Songs of the Łódź Ghetto

The Łódź ghetto was sealed with its Jewish population in summer 1940.  By general agreement the number of Jews in Łódź fluctuated between 230,000 and 250,000.  In addition, 5,000 Gypsies from Austria were deported to the Łódź ghetto in November 1941.  The liquidation of the ghetto began in the summer of 1944 and it was finally liberated by the Russian army in January 1945 – some 877 people were allowed to remain in the area of the ghetto by the Nazis to carry out clean-up operations.

The Łódź ghetto became a large labour camp of workshops and factories.  Hunger, overcrowding and lack of sanitation caused epidemics, mainly typhus.  The ghetto inhabitants had no contact with the outside world, which was hostile, and all other communication means were forbidden.

The ghetto administration was concentrated in two branches of German local authority: the political and police forces, and the administrative and economic division which was chiefly concentrated in the municipality of Łódź.  The city municipality, as opposed to the political and police branch, was supposed to fulfill functions that the occupier defined as constructive and whose aim was to put all the ghetto labour force to work. The head of the Ghetto Administration was Hans Biebow.  Within the ghetto, there was the internal Jewish administration which was created by an order of the German authorities.  The Jewish Council arose earlier in the ghetto and was responsible for transporting the Jewish population from all districts of Łódź to the ghetto, to find housing for them, and later to provide some form of social existence.  Within the Jewish administration, the dominant figure was Mordechai Khayim Rumkowski, who was appointed by the Germans on 13 October 1939 as their official Jewish ruler of the ghetto, and called the Eldest of the Jews.  In Łódź,  the head of the Council of Elders, the Altestenrat, or more accurately, Beirat (known in other ghettos as Judenrat), existed only as an advisory group since the power was quickly seized by the chairman of the council, Rumkowski.

One should remember that contact with the outside world was in German hands as was the control of food, which was at that time handled by the Department of Food Supply and Economics, headed by Hans Biebow.  The isolation was compounded by the removal of telephones from private homes and the confiscation of radios.  Mail was undependable and censored.

The first year of the ghetto was relatively calm.  On 7 December 1941, the first Nazi death camp, in Chelmno, began its experimental run.  The first to be gassed in the killing vans were Jews from several towns near Łódź, the entire Gypsy camp from Łódź, and the Jews of Łódź.  Between January and May 1942 54,900 were killed – more than one third of the ghetto population.  From January 1942 to April 1943, the ghetto was obliged to deliver 1,000 people daily.  During the ghetto’s second year, the Germans began resettling Jews from Western Europe into the ghetto.  In late summer 1942, orders for mass murder came to Łódź ghetto. During eight days of curfew between 5 and 12 September 1942, more than 20,000 sick, elderly, and children were sent to the Chelmno death camp.  By the end of the first wave of extermination, the Nazis had put more than 250,000 people to death.  After the deportations of 1942, relative stability existed in Łódź.  The ghetto’s industry became useful for the Nazi war machine, and Nazi supervision of the ghetto was more evident than before.  In 1944, however, the Germans decided to liquidate the ghetto when Himmler instructed Arthur Greiser, the Nazi chief of Wartheland, to order deportations out of Łódź to Chelmno and Auschwitz. By the summer of 1944, the liquidation of the ghetto became total.

The Culture of the Łódź ghetto

Cultural activities in the Łódź ghetto were just another chapter, in modified form due to the oppressive historical context, a continuation of a creative and adaptive culture which existed since Jews settled in Poland in the 13th century.  Individual performers and organized performances were like bread and potatoes for the inhabitants of the ghetto. Concerts and theatre shows were given at the “House of Culture” established by Rumkowski.  In most of the concert programs given, the majority of works had Jewish overtones.  Dovid Beyglman (1887-1944) was the usual conductor of these programs and he also composed some of the pieces. The House of Culture contained 400 seats, and had professional stage equipment, lighting, and so on.  In addition to having the ghetto’s symphony orchestra, the hall provided a venue for the Łódź Ghetto Choral society Hazamir, as well as the Revue Theater . Rumkowski and his assistants were present at most of the shows, and censored some songs and sketches if they felt they were critical of Rumkowski himself, or of the Jewish Council. Moshe Pulawer was the director of the theatre group.  Eighty five shows were produced in the House of Culture from its opening until the end of 1941, which more than 70,000 people attended. The House of Culture was officially closed in the summer of 1942 and set up to be a factory for blankets and pillows; the revue shows were discontinued that same summer.

In addition to the theatre, there were performances at the different youth organization clubs that operated in Marysin, the green area of the ghetto, until the end of 1942.  In addition, street entertainment for children and adults was a means of expressing the struggle and suffering of daily life in the ghetto.  Out of the many performers, one in particular was left in the memory of the survivors: Yankele Hershkovitsh, whose songs were recalled later and will be introduced here. The street singers were a movable cabaret, offereing social and political satire, humor and parodies of popular songs in response to the daily life in the ghetto.  The performers sang for an audience hungry not only for bread and potatoes, but also for freedom of expression.  These performances were also censored by the Jewish authorities, until the end of 1942.  After the great deportation, the singers, including Yankele Hershkovitshm could not remain on the streets, as no one could “pay” them in food. They consequently found work at one of the workplaces and there they continued their performances.

 

Amateur shows in the workplace were common, particularly after the closure of the theatre and the end of street performances, when artists started to work in factories instead. These continued until June 1943, when Runkowski decreed that there would be no more performances because one of the pieces performed seemed critical of his authority.

Throughout the ghetto years, artistic creativity continued in domestic and other private settings.  Poetry readings, recitations, dance performances, singing and praying continued until the ghetto's liquidation.

The songs of the Łódź ghetto that will be introduced, come mainly from the street singer Yankele Hershkovitsh; there are some from the Łódź Ghetto Theater , a few by survivors who composed songs for their family, few from the workplace and the youth movement organizations.  The songs tell the story of life in the Łódź ghetto in words and melody; they bridge past and present and hope for the future, for freedom and Jewish life.

By Gila Flam.

Sources

Ben-Menachem, Arieh and Joseph Rab, ed. The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto 1941-1942, 4 volumes, Jerusalem: Yad Vashem 1986-1989 (in Hebrew)

Dobroszycki, Lucian, ed. The Chronicle of the Ghetto, 1941-1942, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984

Fater, Isaschar; Yiddishe musik in poyln tsvishn baye velt milkhomes [Jewish music in Poland: Between the two world wars].  Tel Aviv: Welt Federatsie Fun Poylishe Yidn {In Yiddish} 1970

Flam, Gila; Singing for Survival: Songs of the Łódź Ghetto 1940-1945 of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1992

Frenkiel, Yechiel; “Theater and Other Artistic Activities in Łódź Ghetto, 1940-1944,” in Bamah Drama Quarterly 103: 12-42 (in Hebrew), 1986a

Frenkiel, Yechiel; “Theater and Other Artistic Activities in Łódź Ghetto, 1940-1944,” part 2, in Bamah Drama Quarterly 104: 38-60 (in Hebrew) 1986b

Kaczerginsky, Shmerke; Lider fin di getos un lagern [songs of the ghettos and concentration camps], New York: CYCO (in Yiddish) 1948

Mlotek, Eleanor and Malke Gottlieb, ed. We Are Here: Songs of the Holocaust, New York: Hippocrene Books and Workmen’s Circle Education Department, 1983

Pups, Rute; Dos lid fun geto {The song of the ghetto}, Warsaw: Yiddish Bukh. (in Yiddish) 1962

Zylbercweig, Zalman, Leksikon fun yidishn teater [Lexicon of Yiddish Theater} 5 volumes. New York: Elisheva (in Yiddish) 1959-1967