'Rumkowski Khayim' was known to many survivors of the Łódź ghetto.
The opening three verses speak in turn about the three Khayims: Khayim Rumkowski, Khayim Weitzmann, the Zionist leader, and Khayim der grober (the fat), the undertaker of the ghetto. The latter’s nickname is a multilevel pun relating to his physical appearance (grober in Yiddish means fat one) and to his profession (grabber is German for gravedigger). The real name of Khayim der grober was Khayim Perzerkowski; he survived the war and died soon after its end, in 1945 in Łódź.
The final two verses give sarcastic praise to Rumkowski. These might be considered as dues paid to the 'Emperor', so he would not get angry and arrest the singer. These verses could have been improvised when the singer saw Rumkowski in the streets, and were probably not composed at the same time as the first three verses.
Throughout the song, contrasts are made between 'him', the leader, and 'us', the ghetto dwellers. The name Khayim literally means 'life', but the song, which was composed in the ghetto, has other important features. In its many layered allusions to the heritage of Jewish cultural life, biblical themes, Hassidic folklore, and Zionism, 'Rumkowski Khayim' is a powerfully ironic commentary on the abuses of power, the senseless infliction of suffering on one’s fellow man, and the negation of life – death.
The melody of 'Rumkowski Khayim', which contributed to its popularity in the ghetto, may have been adapted from another source. It is characteristic of Jewish folksong with reminders of cantorial recitation, and this may have been its origin. It is cast in a minor mode. It makes use of a distinctive rhythmic manner of text setting – iambic pentameter – a melodic-rhythmic figure with a universal repetition. This figure, according to some scholars, is characteristic of Jewish folksong.
The 'sweet' melody with its ironic cantorial ornamentations carries a profound commentary on daily suffering in the ghetto. The match between the text and the melody caused the song to live in the memory of the survivors, who sang it to Gila Flam or recalled it in their written memories.
This version was sung by Yaakov Rotenberg (b. Łódź 1926) in Israel in 1984 and recorded by Gila Flam. The song was published by Gila Flam in her book Singing for Survival: Songs of the Łódź Ghetto (1992). It has been arranged and recorded by Klezmer group Brave Old World in their album Song of the Łódź Ghetto (2006) as well as by other performers.