The book of the week: Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City

David Cesarani revisits a city of the damned

May 15, 2008


Since the end of the Second World War, the behaviour of the Jewish leadership under Nazi rule, especially in the ghettos, has been fiercely debated. To Hannah Arendt, the Nazi-appointed Jewish Councils were little better than collaborators. Even observers who were more understanding and better informed than she was had trouble with Chaim Rumkowski, the "Eldest of the Lodz Ghetto". Rumkowski, sometimes styled "King of the Jews" within his domain, came to personify a megalomaniac style that suited the Nazis perfectly. But much of the criticism aimed at him relied on a sketchy knowledge of the ghetto's history.

It is remarkable that Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City is the first English-language study of the Lodz ghetto and Gordon Horwitz is the first scholar to draw together the mass of material that has been published or come to light since the appearance of the ghetto chronicle in 1984. Moreover, Horwitz synthesises the history of both the ghetto and the city. Few local studies in this genre (Auschwitz is the exception) have dared to attempt anything so ambitious.

The ultimately lethal dyad of city and ghetto is fundamental to his approach. In 1939, 60 per cent of the population of Lodz was Polish, one third Jewish and just 10 per cent German. But the city was in territory annexed to the Third Reich and the Nazi hierarchy wanted it transformed into a model habitation for the German "volk". Horwitz brings to light statements by urban planners that vividly demonstrate their conviction that for Lodz to become a modern German city, the Jews had to go. Indeed, its modernisation and Germanisation were defined by the exclusion of the Jews.

Just a few weeks after the German army conquered Lodz the Jewish population was compressed into a single district. Pillaged and persecuted, deprived of work and incomes, the overcrowded Jews quickly succumbed to hunger and disease. This gave the new German city council the pretext to enclose the "Jewish quarter". Poles, Germans and Jews were shunted around until all the city's 167,000 Jews were walled into the four square kilometre area that became the ghetto.

Rumkowski emerged in the midst of this turbulence. At 62, before the war he had enjoyed a successful career in Jewish welfare agencies and run a major orphanage. However, the shadow of a sex scandal hung over him and his brashness easily turned into arrogance. Initially, though, his boundless self-confidence was an asset when the Germans appointed him to head the council of "Elders".

He persuaded them that the best way to avoid epidemics spreading from the Jewish population was to supply the Jews with rations and medicine. They would pay for this out of their assets (which was why the Germans were effectively starving them in the first place) and by producing goods needed for the German economy and war effort. Fortunately for Rumkowski, the head of the ghetto administration, Hans Biebow, had a similar vision. He led the faction among the occupiers who favoured making the Jews productive for as long as they had to remain under German rule.

Rumkowski turned the Lodz ghetto into a major production centre and created a mini welfare state to distribute as fairly as possible the meagre resources it earned.

But his aspirations always outstripped his ability to deliver. The Jewish functionaries, policemen and other vital services always got more. The ghetto population disintegrated into a privileged elite, a mass of workers who barely subsisted, and marginal groups (including left-wing "dissidents" and Jews forced into the ghetto from other places) who were permanently on the cusp of starvation or deportation.

In January 1941, the first wave of deportations commenced. Rumkowski convinced his people that it was necessary to sacrifice a few, who were unproductive anyway, to save the many. As long as Jews worked, he promised, the ghetto would be safe.

But further deportations in September 1942 threatened the children on whose wellbeing he had staked his reputation. When he told a mass meeting that the children had to go he confessed: "I have come to you like a thief to deprive you of that which is dearest to your hearts."

Although in public he wept, on the quiet he made sure that the children of the privileged were safe. This guaranteed that the ghetto police would do the horrible work of herding the old and the young to the deportation sites where the Germans took them.

He was playing for time, but the Germans controlled the schedule. When they no longer had any use for the ghetto, time ran out. In August 1944, the 70,000 who remained were sent to Auschwitz and Chelmno death camps. Rumkowski went with them.

Horwitz gives an exemplary, balanced account of this tragic man. His actions make more sense in the light of what the Germans planned and how little the isolated ghetto inhabitants, including Rumkowski himself, suspected what was in store for them. They could not grasp that the Germans had no desire for a helot population in the middle of an "Aryan" showcase city. A cheap, tame, skilled labour force was a rational desiderata; but Nazi racism was irrational.

It is a pity that Horwitz has much less to say about the experience of the Polish population. He makes superb use of diaries, testimony and memoirs by Jews, but the Poles are silent. Nor does he give voice to the ethnic Germans, many of whom were dumped in the city from other regions. They are represented mainly through bombastic official speeches, weasel-worded documents or the Nazi press.

Horwitz's own prose ranges from damningly factual descriptions of how the Nazis exploited suffering and death to elegies for a lost Jewish world. He brilliantly juxtaposes what passed for life in the ghetto with the fun and games on the "Aryan" side. His knack of being authoritative and heart-rending at the same time lifts this book above mere history; it is a fitting memorial to a Lodz that is no more.

THE AUTHOR

Gordon Horwitz, a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, is associate professor of history at Illinois Wesleyan University. His research on the Holocaust stems from a childhood fascination for documentary film and Second World War literature.

He calls the discovery that he could actually forge a career in history a "wonderful revelation" and found that deeper study of the subject only inspired him more, citing Raul Hilberg and George Steiner as his stimulation to research further into the Jewish ghettos of Poland. He hopes to do further research into Warsaw or Lodz Jewry in the 1920s or 1930s, stating that he has become attracted to exploring overlooked aspects of lives lived in times of fragile and uncertain peace.

A fan of travel, Professor Horwitz also enjoys exploring the unremembered history of old buildings in the countries he visits and also sitting by open windows to allow him to take in the sounds of the city on the street below.

He credits his hobby of swimming as the catalyst for coming up with ideas for his latest book, saying that "it was in making my way from one end to the pool and back that I was able to think productively about the topic of my book, sometimes achieving a clarity that temporarily eluded me when seated at my desk".

- Sarah Cunnane

Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City

By Gordon J. Horwitz

Harvard University Press 416pp, £19.95

ISBN 97806740992

Published 1 June 2008

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