Lodz Ghetto

One of the Largest Nazi-Established Ghettos During the Holocaust

Picture of Jews in the Lodz Ghetto
Jews wearing Star of David badges, Lodz Ghetto, Poland. The Nazis forced Jews into over-crowded ghettos from which thousands were deported to the death camps. (circa 1940). (Photo by Jewish Chronicle/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

What Was the Lodz Ghetto?

On February 8, 1940, the Nazis ordered the 230,000 Jews of Lodz, Poland, the second largest Jewish community in Europe, into a confined area of only 1.7 square miles (4.3 square kilometers) and on May 1, 1940, the Lodz Ghetto was sealed. The Nazis chose a Jewish man named Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski to lead the ghetto.

Rumkowski had the idea that if the ghetto residents worked then the Nazis would need them; however, the Nazis still started deportations to the Chelmno Death Camp on January 6, 1942.

On June 10, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the Lodz Ghetto liquidated and the remaining residents were taken to either Chelmno or Auschwitz. The Lodz Ghetto was empty by August 1944.

The Persecution Begins

When Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the world watched with concern and disbelief. The following years revealed persecution of Jews, but the world reveled in the belief that by appeasing Hitler, he and his beliefs would remain within Germany. On September 1, 1939, Hitler shocked the world by attacking Poland. Using blitzkrieg tactics, Poland fell within three weeks.

Lodz, located in central Poland, held the second largest Jewish community in Europe, second only to Warsaw. When the Nazis attacked, Poles and Jews worked frantically to dig ditches to defend their city. Only seven days after the attack on Poland began, Lodz was occupied. Within four days of Lodz's occupation, Jews became targets for beatings, robberies, and seizure of property.

September 14, 1939, only six days after the occupation of Lodz, was Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days within the Jewish religion. For this High Holy day, the Nazis ordered businesses to stay open and the synagogues to be closed. While Warsaw was still fighting off the Germans (Warsaw finally surrendered on September 27), the 230,000 Jews in Lodz were already feeling the beginnings of Nazi persecution.

On November 7, 1939, Lodz was incorporated into the Third Reich and the Nazi's changed its name to Litzmannstadt ("Litzmann's city") - named after a German general who died while attempting to conquer Lodz in World War I.

The next several months were marked by daily round-ups of Jews for forced labor as well as random beatings and killings on the streets. It was easy to distinguish between Pole and Jew because on November 16, 1939 the Nazi's had ordered Jews to wear an armband on their right arm. The armband was the precursor to the yellow Star of David badge, which was soon to follow on December 12, 1939.

Planning the Lodz Ghetto

On December 10, 1939, Friedrich Ubelhor, the governor of the Kalisz-Lodz District, wrote a secret memorandum that set out the premise for a ghetto in Lodz. The Nazis wanted Jews concentrated in ghettos so when they found a solution to the "Jewish problem," whether it be emigration or genocide, it could easily be carried out. Also, enclosing the Jews made it relatively easy to extract the "hidden treasures" that Nazis believed Jews were hiding.

There had already been a couple of ghettos established in other parts of Poland, but the Jewish population had been relatively small and those ghettos had remained open - meaning, the Jews and the surrounding civilians were still able to have contact.

Lodz had a Jewish population estimated at 230,000, living throughout the city.

For a ghetto of this scale, real planning was needed. Governor Ubelhor created a team made up of representatives from the major policing bodies and departments. It was decided that the ghetto would be located in the northern section of Lodz where many Jews were already living. The area that this team originally planned only constituted 1.7 square miles (4.3 square kilometers).

To keep non-Jews out of this area before the ghetto could be established, a warning was issued on January 17, 1940 proclaiming the area planned for the ghetto to be rampant with infectious diseases.

The Lodz Ghetto Is Established

On February 8, 1940, the order to establish the Lodz Ghetto was announced. The original plan was to set up the ghetto in one day, in actuality, it took weeks.

Jews from throughout the city were ordered to move into the sectioned off area, only bringing what they could hurriedly pack within just a few minutes. The Jews were packed tightly within the confines of the ghetto with an average of 3.5 people per room.

In April a fence went up surrounding the ghetto residents. On April 30, the ghetto was ordered closed and on May 1, 1940, merely eight months after the German invasion, the Lodz ghetto was officially sealed.

The Nazis did not just stop with having the Jews locked up within a small area, they wanted the Jews to pay for their own food, security, sewage removal, and all other expenses incurred by their continuing incarceration. For the Lodz ghetto, the Nazis decided to make one Jew responsible for the entire Jewish population. The Nazis chose Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski.

Rumkowski and His Vision

To organize and implement Nazi policy within the ghetto, the Nazis chose a Jew named Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. At the time Rumkowski was appointed Juden Alteste (Elder of the Jews), he was 62 years old, with billowy, white hair. He had held various jobs, including insurance agent, velvet factory manager, and director of the Helenowek orphanage before the war began.

No one really knows why the Nazis chose Rumkowski as the Alteste of Lodz. Was it because he seemed like he would help the Nazis achieve their aims by organizing the Jews and their property? Or did he just want them to think this so that he could try to save his people? Rumkowski is shrouded in controversy.

Ultimately, Rumkowski was a firm believer in the autonomy of the ghetto. He started many programs that replaced outside bureaucracy with his own. Rumkowski replaced the German currency with ghetto money that bore his signature - soon referred to as "Rumkies." Rumkowski also created a post office (with a stamp with his image) and a sewage clean up department since the ghetto had no sewage system. But what soon materialized was the problem of acquiring food.

Hunger Leads to a Plan to Work

With 230,000 people confined to a very small area that had no farmland, food quickly became a problem.

Since the Nazis insisted on having the ghetto pay for its own upkeep, money was needed. But how could Jews who were locked away from the rest of society and who had been stripped of all valuables make enough money for food and housing? 

Rumkowski believed that if the ghetto was transformed into an extremely useful workforce, then the Jews would be needed by the Nazis. Rumkowski believed that this usefulness would ensure that the Nazis would supply the ghetto with food.

On April 5, 1940, Rumkowski petitioned the Nazi authorities requesting permission for his work plan. He wanted the Nazis to deliver raw materials, have the Jews make the final products, then have the Nazis pay the workers in money and in food. 

On April 30, 1940 Rumkowski's proposal was accepted with one very important change - the workers would only be paid in food. Notice that no one agreed upon how much food, nor how often it was to be supplied.

Rumkowski immediately began setting up factories and all those able and willing to work were found jobs. Most of the factories required workers to be over 14 years old but often very young children and older adults found work in mica splitting factories. Adults worked in factories that produced everything from textiles to munitions. Young girls were even trained to hand stitch the emblems for the uniforms of German soldiers.

For this work, the Nazis delivered food to the ghetto. The food entered the ghetto in bulk and was then confiscated by Rumkowski's officials. Rumkowski had taken over food distribution. With this one act, Rumkowski truly became the absolute ruler of the ghetto, for survival was contingent on food. 

Starving and Suspicions

The quality and quantity of the food delivered to the ghetto was less than minimal, often with large portions being completely spoiled. Ration cards were quickly put into effect for food on June 2, 1940. By December, all provisions were rationed.

The amount of food given to each individual depended upon your work status. Certain factory jobs meant a bit more bread than others. Office workers, however, received the most. An average factory worker received one bowl of soup (mostly water, if you were fortunate you would have a couple of barley beans floating in it), plus the usual rations of one loaf of bread for five days (later the same amount was supposed to last seven days), a small amount of vegetables (sometimes "preserved" beets that were mostly ice), and brown water that was supposed to be coffee. 

This amount of food starved people. As ghetto residents really started feeling hunger, they became increasingly suspicious of Rumkowski and his officials.

Many rumors floated around blaming Rumkowski for the lack of food, saying that he dumped useful food on purpose. The fact that each month, even each day, the residents became thinner and increasingly afflicted with dysentery, tuberculosis, and typhus while Rumkowski and his officials seemed to fatten and remained healthy just spurred suspicions. Searing anger afflicted the population, blaming Rumkowski for their troubles.

When dissenters of the Rumkowski rule voiced their opinions, Rumkowski made speeches labeling them traitors to the cause. Rumkowski believed that these people were a direct threat to his work ethic, thus punished them and. later, deported them.

Newcomers in the Fall and Winter 1941

During the High Holy days in the fall of 1941, the news hit - 20,000 Jews from other areas of the Reich were being transferred to the Lodz Ghetto. Shock swept throughout the ghetto. How could a ghetto that could not even feed its own population, absorb 20,000 more?

The decision had already been made by the Nazi officials and the transports arrived from September through October with approximately one thousand people arriving each day.

These newcomers were shocked at the conditions in Lodz. They did not believe that their own fate could ever really mingle with these emaciated people, because the newcomers had never felt hunger.

Freshly off the trains, the newcomers had shoes, clothes, and most importantly, reserves of food.

The newcomers were dropped into a completely different world, where the inhabitants had lived for two years, watching the hardships grow more acute. Most of these newcomers never adjusted to ghetto life and in the end, boarded the transports to their death with the thought that they must be going somewhere better than the Lodz Ghetto.

In addition to these Jewish newcomers, 5,000 Roma (Gypsies) were transported into the Lodz ghetto. In a speech delivered on October 14, 1941, Rumkowski announced the coming of the Roma.

We are forced to take about 5000 Gypsies into the ghetto. I've explained that we cannot live together with them. Gypsies are the sort of people who can to anything. First they rob and then they set fire and soon everything is in flames, including your factories and materials. *

When the Roma arrived, they were housed in a separate area of the Lodz Ghetto.

Deciding Who Would Be the First Deported

December 10, 1941, another announcement shocked the Lodz Ghetto. Though Chelmno had only been in operation for two days, the Nazis wanted 20,000 Jews deported out of the ghetto. Rumkowski talked them down to 10,000.

Lists were put together by ghetto officials. The remaining Roma were the first to be deported. If you were not working, had been designated a criminal, or if you were a family member of someone in the first two categories, then you would be next on the list. The residents were told that the deportees were being sent to Polish farms to work.

While this list was being created, Rumkowski became engaged to Regina Weinberger - a young lawyer who had become his legal advisor.

They were soon married.

The winter of 1941-42 was very harsh for ghetto residents. Coal and wood were rationed, thus there was not enough to drive away frostbite let alone cook food. Without a fire, much of the rations, especially potatoes, could not be eaten. Hordes of residents descended upon wooden structures - fences, outhouses, even some buildings were literally torn apart.

The Deportations to Chelmno Begin

Beginning on January 6, 1942, those who had received the summons for deportations (nicknamed "wedding invitations") were required for transport. Approximately one thousand people per day left on the trains. These people were taken to the Chelmno Death Camp and gassed by carbon monoxide in trucks. By January 19, 1942, 10,003 people had been deported.

After only a couple of weeks, the Nazis requested more deportees.

To make the deportations easier, the Nazis slowed the delivery of food into the ghetto and then promised people going on the transports a meal.

From February 22 to April 2, 1942, 34,073 people were transported to Chelmno. Almost immediately, another request for deportees came. This time specifically for the newcomers that had been sent to Lodz from other parts of the Reich. All the newcomers were to be deported except anyone with German or Austrian military honors. The officials in charge of creating the list of deportees also excluded officials of the ghetto.

In September 1942, another deportation request. This time, everyone unable to work was to be deported. This included the sick, the old, and the children. Many parents refused to send their children to the transport area so the Gestapo entered the Lodz Ghetto and viciously searched and removed the deportees.

Two More Years

After the September 1942 deportation, Nazi requests nearly halted. The German armaments division was desperate for munitions, and since the Lodz Ghetto now consisted purely of workers, they were indeed needed.

For nearly two years, the residents of the Lodz Ghetto worked, hungered, and mourned.

The End: June 1944

On June 10, 1944, Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto.

The Nazis told Rumkowski and Rumkowski told the residents that workers were needed in Germany to repair the damages caused by air raids. The first transport left on June 23, with many others following until July 15. On July 15, 1944 the transports halted.

The decision had been made to liquidate Chelmno because Soviet troops were getting close. Unfortunately, this only created a two week hiatus, for the remaining transports would be sent to Auschwitz.

By August 1944, the Lodz Ghetto had been liquidated. Though a few remaining workers were retained by the Nazis to finish confiscating materials and valuables out of the ghetto, everyone else had been deported. Even Rumkowski and his family were included in these last transports to Auschwitz.

Liberation

Five months later, on January 19, 1945, the Soviets liberated the Lodz Ghetto. Of the 230,000 Lodz Jews plus the 25,000 people transported in, only 877 remained.

 

* Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, "Speech on October 14, 1941," in Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege (New York, 1989), pg. 173.

Bibliography

Adelson, Alan and Robert Lapides (ed.). Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege. New York, 1989.

Sierakowiak, Dawid. The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto. Alan Adelson (ed.). New York, 1996.

Web, Marek (ed.). The Documents of the Lodz Ghetto: An Inventory of the Nachman Zonabend Collection. New York, 1988.

Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry. New York, 1991.