Czerniakow, Adam

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CZERNIAKOW, ADAM (1880–1942), president of the *Warsaw Jewish Community Council from shortly after the outbreak of World War ii and first head of the Warsaw *Judenrat. Czerniakow was born in 1880 in Warsaw to an assimilated Jewish family. He was trained as an engineer at Warsaw's Polytechnic Institute and studied industrial engineering in Dresden. His Polish was native, his German fluent, and his Yiddish more halting, which later hampered his communication with less assimilated, more traditional Yiddish-speaking ghetto inhabitants and their confidence in him. Czerniakow acquired considerable experience as a communal leader and was known especially as the organizer of the Jewish artisans, who constituted some 40% of all Polish Jewry. In 1927–34 he was an elected a member of the Warsaw Municipal Council, and ran unsuccessfully for the Polish Sejm. Before the outbreak of World War ii he was a member of the Executive Council of the Warsaw Jewish community and served as its vice chairman. Several members of the Council, including its chairman, Maurycy Mayzel, fled Warsaw when the Germans invaded. Czerniakow had several such opportunities and rejected them all. It was a matter of responsibility, of basic integrity, for Czerniakow that leaders not abandon their people and save themselves.

On Sept. 23, 1939, the mayor of besieged Warsaw appointed Czerniakow to head the Jewish Community Council; his appointment was confirmed by the German authorities on October 3, 1939, when the 24-member Jewish Council (Judenrat) was constituted on *Heydrich's orders. Throughout this period Czerniakow kept a secret diary, notebooks containing 1,009 pages, which is an indispensable day-by-day account of his work and depicts conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and throughout Poland. Under Czerniakow, the Judenrat evolved into a multi-layered municipality with a series of departments, including a Jewish police force to which he appointed Joseph Szerynski, who had converted to Christianity, as commander. It was a bad choice, made worse by the lack of trust between the ghetto inhabitants and the commander. He struggled in vain to serve two masters: the Germans, who viewed the Council as an instrument of their policies; and the Jews, whose ever-increasing needs they unsuccessfully tried to meet. Thus, his situation was compromised from the very beginning. Czerniakow was acutely aware of the precariousness of the Judenrat's position. Twenty-four cyanide pills were in the drawer of his desk, one for each member of the Council. He reported to different German and Polish agencies who were in charge of ghetto operations, beginning with the leaders of Einsatzgruppe iv during the opening days of the war and then the city administration until the fall of 1940, followed by the German district administration's resettlement division as the ghetto was formed in the fall and winter of 1940–41. Much of Czerniakow's diary – especially on the buildup to the deportation – was written during the period in which he reported to the Komissar for the Jewish District Hans Heinz Auerswald. In the final days of the ghetto the ss Resettlement staff, under the leadership of Hermann Hofle, predominated. He could never be sure exactly who was his "boss": the ghetto commissar, the ss, the police, the governor of the district, the Transferstelle, or the Polish municipality.

His daily dilemma was overwhelming: how to run a municipal government that could provide adequate food and shelter, heat, medicine, religious services, education, and work to a starving population; how to care for the young and sustain the elderly; how to make life bearable in the ghettoes. The resources at this disposal were meager; his authority derived from the Germans. Funds were scarce and production, though increasing through the initiative of ghetto residents, was always inadequate to sustain the ghetto. To accomplish his task, he worked virtually all day, every day. He was preoccupied with the immediate. Seldom did he look at the larger picture or even think of the fate of his son Jas who lived in Lvov and from whom he had not heard from since the German invasion. Unlike other ghetto leaders such as Mordecai Chaim *Rumkowski of Lodz, whom he criticized, Czerniakow was not full of himself. He did not perceive himself as a grand strategist, but he tried his best. He did not deceive himself regarding his abilities or his achievements. His diary depicts his few successes and his many failures. Czerniakow, who remained at his post for nearly three years, was beset by constant budgetary difficulties and often faced contradictory demands from various offices within the Nazi bureaucracy and constant complaints from desperate individuals and competing groups within the ghetto.

As chairman of the Judenrat, he was charged by the Nazi authorities with effecting the community's fatal transition into a ghetto. He vigorously fought against the idea of ghettoization and the proposed boundaries of the ghetto, and so accumulated a vast documented correspondence with the Nazis. His direct exchanges with the Nazi authorities were usually held at a junior level, with lieutenants and sergeants. The chairman comported himself with dignity and honor. Nor was his position within the Jewish community a simple one. It was Czerniakow's difficult task to conciliate conflicting interests of various groups in the captive heterogeneous ghetto population. He personally did not escape Nazi brutality. He bore his situation with a certain stoicism. He often included criticism of German policy against the Jews in his memorandums and reports but they like his diary were self-censored. There were clear limits to what he could say or what he could write in private should his notebooks be discovered. He stubbornly fought for the inclusion of certain formerly Jewish streets within the ghetto limits in order to relieve the dangerous overcrowding, and also maintained open and clandestine contacts with leaders of the Polish population. He was in the words of Raul Hilberg and Satnislaw Staron, who edited the English-language version of his diary, "overwhelmingly ordinary, a non-villain, non-hero, non-exploiter, no saint and not a leader."

He encouraged secret educational and cultural activities, including technical and medical training, helped obtain food, raw materials, and tools for the artisans within the ghetto, and cared for the labor commandos outside and for their families left within, even though this required ingenious schemes of smuggling and outwitting, usually only temporarily, the Nazi authorities.

Almost until the end, Czerniakow refused to believe that the Germans were bent not on exploitation of the Jews but on their murder. He was preoccupied with the endless problems beleaguering the more than 400,000 Jews who lived in a position of increasing squalor and hunger, disease and malnutrition. He rejected the rumors and hints about the impending deportations and liquidation of the ghetto and used his influence to encourage the besieged community to be calm and continue to work and endure until the emergency would pass.

When he was asked by the Germans to sign children's deportation orders, he frantically ran to various Nazi offices in the hope that these orders might not have been issued by competent authorities and could be countermanded, but despite reassurances to the contrary from Auerswald, he realized the futility of the situation, and committed suicide by swallowing the poison which he always carried in his pocket. His final entry in the diary was: "I am powerless, my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this."

Even in death Czerniakow was a controversial figure. Those close to him saw his suicide as an act of personal courage that expressed his integrity and sense of public responsibility. Ghetto diarist Chaim Kaplan said: "Some people earn eternity in a single hour." Those active in the ghetto's militant underground were less charitable. Emanuel *Ringelblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw ghetto, wrote: "Suicide of Czerniakow – too late, a sign of weakness – should have called for resistance – a weak man." No doubt, he saw that his strategy of negotiations and of hoping to alleviate the plight of the Jews and to prolong their survival beyond a German defeat would not work. In the end, he chose to share the fate of his community, to die by his own hand rather than be killed by the Germans. The order for deportation appeared without his signature. On the day of his death, he completed the ninth of his notebooks. The diary has been published in Hebrew and Polish as well as English (The Warsaw Ghetto Diary of Adam Czerniakow [1979] and Yomano shel Adam Czerniakow [1968]). One notebook is missing covering the dates of December 14, 1940–April 22, 1941. The diary was probably intended to serve as source material for a book to be published after the end of the German occupation.


A. Tartakower, in: Yad Vashem Studies, 6 (1967), 55–67; A. Hartglass, in: Yad Vashem Bulletin no. 15 (1964), 4–7; Y. Gutman, in: Yalkut Moreshet, no. 10 (1969), 122–43, see also 144–55. add. bibliography: R. Hilberg, S. Staron, and J. Kermisz, The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czernaikow: Prelude to Doom (1979); Y. Gutman, "Adam Czerniakow: The Man and His Diary," in: Y. Gutman and L. Rothkirchen (eds.), The Catastrophe of European Jewry (1976).

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]