The exhibition “Give Me Your Children: Voices from the Lodz Ghetto” presents their voices “preserved in letters, diaries, memoirs, and oral histories” as well as historic photographs, original documents, and objects from collections around the world. It offers a view into the struggle of a community and its young to live in spite of the most difficult circumstances.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum opened an exhibit last week remembering the children of the Lodz Ghetto.
The story of the fate of the children of the Lodz Ghetto was one of the most tragic of the Shoah.
At the start of World War II, the city of Lodz had been the second largest Jewish community in all of Poland. The ghetto, known by the German name Litzmannstadt ghetto, was one of the better organized. For a long time, life was kept as normal as possible under horrendous conditions. Records show that there were 160,320 Jews locked into the ghetto, including 39,561 children under the age of 14.
At first 36 primary schools, two high schools, four religious schools and even a music school continued to operate, with close to a total of 15,000 students attending. In the district of Marsyin there was even a summer camp for the children.
Chaim Mordechai Rumkoski, known as the “King of the Ghetto,” ruled with an iron hand. He had the power to assign jobs that would save workers from the dreaded transports. (Jews transported from Lodz were sent at first to Chelmno and later to Auschwitz.)
Rumkoski was particularly fond of the children. He organized orphanages and summer activities for them and was often honored, especially on his birthday.
In the autumn of 1941, the schools had to be closed as more and more people were brought to the ghetto and space became scarce.
In January 1942, the deportations to the Chelmno death camp began in earnest. Fifty-seven thousand people, including 11,000 Jews who had been brought to Lodz from Western Europe, were sent to their deaths. The remaining Jews of the ghetto continued their lives, not knowing the fate of their friends.
The “Great Round-up” (Grobe-Sperr), as the action was called, lasted for nine days. On the first day of September 1942, word came that the Germans had surrounded the Jewish hospitals, and all the patients were being deported, with no exceptions.
On September 3, word came that the Germans were now demanding that all the children under the age of 10, and the elderly over the age of 65 be handed over for deportation. It was now obvious that this was not to be a resettlement program as the Germans had claimed, but that the Jews were being sent to their deaths.
Panic spread through the ghetto as parents tried in vain to register their children for work or bring forged death certificates to the registry offices to try to save as many as possible.
On September 7, Rumonkoski made a passionate plea to the Jewish mothers and fathers of the ghetto. “It is absolutely necessary to sacrifice the children and the old ones. There is nothing we can do and all we ask is not to interfere with the German deportation action.”
During the next few days, over 15,000 people, including 5,863 children, were deported to the death camps.
Children disappeared from the ghetto. Any children who had escaped the round-up had to remain hidden during the rest of the war. They couldn’t go outside The Lodz Ghetto became one large work camp contributing to the German economy. Everybody had to work. If you didn’t work, you did not eat. There are many records, including pictures of young children, working at jobs such as shoemaking and metal work.
These conditions lasted until May 1944, when the Germans started the final “liquidation” of the ghetto. In the end, there were only 800 people remaining in the ghetto, whom the Germans had left to clean up after the crimes. Even Rumonkoski, the King of the Ghetto, was sent to his death in Auschwitz, where he joined those whom he had sacrificed to save himself.