When Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the world watched with concern and disbelief. The following years revealed persecution of Jews, but the world head steadfast in the belief that by appeasing Hitler he would remain within Germany. On September 1, 1939, Hitler shocked the world by attacking Poland.
Using blitzkrieg tactics, Poland fell within three weeks.
Lodz, located in central Poland, held one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe, second only to Warsaw. When the Nazis attacked, Poles and Jews worked frantically to dig ditches to defend their city. Only seven days after the attack on Poland began, however, Lodz was occupied. Within days of Lodz's occupation, the Jews of the city became targets for beatings, robberies, and seizure of property.
Six days after the occupation of Lodz, on September 14, 1939, was Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days within the Jewish religion. For this High Holy day, the Nazi's ordered businesses to stay open and the synagogues to be closed. While Warsaw was still fighting off the Germans (Warsaw finally surrendered on September 27), the 230,000 Jews in Lodz were already feeling the beginnings of Nazi persecution.
On November 7, 1939, Lodz was incorporated into the Third Reich and the Nazi's changed its name to Litzmannstadt ("Litzmann's city") - named after a German general who died while attempting to conquer Lodz in World War I.
The next several months were marked by daily round-ups of Jews for forced labor as well as random beatings and killings on the streets. It was easy to distinguish between Pole and Jew because on November 16, 1939 the Nazi's had ordered Jews to wear an armband on their right arm. The armband was the precursor to the yellow Star of David badge which was soon to follow on December 12, 1939.
On December 10, 1939, Friedrich Übelhör, the governor of the Kalisz-Lodz District, wrote a secret memorandum which set out the premise for a ghetto in Lodz. The Nazis wanted Jews concentrated in ghettos so when they found a solution to the "Jewish problem," whether it be emigration or genocide, it could easily be carried out. Also, enclosing the Jews made it relatively easy to extract the "hidden treasures" that Nazis believed Jews were hiding.
There had already been a couple of ghettos established in other parts of Poland, but the Jewish population had been relatively small and those ghettos had remained open - meaning, the Jews and the surrounding civilians were still able to have contact. Lodz had a Jewish population estimated at 230,000, living throughout the city.
For a ghetto of this scale, real planning was needed. Governor Übelhör created a team made up of representatives from the major policing bodies and departments. It was decided that the ghetto would be located in the northern section of Lodz where many Jews were already living. The area that this team originally planned only constituted 4.3 square kilometers. To keep non-Jews out of this area before the ghetto could be established, a warning was issued on January 17, 1940 proclaiming the area planned for the ghetto to be rampant with infectious diseases.
On February 8, 1940, the order to establish the Lodz ghetto was announced. The original plan was to set up the ghetto in one day, in actuality, it took weeks. Jews from throughout the city were ordered to move into the sectioned off area, only bringing what they could hurriedly pack within just a few minutes. The Jews were packed tightly within the confines of the ghetto with an average of 3.5 people per room. In April a fence went up surrounding the ghetto residents. On April 30, the ghetto was ordered closed and on May 1, 1940, merely eight months after the German invasion, the Lodz ghetto was officially sealed.
The Nazis did not just stop with having the Jews locked up within a small area, they wanted the Jews to pay for their own food, security, sewage removal, and all other expenses incurred by their continuing incarceration. For the Lodz ghetto, the Nazis decided to make one Jew responsible for the entire Jewish population. The Nazis chose Mordekchai Chaim Rumkowski.
No one really knows why the Nazis chose Rumkowski at the Älteste ("Elder of the Jews") of Lodz. Was it because he seemed like he would help the Nazis achieve their aims by organizing the Jews and their property? Or did he just want them to think this so that he could try to save his people? Rumkowski is shrouded in controversy - did he help the Nazis murder his people or did he save lives?
Once the ghetto was sealed on May 1, 1940, a relative calm followed. It seemed to many residents that the sealing not only locked them in the ghetto, but it also precluded non-Jews from entering and tormenting Jews through forced labor and random beatings. Some thought that perhaps the sealing was a good thing - allowing Jews autonomy and protection from the outside world. What these people did not realize was that the ghetto was established simply as a temporary holding place until the Nazis could decide what they were going to do with Jews. The ghetto and its residents were completely at the mercy of the Nazis.
To organize and implement Nazi policy within the ghetto, the Nazis chose a Jew named Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. At the time Rumkowski was appointed Judenälteste (Elder of the Jews), he was sixty-two years old, with billowy, white hair. He had held various jobs including insurance agent, velvet factory manager, and director of the Helenowek orphanage before the war began.
Rumkowski was a firm believer in the autonomy of the ghetto. He started many programs that replaced outside bureaucracy with his own. Rumkowski replaced the German currency with ghetto money that bore his signature - soon referred to as "Rumkies." Rumkowski also created a post office (with a stamp with his image) and a sewage clean up department since the ghetto had no sewage system. But what soon materialized was the problem of acquiring food.
With 230,000 people confined to a very small area that had no farmland, food quickly became a problem. Since the Nazis insisted on having the ghetto pay for its own upkeep, money was needed. But how could Jews who were locked away from the rest of society and who had been stripped of all valuables make enough money for food and housing? Rumkowski believed that if the ghetto became an extremely useful workforce, then the Jews would be needed by the Nazis and thus, the Nazis would make sure that the ghetto received food.
On April 5, 1940, Rumkowski petitioned the Nazi authorities requesting permission for his work plan. He wanted the Nazis to deliver raw materials, have the Jews make the final products, then have the Nazis pay the workers in money and in food. On April 30, 1940 Rumkowski's proposal was accepted with one very important change - the workers would only be paid in food. Notice, that no one agreed upon how much food, nor how often it was to be supplied.
Rumkowski immediately began setting up factories and all those able and willing to work were found jobs. Most of the factories required workers to be over fourteen but older people and children often found work in mica splitting factories. Adults worked in factories that produced everything from textiles to munitions. Young girls were even trained to hand stitch the emblems for the uniforms of German soldiers.
For this work, the Nazis delivered food to the ghetto. The food entered the ghetto in bulk and was then confiscated by Rumkowski's officials. Rumkowski had taken over food distribution. With this one act, Rumkowski really became the absolute ruler of the ghetto, for survival was contingent on food. The quality and quantity of the food delivered to the ghetto was less than minimal, often with large portions being completely spoiled. Ration cards were quickly put into effect for food on June 2, 1940. By December, all provisions were rationed.
The amount of food given to each individual depended upon your work status. Certain factory jobs got a bit more bread than others. But office workers received the most. Since an average factory worker received one bowl of soup (mostly water, if you were fortunate you would have a couple of barley beans floating in it), the usual rations of one loaf of bread for five days (later the same amount was supposed to last seven days), a small amount of vegetables (sometimes "preserved" beets that were mostly ice), and brown water that was supposed to be coffee. This amount of food starved people. As ghetto residents really started feeling hunger, they became increasingly suspicious of Rumkowski and his officials. Many rumors floated around blaming Rumkowski for the lack of food, saying that he dumped useful food on purpose. The fact that each month, even each day, the residents became thinner and increasingly afflicted with dysentery, tuberculosis, and typhus while Rumkowski and his officials seemed to fatten and remained healthy just spurred suspicions. Searing anger afflicted the population, blaming Rumkowski for their troubles.
When dissenters of the Rumkowski rule voiced their opinions, Rumkowski made speeches labeling them traitors to the cause. Rumkowski believed that these people were a direct threat to his work ethic, thus punished them and later, deported them.
During the High Holy days in the fall of 1941, the news hit - 20,000 Jews from other areas of the Reich were being transferred to the Lodz ghetto. Shock swept throughout the ghetto. How could a ghetto that could not even feed its own population, absorb 20,000 more? The decision had already been made by the Nazi officials and the transports arrived from September through October with approximately one thousand people arriving each day.
These newcomers were shocked at the conditions in Lodz. They did not believe that their own fate could ever really mingle with these emaciated people, because the newcomers had never felt hunger. Freshly off the trains, the newcomers had shoes, clothes, and most importantly, reserves of food. The newcomers were dropped into a completely different world, where the inhabitants had lived for two years, watching the hardships grow more acute. Most of these newcomers never adjusted to ghetto life and in the end, boarded the transports to their death with the thought that they must be going somewhere better than the ghetto.
In addition to these Jewish newcomers, 5,000 Roma (Gypsies) were transported into the Lodz ghetto. In a speech delivered on October 14, 1941, Rumkowski announced the coming of the Roma.
We are forced to take about 5000 Gypsies into the ghetto. I've explained that we cannot live together with them. Gypsies are the sort of people who can to anything. First they rob and then they set fire and soon everything is in flames, including your factories and materials (Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides (ed.). Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege. NY: 1989, pg. 173).
When the Roma arrived, they were housed in a separate area of the ghetto.
December 10, 1941, another announcement shocked the ghetto. Though Chelmno had only been in operation for two days, the Nazis wanted 20,000 Jews deported out of the ghetto. Rumkowski talked them down to 10,000. Lists were put together by ghetto officials. The remaining Roma were the first to be deported. If you were not working, had been designated a criminal, or if you were a family member of someone in the first two categories, then you would be next on the list. The residents were told that the deportees were being sent to Polish farms to work.
While this list was being created, Rumkowski became engaged to Regina Weinberger - a young lawyer who had become his legal advisor. They were soon married.
The winter of 1941-42 was very harsh for ghetto residents. Coal and wood were rationed, thus there was not enough to drive away frost bite let alone cook food. Without a fire, much of the rations, especially potatoes, could not be eaten. Hordes of residents descended upon wooden structures - fences, outhouses, even some buildings were literally torn apart.
Jewish deportees from the Lodz ghetto who are being taken to the Chelmno death camp, are transferred from a closed passenger train to a train of open cars at the Kolo train station (USHMM Photo).
Beginning on January 6, 1942, those who had received the summons for deportations (nicknamed "wedding invitations") were required for transport. Approximately one thousand people per day left on the trains. These people were taken to the Chelmno death camp and gassed by carbon monoxide in trucks. By January 19, 1942, 10,003 people had been deported.
After only a couple of weeks, the Nazis requested more deportees. To make it easier on the Nazis, they slowed the delivery of food into the ghetto. Then the Nazis promised people going on the transports a meal. From February 22 to April 2, 1942, 34,073 people were transported to Chelmno. Almost immediately, another request for deportees came. This time specifically for the newcomers that had been sent to Lodz from other parts of the Reich. All the newcomers were to be deported except anyone with German or Austrian military honors. The officials in charge of creating the list of deportees also excluded officials of the ghetto.
In September 1942, another deportation request. This time, everyone unable to work was to be deported. This included the sick, the old, and the children. Many parents refused to send their children to the transport area so the Gestapo entered the ghetto and viciously searched and removed the deportees.
After the September 1942 deportation, Nazi requests nearly halted. The German armaments division was desperate for munitions, thus for workers and the Lodz ghetto now consisted purely of workers. For nearly two years, the residents of the Lodz ghetto worked, hungered, and mourned.
On June 10, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto. The Nazis told Rumkowski who then told the residents that workers were needed in Germany to repair damage caused by Allied air raids. The first transport left on June 23, with many others following until July 15. On July 15, 1944 the transports halted. The decision had been made to liquidate Chelmno because Soviet troops were getting close. Unfortunately, this only created a two week hiatus, for the remaining transports would be sent to Auschwitz.
On August 4, 1944, a final liquidation transport of 74,000 Jews from Lodz was sent out from the ghetto on its way to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Though a few remaining workers were retained by the Nazis to finish confiscating materials and valuables out of the ghetto, everyone else living in the ghetto had been deported. Even Rumkowski and his family were included in these last transports to Auschwitz.
Five months later, on January 19, 1945, the Soviets liberated the Lodz ghetto.
Only 877 Jews remained from the more than 245,000 who were interned in the ghetto since its opening in 1939, .
This feature is reprinted with permission from Jennifer Rosenberg, a Guide at The Mining Company.
Click here to follow this series online at Jen's site about the Holocaust. Copyright © 1998 Jennifer Rosenberg.