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 …