Adam Czerniaków (30.11.1880–23.07.1942)

engineer, economic, educational and social activist, publicist, Warsaw councilor (1927-1934), long-time counselor and presiding officer of the Jewish Community in Warsaw, in 1939-1942 president of the Warsaw Judenrat

At Chłodna 20, there is an impressive tenement house, the only pre-war building in this section of the street that has survived. It was erected in the years 1912–1913 as a joint project of the famous Warsaw architects Józef Napoleon Czerwiński and Wacław Heppen. Its owner was Zygmunt Lewin. Thanks to the clock placed on the facade, it was called ‘Pod Zegarem’ (Under the Clock). Interestingly, its predecessor, a two-story tenement house erected according to the design of Karol Galle in the years 1819–1820 for the owner of the brick factory, Karol Kijok, also had a clock placed at the top of the facade and was also called the ‘Pod Zegarem’ tenement house. The term, one could say, was hereditary.

Adam Czerniaków, a tragic figure of the Warsaw ghetto, lived in the tenement house at Chłodna 20 from December 1941 until his death. Czerniaków, understanding very well the problems of integration of the two nations, the Jews and the Poles, living next to each other, throughout his life through activities and publications tried to bring these nations closer to each other. Before the war, he was a councilor in Warsaw and a councilor in the capital’s Jewish Community, so it is not surprising that after the outbreak of the war, on September 23, President Stefan Starzyński appointed Czerniaków the head of the Warsaw Jewish Religious Community. Czerniaków performed this role also after the capitulation of Warsaw, and after the creation of the ghetto, he became the head of the Jewish Council. This role was neither easy nor even more enjoyable. In her Diary from the Warsaw Ghetto, Miriam Wattenberg, known after the war as Mary Berg, remembers Czerniakow as follows: “I’ve never seen him smile, but it’s quite understandable if you take into account the responsibility that rests with him. To deal with Germans every day and at the same time to accept the complaints and complaints of starving, bitter and distrustful people is an unenviable duty indeed. I am not surprised that he is so gloomy.” Czerniaków co-created the social welfare system and supported the emerging underground archive, but many accused him of being an opponent of military action, refusing to contact the resistance movement, the ghetto left, choosing his associates badly and doing too little to compensate for the material contrasts in the ghetto.

Historians compare the behavior of Czerniaków with that of the leader of the Lodz Judenrat – Chaim Rumkowski. Rumkowski was called “Chaim the Terrible” or ‘King Chaim I’. He was responsible for selecting Jews from the Łódź ghetto. He sent old people, children, the sick to certain death, all those who were not fit for work, that is, could not be ‘economically exploited by the Germans’. He became infamous during the ‘Wielka Szpera’ – an operation carried out in the Łódź ghetto on September 5–12, 1942. At that time, almost 16,000 Jews were transported to the Kulmhof camp in Chełmno on the Ner. Jews. Children under 10 were a large group. Rumkowski explained it this way: “I have to perform this bloody operation. I have to sacrifice my limbs to save my body. I have to take your children away from you, otherwise others will die with them. ” For some, Rumkowski is a traitor to the Jewish nation and a collaborator. Others justify it, saying that the ghetto in Łódź lasted until August 1944 because it brought the Germans profit and it was close to being liberated. Rumkowski was most likely sent to KL Auschwitz. He died in 1944. Czerniaków himself wrote about Rumkowski: “The individual does not exist for him. He has a requisitioning Sonderkommando. He collects diamonds and furs (…). This is a braggart. Cocky and stupid. Harmful because it tells the authorities that it is fine with him”.

The differences between the attitudes of the two Judenrat leaders is evidenced by what happened on July 23, 1942. The day before, the Germans issued a decree on the ‘Great Liquidation Action’. While it was promised that this would be aimed at deporting people to work in the East, in fact it was the deportation of the Jewish population to the extermination camp in Treblinka. On that day, Hermann Hoefle, the chief of staff of Operation Reinhard, came to Czerniaków at the Judenrat headquarters at Grzybowska 26/28 with information about the commencement of the liquidation of the ghetto. The announcement on the deportation of Jews was signed by the “Jewish Council”. Previously, Czerniaków himself signed such announcements of the Judenrat. The use of a different formula proves for many that Czerniaków was against the liquidation action.

On July 23, Adam Czerniaków committed suicide. In a farewell letter to his wife, he wrote: “They are asking me to kill the children of my nation with my own hands. I have no choice but to die.” He explained to his co-workers the reason for the suicide decision: “Worthoff and comrades were with me and demanded to arrange a transport of children for tomorrow. This completes my cup of bitterness, because I cannot spend helpless children to death. I decided to leave. Don’t take it as an act of cowardice or as an escape. I am powerless, my heart is bursting with regret and pity, I cannot take it anymore. My deed will prove truth to everyone and may lead to the right path of action. I am aware that I am leaving you a heavy legacy.”

Information about Czerniaków’s death spread quickly throughout the ghetto and provoked extreme reactions. Some accused him of leaving the ghetto inhabitants to the hands of the Germans at such a difficult moment that he chickened out. Others praised his courage and called his opposition a hero. Hannah Arendt in the book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” wrote about Czerniaków: “He was not a rabbi, but an unbeliever… he did not forget – as you can see – the rabbinical maxim: ‘Let them kill you, but do not go beyond the established limit’”. He is buried in the Alley of Merit at the Jewish cemetery at ul. Okopowa in Warsaw. On his grave there are fragments of the Book of Ezekiel.

During its renovation, the tenement house at Chłodna 20 was deprived of its top floor. Renovated in recent years, it is one of the few preserved places related to Czerniaków in Warsaw.

translated by Adam Grossman