On February 8, 1940, an announcement was made in the town of Lodz, Poland that hundreds of thousands of Jews would be sent to live in a specially created ghetto.
The city, which was home to 230,000 Jewish residents, would become the site of Poland’s second largest Nazi ghetto, and the only one to completely cut off its inhabitants from any outside access.
The result was a people unprepared for what they would find behind the walls of the notorious Lodz Ghetto.
Establishment of the ghetto was kept secret for months. The Nazi regime was looking for a way to herd the Jewish population in a controllable area, for easy deportation once a final solution for the “Jewish problem” was reached. While under construction, officials told locals the ghetto area was afflicted with contractible disease, to keep curious onlookers away.
Initially, 164,000 Jews were sent to the ghetto, the city’s Jewish population having already been slashed due to fleeing citizens. The ghetto was so cramped, families were packed into flats at an average of three and a half individuals to a room.
Unlike other ghettos the Nazis had set up, Lodz was demanded to remain self sufficient, with the residents made to pay for their own housing, food and sewage disposal. One man, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, was put in charge of making sure those demands were met.
With no other way to make ends meet, Rumkowski, himself a Jewish prisoner in the ghetto, devised a system of workhouses within Lodz. Residents of all ages, young and old alike, were given jobs from sewing Nazi badges to milling paper. In exchange, Rumkowski convinced the Nazis to send food supplies as payment for trade and services. No requirement was set on just how much, or of what quality, the food would be.
Rumkowski’s role at the ghetto has faced fierce speculation in the decades that followed World War II. Some have heralded the man as a hero, who kept alive a Jewish community for years longer than it would have survived otherwise. Others have vilified the deputy leader, suspicious of his well-fed cohorts and accusations of corruption.
As years passed at the ghetto, starvation and disease took its toll. Food rations were implemented, and there was hardly ever enough to eat. Each year, the Germans ordered more Jews from neighboring cities into the ghetto, pushing already limited resources to a snapping point.
When deportations to the Chelmno extermination camp began, some in Lodz went willingly, assuming any place had to be better than the barbed wire limits of the ghetto. At one point, the Nazis ordered Rumkowski hand over all the elderly and children for deportment to the gas chambers, prompting a now infamous speech.
“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess—the children and the elderly,” Rumkowski shouted. “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!”
In July 1944, deportations to the camps paused for two weeks as Chelmno was dismantled. The Soviets were moving in, and the German officials quickly began sending the Lodz Jews to Auschwitz in response.
When the Soviet army liberated Lodz on January 19, 1945, only 877 of an original 200,000-plus Jewish population remained.