Robert Jan van Pelt
“I’m in Lodz: factories, the Wild West, the sticks.”1 Thus wrote the German-Jewish physician and author Alfred Döblin in October 1924. Factories: rational determination; the Wild West: lawlessness; the sticks: narrow horizons. Many believe that Döblin caught in these three powerful and clashing images the essence of that most exasperating and also intriguing of cities, which the Poles call “Łódź” (pronounced “woodzh”) and which those who speak other languages generally know and spell as “Lodz” (pronounced “lawch”). To make matters even more confusing: the one-time German inhabitants often spelled the name of their hometown “Lodsch,” while its one-time Yiddish-speaking Jewish inhabitants spelled Lodz in Hebrew letters: “לאדזש.” It was a city where, until the fall of 1939, Poles, Germans and Jews rubbed shoulders—a city of occasional ethnic friction, but little ethnic collision.2 Then Nazi Germany attacked Poland, conquered the western part, incorporated Lodz into the Greater German Reich, renamed it Litzmannstadt and imprisoned the Jews in a ghetto sealed from the world. In the four-year period of the ghetto’s existence, a quarter of the inmates died from starvation. The Germans killed the rest in gas vans stationed at the village of Chełmno nad Nerem, which they had renamed Kulmhof, and in the crematoria of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.
This essay provides a context for the mostly unauthorized photographs Henryk Rozencwaijg-Ross (1910–1991) made in the Lodz Ghetto. Employed in the ghetto’s Statistics Department, Ross and his colleague Mendel Grossman (1913–1945) were charged with taking portraits of ghetto officials, documenting official meetings, producing passport-size photographs of every ghetto inmate for identity cards, making a visual record of unidentified corpses abandoned in the streets, tracking physical changes in the ghetto as buildings were pulled down, and chronicling the efficiency of the ghetto workshops. While explicitly forbidden from early 1942 onward to make any personal or private photographs, both Ross and Grossman regularly ventured out in the ghetto to record ghetto life as lived, at risk of imprisonment and, during the great deportations, at risk of life.3
Both Ross and his negatives survived the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto in August 1944. After the war, Ross moved them to Palestine, where they remained in his personal collection. A relatively small and particular selection of these images became easily integrated in the Jewish collective memory of the Holocaust: depictions of people who starved to death on the streets or who slaved in the ghetto workshops on a daily diet of 800 calories. But the images of the few who belonged to the ghetto elite—members of the ghetto administration and the Jewish ghetto police and their families—have baffled many historians and iconographers of the Holocaust: what to do with the visual evidence of these privileged Jews spending merry moments with colleagues, friends and family? This part of the Ross collection remained a no-go area until the publication, in 2004, of a small selection of the more controversial images in the Łódź Ghetto Album.4
The Lodz Ghetto was the longest-lasting and second-largest ghetto of the more than 1,100 such places of confinement created by the Germans between 1940 and 1945. All these ghettos were located in cities and towns with well-established Jewish communities.5 The Nazi official who took the initiative to create the Lodz Ghetto, Friedrich Uebelhoer, stressed the importance of this historical continuity: “We have taken the most effective but also the most radical action by expelling the Jews in Litzmannstadt to the district—namely the ghetto—from which they had poured over the city in earlier times,” he wrote in 1941. In other words, the Lodz Ghetto was not created ex nihilo: it happened in a local context that included a historical ghetto from which the Jews had emerged. Uebelhoer also suggested a larger, somewhat puzzling ideological context: through the establishment of the ghetto, he believed, “the vital nerve of International Jewry [had] been hit in Litzmannstadt.”6
Mentioned for the first time in the early fourteenth century, Lodz remained a small town until the early nineteenth. Part of Poland (until 1795), Prussia (1795–1807) and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (1807–1815), Lodz was allocated to Russia during the Congress of Vienna. This brought economic opportunity: by establishing wool and linen mills in Lodz, German entrepreneurs could access the huge Russian market without being subject to tariffs. From 1823 onward, many German weavers settled in what was known as the New Town.7 Beginning in 1848, Jewish craftsmen, shopkeepers and merchants also arrived in Lodz, but were initially forced to reside in the Old Town and the adjacent village of Bałuty.8 Polish peasants began to move to Lodz in the 1860s to work in the textile mills.9 Between 1823 and 1914, Lodz grew from 1,000 to 500,000 inhabitants. Thanks to the textile mills, it was a place of ferocious opportunity and competition: the city seemed almost American in its promise to transform rags into riches. Key in the growth of the city was the so-called Lodzermensch (Lodzian), the optimistic, opportunistic and ruthless entrepreneur.
Germans had triggered the miraculous rise of Lodz, and in 1840 they constituted almost four-fifths of its population. By 1914, Poles made up half of the population, Jews a third and Germans a sixth. Most Jews were poor or almost poor, but wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs controlled 40 per cent of the textile production, and most of the city’s commerce and finance. As the city’s economy slowly declined, the Germans in Lodz resented what they considered a usurpation of their heritage and rightful inheritance, and many looked with nostalgia to a past when the Jews had been confined to the Old Town and Bałuty.
The German view of the Jewish rise was also influenced by a new and virulent strain of anti-Semitism peddled by the Russian secret police, based on a fiction that Jews were the authors of some secret, nefarious and global scheme to undermine the natural order of things. This fabrication was outlined in the book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was a bestseller by 1914.10
In August 1914, a war broke out that pitted, among others, Russia against Germany. A few months later, a German army, commanded by General Karl Litzmann, occupied Lodz. Expecting an incorporation of Lodz into the German Reich, many Lodz Germans turned into rabid nationalists. Yet they, like their Polish and Jewish neighbours, went through difficult economic times: the textile barons had closed most of the production lines as Lodz was separated from its market in the east. The German military advance into Russian Poland brought not only Lodz under German control, but also the large Polish Jewish community, which had been partly devastated by pogroms and deportations between the outbreak of war and the arrival of the German Army. Seeking deliverance, tens of thousands of hungry, filthy Jewish refugees began to move into the German Reich. To the Germans, these Ostjuden (eastern Jews) seemed an utterly alien people that could never be integrated.11 Sadly, the great majority of German Jews shared in the prejudices of their Christian neighbours: they looked at the Ostjuden with a measure of contempt and feared their manifest poverty and backwardness might change the attitudes of the Germans against all Jews, including themselves.12
In fall 1918, the Germans faced defeat in the west, and in the east, Polish nationalists proclaimed a sovereign Polish state, cobbled together from territories that had been part of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German empires. Lodz became its second-largest city. The confidence of the city’s Polish population was bolstered: although they had been the largest ethnic group since the late nineteenth century, the Poles never had enjoyed the prestige or wealth of either the Germans or the Jews. Yet pre-war prosperity did not return. The textile industry remained in dire straits: created to serve the huge pre-war Russian market, its capacity was too large for the relatively small Polish market. Both the economic decline and a general unwillingness to adapt to life as a minority in a Polish national state encouraged many Germans to leave for the German Reich. By the end of the 1920s, the relative size of the Polish, Jewish and German populations in the city was eight to four to one.
The memory of the arrival in Germany of the destitute Ostjuden during the war, the shock that followed the sudden military and political collapse of November 1918, and the publication of a German translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which provided an explanation for that collapse, constituted the raw material for Nazi anti-Semitism. A political agitator of Austrian birth living in Germany, Adolf Hitler, bought into the idea that Der Jude (the Jew), a mythical being comprising all Jews from all times, polluted and undermined the human spirit and consequently threatened the very existence of humankind. As it was difficult to fight an invisible enemy, Hitler became convinced it was crucial to make der Jude tangible and comprehensible. Metaphor proved useful: Hitler liked to compare him to a maggot, or a fungus, or tubercle bacillus, clearly suggesting that der Jude was both a parasite and the cause of a lethal disease that threatened the life of humankind in general and the German nation in particular. One could make der Jude visible by undoing the assimilation of Jews into non-Jewish society and by countering the progressive fragmentation of Jewish society. And this was what Hitler was committed to do when, in January 1933, he acquired control over the German Reich. Within two months, Nazis started “spontaneously” marking Jewish businesses with crudely painted stars of David, burning books and identifying individuals as Jews by expelling them from civic society and forcing them into metaphorical ghettos embodied by compulsory Jewish associations, compulsory Jewish residences, and ultimately a compulsory Jewish community.13
On September 1, 1939, the German Army crossed the German-Polish frontier. A week later, Lodz came under German occupation, and on September 13, Hitler was driven into the city, receiving from ecstatic Germans a hero’s welcome. In his wake, film crews, dispatched by the Propaganda Ministry, worked to exploit the cinematographic potential of the Lodz “ghetto.” They focused on the filthy appearance of the crowded Old Town and Bałuty neighbourhoods, on particularly unappetizing examples of the impoverished Jewish population, and on selected aspects of Jewish ritual life such as kosher butchering. When Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels saw the first rushes, he wrote in his diary: “One shudders at such barbarism.” After a tour through the Old Town, he added, “One cannot describe it. They are no longer human beings, but animals. It is, therefore, also no humanitarian task, but a task for the surgeon. One has to cut here, and one must do so in a most radical manner. Or Europe will vanish one day due to the Jewish disease.” On his return to Berlin, Goebbels discussed his observations with Hitler. That evening, he wrote: “Above all my description of the Jewish problem finds his total approval. The Jew is garbage. Rather a clinical than a social matter.”14
As Goebbels’s men collected the material for the movie that was to be issued in 1940 as Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), the Polish Campaign continued. On September 17, the Red Army invaded Poland from the east. On October 6, the last remnants of the Polish Army on Polish territory surrendered, and Germany and the Soviet Union conducted the Fourth Partition of Poland. The Germans divided their part in two; the larger one, to the east, was not formally included in the German Reich. Named General Gouvernement Polen (General Government Poland), it was meant to become a German-ruled “homeland” for the Poles that could serve German needs as a reservoir of Polish labour. The western area of Poland was officially incorporated into the German Reich. The core of this area was the Wartheland, or Warthegau, a new province that included Lodz.
The man in charge of ethnic cleansing of the Wartheland was Reich Governor Arthur Greiser, who was to be aided by the German security apparatus controlled by SS-Chief Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.15 Greiser faced an enormous task: only one out of fourteen of the five-million-strong population was German. How to achieve a rapid Germanization of a largely Polish territory that also contained 435,000 Jews? The answer was simple: he created an inventory of the Germans present in the Wartheland that distinguished them according to levels of commitment to the German cause and ethnic-racial purity; allowed willing Poles of “racially valuable” appearance and suspected Germanic ancestry to become ethnic German on probation; began to settle ethnic Germans from the Baltic countries in the Wartheland; and decided to expel at the earliest opportunity most Poles and all Jews to the General Government.16
Preparations for the liquidation of the Lodz Jewish community, which held half of the Jews in the Wartheland, began with arbitrary harassment, restrictions on the amount of cash Jews could possess and forced labour. On October 13, the Germans ordered the creation of an Ältestenrat (Council of Elders), which was to enforce German policies within the Jewish community, and appointed sixty-two-year-old Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski (1877–1944) as Judenälteste (Elder of the Jews). Rumkowski was a failed industrialist: before the Great War he had owned a small factory making velvet fabrics, but the business had gone bankrupt. He was a classic example of the Lodzermensch and believed his new dignity gave him an opportunity to make good after a life in the shadows.
Decree after decree, alternated by bursts of lethal violence, rained on the Lodz Jews. On October 18, they were forbidden to trade in leather and textile. On October 19, a trustee office was established that began to expropriate Jewish-owned factories. On October 31, Jewish shops, workshops and professional offices were marked, which led to systematic pillage by Germans; Jewish employees in all non-Jewish enterprises were fired; Jewish organizations were forbidden; and Jews were subjected to a curfew and forced to wear first yellow armbands on their right arms and then yellow stars on all garments. On November 10, one day after Lodz became an official part of the Greater German Reich, the Germans burned four major synagogues.17 The next day, Greiser declared at a rally in Lodz: “For us, and this I can assure you, the Jewish Question is no longer a problem, even when it confronts us in massed form, like here. It’s only for us to solve, and it will be solved.”
Greiser thought he could drive the Wartheland Jews over the nearby border into the General Government, where a Jewish reservation was to be created near Lublin. But Heydrich knew this could not happen overnight, and in a meeting held in Berlin on September 27, 1939, he had discussed the need for an interim solution. Heydrich chose his words carefully when introducing the first step: “Jewry is to be concentrated in the cities in the ghetto [im Ghetto] to allow for better means of control and a better means of expulsion at a later time.”19 Heydrich said Jewry was to be concentrated “in the ghetto,” rather than “in ghettos”; by forcing Lodz Jews back into their original ghetto, he sought not only to create conditions that allowed the Germans to easily contain, control and deport them, but also to achieve a goal that was central to Nazi anti-Semitism: making individual Jews become visible again as Der ewige Jude.
The Germans believed the ghetto should accomplish four objectives: as a hygienic measure, it was to decrease the risk of epidemics created by the concentration of people; as an ethical measure, it was to allow for containment of the imagined threat emanating from Jewry; as an ethno-political measure, it was to provide a temporary holding pen for Jews until an as-yet-undetermined date when all the Wartheland Jews could be moved to the General Government; and as an economic measure, it offered the Germans the chance to strip Jews of whatever assets they still had.
In December 1939, Uebelhoer drafted a plan for a closed ghetto in Lodz. It was to be located in the Old Town and Bałuty, slums that housed many poor Poles and 60,000 Jews. Some of the 140,000 Jews living in the New Town were to be sent to this ghetto, while the majority were to be put to work in labour camps elsewhere. The ghetto was to be maintained on a simple barter principle: food and fuel would be delivered to the ghetto in exchange for textiles and valuables. “In this manner we will succeed in completely extracting the most concealed material assets hidden by Jews,” Uebelhoer predicted.20 In the months that followed, the plan evolved: all the Jews from the New Town were to be sent to the ghetto, now a fenced- and walled-off area measuring four square kilometres.
In early 1940, a mass movement of people began: small groups of Polish and Germans residents left the designated area with their possessions and with the help of trucks and wagons, and large groups of Jews, almost completely stripped of their belongings, walked in to the ghetto. On April 11, the day that Lodz was renamed Litzmannstadt, in honour of the general who had won the Battle of Lodz a quarter of a century earlier, most of the Jews had been moved.21 On April 30, the Germans sealed off the Lodz Ghetto. Any Jew trying to leave the ghetto without permission—which was rarely given—was to be shot without warning. Never before had a ghetto functioned as a permanent prison.
Within the ghetto walls, Rumkowski set out to create an effective and totalitarian administration that, supported by a very efficient police force, penetrated into every last corner of the ghetto by fall 1940. While the ghetto may have tried to offer the appearance of a civic community, it lacked the essential precondition of a community: pockets of privacy that allowed people to withdraw from it. Under Rumkowski’s leadership, the Lodz Ghetto had more in common with a concentration camp than with any of the other ghettos created in Nazi-ruled Europe.
The first census, conducted in June, counted 160,320 Jews: fewer than had been expected, but many more than could be accommodated in the Old City and Bałuty. To make matters worse, the territory assigned to the ghetto was not a single area: the Germans had excluded a major north-south street and also a second east-west street that met this arterial street in the middle of the ghetto area. The only way for the ghetto inhabitants of the three areas to communicate was by means of footbridges that spanned over the walled streets. The main connection to the outside world was a goods-loading platform along a railway line located just east of the ghetto, in the Radogoszcz or, as it was now known, Radegast neighbourhood. The expectation was that in October 1940 the Lodz Jews would be deported to the General Government via the Radegast station.
Rumkowski realized the inhabitants of the ghetto faced catastrophe. In April, before the ghetto was sealed off with walls and barbed-wire fences, he tried to convince the Germans to exploit the considerable labour potential of the many skilled craftsmen among the ghetto inmates. The German Army responded with interest: as more and more men were drafted into the armed forces, they needed uniforms and other leather equipment. Traditional suppliers could not keep up with the demand. The Lodz Ghetto, which included many textile and leather workers, might take care of the shortfall.
The conquest of the Low Countries and France in May 1940 led to new speculation on a destination for European Jewry. In late summer 1940, the German Foreign Office formulated a plan to deport all European Jews to Madagascar, expecting that France would cede the island to Germany as part of a peace settlement. Awaiting the deportation of Polish Jewry, the Germans decided to isolate the Jewish population in the General Government by establishing additional closed ghettos that followed the example set in Lodz. Expulsion of the Lodz Jews to the General Government was now off the agenda. Facing the need to maintain the Lodz Ghetto for at least another year, Greiser began to explore its economic potential, and considered Rumkowski’s earlier suggestion to begin industrial production in the ghetto with greater interest.
By this time the situation in the ghetto was desperate. Some 70 per cent of the ghetto inhabitants had nothing left to barter, and by the end of August food supplies to the ghetto came to a halt. The Germans now faced a choice: they could let the ghetto succumb to hunger and disease, they could expend a significant amount of money to feed it, or they could provide an opportunity for the ghetto to make a living.22 The Germans chose the last option. In October, Uebelhoer agreed to grant the ghetto a credit to help it survive the winter. This marked a turning point: from now on, it was assumed the Lodz Ghetto would exist for a longer time, and that it would be used as a site for production.23 The ghetto was transformed from a holding pen into a caricature of the industrial city Germans and Jews had created a century earlier in what had been a common effort. Rumkowski’s motto, “Our only Path is Work,” now guided every aspect of life in the ghetto.
The Lodz Ghetto may have seemed to be a community ruled by the Germans, or by Rumkowski, the man often referred to as King Chaim I, but the real ruler of the ghetto was hunger. The Germans insisted that those engaged in production would receive just enough food to work, while those not employed—children, old people, the ill—would receive next to nothing. Those who belonged to the large ghetto administration would be fed. Between May 1940 and August 1944, when the ghetto was liquidated, 43,725 inhabitants of the ghetto died—more than a quarter of the original 160,320 inhabitants. Of these fatalities, 80 per cent were the direct result of starvation.
By early June 1941, all of continental Europe except the remaining neutral countries was under direct or indirect German control. It was not enough for Hitler. On June 22, 1941, the Wehrmacht surprised the Soviets with an all-out offensive—an ideological crusade to destroy the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy to rule the world. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 inaugurated the Holocaust. Killing squads, conceived and created by Heydrich, followed the advancing Wehrmacht to identify, concentrate and execute communist leaders and Jews, and more than 1.3 million people were shot.
As the taboo of the mass killing of women and children was violated in the east, it became imaginable to consider a genocide of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. In early September, the Germans decided to deport German, Austrian and Czech Jews to Lodz, and between October 16 and November 3, almost 20,000 Jews from Greater Germany arrived. In addition, 5,000 Roma and Sinti were sent to the ghetto. Greiser was appalled. From 1939 he had wanted to make the Wartheland Judenrein (Jew-free), and it now became a dumping ground for Jews. As the trains with Jewish deportees arrived at the Radegast station, Greiser resolved to murder Polish Jews incarcerated in the Lodz Ghetto who could not work. It proved a decisive step in the history of the Holocaust: it was the first time Jews outside the occupied Soviet territories were included as a matter of principle in the unfolding genocide.
Greiser entrusted the operation to the Higher SS and Police Leader in the Wartheland, Wilhelm Koppe, who ordered Herbert Lange to set up a killing installation. Lange commanded a roving, gas van–equipped unit that had been killing inmates of mental asylums since early 1941. Now Lange was to make a decisive and historic contribution to the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem: he conceived of a three-part extermination facility.25 The first part was a waiting area. A synagogue in the town of Warthbrücken (formerly Koło), located some seventy kilometres from Lodz, and an abandoned mill near the village of Zawadki would function as holding pens for Jews arriving in Warthbrücken by train. The second part, a loading station for gas vans, would be located in the village of Kulmhof (formerly Chełmno nad Nerem), a few kilometres from Warthbrücken. In a partly ruined manor house, victims would undress and be tricked to enter gas vans pulled up to a crude loading bay. The victims would be sent down a corridor toward “shower rooms” and would end up in the hold of a van. Once the space was filled, the doors would be closed, and the van would pull away from the building. Exhaust piped into the hold would do its lethal work. A forest located five kilometres away was the third part of the facility: the site of the mass graves.
On December 8, 1941, Lange engaged in a first trial of the unprecedented facility. The guinea pigs were Jews from the surrounding area. The production of death proved satisfactory. Four days later, Hitler passed a death sentence on all Jews: they had lost their value as hostages now that Japan had pulled the United States into the war on the Allies’ side. Hitler believed that by killing the Jews in Europe he would deal a lethal blow to those in America, and, by implication, to the United States as a whole. In a speech to senior Nazis on December 12, he announced “a clean sweep” to solve the “Jewish Question.”26 On December 16, Rumkowski heard that 20,000 Jews—exactly the number that had been brought into the ghetto in October and November—were to leave the ghetto for Kulmhof.
Lodz had become a large industrial enterprise, and a source of pride for Rumkowski. “Financially, I am in much better shape than many of Łódź’s important pre-war manufacturers,”27 he boasted in a speech on January 4, 1942. But the profits generated did not help the starving masses in the ghetto, or shield those deemed “useless” from deportation. From January 16 to 29, and from February 22 to April 2, the Germans dispatched fifty-four trains from the Radegast station to Warthbrücken, carrying 44,076 people. The first group to be dispatched to Warthbrücken was the Roma and Sinti, followed by Polish Jews who were deemed useless as workers.
In April 1942, Hitler decided that all Jews, irrespective of national origin, were to be included in the genocide. and the ban on including German Jews incarcerated in Lodz in the deportations was lifted. From the moment of their arrival, these Jews from the west had found themselves isolated amid the Lodz Jews. Their old prejudice against the Ostjuden was only reinforced when the deportees encountered the terrible conditions in the ghetto, and many blamed the Lodz Jews, rather than their German overseers, for the filth, poverty and starvation. In turn, the Lodz Jews remembered with resentment the way the Ostjuden had been the object of the German Jews’ fear, contempt and charity a quarter century earlier.28 Above all, Rumkowski had no time for the deportees: these mostly middle-class arrivals did not have the skills needed for his enterprise; few spoke either Yiddish or Polish; and he feared that their superior education and intellectual sophistication might allow them to undermine his totalitarian administration. He thus kept the German Jews isolated in hastily assembled mass quarters that quickly became dying pens, and welcomed Hitler’s decision that allowed for their deportation to a destination unknown even to Rumkowski.29
Beginning in May 1942, German Jews—mostly elderly and lacking the necessary skills to make uniforms or army equipment—were forced to board the trains leaving for Warthbrücken. With their departure, the Germans crossed the last boundary in the Final Solution of the Jewish Question: if in July 1941 all Jews in the occupied Soviet territories had become outlaws who could be killed as a matter of course, and if in December 1941 Polish Jews had become outlaws, now every Jew in German-controlled Europe was not only in theory but also de facto a target for murder.
The Germans in charge of the Lodz Ghetto blazed the trail: by the end of May, almost 55,000 inmates had been murdered in Kulmhof; some 104,500 Jews remained. Over the following summer, the Germans liquidated the remaining Jewish communities in the Wartheland, dispatching the majority of the Jews to Kulmhof and deporting 14,400 to the Lodz Ghetto. Rumkowski had not been willing to split up families, but in summer 1942 the food situation in the ghetto worsened, and starvation became ubiquitous. In late August, the Germans decided there was no reason to keep “useless mouths” in the ghetto, and resolved to eradicate those who could not work, with the exception of the families of the ghetto officials and the ghetto police. Rumkowski was informed only at the very last moment. On September 1, 1942, he ordered the Jewish Police to surround the hospitals, remove the patients and load them onto trucks leaving for the Radegast station.
Three days later, Rumkowski addressed the ghetto inmates. After many self-pitying words, he informed the Lodz Jews that the Germans had demanded children under ten, the old and the sick. In essence, Rumkowski faced the nefarious but, to the Germans, logical consequence of his offer to make the Lodz Ghetto into the largest workshop in the history of the city: if it was a manufaktura, there was no place for those who could not work. For a week, trains with the young, old and sick left for Warthbrücken. And then, after seven days, it was over. “There is little left to talk about: What comes after is only reverberation, echo, a trembling of nerves,” one ghetto inmate wrote in the wake of the September deportation. “After this experience, our existence, always on the brink of death, has taken on a very simple form, restriction to the absolute necessary… In store for us are: rifle, typhoid fever, gallows, death.”30
By the end of September 1942, some 90,000 Jews remained in the ghetto, which had now lost all the appearance of a community and had become a factory only. If before September much of the production has been artisanal in character, now the Germans sent modern machinery to the existing ghetto workshops and new ones created in now-empty hospitals, old-age homes and orphanages. In fact, this stabilized the situation for the remaining 90,000 inmates, 73,000 of whom were directly involved in production. The return to routine allowed Ross to go around with his camera, photographing the workshops and also the tiny pockets where conditions transcended the barest essentials. The most important of these were found in Marysin, a suburb in the northwest area of the ghetto. The many photographs Ross made in Marysin show people trying to maintain some normality amid the madness. They show the children of the elite celebrating birthday parties in a ghetto without children. They show tables laden with food in a ghetto that hungers. After the war, in Israel, these images were neither exhibited nor published. They did not fit the postwar ideal, projected backward, of a necessary and common Jewish solidarity against Nazism. Yet when we take these photos at face value, we see individual people trying to make the best of a terrible and terrifying situation. Ross’s pictures ought to invite not judgment, but compassion.
In spring 1944, as it became clear that the German Army was unable to stop the Red Army’s advance into the General Government and beyond, Himmler decided to liquidate the Lodz Ghetto. Ethnic Germans fleeing the Red Army were streaming into Lodz, and needed food and supplies. In addition, he feared that upon the approach of the Red Army, the remaining 65,000 ghetto inmates would break out of their prison and take revenge on the 140,000-strong German population of Lodz. Even after he had overseen the murder of six million Jews, for Himmler the spectre of the ghetto as a major threat to non-Jews remained alive and well.
Himmler ordered a resumption of deportations to Kulmhof, which had been out of commission for a year and a half. Between the end of June and the middle of July, ten transports brought more than 7,000 people to Warthbrücken. On July 23, 1944, the Red Army liberated the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin, and Himmler decided it would be prudent to erase Kulmhof from the earth and push ahead with the final liquidation of the Lodz Jews. On August 2, Rumkowski issued the last of his proclamations: “On the instruction of the Mayor of Litzmannstadt, the ghetto will be evacuated. The workshop crews will go as units, together with their families.”31 Having operated as a factory, the Lodz Ghetto was to be liquidated as a factory: plant by plant, workshop by workshop. The Germans promised that the Lodz Jews would be put to work in other plants.
On August 8, 1944, the first trains with workers and their families left the Radegast station. They headed indeed for a massive plant: the death factory at Auschwitz. Many trains followed. The last train, carrying Rumkowski in a separate carriage, left on August 31. It is not exactly clear what happened to him when he got there; what is certain is that neither Rumkowski nor another 40,000 Lodz Jews survived the day they arrived in Auschwitz. The rest were admitted to the camp, or sent on to other camps. Some survived. The Germans held back more than 800 Jews, including Ross, to clean the ghetto area in order to make it habitable as temporary shelter for German refugees arriving from the east. Most of these Jews, including Ross, were still alive when, on January 19, 1945, the Red Army reached Lodz.
Thus ended the German history of Lodz—one that had begun so promisingly in 1823 to end so ignobly between 1939 and 1945. The Jewish history of Lodz has been on life support since 1945. And the memory of the Lodz Ghetto has been fatefully chained to Rumkowski, to the kind of factory-society he created and, most importantly, to the decision he made in September 1942 to sacrifice the children, the sick and the old for the sake of the continued existence of the ghetto as a place of efficient production.
Nevertheless, a plethora of other sources—such as diaries, or the semi-official Chronicle that recorded ghetto life, or the photos made by Ross and Grossman, or testimonies such as those given by Ross during the Eichmann Trial—show that the history of the Lodz Ghetto has a human depth and pathos. The philosopher Hannah Arendt attended the Eichmann Trial, and after hearing many witnesses, reflected on the significance of their testimony. Totalitarianism, she argued, aims to create holes of oblivion into which all deeds, good or evil, disappear. But she also pointed out that such holes of oblivion do not exist. “Nothing human is that perfect, and there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible. One man will always be left alive to tell the story.”32 Her judgment is solid: despite the best efforts of the Nazis to make der Jude disappear without a trace, and despite their best efforts to erase the traces of their disappearing by burning libraries and documents, levelling Jewish neighbourhoods, dismantling gas chambers, emptying mass graves and scattering ashes, the Holocaust of the Jews is one of the best documented genocides in history. This applies to the murder of six million Jews as a whole, and it applies to major aspects of that genocide, including the German creation and liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, and the ways Jews imprisoned in that place tried to cope with the daily destitution, humiliation and violence that came their way. This, then, points to the moral meaning of the 3,000 negatives that Ross made between 1940 and 1944, and that in 1945 he was able to recover from the ruins of the Lodz Ghetto.
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1 Alfred Döblin, Reise in Polen (Olten and Freiburg im Breisgau: Walter-Verlag, 1968), 322; Döblin, Journey to Poland, trans. Joachim Neugroschel (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 1991), 247.
2 See Jürgen Hensel, ed., Polen, Deutsche und Juden in Lodz 1820–1939: Eine schwierige Nachbarschaft (Osnabrück: Fibre-Verlag, 1999); Krystyna Radziszewska, ed., Pod Jednym Dachem: Niemcy oraz ich polscy i żydowscy sąsiedzi w łodzi w XIX i XX wieku (Łódź: Literatura, 2000); Jörg Roesler, “Lodz –Die Industriestadt als Schmelztiegel der Ethnien? Probleme des Zusammenlebens von Polen, Juden und Deutschen im ‘polnischen Manchester’ (1865–1945),” Jahrbuch für Forschungen zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung 5, issue 2 (2006): 121–129.
3 Janina Struk, Photographing the Holocaust: Interpretations of the Evidence (London: I.B. Taurus, 2004), 86–89.
4 Henryk Ross, Łódź Ghetto Album, ed. Thomas Weber, Martin Parr and Timothy Pruss (London: Archive of Modern Conflict, 2004).
5 Guy Miron and Shlomit Shulhani, eds., The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust, 2 vols. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2009), vol. 1, xl.
6 Hubert Müller, ed., Der Osten des Warthelandes (Stuttgart: Stähle & Friedel, 1941), 241–244.
7 On the history of the Germans in Lodz, see Stefan Dyroff, Krystyna Radziszewska and Isabel Röskau-Rydel, eds., Lodz jenseits von Fabriken, Wildwest und Provinz: Kulturwissenschaftliche Studien über die Deutschen in und aus den polnischen Gebieten (Munich: Martin Meidenbauer, 2009); Andrzej Machejek, ed., Niemcy łódzcy/Die Lodzer Deutschen (Lodz: Wydawn, 2010).
8 On the history of the Jews in Lodz, see the special volume of Polin devoted to Lodz: Anthony Polansky, ed., Polin: A Journal of Polish-Jewish Studies 6 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991). Also: Andrej Machejek, ed., Żydzi łodzcy/Jews of Łódź (Lodz: Wydawnictwo Hamal, 2004); Paweł Spodenkiewicz, The Missing District: People and Places of Jewish Łódź, trans. Dorota Wiśniewska and John Crust (Lodz: Wydawn, 2007).
9 Oskar Kossmann, Lodz: Eine historisch-geographische Analyse (Würzburg: Holzner, 1966); Stanisław Liszewski, “The Origins and Stages of Development of Industrial Łódź and of Łódź Urban Region,” in A Comparative Study of Łódź and Manchester: Geographies of European Cities in Transition, ed. Stanisław Liszewski and Craig Young (Lodz: Łódź University Press, 1997), 11–33.
10 See Robert Jan van Pelt, “Freemasonry and Judaism,” in Handbook of Freemasonry, ed. Henrik Bogdan and Jan A.M. Snoek (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 188–232.
11 Jack Wertheimer, Unwelcome Strangers: East European Jews in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).
12 Oskar Singer, “Im Eilschritt durch den Gettotag…”: Reportagen und Essays aus dem Getto Lodz, ed. Sascha Feuchert et al. (Berlin and Vienna: Philo, 2002), 180–181. Also Sandel L. Gilman, Jewish Self-Hatred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), and Jakob Wassermann, Mein Weg als Deutscher und Jude (Berlin: S. Fischer Verlag, 1921), 107–108.
13 My argument on the critical importance of making der Jude visible is inspired and guided by Dan Michman’s reflections on this topic. See Dan Michman, “The Jewish Dimension of the Holocaust in Dire Straits?: Current Challenges of Interpretation and Scope,” in Jewish Histories of the Holocaust: New Transnational Approaches, ed. Norman J. W. Goda (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2014), 17–38, especially 23–26.
14 Joseph Goebbels, Die Tägebücher von Joseph Goebbels: Teil I, ed. Elke Fröhlich, 14 vols. to date (Munich: K.G. Saur, 1998–ongoing ), vol. 7, 157, 173, 177, 179–80.
15 Catherine Epstein, Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
16 Robert Lewis Koehl, RKFDV: German Resettlement and Population Policy, 1939–1945: A History of the Reich Commission for the Strengthening of Germandom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957). The standard work on the persecution and Holocaust of the Jews in the Wartheland is Michael Alberti, Die Vervolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Wartheland, 1939–1945 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006).
17 See Isaiah Trunk, Łódź Ghetto: A History, trans. Robert Moses Shapiro (Bloomington and Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, 2006).
18 As quoted in Epstein, Model Nazi, 167.
19 As quoted in Raphael Gross and Werner Renz, eds., Der Frankfurter Auschwitz-Prozess (1963–1965), 2 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Campus, 2013), vol. 1, 177–178. Dan Michman’s brilliant interpretation of Heydrich’s use of language has resulted in an important corrective on our understanding of the origin of the Nazi-imposed ghettos in Poland. See Michman, “The Jewish Ghettos under the Nazis and their Allies: The Reasons behind their Emergence,” in Miron and Shulhani, eds., The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust, vol. 1, xxi–xxiii; see also Michman, The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos During the Holocaust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).
20 As quoted in Trunk, Łódź Ghetto, 20.
21 A useful primer on the history of the Lodz Ghetto is Julian Baranowski, The Łódź Ghetto, 1940–1944/łódzkie Getto, 1940–1944: Vademecum (Lodz: Archiwum Państwowe w łodzi/Bilbo, 1999); an important interpretation of the history of the Lodz Ghetto in the context of the Germanization of the city is offered in Gordon J. Horwitz, Ghettostadt: Łódź and the Making of a Nazi City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
22 Alberti, Die Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden im Reichsgau Wartheland, 158–159.
23 Ibid., 251.
24 See Henry Friedländer, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Christopher R. Browning with Jürgen Matthäus, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942 (Lincoln and Jerusalem, University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2004).
25 See Patrick Montague, Chelmno and the Holocaust: The History of Hitler's First Death Camp (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).
26 Joseph Goebbels, Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels: Teil II, ed. Elke Fröhlich, 15 vols. (Munich: Saur, 1996), vol 2., 498–499.
27 As quoted in Lucjan Dobroszycki, ed., The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941–1945, trans. Richard Lourie et al. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 111–112.
28 Singer, “Im Eilschritt durch den Gettotag…”, 180–181.
29 Ibid., 188–189.
30 Oskar Rosenfeld, In the Beginning was the Ghetto: Notebooks from Łódź, trans. Brigitte M. Goldstein (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2002), 176.
31 As quoted in Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides, eds., Łódź Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege (New York: Viking, 1989), 440.
32 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking, 1963), 211–212.