Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski (February 27, 1877 – August 28, 1944) was a Polish Jew and wartime businessman appointed by Nazi Germany as the head of the Council of Elders in the Lódz Ghetto during the occupation of Poland in World War II. The Germans liquidated the ghetto in 1944. All remaining prisoners were sent to death camps in the wake of military defeats on the Eastern Front of World War II.
Prior to the war Rumkowski was an unsuccessful insurance salesman and orphanage director in Lodz, Poland. Poland was annexed by the invading Nazis beginning September 1, 1939, and Lodz was occupied on September 8. On October 13, 1939, Rumkowski was appointed as Judenälteste ("Chief Elder of the Jews") in the Lodz Ghetto. As the Chief Elder Rumkowski reported directly to the Nazi Ghetto Administration and was responsible for much of daily life in the Ghetto. Rumkowski performed weddings in the ghetto, and derived a system of money and postage stamps to be used. Public protests and dissent were shut down by Rumkowski and the Jewish Ghetto police. He accrued exponentially more power by transforming the Ghetto into an industrial base manufacturing war supplies for the Wehrmacht army in the belief that productivity was the key to Jewish survival beyond the Holocaust. Over one hundred factories were established in the Ghetto by Rumkowski to produce wartime goods for the Germans.
In order to save the majority of inhabitants in the Ghetto, Rumkowski rationalized, he would have to cooperate with the Nazis and give in to some of their deportatoon demands. After the establishment of the Chelmno extermination camp in late 1941, the Nazis forced Rumkowski and the Council of Elders to organize the deportation of a portion of the Ghetto population. By mid-1942, 55,000 Jews from Lodz had been sent to Chelmno.
In September 1942 the Germans demanded another mass deportation from Lodz, instructing Rumkowski to round up 20,000 children and elderly individuals for deportation to Chelmno. On German orders, Rumkowski delivered a speech on September 4, 1942, pleading with the Jews in the ghetto to give up children 10 years of age and younger, as well as the elderly over 65, so that others might survive. "Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd" could be heard, reads the transcriber's note to his parlance often referred to as: "Give Me Your Children". Some commentators see this speech as exemplifying aspects of the Holocaust.
A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They [the Germans] 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!
— Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942
Rumkowski was tasked with organizing one last round of deportations as the Nazis liquidated the Lodz Ghetto in June and July of 1944. Only 877 Jews managed to survive the Lodz Ghetto following liquidation, by hiding with Polish rescuers.
In August 1944, Rumkowski and his family joined the last transport to Auschwitz, and were murdered there on August 28, 1944, by the Jewish Sonderkommando inmates who beat him to death as revenge for his role in the Holocaust. This account of his final moments is confirmed by witness testimonies of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials.