Czerniaków, Adam

views updated


Nationality: Polish. Born: Warsaw, 1880. Education: Studied chemistry at Warsaw Polytechnic. Family: Married Dr. Felicja Czerniaków. Career: Teacher and engineer. City counselor, Warsaw; senator, Polish Parliament. Also worked as a journalist. Cofounder, Union of Jewish Craftsmen, Poland; member, Jewish Engineers Association. Chairman, Warsaw Jewish Council, Warsaw Ghetto, 1939-42. Died: Suicide, 23 July 1942.



The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniaków, edited by RaulHilberg. 1979 (originally published in Hebrew translation, 1968).


Critical Study:

"Adam Czerniakow and His Times" by Joseph L. Lichten, in Polish Review, 29(1-2), 1984, pp. 71-89.

* * *

Adam Czerniaków, as the Judenrat president in the Warsaw Ghetto, was the leader of the largest Jewish community during the Holocaust. The Germans appointed him to that office on 4 October 1939. Earlier, on 23 September, before the defeat of Warsaw, its mayor, Stefan Starzynski, appointed him the chairman of the Jewish Council. That fact was of significance for Czerniaków's attitude. In his diary he did not refer to the Judenrat. He felt obliged to perform the role entrusted to him by the mayor of Warsaw and history.

Czerniaków's diary has a special place among more than 100 memoirs of the Warsaw Jews. It was written by a man who daily met the Germans enforcing Hitler's policy toward the Jews. His diary is a precious source of information about the Warsaw Ghetto. He commenced writing it on 6 September 1939. The final note is dated 23 July 1942, several hours before swallowing cyanide. Two farewell letters were found on his desk—one to his wife, the other to the Jewish Council Executive.

Czerniaków belonged to the Jewish middle class assimilated to Polish culture. Born in Warsaw in 1880, he completed his academic technical education in Warsaw and Dresden. In independent Poland he actively participated in the social and political life. He was a cofounder of the Union of Jewish Craftsmen in Poland, a member of the Jewish Engineers Association, a city counselor in Warsaw, and a senator of the Polish Parliament elected in the complementary election. As a journalist he wrote of issues pertaining to education, science, and culture. He was also a pedagogue. Though in favor of Jewish assimilation, he publicly criticized the discriminating policy of the Polish government.

Czerniaków perceived his function as a historic mission. His convictions stemmed from positivistic ideology. Thus he was committed to the protection of Jewish people, and he felt that he was their true leader. In his contacts with the Germans he behaved with dignity, and in the times of extermination he led a daily struggle for survival of as many Jews as possible. The only fighting method available to him was appealing to German officials. He attempted to delay the establishment of the ghetto. He applied for releasing prisoners and hostages and organized the education and social welfare systems and the health service, and he supported the ghetto's cultural and religious life and obtained help for the poor and sick. He collected the imposed contributions, but he negotiated for them to be diminished. He organized the Jewish police that was subject to him; however, they were not only responsible for maintaining the order in the ghetto but also for fulfilling German orders and conducting the selections for the labor camps.

The Judenrat president was well aware of his ambivalent function. The refusal to perform it would mean death. He was on duty, like a captain of a ship, and in that behavior he saw sense and honor. In his struggle he had a series of minor victories, but in the face of the final catastrophe they were insignificant. Forced to give a direct order of sending the orphaned children to Treblinka, he chose death. It confirmed not only his fidelity to his convictions but also the bankruptcy of his earlier efforts and positivistic ideas.

The leader of the Warsaw Ghetto was not a naive person. His diary reflects his growing awareness of the approaching catastrophe. Yet for a long time in his rationalistic mind he would not admit the possibility of murdering hundreds of thousands of people exclusively on racial grounds, and against the logic of the war, since the Jews were the cheapest labor force.

Czerniaków's suicide, committed at the beginning of the largest extermination wave, stirred the Jews of Warsaw and evoked many spontaneous comments and later interpretations. Marek Edelman , the only living leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, wrote after the war that instead of committing "private suicide" Czerniaków should have called the Jews of Warsaw to resistance, making them fully aware of the significance of the conducted deportations. Yitzhak Katznelson, a poet, saw Czerniaków's suicide as "a sign of his desire to free himself of guilt feelings, to expiate a sin weighed on his conscience," according to the introduction by J. Kermisz to The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniaków (1982).

Undoubtedly, that act determines the perception of Czerniaków's choices and of his entire activity as the leader of the Jewish community. Reading the diary is crucial for understanding his motives and the sense of his suicide. The two farewell letters constitute a particular form of conclusion for that diary. He wrote to his wife that he could not sign the order to send the Jewish orphans to Treblinka. In the other letter, to the Jewish Council Executive, he wrote: "I can no longer bear all this. My act will show everyone the right thing to do."

—Kazimierz Adamczyk

See the essay on The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniaków.