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A chilling look at the Lodz ghetto

The unlikely tale of the man who tried to save the Jews of Lodz.

By Matthew Shaer / May 21, 2008



In the first months of 1940, Wilhelm Hallbauer traveled from the German port town of Wilhelmshaven to the Polish industrial town of Lodz, which had recently succumbed to Nazi forces. His orders: bring to the place a semblance of social and architectural modernity. Here in Lodz the Germans saw an opportunity to reshape a backward Polish city into a Nazi showplace, a contemporary metropolis of the arts.

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But above all, Gordon J. Horwitz explains in his chilling new history, Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City, Hallbauer’s role was to usher Lodz through the “grand scheme of historic population changes” – first the isolation, and finally the destruction, of the Jews.

By the 1930s, Lodz, which sits in the center of Poland, some 80 miles southwest of Warsaw, counted a population of almost 604,000. Some 32 percent were Jews, drawn to the city by a market boom in textile manufacturing and trade. Nine percent of the population was German; the rest were Poles, many recently arrived from the surrounding countryside. “Under enlightened German administration,” Horwitz notes, “all this was going to change.”

Early in 1940, citing – speciously – an outbreak of disease among the Jewish residents of Lodz, Nazi officials began transplanting all 200,000 Jews to a barbed-wire ghetto in the northern district. There, men, women, and children were crammed into tiny tenement houses, with community taps spouting murky, undrinkable water.
On March 6 of that year, the Nazis decided that the evacuation of downtown Jewish households, which were to be handed over to German settlers, was moving too slowly. That evening, soldiers dragged residents onto the main boulevard, and shot 200 immediately; 150 people were later killed in the forest at the city’s edge.

Two months later, Nazi records indicated that 163,777 Jews had been successfully herded into the ghetto. The avenues and government buildings downtown were renamed for Germanic heroes; Lodz itself was reborn as Litzmannstadt, after a prominent World War I commander. “The last Jews,” Horwitz writes, “had disappeared from the urban scene.”

“Ghettostadt” is a necessarily heavy book, front-loaded by a sense at wonderment: How quickly the atrocities piled up. But “Ghettostadt” is more than just another recounting of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Surprisingly, it is the first English-language study of the Lodz ghetto. Horwitz, an associate professor of history at Illinois Wesleyan University, relies on a rich mix of primary sources – including diaries, testimonies, and memoirs of the Lodz Jews themselves – to tell the story of the Lodz ghetto in a fashion that is as thorough and compelling as it is horrifying.

It’s also – paradoxically – a history imbued with forgiveness. Horwitz is fascinated by Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, (also known at the time as “King of the Jews”). Before the German invasion, Rumkowski was a manager of Jewish welfare agencies whose career had been tainted by a sex scandal. After the German occupation was established, Rumkowski – under the propelling force of his own ambition – talked his way into becoming the administrator of the ghetto and the official liaison with Nazi leadership.

Rumkowski was an arrogant and dictatorial leader, and tended to favor wealthy and educated Jews. But Horwitz also portrays him as a true believer in a strategy of “rescue through labor, and delay.” He believed that if the Jewish community in Lodz could prove themselves useful they might survive. So he organized the ghetto into a production center, churning out goods needed by the Germans for the war effort.

As World War II hurtled toward its end and Nazi leadership began ramping up efforts to completely extinguish the Jewish population, Rumkowski pushed residents to slave in the factories and shops, hoping to make them indispensable and to keep them safe till the end of the war.

He did not succeed. In August 1944, Rumkowski and the remaining 70,000 Lodz Jews were sent to death camps.
“Ghettostadt” tells its story through hundreds of sources, from Rumkowski’s diary to the journals of the German commanders. At its best, the book becomes an intimate account of a tragedy driven by leadership gone mad and carried out by the citizens of a ghetto pressed daily into unrelenting misery until they finally disappeared.

Matthew Shaer is a Monitor staff writer.

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