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Field of Silence

Machla Abramovitz

As tragic as their lives in the Lodz ghetto were, they were given the precious gift of kever Yisrael in a meadow called the Lodz Ghetto Field

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

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As tragic as their lives in the ghetto were, most of them were brought to kever Yisrael in individually marked graves, their death records intact, as opposed to the horrifying fate of being buried in an anonymous mass grave. The victims were buried in what became known as the Lodz Ghetto Field, which is actually part of the main Lodz cemetery — the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, containing about 230,000 graves (Photos: Tiergarten4Association, Bundesarchiv, Mishpacha archives

I t was a clear, cold day in Poland this past March as Toronto resident Yosef Rosenzweig stood alone in a forest bundled in his winter jacket, crunching the dry leaves underfoot that carpeted the grounds.

The stately trees all around, bare of foliage at winter’s end, seemed to be guarding the tombstones protruding out of the slumbering undergrowth.

The quiet may have been broken by the wind as it swept over the crackling leaves, but if so, Yosef was unaware. Within this vast forest, Yosef was focused on a slab of concrete darkened by age with celadon-colored moss seeping from its side, on the stone plate engraved with a name and date of death, and on the mournful melody of the Keil Maleh Rachamim that he was softly chanting. Resting beneath this concrete were the remains of his grandmother’s sister Dina Dzialoshinski who passed away in 1943 at the age of 13 from typhus. She was one of 45,000 Jews buried here in the Lodz Ghetto Field who perished in the ghetto, either from starvation, disease, shootings, hangings, or other forms of brutality at the hands of the German Reich.

This was 26-year-old Yosef’s first trip to Poland, to pray at the gravesites of his great-aunt and two great-great-grandmothers. Yosef and his family are fortunate — there are graves to which they can come, and yahrtzeit dates that can be commemorated — yet until 2003, the Rosenzweigs had no idea that these graves existed, let alone the precise date of their relatives’ deaths. Like many descendants of victims of the Holocaust, for decades they were sure there were no records.

But 14 years ago, Yosef’s father Shlomo Rosenzweig was informed otherwise. On a trip to Israel and a visit to Kiryat Arba, Rosenzweig met with the rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Otniel — Rabbi Benny Kalmanson — who is also a noted Holocaust historian. When Rosenzweig mentioned to Rabbi Kalmanson that his mother was a survivor from Lodz, the rabbi connected him to Rabbi Symcha Keller, who is currently chairman of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, and who was at the time president of the Lodz Jewish community, a position he held for 20 years.

Rabbi Symcha Keller: “Working with original maps, we’ve been able to identify the precise location of about 80 percent of the graves of those who died in the ghetto”

“Lodz is unusual because these records survived the war. Imagine my elation when Rabbi Keller faxed me copies of my relatives’ death certificates, their name, age, date of death, and date of burial printed in Yiddish and German, as well as the precise location of their graves,” Rosenzweig says. He immediately arranged for matzeivos to be erected in their memories.

As tragic as their lives in the ghetto were, Rosenzweig’ relatives and the thousands of others who perished were given a gift — most of them were brought to kever Yisrael in individually marked graves, their death records intact, as opposed to the horrifying fate of being buried in an anonymous mass grave. The victims were buried in what became known as the Lodz Ghetto Field, which is actually part of the main Lodz cemetery — the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe, containing about 230,000 graves in more than 40 hectares (about the size of 40 football fields) of space. During the war, part of the site was incorporated into the Lodz ghetto, and a separate burial area was started in a corner of the cemetery grounds for victims who died in the ghetto — there were up to 170 funerals a day. Even though most of the graves didn’t have headstones in that section, efforts were made to ensure that each body was buried in its own grave, and as a result of the Judenrat’s detailed records, the place of burial for most of the ghetto victims can still be located. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 669)

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