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.
(Photos: Tiergarten4Association, Bundesarchiv, Mishpacha archives)
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.
“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.
For Yosef Rosenzweig, the visit to the Ghetto Field proved unexpectedly moving. It turns out that his trip earlier this year corresponded with his great-aunt Dina’s yahrtzeit. Standing next to the newly-erected matzeivos, “the sudden realization that I was praying by her grave on the day of her yahrtzeit was eerie, knowing that for 74 years nobody had been here.” His great-aunt, having died as a teenager, had no descendants, but her sister — Yosef’s grandmother — did, and Yosef immediately placed 22 stones, one for each of his grandmother’s progeny, on Dina’s grave and then moved on to pray at the gravesites of his other relatives that had been located elsewhere in the cemetery.
Markers in the Grass
The first thing that struck Toronto resident Jerrold Landau about the Lodz Ghetto Field is the silence. Standing in the middle of this vast, empty field on a visit to Poland in August of 2009, he found himself profoundly moved. “From all the cemetery and concentration camp sites I visited, it was that site that hit home the most,” says Landau, who translates Yizkor books (survivors’ memoirs) for JewishGen. “Seeing the huge expanse of empty field, I realized that right before my eyes were the unmarked graves of three quarters of one percent of the Shoah victims.”
But unlike Auschwitz and other concentration camps and burial grounds, this site is largely unknown. Located in the northern part of Lodz not far from the city center, it lies adjacent to what was once the Jewish ghetto. From the ghetto, one accessed the cemetery by simply opening a gate. During the four years of the ghetto’s existence — it was established in February 1940 and liquidated in August 1944 — that gate was opened daily for nonstop burials.
“Although not officially divided, there are three distinct areas to the Lodz cemetery,” Landau explains. “There is the old cemetery, and the Ghetto Field, which is divided into two parts. The old cemetery is the resting place of famous rabbanim, and also of well-known industrialists, physicians, and social activists, and is still used by Lodz’s small Jewish community,” Landau says.
The massive cemetery contains mausoleums as well as matzeivos of multiple designs, their letters roughed out over time. About 100 of these tombstones have been designated as historical monuments.
Then there is the Ghetto Field, which was added on during the war and is characterized by overgrown trees, high grass, and moss. One part of the Ghetto Field contains graves that are demarcated by rectangular frames either of concrete or rough stone, with an iron or wooden marker indicating the deceased’s name, age, and date of death; in the other part, no such demarcations exist. There, the dead rest beneath a wide expanse of earth, undistinguished and unidentified. Those were the victims buried in the final months of the ghetto when the chevra kaddisha had great difficulty keeping up with the mounting numbers of dead. Whereas in 1942, although sometimes more than 100 bodies remained unburied for several days until a horse-drawn wagon was able to transport those bodies for burial, by 1944 this means of transportation was inadequate because of the large numbers of dead. Subsequently, a new kind of hearse was introduced that contained a large platform pulled by one horse, which could carry up to thirty bodies at a time. (Not everybody was buried in the Field; some were buried in the old cemetery in family graves.)
Recent efforts have been made to make sure those later graves don’t remain anonymous. Today, one can see about 4,000 tiny wooden markers in a section of open field bearing the insignia of the State of Israel and the IDF, seeming to sprout from the earth like wildflowers, each one identifying and designating an individual grave.
What does the Israeli army have to do with Jewish graves in Poland? In 2003, Meir Shilo, founder of Yad LeZehava, a Holocaust research center located in Kedumim, Israel, was approached by the IDF for suggestions on how their officers could make a useful contribution as part of the Witnesses in Uniforms program that arranges for high-ranking soldiers to visit concentration camps and ghettos in Poland. Shilo introduced them to the Lodz Ghetto Field. Under the direction of Brig. General Avi Ashkenazi, IDF officers worked in shifts of 200 twice a year for seven years posting wood markers into the ground beside graves that were designated according to records organized by the Lodz Jewish Heritage Foundation. “It gave the officers a chance not only to learn about the Holocaust, but also to make a contribution to the continuity and preservation of the memories of the victims,” said the IDF spokesman.
“General Ashkenazi told me that this project was the most powerful part of the tour of the camps in Poland,” says Shilo.
Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski thought he would save the adults — and himself —by making the ghetto inhabitants useful to the Reich, and meet the Nazi murder quota by sending the children to their deaths in the Chelmno gas chambers
Organized through the Chaos
That the records from the Lodz ghetto were so organized and thorough despite the surrounding havoc of war was primarily due to the ghetto’s Judenrat — the controversial Jewish councils set up in Polish cities by the Nazis. The Judenrat in Lodz, under the strong arm of the hated, power-hungry Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, actually maintained the most comprehensive and detailed demographic registry of any ghetto in Poland — dates of birth, occupation, addresses (inside and outside the ghetto), as well as deportation dates and dates of death. Further documentation was supplied by the daring photography of ghetto photographer Mendel Grossman, who photographed every man, woman, and child who died, and by assigning corresponding numbers to the photographs and burial caskets.
Grossman worked in the ghetto as a photographer hired by Rumkowski and the Judenrat to make identification cards, and document the work of his fellow inmates. The ghetto council thought these photographs would convince the Nazis to treat them better after seeing how industrious they were. Meanwhile, Grossman hid a camera in his coat during the day, taking photographs at great risk to his own life of the horrid living conditions in the ghetto. Grossman distributed hundreds of his photographs, and managed to hide thousands of negatives before he was killed with the liquidation of the ghetto. His black-and-white photos captured the consciousness of this tortured ghetto: children aged beyond their years, young men and women hovering over a bowl of soup, their eyes exuding despair and hopelessness.
Rumkowski, who became a powerful tyrant and the chief authority figure in the ghetto, accrued even more power by transforming the ghetto into an industrial base for manufacturing war supplies for the Germans. He believed that by making the Lodz Jews indispensable to the war effort, the Germans would keep them alive. Rumkowski is perhaps best remembered for demanding that families give over their children in compliance with the deportation order of 20,000 children to the Chelmno extermination camp, convincing the parents that they, at least, would stay alive. (Adults over 60 and the mentally and physically ill were sent to Chelmno as well — all were considered unproductive elements who consumed too much of the meager food supply. )
In the end, though, his manipulations for his own survival failed: He and his family were on the final transport to Auschwitz, where they were immediately murdered.
Still, the documents he insisted on maintaining have proven invaluable seven decades later. According to Rabbi Keller of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland, most of this information survived the war. And, he says, “Working with original archival maps, we’ve been able to identify and locate the precise location of almost 80 percent of the graves of those who died in the ghetto. The majority of relatives who come to Lodz will be able to find the graves of their relatives who died there during the war.” This information is accessible through The Lodz Cemetery Database, a joint project of Jewish Records Indexing-Poland and JewishGen.
As gruesome and wrenching as this is, “at least these people, even in unmarked graves, were zocheh to be brought to kever Yisrael, unlike those who were cremated in the camps or shot into burial pits, some of whom were buried alive,” says Jerrold Landau.
Who Will Live?
Every five years since the early 1960s, Lodz ghetto survivor Freda Kon and her husband Leo have participated in a reunion of survivors from Australia, England, France, the US, and Canada. In recent years they’ve gathered in what used to be the old Lodz ghetto and the adjoining Ghetto Field. Even after Leo’s passing, Freda continues to go alone. She remembers the horrors of the ghetto well, having spent her late teenage years within its locked walls; many of those buried in the Field were personal friends and relatives.
Freda, an attractive, vivacious 95-year-old who exudes passion, intelligence, and humor, speaks publicly of the Lodz ghetto in schools and elsewhere whenever she’s asked. She also advocates for keeping the memory of the ghetto alive and has been awarded a medal in recognition of her efforts by the State of Israel and the IDF.
The stories she tells are heartbreaking. In 1940, she says, it was as if the Jews of Eastern Europe was dumped on her family’s doorstep. When Germany occupied Lodz, which they promptly renamed Litzmannstadt, Freda and her parents, sister, and brother were already living in the “Jewish residential quarter” that later became the ghetto.
“It was a small area, covering about 1.5 square miles, and the poorest section of town. There was no running water in the apartments. We brought the water from downstairs and washed ourselves from a pot. We didn’t have gas or electricity or sewage disposal. We cooked on a wooden stove. The winters were brutal; there wasn’t enough fuel to heat the houses, and so people tore out the wooden planks from the floors to provide a little heat. The occupying soldiers started talking about a ghetto, but we didn’t know what a ghetto was. Meanwhile, Jews from all over Lodz were instructed to leave their homes and come here.”
The streets were narrow, crooked, unpaved, and cobblestoned; horses and buggies were the only means of transportation. When the ghetto was closed off in May 1940 — with wire (some electrified) and wood fences — there were about 140,000 Lodz Jews (out of a prewar population of 233,000) living in cramped, dilapidated quarters. The rest had either managed to escape or were killed.
And they kept coming: deportees from Germany, Vienna, Czechoslovakia, Prague, Luxembourg, and neighboring towns. Before long, the population ballooned to about 200,000 Jews. They disembarked at the Radegast train station, which connected the ghetto to the outside. (Radegast became infamous as the embankment point for Jews deported to Chelmno, a liquidation camp that was located about 30 miles northwest of Lodz. Once there, Jews were crammed into buses and gassed by Zyclon B. Of the over 60,000 Jews who were deported to Chelmno, only three survived.)
For many of these ghetto importees, life there proved insufferable. “The Jews from Germany and Czechoslovakia couldn’t adjust. They didn’t have homes. They sold their clothes for food and still didn’t have what to eat. I met many of them. They were nice people. But few of them made it,” Freda says.
The ghetto was hermetically closed off. It was almost impossible for “ghettoniks,” as these residents were called, to get information about the war effort. “There were no credible newspapers and few watches. We didn’t even know what day it was,” Freda remembers. “Still, a Shabbos was a Shabbos and a Yom Tov was a Yom Tov — there were some people figuring out the days. There were shuls in private rooms. Every Shabbos, I went to shul with my father. Only two people had radios. One was caught by the Nazis hiding in a closet. Another was Grossman, the photographer who was snapping pictures secretly.”
Chaim Rumkowski, or “King Rumkowski,” as he was called by the ghettoniks, ruled over this Kafkaesque kingdom by the authority of the Nazis. Everything went through him as he promulgated the illusion that discipline and obedience would ultimately save the ghetto. Dissenting opinions were scorned by him and his carefully selected council.
Rumkowski’s intention was to transform the ghetto into a self-sufficient, independent entity that was indispensable to the Reich. In fact, the ghetto soon became their main forced labor camp and the longest running ghetto in Poland. Jews as young as ten years old worked 12 hours a day manufacturing clothing, down bedding, linen for uniforms, straw footwear, and sleds, which enabled tools and weapons to reach the Nazis camped outside of Leningrad during the brutal Russian winters. For the Nazis, the ghetto proved exceptionally lucrative; its net profit was estimated at $46,211,485.
This productivity didn’t stop the Nazis from slowly starving the workers to death. “The food was rationed,” Freda says. “At first, we could buy a piece of bread. We stayed in line for it for hours. I was 17 years old with blond hair, and for some reason they sometimes gave me half a loaf of bread. Sometimes I stood in line twice and got two half loaves. Had I been discovered, I would have been shot. Our innovative mother made coffee and platzlech with a little kasha or flour. It’s what kept us alive.”
Freda was doubly fortunate. She worked as a waitress two hours a day in a kitchen that was set up for the intelligentsia — doctors, lawyers, professors — and for those who personally knew Rumkowski, where she was given a bowl of soup to eat every day. It was, in fact, there that she met her future husband Leo (Lolek), whose mother was a doctor. They became engaged, although Freda’s father warned them not to marry — the ghetto, he said, was no place to begin a family.
Her good fortune, though, didn’t last. Over the course of the four years, the rations diminished from one loaf of bread meant to last for six days to one lasting for ten days. “People were crying for food,” Freda recalls. By June 1944, as a result of the deportations, disease, and starvation, the ghetto population had shrunk to 70,000 people.
Freda says she had a “special angel” watching over her. Twice, a Nazi saved her life. The first time was in 1942 when the selections for Chelmno began. The Nazi gave instructions to a Jewish policeman to take Freda and her family upstairs, warning them not to stand by the window where they would be shot. The second time was two years later when Freda found herself outside after curfew. A Nazi stayed the hand of his colleague who was aiming his gun at her. “He told me to run, and I ran — convinced that I was going to be shot in the back.”
In early 1944, rumors began circulating that the ghetto would be liquidated. How could the Reich put a stop to such a profitable enterprise? But liquidate they did since defeat was in sight. Those living on Freda’s side of the ghetto were told to pack up their belongings and move to the other side. They moved in with her brother-in-law’s family in extremely cramped quarters. Days later, the entire ghetto, Rumkowski included, was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where an estimated 10,000 ghettoniks managed to survive the war. The Nazis appointed 877 Jews to stay behind to clean up, and prepared several mass graves to be used for their own liquidation after the work was done. But the Nazis didn’t manage to carry out that final murderous plan before the arrival of the Soviet army and liberation of the ghetto in January 1945.
Freda and her family arrived in Auschwitz where she, her mother and sister were kept together, given a daily ration of thin soup and a tiny piece of bread. (Freda attributes her survival to her mother’s spirit and ingenuity — as she did in the ghetto, she gathered all the bread and allotted only a certain amount to be eaten at a time.) The three of them were subsequently sent to Stutthof and were forced on a death march at the war’s end, walking for eight days through the snow before being liberated by Russian troops.
They eventually traveled back to Lodz, ill and exhausted, but alive. She remembers trudging up the stairs to their old apartment and the look of dismay on the new inhabitant’s face — a Polish lady, who slammed the door in their faces after realizing who they were. If not for the kindnesses of other returning Jews they would have had no place to sleep and nothing to eat. As with all survivors, the next weeks and months were filled with elation when they unexpectedly reconnected with lost friends and relatives, as well as despair while waiting for a knock on the door, heralding a long-awaited father, mother, sibling, or friend.
For Freda, her father’s knock never came — but her fiancי Leo’s did. The two were married in October of 1945, spent three more years in Poland where they had a daughter, and then lived for two years in Israel before moving to Canada.
Freda returns to the ghetto because back in Auschwitz, she made a pact never to forget the past, and never to let others forget, either; she feels blessed for having survived, and is determined to share her memories with whoever will listen. “I go to these reunions because it’s important that we are still seen and heard, and we need to talk about what happened to us Jews on those very streets.” The Ghetto Field, in turn, remains a silent witness to Freda’s memories. —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 669)