Magazine article Moment

The Death of Jewish Lodz

Magazine article Moment

The Death of Jewish Lodz

Article excerpt

Ghettostadt, Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City

By Gordon J. Horwitz

Belknap Press

2008, $29.95, pp. 416


This is a remarkable book. With honorable modesty and an unerring tone, Gordon J. Horwitz has accomplished something quite rare and important. In a single book he conveys the awesome scale of the Holocaust-with its multitudes of victims and its long years of suffering and dread--while also emphasizing the particularity of individual experiences. This meticulously researched work makes us familiar with the uncommon lives of men, women and children as they were herded to a common tragic fate.

At the same time, Horwitz graphically demonstrates the causal links between Nazi theory and practice, tracing how ideological rantings about "Lebensraum" and a resurgent Teutonic Reich led to bureaucratically imposed genocide. He has done this by focusing on the experiences of Lodz, Poland's second-largest city, during the German occupation from 1939 to 1945. Before the war, Lodz and its textile mills were home to more than 200,000 Jews, who accounted for roughly a third of its population and constituted the world's fourth-largest Jewish community after New York, Warsaw and Budapest.

At the start of the war in September 1939, the Nazis overran Lodz and incorporated it as the sixth-largest city in the German Reich. By the spring of 1940, they had sealed off a small neighborhood, forcing Jews to move into what would become the largest ghetto after Warsaw and the longest-lasting one. They renamed the city Litzmannstadt, after a German general of World War I.

I must admit that I cannot remember a time when I did not know about Lodz and its Jews. In 1942, when I was four, my parents would tell me in Polish about the city where they were born and where in 1936 they had left their families behind. In New York, where the three of us fled from Paris after France fell in 1940, my mother would talk to me about her family and my father's relatives. Nothing had been heard from any of them for a very long time. At the end of the war, my father learned that all but three of these people had perished either in the ghetto or at Auschwitz. What I learned back then was that I was, and am, a child of Lodz.

As an adult I read many books of Holocaust testimony, among them The Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto, a compelling assemblage of day-to-day reportage gathered by sharp-eyed scribes commissioned by the ghetto's Jewish leadership. Horwitz has relied heavily on this treasure.

When I lived in Poland for nearly four years in the 1980s as The New York Times correspondent, I often walked the streets of Lodz, trying to imagine the place as it was before and during the war. I visited the Jewish cemetery looking for headstones of ancestors that I never found. On those solitary wanderings I would sometimes experience jolts of empathy. Something similar occurred quite often as I read Horwitz's book. I could not read much more than 25 pages at a time without having to stop and sit still for a while.

He has painstakingly entwined two narratives, the first about life and death in the ghetto and the other detailing Nazi efforts to build a modernized Germanic city of the future cleansed of Jews. A history professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, Horwitz has long been interested in how the Nazi confinement of Jews was perceived by local people living nearby. His 1990 book, In the Shadow of Death, was subtitled "Living Outside the Gates of Mauthausen."

In extending this approach to a major urban setting like Lodz, Horwitz has brought the tragic epoch into a sharp historical context, succeeding in describing how a maddened zeitgeist settled over Lodz and so much of Europe. …

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