When Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany in 1933, the world watched with concern and disbelief. The following years revealed persecution of Jews, but the world reveled in the belief that by appeasing Hitler, he and his beliefs would remain within Germany. On September 1, 1939, Hitler shocked the world by attacking Poland. Using blitzkrieg tactics, Poland fell within three weeks.
Lodz, located in central Poland, held the second largest Jewish community in Europe, second only to Warsaw. When the Nazis attacked, Poles and Jews worked frantically to dig ditches to defend their city. Only seven days after the attack on Poland began, Lodz was occupied. Within four days of Lodz's occupation, Jews became targets for beatings, robberies, and seizure of property.
September 14, 1939, only six days after the occupation of Lodz, was Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days within the Jewish religion. For this High Holy day, the Nazi's ordered businesses to stay open and the synagogues to be closed. While Warsaw was still fighting off the Germans (Warsaw finally surrendered on September 27), the 230,000 Jews in Lodz were already feeling the beginnings of Nazi persecution.
On November 7, 1939, Lodz was incorporated into the Third Reich and the Nazi's changed its name to Litzmannstadt ("Litzmann's city") - named after a German general who died while attempting to conquer Lodz in World War I.
The next several months were marked by daily round-ups of Jews for forced labor as well as random beatings and killings on the streets. It was easy to distinguish between Pole and Jew because on November 16, 1939 the Nazi's had ordered Jews to wear an armband on their right arm. The armband was the precursor to the yellow Star of David badge which was soon to follow on December 12, 1939.
Getting the Ghetto Started
On December 10, 1939, Friedrich Ubelhor, the governor of the Kalisz-Lodz District, wrote a secret memorandum which set out the premise for a ghetto in Lodz. The Nazis wanted Jews concentrated in ghettos so when they found a solution to the "Jewish problem," whether it be emigration or genocide, it could easily be carried out. Also, enclosing the Jews made it relatively easy to extract the "hidden treasures" that Nazis believed Jews were hiding.
There had already been a couple of ghettos established in other parts of Poland, but the Jewish population had been relatively small and those ghettos had remained open - meaning, the Jews and the surrounding civilians were still able to have contact. Lodz had a Jewish population estimated at 230,000, living throughout the city.
For a ghetto of this scale, real planning was needed. Governor Ubelhor created a team made up of representatives from the major policing bodies and departments. It was decided that the ghetto would be located in the northern section of Lodz where many Jews were already living. The area that this team originally planned only constituted 4.3 square kilometers. To keep non-Jews out of this area before the ghetto could be established, a warning was issued on January 17, 1940 proclaiming the area planned for the ghetto to be rampant with infectious diseases.
On February 8, 1940, the order to establish the Lodz ghetto was announced. The original plan was to set up the ghetto in one day, in actuality, it took weeks. Jews from throughout the city were ordered to move into the sectioned off area, only bringing what they could hurriedly pack within just a few minutes. The Jews were packed tightly within the confines of the ghetto with an average of 3.5 people per room. In April a fence went up surrounding the ghetto residents. On April 30, the ghetto was ordered closed and on May 1, 1940, merely eight months after the German invasion, the Lodz ghetto was officially sealed.
The Nazis did not just stop with having the Jews locked up within a small area, they wanted the Jews to pay for their own food, security, sewage removal, and all other expenses incurred by their continuing incarceration. For the Lodz ghetto, the Nazis decided to make one Jew responsible for the entire Jewish population. The Nazis chose Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski.