The dream of the inhabitants of the Lodz Ghetto was to be
sure that the generations of the future wouldn't forget,
disbelieve or deny the destruction and pain suffered in the
ghetto. Many of the ghettoized Jews wrote diaries and
journals of what they had endured in the ghetto as they
realized the threat of death before them. As Oskar
Rosenfeld, a Jew of the Lodz Ghetto, wrote in his journal,
"We will hold out, we will outlive you, you cannot destroy
us." 1 As long as we never forget the attrocities that took
place during World War II, his prediction will come true.
The Lodz Ghetto was the second largest ghetto in the
occupied territories of Europe and was called Gaugetto. It
was considered the central ghetto in the Wartheland, Poland
The history of the Lodz Ghetto is an unusual one. The
ghetto was the last one to be liquidated and was the most
benificial for the Germans. It is a story of perseverence
and the will to live. It is the story of a dictator who
made the ghetto into his own little country.
The history is a familiar one. Most of the Jews of the
ghettos of Poland lived under the same awful conditions,
saw their families die during the raging epidemics, but
Lodz was unique in one aspect. The Jews of the Lodz Ghetto
were "privilaged" to see the Jewish nation crumble before
them. Through the hidden few radios and rare articles of
mail, they learned of the liquidation of other ghettos and
of the gas chambers and crematoriums that were built for
their people's extermination.
All alone, with no one to help them, the Lodz Ghetto stood
isolated. Through their sorrow, they worked diligently at
their occupations, never knowing if they were to live or if
they were to die. Their leaders tried to instill hope and
prove that rumors were false even when deportations began.
They were convinced that they would live and that at the
end of the long train journey was the better life promised
2. Life Before the Ghetto
Before German invasion, the Jewish population of Lodz
numbered at least a quarter of a million. 3 The population
of Lodz included ninety thousand Germans. This was the
largest condensation of Germans outside of Germany. The
Jews of Lodz were the ones who were responsible for the
city's development. It became a very prominent and
prosperous community. Lodz was second in population and
size only to Warsaw, the capital of Poland. Jew-owned
textile factories employed thousands of workers and clothed
much of Eastern Europe. Lodz contained over twelve hundred
businesses. 4 This is why the ghetto lasted for four years.
The Germans needed the Jews' productivity and therefore
didn't destroy the Jews in it for awhile.
In Lodz there were three large and famous synagogues. There
was the Old Town Synagogue, the Temple, and the Vikur shul.
The oldest of the three was the Old Town Synagogue, which
was erected in the 1860's. It was very beatiful and very
elaborate. All official public ceremonies took place there.
The Temple, known as the "German synagogue", was built in
1888 by the "enlightened Jews" who desired a modern
synagogue similar to those in Western Europe. The Vikur
shul was attached to a beit midrash which held a huge
treasury of valuable Hebrew books. It was the largest place
of Torah study in the city. 6
The Kehillah of Lodz was controlled by the Bund. It was
responsible for the maintenance of synagogues, butcher
shops, and the Jewish cemeteries. The Zionists represented
the Jewish community in the parliament.
Most of the wealthier, more prominent Jews escaped before
the Nazis invaded the city. Many middle class Jews also
fled. They went either east, into Russia, or west, into
free Europe. Still, more than two hundred thousand Jews
remained in Lodz. They had no where to go, but kept on
hoping for the best.
3. German Invasion
On Friday, September 8th, 1939, the Polish city, Lodz,
surrendered and was occupied by the Nazis. Lodz was renamed
after the German invasion. It became Litzmannstadt, after a
World War I German general who died trying to conquer the
city. By September 10th, Jews were being seized to do
degrading, useless work. On Rosh Hashana, September 14, all
synagogues were to be closed and all stores were ordered to
remain open. On November 7th, Lodz was annexed to Germany
and all of the German laws against the German Jews were
established in Lodz also.
By November, 1939, vehicles were forbidden to Jews. Jews
were not permitted to drive any form of vehicle on the open
roads. Jewish store windows had to have Jewish stars
painted at eye level. As soon as the Nazis invaded they
took the keys to all the synagogues from the Kehillah
organization. On November 14th, 1939, the Temple was set on
fire and burned to the ground. The next night, the Old Town
Synagogue was completely consumed by fire. That day, the
Jews of Lodz were ordered to wear an armband of
"Jewish-yellow color" on their right arm. 7 Jews were also
ordered to observe a curfew from 5 pm to 8 am. A notice
three days later was put out saying that the Poles had
destroyed the synogogues as an act of revenge. In the
summer of 1940 the Germans destroyed the Vikur shul along
with all of the irreplacable Hebrew books. 8
On February 8th, 1940, the leader of the SS brigade in Lodz
issued an order establishing the Ghetto. At that time,
there were about two hundred thousand Jews in Lodz. Between
February 8th and April 30th all non-Jews living in Baluty,
the area were the ghetto was to be established, were
ordered to move out while the Jews from other parts of Lodz
were ordered to move in. The Jews were not allowed to take
anything in with them to the slums which were to become
April 30th, 1940 was the last day that Jews could enter the
ghetto. On May 1st, the ghetto was closed and surrounded by
a wall that was six feet high and over ten miles long. 9
The only outsiders who were permitted to enter and exit the
ghetto were German guards and officials.
4. Our New Home
The Jews of the ghetto knew little of the Nazis' plan for
them. They struggled to hold on to their normal lives. They
tried to hold on to family, art, education, religion, and
the most difficult of all, hope.
The Germans realized that it was impossible to evacuate so
many Jews at once and so, they established the ghetto for
the Jews of Lodz. In relationship to the Final Solution,
the establishment of the ghetto was only a transitional
measure: "The final aim must be to burn out entirely this
pestilent abscess." The ghetto turned out to be the best
temporary solution of the Jewish problem.
The Germans quickly realized their mistake of banning the
Jews from work. They then forced the Jews to work for the
German war industry. The only way that the ghetto could
obtain food and fuel was by paying for the Nazis with
goods. The Judenrat collected the manufactured goods and
traded them for the food for the ghetto.
Lodz's Gettoverwaltung ( German administration ) acted as
the supreme boss of all of the ghetto's industrial export.
It gave orders for work and was the only group permitted to
accept the finished products of the ghetto. It charged a
fee of 0.70 Reichsmarks per day for each Jewish laborer. 10
A section of Lodz inhabited by poor Jews was declared a
"region of epidemic danger". The Baluty area already
contained sixty-two thousand Jews, but more than one
hundred thousand Jews, who lived in the suburbs and other
parts of the city, still had to move in. 11 Germans and
Poles were forbidden to go near that area. Poles and ethnic
Germans had to leave the ghetto site by February 29th. 12
In the ghetto, there was an average of four to eight people
to a room. 13 The ghetto was a tightly packed slum area
without parks, empty lots, or open spaces. The close
quarters and improper sanitation caused many epidemics. In
the year 1941 alone, seventeen-hundred Jews in Lodz died of
In the ghetto, there was a special police force and a
separate post-office. Rumkowski recruited twelve hundred
policemen, a department of private investigators and a
private guard. 14 He also issued stamps with his picture on
them. His picture was also portrayed on the ghetto's own
currency. The ghetto printed its own newspaper which
contained all of the local news. The eighteen issues of the
Ghetto Zeitung appeared between June and September of 1941.
All Jews that were arrested by the Gestapo or the criminal
police ( Kripo ) in the other ghettos, were sent to the
Lodz Ghetto jail.
The provisions for the Jews of the ghetto was one half of
what inmates of German prisons were given. Hans Biebow was
the German overseer of the Lodz Ghetto. He knew that the
Jews would hand over their valuable possessions in exchange
for food. Later, they would have to earn their food through
slave labor. Even within the ghetto itself, the Jews were
not allowed to be on the ghetto streets from seven at night
until seven in the morning. 16
The Lodz Ghetto was the last major ghetto in Poland to be
liquidated by the Nazis. It was also the ghetto that was
most valuable to them. Starting with one tailorshop in May
1940, the number of factories, shops and other work places
steadily increased. By August of 1943, one hundred and
seventeenfactories, workshops and warehouses were in
operation. They provided employment for eighty-five percent
of the ghetto population. In 1944, ninety-three percent of
the ghetto was employed - a staggering change from the
forty-seven percent employed before the war. 17
5. Our Leader ~ Rumkowski
Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski portrays the perplexity of Jewish
leadership during the Holocaust. Historians assume that he
was chosen by the Nazis because of his energy and his
ability to speak German. He was appointed Eldest of the
Jews on October 14th, 1939. Rumkowski was a Zionist and
felt that the ghetto was a parcial fulfillment of the
Zionist goals he believed in.
Rumkowski pleaded with the Germans to allow him to deliver
the number of Jews required for work, for the sake of peace,
as the Germans had been grabbing Jews off the streets. The
Nazis agreed to this and then went right back to pulling
Jews off the streets and then, pulled them from their homes.
Rumkowski's goal was to save a majority, to at least a
portion of the ghetto, to what few he could rescue. He
bargained with the Germans to minimize the deportations and
accepted the full responsibility of delivering the
inhabitants of the ghetto for the deportations.
Rumkowski formed the Beirat, Advisory Council, made up of
thirty-one people whom he assigned specific duties. It
the autumn of 1939, but this organization was still very
weak and far from perfect. Nevertheless, after its
formation, the Germans left the Jews to handle their
problems on their own and announced that Jews could not
address the German authorities directly.
Rumkowski was responsible for carrying out all of the
Germans' orders. For this, the Germans gave him the right
to: move freely through the streets at all times, choose a
Council of Elders and meet with them, use posters to
announce his orders, and have access to German
administration offices. All Jews had to obey his orders.
Any opposition against him would be punished by the Nazis.
Taxes were payed by the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto to finance
Rumkowski acted as dictator of the Lodz ghetto. He made
sure that he had total control. He developed Lodz into a
giant production area, thinking that the Germans would
allow them to live as long as they were productive. He
assumed that the Jews were being destroyed because they
were "useless eaters".
Rumkowski was a leader who was willing to sacrifice the
children in order to save the rest. He told the inhabtants
of the ghetto that he would, after the war was over, stand
before a Jewish court to prove that is actions were just.
He was more powerful than the Gestapo or Jewish police only
because he controlled food and job distribution solitarily.
He also controlled a colony of gypsies who were to be
exterminated by the Germans shortly.
Rumkowski had the difficult job of satisfying the
Polish-Jewish community and fulfilling the Nazi order. For
police matters he was responsible to the Gestapo and for
economic and administration matters he was responsible to
Hans Biebow, who would later be executed by an Allied court
in 1947 for his crimes during World
Rumkowski appointed selfish and unskilled officials and
therefore deprived the community of competent and
responsible public services. His Chief of Police was known
for his extreme cruelty.
Rumkowski was in his late fifties when appointed to his
job. Before his appiontment, he had sold insurance and
managed an orphanage. He was a widower with no children of
his own but had much affection for the children of the
orphanage. Nevertheless, he was not a man who would have,
under normal circumstances, gone very far in Lodz. He was
not very learned, was known to be annoying, and had
extremely rude manners. Some of the Jews who survived the
ghetto consider Rumkowski a tyrant, while others believed
he saved their lives.
The Nazis knew that no Jew would walk knowingly and
willingly to their death, so they invented lies to convince
the Jews to volunteer for the deportations. They offered a
better life outside of the ghetto, on Polish farms or at
work camps in Germany. They cut off the ghetto from the
rest of the world. The Jews were separated, under threat of
death, from contact with the Poles. The Nazis worked the
Jews so hard and fed them so little that they would
willingly board the trains, if only to get out of the
The Jews of Lodz were being exterminated at Chelmno. When
deportations could not be avoided, Rumkowski selected those
Jews who posed as threats to his power to be deported. With
these deportations, he ensured his power beyond any further
Even before the ghetto was set up, the Nazis made a demand
for twenty-five thousand people. Rumkowski convinced them
otherwise and only five to six thousand economically
dependent Jews were sent off. About a year after the ghetto
was sealed, the deportations really began. Volunteering was
tried, but failed. The Nazis then seized the fifty-seven
mentally ill people of the ghetto. 18 Rumkowski used them
as an example. Anyone who became a threat to the community
or an " unnecessary burden " would be the next one to be
deported. When Jews began to be trasported into Lodz, the
Germans demanded one thousand Jews to be deported everyday
to keep the ghetto from becoming too "overcrowded".
Since the first days of German occupation, Jewish children
were forbidden to attend "Aryan" schools. In the ghetto,
Jewish schools were not allowed to remain open. Rumkowski
pleaded with the Nazis to be permitted to open Jewish
public schools. His arguments were very persuasive and the
Nazis granted him permission. Rumkowski believed that he
would help save Polish Jewry because he not only organized
workshops, but hospitals and schools as well.
The Jewish school buildings that were located in the ghetto
were currently used by the Gestapo and the military and
civil authorities. Thus, Jewish children from all different
schools were placed in one building. Eight thousand
children were registered in the first school.
The curriculum reflected the new conditions of the ghetto.
Religious instruction was strengthened, German could not be
taught to the "inferior race", and Yiddish replaced Polish
in the younger grades. Rumkowski gave the children extra
rations, sweets, and holiday gifts. His devotion to the
children was authentic, even if he had none of his own. He
protected the children and all of them adored him.
Rumkowski did all that he could to prevent resistance. He
"did everything he could to break the writer's pen and the
painter's palette ". 19 He censored plays and mail,
controlled the printing press, and denied writers their
precious paper and ink. He took away the rations of some
and spied on others.
He did not hesitate to call the German officials to send in
troops and ask them to shoot down demonstrators,
protestors, and strikers. All of the above mentioned that
were not killed were the first to be deported. Rumkowski
wished to prevent Lodz from repeating the rebellions in
Warsaw and Vilna. Thus, resistance in Lodz was limited
mainly to strikes and sabotage by the workers in the
factories. 20 These strikes were led mainly by the Bund,
Poalei Zion, and the Communist Party.
The only form of resistance possible was passive
resistance, but the resistance wasn't carried out by
organized political groups. Some resistance was organized
by Zionist youth groups. Several dozen Nazis were killed by
small groups whose main purpose was to retaliate against
the Germans' cruelty. 21
The ghetto was also totally isolated from the rest of the
world. It was very tightly sealed and it was impossible to
get the necessary weapons for a rebellion into the ghetto.
The Jews were surrounded by Germans as well as Poles and
this made communication with the outside world extremely
difficult. The two messengers that were sent to Warsaw for
help in the winter of 1942-1943 never returned.
9. The Jewish Response
The Jews of the ghetto displayed the highest act of faith.
They tried to remain human. There were Orthodox Jews who
would not eat non-kosher food. Hundreds of people kept
hidden radios and passed news along even if it was usually
met with death.
It was through these radios that they heard of the mass
executions of the Jews of Cracow, Lublin and Warsaw. They
heard of the deportations of their families who lived in
other cities and who were killed in Kolo, Chelmno and other
places. With these radio reports they were informed of the
world situation, the progress of the war, and the
increasingly desperate conditions of the Jews in Europe.
In 1941, twelve men were arrested for keeping radios but
the reports continued to be spread. 22 Right before the
ghetto was to be liquidated, a traitor led the Gestapo to
the secret radios. One of the owners of a radio, Nathan
Widavsky, who was part of the Zionist underground,
committed suicide by painful poisoning. He was fearful that
he might break down under torture and reveal the identities
of the members of the underground.
The Jews were civilized people and did not believe the
horror stories that they were told. They believed that the
Germans would spare Lodz and its inhabitants-otherwise why
would the Germans be pouring Jews into Lodz ? In the fall
of 1941, about eighteen thousand Jews arrived in Lodz from
nearby towns. 23
10. All That Is Left
In April 1942, the final deportations began. First the
unemployed and poor were ordered to sign up for "work".
Then the children from five to twelve, the aged and the ill
were called for. Rumkowski used his own police force to
gather the deportees. Finally, in the last week of August
1944, the Germans enterd the ghetto and grabbed all of the
elderly, young and weak who hadn't complied with the order.
That week, some fifteen thousand people were deported. The
population of the ghetto had dropped to about seventy
thousand. The schools, orphanages, hospitals and
convalescent homes were all closed, one by one.
In August of 1944, the war was not going well for the
Germans. They were being beaten by the Allies and the
Russians on both fronts. The order then came to liquidate
the remainder of the Jews and destroy the ghetto. Hans
Biebow told them that they were to be taken to Germany
where they would find work and good treatment. Rumkowski
helped to gather all of the Jews and section after section
of the ghetto was blocked off and cleared.
In the final deportations of August 1944 out of the Lodz
Ghetto, seven people, managers of the ghetto's shops,
prepared the lists of people to be deported. 24
During the months of August and September 1944, long trains
left the Lodz railroad station with the remaining 76, 701
Jews of the Lodz ghetto headed for extermination camps,
mostly for Auschwitz as the Russian troops advanced. 25
Upon arrival at Auschwitz, the magority of the Lodz Jews
were immediately sent to the gas chambers. A few hundred
men were left to burn the ghetto and gather the remaining
valuables for the Germans. Another few hundred people
managed to hide themselves underground.
Rumkowski's brother was summoned to be deported. The Jewish
leader asked for permission for him to remain behind. The
Germans refused but allowed Rumkowski to join him.
Rumkowski agreed and was promised " special treatment ".
When the transport arrived at the death camp, he and his
brother were the first to be thrown into the gas chamber.
The Russian army marched in as the Germans fled. Eight
hundred half-starved people, the remnant of nearly a
quarter-million Jews of Lodz,left their hiding places and
greeted the Russians. 26
About ten thousand Jews survived the Lodz Ghetto. 27 Some
had the good fortune to be sent to work camps. The rest
were sent to Auschwitz. More Jews survived from the Lodz
Ghetto than from any other ghetto.
The number of people that were lost, though, is staggering.
Sixty thousand Jews died in the ghetto. They died from
starvation, freezing, disease, hanging or suicide. From the
ghetto, one hundred thirty thousand who were deported died
either in the exhaust vans at Chelmno or the gas chambers
of Auschwitz. 28
The Nazis killed these Jews. The questions that bother all
historians involve Rumkowski. Had he forewarned the Jews
and told them of their destinations, would they have
boarded the trains so willingly ? Could there have been
more survivors ? Was Rumkowski guilty of leading sheep to
their slaughter ? Did he know what was at the end of the
train tracks ? Could he have helped the community more ?
Why did he help the Nazis so willingly ?
None of these questions can be answered. All of the
documents containing some of the answers were destroyed by
the Nazis. I feel that in some way, Rumkowski believed in
his mind that by complying with the German orders, he
thought that he was salvaging a remnant of the Jewish
people. He thought that by sacrificing some, he could save
the others. Thus, he continued to deport family after
family until he himsef was thrust into a train.
He prevented any possible resistance or chance of
contacting outside help. Leaders of other ghettos assisted
attempted escapes. Rumkowski wouldn't even hear of it. So
sure was he of his power that he never even thought of his
own survival. He thought that no one, not even the Nazis,
would challenge his authority and importance.
Rumkowski was the Lodz Ghetto. He was also the key to its