The Lodz Ghetto, Review by Selma Ducker

Dropped on:June 6, 2014
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Dawid Sierakowiak

“I’d tried to straighten him out, but there’s only so much you can do for a person who thinks Auschwitz is a brand of beer.”
― David Sedaris

It is 69 years since the summer of 1945 when WW11 ended,and the year in which the concentration camps were liberated. Very few of those concentration camp survivors remain, and in not too long a time, there will be no more eye witnesses to that history.

For those of us who see this as a grave fragility, it becomes very important that we take our responsibility to continue to dispense information about the holocaust with great seriousness. Ignorance harbors danger.

There is excellent Holocaust literature and movies.

One documentary however stands alone in its excellence because it is made entirely with real photographic images that the inmates of a Ghetto took themselves, and has narration that is used completely from hidden diaries written by inmates.The heartbreaking,shocking photographs used in this film are combined with scripts of journals and diaries of only those who lived and died during the course of the Lodz ghetto.

There are no scenes written to show you the amazing spirit of victims to rise above appalling conditions. There are no scenes of gentle humor to alleviate morbid tragedy. Those familiar projections are important parts of a fiction n . . .  however compelling and well done,and indeed, they often bear truths.I am thankful for their perspective. But this documentary is different.

This is unrelenting documentation of flat photography of daily life.The script is from notes such as written on the margins of a hidden novel…and from such remnants as “The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lodz Ghetto .  . .  a boy, interned in the Ghetto from June 28,1939, a few weeks before he turned 15 and breaks off April 15,1943 a few months before he would turn 19. He died on Aug 18, apparently from tuberculosis and starvation.

It has been hard for me to present this bleak documentary to you. I want to go back to reviewing movies of love and sex and relationships, but this has an urgency to which I must respond.I have been immersed in an intense long seminar on Holocaust at the University here and I feel a need to do this. I was auditing along with a full class of undergraduates who are taking it for credit, and only 1 is Jewish. They are in their late teens and their shock at what they are seeing makes me think on the many many more who are ignorant of what is being transmitted here.

The city of Lodz Poland is located about 75 miles southwest of Warsaw. The Jews of Lodz formed the 2nd largest Jewish community in prewar Poland. Lodz was the textile capital of Europe.The Jews of Lodz were largely poor and orthodox and there since the beginning of Lodz. Eventually large groups of Litvaks came in that were anti Hasidic,spoke Russian, open to more secular education, and were ardent Zionists. The Jews moved from having the largest majority of retail trade to becoming manufacturers of most of the middle sized factories. The large important textile manufacturers were Germans and the Poles were the work force.
Between 10 and 14 November 1939, the city’s four major synagogues were burned and dynamited. On 11 November, most of the members of the Council of Jewish Elders appointed by Mordecai Rumkowski were seized. Only 6 were released; more than 20 councilmen were tortured and then shot.

During the first 6 months of the war, more than 75,000 Jews left Lodz.They fled mostly to the Soviet Occupied Zone. To isolate and concentrate the remaining Jews, the Germans created a ghetto in the city renamed Litzmannstadt, after a WW1 German general
Covering about 4 square km, in a broken down poverty area of the city the ghetto contained mostly rundown wooden houses without electricity,gas,waterlines, or sewers. Enclosed with barbed wire fencing, it was sealed on April 1940. Unlike in Warsaw, there were few opportunities for smuggling,escaping,or maintaining contacts with the outside world. In Warsaw tens of thousands of Jews attempted to hide on the Aryan side, only a handful of instances of such concealment are known in Lodz. Between 17October and 4 November 1941 another 20,000 deportees from Vienna,Prague,Luxembourg and Germany joined them, then 18,000 Jews from liquidated provincial communities arrived. About 200,000 Jews were forced into the Lodz ghetto.Hans Biebow, from Bremen, supervised the ghetto and German police forces oversaw security and continued to confiscate Jewish property.

The German authorities appointed Rumkowski as “eldest of the Jews”. He was the sole contact between Jews and the German authorities. Rumkowski controlled every aspect of life in the ghetto. He could call on his “order service” of several hundred Jewish policemen armed with clubs to enforce his directives and maintain order.
Starving Jews were systematically stripped of their possessions. Increased isolation came with the introduction of currency with Rumkowkski’s picture which was worthless outside the ghetto. Goods were allowed to be sold to a special ghetto bank or were confiscated outright. The prices paid through the bank were minimal resulting in huge profits for the occupiers. All ghetto residents between ages 10&65 were subject to forced labour. Rumkowski used the factories and workshops in the ghetto as a means to buy food for survival. By 1943 ghetto enterprises employed more than 70,000 workers (85% of the ghetto population) in 93 factories that comprised one of the largest and most profitable complexes in the German economy. Jews worked from 10 to 14 hours a day for pennies. Impoverished workers, unable to buy the minimum food necessary to be able to work , depended on watery factory soups ladled out once a day.

The documentary, Lodz Ghetto, records all of this and more and is praised as the most authentic film ever made about Jewish life within the Holocaust. It reveals the heroic struggle of 250,000 people trapped in the longest surviving Jewish community in Nazi Europe. It was the winner of the International Film Critics Award. It was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and was shown on PBS.It was directed by Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna. Adelson founded the Jewish Heritage Project in 1982 which is a national organization dedicated to bringing works of literature and history related to Jewish Heritage to a broad audience as films, television programs, and books.

13 actor/readers use the words of the diaries to provide the narrative. Jerzy Kosinski, an award winning Polish/American writer who was born in Lodz in 1933, went to the University of Lodz..and ended his life as a suicide in 1991 plays the controversial Mordechai Rumkowski.As the documentary continues there are less and less readers to signify the deaths in the ghetto.

The opening scenes are of Lodz…the city streets,the streetcars, the churches. It is announced that all Jews must move to a ghetto. In a large apartment building the Germans announce that they are to vacate their apartments in 15 minutes and anyone there longer than that will be shot on sight. More than 100 people are shot that afternoon. this is done to impress…to frighten the Jews that they must obey or be killed. Then we see scenes of people, old,young,with children running for their lives..wheeling a baby buggy, carrying some pots…all frantic.
That’s the last we see of Lodz…no flashbacks to capture memories…this is realism…all the rest of the 1000+ photographs are in the ghetto…from the factories and shops to crowded outdoor spaces….winter and summer, from starving children, to rows of inmates listening to Eroica, Beethoven’s third symphony. What are those quiet seemingly absorbed audiences thinking? This is the nature of this documentary…we don’t know but we know the scene is authentic.

People disappear. Later tons of bags arrive with clothing…torn to shreds, shoes,eyeglasses

The part that you won’t want to watch…or hear..and neither did I
is when Rumkowski (childless but he was director of an orphanage before the war) says”I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters–Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers–give me your children”
If they did not , the Nazi’s would come in and kill more….not only the children, but the adults too. It is too horrible to watch. But so were the times.There were mothers who chose suicide when they gave up their children.
But we dare not forget…or not allow ourselves to know what really occurred. It is too dangerous to deny what happened.

In the end, Rumkowski and his family were also sent to their deaths to Auschwitz. Had he lived would he have been honored by Jews that he kept them alive for so long because he created an industry that made them useful to the Nazi’s so they weren’t slaughtered but kept longer than any other concentration camp victims?.But to appease the Nazi’s he handed over almost the entire population to Nazi extermination camps.Maybe he would have been tried as a war criminal.
He seemed to have good intentions. He established hospitals,fire department,set up government,social welfare programs and factory work. He provided the only order there was.Many thought of him as a king, and indeed there are pictures of him in posters with a crown on his head.He said to the Jews, “We have only our production to thank for our survival” But he was helping the Nazi’s in the war…However,if not they all would have been killed earlier.
This is the world that was, in Europe under Hitler.

When you see this documentary, you have to believe what you see, because it was so.

And if you are fortunate enough to know survivors, you can believe in the strength and resilience of people, of Jews,of the ability to rise above unbelievable obstacle,to produce,to create, to love and to maintain dignity and reverence of human life. Because it is so.

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