwitz. Maybe he really had convinced himself that transportees were going to a better fate. Most accounts say he was killed at Auschwitz by the Nazis.
But one account—also supposedly by an eyewitness—says that Rumkowski was actually beaten to death in Auschwitz by fellow Jews in revenge for what he had done to them.
Was Rumkowski one of the worst Nazi collaborators, a dictator and a traitor? Or was he a brilliant leader who was only doing the best with what he had? Decide for yourself. But whatever you decide, there are lessons in this for today’s gun owners. If you allow government to control your access to weapons (as Nazis did with Jews), you allow the government to control you. Going quietly into tyranny makes things much easier on tyrants.
When you negotiate with people who will happily take away your rights in exchange for granting you a handful of privileges that they control, you will ultimately lose both rights and privileges.
Above all, once you start selling out your principles in hopes of currying favor with powerful people who fundamentally hate you, nothing will end well.