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The Department of History, University of Northampton & The Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team





"Thinking the Unthinkable"

 Criminology and the Holocaust

by Paula Bowles

 -Part 2-


As the Holocaust took place over sixty years ago, it seemed obvious that it would be necessary to undertake a library based dissertation. Although I accepted that this was the most pragmatic and possibly ethical approach, I also wanted to undertake some form of fieldwork. It is for this reason that I took the opportunity of visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, Krakow, and Berlin to try and gain some insight and inspiration. For the same reason, I also visited various museums, and spent many hours viewing both documentaries and films which relate to the period.

Underpinning my research, are seven primary documents (see appendices 3 and 4). Taking the analysis of these as my starting point, I strived to identify and isolate just three themes. I then attempted to triangulate my data (Gidley, 2004 p. 253) using secondary resources, in order to understand the contexts in which my selected case studies existed. This secondary data is made up from testimony of the time, plus more recent research and discussion by academics.

Case Study 1 – Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski (1877-1944)

Primo Levi (1988 pp. 43-51) uses the life of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, which he describes as both ‘…fascinating and sinister’ (ibid. p. 43), to illustrate his concept of The Grey Zone (ibid. pp. 22-51). It is suggested that this case clearly demonstrates many of the issues which pertain to the nature of victim co-operation and collaboration (Hochstadt, 2004 pp. 184-185). Yad Vashem (2004a) also point out that Rumkowski is viewed as a highly controversial figure. It is for these reasons that Rumkowski has been selected, as the focus of the first case study.

Much has been written about Rumkowski. His speeches have also been transcribed, summarised or abridged, plus there remains The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto 1941-1944 (Dobroszycki, 1984), suggesting that it may be possible to build up some kind of picture of the man himself. Rumkowski has been described variously as the ‘king of the Jews’ (Levi, 1998 p. 48), ‘Chaim I’ (Arendt, 1963 p. 119) ‘our father’ (Rumkowski, 1941 p. 137) and portrayed as a man ‘…who played God’ (Weingarten, 1989 p. 492). Dobroszycki (1984 p. xxvii) states that ‘…Rumkowski is severely criticized, frankly hated, or simply ridiculed’. Others describe him as a ‘dedicated autocrat’ (Hilberg, 1992 p. 109) or as a man with a ‘dictatorial predisposition’ (Browning, 2005 p. 153). Rumkowski’s official title was that of ‘Alteste der Juden (Elder of the Jews) of the Lodz Altestenrat (Council of Elders)’ (Museum of Tolerance, 1997).

This case study will attempt to explore a limited amount of testimony from the Łódź ghetto. Because of its nature, no attempt will be made to summarise or reword, instead it will appear directly as it was written at the time. It is planned to look at three of Rumkowski’s speeches spanning the period 3rd January to the 4th September, 1942 (See appendix 3).

From these speeches, it is possible to begin to build a picture of Rumkowski. His speeches are full of powerful rhetoric, with his own importance placed firmly in the forefront (Hilberg, 1992 p. 109). It could be argued that they are of a similar oratorical style to those by Hitler or Mussolini (Levi, 1986 p. 46). In each of the examples provided, plus very many others, Rumkowski comes across as a man of infallible authority (Dobroszycki, 1984 p. xxvii), ‘…a man not afraid of being contradicted or derided…’ (Levi, 1986 p. 46), a man who ‘…rarely doubted he was in the right’ (Dobroszycki, 1984 p. I).

After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Nazis quickly established a ghetto in Łódź, (Litzmannstadt Ghetto), which was sealed on the 30th April, 1940 (Hilberg, 1992 p. 140). It is suggested by Gilbert (1986 p. 89) that Nazi policy insisted on the separation of Jews from the rest of the population. They were to be concentrated within ghettoes, in cities, near to railway junctions, in order to facilitate their later removal (ibid. p. 89). These ghettoes were then systematically isolated from the surrounding areas. Hilberg (1992 p. 57) suggests the main reason for this was ‘…the screening of the victims from the eyes of sensitive witnesses’. It is important to note that ‘…the ghetto of Litzmannstadt was planned not as a Jewish ghetto, but as a ghetto for Jews’ (Dobroszycki 1984 p. 364). Although this perhaps appears arcane, there is a difference. The Jews did not decide to move to the ghetto, instead they had been forcibly “herded” into a situation, over which they had no power and very limited choice.

Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi architect of these ideas, also insisted on the setting up of Judenraete (Jewish Councils), to enable the registration of Jews (Bartov, 2004), allowing the Nazis to maintain control of the ghettos inhabitants (Hilberg, 1992 p.89). Rumkowski became Alteste der Juden on 13th October, 1940 (Yad Vashem, 2004a). As head of the Łódź Ghetto he was responsible, with his council members for primarily passing on Nazi orders and decrees, and secondarily to deal with the day to day running of the ghetto community (ibid. p. 105). Bauman (2003/4 p. 13) contends that ‘with the sealing of the Ghetto, the Judenrat obtained extensive power and sole authority over the Jewish community’.

At the beginning it would appear that the Jewish population did not object to ghettoisation per se, their debates were focused in the main on both the situation of the ghetto and the deadline for resettlement (Trunk, 1972 p. 304). It has been suggested that many Jews felt they would be safer within the confines of the ghetto, than within the mainstream community (ibid. p. 304). It should also be recognised that within these confines Rumkowski made great efforts to make life more bearable with the provision of ‘…a variety of social, economic and cultural services…’ (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.[b])

It must be recognised that the Judenraete were subject to unique pressures (Housden 1997 p. 132) and ‘…impossible moral dilemmas’ (US Holocaust Memorial Museum (n.d. [b]). There was recognition that the ghetto was collectively responsible for the actions of its inhabitants, and would be punished accordingly by the Nazis (Housden, 1997 p. 132). This obviously had an impact on those who lived within the ghetto. Wagner and Stråth (2003/4 p. 8) support this when they posit that, Rumkowski’s decision to work and live according to the Nazi rules was based on a calculation that ‘…open resistance and defiance were either impossible or futile, and would bring retaliatory action that would bring large loss of life…’

Hilberg (1980 p. 107) also points out that ‘at the start, the Polish Jews viewed ghettoization as the culmination of German plans’. Zelkowicz (1942 p. 298) relates that ‘Jewish life has always been based on a capacity for adjusting to the worst conditions…’

Rumkowski is believed to have been murdered by the Nazis, at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 (Levi, 1988 p. 48, Hilberg 1992 p. 117).

Case Study 2 - Kurt Gerstein (1905-1945)

For this second case study, it is necessary to look at a “perpetrator”, Obersturmführer Kurt Gerstein, ‘…chief of the Waffen SS Technical Disinfection Services’ (Gilbert, 1986 p. 426). Once again only a limited amount of testimony has been selected, this time a deposition made by Gerstein (1945 a, b, c, d) to the Allies (See appendix 4). I have been unable to locate this document in its final form, so through necessity have had to piece it together from four different sources (ibid.).

Hébert (2006 p. 3) describes Gerstein as ‘…characterized alternately as enigma, hero, resister, failure, messenger and martyr’. The Times (1964 p. 11) suggest that he is ‘…widely acclaimed as “God’s spy”…’ Again it would seem that Gerstein fits only too well into Levi’s Grey Zone (1988 pp. 22-51).

Hilberg (1992 p. 219) points out that from a very early age Gerstein was unconventional, describing him as ‘…a prankster, maverick and rebel’. Sereny (1974 p. 112) describes Gerstein as an individual with an ‘…ambiguous but undoubtedly tortured personality…’ There are many signs suggesting that Gerstein was a man who stood up for his beliefs. As a member of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church (Berkennende Kirche), he had intermittently locked horns with the Nazi Party, leading to his assault, arrest, imprisonment and eventual expulsion from the party in 1936 (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d [c], The Times, 1964 p. 11, Hochstadt, 2004 p. 226).

Whatever the reasoning behind Gerstein’s decision to join the SS, it would seem that between 1941 and 1943 he made his way through the ranks (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d. [c]), eventually being appointed to the position of ‘…head of the Disinfection Services in the Waffen-SS’ (Dwork and van Pelt, 2002 p. 289).

In his role, Gerstein was responsible for providing the various camps with the chemicals necessary for disinfection (Hilberg, 1992 p. 220). As part of the disinfection, Gerstein used Zyklon B (hydrocyanic acid), amongst other poisonous gases (Hébert, 2006 p. 9). Because of his acknowledged expertise he was sent to Bełżec, on the understanding that he would be able to offer viable alternatives to murder by carbon monoxide poisoning (Dwork and van Pelt, 2002 p. 289, Hilberg, 1992 p. 220). In Gerstein’s own notes (1946b) he states that upon arrival at Lublin he was advised that his secondary task was …to convert the gas-chambers, which have up to now been operated with exhaust gases from an old Diesel engine, to a more poisonous and quicker means.

Gerstein visited both Bełżec and Treblinka (Hilberg, 1992 p.220), two Action Reinhard camps which were designed purely for murder; victims arrived and were soon after put to their deaths (Niewyk, 2004 p. 129). Evans (1996 p. 732) points out the creation of these camps was designed to facilitate and systemise mass murder. Whilst at Belzec, Gerstein observed the mass murder of a transportation of Jews by carbon monoxide which he later recorded (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d. [c]).

Various versions of Gerstein’s account of his visit have been published (1946a, b, c, d) some slightly longer, others more detailed and with some of the individual words changed (see Appendix 4). This may in part be due to the nature of translating (Mendel, 1998 p. 12). It is therefore necessary to refer to all four documents in order to ensure the construction of the most complete picture possible. It is posited that Gerstein’s testimony of what he saw at Belzec is arguably one of the horrific and vivid, as well as important accounts produced during that period (Sereny, 1974 p. 112, Hébert, 2006 p.2, Arad, 1987 p. 102).

Within his accounts Gerstein (1945d) describes the whole process, from prior to the arrival of the train at Belzec to the burial of those gassed. This emotion laden document makes for difficult reading and is shocking in its content. It is important to note that this report was not written straight away but in 1945, after the end of WWII, so it is Gerstein’s recollection approximately 3 years later.

After this experience, it would seem Gerstein was left badly shaken and in dire need of somebody with whom he could confide (Hilberg, 1992 p. 220). This opportunity came quickly when he met Baron van Otter, Secretary of the Swedish Embassy (Gerstein, 1945a p. 225, Hilberg, 1992 p. 220). Gerstein (cited in Hilberg, 1992 p. 220) started the conversation with the understatement: ‘yesterday I saw something horrible’. He then proceeded to recount his experience:

…with the request to report this immediately to his government and the Allies, since every day’s delay could cost further thousands and ten thousands their lives… (Gerstein, 1945a p. 226).

Gerstein also attempted to contact other individuals and groups including the ‘Papal Nuncio’ in Berlin (Gerstein, 1945a p. 226), but was cut short when he was recognised as a serving SS Officer (ibid. p. 226). A further approach to the Dutch underground movement was met with incredulity and disbelief (Hilberg, 1992 p. 221, Dawidowicz, 1986 p. 420).

Gerstein is believed to have committed suicide by hanging, whilst in the custody of the Allies, 1945 (Hébert, 2006 pp. 11-12).


“Do you think I have dirty hands? I do. Like anybody who has to make choices”

Words spoken by Dov, Leader of the Partisans in the novel: If Not Now, When? (Levi, 1982 p. 76).

After looking in detail at the two case studies selected, it is suggested that some exploratory themes have emerged. I have selected just three: naïve utility, social engineering and sacrifice, I do however, accept that there are others. Although Rumkowski and Gerstein could be considered poles apart, it is suggested that both fit firmly within Levi’s Grey Zone (1988 pp. 22-51). Morrison (2004 p. 345) insists that it is imperative for Criminology to ask ‘If I was in that position can I really be sure I would not have participated?’ I would argue that this question is extremely difficult to even begin to answer; however, we can perhaps gain some modicum of insight through these two case studies.

Naïve Utility

Within both case studies there can be seen an innate acceptance of the legitimacy of Nazism. Each of the individuals struggled to maintain the status quo, within the new regime.


Right from the outset Rumkowski insisted that in order for the ghetto to survive it must serve a purpose (Gilbert, 1986 p. 370, Browning, 2004 p. 116-120), and this is a continual theme throughout his leadership. Rumkowski’s reasoning appears to have been that whilst the inhabitants could work, they could continue to live (Browning, 1992b p. 35). Again and again he stresses how necessary the Jews are to the Nazis:

Such a number of workers has to be treated seriously by everyone, including, first and foremost, those who make policy’ (Rumkowski, 1942 p 111).

This has been described as ‘…a policy of “rescue through labor” (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d. [b]), or as ‘a policy of amelioration through compliance’ (Museum of Tolerance 1997). Rumkowski does not appear to have appreciated how drastically the world had changed for the Jewish population. Instead he concentrates on the rational idea that if you work hard, you cannot fail to prosper (Hilberg, 1980 p. 109). Unfortunately the skills of Jewish artisans and workers were of little or no importance to the Nazi regime (Levi, 2005 pp. 8-9).

Bauman (2003/4 p. 12), Browning (1992b pp. 116-120) and Rees (2005 p. 84), record the disinclination of the Nazis to concern themselves with the Judenraete, other than as an organisation to pass on their orders, and as a stepping stone towards the total cleansing of Jews from Łódź. Hilberg (1980 p. 110) goes further and suggests that the fundamental purpose of the ghettos was one of ‘…organized self-destruction’.

It is recognised by Bauman (2003/4 p. 12) that the Nazis were more than happy for the Jews to organise themselves in such a way as to expedite their own destruction. On a day to day basis this required the Jews to organise: ‘…the ghetto’s administrative, peace-keeping, economic, and social affairs…’ (Dobroszycki, 1984 p. xiviii). It is suggested that Rumkowski received considerable autonomy to run the ghetto as he saw fit (Holocaust Education & Archive Research Team, 2007). Within this framework he was also ‘…granted the right to impose forced labor’ (Browning 1992b p. 117).


This naïve utility can also be seen within Gerstein’s words and actions (1942 a, b, c, d). Arguably one of the most problematic details of Gerstein’s life is his successful attempt to rejoin the Nazi Party and enlist within the SS (Hébert, 2006 pp. 5-6). Gerstein (1945c) states that he ‘…had but one desire – to gain an insight into this whole machinery and then to shout it to the whole world’. He also points to the ‘…massacre of the insane people at Grafeneck, Hadamar, etc…’ as having a profound effect on his actions (ibid.).

Both Hébert (2006 p. 8) and Hilberg (1992 p. 219) point to Gerstein’s claim that his own sister-in-law was subject to the euthanasia programme, whilst a patient at the Hadamar Mental Institute. However, this claim appears unsubstantiated and evidence has been produced to show that Gerstein applied to join the SS in 1941, prior to this murder (Hébert, 2006 p. 8, US Holocaust Memorial Museum n.d. [c]).

Hébert (2006 pp. 6-7) suggests that Gerstein’s own experience of being imprisoned within Welzheim concentration camp had opened his eyes to the reality of the Nazi Regime. Hilberg (1992 p.219) suggests that family and paternal pressures led to his application. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum (n.d. [c]) attribute a less than altruistic primary motive; that of obtaining favour in order to improve his prospects within the Nazi regime.

Moral Engineering
Bar-on (2001 p. 138) suggests that ‘…most of the people accepted the atrocious procedures most of the time…’ However, it can be argued that both Gerstein and Rumkowski went much further than these. Both the language and actions used by Rumkowski and Gerstein are reminiscent of those used by the Nazis. We can see within this section, that rather than just co-operating on the surface, both of the individuals attempted to ingratiate themselves with the authorities as well as stamping their own self-importance on the situation.


Throughout his speeches Rumkowski continually attempts to reassure the inhabitants of the ghetto, that provided they support him they will be safe. For example ‘nothing bad will happen to people of good will’ (Rumkowski, 1942a p. 113) and ‘bear in mind that at the center of all my projects is the aspiration that honest people may sleep in peace’ (ibid. p. 113).

Unfortunately, implicit within his friendly words are threats, such as ‘remember that when a new contingent of deportees is demanded, I will include all the parasites on the list’ (Rumkowski, 1942a p. 114). This seem to suggest that if individuals failed to live as Rumkowski demanded, he could and would use his subjective judgement to have them removed. It is also noted that the Jewish ghetto police were permitted to shoot any Jew attempting to leave the confines of the ghetto (Holocaust Educational and Archive Research Team, 2007). Again and again we see threats, actions and language used, which would appear to be an echo or imitation of Nazi terminology, policy and ideology (Levi, 1988 pp. 46-47).

For example:

…common sense dictates that the saved must be those who can be saved and those who have a chance of being rescued, not those who cannot be saved in any case (Rumkowski, 1942c p. 329).

Arguably at times these threats become extremely explicit:

I assigned for deportation that element of our ghetto which was a festering boil. And so the list of exiles includes members of the underworld and other individuals harmful to the ghetto. (Rumkowski, 1942b p. 183).

It could be argued that despite a rejection of Nazism, there was almost an attempt to recreate or play by their rules (Yahil, 2000 p. 47).

Zelkowicz (1942 p. 303) suggests that ‘…no person with a conscience would undertake to issue death sentences’. Yet that appears to be what Rumkowski is saying in his speech of the 4th September, 1942 (1942c pp. 328-331), he constantly refers to victims. He declares that ‘…one has to choose: sacrifice the sick, who haven’t the slightest chance of recovery and who also may make others ill, or rescue the healthy’ (ibid. p.329).

Perhaps the most damning evidence against Rumkowski in this same speech, is where he calls for parents to give up their children (Hilberg, 1992 p. 147). At this juncture he takes a vastly different path to many of the other Judenraete leaders, who rather than maintain their position in the face of this directive, chose either to refuse or attempt to subvert the order, or in the case of Adam Czerniakow (of the Warsaw Ghetto) commit suicide rather than comply (ibid. p.147).

Much of the criticism directed at Rumkowski appears to revolve around his perceived nepotism. Krakowski (2004) points to food allocation within the ghetto as a highly contentious issue, suggesting that ‘…there were “Prominents” (favored people) who received a little bit more’. Halter (2003 p. 151) goes further when he states:

The Lodz ghetto was an unjust and unequal society. Those who ran it under Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, along with their friends, relations and acquaintances, managed to eat adequately; the rest starved.

Other allegations against Rumkowski include those of violence and sexual abuse (Rees, 2005 pp. 104-105). Levi (2005 p. 165) states that ‘…this man compromised himself in every possible way in order to hang onto the miserable power his German appointment had conferred upon him’.


Throughout his report Gerstein (1945a, b, c, d) appears almost arrogant, again and again he reports what he saw, what he felt and what he thought. This apparent sense of superiority is shown by the following statement:

To this day, I believe that it was luck, strangely resembling Providence, that gave me the opportunity to see what I was trying to find out (Gerstein, 1945d p. 105).

This is also reflected when he asserts ‘I must still make known what I experience here!’ (Gerstein, 1945a), appearing to stress his own self-importance. At times he appears almost obscure with his attempts to spread the news of the dreadful scenes he had witnessed:

From my deliberately bizarre technical questions, the people at the Kolin prussic acid plant could understand that the acid was going to be used to kill human beings. I did this in order to spread rumours among the population (Gerstein, 1945d p. 105).

This does not seem to fit in with the man who declared that his main purpose in joining the SS was to uncover the Nazis secret and then ‘…to shout it to the whole world’ (Gerstein, 1945c).

His own friend, Pastor Kurt Rehling (cited in Hayes, 2004 p. vii), dismissed this idea of working within the SS when he told Gerstein:
You say that [it is better to work from within the Party] because you reckon that you can still have a say in things. With a “Führerprinzip” orders come from above and then it is only: Obey! He who enters this tumbling avalanche only increases the plunging mass.

However, this did not dissuade Gerstein from his plan of action; instead it would seem that his fervent belief was one in which, he (and perhaps only he) could act as an agent of regime change (Gilbert, 2002 p. 263). Despite this Hébert (2006 p. 23) insists that Gerstein must have increasingly become aware of the futility of his actions. Regardless of this, even after the end of the war, he claimed that he had done everything possible to disrupt the supply of Zyklon B to the camps (Housden, 1997 p. 171).

At times in his report Gerstein’s tone is full of self pity:

Many people pray. I pray with them. I press myself into a corner and cry loudly to my and their God. How much I would like to go with them into the chamber, how I would like to die with them (Gerstein, 1945a pp. 224-225).

Again he appears more concerned with his own emotions and despair, rather than those whose demise he is viewing. Despite the horrific nature of his report, Gerstein (1945a, b, c, d) appears to focus more on his shock at being surrounded by naked people, than on their murder. Time and again he refers to their nudity. Although one can appreciate that it is unusual to see so many individuals undressed, this surely pales into insignificance when talking about mass extermination.

We will never really know why Kurt Gerstein behaved as he did. We can argue about the rights and wrongs of his SS membership, but the fact remains he did attempt (on more than one occasion) to disseminate what he had seen. Unfortunately his claims appear to have elicited very little reaction from the international community.

There are also two major problems with condoning Gerstein’s SS career. Firstly it has been suggested that as late as 1944 Gerstein continued to supply Auschwitz-Birkenau with Zyklon B (Hilberg, 1988 p. 24, Gilbert, 2002 p. 263). Although not the only or even largest of the suppliers, evidence would suggest that he was responsible for large quantities of Zyklon B (Hébert, 2006 p. 30). Despite his protestations that none of his supplies were used in anything other than disinfection, he could not be sure; after all he was not there (Hébert, 2006 p. 16). We also need to consider how likely it is that any individual or company could continue to supply faulty goods, without any repercussions, even within the “Fog of War”.

It could be argued that although Gerstein may have attempted to get the news from Bełżec out to the German population, he may like many others, have also benefited from his membership within the SS (Bloxham and Kushner, 2004 p. 117). Gerstein’s posthumous denazification tribunal were not convinced, insisting instead that he must have proven his loyalty to the Nazi regime in order to be accepted (Hébert, 2006 p. 17). Levi (2005 p. 39) is even harsher by suggesting that anyone who applied for entry into the SS was automatically complicit within the regime.


Rumkowski was continually being backed into a corner, which in turn proved to the ghetto population that he had no real say in the situation. Despite this Rumkowski continued to stress his own power:
I must tell you a secret: they requested 24,000 victims, 3000 a day for eight days. I succeeded in reducing the number to 20,000, but only on the condition that these would be children below the age of ten. (Rumkowski, 1942c).

Gerstein can also be seen desperately trying to prove his worth to the Allies. Throughout his reports there appears to be an attempt by Gerstein, firstly to prove his importance within the Nazi regime and secondly to prove his innocence to the Allies. Particular importance appears to be placed on the various titles of those he met during his visit to Bełżec (Gerstein, 1945 a, b, c, d), as if to impress on the Allies, just how important he was. He also goes to great pains to stress the validity and honesty of his information:

All of my information is literally true. I am fully aware of the extraordinary importance of these notes before God and all of humanity, and swear on oath that nothing of what I have recorded was invented or made up, but that everything was exactly so… (Gerstein, 1945a p. 226).

Ultimately we see both Rumkowski and Gerstein being sacrificed to the Nazi ideal. Both individuals’ deaths are surrounded (as in their lives) by ambiguity (Levi, 1988 p. 47, US Holocaust Memorial Museum n.d.[c]), Rumkowski is believed to have been murdered at Auschwitz in 1944 (Levi, 1988 pp. 47-48). It would appear to be widely accepted that Gerstein committed suicide in July, 1945 (US Holocaust Memorial Museum. n.d.[c]). This poses one of the most difficult questions. If Gerstein was so adamant that he had to tell the world what he had seen, why would he not want to assist the Allies in bringing the perpetrators to justice?

Some Concluding Thoughts

The danger of viewing the “choices” made by Gerstein and Rumkowski is that we are blessed with hindsight. It is suggested that throughout, both individuals were struck with a ‘wilful blindness’ (Levi, 2005 pp. 66-67) which distorted their ability to understand and react to the situations they were in. We must always bear in mind that these decisions were not made in a vacuum (Bloxham and Kushner, 2005 p. 61), and it is imperative when we look at an individual’s actions, that we also focus on ‘…their institutional contexts’ (Goldhagen, 1996 p. 470). It is posited by Levi (1988 p. 28) and Bovenkerk (2000 p. 251), that it is within the structures of Nazism that we will find the greatest burden of responsibility. In the cases of Rumkowski and Gerstein, this would require looking in some detail at the ghetto and SS respectively.

This view is supported by a survivor, Roman Halter (2005a, p. 333).

It is important not to accuse Rumkowski and others who were running the ghetto, but to see it now as a totality of what was imposed by Hitler and Himmler down to other SS.

Steiner (2000 pp. 67-68) recognises that although the Jewish populations’ discretion margin was massively reduced, he suggests that even in the most extreme cases there were still choices, albeit very limited. ‘At a certain point you have to say “No I will not do this, I will not say this” (Halter, 2005b p. 125). It appears that Rumkowski did not appear to have reached this point. Baumann (1989 p. 95) maintains that …with criminals in control, civilised rules of behaviour may be suspended, and thus the eternal beast always hiding just beneath the skin of the socially drilled being may break free.

This assertion is also supported by Sereny (1974 p. 367) who insists that morality is based on the ability of individuals to make ‘…the fundamental choice between right and wrong…’

As early as 1905, Bonger (cited in van Swaaningen, 1997 p. 53) contended that ‘power is the necessary condition for those who wish to class a certain act a crime’. It can perhaps be seen that the power invested in the occupiers also filtered down through to the SS and Gerstein, finally onto the ghetto and eventually Rumkowski.

It has been claimed that there is no evidence to suggest individuals were punished for refusing to obey orders to kill unarmed civilians (Browning, 1992a p. 170, Bar-on, 2002 p. 138). It is plausible that Gerstein perhaps could have asked to be removed from his post. His failure to do this helped various postwar courts to decide that ‘…Gerstein crossed the line from a potentially justifiable compromise with the Nazi regime to criminality and moreover, to a betrayal of his conscience’ (Hébert, 2006 p. 21).

Despite this supposed lack of reprisal for leaving ones’ post, it is not particularly difficult to understand from a criminological perspective, that fear of repercussion may not in fact be linked to reality. This has been seen most obviously in relation to the fear of crime (McLaughlin, 2001 pp. 118-119). It has been recognised that that any German who attempted to pass on messages to others regarding the “Final Solution” was in a very dangerous position (Hilberg, 1992 p. 218). For an individual such as Gerstein, this danger was further compounded by his active membership of the SS (ibid. p. 218). Overall it would seem that despite his labelling as a Nazi and a collaborator, this hides a much darker picture. Hochstadt (2004 p. 226) believes that at most Gerstein could perhaps ‘…be labelled as an “unwilling executioner”…’

At the end of the day Rumkowski and the Judenraete did assist the Nazis, though much of this was done with the intention of improving the lives of the ghetto inhabitants (Hilberg, 1992 p. 114). Diner (2000 p. 123) suggests that the idea of salvation through work, is not without foundation. If the ghetto could manage to exist until liberation, there was a very real chance that many would survive. This is supported by the fact that Łódź ghetto was not only one of the largest, but also one of the last to be liquidated (Diner, 2000 p. 125, Smith 2005 p. 105). It is also suggested that whatever decisions Rumkowski took; he could not change the inevitable outcome, planned by the Nazis (Baumann, 1995 p. 203). The best he could hope for, was a stay of execution.

Final Reflections

Although I fully appreciate that this study is very small in both scale and scope, I would hope that it has shown some appreciation of the issues involved within Criminology and the Holocaust. At the very least it should have highlighted some of the problems inherent when we attempt to define good and evil, perpetrator and victim.

I have suggested that by simply using the accepted labels of good and evil, it misrepresents and disguises the Grey Zone (Levi, 1988 pp. 22-51). By their very nature the implication is that these are the only two options available (Bilsky, 2000 p. 4). This masks the reality of the situation, and also simplifies the Holocaust and enables judgements which are not necessarily grounded in veracity. We are all reliant to some degree on labeling to provide us with a schema of understanding the world we live in. Unfortunately, within the Grey Zone (Levi, 1988 pp. 22-51) this simplified comprehension does not help. Instead such labelling constrains and distorts any real understanding of the individuals and issues at hand.

In conclusion, labels only serve to constrain, frustrate and ultimately distort our ability to view the entire picture. I would suggest that the only certainty is that Criminology must take its place next to other disciplines, and engage with the Holocaust.

I don’t understand and I can’t bear how a man can be judged not for what he is but because of the group to which he happens to belong. (Primo Levi, 2005 p. 12).






Copyright: 2007 Paula Bowles & H.E.A.R.T


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