1942: Lodz ghetto “Children’s Action” begins

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

Between September 5 and September 13 was the great deportation of vulnerable individuals from the Lodz Ghetto, one of the largest Nazi ghettos in Europe.

The 150,000-odd Jews within had starved, slaved and suffered for nearly two years, but what came next was almost too much to bear. The Nazis demanded that Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski,* the ghetto’s controversial chairman, turn over 20,000 non-working people for deportation, including the elderly and all children under the age of ten.

Those two groups constituted only 13,000 people altogether, so the gap had to be filled with the sick. The police and other Jewish authorities in the ghetto would have a chance to round up the deportees themselves. If they didn’t accomplish this, the Germans would do it themselves.

Rumkowski’s policy had always been one of accomodating to the Nazis’ demands and appeasing them with the goal of saving as many Jews as possible. He didn’t deviate from his plan even in this instance, and tried to explain himself to the ghetto population in an electrifying speech on September 4:

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! […] I must perform this difficult and bloody operation — I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself. I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well — God forbid.

I have no thought of consoling you today. Nor do I wish to calm you. I must lay bare your full anguish and pain. I come to you like a bandit, to take from you what you treasure most in your hearts! I have tried, using every possible means, to get the order revoked. I tried — when that proved to be impossible — to soften the order. Just yesterday, I ordered a list of children aged 9 — I wanted at least to save this one aged-group: the nine to 10-year-olds. But I was not granted this concession. On only one point did I succeed: in saving the 10-year-olds and up. Let this be a consolation to our profound grief.

There are, in the ghetto, many patients who can expect to live only a few days more, maybe a few weeks. I don’t know if the idea is diabolical or not, but I must say it: “Give me the sick. In their place we can save the healthy.” I know how dear the sick are to any family, and particularly to Jews. However, when cruel demands are made, one has to weigh and measure: who shall, can and may be saved? And common sense dictates that the saved must be those who can be saved and those who have a chance of being rescued, not those who cannot be saved in any case. […]

Although it was never explicitly stated, the beaten-down, demoralized Lodz Jews harbored few illusions about the fate of deportees; most of them knew by now that deportation meant death.

Naturally there were cries of protest. People in the crowd suggested alternatives. They should all go together. Parents’ only children should not be taken; children should only be taken from families who had several. Rumkowski would have none if it:

These are empty phrases! I don’t have the strength to argue with you! If the authorities were to arrive, none of you would be shouting! I understand what it means to tear off a part of the body. Yesterday, I begged on my knees, but it did not work. From small villages with Jewish populations of 7000 to 8000, barely 1000 arrived here. So which is better? What do you want? That 80,000 to 90,000 Jews remain, or God forbid, that the whole population be annihilated? I have done and will continue doing everything possible to keep arms from appearing in the streets and blood from being shed. The order could not be undone; it could only be reduced.

One needs the heart of a bandit to ask from you what I am asking. But put yourself in my place, think logically, and you’ll reach the conclusion that I cannot proceed any other way. The part that can be saved is much larger than the part that must be given away!

In short, Rumkowski believed that only by cooperating with the German orders could he prevent even more lives from being lost.

He did have a point: The chairman of the Warsaw Ghetto, when faced with a similar deportation order, had committed suicide, and, as the Jewish authorities dragged their feet, the Nazis stepped in and, with much terror and bloodshed, forcibly deported close to 300,000 people over the course of six weeks. Resistance in Warsaw had made no appreciable difference in the death toll.

During the days that followed Rumkowski’s announcement, a general curfew was implemented and everyone was ordered to remain in their homes while the German SS and authorities, assisted by the Ghetto police and fire department (whose own families were exempted from the deportation) went from house to house to select their victims. The orphanages and old age homes were emptied, and Rumkowski himself supervised this to make sure no one was left behind.

People worked desperately to try to save themselves and the families. They knew the Germans would not be picky, would not be closely checking birth records or doctors’ certificates; it was enough for someone to simply look old or sick or very young.

Older men and women darkened their gray hair with coffee. Sick people dragged themselves out of bed and used makeup to brighten their faces. Children tried to hide, with their parents’ help, as Gordon J. Horwitz described in his book
Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City:

Some children hid in furniture and bedding, others in basement, in heaps of garbage and laundry, or in woodpiles. Parents did whatever they could, concealing children “in barrels in the attics, in ditches in the field, covered with leaves and branches.” One child sought refuge in a tree but was shot dead when discovered. Another, thanks to his father’s efforts to fashion an unusual hideout, rode out the danger concealed in a chimney on the roof. Though isolated and abandoned by the time they had been assembled in the collection area, child captives fought and scratched at the walls in a last-ditch effort to resist removal.

One teenage girl, after many attempts, managed to escape the assembly point and hid inside a mattress until it was safe to come out. Six-year-old Sylvia Perlmutter, whose experiences were fictionalized in her niece’s verse novel Yellow Star, hid in the cemetery.

Most of these efforts were in vain, however.

The search was thorough and the hunters ruthless. On September 13, the Nazis announced that the deportation was over. The survivors could resume their daily lives. It was not as bad as it could have been; 20,000 were not taken, after all. 15,859 people had been packed into trains, taken to the Chelmno Extermination Camp and killed. A further 600 had been shot within the ghetto itself.

For a long time after this, there were no more deportations. The ghetto inhabitants, although many of them continued to perish from starvation, overwork and disease, dared to hope that perhaps the Nazis would let them survive as long as they worked. But in the end, they didn’t escape: in August 1944, with the approaching Russian Army just 60 miles away, the entire ghetto population was deported to Chelmno and Auschwitz. An overwhelming number, including Chairman Rumkowski, perished.

* It was an open secret that Rumkowski was a pedophile who sexually abused the children in his charge both before and during the war. See Lucille Eichengreen’s Rumkowski and the Orphans of Lodz, and Edward Reichter’s Country of Ash.

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