The world premiere of The White Factory is currently playing at the Marylebone Theatre in London. A collaborative effort between exiled Russian writer Dmitry Glukhovsky and director Maxim Didenko, it’s a heart-wrenching play about facing up to the past. Spanning several decades, it follows Yosef Kaufman from the Lodz ghetto in Poland to 1960s Brooklyn and is inspired by real life events.
The character Chaim Rumkowski was the real Elder of the Jews in Lodz, tasked with running the Nazi-installed Jewish Council. Let’s find out more about the man behind the character in this epic piece of war theatre.
Born to Jewish parents in the Russian Empire, Rumkowski moved to Poland as a teen and became a Polish citizen in 1918. Before the German invasion, he worked as an insurance agent in Lodz and headed a Jewish orphanage. When the city was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1939, he was appointed Chief Elder of the Jews and head of the Council of Elders, reporting directly to the Nazi ghetto administration. His plan was to industrialise the Lodz ghetto to make it indispensable to the Germans, thereby saving the inhabitants.
Power soon went to Rumkowski’s head, and he was soon helping Jewish police to violently break up protests and demonstrations. On occasion he even requested Nazi intervention, which often resulted in the deaths of protesters. By 1942, he was actively cooperating with German demands, ostensibly to save the majority of ghetto inmates. However, historians and survivors have questioned this, arguing that he in fact identified closely with his Nazi masters.
“Give me your children”
Rumkowski is best known for a speech he delivered on 4 September 1942 upon the orders of the Nazis. He asked the inmates to give up children under 10 years of age, disabled residents, and anyone aged over 65. Historian Richard Rubinstein writes in an essay on Rumkowski’s culpability that this speech “exemplifies Rumkowski’s mindset and modus operandi”, arguing that he had no concern for the individual. He posits that the Jewish leader “was the Fuhrer of his tiny kingdom for much of his reign, a role he appears at times to have savored.”
Chaim Rumkowski’s power wasn’t to last or, indeed, to save him. In August 1944 the Germans decided to liquidate the ghetto, and he and his family were sent to Auschwitz. Although accounts disagree over the nature of his final moments, it’s thought he was murdered by the Jewish Sonderkommando - a group of inmates forced to help with the disposal of gas chamber victims. According to one source, he was beaten to death at the gate of Crematorium No.2 for the crimes he committed in the Lodz ghetto.
The White Factory is playing until Saturday 4 November 2023. If you’re in London, search ‘theatres near me’ to find the Marylebone Theatre’s location, and get your tickets for the production at KX Tickets. We have a range of tickets available for some of the best shows in the city, so discover what’s on today.