How a city became a casualty of the Holocaust

By John Merriman
October 22, 2008

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City
By Gordon J. Horwitz
Harvard/Belknap Press, 416 pp., illustrated, $29.95

When German forces stormed into Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Lodz was the country's second-largest city and the second-largest Jewish community in Poland. The city's population was well over 600,000, including about 200,000 Jews, most quite poor. The German population of Lodz was about 60,000. The city would never be the same.

German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels proclaimed Lodz a hideous city, industrial, dirty, and diseased, because so many Jews lived there. The city was renamed Lodsch and the following April named Litzmannstadt, after a World War I general and fervent Nazi. Polish names had to go. The largest boulevard became Adolf-Hitler-Strasse.

Litzmannstadt was to be a modern city without Jews or other Poles, ready to welcome ethnic Germans from Soviet-occupied eastern Poland, Galicia, Estonia, and Latvia. Jews would be confined in a ghetto on the northern edge of the city, before being banished. In May 1940, 164,000 Jews lived in a ghetto no more than four kilometers square, barbed wire separating them from the rest of the city. The buildings they left behind were "decontaminated."

A film crew arrived in 1941 to present to German viewers the new efficient Nazi city. Hitler's decree that October designated the city for future special development. A park-like area was being laid out with a pond and walkways. Germans participated in festivals, attended concerts. The Strength Through Joy program celebrated sports and the German child. Germans flocked to the zoo, where exotic animals could be viewed in cages, while not far away Jews were confined to their ghetto. Gordon J. Horwitz's juxtaposition of life beyond the ghetto and within it is extraordinarily compelling.

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski is an important part of this poignant, sad story. He was "a boor," ambitious and self-absorbed. Named in October 1939 to head the Jewish community, his charge was to coordinate the implementation of Nazi policies dealing with the Jews of the city. He organized the ghetto, overseeing schools, hospitals, and the care of orphans and the elderly.

The ghetto was to pay for its upkeep. Gold, silver, currency, and jewelry confiscated from Jewish families and then sold would not be nearly enough. Hans Biebow served as the German director of the industrial work of the ghetto, working with Rumkowski. Biebow's obsession was to assure the productivity of the work force. Tailors, seamstresses, and other workers and more than 5,000 sewing machines would turn out uniforms, underwear, earmuffs, gloves, hats, boots and shoes (200,000 pairs in December 1942) for Nazi soldiers, and clothes for the German domestic market.

In the meantime, food for the ghetto was kept at a minimum, amid soaring mortality and a rising number of suicides. Rumkowski pleaded for more food so that weakened workers could remain productive. He also insisted that Jews demonstrate proper respect to Germans whose responsibilities brought them into the ghetto by saluting all officers and civilian officials.

Rumkowski was proud of what appeared to be a good relationship with the Germans. "Dictatorship is not a dirty word," he told ghetto listeners, "Through dictatorship I earned the Germans' "respect for my work." In the spring of 1942, he learned of the mass killings of Jews. He thought that continued efficient industrial production in the ghetto could save a good part of the Jewish community. Soon, however, Rumkowski presided over the deportation of the children of the ghetto who were too young to work, beginning with the orphans.

The Jewish Order Service (Ordnungsdienst), whom Rumkowski viewed as providing stability inside the ghetto, remained on the alert for smugglers and black-marketers. On one occasion police removed by force strikers refusing to work, on another arresting a man who had not reported the death of his 7-year-old, so he could use his ration coupons.

In December 1941 Rumkowski was ordered to pick 20,000 residents to be transported. He took it as a sign of German faith in his work that he bargained to have the number cut in half. In September 1942, the Jewish Order Service tracked down and pulled from hiding places young children. "We have learned something from our guards after all," mused someone in the ghetto, "How to hunt human beings."

More and more Jews, along with 5,000 Gypsies, were brought into the ghetto from Berlin, Vienna, Köln, and other places. At a ceremony in the ghetto was a banner with the slogan, "Work Is Our Only Path." At Auschwitz, those arriving passed under a gate above which could be seen a ghastly similar slogan. The Warsaw ghetto rose up, Lodz did not, but it is hard to imagine what could have been done.

"Ghettostadt" is wrenching, absolutely heartbreaking. We of course already know the horrific outcome. The Jews then remaining in the ghetto, hoping against hope, did not. Part of the sheer horror of it all is the recounting of daily life, amid disease, hunger, and death, each rumor generating waves of anxiety, anguish, and panic, particularly as deportations increased. One could see piles of clothes, bedding, and other personal belongings of Jews who had been sent out of the ghetto. Could one believe the cards that arrived from recent deportees that conditions were good in the new location? (Their authors were forced to write them before being killed.)

At the end of July 1944, the 68,000 people still in the ghetto were crammed into buses and trains, and taken away to be exterminated. On the anniversary of its absorption into the Reich, as the Red Army drew near, only a handful of Jews were left.

John Merriman is a professor of history at Yale University and author of "Police Stories: Making the French State, 1815-1851" and "The Stones of Balazuc."