Do you remember the first time you heard about the topic of World War II and the Łódź Ghetto? At school maybe? Or maybe in your family, for example from your grandparents?

To be honest, we hadn’t heard much about the ghetto before we went to Poland. We had heard about the German Nazis and how they started the war. We had heard about the Jews, the death camps, we had heard about the situation with Poland. Of course. But we had never heard about the conditions in the ghetto during the German occupation of Poland.

In October 2017, we took an excursion to Łódź, but even after this visit we don’t know everything about it. This very emotional trip to Poland remains etched in our memories and we would like to share some of our experiences and what we learned there.

We are five students from the University of Applied Sciences in Lemgo, Germany.

(From left to right: Jan, Mary, Simon, Andi and Lina)


In September 1939, Poland was invaded by German Nazis. Łódź was occupied and became part of the German Reich. It was renamed Litzmannstadt in honor of Karl Litzmann, a member of the German Nazi party NSDAP.

In 1940, the German administration forced Jews to live in Bałuty, a poor district of Łódź. 62,000 Jews already lived there, and 100,000 more from other parts of the city were forced to join them. Later, Jews from Germany, Austria and other parts of Europe were deported to the Łódź Ghetto. It was about 4 km2 enclosed by a fence and guarded by Order Police (Ordnungspolizei).


The “Why” question accompanied us throughout our journey. The persecution of Jews remains incomprehensible to us. Why were so many people willing to believe that Jews were dangerous, and that “German blood and honor” needed to be protected. Antisemitism was based on the fear of degeneration of the “German race.”

From our current perspective, it’s not understandable why so many people believed in this Nazi propaganda.


It’s difficult to imagine the living conditions Jews were forced to suffer in the ghetto. People had nearly none of life’s necessities. The conditions were terribly unhygienic, people were starving and did not have adequate clothes and heating.

Many had to live in limited space. 15-20 people often lived in just one room. The situation was horrible. Sleeping with all these people in one place was very difficult. Jews stacked themselves up on top of each other so that everybody could fit and get some sleep in those small quarters.

Even if the inhabitants went to great lengths to decorate them, the apartments remained a disaster. The rooms were full of bugs and lice. There were almost no functioning toilets, just as there was no running water to cook or clean. People used buckets as toilets.

That lack of space and hygiene allowed infections to spread quickly. Fearing deportation, many did not report the infectious diseases.

They didn’t have soap to wash their clothes. Most of the time they couldn’t use warm water because there weren’t enough places to boil it for their needs. Because of that, the smell in the ghetto was horrible and dirt was everywhere.


Because of the hygienic problems and the lack of sufficient space and food, people quickly became ill and medicine was needed. The Jewish council had to apply for medication from the Nazi administration. Of the drugs required, only a fraction was sent to the ghetto.

If it couldn’t be called an epidemic, it was at least clear that medical care was extremely limited. In the absence of medication, ghetto doctors were often forced to administer placebos to patients. Sometimes medicine that could have been administered to people was instead sold on the black market.


People in the ghetto always had to struggle for food. Many died of starvation. The standard daily ration was:

Breakfast: some bread, weak coffee
Lunch: watery soup
Dinner: some potatoes

It’s depressing to see the conditions people had to live in during World War II in Łódź Ghetto. “The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto” gives an overview of the situation. For January 18, 1941, for example, it says, “Registry office: 87 related deaths, one birth […] people are dying of exhaustion and hunger.”



In 1940, the ghetto got its own currency. Złotys and reichsmarks were replaced by ghetto money (“Mark-Quittungen”) that was used for all payments. This money made it more difficult to smuggle goods into the ghetto and served in isolating the ghetto from the outside world.



We think it is essential to give a short overview of Hans Biebow, who led the ghetto from May 1940 until its end in 1944, and Chaim Rumkowski, who was the leader of the Jewish council in Łódź.


Hans Biebow was an experienced merchant from Bremen who was entrusted by Reinhard Heydrich with administration of the ghetto. He was also responsible for the financial management of the Chełmno extermination camp.

Under the command of Biebow, the ghetto produced textiles for German companies and the Wehrmacht (Nazi armed forces). The ghetto generated more than one million reichsmarks per month through the exploitation of the Jewish labor force. Despite these substantial surpluses, Biebow did not provide adequate nutrition for the ghetto population. On the contrary, many of them died from hunger and exhaustion.

Biebow was a ruthless leader. He was responsible for the deportation of thousands of innocent people who got killed in the extermination camps of Chełmno, Stutthof and Auschwitz.

After the war, Biebow was recognized by a survivor and arrested. The Allies delivered him to Poland, where he was sentenced to death for the crimes he had committed. He was found guilty and executed on June 23, 1947, in Łódź.


During our project in Poland, we heard about Chaim Rumkowski for the first time. He became the head of the Jewish council in Łódź when he was 63 years old. As one of his first tasks, Rumkowski had to prepare the resettlement of Jews by order of the German Nazi administration. Later, Rumkowski was also in charge of healthcare and public policy.

Rumkowski was known for his authoritarian leadership and management of the ghetto and was very controversial. His intention was to protect the ghetto and its inhabitants. He believed he could save people from deportation by making them irreplaceable workers. For this reason, he also employed children in the ghetto factories. He thought that the ghetto’s productivity should be as high as possible to increase the ghetto’s economic attractiveness for the Nazis and to prevent the ghetto’s dissolution.


With the introduction of a curfew and the beginning of deportations, the situation turned even worse for the ghetto inhabitants.

20,000 PEOPLE

One of Rumkowski’s most tragic decisions was his participation in the deportation of 20,000 Jews from the ghetto:

In September of 1942, the Germans decided that a total of 20,000 people should be deported to the Chełmno extermination camp to increase the efficiency of the ghetto. Rumkowski agreed to the selection criteria of the Nazis and suggested deporting all children younger than ten, presumably knowing that they would be killed in Chełmno.



Forced by the Nazis and maybe driven by the idea to protect as many people as possible, Chaim Rumkowski gave a remarkable speech on September 4 to ghetto inhabitants. In this speech, he announced a general curfew (Allgemeine Gehsperre) to prepare the deportations:

“[…] A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess—the children and the elderly. I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children! […]”



  • Rumkowski giving his speech to the inhabitants of the ghetto.


During the curfew, 15,685 people were deported. In the first days, German Nazis started to deport the patients of ghetto hospitals. Afterwards, they continued deporting ghetto inhabitants to the Chełmno extermination camp. 5,860 of them were children. 600 people were murdered immediately when they tried to escape the deportation.


Because they were deceived by the Nazis, not all Jews understood what was happening to the people who were deported from Łódź Ghetto. Some of them volunteered for the deportations because they thought nothing could be worse than living in the ghetto. Some went to the hairdresser, preparing for a new life, while others guessed what would happen to them and hanged themselves after receiving a letter from the administration.


Reminiscing about our trip to Chełmno, we remember an old man in a video describing how people were killed. He described how he had to bury all the bodies brought to the mass graves. One day, he found the handbag of a woman he knew very well. It was then that he realized he would never see his mother again. This video made me cry.

The pictures at the death camp left indelible images of the people and gas trucks in our mind’s eye. We remember the long corridor through which people were driven like cattle, being forced to undress and being loaded into the trucks. The exhaust fumes were channeled into the vehicles so that when the trucks arrived at the mass graves, everybody was already dead.

So simple. So awful. No words can describe it.




156,477 Jews, Sinti, Roma and approximately 600 Russian prisoners of war were murdered at the Chełmno extermination camp during the war.