Ode from Oy to Joy*
David A. Harris
Executive Director, AJC American Jewish Committee
September 28, 2004
It is in the nature of my work that I ride an emotional roller coaster. There are moments of profound sadness, and others of sheer exhilaration.
This was once again the case recently.
First, I was invited to participate in the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the liquidation of the Łódź Ghetto.
Łódź, a city southwest of Warsaw, was home to the second largest Jewish community in Europe on the eve of the Second World War. As many as 230,000 Jews, one-third of the city's population, lived alongside Polish Catholics, Germans, Russians, and other groups in this thriving textile center. Jewish religious and cultural life was remarkably vibrant.
Immediately after the Nazi occupation on September 8, 1939, persecution of the Jews began. Jewish-owned shops were plundered, bank accounts frozen, synagogues destroyed, and Jews barred from using public transportation.
On April 30, 1940, a ghetto, known as the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, was established which measured no more than four square kilometers. (Łódź was renamed Litzmannstadt earlier that month after the World War I German general Karl Litzmann.) According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, approximately 164,000 local Jews were initially forced to live there. Jews from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Luxembourg were also transported to the ghetto in 1941 and 1942.
(In November 1941, a subsection of the ghetto was established for more than five thousand Roma, i.e., Gypsies. Within three months, they were transported to a death camp.)
This ghetto was the second largest in Nazi-occupied Europe, after the Warsaw Ghetto, and turned out to be the longest standing. It remained in use until the last transport train left the Radegast Station on August 29, 1944. This station is referred to as the "Umschlagplatz" of Łódź. Umschlagplatz was the site bordering the Warsaw Ghetto from which hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to the death camps, especially Treblinka.
Under strict Nazi control, a Judenrat, or Jewish Council, was established to administer the daily life of the ghetto. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski was placed in the morally impossible position of chairman. From his appointment in 1939 until his deportation to Auschwitz on the last transport from Łódź, Rumkowski was variously seen as a Quisling by some Jews, a savior by others.
In the ghetto, the Jews, as best they could, continued to educate their children, organize health services, and conduct clandestine political activity.
The Jews also wrote. They penned diaries, chronicles, and poems about their plight, many of which were later discovered. Here's one segment of a much longer poem by Simcha Bunim Shajewicz. It was written on the eve of Passover in 1942, two years before his death, and later published in Łódź Ghetto: Inside a Community under Siege.
And in an hour of good fortune
The miracle of rebirth occurs
And spring is here again.
But for us in the ghetto
No one any longer cares about hunger
Which cries out from every limb.
And everyone has forgotten
Death which visits everyone personally
And does not skip a house.
And like a desolate, trembling sheep,
One shivers and trembles
At the order for deportation
Into an unknown land.
One trembles and quakes
At Belshazzar's cryptic writing*:
—Life or Death.
An old woman sees the hearses drive by;
Her eyes gleam with envy:
—Yes, yes, the man was lucky.
And the young man lowers his head:
—No, no, everything is hell anyway.
And the young girl spits three times:
—Tfu, tfu, tfu, let the Angel of Death be my bridegroom, already.
And even the child trudges on the march,
Stammering with a plaintive weeping:
—Mamele dear, Oh I don't have any more strength;
Oh, put me there on the black wagon.
From the Łódź Ghetto, the Jews were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and Chelmno. The latter camp is not widely known. Located forty-five miles west of Łódź, Chelmno was the first death camp in which mass executions were carried out by gas. In all, an estimated 320,000 Jews were murdered there.
Of the 150,000 Jews who were deported on the transport trains, only 5,000-15,000 survived. Additionally, more than 40,000 ghetto inmates died from hunger, illness, or exposure.
Jerzy Kropinicki, the current mayor of Łódź, was the force behind the commemoration. He credits Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, chairman of the Polish Council for the Protection of Memory, a former foreign minister, and a Righteous Gentile, with having inspired him to mark the anniversary date. Until this event, Łódź as a Holocaust site had largely been ignored since the war. No longer.
Explaining his decision, the mayor said:
"I have been thinking a lot about the situation of a crime witness. When people analyze the question of crime, usually they think about the two sides: the executioner and the victim. We rarely realize that there is also a third party—the witness. In Łódź the perpetrators were the Germans, the victims the Jews, and the witnesses were those who were not shut in a ghetto, i.e., the Poles. In every crime the roles of the executioner and the victim are fixed forever. The witness stands before an eternal moral challenge—he can either be silent together with the executioner or cry with the victim. In my opinion, silence is morally unacceptable. The witness of the crime must cry out. These are the dimensions of the tragedy which we recollect, a crime that has been perpetrated on innocent people, on the inhabitants of our city. And we must not be silent about it."
City officials expected about 1,500 to attend the commemorative events. In fact, more than 5,500 showed up, straining the city's ability to host them. They came from Israel, across Europe, and North America. Many were aging survivors, their children and grandchildren accompanying them. A few were non-Jews who came as an expression of solidarity. The city, to its credit, pulled out all the stops to create a solemn and moving program spread out over nearly three days.
A number of dignitaries participated, including the Polish prime minister, an Israeli cabinet minister, the mayor of Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv and Łódź are sister cities), the American, Israeli, Austrian, Czech, and German ambassadors to Poland, and distinguished cantors and musicians.
Among the most powerful moments was the memorial service at the Jewish cemetery, the largest in Europe. Established in 1892, it contains nearly 180,000 headstones or matzevot. Since the cemetery was located in the ghetto, many of those 40,000 Jews who died within the ghetto walls were buried in unmarked graves there.
From the cemetery, we marched a mile or so to the Radegast Station, the arrival point for Jews deported to the Łódź Ghetto and the departure point for Jews transported to the death camps. It is here that the mayor has embarked on an ambitious plan to create a memorial to the victims and a museum. Several boxcars of the Deutsche Reichsbahn used to carry Jews are placed on the adjoining tracks as part of the permanent exhibit. Much of the work has been done at city expense, but the project will require an infusion of outside funds to be completed.
The mayor has appealed to a number of sources, including the American Jewish Committee, for the one million dollars required to finish the work. As the survivors gradually disappear from our midst, the importance of preserving and protecting sites connected to the Shoah only grows.
The city of Łódź is not a wealthy metropolis, and, in any case, it shouldn't be expected to bear this responsibility alone. To state the obvious, the tragedy that befell the Jews was not of its making. The city deserves help.
I was deeply moved by my time in Łódź. Words become hopelessly inadequate in such situations to describe the welter of feelings—from grief to incomprehension to anger to resolve—that engulf me and give me no rest.
I was touched by the personal stories that I and others heard from many survivors. They wanted to talk. They needed to talk. Time was running out for them, they realized, and they prayed their stories would outlive them. Returning to Poland was not easy for some. Walking once familiar streets filled with suffering and anguish brought their nightmares back in even sharper relief.
How they picked up the pieces of their broken lives after the war, found their footing, and marched on to build new lives, new families, a new country, Israel, and new hope, is beyond my ability to grasp, constantly shadowed as they were by the single greatest crime in human history, as well as the realization that anti-Jewish hatred most certainly did not end on May 8, 1945.
Think about it. It wasn't as if a contrite world suddenly begged for forgiveness at war's end and sought to make amends. Some survivors made their way home to their towns and villages, often to find nothing other than the enmity of their former neighbors who feared repossession of homes and belongings.
It is not widely known that hundreds of survivors, perhaps more, were killed in Poland and Hungary in the period just after the war. The pogrom in Kielce, Poland, was perhaps the most notorious example. In July 1946, forty-two Jews, all survivors, were murdered when the Jews were falsely accused of a blood libel.
Other survivors found Displaced Persons (DP) camps the only safe haven, and so they stayed on in Germany and Austria, of all places, though under the administration of the British and Americans. Those who tried to reach Palestine were blocked more often than not by the British and placed in internment camps on Cyprus. And the survivors, for a variety of complex psychological reasons, were mostly reticent to talk about what they had endured. Perhaps it was just as well, because at the time the world was largely uninterested in listening. The brutal, bloody war was over, and it was time to move on, to look forward, not backward. And, in any case, who wanted to be reminded of sins of commission and omission?
I was transfixed by the interaction between the survivors and their children and grandchildren—the younger generations struggling to imagine a time and place beyond their capacity to comprehend, yet knowing that it would soon fall to them to shoulder the responsibility for and protection of that memory.
I was struck, at the same time, by the many ways in which things had changed for the better.
After more than forty years of stultifying communist rule, here we were in democratic Poland, now a member of NATO and the European Union. Polish troops are fighting side by side with American forces in Iraq. Poland is today one of Israel's staunchest allies in Europe. There's bilateral cooperation in just about every field of endeavor.
No, anti-Semitism hasn't been completely eradicated in Poland, but it's competing with a strong wave of what can be called philo-Semitism, which seeks to reclaim the Jewish contribution to Poland as an integral part of the nation's history. This wave has led to any number of Jewish cultural festivals, academic institutes, exchange programs with Israel, volunteer efforts to care for Jewish cemeteries, Christian-Jewish initiatives, books, and museum exhibits.
Bear in mind that Jews have lived on Polish soil for nearly a thousand years, and that on the eve of World War II Jews comprised ten percent of the total Polish population and fully one-third of Warsaw's residents.
The mayor's laudable effort to commemorate the Łódź anniversary needs to be seen in this light. So, too, does the Polish government's exemplary cooperation with the American Jewish Committee to preserve and protect the site of the Nazi death camp at Belzec, where 500,000 Jews perished. The dedication ceremony took place earlier this year in the presence of the Polish president. (See "Letter from Belzec" June 3, 2004.)
And there was one other bit of good news on this trip. The timing was totally coincidental, but the symbolism couldn't have been more powerful. I was invited to speak at the Summer University of the European Union of Jewish Students. This was the twenty-first annual weeklong gathering of young people from across Europe, who get together to celebrate their Jewish identity, learn from one another and from guest speakers, and form lasting friendships.
This year's program was in a village an hour north of Berlin in what was the former East Germany (GDR). It turned out to be a nine-hour drive from Łódź. The drive, incidentally, helped me understand the ease with which Nazi forces attacked Poland in 1939. The land was flat as a pancake from one end to the other; not a hill in sight.
Maybe for the students, given their youth, the location was nothing exceptional. For me, though, it was. As a child of the Cold War, I still pinch myself every time I cross what was once the Iron Curtain and recall the stunning, and previously unimaginable, events that began in 1989 in Eastern Europe and culminated in 1991 with the implosion of the Soviet Union.
Until fifteen years ago, when these students were in elementary school, there were virtually no identified Jews in the GDR, and there certainly would have been no Jewish summer gatherings. To the contrary, the GDR was for decades an implacable enemy of Israel, a hotbed of anti-Zionism, a sanctuary for Middle Eastern terrorist groups, and run by a government that rejected any moral responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich, not to mention that it was a viciously totalitarian regime that kept seventeen million citizens in its iron grip.
(German reunification has proved far more difficult and costly than anyone imagined. That becomes immediately obvious even to the casual visitor. After fifteen years and a trillion dollars spent on economic development, the gap between West and East Germany remains wide, unemployment in the east is high, many young people have depopulated the former East Germany by moving to the western part of the country, and the potential for extremism, feeding off of widespread dissatisfaction and disillusionment, is quite serious.)
But most striking for me was the encounter with hundreds of young European Jews. If Łódź makes you cry, these young people make you smile. This is the future and, judging from the many individuals I spoke with, it's a bright future indeed. These are the Jews from Thessaloniki, Minsk, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Vienna, Berlin, and Moscow who weren't meant to be. Had Hitler fully succeeded, had Stalin after him, there might have been tiny pockets of Jews in neutral Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and Turkey, but little more.
Spending Shabbat with these future leaders was a time I won't soon forget. The unadulterated joy in being Jewish, the determination to stand with Israel and against those who would delegitimize or demonize it, and the pride in being young Europeans embarked on the experiment of stitching together a continent-wide community all profoundly struck me.
In my conversations, I found the young people cognizant of the many daunting challenges they face as Jews—ranging from political to demographic—but undeterred.
At a time when many Jews are distressed about the state of the world, this encounter was cause for optimism. Our survival as Jews, we know, has never been due to sheer numbers alone, but rather to the power of tenacity, passion, and faith.
All three were very much on display in that most improbable of places—a village in the heart of the former East Germany, just an hour north of the Brandenburg Gate.
* This essay is dedicated to the memory of Alina Viera, a cherished American Jewish Committee colleague who died earlier this year after a courageous struggle against a pitiless illness. A proud daughter of Poland and the Catholic Church, Alina embodied the very best of her native land and reached out to the Jewish people in friendship throughout her life. Knowing that death was imminent, Alina requested that the Mourner's Kaddish be recited in her memory by the AJC staff. It was.
* A reference to the Book of Daniel. It was Belshazzar who saw the writing on the wall, which Daniel interpreted as a prophecy of doom.
Chelmno First Death Camp
First published on November 12th, 2004
Last updated August 3rd, 2007