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The Łódź Ghetto (German: Ghetto Litzmannstadt) was the second-largest ghetto (after the Warsaw Ghetto) established for Jews and Roma in German-occupied Poland. Situated in the city of Łódź and originally intended as a temporary gathering point for Jews, the ghetto was transformed into a major industrial centre, providing much needed supplies for Nazi Germany and especially for the German Army. Because of its remarkable productivity, the ghetto managed to survive until August 1944, when the remaining population was transported to Auschwitz and Chełmno extermination camp. It was the last ghetto in Poland to be liquidated.
When German forces occupied Łódź in September 1939, the city had a population of 672,000 people, over one-third of them (233,000) Jews. Łódź was annexed directly to the Warthegau region of the Reich and renamed Litzmannstadt in honour of a German general, Karl Litzmann, who had led German forces in the area in 1914. As such, the city was to undergo a process of Aryanization: the Jewish population was to be expelled to the Generalgouvernement and the Polish population was to be reduced significantly and transformed into a slave labour force.
First mention of the establishment of a ghetto  appears in an order dated 10 December 1939, which spoke of a temporary gathering point for local Jews to ease the deportation process. By 1 October 1940, the deportation was to have been completed, and the city was to have been Judenfrei (free of Jews).
This set in motion a long series of anti-Jewish measures (as well as anti-Polish measures), by which Jews were stripped of their businesses and possessions, and forced to wear the yellow badge. Since the invasion, many Jews, particularly the intellectual and political leadership, fled to the area of the General government or eastward to Soviet-occupied Poland. On 8 February 1940, Jewish residence was limited to specific streets in the Old City of Łódź and the adjacent Baluty Quarter, the areas that would later become the ghetto. A Nazi-sponsored pogrom on 1 March in which many Jews were killed, expedited the relocation, and over the next two months, wooden and wire fences were erected around the area to cut it off from the rest of the city. Jews were formally sealed into the ghetto on 1 May of that year.
Because so many Jews had fled the city, the population of the ghetto upon its creation was 164,000. Over the coming years, Jews from Central Europe and as far away as Luxembourg were deported to the ghetto, and there was also a small Romany population that was resettled there (see: Porajmos).
To ensure that there was no contact between the Jewish and non-Jewish population of the city, two German police units were designated to patrol the perimeter of the ghetto. Within the ghetto itself, a Jewish police force was created to ensure that no Jews attempted to escape. Any Jews caught outside the ghetto could, by law, be shot on sight. On 10 May orders went into effect prohibiting any commercial contact between Jews and non-Jews in Łódź under similarly severe penalties. The contact with people outside the Ghetto was also impaired by the fact that Łódż had 70,000 strong German minority which was loyal to the Nazis.
In other ghettos throughout Poland, a thriving underground economy based on the smuggling of food and manufactured goods managed to emerge between the ghetto and the outside world. In Łódź, however, this was practically impossible, and Jews were entirely dependent on the German authorities for food, medicine, and other vital supplies. To further exacerbate the situation, the only legal currency in the ghetto was a specially created ghetto currency. Faced with starvation, Jews eagerly traded their remaining possessions and currency for this scrip, thereby abetting the process by which they were dispossessed of their few remaining belongings.
To organize the local population and maintain order, the German authorities established a Jewish Council, or Judenrat. The Judenälteste, or elder of the Judenrat, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, is still considered one of the most controversial figures in the history of the Holocaust. Known mockingly as "King Chaim," he was granted unprecedented powers by the Nazi government, which authorized him to "take all necessary measures" to maintain order in the ghetto.
Although he was directly responsible to Nazi official Hans Biebow, within the ghetto Rumkowski adopted an autocratic style of leadership to transform the ghetto into an enormous industrial complex, manufacturing goods on behalf of Germany. Convinced that Jewish productivity would ensure survival, he forced the population to work 12-hour days in abysmal conditions, producing garments, wood and metalwork, and electrical equipment for the German military. By 1943, some 95 percent of the adult population was employed in 117 ressorts or workshops, which Rumkowski once boasted to the mayor of Łódź, were a "gold mine." It was possibly because of this productivity that the Łódź Ghetto managed to survive long after all the other ghettos in occupied Poland were liquidated, though Rumkowski's maintenance of this system included systematically deporting potential political activists or anyone who might have had the capacity to lead resistance to the Nazis. Conditions were harsh and the population was entirely dependent on the German authorities. Typical caloric intake averaged between 700 and 900 calories a day. People affiliated with Rumkowski's administration received disproportionately larger distributions of food, medicine, and other rationed necessities. Starvation was rampant and diseases like TB widespread. This fueled dissatisfaction with Rumkowski, and even led to a series of strikes in the factories. In most instances, Rumkowski relied on the Jewish police force to quell the discontented workers, but in one instance, the German police were asked to intervene. Strikes usually erupted over the reduction of food rations.
Disease was also a major feature of ghetto life with which the Judenrat had to contend. Medical supplies were critically limited, and the ghetto was severely overcrowded. The entire population of 164,000 people was forced into an area of just 4 sq. kilometres, of which just 2.4 kilometres were developed and habitable. Furthermore, fuel supplies were severely short, and people burned whatever they could to survive the harsh Polish winter. Some 18,000 people in the ghetto are believed to have died during a famine in 1942, and altogether, about 43,500 people died in the ghetto from starvation and disease.
Overcrowdedness in the ghetto is exacerbated by the deportation there of some 40,000 people from the surrounding areas, as well as Germany, Luxembourg, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, particularly from Terezín. On 20 December 1941, Rumkowski announced that twenty thousand Jews would be deported from the ghetto, selected by the Judenrat from among criminals, people who refused to work, and people who took advantage of the refugees arriving in the ghetto. An Evacuation Committee was set up to help in selecting the initial group of deportees.
It is uncertain who first realized that the deportees were being sent to Chełmno, the first of the Operation Reinhard death camps, where they were killed with carbon monoxide fumes in gas vans (gas chambers had not yet been built). By 15 May 1942, an estimated 55,000 people had been deported. In September, children, the elderly and anyone deemed "not fit for work" would follow them.
By September, Rumkowski and the Jews of Łódź had learned that deportation meant death. Baggage, clothing, and identification papers of the deportees had been being returned to the Ghetto for processing, and people began to strongly suspect the fates of their fellow inmates. They had witnessed the German raid on a children's hospital, when all the patients were rounded up and put into trucks (some actually thrown from windows), never to be seen again. A new German order demanded that 20,000 Jewish children be handed over for deportation, and a debate raged in the ghetto over who should be handed over. After considering the options, Rumkowski was more convinced than ever that the only chance for survival lay in remaining productive for the Reich. He therefore addressed the parents of Łódź:
|“||A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I've lived and breathed with children, I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!||”|
Despite their horror, parents had little choice but to turn over their children for deportation. Some families committed collective suicide to avoid the inevitable.
Deportations slowed down for a time after the September 1942 purges of the Ghetto's "weak." By 1944, the Łódź Ghetto, with 70,000 inhabitants, had the largest concentration of Jews in Eastern Europe. The ghetto had been transformed into one large labor camp, where survival depended solely on the ability to work. Schools and hospitals were shut down, and new factories, including armament factories, were established. On the other hand, Soviet troops were just sixty miles away and advancing rapidly and the survivors lived with persistent rumors of salvation. Then suddenly, the Soviets stopped their advance.
The ultimate fate of the Łódź Ghetto was debated among the highest-ranking Nazis as early as 1943. Heinrich Himmler called for the final liquidation of the ghetto, with a handful of workers relocated to a concentration camp outside Lublin, while Armaments Minister Albert Speer advocated the ghetto's continued existence as a source of cheap labour, especially necessary now that the tide of the war had turned against Germany.
In the summer of 1944, it was finally decided to commence with the gradual liquidation of the remaining population. From June 23 to July 15, about 7,000 Jews were deported to the Chełmno extermination camp, where they were murdered. On July 15, 1944 the transports paused for two weeks while the Chełmno facility was dismantled due to proximity of the Soviet troops. As the front approached, it was decided to transport the remaining Jews, including Rumkowski, to Auschwitz, and the liquidation of the ghetto commenced quickly. On August 28, 1944, Rumkowski and his family were murdered at Auschwitz. Some people were left in the Ghetto to clean up. Only 877 Jews remained when the Soviet army liberated Łódź on January 19, 1945. Altogether, just 10,000 of the 204,000 Jews who passed through the Łódź Ghetto survived the war.
The peculiar situation of the Łódź Ghetto prevented any manifestations of armed resistance, which have become synonymous with the final days of the Warsaw Ghetto, Vilna Ghetto, Białystok Ghetto, and other ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland. Rumkowski's overbearing autocracy, the failure of attempts to smuggle food—and consequently, arms—into the ghetto, and the conviction that productivity would ensure survival precluded any attempts at armed revolt.
Nevertheless, Swiss sociologist Werner Rings identified four distinct forms of resistance that civilian populations engaged in throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, with offensive resistance constituting the final form of resistance. The other three categories: symbolic, polemic, and defensive, can all be found in the ghetto, and there are even indications of offensive resistance in terms of sabotage.
Symbolic resistance is evident in the rich cultural and religious life that was maintained in the ghetto throughout the early years. Initially, there were 47 schools and day care facilities in the ghetto, which continued to operate despite the harshest conditions. When the school buildings were converted to living space to house the 20,000 Jewish transported to the ghetto from Central Europe, alternatives were established, particularly for younger children whose mothers were forced to work. In addition to educating the young, schools attempted to ensure that children received proper nourishment despite the meager rations they were allotted. After the schools were shut down in 1941, many of the ressorts continued to maintain illegal daycare centres for children whose mothers were working.
Political organizations also continued to exist in the ghetto, and even engaged in strikes when rations were cut. In one instance, a strike got so out of hand that the German police were called upon to suppress it. At the same time, there was also a rich cultural life, including active theaters, concerts, and banned religious gatherings, all of which countered official attempts at dehumanization. Much information about cultural activities can be found in the ghetto archive, organized by the Judenrat to document day-to-day life in the ghetto.
The archive can also be considered a form of polemic resistance, intended to record life in the ghetto for future generations. The photographers of the statistical department of the Judenrat, besides their official work, illegally took photos of everyday scenes and atrocities. One of them, Henryk Ross, managed to bury the negatives and dig them up after liberation. It is because of this archive that we have a real sense of what life in the ghetto was like. Unlike many other images from that period, some of the photographs taken in the ghetto are in color, enhancing the already vivid portrait of ghetto life. As one diarist wrote: "We must observe and protect everything with a critical eye, draw sketches of everything that occurs ..." so that they would be remembered. The archivists also began creating a ghetto encyclopedia and even a lexicon of the local slang that emerged to describe their daily lives.
Although it was illegal, the Jewish population even maintained several radios with which they were able to keep abreast of events in the outside world. At first, the radio could only receive German news broadcasts, which is why it is codenamed "Liar" in many of the diaries from that period. Among the news bulletins spread around the ghetto was the Allied invasion of Normandy on the day it occurred.
Defensive resistance in the ghetto includes avoiding the final transports and helping others to do the same. Approximately 800 Jews managed to survive in the ghetto from the final liquidation until the Soviets finally liberated the city. Yet even before the final deportation, members of youth movements shared meagre rations with friends who refused to report for deportation, allowing them to survive even after they were no longer entitled to food rations.
Since work was essential to the ghetto's survival, it seems inevitable that sabotage was common. In the latter years, leftist workers adopted the slogan P.P. (pracuj powoli, or "work slowly") to hinder their work on behalf of the Wehrmacht. When a bunker with Jews hiding in it was discovered, one of the people assaulted Hans Biebow, Rumkowski's direct superior in the Nazi administration.
There is evidence in diaries that some form of armed resistance was discussed in the final days of the ghetto, but it never materialized as it did in other ghettos, because of the aforementioned considerations.
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