Czerniaków Adam (30 November 1880, Warsaw – 23 July 1942, Warsaw) – engineer, activist of Jewish artisan unions, senator of the Republic of Poland (1931–1935), councillor of the city of Warsaw, President of the Judenrat.
Adam Czerniaków was born and lived in Warsaw. He received a degree in chemical engineering from the Warsaw University of Technology and a second diploma from the Faculty of Industry of the Technical University of Dresden. He also studied at the SGH Warsaw School of Economics. He was fluent in foreign languages.
In 1909, he was imprisoned by the tsarist authorities for his pro-independence activities. He considered himself a Jewish Pole, he was deeply affected by the Polish-Jewish antagonism, but understood the difficulties in integrating the two nations living side by side. This is evidenced by some of his publications, which emphasise the role of Jews in the reconstruction of the Polish state[1.1], as well as by his speech delivered on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the Ludwik Natanson School of Crafts. Dedicated to the patron of the school, the speech supported Natanson’s worldview:
“Whoever thinks that the problem of dual nationalism is an easy one to digest, that it is easy to assimilate the elements of both nations and merge them into one by fusing their values, is wrong... (...) He loved Poland with all the fibres of his soul, like all Polish Jews do; their love is not conformist in nature. However, he did not disgrace himself by escaping from the people who raised him.”[1.2]
Czerniaków was the co-founder of the Central Union of Jewish Craftsmen of the Republic of Poland, as well as a senator representing the Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government in the years 1931–1935. For many years, he served as a counsellor to the Jewish Community in Warsaw. He contributed to the expansion of the Mathias Bersohn Museum, and later became its honorary curator. He wrote many scientific works, including the article Silniki wybuchowe (“Explosive Engines”), which received an award in in 1919, and Zniszczenia wojenne w Polsce (“War Damages in Poland”), as well as works on the sugar industry, bakery, and many others matters in the field of industrial and retail chemistry. In 1939, he was appointed acting president of the Jewish Religious Community in Warsaw.
During the German occupation, he became the chairman of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) in the Warsaw Ghetto. He lived in the house at 20 Chłodna Street; the driving lane of the street was excluded from the area of the ghetto in the fall of 1941 and separated from the houses on the northern and southern side of the street by a three metre high wall. Czerniaków co-organised civil resistance and social aid in the ghetto, helped create a covert archive, maintained contacts with the underground, but opposed plans for armed resistance. He refused to sign the announcement on the forced “resettlement” of Jews, which de facto meant their deportation to extermination camps. The day after the beginning of the deportations to Treblinka, he committed suicide in the seat of the Jewish Community at 26/28 Grzybowska Street. He decided to end his life in the period of great military successes of the Third Reich, which seemed to seal their victory in the war and, consequently, result in mass murder of the defeated. Mary Berg wrote the following about his suicide:
“On 24 July 1942, President of the Community Adam Czerniaków committed suicide. He did it last night, on 23 July. He could not bear his terrible burden. According to the rumours that have reached us here, he decided to take this tragic step when the Germans demanded that the contingents of deportees be increased. He saw no way out other than saying goodbye to this horrible world. His closest collaborators who saw him shortly before his death say that he displayed great courage and energy until the last moments of his life.”[1.3].
Czerniaków’s suicide raised a lot of controversy among the inhabitants of the ghetto. His colleagues considered it as a sign of personal courage, while the activists of the underground – a sign of weakness. He was also denounced for refusing to call for armed resistance against the Germans.
He described his experiences and life in the Warsaw Ghetto in his journal, which was first printed in Polish (the original language) in Biuletyn Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego (“Bulletin of the Jewish Historical Institute,” no. 3–4 [83-84] July–December 1972), and then in 1983 in the form of a book. Dziennik Czerniakowa (“Czerniaków’s Journal”) is a valuable document describing the events of the war and the ghetto. It covers the period from 6 September 1939 to 23 July 1942. The author described only those issues that concerned his functions and related matters, leaving out many other important events. The document is, therefore, rather personal in nature.
After Czerniaków’s suicide, Emanuel Ringelblum – a historian and founder of the underground archive – said he regretted not having had access to the document, in spite of the fact – or perhaps precisely due to the fact – that he, as most inhabitants of the ghetto, criticised Czerniaków’s attitude towards the Germans. It is interesting to note that Czerniaków knew about the activities carried out by Ringelblum under the code name “Oneg Shabbat.” It is believed he appreciated the initiative, but in his journal consisting of over 1,000 pages, he does not even once mention the name Ringelblum.
Czerniaków’s writings disappeared for a number of years, many believed they had been lost forever. However, they were preserved by Czerniaków’s wife, Dr. Felicja Czerniaków, who left the ghetto with the help of friends after her husband’s death. For ten months, she remained in hiding in the house of Dr. Grabowska and later of Prof. Apolinary Rudnicki, Director of the 1st Secondary School of the Teachers’ Union of Polish Secondary Schools. In 1964, Czerniaków’s notes re-emerged in Canada under mysterious circumstances and were purchased by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem.
Czerniaków was the prototype for Engineer Lewin, one of the protagonists of the play Smocza 13 by Stefania Zahorska, which deals with the issue of personal decisions made by Jews in relation to the “final solution of the Jewish question” – rebellion or resignation.
- Cała A., “Czerniaków Adam,” [in] Historia i kultura Żydów polskich. Słownik, A. Cała, H. Węgrzynek, G. Zalewska, Warsaw 2000, p. 63.
- Adama Czerniakowa dziennik getta warszawskiego 6 IX 1939–23 VII 1942, editing and footnotes by M. Fuks, Warsaw 1983.
- Fuks, “Czerniaków Adam,” [in] Żydzi w Polsce. Leksykon, eds. J. Tomaszewski, A. Żbikowski, Warsaw 2001, pp. 75–76.
- Szapiro P., “Czerniaków (Czerniakow)(Abraham),” [in] Polski słownik judaistyczny, eds. Z. Borzymińska, R. Żebrowski, vol. 1, Warsaw 2003, pp. 307–308.
- Urynowicz M., Adam Czerniaków 1880–1942. Prezes getta warszawskiego, Warsaw 2009.