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Adam Czerniakow

(1880 - 1942)

Adam Czerniakow was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1880 to an assimilated Jewish family. He studied engineering at Warsaw's Polytechnic Institute, industrial engineering in Dresden, and taught in the Jewish community’s vocational school in Warsaw.

His Polish was native, his German fluent, and his Yiddish halting. This later hampered his communication with less assimilated, more traditional Yiddish-speaking ghetto inhabitants and undermined their confidence in him. Czerniakow acquired considerable experience as a communal leader and was known for organizing the Jewish artisans, who constituted some 40% of all Polish Jewry.

From 1927 to 1934, he served as a member of the Warsaw Municipal Council and, in, 1931 he was elected to the Polish Senate. 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.

On September 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. The Judenrat was responsible for implementing German orders in the Jewish community.

Several members of the Municipal 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.

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, but his position within the Jewish community was complex. 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 memoranda and reports, but, like the diary he kept, they 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 to relieve the dangerous overcrowding, and 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.”

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.

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.

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.

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. 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. Simultaneously, he heard constant complaints from desperate individuals and competing groups within the ghetto.

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. During the buildup to the deportation, 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 he answered to: the ghetto commissar, the SS, the police, the governor of the district, the Transferstelle, or the Polish municipality.

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.

Almost until the end, Czerniakow refused to believe that the Germans planned to murder the Jews rather than simply exploit them for labor. 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.

German forces began preparing for mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp in July 1942, and the Jewish Council was ordered to provide lists of Jews and maps of residences. On July 22, 1942, the Judenrat received instructions that all Warsaw Jews were to be deported to the East — exceptions were made for Jews working in German factories, Jewish hospital staff, members of the Judenrat and their families, and members of the Jewish police force and their families. Over the course of the day, Czerniakow obtained exemptions for a handful of individuals, including sanitation workers, husbands of women working factories, and some vocational students.

The orders further stated that the deportations would begin immediately at the rate of 6,000 people per day, to be supplied by the Judenrat and rounded up by the Jewish police. Failure to comply would result in immediate execution of some one hundred hostages, including employees of the Judenrat and Czerniakow’s own wife.

When the Germans asked him to sign deportation orders for the children, he frantically ran to various Nazi offices in the hope that the orders could be countermanded. Despite reassurances from Auerswald, he realized the futility of the situation, and committed suicide by swallowing the poison that he always carried in his pocket. He left a suicide note to his wife and one to his fellow members of the Judenrat, explaining: “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, Czerniakow saw his strategy of negotiations and trying to alleviate the plight of the Jews and 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. One notebook covering the dates of December 14, 1940–April 22, 1941, disappeared. The remaining 1,009 pages provide an indispensable day-by-day account of his work and a description of conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto from September 6, 1939, until the day of his death. The diary has been published in Hebrew, Polish and English (The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow: Prelude to Doom [1979] and Yomano shel Adam Czerniakow [1968]).

In the 2001 Warner Bros. motion picture, Uprising, actor Donald Sutherland portrayed Adam Czerniakow.

Adam Czerniakow is interred in the Okapawa cemetery in Warsaw.


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).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
“Adam Czerniakow,” Wikipedia.

Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.