PAVEMENT OF HELL by Leonard Tushnet


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Can Arendt's condemnation of the Jews as accomplices in their own execution stand up when applied to the acts of individuals? After reading Tushnet's moving book -- a case study of three ghetto leaders: Modecai Chaim Rumkowski, the ""Eldest of the Jews"" of Lodz, engineer Adam Czerniakow, Chairman of the Warsaw Judenrat, and Jacob Gens (Police) Chief of the Vilna ghetto -- one treads more softly in the face of life's complexities. Rumkowski, self-made businessman who had a modicum of renown as ""Father of the Orphans"" -- his pre-war asylum was ""the best in Poland"" -- was an insecure and ambitious Court Jew who ran what was in effect a work camp on the Fuhrer principle. Seeing himself as a messiah, he insisted on strict discipline as protection against Nazi depredations, fed his workforce but methodically assigned German and provincial Polish Jews and gypsies to the transports. Czerniakow's Warsaw Judenrat was rife with corruption -- the Thirteeners, a smuggling demimonde brigade were briefly a ghetto power -- and its laissez-faire policies made life possible mainly for the rich, but Czerniakow knew about and winked at the Resistance that he did not favor. In Vilna, where the Germans were already known as beasts for ""snatching"" people off the streets and shooting them outside the city, illness, malingering or conspicuous behavior were verboten in the hope that the Jews could get through still another day. ""I am like the captain of a sinking ship who orders the band to play to calm the passengers"" Czerniakow said; at the and he shot himself rather than sign a mass deportation order. Rumkowski went with ""his Jews"" to Auschwitz (although he might have escaped), and Gens kept a meeting with his Nazi overlords knowing he would not come back alive. These men had tsedekah (""righteousness, benevolence, love of one's fellow-man"")but their efforts were in vain -- the Fascist juggernaut was heartless. Tushnet is admirably compassionate towards these very human beings who, in fear and trembling, bore a dreadful burden in history's darkest hour.

Pub Date: Dec. 9th, 1973
Publisher: St. Martin's Press