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Historical Background on Ghetto Łódź

In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and World War II began. Jews were immediately targeted and subjected to violence and humiliation by German soldiers. Guided by racial antisemitic ideology and striving to establish a new order in Europe, the Germans separated the Jews from the population by establishing “ghettos.” The ghettos were usually in a poor neighborhood. Jewish families who had lived in their homes for decades had to find shelter in extremely crowded areas in which they were forced to live behind walls, fences or barbed wire.
Isolated and cut off from their livelihoods, the Jews suffered greatly from starvation, from disease and from impoverishment.
The establishment of ghettos in Eastern Europe was an uneven process that began in the autumn of 1939 and continued well into 1941. It’s important to emphasize that the ghettos were established as an interim measure as the Germans continued to seek a solution to what they defined as the “Jewish Problem.” At no point were the Germans interested in creating some sort of continuity for Jewish life. It was the beginning of the end of survival, of becoming a different existence, a totally different human being. Another world, that world was just fast and faster disappearing. Ellis Lewin was born in Lodz. He was eight years old when the Germans established a ghetto in his city.
He, his father Joseph, his mother Hanna and his sister Miriam were incarcerated in the ghetto for four long years. I was constantly kept inside. I was not to go out. So I was, like, inside forever, and we started living inside. When… Any playing we did as children we did inside, there was no outside anymore. There was no longer next week or what should we have done a year ago. Now we’re confronted with a, with the devil himself, and we were instantly cut off from everything, and the instant brutality, the instant orders, the instant change was not a slower way of introducing you into that kind of existence. It was like the door shutting on you, and that’s it.
Ellis talks about the constant and immediate drastic change that happened once he was incarcerated in the ghetto. But it was not only one immediate change. It was an ongoing process of changes that influenced every aspect of life. Even his concept of time changed, and the future was reduced to the next hour, the next day.
The challenges of teaching this period are great. How can we make the story of the ghettos relevant to our students today? How can we trace today, decades after these horrifying events happened, what Jews felt, understood and knew when the events were actually taking place?
We will journey back in time using diaries, poems, testimonies and other primary sources that will shed some light on the struggle for life during the long, dark days of the ghettos.
In order to better understand the story of the ghettos, we have chosen to focus on the Lodz ghetto.
The Lodz ghetto was one of the first to be established in April of 1940. It was the second largest ghetto to be established, and it was completely sealed off from the outside world. The area of the ghetto was about 1 1/2 square miles; 170,000 Jews were incarcerated in it, which meant that there were between eight and ten people per room. The houses were so deteriorated that many of them were not connected to sewage, to gas or to water.
Dawid Sierakowiak was born in Lodz in 1924. He began to keep a diary from the summer of 1939, the outbreak of the war, until shortly before he died in the summer of 1943, out of hunger and exhaustion.
Through no fault of his own, Dawid, who until recently lived a normal life, is at once thrown into a situation where he is completely humiliated. Yet he rises above this difficult moment and looks into the deeper meaning of human behavior and writes, “It’s our oppressors that should be ashamed, not us.” A diary is like a photograph. It captures a moment, enabling us to understand how people felt and experienced the events as they were happening, and unlike memoirs, it’s not influenced by time or future perspectives.
It’s important to realize that a diarist writes his feelings for himself alone. It’s not a historical document. Therefore, when reading a diary written by somebody who was murdered in the Holocaust, we should be respectful of his dignity. We have to remember that we are entering the intimacy of his soul.
The overcrowding, hunger and loss had become an inseparable part of life in the ghetto, turning every day into a struggle for one’s physical and spiritual existence.
More than 43,000 Jews, 21% of the ghetto inhabitants, died due to the harsh conditions.
Dawid reveals the constant fragmenting of normalcy, but he also reveals the choices he made and the lifelines he was holding on to. From the beginning of the German occupation, he mentions school.
Yet he is unwilling to give up going to school,
and he writes:
Leaving the isolated ghetto was impossible. In those moments when students were learning science, poetry, history, they were to some extent uplifted from the morbid existence of the ghetto.

Before we present the poems and discussion on them, in the two following steps we will first clarify the term ‘Ghetto’ with two short videos that will provide information on the formation of ghettos in general and on Ghetto Łódź in particular, and touch on the difficulties of living in them.

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Poetry and the Holocaust

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