Adam Czerniaków, chairman of the Judenrat in the Warsaw ghetto (front row, in bowler hat), at a ceremony honoring Jewish police killed in the line of duty, Poland, 1941. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Żydowski Instytut Historyczny)

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Czerniaków, Adam

(1880–1942), Jewish communal leader, president of the Warsaw Judenrat. Born in Warsaw, Adam Czerniaków received engineering degrees from polytechnic institutes in Warsaw and Dresden. In interwar Poland, he helped lead the movement to improve vocational education for Jewish artisans and defended their interests against growing antisemitism. In 1931, he was elected to the Polish senate, but a technicality prevented him from serving.

Czerniaków represented the Jewish Artisans Organization on the Warsaw City Council from 1927–1934 and was appointed vice chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Community Board by the Polish government in 1936 after it dissolved the elected board, which had been dominated by the Bund. When the board's president, Maurycy Meisel, fled Warsaw after the German invasion in September 1939, Mayor Stefan Starzyński named Czerniaków to succeed him. The Germans appointed him to lead the Warsaw Judenrat in 1939.

Czerniaków suffered repeated humiliations on the Judenrat. He dealt only with the lower rungs of the German bureaucracy, and only rarely achieved tangible concessions. He and the Judenrat served as a lightning rod that deflected Jewish anger away from the Germans. Although detractors believed that he sought the Judenrat presidency for prestige and power, he saw himself as performing a difficult but necessary duty. In the diary he kept from September 1939–July 1942, he compared himself to the captain of a sinking ship.

Adam Czerniaków, meeting with a German officer in the offices of the Judenrat in the Warsaw ghetto, 1940–1941. Photograph by Hans-Joachim Gerke. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of the photographer)

Czerniaków exerted much less active control of the ghetto administration and police than did Khayim Mordkhe Rumkowski in Łódź or Jakub Gens in Vilna. His personality was not dictatorial. Nevertheless, he believed that in wartime it was necessary to employ tough, often unsavory characters who could get results. A tax policy that hurt the poor, exemption of wealthy Jews from forced labor, appointment of converts to key positions, and rampant corruption were major sources of resentment against him. In 1942 he tried to remedy some of these abuses, but his critics remained dissatisfied.

Because the Polish-speaking Czerniaków knew little Yiddish, some have labeled him “assimilationist.” In truth, however, like many Polish-speaking Jews, Czerniaków was proud of his heritage and served his community as best he could. Nonetheless, his linguistic limitations and his middle-class mannerisms made it difficult for him to develop a rapport with the Jewish masses.

In 1942, with rumors of mass extermination spreading, Czerniaków clung to the thin hope that Warsaw Jewry might be spared. On 23 July 1942, one day after the beginning of the mass deportation of Warsaw Jewry, he committed suicide. In a letter to his wife he wrote, “They are asking me to participate in the murder of the children of my people. I have no other choice but to die.” Some activists condemned the suicide as an act of weakness, but over time most survivors saw it as a sign of Czerniaków’s integrity and moral courage.

Suggested Reading

Israel Gutman, “Adam Czerniakow: The Man and His Diary” in The Catastrophe of European Jewry, ed. Israel Gutman and Livia Rothkirchen, pp. 451–490 (Jerusalem, 1976); Raul Hilberg, Stanislaw Staron, and Josef Kermisz, eds., The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow: Prelude to Doom (New York, 1979); Leonard Tushnet, The Pavement of Hell (New York, 1972).