The Summer of 1944

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Crumbling building in Lodz, Poland.

This summer we will commemorate the 70th anniversary of critical events in the last summer of World War II and the destruction of European Jewry. There was, alongside the regular daily murders of individual Jews all over Europe, a monumental event in the summer of '44. It is the tragedy and the conundrum of the Lodz Ghetto. When the Germans invaded Poland in September of 1939, they established ghettos in all the major Polish Jewish cities. This was part of a simple five-step plan for the destruction of Europe's Jews. 

By June of 1944, all the Jewish ghettos in Europe had been liquidated. The most famous, of course, was the Warsaw Ghetto. It was destroyed and incinerated by General Jurgen Stroop following the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that began on the first night of Passover 1943, April 19 of that year. In June of 1944, by which time approximately five and a half million Jews had already been murdered, there was one ghetto left standing. In that ghetto were approximately seventy thousand living Jews. This was the Lodz Ghetto. Lodz was the Manchester, or textile capital, of Eastern Europe. It was the practice of the Germans to establish a Judenrat, or Jewish self-governing council, to administer the affairs of the ghetto. The Head of the Lodz Ghetto was Chaim Rumkowski. 

When Adam Czerniaków, the Head of the Warsaw Ghetto, was asked, in July 1942, to participate in the transportation to the death camp Treblinka, of its more than 350,000 Jews, he committed suicide. When Chaim Rumkowski was asked to organize deportations of Jews from the Lodz Ghetto to the death camps, he chose a different path. He decided to make a deal. Work for life; little children, frail, and elderly, would be exchanged for for able-bodied young men and women, workers. He said to the Germans, "You need me. You need the ghetto workforce. Take those who cannot work to the death camps. Leave those who can work here, and we will produce what is needed for the German army."  

Chaim Rumkowski was, by all accounts, a megalomaniac. During his time as Elder of the ghetto he presided with an iron fist. He had children of the ghetto parade before him singing songs of praise to him. In a famous speech he turned to the parents of the ghetto and said, 

"A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They (the Germans) are asking us to give up the best we possess-the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I've lived and breathed with children, I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!

Then an unbelievable thing happened. After so many Jews had been murdered, after all the ghettos had been liquidated, more than 70,000 Jews, who were working in German factories, and therefore had been spared, were alive in June 1944 in the Lodz Ghetto. 

On Aug. 1, some 15 months after the Jewish uprising in Warsaw, there took place the Polish Uprising in Warsaw. The Poles who rose up against the Germans used a simple logic, the same logic that the partisans used in Paris when they learned that the Allied army was approaching. They revolted. They rose up against the Germans. Within a few days the Allies came to help them. The Poles assumed that the Red Army, which was just across the Vistula River that divided Warsaw, would cross the Vistula River and join with the Polish Uprising and defeat the Germans. This did not happen. The Polish Uprising was led largely by democrats. These were the people most likely to oppose a Soviet imposed Communist regime in Poland after the war and so Stalin held the Red Army on the east bank of the Vistula River, thus allowing the overwhelmingly superior forces of the German army to lay waste to Warsaw and to butcher those who would oppose him in the future. Only in September did he cross the river. Now, Lodz is a mere few hours drive from Warsaw. 

Imagine this, Chaim Rumkowski, who handed over tens of thousands of Jews to the Germans, like the head of no other ghetto, was presiding over a ghetto in which there were more than seventy thousand Jews, a few hours away from the Red Army. Had Stalin not been so strategically evil; had Stalin ordered the Red Army to cross the Vistula and then continue westward, and liberate Lodz, would Chaim Rumkowski not have been hailed as a hero in the summer of '44?  He would have had what no one else in Europe had: seventy thousand live Jews. The Red Army did not cross. Most of them were murdered in Auschwitz. Yet, the largest single group of ghetto survivors, many of whom took up residence in Chicago, were survivors of the Lodz Ghetto due to the deal Rumkowski made with the devil.

All this, 70 years ago, in the summer of '44.  


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