Ghosts of the ghetto

“The Lodz ghetto was like its own country. It was the ‘first Jewish state’ if you will. It had its own post office, seven hospitals, seven pharmacies, a cultural center, a theater, and a symphony. It even had its own president: Chaim Rumkowski.”

Those are the words of Hubert Rogozinski, a local historian and volunteer at Lodz’s Jewish Community Center. Until a few years ago, Rogozinski made his living principally as a taxi driver. Now he’s a highly sought-after tourist guide, catering to an ever-growing number of visitors curious to learn the history of this industrial city of 800,000 people, 120 kilometers southwest of Warsaw.

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Few people outside of Poland will know much about this country’s second-biggest city. Lodz grew wealthy in the late-19th and early-20th centuries as a booming textiles center. More recently, though, it fell on tough times, as jobs moved to lower-wage countries abroad and Poland’s cash-strapped government could do little to arrest the decline.

It’s also burdened by a name that’s particularly vexing to non-Polish speakers. The “L” is soft and the “o” is long; it’s pronounced “woodge.”

But these days Lodz is on the rebound. Part credit goes to Poland’s resilient economy, which has weathered the global recession better than most. But part also goes to an enlightened city government that — to an extent unusual in Poland — has sought to highlight Lodz’s Jewish heritage, including the grim years under Nazi occupation.

A few years ago the Lodz City Hall and the Jewish Community Center joined forces to build a heritage trail through the city’s Nazi-era Jewish ghetto, including the vast Jewish cemetery and the train station from where thousands of ghetto residents were deported to Auschwitz. With the help of a detailed map and brochure from the local tourist office, visitors can walk the former ghetto at their own pace and see for themselves what happened here.

The effort is paying off. While there are no precise figures on how many visitors are coming to the former ghetto, the numbers clearly are rising.

Symcha Keller, the leader of Lodz’s small surviving Jewish community of around 1,000 people, says that for years the history of the Lodz ghetto was forgotten. “The communists were not interested in the history of the ghetto, and few people were coming here.” Now, he says, “it’s opened up a whole new history for us.”

The story of the Lodz ghetto is one of the most remarkable of the war. It was both the first large ghetto to be set up by the Nazis, in 1940, and the last to be liquidated, in 1944. At its height, the ghetto held around 200,000 people — mostly local Jews, but also sizable groups from Prague, Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg, and Luxembourg, as well as 5,000 Roma from Austria’s Burgenland province.

“The Lodz ghetto was not a typical ghetto. It was unique in Poland,” says Rogozinski. For one thing, he says, the ghetto was not primarily a holding center, as in Warsaw, but was a forced labor camp harnessed to the German war effort. Rogozinski adds that after the Warsaw ghetto was liquidated in 1943, “Lodz was practically the only place in Poland where you could find a community of living Jews.”

For four remarkable years the ghetto survived under the highly controversial leadership of Jewish elder Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski. It was Rumkowski who led a policy of collaborating with the Nazis as a way of prolonging the lives of ghetto inhabitants. When in 1942 the Nazis demanded more victims to clear space, Rumkowski infamously pleaded with mothers to give up their children. The mothers refused, but in the end 7,000 children were rounded up and shipped to the Chelmno (Kulmhof) extermination camp.

“I cannot speak about Rumkowski, whether he was good or bad,” says Rogozinski. He says Jewish opinion on Rumkowski remains divided. Many still hate him, while others credit him with saving the lives of the 7,000 to 14,000 Lodz Jews who survived the war. “The ethics and norms of the ghetto were different from our time,” says Rogozinski.

The Lodz ghetto was liquidated in August 1944 with the Warsaw uprising underway and the Soviet Red Army closing in from the East. The Nazis sent 73,000 Jews to Auschwitz-

Birkenau in a 20-day period from August 9 to August 29. Rumkowski himself was one of the last to go. He died at Birkenau on August 28.

After the war, few of the survivors elected to return to Lodz, and the tragic story of the ghetto was eventually buried under a mountain of communist propaganda.

Jaroslaw Nowak, an adviser to Lodz mayor Jerzy Kropiwnicki and one of the main proponents of efforts to highlight the ghetto, says under the communists, particularly from 1968 until 1989, “Jewish issues were completely taboo in Poland.” After 1989, he says, there were simply too many other problems to solve. “People were not focused on the Holocaust.”

Ironically, perhaps, it took the election of Kropiwnicki, leader of a small right-wing Christian party, as mayor in 2002 to bring about change.

Nowak says Kropiwnicki, at first, knew little about Jewish history. “It was only after he met with families of the survivors and saw how disappointed they were that the history had been forgotten that he resolved to do something about it.”

Jewish leaders initially were skeptical. Now Lodz is often held up as an example for other Polish cities, including Warsaw and Krakow, which arguably have been slower to make Holocaust sites more accessible to visitors.

Warsaw was home to Poland’s largest pre-war population of Jews and its largest wartime ghetto of nearly 400,000 people. In 1943, the Jews heroically rose up against the Nazis and then paid the ultimate price after the uprising was put down and the survivors shipped off to Treblinka. Yet, aside from a couple of statues, visitors search in vain for signs of the ghetto’s existence.

The situation is a bit better in Krakow, where interest in the city’s former Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, has risen dramatically in recent years – thanks at least in part to Steven Spielberg’s movie “Schindler’s List.” Kazimierz now hosts a popular festival of Jewish culture every year in June and the Jewish quarter has become an integral part of the city’s tourist trail. Still, the wartime ghetto at Podgorze, south of Kazimierz, where tens of thousands of Jews were herded during the war, remains largely forgotten. Oskar Schindler’s old factory remained derelict for years before finally re-opening this year as a museum of Krakow’s history during the war.

Back in Lodz, the best way to approach the ghetto is first to pick up the brochure “Jewish Landmarks in Lodz” from the tourist office. The walking tour begins at the central Balucki market and runs along the southern edge of the ghetto to the Jewish Cemetery and the Radegast train station. There are short explanations on each of 23 suggested stopping points.

There are few highlights along the way. The district remains one of the poorest in the city, and most of the points of interest – former barracks of Jews from Prague or Vienna, for example, or sites of hospitals or schools — amount to little more than abandoned buildings or what look to be bombed-out shells.

If anything, though, the enduring poverty only serves to heighten the impact. Nothing has been cleaned up or sanitized; it’s a piece of living history. The spirit of the former ghetto still hangs in the air.

Lodz’s massive Jewish cemetery – dating from the end of the 19th century — lies toward the end of the trail. The cemetery covers 40 hectares and holds more than 200,000 graves. Around 45,000 ghetto victims are buried in mass graves. But more moving perhaps are the countless rows of untended and overgrown graves from the 19th and early 20th centuries. It takes a moment for the realization to sink in: the graves are untended because no one from these families survived.

Beyond the cemetery, another 20 minutes by foot, is the Radegast station, from where the deportations left. Visitors today see the station as much as it appeared to ghetto residents as they were marched here in the summer of 1944 for the final journey to Auschwitz. Three Deutsche Reichsbahn cattle cars are sitting on the tracks, their doors still left open.

This story was originally written in 2008 and has been updated in parts where necessary. If you're interested in republishing this piece, please contact Mark Baker at

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One thought on “Ghosts of the ghetto”

  1. You say the Lodz ghetto was the last war ghetto liquidated, in 1944. I know that Terezin was a different kind of ghetto, but still. It was liberated in May 1945.

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