- Hardcover: 560 pages
- Publisher: Viking; 1st edition (1 Mar. 1990)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0670829838
- ISBN-13: 978-0670829835
- Product Dimensions: 50.8 x 50.8 x 50.8 cm
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 546,111 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community Under Siege Hardcover – 1 Mar 1990
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I first came across the tragic history of the Ghetto in a sidebar in 'The Rough Guide' to Poland (the best Polish guide book). It is an extraordinary story: within 2 days of the 1939 occupation of Lodz (pronounced 'Wootch'), a large industrial city some 50 miles South-West of Warsaw, the Germans started a general and increasing anti-Semitic terror, and shortly afterwards herded the 230,000-odd Lodz Jews into a slum area. Chaim Rumkowski, a failed businessman (velvet manufacturer) with an interest in child welfare and Zionism, was appointed 'Elder of the Jews' by the Germans, and established himself as a dictator, supported by informers, sycophants, and the 'Kripo' police. Those opposing him were selected for the transports to Chelmno, which, unbeknownst but increasingly suspected, was a death camp. Rumkowski's strategy for survival was work: 'a gold currency of the highest calibre - the labour of Jewish hands'; `only work can save us from the worst calamity'; `work protects us from annihilation', and, in forcing the population to work for food, he fuelled the Nazi war effort. In 1944, with the advance of the Red Army from the East, the Ghetto was liquidated with the survivors being sent to Oswiecim - or, to give it its German name, Auschwitz. This book is a collection of some of the literary fragments that remain.
The book follows the chronological progress of the Ghetto, from its establishment (1940); the deportation into the Ghetto of some 20,000 Jews from Hamburg, 3,000 Polish Jews, 5,000 Gypsies (Rumkowski: `I've explained that we cannot live together with them. Gypsies are the sort of people who can do anything. First they rob and then they set fire... .'), and Jews from Prague, Luxembourg, Berlin, Cologne, Vienna, Frankfurt... (1941); the `Nightmarish Days' when, in 1942, the Germans liquidated the hospitals and demanded the surrender to them of children (with the sickening speech by Rumkowski: `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!'), until the final rounds of deportations and the liberation of the Ghetto in 1944: 10,000 survived; 60,000 died in the Ghetto (mostly, apparently, from hunger); 130,000 died at Chelmno or Oswiecim.
There are German documents (`To: The Eldest of the Jews. July 16h., 1942. Re: Machines in the Ghetto. I request that you immediately investigate whether there is a Bone Grinder in the ghetto, either with a motor or hand-driven. The special command in Chelmno is interested in such a grinder. On behalf of F.W. Ribbe, Assistant Director, Ghetto Administration'), Yiddish poems, diaries, fragments of notes, transcripts of Rumkowski's speeches and proclamations. The shattered fragments of a surprisingly rich cultural life.
The works selected for publication have been beautifully translated from the original Polish, Hebrew, Yiddish, and German. The translation is of the highest order. The book is also illustrated with photographs, including some in colour, which are also of high quality. The notations to the texts are also good.
However, the book falls down badly in other areas. It should have a map, showing readers where Lodz, Chelmno, and Oswiecim are (there is a map of the Ghetto itself). It has a grossly inadequate contents page, and no index. However, the most serious failing is the woefully inadequate Foreword, which fails to put the Ghetto into an historical, Polish, or wider framework, or the texts into a literary context. The reader is, more or less, simply presented with the texts and left to get on with it.
I suspect that much of this parsimony is the responsibility of the publishers, but the editors must be held responsible for the failure to help the reader place the texts in context, and I suspect that their reticence has much to do with the contentious problem of Polish-Jewish relations, and wider questions about Zionism, the lack of resistance to the Germans (indeed, the collaboration with the Germans), the dictatorship of Rumkowski, and so on.
We learn, for example, from captions to photographs: 'A gypsy camp adjacent to the ghetto did not have any sanitation system and was quickly wiped out by typhus'; 'SS Reichsfuher Heinrich Himmler is greeted on his arrival in the ghetto by Rumkowski, June 7, 1941.' There is nothing else in the book about the Gypsy camp or Himmler's visit. Similarly, there are only minor references to the non-Jewish Polish population of Lodz (who also suffered hugely under Nazi occupation). There is one, minor, document about the dispute between Speer (Minister of Armaments), who wanted to preserve the Ghetto as a valuable contributor to the war effort, and Himmler, who eventually succeeded in enforcing the `Final Solution'. Poems are included within the anthology, translated from Yiddish, but there is no attempt to explain the literary merit behind them.
The concentration on the Ghetto is both a strength and a weakness of the book; ultimately, however, it undermines the book. In particular, I should have liked to have heard more about the heroic Warsaw Ghetto uprising (1943) and the Warsaw uprising (1944), and how they impacted on the Lodz Ghetto. I think that it is wrong not to acknowledge, at least, the parallel suffering of the non-Jewish population; for the record, the Germans immediately rounded up the entire hierarchy of the Church, all Trade Unionists, Communists, and intellectuals (which appears to have been defined as anyone with a degree), and sent them to Oswiecim, and those remaining were considered `untermensch' (sub-human), suitable only for slave labour. Some 25% of Poland's population - which included, of course, a large and well-integrated Jewish population - were killed during the war: a higher proportion than any other country.
In conclusion, the book never answers the question `what is it?' Is it a record of historical documents; a literary anthology; or a collection of ephemera organised chronologically? How can a reader respond to the documents, as they are presented without any editorial help?
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