An Introduction to the Lodz Ghetto
Lodz, Poland was the second largest city in Poland at the start of World War II. It was home to the second highest population of Jews in Poland prior to the start of the war. Despite these statistics, Lodz was a city that had a long history of anti-Semitism. Lodz was originally under Prussian control, and these occupants felt the need to limit the amount of Jews who could live there. It was not until the Russians occupation of the city in the mid-1800s that these restrictions would be lifted. World War I and the destruction of the city, anti-Semitism returned as the Polish government refused to compensate Jewish factory and storeowners so they could rebuild what they had lost. At this point in time, Jews had made up a large portion of the city’s population and the city had thrived on the economic success of the Jewish population who lived there. It would take years for Lodz to return to what it was but just as it did, World War II was just around the corner.
The Nazis immediately made their presence felt in Lodz as early as September 14th, 1939, during Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest holidays in the Jewish religion. The Nazis demanded that Jewish businesses stay open and synagogues be closed. The Nuremburg Laws that were already established in Germany were now in effect in Poland as well. On November 7TH, 1939, the Nazis officially changed the name of Lodz to Litzmannstadt, named after the German general who died while failing to seize control of Lodz during World War I. On November 14th, Friedrich Ubelhor, the German overseer of the Lodz region, ordered that all Jews in Lodz wear an armband identifying them as Jewish. By December of 1939, this armband would later transform into the Star of David that had to be sewn into their clothing. The use of both the armband and Star of David to identify Jews was the first time, in Nazi history at least, that Jews were forced to wear indicators of their faith.
In December of 1939, Friedrich Ubelhor wrote a detailed outline on how to confine the Jews into an enclosed area of the city; this would mark the official beginning of the Lodz Ghetto. Ubelhor created this outline for a confined, prison-like living space for the Jews of Lodz because, while the “Final Solution” was years away, the Nazis believed that confining the Jews into concentrated areas would make it easier and faster to move them from one location to another if they desired to.
On October 13th, 1939, Rumkowski was appointed the head of the Lodz Ghetto. Chaim Rumkowski was given unheard of control over the area. Franz Schiffer, who was the mayor of Lodz before the Nazi invasion, wrote a letter to Rumkowski, relinquishing his power of Mayor to the newly appointed official. The following is an excerpt from the letter Schiffer wrote to Rumkowski: “I further charge you with the execution of all measures…necessary for the maintenance of an orderly community life in the residential district of the Jews. In particular you have to safeguard order in economic life, food supply, utilization of manpower, public health, and public welfare. You are authorized to take all measures and issue all directives necessary to reach this objective, and to enforce them by means of the Jewish police under your control…”
Prior to Rumkowski being appointed as the Jewish leader of Lodz, there was a pending investigation against him regarding allegations that he was molesting the children in the orphanage under his charge. Helen Devora Gens mentions in her testimony about Rumkowski’s alleged pedophilia: “Rumkowski with the elders, he could do everything. He was with this, he was with that, he was with all the girls. He made a club with all the young girls. Later they said he slept with all the young girls and he had a wife.” Lucile Eichengreen was a victim of Rumkowski’s pedophilia and wrote a memoir on her experiences in dealing with Rumkowski entitled Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz. In an interview, Lucile recalled her encounter with Rumkowski and was asked if he molested her: “Yes I did. It was unpleasant. It was shocking. I had been warned but not in clear terms. And to say something, or to do something, or to talk to somebody was not an option. You played with life or death.” “I consider him a child molester. I consider him a corrupt human being. I would not want him to be part of my family. But that’s only my opinion.”
On October 16th, 1939, Rumkowski picked 31 well known citizens of Lodz to be on his council to over see the operation of the city of Lodz. On November 11th, 1939, 21 of these council members were either killed or arrested by the Nazis. While these may have just been a series of unfortunate coincidences, many speculate that because Rumkowski complained about them to Nazi officials this lead to the reason why they were chosen. Several weeks later, Rumkowski picked new members to join his council in order to fill the vacancies left over from the last. The people he picked were severely under-qualified, however and lacked almost all the experience that the previous members of the council had.
“Rumkowski with the elders, he could do everything. He was with this, he was with that, he was with all the girls. He made a club with all the young girls. Later they said he slept with all the young girls and he had a wife.”
“He killed so many people. He gave them to the Germans. We heard in other small towns that if you asked the Elders, give us so many, so many people the Elders would say take me because you’re not getting any people. But he gave people, as many as they asked.”
Still to this day, the verdict on Rumkowski is not final, as historians debate whether or not he was a traitor or simply attempting to make the best of an awful and unprecedented situation. While there were survivors of Lodz and the acts of good that Rumkowski accomplished cannot be taken away from him, it does not wash away the fact that while he was in charge of the Lodz Ghetto, many appalling and heinous atrocities occurred under his watchful eye, whether personally carried out by him or one of his many ministries. Lodz became the longest lasting ghetto during the war, due to the economic advantage it provided to the Nazis, which in turn resulted in the saving of lives. The Nazis had no choice but to keep these laborers alive, but at the end of the war just over 3% of the Jewish population of Lodz survived. But if one were to judge him on one factor alone: people did survive under his supervision, directly and indirectly. The Talmud, an authoritative record of rabbinic discussions on Jewish law, Jewish ethics, customs, legends and stories, states: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Helen Devora Gens (Chaya-Hela Himelfarb) was born on September 19th, 1918. She was born and raised in Lódz, Poloand with her mother and father and 4 siblings. When the war started she was 21 years old when the war started and one of the earliest things she recalls about the rise of the Nazis was that people she had known most of her life, no longer associated themselves with her simply because she was Jewish. On May 1st, 1940, the Lodz Ghetto officially began. Barbed wire fence enclosed them in the ghetto and they were not allowed to leave. But more and more of them arrived as Jews from other towns would be relocated to Lodz. Helen lived with her family in their parents apartment but her father died of dysentery and shortly after, her mother died as well.
Helen was then left with just her siblings who she did not see all that often between working 12 hours a day in a German clothing factory and then finding places to sleep for she refused to sleep in the family apartment at night out of fear of being taken away by the Nazis. There was never enough food and the food they did have was often spoiled. In an attempt to help provide more to the inhabitants of Lodz, a council that was set up to determine who would be willing to be turned over to the Nazis, knowing that they would probably never return.
After several years in the Lodz Ghetto, Helen volunteered to go to Auschwitz, not knowing anything about it other than what the Nazis promised her, thinking that it was a labour camp that offered more in return for their efforts than the Lodz Ghetto. The Nazis also told her that since she is going to Auschwitz that she can take whatever personal belongings she wants with her. She became suspicious when they were transported on cattle train cars. After arriving at Auschwitz, she had all of her goods taken from her. She then had her head shaven and was told that she is going to go right into an oven. Thankfully, she was not killed this day and found a way to survive the next several weeks for Auschwitz was then liberated by the allied forces.
After she was liberated from the Nazis, she was told that she would be moving to America to seek a new life. Despite the thought of moving to America, she was not optimistic about how she would like it since she had lost so much and to move to a completely new place did not seem like the best of plans. She was told that upon going to America she would be sure to find a husband but at the time, that was the last thing that she was concerned about. Helen could not believe she survived the war nor could she believe everything that transpired over the past several years.