Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City
By Gordon J. Horwitz
(Harvard University Press, 395 pp., $29.95)
Not so long ago, many historians saw Nazism mainly as a revolt against modernity, a call for a return to soil and Volk. Gordon Horwitz's book on wartime Lodz lends support to what has become a new scholarly consensus about the Third Reich: that it looked forward, not back. Hitler promised to build a new Germany that offered social benefits, educational opportunities, and cities that combined the benefits of modernity and technology with a proper regard for aesthetics, health, and culture. This new Germany would harness science--especially the biological sciences--to create a racially superior nation. Needless to say, such a vision had no place for Jews.
In this rich and suggestive book, Horwitz tells a tale of two cities: Litzmannstadt, the Nazi name for Lodz, which was to be a model for a German future, and the Ghetto, a doomed remnant of a sordid past. The two were linked: for Litzmannstadt to succeed, the Ghetto and its Jews had to disappear, and the sooner the better. Good urban planning, not to mention a basic concern for health and aesthetics, had to protect German citizens from vermin and Jews. It is unclear why Horwitz chose to tell a tale of two cities rather than three. After all, the Poles also had a story. The Germans murdered or deported the Polish intelligentsia in Lodz and encouraged many eligible Poles to claim status as Volksdeutsche, or ethnic Germans. But the Nazis could not do without Polish labor, and so throughout the occupation the Poles remained a sizeable part of this new German city-in-the-making.
Horwitz is hardly the first historian to examine the Lodz ghetto. No ghetto left more documentation: official German archives, administrative ghetto records, contemporaneous diaries. The Germans left Lodz in a hurry and had little time to destroy their records. Jewish archivists and chroniclers also buried a great deal of material, including the amazing Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto. And since it was the last ghetto to suffer liquidation, more Jews survived to write memoirs than anywhere else. Superb monographs by Michal Unger and Andrea Low have added to what we already knew about the ghetto from the work of Lucjan Dobroszycki, Isaiah Trunk, and Icchak Rubin.
What makes Horwitz's book so illuminating is his urban perspective. He tells how mass murder unfolded in the context of a particular city: the Nazi Litzmannstadt, the Polish Lodz, the Jewish Lodz. Like many other cities in Eastern Europe--Vilnius/Wilno/Vilne/Vil'nya or Lemberg/Lwow/Lviv/Lemberik--Lodz was once a rich multi-ethnic society in which clashing and converging memories produced a volatile mix of familiarity and suspicion, of easygoing neighborly tolerance and deep-seated prejudice. The mass murder, ethnic cleansings, and forced re-settlements of the twentieth century turned these diverse cities into ethnically homogenous places. But each of them had its own story. What made Lodz different was that it was the only major city in the expanded Reich where an already sizeable German population shared the same space with a large number of Poles and with close to two hundred thousand Jews (who were markedly different from their acculturated and middle-class co-religionists in Germany). For the Nazis, this stark clash of rising Germandom with the masses of Ostjuden provided an ideal object lesson in the centrality of race politics as a pitiless zero-sum game. And as the example of Lodz shows, one did not have to be an actual perpetrator to enjoy the benefits of genocide: new apartments, gleaming parks, cut-rate goods on sale, excellent stores up for new ownership.
Before the war, Lodz was the second largest city in Poland. It was a sprawling, brash industrial town of about 600,000 inhabitants, according to the 1931 census--59 percent were Poles, 32 percent were Jews, and 9 percent were German. Lodz was known as the "Polish Manchester," an ugly scramble of large and small textile mills, of enormous palaces and appalling slums. It was a town that inspired important novels--Wladyslaw Reymont's Promised Land in Polish, I. J. Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi in Yiddish--whose themes were strikingly similar: class tension, ethnic strife, the harsh tensions of bare-knuckled capitalism. Both Reymont and Singer described the Lodzhermensch, a word that was the same in German and in Yiddish. The Lodzhermenschen--mostly Germans and Jews--were the entrepreneurs and the hustlers who built up the city in the nineteenth century, who made and lost huge fortunes, who started big factories and sometimes burned them down to collect insurance. Some of the Lodzhermenschen turned into legendary businessmen, such as the German Karl Scheibler and the Jew Izrael Poznanski, who endowed hospitals and religious institutions and patronized the arts.
Over time Lodz also became a major cultural center, the home of great Yiddish and Hebrew writers, of actors and artists such as Moshe Broderson, Yisroel Rabon, Shimon Dzigan, Yitzhak Katzenelson, and Julian Tuwim, a Lodz Jew who wrote in Polish and is remembered as one of Poland's finest poets of the last century. Artur Rubenstein was born in the city. Like Chicago, many intellectuals and artists came to love their raw, unfinished town. They took a perverse pride in its newness, its lack of tradition.
On September 8, 1939, just one week after Germany invaded Poland, Lodz fell. The Nazis annexed the city and its surrounding area to the Reich and called it the Reichsgau Wartheland, run by the cruel and corrupt Arthur Greiser. Long before the Nazis decided to implement the Final Solution, Lodz already became a kind of test case, a model of how to deal with Jews who dared to live in German space.
On a beautiful autumn day in 1941, a German film crew arrived in Litzmannstadt to record the heroic saga of this new Nazi city rising from the dump heap of the past. The crew started shooting near a new water park, surrounded by streets bearing such wondrous names as Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, and Hansel and Gretel. In the coming weeks it would film green zones, parks, theaters, schools, new housing projects for German refugees from the East, sporting events. The crew slowly assembled a stirring account of an urban miracle, a living example of how National Socialism would renew the German people. In these new eastern marches of the Reich, just annexed from a defeated Poland, this city would exemplify the promise of the Nazi future: modern, beautiful, a home to new German settlers from the East, a bulwark of German culture and German values.
Horwitz describes many milestones in the rise of this new Nazi town: the opening of a new German theater, a performance of Don Giovanni, a wonderful staging of Faust. The Nazis went to great lengths to foster a proper appreciation for the hallmarks of German culture. When Bernhard Rust, the Nazi education minister, dropped in on a gymnasium class that was studying Faust, he told the students to remember Goethe's message: "He alone wins freedom and life who conquers it every day." Life is a constant test, Rust taught them, "with no pity or mercy for the weak."
As ordinary Germans enjoyed the benefits of their new Nazi city, they did not have to think too much about the mass murder of the Jews. It began in 1941. By December 1941, transports of Jews from the Warthegau were rolling toward the gas trucks of nearby Chelmno. "Our inborn tact," as SS Reichsfuhrer Himmler would say in a speech in 1943, ensured that the work of the Final Solution could proceed with a minimum of blather and garish publicity. To be sure, in the first months of the occupation much dirty work took place in full view of the citizens of Litzmannstadt: the burnings of the synagogues, the mass arrest of Jewish intellectuals at the Astoria cafe, the public shooting of hundreds of Jews in March 1940, the vicious beatings of frightened Jews stampeded into the ghetto. But after the establishment of the ghetto in April 1940, Litzmannstadt Germans could build for their future and not have their dreams interrupted by the reality of the Jews and their destruction.
Those few Germans who had to come into daily contact with Jews were issued extra pay and extra soap to protect themselves from dirt and contagion. Essential business between the ghetto and the city was transacted in a "neutral zone" to which only a few had access. Wagons that carried goods in and out of the ghetto changed drivers, so that non-Jews did not come in and Jews did not get out. Of course, the Germans directly involved in the ghetto administration enjoyed certain benefits that made up for their exposure to Jews. There were copious presents to take home to the family in Germany and privileged access to the warehouses that stored the better Jewish property.
The Jews themselves were now mostly hidden from view, behind a barbed wire enclosure that sealed off the ghetto from the outside world. German police routinely shot Jews who wandered too close to the fence, and sometimes even German officials complained about the trigger-happy policemen who took their target practice a little too often. In other parts of occupied Poland, intrepid Jewish couriers often filtered in and out of ghettos carrying money, news, and weapons, but not in Lodz. In 1944, a report from an underground Jewish National Committee in Warsaw told Jewish organizations abroad that all attempts to penetrate the ghetto and establish contacts with its inhabitants had failed. This was just one of many reasons that no resistance movement developed in the Lodz ghetto, even though before the war Lodz Jewry enjoyed the reputation as one of the most combative Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.
The Nazis planned to make Litzmannstadt entirely Judenrein as early as 1940, but that had to wait. When the Lodz ghetto was first decreed in February 1940, it was meant to be a transitional holding pen for Jews to be shoved out of the Wartheland and into the Generalgouvernement, the bailiwick of Hans Frank, who governed occupied Poland. As Horwitz and other scholars show, Gauleiter Arthur Greiser, with Himmler's support, wanted the Warthegau to become a model, a laboratory, of ethnic cleansing and racial transformation, where massive deportations of Poles and Jews would allow for a large influx of ethnic Germans. Friedrich Uebelhoer, the Regierungspraesident, likened the Jews to a "pestilential boil" who could be "burned off without a trace."
But Hans Frank did not want his kingdom to become a dumping ground for Jews, and other Nazi schemes for the elimination of the Jews, such as the Madagascar Plan, also went nowhere. After an initial spate of deportations of Poles and Jews into the GG in 1939 and early 1940, Frank prevailed on Hitler to call a halt. So the German rulers of the Wartheland had to rely on Hitler's assurances that final victory would allow them to get rid of the Jews. In the meantime the local Nazis hit on a stopgap measure: a ghetto in a run-down area in the northern part of the city that included Baluty, the Old Town, and semi-rural Marysin.
Ghettoization in Lodz, as elsewhere, was an ugly business, and the Jews arrived in their new "homes" traumatized and largely dispossessed. On March 6 and 7, 1940, the Germans murdered hundreds of Jews in the city in order to hasten the stampede of Jews into the ghetto area. By the end of April the ghetto was closed, and 167,000 Jews were pushed into an area of about four square kilometers. (Tens of thousands of Jews, including much of the intellectual and economic elite, had already fled the city for Warsaw and points east.) The population density in this slum was seven times the pre-war level; there were few homes equipped with modern plumbing, and the area lacked a modern sewage system. But the ghetto would last much longer than the Germans expected. Britain refused to surrender, the war dragged on, and the Lodz Jews turned out to be a valuable labor pool. Many Germans greedily exploited the ghetto to line their own pockets and thereby protect themselves from a trip to the Eastern Front.
It would be a mistake to see the Lodz ghetto, or indeed any of the hundreds of ghettos that the Nazis created in occupied Eastern Europe, as merely an antechamber to the death camps. In fact, the ghettos in Poland were unprecedented phenomena, neither normal communities nor concentration camps.
The ghettos were quite varied, and these differences stemmed from many factors. What was the nature of local Jewish society before the war? Was the ghetto located in the Generalgouvernement, in the Reich, or in the newly occupied eastern territories? What were the aims of the local German authorities and how much power did they have? Did an economic base and a skilled labor force facilitate the development of workshops and industry? Was the ghetto economy centralized or was there room for "private enterprise"? What room for maneuver did the local Jewish leadership have? How much of the pre-war leadership strata remained? Did the local Judenrat enjoy the confidence of the ghetto inhabitants, and did it have a leader who could convince the Jews that labor might save them? Was the ghetto "open" or "closed"? How much information came in from the outside, and from other ghettos? Did the ghetto contain a critical mass of elites, writers, intellectuals and activists to organize cultural and political activities? Did it have a core of youth movement activists? How did the ghetto organize and control the critical functions of relief?
Questions, questions. No two ghettos were alike. The Lodz, or Litzmannstadt, ghetto had many unique features. It was the second largest ghetto in Nazioccupied Poland. It was a "work ghetto" where, by 1944, almost all of the Jews were employed in shops, or ressorts, that produced for the Germans. It was one of the first ghettos that the Nazis established and it was the last ghetto that they liquidated. And the Lodz ghetto also provides a case study of a key aspect of the unfolding of the Final Solution, how policy toward the Jews was shaped by an interplay of local pressures and decisions made in Berlin.
The Lodz ghetto was constantly "in play," its fate always subjected to power struggles that took place in the higher levels of the Nazi hierarchy and in the lower spheres of the Lodz city administration. Many German agencies fought for the chance to exploit and to rob the Lodz Jews: Albert Speer's armaments ministry, the Chief Bureau of Economic Administration (WHVA) of the SS, the local German Kripo (Criminal Police), the tax authorities of the Ministry of Finance, the Lodz City Government, Hans Biebow's Ghetto Administration, and Gauleiter Arthur Greiser, who tucked away sizable sums from the Lodz ghetto into his own personal coffers. Mordecai Haim Rumkowski, the "Elder of the Jews, " was quite aware of these internecine German tensions, and nurtured the hope that they might buy him and the Lodz Jews some precious time. Rumkowski was indeed able to buy time, until August 1944. He paid a heavy price.
At first the Germans paid little attention to such details as feeding or employing the Jews. German officials such as Alexander Palfinger, who worked in the city's Food Supply and Economic Office, believed that the more the Jews starved, the faster they would cough up the riches that they had allegedly squirreled away. At any rate, as Palfinger wrote, "the rapid dying out of the Jews is for us a matter of total indifference, if not to say desirable, as long as the concomitant effects leave the public interest of the German people untouched...." Palfinger's superior in the ghetto section of the Food Supply and Economic Office, Hans Biebow, was more of a pragmatist. Why starve the Jews when they could work? Biebow realized that Palfinger greatly overestimated the Jews' loot, especially since the German Criminal Police was diligently robbing Jews of whatever wealth they managed to hide. The Kripo used an elaborate network of Jewish informers and tortured any Jew suspected of hiding valuables. (Dr. Walter Zirpins supervised the torture chambers and went on to enjoy a distinguished postwar career as a criminologist in West Germany.)
Perhaps, Biebow reasoned, the Jews could work to earn money to pay for the ghetto--and even leave some extra wealth for the German war economy and local officials as well. But it was not so simple to just put the victims to work. Since the outbreak of the war, the Germans had systematically looted the Jewish economy and had confiscated many machines and tools. Biebow knew that he would have to get his superiors to reverse course, and start investing in the Jews. By October 1940, the resourceful Biebow had managed to convince his superiors to set up a work ghetto.
One of the more fascinating sub-stories of the Lodz ghetto is the tenure of this slick and successful coffee merchant from Bremen who, between 1940 and 1944, ran the Gettoverwaltung, the ghetto administration that was formally part of the Litzmannstadt Food Supply and Economic Office. For some time Biebow had a correct, even polite relationship with Rumkowski, and he could be charming with other Jewish subordinates. After the dapper Biebow returned from home leave in 1940, he brought back gifts of coffee for Rumkowski's Jewish secretaries. Certainly Biebow did not initiate the deportations to the death camps. Yet he adapted to the Final Solution with remarkable ease. He visited Chelmno, rampaged through the ghetto with a pistol during the roundups in September 1942, and in 1944 deceived the Lodz Jews by telling them that they were going to labor camps, not to Auschwitz-Birkenau. As for his relationship with Rumkowski, by June 1944 it had "progressed" to the point where he strode into Rumkowski's office and beat him so badly that he was sent to the hospital. Two months later he put Rumkowski on a train bound for Auschwitz. At about the same time, Biebow sexually attacked a young Jewish girl, shot her in the eye, and then personally deported her family.
But for a long time Biebow and Rumkowski shared a common goal: to establish a "work ghetto." At first Biebow had a hard time selling ghetto production to German clients, but as he traveled through the Reich and put his talents as a salesman and a businessman to good use, skepticism about Jewish labor soon gave way to a flood of orders from the Wehrmacht and other buyers. The combination of Biebow's commercial skills, Rumkowski's organizational abilities, and Lodz's proletarian character, which ensured a large, skilled labor force, led to the establishment of an economic network that by 1943 was making a significant contribution to the German war economy.
Starting from a modest base in the spring of 1940, the ghetto had 117 different workshops, factories and other enterprises by 1943. This growth took place despite staggering difficulties: hunger, and shortages of machinery and materials. As the SS ramped up its pressure in 1943 to liquidate the ghetto and send the workers and machinery to SS work camps around Lublin, Biebow enlisted some formidable allies to protect his ghetto from Himmler's encroachments, including the Wehrmacht, Albert Speer, and the notorious Gauleiter Arthur Greiser.
But only useful Jews, Jews who worked, would remain. In the course of 1942, more than seventy-one thousand ghetto inhabitants were deported to Chelmno. And as the Israeli scholar Michal Unger has observed, these deportations made the remaining Jews in the ghetto more likely to believe Mordechai Haim Rumkowski's claim that only work could save the seventy thousand Jews who were left.
Few Jewish leaders under Nazi occupation have been more controversial than Mordecai Haim Rumkowski. Before World War I Rumkowski, who was born in 1877, had moved to Lodz from the small town of Ilino in White Russia, and tried his hand at various business ventures with varying degrees of success. Lacking any systematic education beyond the traditional heder, Rumkowski nonetheless demonstrated a great deal of energy and ambition. He dabbled in local Zionist politics, quarreled with his comrades, and distinguished himself through his stewardship of one of the largest Jewish orphanages in Poland, in Helenowek. Opinions about the pre-war Rumkowski were decidedly mixed. His detractors noted his ambition, his coarseness, his lack of culture. He got along in various languages but Yiddish was the only one that he spoke well. Some whispered about allegations of sexual improprieties, rumors that Rumkowski molested young girls in the orphanage. He also had his defenders who cited his energy and his administrative talents.
Rumkowski became even more controversial after the Germans appointed him Elder of the Jews in 1939. At first the local German authorities found it convenient to humor their "Jewish Elder" with an illusion of "autonomy," and Rumkowski set out to establish the most regimented and most organized ghetto in Eastern Europe. His "Council of Elders," the local version of the Judenrat, wielded more control over ghetto life than anywhere else in Poland. While smuggling helped to feed the ghettos in Warsaw and Vilna, smuggling in Lodz had practically stopped by 1941, and private trade, unlike the case in Warsaw, was of minimal importance. The food supply depended almost entirely on supervised allotments of German supplies. Unlike the Warsaw ghetto, there was no Aleynhilf, or Jewish Self-Help, an umbrella organization that supervised relief and was based on a vast network of a thousand house committees.
Rumkowski took great pride in his tightly controlled ghetto. He boasted that it "worked like a clock." On a "state visit" to the Warsaw ghetto in 1941, he lectured the Judenrat there on how they could learn from Lodz. The head of the Warsaw Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, loathed him. In his diary he noted that Rumkowski was "replete with self-praise, a conceited and witless man, and a dangerous man, too, since he keeps telling the authorities that all is well in his preserve."
When Rumkowski returned to Lodz, he spread the word that, compared to Warsaw, his Jews were lucky. In Lodz one did not see the conspicuous inequalities of the Warsaw ghetto, where thousands died in the streets while a wealthy few gorged themselves in fancy nightclubs. Thanks to his tight control, the Lodz ghetto indeed boasted fewer social disparities than the Warsaw ghetto, even if a small elite close to Rumkowski did enjoy better rations and living conditions. But in the final analysis, while the Lodz ghetto may have been more "equal," it was just as deadly. The mortality rate in the Lodz ghetto was the highest of any major ghetto. Between 1940 and 1944, 43,743 died of starvation and disease, 21 percent of all the original ghetto inhabitants.
Rumkowski ruled with a strong hand, and the Jews in the ghetto hated him, and feared him, and also accorded him a grudging respect. "King Haim" seemed to be everywhere. Power gave him energy. An older man of sixty-three when the war began, Rumkowski began to look decidedly younger as he rode through the ghetto in his horse-drawn carriage. He sported gleaming black boots and an assortment of handsome vests, and his mane of tousled white hair set off a face that seemed tanned and healthy. In a short time he married a woman thirty years his junior, although he apparently continued to pressure other women for sexual favors. He organized soup kitchens, established workshops, raised cash, received visiting German delegations with lavish albums that highlighted the ghetto's productive achievements.
Rumkowski had one message for the Lodz Jews: that his "factories" gave them their only chance to survive. When the Germans allowed it he made heroic efforts to establish schools, give children extra food, and provide Zionist youth groups with allotments of land to prepare for a future life in Palestine. He protected rabbis, promoted Yiddish in the schools, and saved many writers and intellectuals from deportation. Rumkowski, who was himself childless, organized the best school system in any ghetto, and even his enemies grudgingly admitted his genuine concern for the welfare of the ghetto's children.
But Rumkowski's illusion of "autonomy" steadily evaporated. An early blow was the sudden announcement, in the fall of 1941, that Rumkowski had to make room for 20,000 Jewish deportees from the Reich and the Protectorate (the present-day Czech Republic), as well as 5,000 gypsies. To accommodate the influx Rumkowski had to close down his beloved schools. In early January 1942, the Germans informed Rumkowski that it was necessary to shrink the population of the ghetto, and he could, if he wished, make up the lists of the deportees. Rumkowski believed, as did some other Judenrat leaders, that in this case it was preferable for Jews to control the deportations rather than to entrust the job to the tender mercies of the Germans. He took advantage of these deportations to rid himself of welfare cases, the unemployed, and people that he regarded as troublemakers, including some underworld figures. Did he know that the deportees were going to Chelmno? In January 1942, perhaps not. But by May, when the Germans demanded another reduction in the size of the ghetto and Rumkowski ordered the deportation of most of the Jews who had arrived from Central Europe, there could be no doubt that he knew about their ultimate fate.
Worse followed. Like a bolt from the blue, the Germans demanded in September 1942 that Rumkowski help to deport all children under the age of ten and all adults over sixty-five. The Germans gave Rumkowski no warning when they descended on the ghetto hospital and brutally collected the patients. On September 4, Rumkowski stood before the ghetto with a bitter message: Jews had to hand over their children and their aged parents.
A terrible blow has befallen the ghetto. They are demanding from us
the most precious thing that we have--the children and the elderly.
I never was worthy of having a child of my own so I dedicated the
best years of my life to the children.... I never imagined that I would
have to deliver this sacrifice to the altar. In my old age I must stretch
out my arms to you and cry: Fathers and mothers, give me your
children!... I must cut off limbs in order to save the body. I must hand
over the children and if not, they will take others as well. (terrible
wailing).... If we hand over the victims ourselves, there will be quiet
(cries heard: "let us all go." "Mister President, do not take only children
but take one child from families that have many children)." These are
stupid phrases. I do not have the strength to argue with you.
The Germans sealed off the ghetto record office to keep parents from changing their children's birthdates. Anxious to secure milk rations for their children, many parents had registered them as younger than they were, and now they paid a bitter price. That week the Germans proclaimed a Gehsperre, a total curfew. No one was allowed in the street. Germans and Jewish police went from apartment to apartment, with lists of children and the elderly. An eleven-year-old could stay, while nine-year-olds were ripped from their parents' arms. Parents fought back, and tried to hide their children. Many mothers committed suicide. One woman carefully sewed a message into her little girl's coat, asking whoever found the girl to take care of her.
Meanwhile the Germans thoughtfully allowed the Jewish police and high ghetto officials to shelter their own children in a special building. Horwitz is quite effective in drawing a stark contrast between the ruthless murder of the Jewish children and the care and concern that the Germans showed for their own children. There were day camps just outside the city, where German children hiked and played. The deportation of the Jewish children coincided with athletic events and games on the other side of the fence.
Even for a ghetto used to horror and trauma, the week of September 5-12, 1942, was a special time of torture and agony. Rumkowski sat locked up in his office. During the week of the Gehsperre, when Jews were confined to their homes, he did not appear in public. And after September 1942, Rumkowski's power markedly declined. Little remained of the "autonomy" that he had tried to develop. He was bypassed in the management of the ressorts, and in the distribution of food, and Biebow over-ruled many of his decisions. He continued to be the butt of bitter songs and angry lampoons. And yet the Jews of the Lodz ghetto knew that no one could really take Rumkowski's place. Long gone were the days when angry Bundist demonstrators demanded, as they had in 1940, that direct German control of the ghetto would be better than Rumkowski's despotic caprice. When Rumkowski was summoned to Gestapo headquarters in December 1943, the ghetto trembled in fear. When he returned, most of the Jews breathed a sigh of relief.
To hand over Jewish children was the line that Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Warsaw Judenrat, refused to cross, and he took his own life. But as Rumkowski reminded the ghetto Jews, and they needed no reminding, Czerniakow's suicide had absolutely no impact on the fate of Warsaw Jewry--while he, Rumkowski, would do what was necessary to save a remnant. Let the Jews judge him after the war. He was ready to face their verdict! After all, did any of his critics suggest an alternative? When he gave those same critics the chance to take the names of their party comrades off the deportation lists, did any of them refuse to do so--even though they knew that to save a friend meant that another Jew would take his place?
After the nightmare of the gehsperre, the ghetto "enjoyed" almost two years of relative quiet. Jews starved, but somehow most managed to stay alive. And the front came closer and closer. By July, 1944 the Russians had reached the Vistula, only sixty miles away. At night the Lodz Jews could hear the distant thump of heavy artillery. And then the end came. Hans Biebow assured the Lodz Jews that they would leave the ghetto for work in the Reich, but the trains took them to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Rumkowski arrived at Auschwitz in one of the last transports.
About 200,000 Jews passed through the Lodz ghetto. Of these, 43,743 died of sickness and hunger. Fifteen thousand were deported to labor camps, where most of them died. Eight thousand were deported to Chelmno in 1942, and for a short period in 1944. Sixty-seven thousand were sent to Auschwitz in August 1944. At that late date, about one in three Jews were selected for forced labor, while the rest were gassed. All in all, about seven thousand to ten thousand survived.
After the war, Jewish historians such as Philip Friedman savagely criticized Rumkowski as a Jewish fascist:
The pseudo-saviors of the ghettoes were consciously or unconsciously influenced by the great messianic craze of the fascists, and aspired to be saviors of their people in ways that were devoid of Jewish spirit. They were ruthless men who ruled, like their Nazi masters, by coercion. They believed that they would manage to save at least a portion of their people by autocratic deeds in the spirit of the German Fuhrer.
Isaiah Trunk judged Rumkowski harshly in 1962 in his book on the Lodz ghetto, but he later softened his opinion. In his monumental work Judenrat, which appeared in 1972, Trunk made a distinction between "collaboration" and "cooperation," between willing identification with Nazi aims and working with the Nazis because there was no alternative. In that sense, Rumkowski cooperated but he was not a collaborator.
Over the years, historians have tended to moderate their opinions of Rumkowski. More positive appraisals began to appear. The educator and writer Natan Eck asserted after the war that much of the criticism leveled at Rumkowski was misplaced: "He was a strange man, somewhat ridiculous but he did what was possible, under these conditions to save Jews.... Nothing could have succeeded with the Germans. But he made an attempt.... I think that Rumkowski's intentions were essentially good."
But the final word belongs to Horowitz, whose wise assessment concludes his very important book:
Rumkowski and his strategy succeeded in saving a small number. And
some among the fortunate attributed their survival largely to his efforts.
He was not a likable man, was egotistical to be sure and as one survivor
termed him, "a boor." One can imagine others more honorable. No doubt
had he chosen defiance we would honor him today, and memorial candles
would be lit in his memory. His efforts led to failure. But compliance under
circumstances of extreme coercion is not the same as collaboration.
Rumkowski did not hasten to do the Germans' bidding, nor did he act out
of a desire to reap material advantages for himself; neither did he share
their convictions, nor most assuredly, did he seek the destruction of the
people over whom he held restricted sway. No judgment should overlook
for a moment that, ultimately, it was the Nazi leadership that sought
that destruction, developed the means to bring it about, and exercised
the overwhelming instruments of deception and coercion at their disposal
to bring about its accomplishment.
After the war, for the first time in its history, Lodz became an ethnically homogenous city. The Poles expelled most of the Germans who had not already fled, and few Jewish survivors chose to stay. Communist Poland paid little attention to Lodz's multi-ethnic past as it put forward a new version of the city: proud, proletarian, socialist--and Polish. The authorities built ugly workers' housing blocks and cheap stores, even as they razed many of landmark buildings of the pre-World War I Golden Age. Lodz remained the ugly duckling of Polish cities. It did not figure in the guidebooks, and few tourists stopped by on their way to Krakow or Warsaw.
But as the historian Joanna Michlic has shown, the fall of communism began a new era in Lodz's mottled history. In the 1990s Lodz began to excavate the shards of its Jewish and German past. One former mayor declared in 1996, as he was looking for ways to revive an industrial town down on its luck, that "local traditions are one of the best assets of the city. Present inhabitants of Lodz have inherited the memory of an urban center which developed in a rapid manner, was inclusive of people of different nationalities, and was open toward foreign capital...." The city's intellectuals began a serious attempt to re-conceive their city. In 1996 they started a new monthly, Tygiel Kultury, or The Melting Pot of Culture, aimed at exploring Lodz's multi-ethnic heritage. As Michlic points out, this journal became the "chief forum for debates about the city's identity," and it has spearheaded attempts to invite former German and Jewish inhabitants to commemorative events in Lodz. The municipal authorities have also begun to place cast-iron sculptures of famous Lodzhers along the city's showcase street, Piotrkowska. These include Artur Rubenstein, Julian Tuwim, Izrael Poznanski, and the German industrialists Karol Scheibler and Ludwik Grohman.
In 2001, Lodz inaugurated an annual "Festival of Dialogue between Four Cultures." Its organizers stressed that Lodz had once been a "multinational place of Poles, Jews, Russians, and Germans living, working, building their 'Promised Land' together." The Festival would reach back to the past to build a better future, a more tolerant Poland. With some exaggeration the Festival even described old Lodz as a model of toleration and mutual understanding. We learn even that "the United Europe towards which we are now making our way took its first steps in Lodz."
And so once again, memory returns--haltingly, tentatively, perhaps expediently. In August 2004, Lodz commemorated the sixtieth anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto and invited former Jewish residents from Israel and other countries to participate. The old Lodzhers arrived and helped plant hundreds of trees in a memorial park. For a logo the city commemoration committee adopted a drawing from a notebook compiled in the Lodz ghetto by a Jewish boy named Abramek Koplowicz. Koplowicz died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz during the final deportation in the summer of 1944. He was fourteen. He left a poem that captured, in a way, the spirit of this remarkable city:
When I grow up and get to be twenty
I'll travel and see this world of plenty
I'm a bird with an engine
I will sit myself down.
Take off and fly into space, far above the ground.
I'll fly and cruise and soar up high,
Above a world so lovely into the sky.
And so delighted by all the world's charms,
Into the heavens I will take off and not have a bother.
The cloud is my sister, the wind is my brother.
Samuel D. Kassow teaches history at Trinity College and is the author of Who Will Write Our History?: Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto (Vintage).
By Samuel D. Kassow