The Doomed

The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944.
by Lucjan Dobroszycki.
Yale. 550 pp. $35.00.

Three literary works, written in as many languages, have attempted to evoke the outward atmosphere of near-normalcy that was the species of horror peculiar to the ghetto of Lodz, Poland’s second largest city, where over 200,000 Jews were hermetically sealed off in May 1940. The best known of them is Jacob the Liar, a novel by Jurek Becker, an inmate of the Lodz ghetto in early childhood who after the war became, incongruously, an East German author. The other two are Chava Rosenhaft’s Yiddish novel, The Tree of Life, and Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews. Both focus on the enigmatic figure of Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the man the Nazis appointed ghetto leader and “Eldest of the Jews,” thus creating the illusion that the Jews themselves might have some say in their ultimate fate.

It was in great measure a result of the success of this deception that the slaughter of nearly all the ghetto’s inhabitants (fewer than a thousand, or half of 1 percent, lived to be liberated in 1944) could proceed in so systematic and orderly a way. But then, the lie was believed because the doomed Jews of Lodz wanted to believe that survival was possible—even if only at a very high cost and even if only for the young and sturdy and, above all, those able to earn the right to live by the sweat of their brow. Indeed, even today, with the benefit of hindsight, it still makes sense that these should have survived. Surely, under the prevailing conditions of an extreme labor shortage, it would have served the German national interest and the Nazi war effort to spare the lives of productive workers in the ghetto. But, however irrationally, spared they were not.

The same suggestion of irrationality hovers over this book, a pedestrian and matter-of-fact contemporary account of daily life in the ghetto of Lodz between January 1941 and July 1944. The final entries in this chronicle were made as the Nazis hurried to send off to the gas chambers as many of the ghetto’s surviving Jews as they could possibly handle. The German armies were then already in full retreat before advancing Soviet troops just a hundred miles away; German casualties were heavy. But this was not allowed to interfere with the task of murdering the last Jews in Poland’s last remaining ghetto. German cities were themselves in flames, and much of Poland had been liberated from Nazi occupation, when a train left Lodz on August 28, 1944. Aboard were Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the Eldest of the Jews, and members of his family. Its destination was Auschwitz.

_____________

 

Death and evil and suffering are commonly associated with accounts of the Holocaust, and also cruelty and indifference, and, very occasionally, heroism and charity. In reading the annals of the ghetto of Lodz yet another term comes to mind: madness. Even the manner in which the chronicle was written strains credulity. It is not the secret work of an individual intent on leaving to posterity an account of Jewish martyrdom and an indictment of Nazi crimes. Rather, it is, incredibly, the product of a collective effort, spanning a period of several years, by a team of a half-dozen writers, some of them native Polish Jews and others German-speaking Jewish intellectuals deported from the West; their aim was to record, as dispassionately as effort might permit, the day-by-day travail of the ghetto.

The Germans were apparently unaware of the chronicle’s existence, and there was always the danger of exposure. Hence, the Nazis’ activities—including mass slaughter and other atrocities—were most often referred to in euphemisms, passed over in silence, or presented as natural calamities and acts of God.

Another reason for self-censorship on the part of the chroniclers was that their enterprise was, incongruously, sponsored by the Judenrat, the Nazi-appointed Jewish council. The writers were, in fact, its paid functionaries, and even benefited from somewhat higher food rations than those allotted to the ghetto’s ordinary inmates. There is evidence that the Eldest of the Jews read issues of the chronicle (each day’s entry consisted of up to several typewritten Polish or German pages); if so, he invariably found himself portrayed as a kind of wise protector of the ghetto, its guardian angel. Rumkowski appears to have firmly believed that history would ultimately vindicate his policy of cooperation with the Nazis; it may well be that through his patronage of the chronicle, he intended to preserve for generations to come his own version of the ghetto’s long agony.

Individual daily entries give information about the weather and potato rations, suicides and petty crime, occasional weddings and even concerts of classical music. Sandwiched between these may be an inconspicuous reference to the round-up of yet another group of thousands of people—at first, the old and the infirm and the children, and then also more and more Jews “earning their keep”—for the purpose of “resettlement.” (The authors of the chronicle were, it seems, quite unaware that the deportees’ destination, usually described as unknown, was not another ghetto or labor camp but extermination centers where they were killed with gas.) Then, on the following day, the chronicle might record the work of the sanitation department or the price of coal. Throughout the document, there are innumerable references to starvation and disease. Some 60,000 Jews died in Lodz of such “natural” causes. Of the team that produced the chronicle, roughly half died of hunger and illness, with the other half murdered. One survived.

_____________

 

Lucjan Dobroszycki, an established historian in Poland prior to his departure in the late 1960’s, and now a Senior Research Associate of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, is himself a survivor of the Lodz ghetto. The volume now made available in English draws on much of his earlier research and also on the work of other scholars. It is especially valuable for its full use of Polish and Yiddish primary sources and secondary literature that remain beyond the reach of most Western scholars unable to read these languages. Dobroszycki’s contribution to the book is twofold, an introductory essay of some seventy pages and hundreds of valuable notes scattered through the text.

One issue Dobroszycki attempts to deal with is the failure of the Jews of Lodz to mount any armed resistance even when there could no longer be much doubt about the Nazis’ ultimate intentions. Why was there no ghetto uprising, as there was in Warsaw and in Bialystok and elsewhere; no major instance of sabotage; no escapes to the countryside to join anti-Nazi guerrillas? Indeed, why was there in Lodz, in striking contrast to other Polish cities, only a single instance of Jews being hidden outside the ghetto by Gentile friends? (The single exception involved two half-Jewish boys saved by their grandparents.)

Dobroszycki advances a number of hypotheses, foremost among them that the city’s outright annexation to the Reich (it was renamed Litzmannstadt) and its rapid Germanization destroyed the social fabric of the Polish part of the city, reducing the Poles themselves to the status of pariahs. Thus, in contrast to other cities, no public use of the Polish language was allowed in Lodz, and there were no Polish institutions.

These may well have been important contributing factors, but they hardly explain all. Perhaps a part of the answer is to be found in what we noted at the beginning, the illusion of normality so carefully maintained by the Nazis. Dobroszycki observes in another connection that the ghetto’s administration,

for all its anomalies and absurdity, functioned rather efficiently and provided services that brought the people of the ghetto a certain amount of relief, aid, even order, in those difficult conditions. There was an apparent, even excessive, normality, and probably nowhere were mass deaths from hunger and a stopgap society so closely coupled as they were in the Lodz ghetto. . . . Teaching was resumed in some of the elementary schools, both the secular and the religious, and in the gymnasiums and lyceums, where, among other subjects, Hebrew language and literature, Latin, and classical philosophy were taught. Although the Jewish holidays were, as a rule, compulsory workdays, they were observed both privately and in the few prayer houses that had been opened in the ghetto. The rabbinate, a part of the administration of the Eldest of the Jews, performed religious marriages, circumcision ceremonies also took place, and it was even possible to buy matzoh with a ration card during Passover. And finally, the ghetto had a theater and concert hall, to mention but two of its many cultural institutions. [Emphasis added]

The seductive appearance of normality tended to lull people into believing that survival was possible, and the hypnotic powers of an illusory normality were enhanced by the existence of the Nazi-sanctioned Jewish “self-government.” It did not matter, really, that the Germans themselves hardly took the Jewish Council seriously.

As for the Eldest of the Jews himself, he emerges in retrospect more as a tragic than as a sinister figure, even if his activities ultimately may have helped the Nazis to accomplish their objective with less effort and cost to themselves. Dobroszycki writes:

It is also unlikely that he [Rumkowski] accepted the post in hopes of gaining material and/or personal advantage. . . . He was well aware what the German Nazis were capable of, but he believed that, with proper behavior, things could somehow be worked out. He was not alone in that opinion, especially in the beginning. Rumkowski, however, maintained that conviction until the very end.

_____________

 

The 550 pages of Lucjan Dobroszycki’s English text of The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto are an abridgement of what was to be a complete Polish text roughly four times as long. Only the first two volumes of the Polish version appeared, in 1965-66. The remaining volumes, announced for publication, were never printed; the Lodz Publishing House, on instructions from the authorities, broke the contract with Dobroszycki and his co-editor. Communist Poland disapproved of the survival of Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967, and this disapproval led to a ban on the further publication of these annals of a Polish Jewish community in the throes of death. But the Jews of Lodz were not to be completely forgotten. Shortly thereafter, a new film appeared on Polish screens: based on a literary classic, Wladyslaw Reymont’s The Promised Land, the film portrayed vicious and greedy Jewish capitalists in turn-of-the-century Lodz. Thus are the Jews of Poland commemorated in their own land. We, at least, can be grateful to Lucjan Dobroszycki for the monument he has raised to their martyred memory.

_____________

 

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link