Gert Jan Kocken

Depictions of Lodz 1939-1945

Depictions of Lodz 1939-1945


The German army reached Łódź on 6 September 1939. Because the local Polish troops were still in the process of mobilization, it took the Germans only two days to capture the city. Unlike Warsaw, Łódź was not made part of the General Government but annexed into the Third Reich itself. This meant that the city’s 672,000 inhabitants, of which around 233,000 were Jewish, were largely cut off from help from the Polish resistance.

Goebbels visited Łódź one month after its capture and described it in his diary:
Drive through the Ghetto. We get out and inspect everything thoroughly. It is indescribable. These are no longer human beings, they are animals. For this reason, our task is no longer humanitarian but surgical. Steps must be taken here, and they must be radical ones, make no mistake. Drive on Polish roads. This is already Asia. We shall have our work cut out to Germanise this region.

One of the first steps toward Germanisation was renaming of Łódź to Litzmannstadt, in honour of Karl Litzmann, a German general who conquered the city in the First World War. The street names were similarly changed to honor famous Nazis. Germanisation also had a direct effect on the Jewish population. Arthur Greiser, who governed the annexed part of Poland, wanted to deport the city’s Jews to the General Government, but Hans Frank blocked his plan. In response Greiser decided to build a ghetto in the northern part of Łódź for Jews living in the region.

Preliminary work on the Łódź ghetto began in February 1940. German authorities sealed it off from the rest of the city on 1 May 1940. At that time it contained around 163,000 Jews living in more than 30,000 primitive houses, which made it the second-largest Jewish ghetto in German territory. The Nazis installed a Jewish Council chaired by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a stern man who had been the head of an orphanage.

Rumkowski quickly took command over the ghetto. He believed that the Nazis might spare the ghetto as long as it was profitable enough, as reflected in his motto Unser einziger Weg ist Arbeit (‘Our only way is labour’). Despite the lack of food and basic facilities in the ghetto, Rumkowski forced the inmates to work twelve-hour days. He used the Jewish police and his administrative powers to punish those who resisted him, which bred resentment among the ghetto population. “The Germans couldn’t find a better man than Rumkowski,” an inmate noted in his diary.

The Killing Procedure
Near the end of 1941, in the fog of war that by then covered Central and Eastern Europe, the SS constructed an extermination camp hidden in a forest near the town of Chełmno, fifty kilometres north of Łódź. The camp was set up around three sealed vans in which prisoners were killed with the vehicles’ exhaust fumes. The Nazis used this method because it allowed them to kill many prisoners at a time. It was also less straining for the executioners than shooting people. Rudolph Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz camp, recounted the effects on the killers:

I must even admit that this gassing set my mind at rest, for the mass extermination of the Jews was to start soon and at that time neither [Adolf] Eichmann nor I was certain how these mass killings were to be carried out. … Now we had the gas, and we had established a procedure. I always shuddered at the prospect of carrying out exterminations by shooting, when I thought of the vast number concerned, and of the women and children. … I was therefore relieved to think that we were to be spared all those blood-baths, and that the victims too would be spared suffering until their last moment came. It was precisely this which had caused me the greatest concern when I had heard of Eichmann’s description of Jews being mown down by the Einsatzkommandos [mobile killing squads] armed with machine guns and machine pistols. … Many members of the Einsatzkommandos, unable to endure wading through blood any longer, had committed suicide. Some had even gone mad. Most of the members of these Kommandos had to rely on alcohol when carrying out their horrible work.

The gas vans were similar to the gas chamber that had been installed in Bełżec. That chamber was, in turn, based on Aktion T4, which involved the killing of over 70,000 German mental patients and other “life unworthy of life” using various toxic gases. Hitler had aborted Aktion T4 when Cardinal Clemens von Galen publicly denounced it in August 1941. But afterward he transferred the programme’s lethal gas technicians and technology to Poland, where they helped design camps for the purpose of exterminating the Polish Jews and gypsies.

On 20 December 1941, shortly after Chełmno extermination camp was taken into operation, the German authorities in Łódź ordered the Jewish Council to select 20,000 inmates from the overcrowded ghetto to be deported. Rumkowski successfully persuaded the Germans to halve this number. He then established a committee that selected prostitutes, criminals, people on welfare, the unemployed, and gypsies, who were particularly despised by the Germans and lived in cordoned-off section of the ghetto. 10,003 inmates were deported to Chełmno in January 1942.

Between February and September another 50,700 Jews were send to extermination camps. Their fate became increasingly clear to the remaining inmates as baggage, clothing, and identification papers were returned to the ghetto for processing. Many of the deportees were Jews who had been brought to Łódź from other parts of Poland, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Luxembourg. Łódź ghetto had effectively become a transit camp.

Give me Your Children
In early September 1942 the Nazis ordered Rumkowski to deliver all children aged ten or under for deportation. After his initial efforts to comply were unsuccessful, he gave a speech to the mothers of the ghetto that persuaded most of them to hand over their children:

A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children, I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers:
Give me your children!

Yesterday afternoon, they gave me the order to send more than 20,000 Jews out of the ghetto, and if not – “We will do it!” So the question became: should we take it upon ourselves, do it ourselves, or leave it to others to do? Well, we – that is, I and my closest associates – thought first not about how many will perish? but how many is it possible to save? And we reached the conclusion that, however hard it would be for us, we should take the implementation of this order into our own hands.

I have no thought of consoling you today. Nor do I wish to calm you. I must lay bare your full anguish and pain. I come to you like a bandit, to take from you what you treasure most in your hearts! I have tried, using every possible means, to get the order revoked. I tried – when that proved to be impossible – to soften the order. Just yesterday, I ordered a list of children aged nine – I wanted at least to save this one age group: the nine-to-ten-year-olds. But I was not granted this concession. On only one point did I succeed: in saving the ten-year-olds and up. Let this be a consolation to our profound grief.

There are, in the ghetto, many patients who can expect to live only a few days more, maybe a few weeks. I don’t know if the idea is diabolical or not, but I must say it: “Give me the sick. In their place we can save the healthy.”

I must tell you a secret: they requested 24,000 victims, 3,000 a day for eight days. I succeeded in reducing the number to 20,000, but only on the condition that these be children under the age of ten. Children ten and older are safe! Since the children and the aged together equal only some 13,000 souls, the gap will have to be filled with the sick.

A broken Jew stands before you. Do not envy me. This is the most difficult of all orders I have ever had to carry out at any time. I reach out to you with my broken, trembling hands and beg: give into my hands the victims! So that we can avoid having further victims, and a population of 100,000 Jews can be preserved! So, they promised me: if we deliver our victims by ourselves, there will be peace!

I understand what it means to tear off a part of the body. Yesterday, I begged on my knees, but it did not work. From small villages with Jewish populations of 7,000 to 8,000, barely 1,000 arrived here. So which is better? What do you want? That 80,000 to 90,000 Jews remain, or God forbid, that the whole population be annihilated?

One needs the heart of a bandit to ask from you what I am asking. But put yourself in my place, think logically, and you’ll reach the conclusion that I cannot proceed any other way. The part that can be saved is much larger than the part that must be given away!

The End of the Ghetto

The deportations continued at a great pace until they slowed down in October 1942. By that time the Ghetto had been transformed to a labour camp where nearly 90,000 able-bodied Jews toiled. Around 5,000 Roma lived in a separate part of the ghetto. From December 1942 on the Jews were assisted by 8-to-14-year-old Christian children who lived in an adjacent camp.

When in early 1944 the Red Army came within 100 kilometre of Łódź, the 80,000 Jews who were left in the ghetto hoped they would be liberated. However, it took the Soviets a year before they finally reached Łódź. When it also became known that the Soviet secret police had executed and deported tens of thousands Poles, many inmates realized that the Red Army did not come as a liberator but rather, as the Polish general Stefan Rowecki put it, as “our allies’ ally.”

The outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising in August 1944 hastened the Nazis’ liquidation of the ghettos in Łódź and elsewhere. Albert Speer, the Minister of Armaments and War Production, tried to preserve Łódź ghetto as a source of cheap labour but his proposals were denied. The Nazis quickly killed all 25,000 inmates who had been deported to Chełmno and redirected further transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau, away from the Eastern front.

Despite everything, Rumkowski kept trying to maintain order. On 15 August he posted a message that read: “Jews of the ghetto! Consider! Go voluntarily the transports!” Ten days later he and his family boarded the last train to Auschwitz-Birkenau. According to a Jew who was forced to work at the extermination camp and later testified at the Nurenburg Tribunal, a group of Jews from Łódź recognized Rumkowski and beat him to death at the entrance of a gas chamber. Others claim that a member of the SS shot him in the neck.

When the Red Army entered Łódź on 19 January 1945 only around 300,000 people were left in city. The ghetto population had been reduced to 877 Jews. During the war approximately 43,000 people had died in the ghetto and another 144,000 in the extermination camps.