The plans of setting up a ghetto in Łódź were first formulated in December 1939 by occupying German authorities – they decided it would be impossible to deport all the Jews from Łódź quickly and on a mass scale, so they decided to gather them, as it was then believed temporarily, in the northern part of the city.German plans were published in February 1940, when the decision was communicated in Lodzer Zeitung – a local newspaper. The territory of the "residential district for Jews" covered the area of the most neglected districts of Łódź – Bałuty and the Old Town. Most buildings there lacked sewerage and running water, while wastewater ran down the streets in gutters. By 29th February 1940, all Poles and Ethnic Germans (Volksdeutche) were forced to leave the area. The Jews, in turn, were to gradually moved in to replace them. Eventually, when the gates closed on the ghetto on 30 April 1940, it covered the area of 4.13 km2.

The area included approximately 2,300 houses with more than 28,000 rooms. In the spring of 1940, they were to accommodate over 160,000 people. Moreover, in the autumn of 1941, the ghetto absorbed almost 20,000 Jews from Western Europe and several thousand Jews from liquidated ghettos in nearby towns. At its peak, the Łódź Ghetto was inhabited by over 180,000 people. In late 1941, more than 5,000 Roma people were "resettled” in it, for whom a special sub-camp was created and separated from the main ghetto.

The perimeter of the ghetto was surrounded by barbed-wire fences, guarded by Jewish policemen and German Schutzpolizei officers. Zgierska and Bolesław Limanowski Streets, being important for urban transport, were given extraterritorial status, dividing the ghetto area into three parts. Initially, traffic between the separate ghetto districts flowed through special gates which were opened at fixed times of day; this however significantly impeded traffic through the ghetto. For this reason, in the summer of 1940, the gates were replaced with wooden footbridges.

The ghetto was managed by the civilian city administration of Łódź (renamed Litzmannstadt on 11 April 1940). Initially, by the Supply and Maintenance Department of the City Council, and from autumn 1940 by a separate unit: The Ghetto Management Board (Gettoverwaltung), headed by a Bremen merchant named Hans Biebow. The competences of the Ghetto Management Board evolved from providing supplies, fuel and medication for the ghetto to supervising its transformation into a labour camp and the plundering of Jewish property. Hans Biebow discovered the benefits of exploiting the ghetto's workforce and convinced his superiors to do this. At a small expense, the ghetto could provide workers for private German companies, as well as for the military.

The Jewish administration, which later administered the ghetto, was established by the Germans in October 1939. Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski was then appointed Chairman of the Jewish Council of Elders. In time, he became the main intermediary between the Jewish administration and the German authorities, contributing to the transformation of the ghetto into a labour camp. Rumkowski believed that Jews would remain safe as long as they were needed by German occupiers. He was determined and ruthless in enforcing his slogan: “Labour is our only way”. This approach, and first and foremost the resultant complicity in continued deportations of Jews from the ghetto, gave rise to Rumkowski being accused of collaborating with the occupier. At the same time, however, one should remember that the tactics he adopted allowed the ghetto to survive until the summer of 1944. Manufacturing workshops, so-called “branches", and numerous Jewish ghetto administration agencies provided jobs and thus for a long time protected thousands of people from deportation. The production system was so efficient that over the entire period of the ghetto's functioning the number of branches and their employees grew to reach over 70,000.

Since his appointment as the the chairman of the Jewish Council of Elders, Rumkowski established new departments of the ghetto administration, which covered almost all areas of life behind the ghetto walls. A labour office was established, responsible for providing forced labourers and a housing department which greatly facilitated the process of allocating new dwellings to Jews transferred to the ghetto. In turn, the supply department, the health department, the funeral department and the Rabbinical College addressed the daily necessities of Jews in the Łódź Ghetto. A number of administrative units were responsible for the production of things needed by Third Reich industries. The Jewish Ghetto Police, called the Order Service, which consisted of approximately 700 policemen, was established and responsible for maintaining order in the ghetto. A prison and courts were also established.

A special role in the history of the Łódź Ghetto is played by its archive department – a unit established to document the history of the 'closed district' of Łódź. With the department's efforts the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto was written, which meticulously documented the life of the ghetto, along with the Encyclopedia of the Ghetto, whose authors attempted to capture details covering the Łódź Ghetto. All in all, the Jewish administration amounted to approximately 14,000 people. Its individual agencies were created and/or liquidated depending on the needs of Jewish and German administrations. Due to German orders issued after the deportations of the ghetto population in 1942, the ghetto hospitals were closed; earlier on, after the Western European Jews had been "resettled" in Łódź, schools were closed down and their buildings used as dwellings for "newcomers".

The ghetto was heavily isolated from the "Aryan" part of the city. Trade and smuggling, known from other ghettos, were constrained with the introduction of an internal currency in the Łódź ghetto - Markquittungen, mockingly called “rumki” or “chaimki” after the name of the ghetto leader.

There was an extensive ration stamps system in the ghetto, which regulated the turnover in food and firewood. The distribution of ration stamps was fully controlled by the Jewish administration. The amount of ration stamps was different for members of the Jewish management of the ghetto, including people affiliated with Rumkowski. Those who worked hard and for extended hours could also count on higher food rations. The smallest deliveries of rationed necessities were given to the unemployed, the so-called “benefit recipients”.

Food supplies to the ghetto were provided exclusively by German authorities. The problem was not just the insufficient quantity of products delivered, but above all their poor quality. Vegetables and meat were often stale or spoiled while canned food was often expired. Ghetto kitchens, however, successfully managed to process and make them fit for consumption. Nevertheless, malnutrition accompanied by poor sanitation was the major cause of the high mortality in the ghetto.

For one and a half years, the Jewish administration of the ghetto managed to maintain the appearance of normality – establishing schools, hospitals and shelters for the oldest, organizing summer camps for children. First, the aforementioned resettlement of Western European Jews and Jews from the liquidated provincial ghettoes of the Warta Land led to the closure of schools and disturbance of the existing rhythm of ghetto life. Furthermore, mass deportations to the Chełmno On The Ner extermination camp in 1942 completely changed its character. By the decision of the Jewish administration, the very first Jews deported to Chełmno were those accused of opposing the order established by Rumkowski. As Rumkowski himself stated in his speech on 4 January 1942, the 10,000 people who had been designated for deportation were "recruited mainly from thieves, criminals, swindlers and ghetto pests”.

In May 1942, the register of persons sentenced to deportation was extended to include so-called benefit recipients. The Ghetto's most dramatic moments, however, took place in September 1942, when Rumkowski decided to carry out German orders and deport further "unproductive" groups from the ghetto – the elderly over the age of 65 and children under the age of ten. These events are known to history as the so-called “Wielka Szpera” (German:  Allgemeine Gehsperre – complete ban on leaving homes during the deportation operations).  Earlier on, in drastic circumstances, the patients of hospitals were deported. While describing the events between 5 and 12 September 1942, the Daily Chronicle of the Ghetto noted:

“Today, it is still difficult to conceive of what happened. A typhoon wiped out about 15,000 people (nobody can give a precise estimate yet), and life came back to its previous course”.

By the autumn of 1942, nearly 73,000 Jews had been murdered in the extermination camp in Chełmno On The Ner. The September deportations marked the end of the process of transforming the ghetto into one giant labour camp. The hitherto existing autonomy was substantially reduced. The ghetto's internal life was ever more frequently interrupted by Hans Biebow. A characteristic symbol of this transformation was the "Germanisation" of public inscriptions in Polish, Yiddish, or Hebrew. Various buildings were stripped of plaques declaring that they were "the property" of the chairman of the Jewish Council of Elders. From then on, these stated that such places were controlled by the German Ghetto Management Board. The changes were not limited only to symbolic elements. Biebow also controlled the number of employees in individual workshops in order to maximize production. On his orders a ten-hour working day was introduced at the beginning of 1943.

In the spring of 1944, Heinrich Himmler called for the final liquidation of the ghetto in Łódź. At that time, the ghetto accommodated over 76,000 people. However, arrangements for murdering the remaining ghetto inhabitants had been made earlier. In autumn 1943, the extermination camp in Chełmno reinstated its operations. Again, on 23 June 1944, the first transport from Łódź was sent there. By 14 July 1944, approximately 7,000 Jews had been sent to the camp in first 10 transports and then murdered. However, the halting of the deportations did not imply abandoning the plans to liquidate the ghetto.

As early as on 5 August, Jewish police were ordered to deliver people to the transports. This time, trains from the Radegast train station departed for Auschwitz. Although there was no armed uprising in the Łódź ghetto, people organised passive resistance by hiding and failing to report for deportation. By 29 August 1944, about 67,000 Jews from the Łódź Ghetto had been deported to Auschwitz. Chaim Mordechaj Rumkowski and his closest family were sent to the camp in the last transport.

The ghetto thus ceased to exist, yet over a 1,000 people remained in it. Some were sent to labour camps in the Reich, and approximately 700 people were left alive in the ghetto to clean it up. Many of them managed to survive in hiding before the city was liberated by the Red Army on 19 January 1945.

For more than four years of its existence, over 200,000 people passed through the Łódź Ghetto. Over 45,000 people died of starvation and exhaustion. The number of survivors is estimated at about 7,000.

Dr. Michał Trębacz

Bibliography:

  • Löw A., Getto łódzkie/Litzmannstadt Getto. Warunki życia i sposoby przetrwania, Łódź 2012.
  • Sitarek A., „Otoczone drutem państwo” Struktura i funkcjonowanie administracji żydowskiej getta łódzkiego, Łódź 2015.
  • Kronika getta łódzkiego/Litzmannstadt Getto 1941-1944, t. 1–5, edited by J. Baranowski at al., Łódź 2009.
  • Encyklopedia getta. Niedokończony projekt archiwistów z getta łódzkiego, edited by A Sitarek et al., Łódź 2015.

 

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