The concept of setting up a ghetto in Łódź was first formulated in December 1939. The German occupation authorities decided that it would be impossible to deport all the Jews from Łódź quickly and on a mass scale, so they eventually decided to concentrate them, as it was then believed temporarily, in the northern part of the city.
The German plans were published in February 1940, when the decision was communicated in a local newspaper “Lodzer Zeitung". 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, and wastewater flowed down the streets in gutters. By 29th February, all Poles and Ethnic Germans (Volksdeutche) had to leave the area. The Jews, in turn, were to gradually move in there. 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 thousand 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 the liquidated ghettos in the nearby towns. At its peak, the Łódź Ghetto was inhabited by over 180,000 people. In late 1941, more than 5 thousand Roma people were "resettled” in the ghetto, for whom a special sub-camp was created that was separated from the ghetto.
The perimeter of the ghetto was surrounded by barbed-wire fencings, guarded by Jewish policemen and German Schutzpolizei officers. Zgierska and Bolesław Limanowski Streets, being important for urban transport, were given an extraterritorial status, dividing the ghetto area into three parts. Initially, the traffic between the ghetto parts took place through special gates, which were opened at a fixed time 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 administered 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 since autumn 1940 by a separate unit: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 plundering of Jewish property. Hans Biebow discovered the benefits of exploiting the ghetto's workforce and convinced his superiors thereto. At a small expense, the ghetto could provide production 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 appointed then the chairman of the Jewish Council of Elders. With 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 would be needed by German occupiers. He was determined and ruthless to enforce his slogan: “Labour is our only way”. This approach, and first and foremost the resultant consent to the 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. The established manufacturing workshops, so-called “branches", and dozens of various agencies of the Jewish ghetto administration, provided jobs and thus protected thousands of people from deportation for a long time. The production system was so efficient that over the entire period of the ghetto's functioning, the number of branches and their employees was growing, reaching over 70,000.
Since his appointment as the the chairman of the Jewish Council of Elders, Rumkowski was establishing new departments of the ghetto administration, which covered almost all areas of life of the community confined behind the wires. 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 for the economy of the Third Reich. 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.
Among many departments, a special role in the history of the Łódź Ghetto is played by the 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 the phenomenon of 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 the 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 were 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 the ration stamps was fully controlled by the Jewish administration. The amount of ration stamps was different for the Jewish management of the ghetto, i.e. people affiliated with Rumkowski. Those who worked hard and for a long time 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 the German authorities. The problem was not just the insufficient quantity of products delivered to the ghetto, but above all, their quality. Vegetables and meat were often stale or spoiled while canned food was often expired. Ghetto kitchens, however, successfully managed to process them in such a way that they were fit for consumption. Nevertheless, malnutrition accompanied by poor sanitation was the major cause of the high mortality in the ghetto.
For one year and a half, the Jewish administration of the ghetto managed to maintain the appearances of normality - establishing schools, hospitals, shelters for the oldest and 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 the ghetto life. Furthermore, the 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 who were supposed to contest the order established by Rumkowski. So, as he 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 the so-called benefit recipients. Ghetto's most dramatic moments, however, took place in September 1942, when Rumkowski decided to execute the occupying forces' 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 the history as the so-called “Wielka Szpera” (German: Allgemeine Gehsperre – total prohibition to leave 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 realise 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 thousand 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 increasingly often interrupted by Hans Biebow. A characteristic symbol of this transformation was the "germanisation" of public inscriptions in Polish, Yiddish, or Hebrew. The branches, in turn, were stripped of the plaques informing that they were "the property" of the chairman of the Jewish Council of Elders. From then on, the plaques informed that those places were taken by the German Ghetto Management Board. The changes were not limited only to the symbolic elements, though. Biebow also controlled the number of employees in individual workshops in order to maximize production. It was at his order that the 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. At that time, the ghetto accommodated over 76,000 people. However, the arrangements for murdering the remaining ghetto inhabitants had been taken 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 ceasing of the deportation did not imply abandoning the plans to liquidate the ghetto. As early as on 5 August, the Jewish police were ordered to deliver people to the transports. This time, trains from the Radegast train station departed towards Auschwitz. Although there was no armed uprising in the Łódź ghetto, people organised passive resistance by hiding and evading the obligatory reporting for deportation. By 29 August, 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 ceased to exist, yet over a 1,000 people remained in it. Some of them 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 hide before the liberation of the city by the Red Army on 19 January 1945.
For over 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
- 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.