Flypaper Factory, The

Andrzej Bart
Flypaper Factory, The
  • W.A.B.
    Warszawa 2008
    123 x 195
    248 pages
    hardcover
    ISBN 978-83-7414-513-8
    Translation rights: W.A.B.

In September 1939 the Germans appointed Chaim Rumkowski President of the Łódź Judenrat. Rumkowski was a Jewish entrepreneur and an excellent administrator, who rapidly changed the poor, overpopulated Łódź ghetto into a perfectly, if inhumanly organised production zone. The President fought for the survival of the majority, so he always chose the “lesser evil”: when the Germans demanded an increase in production, he increased it; when they demanded that the sick be given up for transportation, he gave them up; when they demanded that he hand over children under the age of ten, he handed them over. He reckoned the Jews’ economic usefulness was their only bargaining chip, stronger than the Germans’ anti-Semitism and their plans for the Holocaust plans.
So the Łódź ghetto continued to exist when all the other Jewish districts in Poland had long since been annihilated. About ten thousand Jews were saved from it, more than from any other part of Poland. So Rumkowski achieved a lot, though we should never forget at what cost. He forced everyone to do inhuman labour; he was incapable of bridling his own arrogance or resisting the temptation of wealth, and so by exploiting his position he was disloyal to his own people, who were starving to death.
Andrzej Bart’s novel is a subtly constructed account of Chaim Rumkowski’s trial. All the participants – the judge, the prosecutor, the defence lawyer and the jury – are Jews. By sentence of the court Rumkowski is condemned to “be eternally remembered just as he was” – a puffed-up fool whose vanity made him believe in his own unique qualities and in his mission to save the Jews.
Of course, this trial never actually took place. But Bart has come to the conclusion that everyone who came into contact with Rumkowski, all those who lived in the Łódź ghetto and were sent to Treblinka, have a right to express their view of the President of the Judenrat. As a result, this grotesque trial provides an opportunity to confront memory and to expose the moral ambivalence of the Holocaust era. What counted as betrayal for some of Rumkowski’s co-workers proved to be some people’s salvation.

Przemysław Czapliński

“Today I’m going to talk about some sad things. So I hope the new ghetto population will take my words to heart. If the new arrivals refuse or are unable to adapt to the demands of life in the ghetto, I will be forced to find ways to make them conform to our conditions. I cannot allow the achievements of the Sisyphean labour performed in the year-and-a-half of the ghetto’s autonomy to be reduced to nothing. I want you never to forget the fact that I have done all I can to avoid the potential for bloodshed, but nevertheless there is always a pointless fight going on against me. No opportunity is ever missed to rile me, if only in monosyllables or whispers. I never imagined that the refugees who came to us and found us in such a terribly difficult situation would deign to show such improbable arrogance and insolence…”
Regina saw pictures of Chaim making his speech on the screen. She had been there at the time and remembered that he hadn’t looked as dreadful as he did in these photographs.
“…The newcomers might want to make us their slaves, but we’ve already had enough of our own pre-war intelligentsia here,” Wilski, the prosecutor, was almost shouting. “That particular ‘article of the law’ is not in force here in the ghetto. Here you have to get down to work that’s necessary for the general good, handicrafts and plain physical labour. I fully realise that rather than that prospect you’d prefer a nice afternoon ride in a droshky. But just remember, I won’t tolerate this state of affairs!”
Reluctantly she had to admit that he had a lot of acting skill, because he spoke so persuasively that several people started trying to hide behind each other.
“Your Honour,” said Bernstein, the defence lawyer, rising from his chair and addressing the judge, “please come to the audience’s defence. The prosecutor is alarming them, and they’ve already been afraid often enough in their lives.”
“The prosecutor is merely quoting your client. Please continue…”
“Thank you, your Honour,” said Wilski, and began to read in an even more threatening tone: “Here in the ghetto you must knock the idea of court councillors out of your head for once and for all. Brothers and sisters, I admit to being guilty before you. It turns out I have been an incorrigible dreamer. I didn’t really have to defend myself against having the Gypsies in the ghetto, it would have been better to put them here, if only about twenty thousand of them, instead of the Jews who have now arrived. Come to your senses! Not even the title of Privy Councillor will protect you from oppression. These days titles do not play any role at all. Many of you have a negative attitude to work. You say to yourselves, ‘Why do we have to work when we can live by selling things or on the financial resources we’ve brought with us?’ But I’m going to teach you to work and to behave decently, and above all I’ll get you out of the habit of arrogance!”
The room fell silent, but not for long, because the defence lawyer leaped to his feet and exclaimed: “And what is this brilliant performance leading up to? After all these paternal warnings I don’t think the jurors can possibly believe the President’s intentions were bad. Of course his complexes are evident, and even a desire to get his own back on those people. But wasn’t the President right to fear that the reintroduction of Jews from Europe would harm his vision of survival?”
“When a few months later, at the beginning of 1942,” said the prosecutor, not hesitating to answer, “the Germans began the transportation to the gas chambers, the first people Rumkowski chose for the ovens were the criminal element and those receiving benefits, and then almost ten thousand new arrivals, including professors, geniuses of the world of scholarship, their wives and children, and thus people who might not have known how to make shoes or hats, but could have been an example for their Łódź brethren.”
“We’ll come to that,” said the judge.
“I’m sorry, your Honour, but I must respond now. The prosecutor has deigned to make a joke. He would want the people doing the hard labour, thanks to whom the ghetto survived, to be sent away from Łódź first, and to spare the educated newcomers. Now I’d like to ask those of you whom fortune has not given the opportunity for an education if in your opinion you should be the first to go to the gas chamber.”
“That’s enough. Please don’t take votes in my court,” said the judge firmly. “Please call Doctor Ulrich Schulz from Prague as the next witness.”
The elegant elderly man in pince-nez who had been sitting three rows behind Regina squeezed his way to the witness stand. She had never heard of him before, so she was curious to hear what he would say. The judge must have been too, because he pointed at the screen made from a sheet, on which a poster had appeared in German and Hebrew announcing the shooting of Doctor Ulrich Schulz from Prague for trying to resist the police.
“Is this announcement about your execution?”
“I doubt if there was another Ulrich Schulz from Prague in the ghetto.”
“Please tell us how this came about.”
“It’s quite simple, I refused to be transported from the ghetto.”
“Why? People weren’t told they were going to their death, were they?”
“I just worked it out. If we were being thrown out as unproductive along with the criminals, it made sense to expect a worsening in our situation. And in my view the only situation that could have been worse was death. So I didn’t report to the assembly point. The German police found me and tried to drag me there. To get it over with as quickly as possible, I slapped the most senior in rank. So he fired…”
“As we can all see, the report of this incident was signed by Rumkowski.” The defence lawyer stood up and pretended to be examining the signature. “Was the President present at this incident?”
“How could he have been? It was just one of his duties to sign all sorts of German announcements.”
“So you don’t blame him for your death?”
“Not in the least.”
“No further questions.”
“Thank you, Sir, and please forgive us for bothering you for such a short examination,” said the defence lawyer, in God knows whose name.
“I am happy to answer any request.” Schulz bowed and headed for the door instead of returning to his seat.
Wilski suddenly remembered something, because he struck his forehead and cried: “Just one more question! You were in the ghetto for just under three months. I know that’s not much to form an opinion, but the situation was unusual. In spite of such a brief stay, could you sum up the President’s character in some way?”
Schulz considered his answer for quite a while, but finally he made do with just one word, then bowed again and left.

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones