The systematic massacre of all children under 10 will forever be a stain on humanity, says TFN’s Stuart Dowell
When men from the SS entered the Łódź Ghetto to take away all the young Jewish children, the effect on the parents was literally paralysing.
In a state of overwhelming and total fear, many mothers were unable to move or lift a hand. Those who resisted were simply shot. Many mothers and fathers whose children had been taken by the Germans to be murdered hanged themselves.
Seventy-eight years ago this week in the Łódź Ghetto, the Germans carried out one of the most shocking, depraved and grotesque incidents of the Holocaust: they took away all the children under ten and murdered them.
At the end of August 1942, the head of the German administration Hans Biebow demanded that the Jewish ghetto administration hand over all children under 10 and adults over 65.
From the 5th to the 12th of September horrific events took place that were biblical in their magnitude and will forever be a stain on humanity.
Over 15,000 children and old people were rounded up in scenes of unimaginable torment. They were sent directly to the Germans’ first death camp at Chełmno, a short journey north-west of Łódź. Upon arrival they were gassed to death in mobile gas vans.
The German ghetto administration under Biebow hid the barbarity of the operation behind the more innocent sounding name Allgemeine Gehsperre. The Poles call it Wielka Szpera. It meant a general curfew during which no Jews could leave their homes at any time.
The day before the curfew started, the leader of the ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski who was head of the Jewish Council of Elders in the Łódź Ghetto, made one of the most infamous speeches known in history. “Mothers and Fathers, give me your children,” he pleaded to the bewildered crowds.
Rumkowski explained to the crowd that the Germans had demanded 24,000 victims within eight days. He claimed that he had reduced this number to 20,000, provided that it included children under 10 years old. However, as there were just 13,000 children and old people, the number had to be supplemented by the sick.
“I have to cut off the limbs to save the body. I have to take the children, because if I do not take them, the others will take them away,” he intoned.
Rumkowski ruled the ghetto with a strong arm, surrounded by an army of officials. His strategy was to prove to the Germans at any cost that the Jews in the Łódź Ghetto were needed to produce war goods, and that the ghetto was an excellent labour camp. The sacrifices he demanded were never enough.
By September 1942, the first wave of Operation Reinhardt to murder all the Jews in occupied Poland had been carried out. At the same time, the Germans were facing a slowdown in their campaign in the Soviet Union, which would eventually lead to a reversal.
They realised that their initial plan to remove Jews from their newly acquired lands by expelling them to the East would not work.
With feeding the army and the population becoming an increasing problem, ‘useless eaters’ such as the children in the Łódź Ghetto were a burden that could not be tolerated.
The extermination of the Jews from the Łódź ghetto took place in six waves. Four took place in 1942, two in 1944.
After Rumkowski made his speech, parents of children just under the threshold age stormed the registry offices in an attempt to save them by changing their date of birth.
Oskar Singer, who was sent to the Łódź Ghetto from Bohemia, described what he saw. “The scenes in the registry office could not be imagined. People were screaming, crying, going crazy. Every second counted.”
Initially, the Germans wanted the selection and removal of children and elderly people to be carried out by the Jewish administration and the ghetto police. Under Rumkowski, the ghetto had a very efficient administration. Therefore, the Jewish police had accurate information on the addresses and ages of all residents.
On 5th September, trucks with ghetto police drove up to the tenement houses on their list and surrounded each building. A shot fired into the air was the signal for everyone to come down into the yard for the selection to begin.
The selections only lasted a few minutes. On one side were the people to be deported, on the other side those who were to stay.
The Jewish policemen and firefighters who carried out the round ups were promised protection for their immediate family by the Germans. The policemen's children were hidden and safe. So were the children of senior officials.
Over time, the Germans noticed that the Jewish police were not working fast enough, so they took over the operation.
Their selection was even more brutal than that of the Jewish policemen. Every attempt at resistance resulted in shootings. Many people who had avoided deportation in the preceding days were rounded up.
Witness and survivor Regina Milichtajch, who was born in Łódź, recalled: “I saw a young man with a child in his arms. The boy was a few months old, dressed cleanly, with his name embroidered on his bib. The father walked slowly, as if stunned. He finally gave the child to the German. He grabbed it and threw it up into the lorry. No sound came back.”
When people were loaded into trucks some would try to make their way to the group that had survived selection. Such people were shot on the spot.
Ewa Wiatr from the Jewish Research Centre of the University of Łódź said: “The scenes were dramatic. It took several minutes for a mother to be separated from her child. The Jewish policemen couldn't do it and that's why the German commandos entered the ghetto.”
She added: “The mothers were paralysed. None of them dared to say a word, they did not even dare to move their hand. Fear of the Germans was absolute.”
On 12 September, after eight days, the operation was finished. Up to 20,000 Jews were transported to the death camp in Chełmno nad Nerem, including 15,681 children and elderly.
After the deportations, dead babies were often found in hiding places wrapped in rags. Their parents, who were the only ones who knew their hiding places, had been shot by the Germans. Many parents whose children were taken away committed suicide.
On 12 September 1942, the General Curfew came to an end. Two announcements were published in the ghetto, one cancelling the curfew and the other informing that all factories would start operating from September 14th.
Józef Zelkowicz in his book ‘In Those Terrible Days: Notes from the Lodz Ghetto’, wrote “Life in the ghetto is seemingly normal. On the outside it has taken on its usual form, but it is only a superficial impression. On the outside, the wound has healed and grown over, but on the inside, there is blood, it is still flowing and you do not know if it will ever stop.”
For those who survived, the history of the Łódź Ghetto is divided into two periods. Before the children were taken away and after. After the deportations, the Łódź Ghetto became a huge labour camp.
Rumkowski’s goal of making the Łódź Jews an irreplaceable source of labour failed. The ghetto was liquidated in 1944. The last transport to Auschwitz left on 29 August with Rumkowski on board.
Hans Biebow, was captured by the Allies after the war and handed over to the Polish authorities. He was tried before a court in Łódź, which found him guilty of genocide and sentenced him to death. He was hanged in April 1947.