The shocking discovery last month in the city of Lodz, Poland revisited one of the most bitter and heartrending chapters of Polish Holocaust history—the destruction of the Lodz ghetto.
Construction workers on 23 Polnocna Street, a dilapidated neighborhood with rundown buildings, unearthed a large wooden box containing hundreds of silver Jewish religious objects. Among the valuables were Kiddush cups, Shabbos candlesticks, menorahs, challah knives and other items of silver.
They were all packed in newspapers and buried deep in the yard behind the building, reported the Jerusalem Post and other news outlets.
“The residents who buried these items most likely planned to one day return for them, but in all probability these people lost their lives,” in the Holocaust, Lodz’s deputy mayor explained to reporters. “Such stories [of lost artifacts found] are truly rare and precious.”
Most of the heirlooms “would be displayed in Lodz’s Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography,” the deputy mayor asserted, raising the obvious question of why the items would not be turned over to the Jewish community.
Jews might be able to discover clues of ownership undetectable to Polish archeologists that would enable them to track down heirs of the original owners.
Even if direct ownership could not be determined, the justice of returning these objects of deep religious and sentimental value to the Jewish people should be self-evident.
Wouldn’t their owners who were swept away with the horrors of the war undoubtedly have wanted their cherished belongings to be used for their intended sacred purpose?
Two of the recovered heirlooms were in fact restored to their function this past Chanukah: Lodz’s Jewish community arranged to have two of the menorahs lit publicly, the first time they were used in over 80 years.
As the menorahs cast their glow across a landscape that had witnessed so many heinous crimes against the Jews, one imagines the flickering lights sending a message about the endurance and indestructibility of the Jewish people.
Rabbi Meir Bulka, an Israeli activist involved in the preservation of Jewish burial sites in Poland, said in an interview on the Yiddish-language Kol Mevaser that several people had come forward with information identifying 23 Polnocna, where the box of silver was unearthed, as a home formerly owned by Jews.
According to Rabbi Bulka, initial requests to Polish authorities to allow Jewish leaders to examine the trove of silver recovered from the yard have met with resistance.
The discovery of the Judaic heirlooms just outside the former boundary of the ghetto conjures up various life and death scenarios that must have galvanized the Jews of long ago Lodz to bury their valuables.
These people likely fled their homes sometime after the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, when one Jewish community after another was being assaulted, with pogroms and massacres butchering tens of thousands.
Soon after the occupation of Poland, the Nazis set up a Jewish ghetto in a rundown, impoverished section of Lodz. Starting in 1940, Jews from all across occupied Europe and areas as far away as Vienna, Luxembourg and Czechoslovakia, were shipped here, while their ultimate fates were being planned by Nazi leaders.
Eventually, 230,000 Jews were incarcerated in an isolated part of the town in an area measuring a little more than one and a half square miles. The ghetto was sealed off from the rest of the city by barbed wire fences. It was more tightly guarded than other ghettos and virtually impossible to escape.
Living conditions were horrendous. There was no electricity, bathrooms, running water or heat. Only people who performed slave labor were given food. Even very young children were forced to work. Tens of thousands of Jews died from starvation, exposure and disease.
Like other ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe, the inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto were forced to support the Nazi war-effort through grueling work and food rations inadequate to support life.
Unlike other ghettos, however, all aspects of daily life were ruled directly by the ghetto administration (Judenrat) under the power-hungry Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski who called himself “the king of the Jews.”
Rumkowski was hated for his compliance with German insatiable demands for slave labor production, for his iron-fisted rule and severe retaliation against critics. He was loathed most of all for supplying the Nazis with lists for deportation which tore families apart and decimated the ghetto.
Despite rumors and even eyewitness accounts, until 1944, most Jews in Lodz and other Polish ghettos did not believe the deported people were being killed. They could not bring themselves to acknowledge the horror that Jews were being systematically gassed to death in mobile gas vans, just 35 miles from Lodz.
Chelmno Death Factory
The deportations to Chelmno began in 1942. In addition to transports of adults, in September 1942, over 15,000 children and elderly people were snatched from homes at gunpoint in scenes of indescribable barbarity. Parents refusing to relinquish terrified children to Nazi guards were instantly shot.
By the spring of 1944, the Lodz ghetto, the largest one in Europe after Warsaw, had shrunk considerably. Still, it was the only Polish ghetto that had not yet been liquidated. Less than a third of its original 230,000 residents were still alive at that time. Most were starving and ill.
Rumors spreading through the ghetto about the tide of war turning against the Nazis filled the inmates with the fervent hope that they would live to see Germany defeated.
The Jews knew they were locked in a race against time. The thunder of Russian artillery from the approaching front could be heard at times, filling hearts with a yearning to be free. Yet, even as the German armies began retreating, the Nazis stepped up their killing machinery, shipping tens of thousands Jews to Chelmno and Auschwitz where they were murdered upon arrival.
When Soviet forces entered the ghetto in 1945, only 877 Jews were found alive. According to historians’ estimates, about 10,000 had managed to flee the ghetto before it was sealed. It is not known how many of these survived the war in hiding or by joining partisan units.
As the years go by and the Holocaust recedes in memory, many eyewitness accounts recorded at the time they happened have become crucial in anchoring historical truth.
A prime example is the personal diary kept by Menachem Oppenheim in the Lodz ghetto that was found in the ghetto’s ruins after the war and taken to Israel in the 1950s.
His diary begins when he was first imprisoned in the ghetto on March 8, 1940, a day after “Bloody Thursday,” when the Germans massacred hundreds of Jews on the streets of Lodz to cause mass panic, and drive the city’s residents into the designated ghetto area.
From Menachem’s diary, we learn that he was a religious Jew, 33 years old at the time and had a wife and baby daughter. His wife and daughter had managed to escape the ghetto just before it was locked down and he writes of how he misses them terribly.
In addition to his personal suffering, his diary documents daily life in the ghetto: forced labor working conditions, police operations, food rationing, hunger and disease.
In dozens of entries written in a rabbinic Hebrew style as well as Yiddish, the diary also records the author’s reflections on the impact of ghetto life on himself and his friends. Menachem chronicles a constant emotional see-saw, swinging from hope of survival to despair, and from utter despair to the most fragile of hopes.
The diary also contains an elaborate record of how religious life was maintained in the ghetto. It tells of how the Jews sacrificed to observe the yomim tovim, how they managed to observe Pesach, how they kept minyanim and turned to Hashem in prayer from the depths of hell.
Strikingly, the diary was written in the margins of a Derech HaChayim siddur, nusach Sfard. Menachem utilized the margins of the pages and any blank space between paragraphs to record his entries. Below are excerpts from the diary.
March 10, 1942: “The deportation continues. I saw an old man and woman, who looked to be about 80 years old, dragging a handcart to the train station with their belongings…They will be dead before they reach the next stop… They are deporting people to the grave…”
April 9, 1942: “Pesach 5702. In the ghetto there is terrible hunger. Only rye matzah, watery soup, and beetroot… The Seder was conducted with only matzah and black coffee… Because of the gnawing hunger, many people broke down and ate bread, and so for the first time in my life, so did I. This is my third Pesach without my family…”
Oct 16, 1942: [This entry alludes to radio reports that millions of Polish Jews had been killed. Menachem can’t bring himself to believe the reports.] “People say there were taken to Chelmno near Kolo and there are gassing facilities where they are all gassed to death. But I cannot believe this. For when I remember my beloved wife and child…my mother, sister and brother in law, with all their children…I continue hoping they’re alive and that I’ll soon rejoice with them…Otherwise, why am I enduring this life of torment?”
Although Menachem managed to survive the Lodz Ghetto until its liquidation by the Nazis at the end of August 1944, it is assumed that he perished in Auschwitz with the final transport of Jews from the ghetto shortly before that date. The fate of his wife and daughter is unknown.
In the 1950s, Menachem’s siddur turned up in a Jerusalem bookstore and came to the attention of historian Mordechai Zer Kavod (Ehrenkranz), who translated the personal diary recorded in the siddur, before donating it to the National Library of Israel.
The ‘Sperre’: Demons Unleashed Against Children
On September 1 and 2, 1942, hospitals in the Lodz ghetto had been permanently evacuated. The Germans rounded up almost 2,000 patients, including about four hundred children and shot them all to death at the edge of the ghetto.
On September 5, the Nazis announced a general curfew (Allgemeine Sperre) and imposed an absolute ban on anyone leaving their apartment from 5:00 p.m that day “until further notice.”
This order was designed to enable the Nazis to forcibly remove the sick, the elderly, and the children from their homes and transport them to Chelmno where they were gassed.
The Nazis raided Jewish homes in the Lodz ghetto and at gunpoint, snatched all children under ten as well as everyone over 65. Anyone resisting was immediately shot.
The day before, Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat, had delivered a shocking speech to a crowd of around 15,000 Jews in the ghetto. He advised them of what was to happen the next day, urging parents to voluntarily turn over their children “in order to save the rest of the ghetto.”
His speech made it clear the children were going to die. But he assured them that if this German demand was met, the Germans had promised that the rest of the ghetto would be spared.
Until now, the Nazis—and Rumkowski—had employed deceit and subterfuge to lull the ghetto Jews into thinking deportation meant resettlement. Now there was no longer any attempt to keep that illusion going.
“Give into my hands these victims so that we can avoid having further victims, and a population of 100,000 Jews can be preserved! So [the Nazi officials] have promised me: If we deliver our victims by ourselves, there will be peace!” a deluded Rumkowski cried out to the assembled.
His speech threw the entire ghetto into mass panic.
That night, Josef Zelkowicz, wrote in his diary, “Terrible scenes were played out in the streets of the ghetto, full of hysteria, shrieking and weeping” as the reality sank in of what Chelmno meant, and the unthinkable horror awaiting the children.
The seizure of the children and elderly the following two days beggars the imagination, historians say. Gestapo units entered the ghetto and immediately began shooting anyone exhibiting the slightest protest or resistance. According to analyses of ghetto administration records, roughly 200 parents were shot on site.
All the captured children and the elderly –– some 15,000 people—were murdered at Chelmno.
Survivors of Chelmno Speak Out
One of the fugitives from the extermination camp in Chelmno was a man named Shlaimek Ber Weiner, who took the pseudonym, Yakov Grojanowski. His work at the camp had been the burying and disposal of dead bodies (sondercommandos).
Grojanowski was the first of four prisoners from the sondercommando group who managed to escape the camp. He frantically made his way from Chelmno to the town of Grabow and then to the Warsaw Ghetto. There he gave detailed information about his horrifying experiences to the ghetto’s organization, “Oneg Shabbat,” headed by historian Emanuel Ringelblum.
Oneg Shabbat collected volumes of documentation about day to day realities of ghetto life and Nazi atrocities, and hid the files in various locations outside the Warsaw ghetto. Known as the Ringelblum Archive, a large portion of this extraordinary body of work was recovered after the war.
Grojanowski’s testimony, first given in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942, was translated in 1983 by Elisheva Shaul in Yalkut Moreshet and Geviyat Edut. He described the victims’ final moments in Chelmno as follows:
“The gas car packed with people usually stopped about one hundred meters in front of the mass grave. As the ‘pit people’ (i.e. prisoners laying the bodies in the pits) told us, there’s a special apparatus in the chauffeur’s cabin, connected by two pipes to the car’s interior.
“The drivers press some buttons, get out of the cabin, and lock it behind them. Shortly thereafter, there are screams, desperate sobs and heavy pounding on the walls. It takes about 15 minutes, after which the driver returned to the cabin, where he’d shine an electric flashlight through the windshield to see if everyone was dead. Then he would drive the car about six meters from the mass grave and we would start unloading the bodies.”
Grajanowski’s report described the removal of the corpses from the vans, cleaning the inside of the vehicles, and burying the bodies in large pits. He described the brutality and sadism of the murderers, as well as his hair-raising escape.
“At moments of greatest danger, I called out to G-d and to my parents to help me save the Jewish people,” he related in his report.
“Grajanowksi believed it was his mission to communicate the terrible things he had seen, to warn his people,” writes historian Esther Farbstein in Hidden in Thunder, quoting Geviyat Edut.
Ringelblum’s organization wrote up its report in Polish and German; the reports were sent to the Delegatura, the underground representatives of the Polish government-in-exile in London, but were published in New York only in the summer of 1942. It is not clear if they were distributed to Jews in the ghettos.
Grajanowski unfortunately was trapped by the Nazis in a later roundup and is thought to have died at Belzec.
Death Verdicts in a Polish Court
Four other Jewish prisoners who were forced to work as sondercommandos miraculously escaped the Chelmno death factory and survived the war. They were Mordechai Podchlebnik, Shimon Srebrnik, Chaim Yechiel Widowski and Yitzchok Justmann.
Srebrnik and Podchlebnik gave testimony after the war that was critical to the prosecution of Nazi death camp personnel in a Polish court. One of the obstacles the prosecution faced was that the Nazis had destroyed the death machinery at Chelmno, razed the buildings to their foundations, disposed of tons of human ashes, and erased almost all evidence of the horrific crimes committed there.
To circumvent the Nazi destruction of records and evidence, Judge Bednarz used Lodz ghetto records and estimates to arrive at the number of victims. Based on ghetto statistics together with multiple eyewitness testimonies, he estimated some 350,000 victims had been murdered in Chelmno.
Two of the Nazis on trial were sentenced to death by Bednarz. They remained on death row for several years before finally being hanged in 1949 and 1951 respectively. Another two committed suicide in prison before they could be brought to trial.
Other arch murderers at Chelmno stood trial in Germany about 20 years later. In what observers called a shameful mockery of justice, they received lenient prison sentences and many were acquitted.
Both Srebnik and Podchlebnik also testified at the 1961 Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem. In the 1970s they gave lengthy gripping testimonials about their experiences at Chelmno to Claude Lanzmann in his epic nine-hour documentary, Shoah.
A SONDERCOMMANDO’S STORY
“From what I could tell, 800-1000 people were being gassed every day… Their bodies filled three to four metres of trench,” Michael Podchlebnik, the former sondercommando revealed in a personal testimonial recorded in Geviyat Edut.
“I had been trying to persuade my fellow inmates to make a run for our lives… After witnessing all this, we too would be murdered.”
Podchlebnik describes how they were shackled at the legs to prevent escapes.
“One day, on the way to begin the day’s work, I noticed that one of the windows on the bus had a tarpaulin covering it that could be lowered. I cut the tarpaulin and hurled myself out of the car. They started shooting at me but luckily all bullets missed.”
Podchlebnik somehow managed to cut off his leg irons as he fled for his life.
“After two days, during which I had nothing to eat, I headed in the direction of the town of Grabow,” he recalled “On my way I stopped at some peasant’s cottage. He gave me some food and a hat and showed me what direction to take.”
Once in Grabow, Podchlebnik said he asked for directions to the rabbi’s house. He recounts his encounter with the rabbi of Grabow in detail, how he broke down and cried as he shared the agony of what he had been through.
“Does the rabbi live here?” I asked.
“Who are you?”
“Rabbi, I’m a Jew from yeneh velt…”
He looked at me as though I were crazy.
I said, “Rabbi, don’t think I’ve lost my mind. I am a Jew from yeneh velt…They’re murdering the Jewish people. I myself buried an entire city of Jews, as well as my parents, my brothers, and my whole family. I’m left all alone in the world.” As I spoke I wept bitterly.
“Where are they murdering them?” the rabbi asked.
I said, “In Chelmno, Rabbi. “They’re gassing them all in the forest and burying them in a mass grave.”
The serving girl (the rabbi was a widower), her eyes swollen with tears, brought me a bowl of water. I washed my hands. When the Jews got wind of what was going on, throngs of people came to the rabbi’s house and I gave them the details of the dreadful events. Everyone cried.
I was given some buttered bread. I ate, drank some tea and recited birchas hagomel…