Jewish Łódź

20 Apr 2016

By the time Hitler launched his depraved campaign to expand Germany’s borders, the Jewish population of Łódź stood at 233,000 – approximately one- third of the town’s inhabitants, and a figure only surpassed by the capital, Warsaw. To trace the beginnings of Łódź’s Jewish heritage one must go back to the mid-18th century, a time when Łódź was little more than a sleepy hamlet. A census taken in 1793 noted the presence of eleven Jews out of a population that numbered 190, a figure that was to rise to 98 by 1809. It was to prove a key time for Łódź’s Jews, with the town’s first synagogue built that same year, and a cemetery on ul. Rybna unveiled in 1811. Things were moving fast, not just for the Jewish community but for the town itself. Philosopher, writer and statesman Stanisław Staszic had long been campaigning to turn Łódź into a centre of manufacturing, and 1825 saw his ambitions come to life with the opening of the first cotton mill. The idea caught on, and within the next few years factories were springing up across Łódź like a rash of blackened toadstools. Waves of migrants followed the money, including German, Russian, and Portuguese workers. But none of those groups matched the numbers of the Jews. By the 1840s over one-fifth of the city’s population was Jewish, and this would grow once more when in 1862 laws requiring Jews to live in the north of the city were repealed. Regardless, most Jews remained based around the Bałuty area where cultural and religious life thrived; in the years leading up to the war Łódź could count 80 prayer houses, 31 Jewish primary schools, at least five newspapers and numerous theatre and exhibition spaces.

This world came crashing down on September 1,1939, with the news that the Nazis had launched their invasion of Poland. Within eight days the city’s streets reverberated with the sound of jackboots, the triumphant Nazis greeted as heroes and liberators by the ethnic Germans of Łódź. Almost immediately the Nazis set about imposing restrictions on the Jews: on September 18th a decree was issued prohibiting the withdrawal of more than 250zł per week from bank accounts, and over the course of the next month Jewish businesses were forcibly signed over to the Germans. Persecution gathered pace following Himmler’s visit on October 28 – in the week that followed the city’s main artery, ulica Piotrkowska, was made off-limits to Jews, and scores of intellectuals were rounded up before being executed in the Łagiewnicki Forest. Then, on November 9, the decision was taken to absorb Łódź into the Reich, thereby leaving it under the command of committed Nazi Artur Greiser. The terror escalated yet further, and within days synagogues were alight and bodies hanging in the street. On November 14 a curfew was imposed on Jews, and for the first time anywhere in the Third Reich Jews were compelled to wear a Star of David on their arm – failure to do so was punishable by death.

The New Year bought with it a fresh set of trials. On February 8, 1940, newspapers broke the news that Jews would be resettled in a separate ghetto in Bałuty. After two months of transition the area was sealed on April 30, 1940, following the completion of a barbed wire wall surrounding the area. No one except a few authorised officials could get in or out, and approaching the wall from either side brought instant death from a guard’s bullet.

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