Fresh Light on Life within the Walls of the Warsaw and Łódź Ghettos

Eyewitness reportage from Poland helps explain the Holocaust better than a shelf of well-researched histories.

Jewish children pulling a cart with two bags in the Łódź ghetto.

Jewish children pulling a cart with two bags in the Łódź ghetto.

Observation
Jan. 20 2016
About the author

Andrew N. Koss, an associate editor of Mosaic, is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.


Nearly three million Jews passed through Hitler’s ghettos between 1939 and 1945, most of them on the way to their deaths. Yet the ghettos are much less familiar than the extermination camps. Even Warsaw is known primarily because of its famous 1943 uprising; few Western readers have a fuller grasp of what happened there, or a picture of daily life within its walls.

The publication of In Those Nightmarish Days, a collection of eyewitness reportage by Peretz Opoczynski and Josef Zelkowicz, is therefore a most welcome event. The two men, Yiddish-language journalists in prewar Poland, found themselves, respectively, in the Warsaw and Łódź ghettos and worked with clear eyes to chronicle what they saw. Some of their writings survived the war. Translated by David Suchoff with an excellent introduction by Samuel Kassow, they make riveting reading, bringing the reader into the brutal realities of everyday ghetto life.

 

A little background might help set the context. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, he had no plan as yet for the two million Jews who came under German rule—except that they should be treated cruelly. Among the haphazard measures undertaken by Nazi officials were segregation and confinement, which soon became standard practice. By 1941, nearly all Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland were either forced into ghettos or were actively hiding outside of them.

In addition to demonstrating Jewish inferiority and subjugation, the ghetto answered to other Nazi fears by restricting Jews’ putative ability to manipulate the global economy, degrade the Aryan race, spread socialism and moral corruption, and otherwise undermine the German war effort. Putting them in ghettos would also facilitate the next phase of persecution, whatever that might be. In the meantime, Nazi policymakers focused on robbing Jews of their assets, wringing some utility out of them through forced labor, and restricting their access to food in the hope that many would die of disease or starvation.

Of the hundreds of ghettos created by the Nazis, most were located in cities. To them, Jews from surrounding towns and villages—or, as in the case of Łódź, deported from Germany and Western Europe—were then transferred. The ghettos were usually set up in already Jewish existing neighborhoods, in the process uprooting some Gentiles and many Jews from their homes as the resultant population greatly exceeded the existing housing stock.

Unlike in European ghettos prior to the French Revolution, where the gates were closed only at night, here they were locked permanently. Jews emerged only to be marched to forced-labor sites, and Gentiles entered only on official business. Food generally came in the form of rations containing just enough calories for an otherwise healthy person to survive. Nearly every ghetto had a Judenrat, or Jewish council, tasked with carrying out Nazi decrees, aided in many cases by a ghetto police force. In this way, the Nazis sought to make Jews complicit in their own annihilation.

After the “final solution to the Jewish problem” was arrived at in late 1941, the ghettos became convenient places to hold Jews until they could be shipped to extermination camps. Most of the residents of Polish ghettos met their deaths at Chełmno, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Bełżec; the “lucky” ones made it to Majdanek or Auschwitz, where the chances of survival were slightly better. Meanwhile, farther east, in areas occupied by the Germans after they invaded Russia in July 1941, the general pattern proceeded from rapid mass shootings, to ghettoization in 1942, followed by “liquidation” by mass shooting later that year. Until 1943 or 1944, a few larger ghettos continued to hold “useful Jews,” usually skilled laborers who had been spared liquidations in prior locales.

Contrary to the impression conveyed by Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem or Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, there was no small number—perhaps even dozens—of ghetto uprisings.

 

In Warsaw, Peretz Opoczynski wrote his reports for Oyneg Shabes, an underground group of Jewish intellectuals dedicated to creating, in effect, the first Holocaust archive. Working as a mailman under the auspices of the Judenrat, he was able to move about the ghetto and interact with a wide variety of its residents. The Łódź ghetto, too, had its own archive—sponsored in this case by the Judenrat itself and thus subject to censorship. Josef Zelkowicz, a contributor to this archive, also had a job given him by the Judenrat: namely, visiting families to determine their eligibility for the meager support provided to the most destitute. This brought him, too, into contact with ordinary Jews throughout the ghetto. In their different ways, both authors would make extensive use of such day-to-day encounters, putting a human face to the suffering.

One example, from the writings of Zelkowicz, can offer a taste of the book overall as well as of that author’s particular rhetorical gifts. In a series of reports, Zelkowicz describes visits to ghetto apartments in his capacity as a welfare inspector. He is accompanied by his colleague Riva Bramson, who, Kassow explains in the book’s introduction, hailed from an upper-middle-class family and spoke little Yiddish. With great effect, Zelkowicz positions himself as the intermediary between the common folk and Bramson, to the latter of whom he constantly addresses himself in his reports of their visits.

In this vignette Zelkowicz and Bramson have arrived at an apartment inhabited by what seems to be an extended family of seventeen souls happily eating a midday meal of bread, honey, and hot coffee: a meal that rouses pangs of hunger in the bellies of the inspectors. But all is not as it seems:

[E]ven if you don’t want to undertake your normally painstaking investigation in this case, Riva Bramson, grab hold of those kosher, Jewish eyes of yours and take a long hard look at the nitty-gritty of the situation that’s right before your face. Get rid of those rose-colored glasses, Riva, and start looking at the world with the eyes of a real human being: a mensch. Take another look, Riva: there are seventeen people total but only three beds there. Think about it for just one second: how can all these seventeen people in front of you share three beds? . . .

As Zelkowicz gradually reveals to Bramson (and the reader), three sisters live in the apartment together with their husbands, their children, and their mother. The mother, Dvorah Hannah, Bramson and Zelkowicz don’t notice upon arriving; instead, they “discover” her lying, paralyzed, on a pile of bedding by the door. And then there is little Leibish, the eighteen-months-old orphan son of a fourth sibling. The “feast” being enjoyed is in celebration of the family’s just-received monthly welfare payment. And then we get to the real tragedy; none of the able adults, their own children near starvation, is willing to share bread with either Leibish or Dvorah Hannah. The chapter concludes:

So Dvorah Hannah has no one but Leibish, Leibish no one but Dvorah Hannah, and the two of them together—together, they have absolutely nothing on which to live. And yet, Riva Bramson, those same seventeen people you saw sitting at the table, eating their meager meal of carefully weighed and strictly measured bread—these seventeen people are still envious of Dvorah Hannah and Leibish, and critical of them: “At least they’ve got a place in the corner to lie on! A piece of bedding just for the two of them! . . .”

Listen carefully, Riva Bramson—listen to our Yiddish language that you understand so little and please understand that its wealth of expressions and nuance are richer than your wildest imagination could dream. There’s absolutely nothing that our lively, juicy tongue can’t find words to describe. Even so, I don’t believe anyone has the power to find a fitting description for everything going on beneath the surface of the Nineteenth Apartment unless, perhaps, you transform the old Yiddish saying “Every ulcer has its own color” into a new and different saying: “Every dwelling has a hidden ulcer spreading.”

The lesson here is also not what it seems at first glance. It’s not that Riva Bramson is too naïve to see the extent of the material and moral suffering the Nazis have imposed on this family. Rather, she must “grab hold” of her “kosher, Jewish eyes”—present all along, underneath the “rose-tinted” glasses of acculturation—and rediscover her humanity along with her Jewishness. But what this restored humanity uncovers is a scene that the greatest of cynics would be hard pressed to invent: people who, in order to save the lives of their own children, not only allow their mother and toddler nephew to starve but begrudge them even a sliver of physical comfort.

And the ultimate rub: even Zelkowicz, the Yiddish-speaking man of the people whose kosher, Jewish eyes are activated more easily than Bramson’s, even he lacks the resources to articulate what’s “right before [his] face.” Nor is Yiddish, with its exquisitely rich vocabulary for human suffering, and its particular sensitivity to the Jewish condition, up to the task of capturing the excruciating  moral disfigurement of the Nineteenth Apartment.

 

As this extract strikingly suggests, what emerges from the accounts of Zelkowicz and Opoczynski is a picture very different from that found in the more widely read Holocaust memoirs by Anne Frank, Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, and others. It is also very different from the autobiographical novellas of Yeḥiel Dinur (a/k/a Ka-Tsetnik), the literary vehicle through which many Israelis learned about the machinery of the Holocaust. With the obvious exception of Frank’s Diary, those works all focus on life in the concentration camp, uniformly portraying it as something radically removed from anything approaching ordinary human experience. In his testimony at the Eichmann trial, Dinur captured it succinctly in describing Auschwitz as a “planet of the ashes.”

By contrast, the less well-known world of the ghettos was in many ways the same world that existed before the war. In the camps—especially Auschwitz—Jews from all over Europe were separated upon arrival from their families and communities. In the ghettos, families stayed together, sometimes in their prewar homes, and communities remained largely intact even as they gained new arrivals. Congregations were still in contact with their rabbis; political organizations went underground. The ghettos were not “total institutions” like the camps: residents were not assigned numbers or uniforms, did not live in barracks, and were not subject to constant surveillance. There was dehumanization aplenty—that is agonizingly evident—but not of the same kind that prevailed in Auschwitz.

For all of these reasons, and despite the torments of mass incarceration, In Those Nightmarish Days gives us a picture of a Jewish society in extremis, but one that is still integrated into Jewish history. That is one way in which the book—to put it bluntly, if clumsily—is much more Jewish than many other Holocaust chronicles. And that is not the only way. No doubt it’s easier for many Western readers to relate to the memoirs of West European Jews like Levi, Frankl, and Frank (whose father deliberately de-Judaized her diary when preparing it for publication). But such Jews were a minority among those who experienced the Holocaust. The people depicted here are much more typical: Yiddish-speaking, religiously observant, and poor.

No less typical, in their own way, are the two authors. Unlike, say, Primo Levi, who wrote, “If it hadn’t been for the racial laws and the concentration camp, I’d probably no longer be a Jew,” Opoczynski and Zelkowicz, with their “kosher, Jewish eyes,” were both deeply immersed in prewar Jewish life. Both had been raised in ḥasidic families, and both, while rejecting religious Orthodoxy, chose to remain in the quasi-secular, Yiddish-speaking milieu that existed in interwar Poland. In their wartime writings, moreover, they deliberately focus on the lives of the same ordinary folk who were largely the subjects of their prewar writing. And they do so, moreover, in Yiddish, a language whose unique evocative powers they deftly apply to the needs of the moment even as they reveal their literary indebtedness not only to the Yiddish journalism of the day but to the great Yiddish masters of the previous generation, chief among them Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz.

 

One may conclude with a question. The passage I’ve selected from Zelkowicz’s reportage—one of the book’s least horrifying passages—may be taken to imply that he actually understood that lying in store for the Jews in Apartment Nineteen was a fate far worse than brutal anti-Semitism or vicious wartime deprivation. If even the Yiddish language couldn’t capture its effects, the Nazi persecution must be qualitatively different from its predecessors. But did he really grasp the magnitude of what awaited? Did Peretz Opoczynski in Warsaw?

Most of Zelkowicz’s pieces here date from 1942. In December 1941, the first group of Jews from Łódź were sent to Chełmno and promptly murdered in gas vans, the precursors to the gas chambers. Between January and May of the next year, nearly 55,000 would suffer the same fate. In September, the German authorities ordered the deportation of children over the age of ten and adults over sixty-five. Of course, the Germans never announced that they were being taken to their deaths.

Since the Łódź ghetto was much more cut off than others from the outside world, it’s plausible that Zelkowicz had little access to information beyond what he himself could observe. Yet his entries describing the roundups, which constitute about a third of the book, make for its most harrowing passages. Reporting conversations among parents about what will become of their children, he hears such comments as, “It is simply impossible that they could take thousands of children and simply slaughter them like that”—a denial implying that the unthinkable thought had crossed the mind of the one uttering it.

Were the Jews of Łódź, then, aware of the existence of gas vans and gas chambers? Of mass shootings in the east? Did they know that, in comparison with the rest of Polish Jewry, they were fortunate to have survived so long as they did? It’s not at all clear, and at places like this one wishes the otherwise impeccably scrupulous introduction had provided a bit more detail about what is known on this score.

In Warsaw, unlike in Łódź, the ghetto with its vibrant underground had various ways of receiving reports from beyond the walls. Peretz Opoczynski composed the pieces here in 1941. By October and November of that year, when the last of them were written, the Jews of Warsaw had not yet become victims of mass killings. It is thus also unlikely—as Kassow suggests—that Opoczynski knew of the gassings at Chełmno, where Jews farther west were being sent, or of the mass shootings happening much farther east. Within a year, however, most of the ghettos’ residents would be dead and Warsaw’s Jews were aware of what was afoot; it was this knowledge that inspired the uprising in April 1943.

Only at the very end of his last article does Opoczynski address the possibility that the Nazis were planning “to destroy us in a radical and comprehensive fashion.” And even there he imagines extermination taking place by allowing Jewish children to starve to death, not by murdering them along with the adults. If the extent of Nazi brutality had been known from the start, he comments, the community might have organized better to help its children. Perhaps. But the statement only underlines his awful ignorance of what was to come.

 

As documents contemporaneous with the events being described, the writings collected in In These Nightmarish Days naturally assume the reader’s familiarity with the immediate context of those events. Much of that context is very helpfully filled in by Samuel Kassow’s introduction, which can be profitably supplemented by consulting the entries on the Warsaw and Łódź ghettos in any standard reference work on the Holocaust. Neither author, moreover, supplies a comprehensive account of his own experiences; rather, we are presented with a series of independent reports placed in chronological order.

But if this volume should not be confused with a full treatment either of the Holocaust or of the ghettos, what it does accomplish is invaluable. These writings bring to life—or, better, to near-death—the experience of ordinary Jews in two of Poland’s largest ghettos, an experience much closer to what nearly three million Jews underwent in those nightmare years than can be gleaned from eyewitness accounts of the camps. By doing so with such admirable vividness and lucidity, they also help explain the Holocaust better than a shelf of well-researched histories.

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More about: History & Ideas, Holocaust, Poland, Warsaw Ghetto, Yiddish