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The Darkest Deception

American and British knowledge of the Holocaust seems increasingly determined by the material that is available in English. To a greater extent than is often realized, the historians, novelists, and television writers of the English-speaking world depend upon the language of their printed sources.

Even for many serious historians, not knowing Polish has long been a stumbling block to the use of source material of central importance. As a result of this language barrier, hundreds of individual recollections, dozens of important episodes, and even the story of entire towns and villages have been neglected.

One reason why the story of the Warsaw ghetto has figured prominently in many published accounts of the Holocaust is that so many English-language books dealing with Warsaw’s torment survive, among them the almost daily notes written by the ghetto’s historian, Emanuel Ringelblum. These notes were first published in English twenty-six years ago, in New York, and were followed seven years later by the Warsaw diary of Chaim Kaplan. Since then, both these volumes have become an accepted part of Holocaust writing and analysis, ensuring that the moral dilemmas and tragic dramas of the Warsaw ghetto find a place in the myriad publications of the past decade.

Largely because of the lack of similar source material in English, the story of the Lodz ghetto has been neglected. Yet when the ghetto was established in Lodz in May 1940, more than 160,000 Jews were living in the city, the second largest Jewish community in prewar Poland. After four years of deportations, starvation, false hopes, and a final deception, fewer than one thousand Jews remained alive in the ghetto on the day of liberation. Almost all the others had been murdered, most of them in the gas vans of Chelmno and the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

The murdered Jews of the Lodz ghetto included not only those who had been born and brought up in the city itself, but Jews who had been deported into Lodz from many other Polish towns and villages, as well as Jews brought to Lodz from all the main cities of the Third Reich, including Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and even Luxembourg.

The day-by-day life and struggle of the Jews of the Lodz ghetto was not unknown during the postwar years. Indeed, the ghetto had two impressive groups of historians. The first group, all of them Jews, lived inside the ghetto between 1941 and 1944. They included an ethnographer, a Biblical scholar, a historian, a writer, and a journalist. For 1,287 days they worked together to compile a daily account of what was happening to the Jews of Lodz, recording the events as they occurred in a special chronicle. The second group, most of them Jews who had remained in Poland after the war, until at least 1968, collected and published a mass of evidence about life and death in the ghetto. These postwar publications included the first two years of The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto. Unfortunately for Western scholars, other than those who spoke Polish, the Chronicle and several other important postwar publications appeared only in Polish.

It was clear from the outset, to those who could read Polish, that the Chronicle was a powerful testimony to the desire of the Jews to record their fate even as it was overtaking them, and to do so in a calm, scientific, yet at the same time personal and graphic manner.

The Polish version of the first two years of the Chronicle for 1941 and 1942 was published eighteen years ago. Issued in two volumes, it was 1239 pages long. The rest of the Chronicle, for 1943 and 1944, was never published in Poland, the anti-Jewish campaign that followed the six-day war of 1967 having led the publishing house in Lodz to abandon the project in the middle.1

Today we celebrate the publication of a 551-page edition of the whole Chronicle, issued in a single volume, in English. I believe the word “celebrate” is the correct one, despite the somber theme of the story that is unfolded in these terse, stark pages. For henceforth the Lodz ghetto cannot be ignored by writers or neglected by teachers on the excuse that no English-language source exists.

Dr. Lucjan Dobroszycki, who has edited and annotated this new volume, was one of the two editors of the original version published in Poland eighteen years ago. Now a scholar at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, he has done a major service not only to historians and students of the Holocaust, but to all those, both Jews and non-Jews, who are interested in how a tyrannical regime can exploit, starve, and deceive tens of thousands of intelligent, articulate people in time of war.

The Chronicle of the Lodz ghetto was compiled in conditions of considerable danger by a small group of Jewish scholars and archivists, not more than fifteen in all. Only one of them survived the war. Some of them were distinguished writers and thinkers, including Julian Cukier, Abram Kamieniecki, and Oskar Singer, significant figures in the prewar world of Jewish letters and scholarship. It is to Dr. Dobroszycki’s lasting credit that he has ensured them a better place in Jewish historiography than they have been accorded hitherto.

Themselves subjected to the severest manifestations of wartime secrecy and deception, the authors of the Chronicle could not know many things relevant to the fate of the ghetto to which Dr. Dobroszycki draws attention in his introduction. Above all, the ghetto chroniclers had no idea of the destination of the deportations, which began in January 1942, within five weeks of Pearl Harbor.

The themes that emerge most clearly through the pages of the Chronicle apply, not only to the Lodz ghetto, but to several other large ghettos in German-occupied Poland and Lithuania, and to the human condition wherever and whenever it is under supreme stress, beset by doubt and fear, and dominated by a desperate will to survive. The first theme is that of the power of deliberate deception. As the ghetto chroniclers diligently recorded the numbers of those deported, and the often harsh conditions at the moment of deportation, remaining in ignorance of the destination of the deportees, they noted repeatedly that people were “sent off to parts unknown,” or had made “another journey into the unknown.”

As the deportations continued, rumors proliferated inside the Lodz ghetto. One rumor spoke of several hundred deportees being “set free” some forty or fifty miles to the northwest. Another rumor, which the Germans themselves encouraged, spoke of a large labor camp some thirty or forty miles to the east. As one of the ghetto chroniclers noted in February 1942, the mystery of the actual destination to which the first ten thousand deportees had been sent “is depriving all the ghetto dwellers of sleep.”

In fact, these ten thousand deportees had been taken to the recently established death camp at Chelmno, and killed in gas vans. But as far as the Chronicle was concerned, their departure was temporary: in the second week of January 1942 the Chronicle noted that the deportees had been told that their furniture could “be left for safekeeping in the carpenter’s shop instead of being sold.” One would surely be allowed to leave one’s furniture in safe custody if it was intended that someday one would be able to retrieve it. Thus the deception was perpetuated in many forms and subtle guises.

The second theme is the hope to which the Jews of Lodz clung, that they would survive through the protection offered to them by productive work. Again and again, after each deportation, those who remained in the ghetto convinced themselves that because the work they did was essential to the German war economy, they would not be deported. This work, carried out in dozens of small factories and workshops throughout the ghetto, centered around the manufacture of shoes, woodwork and carpentry, metal and textile production, dry cleaning, the production of toys, and the manufacture of items made of paper, cloth, and feathers.

A macabre aspect of this productive work was the constant arrival in the ghetto, for cleaning and processing, of vast quantities of used clothing. We now know that these were the clothes of hundreds of thousands of murdered Jews, including the deportees from Lodz itself. Determined to derive the maximum economic benefit from their policy of mass murder, the Germans had systematically stripped their victims in the hours and minutes before their destruction, and set aside their clothes for cleaning, sorting, and reuse.

In May 1942 one of the ghetto chroniclers, Bernard Ostrowski, noted that the dry cleaning shops in the ghetto had received “consecutive consignments” of three hundred freight cars of “dirty underclothes” for cleaning. Ostrowski added that, as a result of these consignments, the dry cleaners in the ghetto were “assured of work for a very long time (many months).”

In this same entry of the Chronicle, it was recorded that the woodwork factory, in addition to its current orders, had been instructed to produce “a million pairs of clogs.” This new order would involve eight hundred Jews working in three shifts. At the same time the ghetto’s metal workshop “is supposed to have work enough for two years.” Further orders included one for 5,500 decorative lampshades, and another for “several million toys.” These toys were “so imaginative,” noted the ghetto Chronicle in October 1942, “that no one can tell they are largely made of paper and refuse.”

The illusion that the work which the Germans sent to be done in the Lodz ghetto would preserve the ghetto workers from deportation sustained hope through successive and increasingly brutal deportations. The Elder of the ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, went so far as to rebuke those under his charge by claiming, after one substantial deportation in which 55,000 Jews were “resettled,” that “considerable blame” was to be borne in the ghetto itself by the Jews there “having been reluctant to work.” He had already made this clear to them a year previously, Rumkowski stressed, and went on to warn the surviving Jews “of the potential consequences of idleness.”

There is much fascinating, and disturbing, material in these pages about the role of Rumkowski, who convinced himself, and others, that employment was the key to survival. But the pattern of events as recorded in the pages of the Chronicle from week to week (and without, of course, the benefit of hindsight) tended to support Rumkowski’s arguments. In June 1942 the ghetto Chronicle recorded the arrival of four five-ton trucks, bringing with them “enormous quantities of civilian footwear.” This footwear was sent to one of the ghetto stores for subsequent processing. That same day the Chronicle recorded that “very large orders” had just been received for tailoring work to be done for the German army.

At that particular moment, seventy thousand of the surviving one hundred thousand Jews in the ghetto were employed in the different workshops. Rumkowski’s aim, he told the ghetto dwellers in a public speech, was to try to find employment “for another 10,000 people in the very near future.” To this end, he announced the imminent creation of new workshops in which would be provided “easy work for children and old people.”

Rumkowski convinced himself that all those Jews who worked would be protected from deportation. He therefore sought continually to extend the numbers of those in employment. “Our people are greatly inclined to optimism,” the ghetto Chronicle noted on a day when German visitors to the ghetto expressed approval of the pace and quality of the work being done.

What neither Rumkowski nor the ghetto dwellers realized was that many of the largest work orders arose only because of the vast quantities of material taken from other Jews who had been murdered. What they could not realize, even dimly, was that the day would eventually come when these human sources of so much tailoring and cleaning and sorting and packing work would have been eliminated, and when the workers of the Lodz ghetto itself would become merely one more source of just such clothing.

While the illusion lasted, it did so on a vast scale. Within a two-month period, as Bernard Ostrowski recorded in the Chronicle in mid-July 1942, the ghetto workshops had received for processing, among other quantities, 798,625 kilograms of used clothing, 69,350 kilograms of used shoes. (A rough calculation by this reviewer indicates that about 150,000 pairs of shoes were received.)

Many of the orders given to the ghetto related to military equipment. As the war went on, and the prospect of a rapid German victory receded, these orders also seemed capable of endless repetition. On one occasion the tailoring workshops were producing ten thousand army tunics from light-colored cloth needed for camouflage in snowy terrain, as well as thousands of jump suits for paratroopers.

Yet despite the work that seemed to offer survival, thousands died every month of starvation. Others committed suicide rather than face a lingering death from hunger or the uncertainties of deportation. Diligently, the ghetto chroniclers recorded the name, age, and town of origin of each suicide: they included elderly couples who had been deported a year or two previously from Germany; teen-age girls who had been born in Lodz; parents of children who had been deported to the “unknown destination.” The Chronicle also noted that so many Jews died from hunger that there were “macabre lines in the mortuary” of up to 110 corpses, and that the staff of the cemetery service, which consisted at that time of 140 people, was “inadequate.” Nevertheless, despite hunger, starvation, and occasional terror, the illusion of work for all, and work forever, persisted.

For those who survived, there was a third theme, faith, and this too permeates the pages of the Chronicle. For more than four years, faith in different forms sustained those for whom work, hunger, and deportation were the brutal facts of daily life.

Sometimes that faith was spiritual. Even among thousands of people whose daily life was made a misery and constantly put at risk because of lack of food, the Day of Atonement, the day of fasting, was a day on which they fasted voluntarily. The Day of Atonement also saw innumerable religious services and prayers throughout the ghetto, creating an atmosphere which, one of the ghetto chroniclers, Oskar Rosenfeld, wrote, “has magically evoked a bit of the Jewish beauty that is still alive somewhere outside, among our brothers and sisters.”

Each of the Jewish festivals saw a similar upsurge of faith and prayer. The starving and the penniless are described in the Chronicle “celebrating with dignity, reviving memories of youth, of student days, of happy years in freedom.”

One of the ghetto chroniclers noted in December 1943 how, in the ghetto, each Jewish festival provided “a few hours of merrymaking, a few hours of forgetting, a few hours of reverie,” and with it the hope that it would be the last festival of the war, the last to be held in the ghetto. This, the chronicler wrote, “is everyone’s hope. This is what people wish each other when they part—without a word, mutely, with only a handshake.”

The Chronicle shows the extent to which faith in God and faith in the future survived side by side. Even when the final deportations began in the summer of 1944, once more to that mysterious “unknown destination,” and this time also to the total destruction of the ghetto and all its workshops, the chronicler noted that while there was “a pall over the ghetto” as the deportations accelerated, nevertheless “Jewish faith in a justice that will ultimately triumph does not permit extreme pessimism.” He added, and here one sees the extent to which the German deception had succeeded, even so late in the war, “nearly everyone says to himself and to others: God only knows who will be better off; the person who stays here or the person who leaves.”

The deception was maintained to the bitter end. During July 1944, thirty-one postcards reached the ghetto from Jews who had been deported. We now know that all these Jews had been gassed, probably before the date on the postmark of their cards (they were all postmarked with the same date, July 19, 1944).

It was “worth noting,” the ghetto Chronicle recorded, “that the postcards indicate that our people are housed in comfortable barracks.” Here and there, the Chronicle added, “a card mentions good rations.” One card was addressed to a kitchen manager in the ghetto and told him, derisively: “We laugh at your soups!” The chronicler added: “the ghetto is elated and hopes that similar reports will soon be arriving from all the other resettled workers.”

Five days after this entry in the Chronicle the very last entry appears, dated July 30, 1944. It gives 68,561 as the number of Jews then in the ghetto, and gives further details for that day: no births, one death, two “miscellaneous arrests,” a critical shortage of flour, and one suicide.

At this point the Lodz ghetto Chronicle comes to an end. At least the chroniclers were spared describing the fate of the 68,561, including themselves. All but 1,400 of the ghetto’s remaining inmates were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where nearly all were gassed. Thus, in the unwritten pages, the Jewish ghetto of Lodz was destroyed.

It is no disparagement of the value of the Chronicle that the terrible end of the Lodz ghetto is relegated to an eight-line footnote provided by Dr. Dobroszycki. But this fact does highlight the one problem that the volume poses for the reader. Despite many glimpses of horror in these pages, the ghetto chroniclers neither witnessed nor described the actual destruction of those about whom they wrote, except in certain cases of brutality in the ghetto itself. Even these descriptions are muted. Readers who are familiar with some of the existing memoirs of specific episodes in the Lodz ghetto, such as the hospital deportations, or the execution of Icek Bekerman in September 1943 (both described, for example, by Ben Edelbaum in his memoirs Growing Up in the Holocaust2 ) will not always recognize in the calmer tones of the Chronicle the more lurid reality.

The most striking exceptions to this are the graphic notes by one of the chroniclers, Josef Zelkowicz, describing the deportations of September 1942. Zelkowicz, another distinguished writer of the prewar era, wrote a series of such notes at moments of particular drama—notes, as Dr.Dobroszycki rightly comments, that are of “monumental significance” for any future history of the Lodz ghetto. But even Zelkowicz’s heart-rending account of the deportation action inside the ghetto speaks of “a journey into the unknown,” not of Chelmno.

One detailed and gruesome account of death at Chelmno does exist, written by Yakov Grojanowski, who escaped from the death camp in its very first weeks, in mid-January 1942. It is believed that a version of his account may have reached someone in the Lodz ghetto. Dr.Dobroszycki has published, as a footnote, the text of a short letter, which may have been written to someone in Lodz, referring to this eyewitness account. But Dr.Dobroszycki does not publish the eyewitness account (which would run to more than thirty printed pages), nor does any intimation whatsoever of its horrific contents seep through the pages of the Chronicle. The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto therefore serves as a double witness: first, to some (but not all) of the horrors of life in the ghetto, and second (though inadvertently) to the overriding power of deception.

  1. 1

    D. Dabrowska and L. Dobroszycki, Kronika getta lodzkiego (Lodz: Wydawnictwo Lodzkie, 1965–1966).

  2. 2

    Privately published in Kansas City, 1980.

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