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Overexposed and Underexposed: The Many Faces of the Lodz Ghetto

Doris L. Bergen and Sylwia Szymańska-Smolkin

Overexposed and Underexposed was written for this site by Doris Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies in the Department of History at the University of Toronto and Sylwia Szymańska-Smolkin who is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History and Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. Read their full biographies here.

What were ghettos in the Holocaust?

During World War II, Nazi Germans forced Jews into designated areas of cities and towns known as “ghettos.” There were more than 1,000 ghettos. All of them were sites of death, yet also of Jewish life. Ghettos are a well-known part of the Holocaust, although much about them is poorly understood.

Characteristics of ghettos

In ghettos, people of all ages and genders lived together, often as families. Concentration and labour camps, by contrast, separated prisoners by sex and excluded the youngest and oldest members of the population. Ghettos had an element of self-administration – Jewish Councils – that the Germans used to carry out their commands. Compared to prisons and camps, German presence in the ghettos was limited. The Germans typically used local police, who worked under German supervision, to guard the ghetto from the outside. For instance Polish police were posted around the Warsaw Ghetto, and Lithuanian police guarded the Kovno Ghetto. Internal matters were left to Jewish police, who officially worked under the supervision of the Jewish Council but were subordinate to the non-Jewish police and often subjected to direct German pressure.

Ghettos varied enormously. The Germans set up ghettos in some territories but not others. In western Poland, they began to establish ghettos in 1939, just months after the defeat of Poland. But in parts of eastern Poland and Ukraine, they did not create ghettos; instead they shot most Jews there in the months after they invaded in 1941. Ghettos were not used in western Europe (France, the Netherlands, Belgium), nor were there ghettos in Germany itself, although starting in 1938, Jews were confined to certain buildings, the “Jew houses.”

Some ghettos were large, in effect cities within cities. Others encompassed only one or two buildings and a handful of people. Some lasted for years, whereas others were short-lived. In Hungary, the Germans worked with local officials to set up ghettos in 1944 that existed only for a few weeks, until transports of Jews – to labour battalions, to camps and to Auschwitz-Birkenau for killing – could be arranged. Ghettos also varied in how tightly they were sealed. In some, walls, fences and guards blocked contact between Jews and the outside world. In others, Jewish workers passed in and out to workplaces outside the ghetto. The Germans only set up ghettos for Jews, although Roma were sometimes held in these same ghettos.

Why ghettos?

For the Germans, ghettos served many purposes. Ghettos made it easier to control Jews, take their property and exploit their labour. Ghettos provided a place to dump people deemed unwanted: German Jews were sent to ghettos in occupied Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, and Roma arrested in Austria were dispatched to ghettos in the east. Through deprivation – hunger, disease and hard labour – ghettos destroyed Jewish lives and eroded family and communal bonds. They also deepened the divide between Jews and non-Jews. Ghettos are often described as a stage in the destruction process, between “definition” and “annihilation.” But ghettos themselves were sites of mass death, intentional on the part of German authorities who enforced conditions that could not sustain human life.

For the people confined in them, ghettos had other meanings. By forcing Jews to live and die together under brutal conditions, ghettos both intensified ties between people and undermined them. People with little or nothing in common before the war were crammed together in close quarters: old and young; Polish speakers with Yiddish speakers; urban, secular professionals with Orthodox Jews from small towns; Hasidim with Zionists, Communists and Bundists (Jewish socialists).

Still, people found ways to continue Jewish life: to educate children, observe religious traditions and organize social services. Large ghettos had hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages and theatres, and all ghettos were sites of individual creativity. Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian in Warsaw, observed that in the ghetto, everyone wrote. People kept diaries and wrote poetry, plays, stories, songs, reports, philosophical and theological treatises, letters and jokes. Many of those writings were destroyed or lost, but some survived: hidden, buried, mailed to people on the outside or committed to memory. Like Henryk Ross’s photographs, these writings speak to the contradictions and uncertainty of ghetto life.Still, people found ways to continue Jewish life: to educate children, observe religious traditions and organize social services. Large ghettos had hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages and theatres, and all ghettos were sites of individual creativity. Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian in Warsaw, observed that in the ghetto, everyone wrote. People kept diaries and wrote poetry, plays, stories, songs, reports, philosophical and theological treatises, letters and jokes. Many of those writings were destroyed or lost, but some survived: hidden, buried, mailed to people on the outside or committed to memory. Like Henryk Ross’s photographs, these writings speak to the contradictions and uncertainty of ghetto life.

What were the Jewish Councils?

The Germans established Jewish Councils (in German, Judenräte) in occupied areas with substantial Jewish populations. They appointed members in various ways, sometimes seeking recognized community leaders, sometimes making Jews decide among themselves. The councils were to enforce Nazi orders and administer the daily affairs of the ghettos. They also tried to provide services and otherwise ease the situation.

There were precedents for such bodies. Historically, Jewish communities had councils (kehillot) who negotiated with secular authorities and collected taxes. European colonizers commonly ruled through indigenous elites or appointed intermediaries to do their bidding. In both contexts, the middlemen were lightning rods for resentment. In the ghettos, Jewish Councils found themselves forced to make terrible choices. When the Germans in charge decided to purge a ghetto of those deemed unfit to work, they demanded that the Jewish Council turn over a certain number of people. If not, the entire ghetto would be destroyed. But who would be in that group?

Faced with such dilemmas Jewish Councils responded in different ways. Some refused to cooperate and were killed by the Germans and replaced with more compliant men. Some committed suicide. Others tried to bribe or negotiate with the Germans, in the hope that sacrificing some Jews would save others. Many tried first to protect their own families, friends and the people who worked for them, especially the Jewish police. In the end, most members of Jewish Councils were killed, like other people in the ghettos.

What was particular about the Lodz Ghetto?

The Lodz Ghetto, in the Polish city of Łódź, renamed Litzmannstadt by the Germans, was the second largest ghetto after Warsaw. More than 200,000 Jews lived there at some point after the ghetto was established in 1940. Only about 10,000 of them survived the war. The Lodz Ghetto existed for more than four years, longer than any other ghetto. In August 1944 it was “liquidated” by the Germans. Liquidation meant destroying the Jewish self-administration, sending most of the people in the ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau to be killed and dispersing the others to labour units. In January 1945, when the Soviet army liberated the city, only about 800 Jews remained alive in Lodz. One of them was the photographer, Henryk Ross.

The Lodz Ghetto was unusual in the degree to which it was closed off from the world. Inmates worked inside the ghetto. Before the war, Lodz was known for its textile industry, and Jewish leaders in the ghetto built on that capacity in their strategy of “survival through work.” Workshops and factories were set up inside the ghetto to make uniforms, mattresses and other things that were useful for the war effort or profitable to certain powerful Germans. Without the regular movement of people in and out of the ghetto, it was almost impossible to smuggle food or weapons, to convey news, or to get people out of the ghetto.

Another reason for the ghetto’s isolation was demographic. Lodz was located in the part of conquered Poland that was incorporated into Germany, and Nazi leaders planned to transform it into a German city. To that end, SS race and resettlement authorities expelled Jews and Poles and brought in ethnic Germans from other territories. As a result, even Jews who had lived in Lodz all their lives had few if any reliable contacts outside the ghetto. In contrast to Warsaw, where thousands of Jews escaped from the ghetto to the “Aryan” side of the city, or Kovno, where many Jewish children were smuggled out of the ghetto into the care of non-Jews, in Lodz, very few Jews survived outside.

The ghetto was established in a poor, industrial part of the city. There was no sewer system, minimal running water and heating, and terrible housing. In the crowded conditions, disease ran rampant and people struggled just to find a place to sleep. To make matters worse, the Germans crammed in 20,000 Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia and Luxembourg, and 5,000 Roma rounded up in Austria.

What did Chelmno have to do with the Lodz Ghetto?

Lodz had another distinction: the first killing centre for gassing Jews was located nearby. Chelmno, called Kulmhof by the Germans, began operations in December 1941, and inmates of the Lodz Ghetto were its first victims. At Chelmno, killing was done in specially equipped gas vans rather than in fixed gas chambers.

Over the course of 1942, Germans removed around 70,000 people from the Lodz Ghetto and murdered them at Chelmno. At the time (and since) the raids and transports are often referred to as “deportations,” but the term is misleading, because victims were not deported to some other jurisdiction, only brought by truck or train about 50 km to the killing site. The most intense killing actions came in September 1942, when the Germans demanded that 20,000 people be removed from the ghetto. Thousands of children, sick, and elderly Jews were rounded up from hospitals, nursing homes, and orphanages, torn from their families, dragged from hiding places, and sent to Chelmno. Afterward the ghetto became effectively a labour camp.

Who was Rumkowski?

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski was head of the Lodz Jewish Council. A businessman, he had a long record of involvement in the Jewish community, including as the director of an orphanage. During the war and ever since, Rumkowski has been one of the most maligned figures of the Holocaust. Jokes about him made the rounds, and a popular song in the ghetto mocked his love of pomp and power: “Our Royal Highness has gray hair, May he live to be a hundred!”

Rumkowski did wield considerable power in the ghetto, but only to the extent permitted by the Germans. They demonstrated those limits from the start. Within months of appointing the first Jewish Council of Lodz, they shot 22 of its members. Rumkowski, who tried to intervene, was beaten for his efforts, but allowed to remain in his post as “Eldest of the Jews.” From that point on, he was not only the leader but also, in effect, the entire body of the Jewish Council.

More than anything, Rumkowski’s notoriety is linked to the role he played in the roundup of children in September 1942. In a speech to the desperate people of the ghetto, he pleaded with them to trust him:

I must carry out these difficult and bloody operations, I have to amputate limbs to save the body! I must take children, otherwise—God forbid—others will be taken.… Before you stands a destroyed Jew. Do not envy me! This is the most difficult order I have ever had to follow. I am extending toward you my crushed, trembling hands and implore you: “Place your sacrifices in my hands so that further sacrifices can be prevented, so that I can save a group of one hundred thousand Jews.” (in Oskar Rosenfeld, In the Beginning Was the Ghetto, 296–297)

Rumkowski, it is said, was so despised that when he arrived in Auschwitz, he was beaten to death by Jews from Lodz. Accusations continue to swirl around him. Lucille Eichengreen, a Holocaust survivor from Germany, says he molested her when she worked for the Jewish Council in Lodz. Already before the war there were rumors that he neglected and abused children in his orphanage. At this point, decades later, it is not possible to ascertain exactly what Rumkowski did. What is clear is that Rumkowski’s reputation as a callous megalomaniac has made it easy for people to believe the worst about him in other regards, too.

Yet Rumkowski’s reputation might have been different. His strategy of “survival through work” does seem to have prolonged the existence of the Lodz Ghetto. In August 1944, when the Germans shut down the ghetto and killed most of its remaining inhabitants, the Soviet army was only about 150 kilometres away. What if the Soviets had liberated Lodz before the Germans had been able to send those 65,000 Jews from the ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of them were gassed? Rumkowski might be celebrated as a hero whose measures had saved not all but many of his people.

Who was Henryk Ross?

Henryk Ross was a Polish Jewish photographer who specialized in sports photography and journalism before the war. In the Lodz Ghetto he was employed by the Jewish Council in the Department of Statistics. In that capacity, Ross took pictures for specific purposes: to illustrate the productivity of the ghetto workshops, to document deaths and to make identification cards for registered workers. He did not work directly for the Germans or make German propaganda, although it is possible that some of his photographs were used to that end. The Germans had their own photographers and propaganda units that took pictures and filmed in the major ghettos, including Lodz.

Ross was one of two talented Jewish photographers to work for the Statistics Department in Lodz. The other, Mendel Grossman, did not survive the war. Both Ross and Grossman took pictures off the record, for reasons of their own. Ross openly and secretly photographed roundups and transports of Jews, perhaps with the photojournalist’s impulse to capture momentous events, perhaps with the hope of using the images one day as evidence. He also photographed people in the ghetto in happy moments: playing, celebrating, kissing. Some of those images may have been commissioned by acquaintances, friends or members of the ghetto elite, for instance, Jewish policemen who wanted pictures of their children. After September 1942, few children remained in the ghetto, and their presence must have been painful to the many people who had lost children. Perhaps Ross photographed them and other happy scenes simply because they caught his artist’s eye.

In mid-1944, the Germans began shutting down the ghetto and transporting the remaining Jews to Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Henryk Ross feared that he too would be killed. With the help of his wife and a small group of friends, he buried thousands of his negatives, in the hope that they would survive even if he did not.

After the war, Ross used some of his photographs to accuse perpetrators of the Holocaust, at the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Israel, and in various publications. He also used them to support an image of himself as a resistor, who risked his life to document the tragedy and martyrdom of the Jewish people, to use his words. But even if Ross may have over-stated his own heroism at times, the photographs are a compelling tribute to the victims of the Holocaust. It is not the case that he never took another picture; that claim too is part of the myth of Ross as a survivor who sacrificed everything to preserve his ghetto photographs. Still, these images represent his life’s work and constitute a powerful record of the lives and deaths of Jews in the Lodz Ghetto.

Despite their complicated history, or more precisely, because of it, Ross’s photographs capture something of the complexity of life in the ghetto and what is remembered, forgotten and commemorated. Photographs of the workshops show the need to demonstrate productivity in order to prolong the existence of the ghetto. Images of healthy, well-dressed, cheerful people depict the continuation of life, against all odds, and also document the hierarchies within the ghetto. Viewed together, the pictures reveal the persistence and the disintegration of families, the resilience of love and the ravages of deprivation and grief.

Photographs and Holocaust memory

Henryk Ross’s images challenge viewers to reflect on the role of photographs and photographers in documenting the Holocaust and shaping public memory. They also remind us of the importance of thinking about the sources and uses of Holocaust images. A photograph is not a clear window onto the past any more than a written document is. Every picture was taken by someone for a reason. Someone decided what to photograph and how to frame the subject: what to include, what to leave out. Then someone developed the film and made prints. After that, the photograph became a material object with its own history. Did someone keep the prints and the negatives, and why? Were the photographs cropped, retouched, reproduced, traded, given as souvenirs or gifts, displayed, hidden, put in albums, published, damaged, defaced, restored, presented as evidence in a trial, used to identify someone, cherished by loved ones, preserved in archives, lost or discarded as trash? All of these questions take on particular weight in the midst of genocide, with its efforts to destroy, manipulate and erase.

The quality of photographic images also merits attention. High-quality images suggest the presence of professional photographers with access to good darkrooms and film stock. These considerations in turn raise questions about the role of cultural actors in the construction of memories and knowledge of atrocities. Most of the images that have become the visual memory of the Holocaust were photographed by or for the perpetrators. Many of them were posed or staged for particular purposes: to make the Germans look powerful, to humiliate victims, to celebrate triumph and destruction. When we use such photographs unquestioningly, we run the risk of reproducing the perpetrators’ gaze, of seeing events through their eyes. Henryk Ross’s photographs have their own complex perspective, but it is not the line of vision of the masters and killers. Instead of the overexposed, stock view of “the Jew,” they offer an underexposed, bewildering glimpse of Jewish lives in the ghetto, as seen from the inside.

About the Authors

Doris Bergen is the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. She is the author of "War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust," "Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich," and many other volumes, articles, and essays on aspects of the Holocaust and the Second World War. Before coming to Toronto in 2007, she was a professor at the Universities of Notre Dame and Vermont; she has also been a visiting instructor at the Universities of Warsaw, Tuzla, and Pristina. Bergen received her B.A. from the University of Saskatchewan, M.A. from the University of Alberta, and PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is a member of the design team for the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa and the Academic Advisory Committee at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Sylwia Szymańska-Smolkin is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History and Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. Sylwia’s doctoral dissertation examines the policies and activities of the Polish Police (also known as the Blue Police) vis-à-vis the Jewish population in occupied Poland. Her research focuses on the question of complicity and collaboration. Sylwia is a recipient of grants and fellowships from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Claims Conference Academic Fellowship for Advanced Shoah Studies, the Holocaust Education Foundation at the Northwestern University, the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS), Canadian Friends of Hebrew University, and the Ontario International Education Opportunity Scholarship. She has taught at the University of Toronto Mississauga and York University. Sylwia has presented her research at conferences in North America and Israel and published in Polish and German.