DURING the spring and summer of 1940 the German occupiers of Poland collected all of that nation's extensive Jewish population into certain rundown city areas which they walled in and called "ghettos." All non-Jews were moved out and the Jewish population placed under the day-to-day administration of a German-selected official who was given the title "The Eldest of the Jews."
In the case of the ghetto of the city of Lodz, Poland's second largest city, the Eldest of the Jews was an autocratic, self-important 62-year-old man named Mordecai Chaim Rumkowski. But whatever his defects, he was clearly a brilliant administrator. By the time in May 1940 that the Lodz ghetto was enclosed with a fence of barbed wire and a population of 163,000 Jews imprisoned within it, Rumkowski's ghetto bureaucracy of some 10,000 persons was fully prepared. There were extensive departments for housing, social services, food rationing, taxation, schooling, postal services, justice (including a prison) and law enforcement. There was an intricate system of hospitals, community kitchens and banks. A large Jewish police force known as the "Order Service" was ready for duty. There were also such sophisticated services as a Department of Archives, within which was a subdivision of about a dozen persons who wrote a daily diary of events within the ghetto. This diary, known as The Chronicle, was intended for postwar publication as the history of the Lodz ghetto. It comes to a conclusion in 1944 when the ghetto was liquidated, upon which the surviving archivists hid The Chronicle. It was recovered in 1945 and has been edited and abridged by Lucjan Dobroszycki, a historian at New York's prestigious YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and himself one of the very few survivors of the Lodz ghetto.
The Chronicle provides a fascinating day-by-day account of life within the ghetto. Food shipments into this small city of half-starved persons are, of course, described with great interest and detail. So, too, are the events affecting the many workshops in the ghetto which employ much of the population and which manufacture mostly equipment for the German army.
The Lodz ghetto is hell upon earth. The Chronicle tells how the Jews live jammed together in one room "apartments" and in indescribable filth and discomfort. Summer brings a peculiar torture as each night vermin emerge from the floors and walls to feed on the packed sleepers. The Chronicle reports the constant murder of persons who inadvertently walk close to the barbed wire fences and are shot without warning by the German sentries, who do it almost for sport it seems. It is all too much for some persons. They attempt suicide by throwing themselves out windows -- but it seems there are few windows higher than four stories and so many of these would-be suicides only succeed in mangling themselves.
COMPLETELY cut off from the outside world, the Lodz Jews evidently know almost nothing of the events of World War II. The Chronicle does not even mention the German invasion of Soviet Russia. There are only three realities for the ghetto dweller: 60 hours a week of labor in the workshops, semi-starvation, and the deportation of trainloads of persons to mysterious "work camps" somewhere outside the ghetto.
Amid all of this, Eldest of the Jews Rumkowski lives almost as a king. He has ghetto currency and postage stamps printed which bear his picture (they are nicknamed "Chai mki" and "Rumki" by the populace), and when he marries there is a holiday with a special food ration issued. Rumkowski's might is enormous because it is he who decides who will be deported to the "work camps" at Auschwitz and Chelmno. In short, he has the power of life or death.
Rumkowski has concluded that the only way to save a portion of his people is to convince the Germans that the ghetto workshops are of great value to their war effort. They might be persuaded to leave the Jews in place, at least those who are able to work, in exchange for the product of their labor. The Germans appear to buy this -- for a time. But in January 1942 the "Final Solution" determination is made in Berlin and the death camps are soon ready. The "authorities" (as The Chronicle usually refers to the Germans) demand that Rumkowski assemble 10,000 or 15,000 or 20,000 Jews in lots for "resettlement." Rumkowski bargains with them and is sometimes permitted to cut back on the quota. He is also allowed to offer up first the old, the sick, children under 10, and thoseucky enough to have no jobs.
Rumkowski's bureaucrats in the "Office of Resettlement" make lists of who will be deported on the trains which arrive directly in the ghetto. His postal service sends out postcard notification to the deportees. At first they come dutifully, carrying the hand baggage which they have been told they will be allowed. But at the station the baggage is taken from them and they are forced onto trains which steam off but which return empty only 12 hours later. Frequently huge quantities of used clothing are trucked into the ghetto for reconditioning in the workshops. The clothing has been slit down the seams and paper currency from the Lodz ghetto is frequently found in it. The ghastly implications of all this are not lost upon those remaining. By September 1942 it is impossible to get people to report for deportation. The police of the Order Service must be sent out to drag people from their hiding places. The hospitals and the prisons are cleaned out of their inmates and small children are snatched from the streets to meet the quotas.
For those who are left in the swiftly depopulating ghetto there is nothing to do but mourn, work, try not to think of the future, and attempt to hope -- because, of course, they do not know for certain that deportees are going straight to their deaths at the camps. Even The Chronicle will only go so far as to say that "Absolutely nothing is known about the fate of any of the people resettled from this ghetto."
The Chronicle ends with the entry of July 30, 1944, as the Soviet armies are only 75 miles away. In August the last transports left the ghetto for Auschwitz. Rumkowski and his family were put aboard the final train. Less than a thousand Jews, hiding out in the empty buildings, survived.
The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto gives a uniquely detailed and devastatingly accurate account of wartime life in a Polish ghetto. It is surely an invaluable historical source. The editor has contributed an excellent introduction, but after that he has let the chroniclers speak for themselves with few explanatory notes being necessary. It is a story which must be told. One can learn much from this book -- but it is a distinctly somber and painful account.