The Lodz ghetto became the second largest ghetto created by the Nazis after their invasion of Poland – the largest was the Warsaw Ghetto. The Lodz ghetto was only originally intended to a be a temporary feature in Lodz but the sheer number of people involved meant that it became a permanent feature of Lodz until August 1944 when those who remained were transported to Auschwitz/Birkenau.
Nazi Germany attacked Poland on September 1st1939. Lodz was captured in the same month. Over one-third of the city’s population (that stood at just under 700,000) were Jewish. As would be expected, pre-World War Two the Jews of Lodz lived throughout the city. From a Nazi viewpoint, moving the Jews into one area of the city would have made their ‘administrative’ work easier. The first recorded mention of such a move was on December 10th 1939 when an order was written that stated that having the Jews in just one area of the city made deportation a lot easier. The Nazi hierarchy had stated that they wanted Lodz free of Jews by October 1st1940. The Nazis had renamed Lodz ‘Litzmannstadt’ in honour of a World War One German general, Karl Litzmann. The Nazi plan was to aryanise the city so that it and the surrounding area could be absorbed into the Reich.
On February 8th 1940 an order was passed that restricted Jews to specified areas of Lodz – the Old City and the Baluty Quarter. Wooden fences and barbed wire later surrounded the two areas. On May 1st 1940, Jews were formally restricted to the ghetto and were effectively cut-off from the rest of Lodz.
Initially the ghetto had 47 schools to ensure that children received an education. Day-care centres were set-up to look after the youngest children who parents had to work. In 1941, both were made illegal but the day-care centres continued to operate covertly.
It is estimated that the original population of the ghetto was 164,000. During its time the ghetto received Jews from other areas of Europe and a small Roma population was made to live there as well. Any contact with others outside the ghetto in Lodz was strictly forbidden. A law was passed that any Jew caught outside of the ghetto could be shot on sight. To ensure that the Nazis had no excuse for further punitive action against the Jews in the ghetto, the ghetto population created a police force to stop any escape across or under the wire. Any commercial transactions carried out between those outside the ghetto walls and the Jews in it were also strictly forbidden; again, on pain of death. The Warsaw Ghetto developed a reasonably sophisticated system of smuggling to bring in food and medical supplies from the outside. The policing around Lodz made this practically impossible. Those in the Lodz ghetto were also forced to use their own currency, which would have been valueless outside of the ghetto. Therefore the Jews in the Lodz ghetto were entirely reliant on the Nazis for food and essential supplies. This is what Chaim Rumkowski realised and he worked to work with this process in the knowledge that the Jews in Lodz really had no other choice if they wanted to survive.
As a historical figure, Rumkowski still creates controversy. There are those who criticised him for working with the Nazis and his detractors called him ‘King Chaim’. Others believe that he really had no choice (nor did the Jews in the ghetto) and that his work was not the work of the Devil, but a choice foist on them. Either way, the Nazis made Rumkowski the head of the Jewish Council in the Lodz ghetto and he decided that the only way to cope with the predicament they were in was to work with the Nazis in the city to gain food and other supplies. He answered directly to Hans Biebow, who was head of Nazi administration in the Lodz Ghetto.
The Lodz ghetto became a huge workshop manufacturing equipment for the Nazi war machine. Rumkowski convinced himself that this was the only way for the ghetto to proceed if it wanted to survive. The adult population in the ghetto worked for 12 hours a day in the 117 workshops created. Rumkowski may well have been correct, as the Lodz ghetto continued to exist after all the other ghettos in Poland had been destroyed.
Life within the Lodz Ghetto was very harsh with limited food and medical supplies. The Jews in the ghetto were entirely dependent on the Nazis and the Nazis frequently reneged on any agreements made between themselves and the Jewish Council. Disease was a major issue as the population of the ghetto was so closely packed into such a small area that any outbreak could spread very quickly. Of the 164,000 people in the ghetto, it is estimated that 43,500 died of starvation or disease. However, numbers in the ghetto were always high as a result of the many thousands sent to the ghetto from other occupied areas of Europe.
Deportations from the Lodz Ghetto started on December 20th1941. Within six months a total of 55,000 Jews had been deported. In September 1941, the Nazis ordered that 20,000 children had to be deported, which led to Rumkowski pleading with those in the ghetto to “give me your children". Deportation stopped after this and the Lodz Ghetto stabilised at about 70,000.
Heinrich Himmler wanted the Lodz Ghetto destroyed in 1943 but what probably delayed its ultimate fate was the realisation by the Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, that the Lodz Ghetto was a good supply of military equipment created very cheaply. Speer pushed for the ghetto to continue and he won the argument. In this sense, Rumkowski’s argument – to work with the Nazis to survive – was correct. However, Speer only delayed what other ghettos had already suffered. In the summer of 1944 a decision had been taken in Berlin to destroy the Lodz Ghetto. Between June and July 1944, about 7,000 Jews were sent to their deaths at the Chelmno death camp. However, after July, the huge majority of the surviving Jews were sent to Auschwitz/Birkenau. 900 Jews were left in the ghetto by the time the Red Army freed the city on January 19th, 1945.