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Volume 5

August 9, 1993

That memorable winter of 1940-41 was not as cold as the previous one. There were not too many tales of people found frozen on remote roads and in forests. There were no more stories of attempts to get to other towns and the difficulties and fears encountered on the highways and footpaths. That seemed already a bygone era. But a difficult and ominous winter it was. Very seldom were there seen the emaciated, shadowy figures of the starving sick and pitiful that were lining the streets, only a short while ago. But in the endless queues outside bread and other distribution centres, tales were being told of this or that neighbour or family member or acquaintance being found frozen, inside their own homes. There was a scarcity of fuel. There was an inherent difficulty to find succour anywhere else. Lots of people did not survive that winter. Some because of hunger, others because of sickness or lack of warmth.

During those long winter months, one felt the pangs of slow starvation. Unlike the shocking sensation of being deprived of food for a longer period of time, the slower process of never having enough to eat, leaves one with a gnawing sensation, somewhere deep inside you. Gone were the days when one had a full meal. There was always the impression that one could eat if only food was available.

Sometimes it was available. Bread and potatoes were distributed in such a way, that made one the master of his or her bread rations, which were supposed to last for a week. In the case of potatoes and sometimes other vegetables, one had produce for several weeks, stored at home. When one is never fully sated, one longs to eat at any time, day or night. So a big battle was being constantly waged with oneself. It wasn't easy to hold on to your bread for the prescribed number of days. The alternative was a breadless few days, till the next rationing period.

So, there were many people, young and old, who were in a constant fix over this dilemma. We learned to be very conscious of this nagging persistent sensation. There was hardly any way open to change the situation.

My good friend Josek told me once during the winter months, that his father and mother were contemplating joining the constant stream of people that were registering to leave the ghetto. It seemed to me at the time a negative decision. I knew that they were slowly starving. They were worse off than we were. There was hardly any income, save for the welfare benefits. Lots of people thought that the promise of an easier life outside the ghetto was preferable to the slow starvation that they had to endure in the ghetto.

 

August 10, 1993

As the winter progressed, so did many things change around me. The job that I was doing at the factory was slowly being replaced with more elaborate work procedures. The idea to produce carpets caught on. The management was looking for bigger premises. New designers were engaged. The production that was coming off the looms was being replaced with large frame-produced articles.

My work wasn't needed any more. The older workers, who were working with me, were told to look for other work or become home workers for the new set-up. I got the job of working in the shipping department. Before the big changeover took place, I got myself photographed behind the weaving loom, with the older man, Mr. Zylbersztajn. This was an unusual thing to happen in the ghetto. We just did not see any photographs or photographers. The only pictures left for us to look at, were pre-war ones. At first this picture-taking created an uneasy feeling. I didn't know who sent the photographer or for what purpose was such a photo necessary. The photographer's remarks were: that this is all done on instructions from above. I realized many years later that this photograph survived the war. It served many purposes. It even formed a part of a planned ghetto stamp. It is now available throughout the world. Its depiction of an old man and a youngster, working behind a loom, symbolized the production of the ghetto.

The factory was moved to a proper factory building on Polnocna 44. It was at the very edge of the ghetto. I became an employee with the storage and shipping department. I also became a messenger for interdepartmental service. I was often carrying parcels and messages throughout the ghetto territory. It did not really change much for my ability to eke out a living. The living of course meant the daily soup at work. Under ghetto conditions, this meant a very great deal. I was given an armband which signified my position as a messenger. At times this armband seemed important. At other times it looked ridiculous. It did however help me later on to utilize this possession of the armband to great advantage.

My friend Josek and his family left Lodz and a big blow was dealt to my well being. Josek was my best friend. We dreamt together. We shared experiences. We were looking at each other as close comrades that were sharing an extraordinary period in our lives. I almost felt orphaned and deprived when he left. So, we carried on with heavy and depressed thoughts on our minds. I never heard from him since.

 

August 12, 1993

Throughout the winter months, with hunger being a constant guest and shivering becoming a way of behaviour, we were retelling ourselves stories of the not too distant past. Mother was relating of life in her home town, before she left for Lodz. Mother was one of many siblings. Her extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins and more distant relatives was large. Some had left the small town for other small and bigger places. A great many had stayed put. I knew well only some of the relatives. In Lodz we had put up a distant cousin Moishe, until the outbreak of the war. His aunt Chana worked in Lodz. She was a domestic servant of a rich Jewish home. Except for the occasional visitor from Dobrzyn, we were not too closely linked on a personal and intimate basis.

There were all kinds of events that happened in that small town. It used to be a border town between Russia and Germany. Cross border activities were the day-to-day topic of conversations and concerns. Some of those activities were illegal. So, many townspeople were involved in that traffic.

When Germany pushed into Russia in 1915, it conquered Dobrzyn immediately. Since some of the family members were living in Golub, the town on the other side of the river Drweca, the family was at last united under a common regime. In my younger days, when we lived in Dobrzyn, I used to instinctively admire the cleanliness and orderliness of Golub. Having been under German rule for many years, this town was the epitome of Germanic usages. Dobrzyn, on the other hand, was a typical, small Russian town. Nothing could be of greater contrast than those two towns. In my days, it wasn't a town yet. It only became one after the Second World War.

Distant relatives had a farm outside Golub. To get there, one had to cross the bridge and then cross Golub. It always amazed me how different those two towns were. Inasmuch as I learned through the long wintry nights of family background, I did not learn nor memorize enough. With all my heart I long to remember and speak out aloud the names of my relatives and acquaintances. By mentioning them, they spring to life again, even if only for a fleeting second.

In the meantime, the general atmosphere around us was getting heavier and more laden. The exodus from the ghetto continued. Some new people were coming in from other places. We even had returnees from among those that left for road works around Poznan. Their tales of harsh working conditions and untold numbers of victims, only brought the harsh reality of life around us into sharp relief. Although we were hungry, we were not yet stricken with sickness. We still had the occasional postcard from both David and father. We had no word from all the relatives on mother's side. We were, however, not in the least suspicious of the lack of communications from outside of the ghetto. We ascribed it to wartime conditions.

In the meantime, the two Scandinavian countries: Denmark and Norway, ceased to be independent. The German might stretched almost from one end of Europe to the other. The war prospects were hard to explain or predict. The Germans and the Italians were ruling Europe. The others, the allies, had a long road ahead of them. We were still very hopeful in the eventual victory of democracy over fascism. We needed encouragement. Thank goodness, the Bund realized the importance of having hope. We tried to give it, whenever we could.

Whilst the ghetto was creakingly trudging along on its nerve-wracking journey into time, some manifestations stood out in importance. True to old pre-war practices, street singers and other performers appeared in courtyards and wherever there was a bit of space. They made light our plight by creating verses about the personalities of the ghetto administration and putting them to music. I remember from my young days, how interested in that kind of entertainment we all were. It was a never-ending stream of such performances. In the ghetto, there was much less of it. But it was there. Each time that an event took place, there was a song about it. We tried to remember the words and repeat them to all those that just were not there to hear them themselves. They certainly brought in a bit of relief from the harsh realities of life.

We also had an official arts centre. With the blessing of Rumkofsky, an entertainment hall was opened. It had a first class orchestra and a theatre group. They performed well. With very few technical means at their disposal, they made the stage and orchestra appear as almost pre-war affairs. At the very beginning of this venture into the arts, many of my friends from the Bund and its pre-war cultural branches. Even a performance to celebrate the anniversary of the Bund was presented at the theatre. For obvious reasons it had to be camouflaged as just an ordinary performance. The population at large understood the hidden meanings of the prose and lyrics.

Besides that, we had in the ghetto quite a number of talented artists. They recited poetry and sang to many audiences, young and old. We also had in the ghetto a lot of capable speakers on almost any topic of general interest. Within the confines of the ghetto, it was very important to be able to forget the very harsh realities of everyday life. I know that there were also writers, painters, sculptors, dancers and all sorts of creative people. They met amongst themselves and encouraged each other's creativity.

Although a terrible place of confinement and suffering, the ghetto did not forget the real values of humanity. Amongst the group that I belonged to, we were among the forerunners in the quest for keeping and strengthening our moral and ethical commitments to each other and society at large.

 

August 16, 1993

The ghetto also had its several tiers of order and security organs. Of course, under ghetto conditions, all the power came down from the elder of the ghetto, with the exception of German police agencies. There were several police stations, strewn throughout the various districts of the ghetto. It is true that they were not large districts. Given the geography of the whole ghetto, some areas were fairly far from each other.

The ghetto was criss-crossed by a few arteries that were really not ghetto territory. Three foot bridges were thrown across those arteries. There were also several gates that allowed people to cross those long streets. On those roads, there was a constant traffic by horse-drawn wagons and cars. The inside of those gates was policed by Jews. The outside was guarded by German policemen. Besides the so-called regular police units in the ghetto, there were also special units. One of those units was the so-called –berfall commando. They were recruited from among the worst elements of the Jewish population. They were the ex-pimps, thieves, smugglers, muscle men and hit men. One used to recognize them by a special dark ribbon, woven into their arm bands. They would swoop down into any place that they thought was unruly. They tried to stop the plunder of wooden outside structures. Such plunder was going on everywhere. The harsh winter and lack of fuel pushed people to extremes. I too did take part in some wood stealing. I was lucky to have escaped being caught. They would beat mercilessly those that were caught. Besides that, one would find oneself on the list to be deported. Given the harsh winter and the harsh results of being caught, one had to be lucky to steer clear of trouble.

There were also Jewish police units that served directly the German overlords. These were busy picking up people who were suspected to harbour gold, silver, merchandise or other valuables. They were called the Sonder Komando. Although nominally a Jewish police force, they were directly linked to the Gestapo. At a certain stage in the several years of the ghetto's existence, they also participated in the deportations of Jews. There was even talk about the Sonders taking over the running of the ghetto. They also kept watch over distribution centres.

A special unit was also assigned to the CRIPO (criminal police), an agency that somehow competed with the other German agencies that held the ghetto in its grip. To be summoned by the CRIPO usually meant the prospect of being severely beaten or maimed. Sometimes it meant not to return. All those Jewish and German units that kept the squeeze on the people, were really at the service of the Germans. By using the Jewish police as their organs, even if not directly, meant that they, the occupiers, had an almost iron grip on what went on inside the ghetto. There were also courts that were supposed to deal impartial justice to the population. Except for a few brave instances of real justice, it was all a sham. Under Rumkofsky there were no independent voices or deeds. There was a prison, manned by Jewish special units. I was taken there at the end of my ghetto years. The head of that prison was himself arrested and sent out of the ghetto eventually. Whilst he was ruling the prison, he became known as a ruthless despot. He also enriched himself by robbing his victims.

 

August 17, 1993

The summer of 1941 was an eventful period in our ghetto. The spring preceding it was already heavy with signs of approaching events. Quite a lot of people that made it through the winter, were weakened and gloomy. Food was available on a very strict ration system. The vegetables that were available in the autumn and early winter were a long time gone. Nobody knew about the smell and looks of any fruit. Maybe some high ups did have access to some fruit. The general population only remembered what it looked like. Meat and any dairy produce was terribly scarce. Only the very occasional allotment of small doses was available. One had to make do with the staples that have somehow been available.

Many sicknesses appeared. T.B. became rampant. People could not see well, for lack of vitamins. Typhus was showing its ugly head. The feeling abroad was one of listlessness and despondency. The newcomers to the ghetto were the most visible examples of the toll that ghetto conditions were taking on the people. From being a vibrant group of educated healthy people, they became emaciated and more despondent than the ghetto natives. Their changeover from comparatively fair living conditions to ghetto conditions was highly traumatic. It happened very suddenly for them.

Upon a hard-pressed ghetto atmosphere burst the world shattering news of the German invasion of Russia. From the clandestine radio reports that our listeners picked up, we gathered that the attack was a surprise for most of the world. There were apparently some tips that English intelligence had given the Russians. They ignored them. Their leader Stalin had banked upon the often proclaimed spirit of friendship between the two dictatorships. We in the ghetto felt a terrific vibration. We were hoping that one day those two giants would go for each other. But it was a hope that was not at all in accordance with the circumstances.

During the autumn of the previous year, the Germans suffered a setback. Their continuous attacks of Great Britain did not break the spirit of the British. They survived the Battle of Britain from the air. The feared invasion of the British shores did not materialize. The British went in for a spectacular arming effort. With the tacit, if not overt, support of the American government they were building up their might. They did not do it on the eve of the war. But they were making big strides in 1940-41. Although the war was being waged in many places, the big battles were yet to come. Under such circumstances, the only immediate hope for the imprisoned and persecuted Jews in Europe was the help that could come from the East. We almost lived in feverish expectation. After all, Lodz was not that far from the new Russian border in the middle of Poland.

Unfortunately, it was not in the cards. We kept on getting reports of big inroads into Russia. The names of towns that sounded familiar and were being abandoned to the pushing Germans, were adding to our misery. The hope for a Russian victory was fast fading. The concern for our family members and other relatives and friends was getting deep into our psyche. Although the warm weather of June 1941 was balmy and pleasant, the news as it came out of the radio waves were depressing.

 

August 18, 1993

The victories that they encountered made the Germans more vicious. They increased their demands for goods and services. More people were being sent in to the ghetto from outlying towns.

Production of military-related goods was becoming the mainstay of the ghetto economy. Living conditions were improving as far as food was concerned. There was not any more the gnawing hunger all day long. Some workers were given extra soups at work. The poor and those who couldn't work or didn't find any work were still very undernourished. One could see the effects of hunger. People walked about with swollen legs and stomachs. Their faces emaciated to the point of frightening appearances. Such figures were commonly referred to as "Death notices" (Klapsedra).

Within a short time, we got news of a great push towards Moscow. The only thing that alleviated the heavy despondency that was settling over the ghetto population, was news coming in from the West. England was well on the way to present a strong military showing, on land, at sea and in the air. The attempts to capture English colonies in Asia and Africa came to naught. The fight to dominate the world was at full blast. Whilst we were despondent and worn out, we were hoping that the might of the West will eventually prevail. Our family did not as yet feel the worst of the situation. We were well, under the circumstances. I mean physically well. Our thoughts were constantly with our beloved father and brother. Since the outbreak of hostilities, we ceased having any contact with David. Father was still able now and again to send a few words to us. The mail was functioning sporadically. Deportations of welfare recipients was going on. Now the excuse was that they will be resettled in the newly conquered territories to the East. Our Bundist movement was active. Rumkofsky kept on applying pressure on all people to conform. Our response was the most determined opposition to his strong fisted one-man rule. The other parties were not too vocal. The Zionists of all shades kept on trying to enter the good graces of the ghetto elite. The communists were small and demoralized. They had been declared illegal before the war by the Russian commissars and the Polish authorities. They did not recover from that period yet. Although with little power in the ghetto, the Bund was all the time on guard.

The late fall of 1941 was a period of breathtaking events. Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into the war, made the conflagration worldwide. Trusting the potential of the Americans and their leadership under Roosevelt, we were awed at the scope of events to unfold. The Germans declared war on the US. That brought the prospects of liberation a bit closer. We thought that, surely, the combined might of the West will outweigh the German and Italian war machines. For the first time since the war started, did we really feel that a turning point has been reached.

 

August 19, 1993

Since the start of the war and its follow-up in the bitter occupation of Lodz and for that matter, almost all of Europe, we tried to find ways how to survive. Although I was only a youth when the hostilities started, I was old enough to realize and even to diagnose the stages that we all went through. It was a devastating trail. Many of my closest friends were not any more in the ghetto. Quite a number of relatives were missing or their fate was unknown. My own immediate family was broken up. With great difficulties did we trudge along the arduous ghetto road. I am not sure if I actually did stop for a minute and collected my thoughts and tried to look at the balance sheet. It was a day-to-day struggle to survive. Sometimes it was an hour-to-hour struggle. I don't recall any projections on my side into the future. Somehow the Bund, with its optimistic approach, gave me the raison d'»tre for carrying on.

In the circle of my mother and sister, when we told each other stories of events and pre-war happenings, warmth poured out of mother's stories. We, that is sister and I, always found inspiration from such evenings. Maybe such events, helped to keep morale going. The figure of father became a fountain of pride and incentive to persevere. Conditions were of course very bad. The daily travails took most of the energy out of us. So we were comforted by emphasizing the beauty of our style of life in the days gone by. I remember my mother telling the two of us flattering stories of father. He was always a very generous man. He was also a devoted husband of whose fidelity mother had no doubts. Besides his strong devotion to all the family, he was an ardent follower of the Bund. I really don't recall any person in all my life that did not praise him. It was so comforting in those bitter years to have such a person as your father.

My brother who was three years older than myself was to me both an example and an object of youthful envy. He was not too talkative to me. He thought of me as the little one. As a matter of fact, I was small compared to him. I both admired him and resented his airs of authority over me. I wasn't allowed to be around when he and his friends met. Besides being tall and blond, he was also a very brilliant young man. He had considerable mathematical abilities. He played from a very young age the violin. He wrote poetry and had quite a number of friends, both young men and young women. All this fascinated me. But being younger also meant not being allowed to come close to all those imposing things. Enviously I watched their doings. His journey through life was a difficult one. Because he didn't fit into the pattern of a down-to-earth youth, he was always known by others as "the professor".

Although I was already 17 years old, I never really tasted life, except as a young boy. I was thrust into the whirl of events with only my boyish background. Being a "Lodzer", i.e. someone born in Lodz, I nevertheless know comparatively little of the city, except through my association with the SKIF. I could not participate in chats with friends on the peculiarities or particularities of my city. I wasn't old enough for that.

The end of 1941 brought a difficult year to a head. Deportations were growing in intensity and numbers. All kinds of tales circulated in the ghetto about the fate of the deportees. Although halted at the gates of Moscow, the Germans were still a formidable force. Winters were always a difficult time for us. The winters in the ghetto were doubly hard. We had to rely on all the provisions for the still large ghetto population on German permits and transport. Not having a refrigeration system, the ghetto was forever burying a lot of the vegetables it received. The ghetto administration just wasn't capable or willing to look after the task of feeding the ghetto, even with the meagre supplies that the Germans allowed. We were more than ever constantly hungry. Also illnesses took their toll more than before. Only the bits of cheerful news that used to penetrate the ghetto wires, however little or insignificant, and the warmth of the family kept one going. But hard going it was.

 

August 20, 1993

As with lots of things that take place around us, we are acutely aware of immediate happenings and their impact at the time of the events. To analyze is a difficult task. Sometimes not everything is visible in any shape or form. It takes a while to comprehend the significance and meaning. Most of the time one is baffled and forlorn, trying to piece together the various things and make an attempt to understand or at least to rationalize.

As the year 1942 rolled around, so did an awareness of extraordinariness, creep into our consciousness. We were not told of the almost visible signs. We sensed them. Now that I try to recall events of yesteryear, I could of course recite a whole litany of consecutive events. Given the reality of the Lodz Ghetto, one had to understand with few signs or words. The deportations kept on getting more frequent. There was already a sense of foreboding. People tried by all means available to get themselves exempted from being sent out. Those higher up, who had some access to information or hints, were frantically trying to make sure that they and their kin and friends were spared. Such activity did not escape the general public. The vibrations were felt all around. We did not quite know what and how. Any animal who is placed in the vicinity of frightfulness senses the implications. We too sensed an ominous air about us. We carried on working and trying to be registered in one or another work place. Working meant a passport to staying on. Rules kept on changing, but the psychology of the situation, dictated the moves one made to be exempt from being sent out.

I remember being asked by one of the leaders of the Bund to try and arrange a contact with the director of the plant that produced carpets. The purpose was to get some people into the plant register. It was becoming a matter of grave concern. I was successful in obtaining a promise and an O.K. for a visit by the leader of the Bund. At that time I also got my mother and my sister into the plant. As long as they were employed it calmed the psyche. We were more hungry than ever. Although one could eat at any time, one was in a stupor most of the time. The thought of eating was forever in our mind. My family started to feel the pinch of undernourishment. Mother was not feeling too well. Esther, my sister, was bravely carrying on, being a great help and companion to mother. I remember being worried and frightened. There was no time for crying. Instinctively, I felt the need to encourage one another.

The year of 1942 was a year of anxiety and also of a deep resolve not to let things get out of hand. As the summer was changing into autumn, almost everybody felt the oncoming storm. It came almost imperceptibly. When it did come, it was earth shattering. So the eve of the Jewish New Year was the time that we experienced a new reality.

 



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