During World War II, the Warsaw Ghetto was home to victims and criminals. The Jewish collaborators who worked for the Gestapo were both.
As the German army rolled over Poland in September 1939, they drove a large number of refugees ahead of them. Educated Poles, left-wing activists, union organizers, and politically active members of the clergy all knew their names were on the Nazis’ hit list, and nobody had more to fear from the new order than Poland’s huge Jewish community.
To get these displaced people under control, and to herd them into special zones known as “Jewish Autonomous Areas,” or ghettos, the Nazi authorities reached out to some of the most reviled characters of the whole war: Jewish Nazi collaborators.
Nothing To Do But Die
These collaborators roughly divide between two groups, distinguishable by their different motives.
The first group could be called reluctant collaborators. These people, usually picked from Poland’s active Zionist community, suddenly found themselves summoned to Gestapo headquarters in Poland and ordered to take certain jobs, such as serving on the Ghetto’s “governing” body, the Judenrat. This organization, which had no real power and was merely a front for the SS, was run by a man named Adam Czerniaków.
Czerniaków was already in his late 50s when Poland fell to the Nazis, and he had a distinguished history of advocating for Jewish tradesmen and labor organizers within the Polish government. In September 1939, Czerniaków was ordered to take over the Judenrat and start managing the Warsaw Ghetto’s slim rations and inadequate housing assignments.
For two and a half years, he walked a thin line between resistance and collaboration by following German orders and softening many of the arbitrary decrees the Germans forced him to implement. When the deportations started in earnest, for example, Czerniaków arranged for the Ghetto police to carry out the arrests in an effort to keep the German soldiers from doing it far more brutally.
His luck with this balancing act ran out in June 1942, when the Germans informed him that henceforth the deportations would happen seven days a week, and that he could get the ball rolling the very next morning with a list of 6,000 women and children to be shipped out to camps.
This was a bridge too far. On June 23, 1942, Czerniaków wrote his last diary entry:
“They are demanding that I kill the children of my people with my own hands. There is nothing for me to do but to die.”
Right after closing his diary for the last time, the 62-year-old Adam Czerniaków bit down on a cyanide capsule he carried.