Youth Movements at the time of the Lodz Ghetto (1940-1944*)
Occupation and Transfer to the Ghetto (September 1939 – April 1940)
A week after the outbreak of WWII, on 8 September 1939, the city of Lodz was occupied. Despite many of the youth movement leaders fleeing east from the Nazis, the movements did not completely collapse. In the first six months of occupation, a time of racist decrees and fierce persecution, the youth naturally “retreated” into the family cell, although members maintained contact and gathered (sporadically) to assess the situation and endeavor to continue with their activities under the new and unknown reality.
The ghetto was sealed off in the poor neighborhood of Baluty in mid-1940, with some 164,000 Jews squeezed into the area. They were crammed into wooden houses, with no running water and no sewers. Hunger, cold and disease quickly developed. In total some 43,500 Jews – 21% of those trapped in the ghetto – died under these conditions in the more than four years of its existence.
Despite this, the majority of youth movements continued to exist, establishing frameworks that allowed the youth to preserve their vitality, to “escape” from the difficult reality to a world they knew before the war, and to sail away in their imagination over the walls of the ghetto.
Activities in Marysin (May 1940-March 1941)
In May 1940, a special branch in charge of taking care of the gardens and agricultural plots in the ghetto was established within the Jewish administration. A short while afterwards, the ghetto’s residents were notified of the leasing plots of land for agricultural work in Marysin – an agricultural neighborhood east of Baluty within the ghetto’s bounds (see map). This awakened the interest of the various youth group leaders, who requested permission to establish quasi-training collective kibbutzim, similar to those that had existed before the war. The leaders hoped to detach the youth, as much as possible, from the distressing and action-less conditions prevailing in the ghetto, and to renew the movements’ activities. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, “the Elder of the Jews” (the name given to the head of the Judenrat), who was a Zionist, at first viewed the idea positively and supported it. The training members in Marysin succeeded, on his initiative, to receive larger allocations of food than the rest of the ghetto’s residents.
Each group received one or more houses, according to its number of members, and an agricultural plot. At the end of the summer of 1940, 24 Zionist youth groups, comprising almost 1,000 members, lived in Marysin. There were also two non-Zionist groups: members of the Zukunft (the Bund) and Agudat Yisrael. In parallel, there were also youth groups with no connection to a political party or movement, but who knew other young people there, mostly from school. Even in these groups the lion’s share of members came from a Zionist background, and some of them established a new movement called “Front of the Wilderness Generation.” This movement united all the Zionist sectors on the basis of their common denominator.The training kibbutz members occupied themselves with working the land, community work such as teaching in orphanages and helping in hospitals and soup kitchens, and public work such as paving roads. After work they conducted local cultural and educational activities, according to the ideology of the group. Most groups laid an emphasis on learning Hebrew and Jewish history. Marysin quickly became a draw to hundreds of young people in the ghetto who came to the activities and succeeded in detaching themselves, even for a short while, from the everyday realities. Marysin held joint festivities for all the Zionist groups such as “Herzl Day” and “Bialik Day,” and song and dance evenings.
Towards the end of 1940, the situation changed. The increasing levels of distress in the ghetto forced many members to return home to help their families. In parallel, the process of industrialization began in the ghetto, and factories (“resorts”) were established. Rumkowski changed his attitude and demanded that the youth join the work in the “resorts”, but they didn’t hasten to take part in the effort. As a result, friction grew between the “group committees”—the body representing all the training groups—and the Jewish police and ghetto administration. By March 1941, all the groups in Marysin were dismantled.
Reorganization and Activities of the Movements until the Liquidation of the Ghetto (April 1941 – Fall 1944)
The dismantling of Marysin led to a temporary break in the youth movements’ activities. The young people returned home and gradually rejoined ghetto life. Youth movement activities did not cease, however, but became semi-underground in the houses of the members (although presumably Rumkowski and the Germans knew about them and chose to ignore them).
In 1941 the groups mainly involved themselves in reorganization, adapting to the situation and institutionalizing their activities. At the end of that year, all schools ceased to operate and all other educational frameworks were cancelled. In 1942 there was a great decrease in activities due to the terrible hunger and the large number of deportations (in total 70,000 people were deported from Lodz and murdered in the Chelmno death camp in 1942, among them many children). In 1943-44, a time of relative stabilization and no deportations, the movements’ activities began to awaken and return, until the last days of the ghetto. The movements’ activities took a number of principle routes:
Educational and cultural activities – leaders conducted activities on a range of Jewish and Zionist topics, with their eyes always turned to Eretz Yisrael. The movements’ members continued to learn Hebrew, perform Hebrew productions, and sing Hebrew songs.
Mutual aid between members – crumbs of food and medicines were collected daily, in order to help needy and sick members. Members also aided those who appeared on deportation lists and were in hiding. These actions had not only a physical value, but also a moral one. The members knew they were not alone, but a part of a group with those who cared for them. So, for example, in the “Zionist Front” (the unified Hanoar Hazioni and Front of the Wilderness Generation), every member paid a tax to the movement: 10 grams of bread, 5 grams of sugar and 20 grams of margarine. In the conditions of the ghetto, this was an extraordinary and unprecedented sacrifice.
Absorption of new members deported to the ghetto – from the fall of 1941, many Jews were deported to the ghetto from other ghettos in the region that had been liquidated. They arrived with nothing, often orphaned, and their care by local youth movements saved many and gave them hope.
Writing pamphlets and posters – continuing the tradition established before the war, many youth movements (secretly) published pamphlets and posters. The first pamphlet was hand written and afterwards printed in secret and distributed to members.
The battle to improve work conditions – this battle was conducted mostly by members of the Communist youth movement. The main activities took place in 1943-1944. The password of the youth was “Pracuj Powoli” (slow work), based on the following claim: “We eat little, so we work slowly.” The members organized many strikes, which although Rumkowski managed to break, contributed to the raising of morale.
Contrary to other ghettos where, in the later stages of the war, the Jews became aware of the exterminations, the Lodz Ghetto was closed and isolated and few rumors circulated. That they remained unaware of the exterminations meant they could not arm themselves against their pursuers. That was one of the reasons that the youth movements did not revolt, as happened in other ghettos, but instead continued with their regular activities in all areas of ghetto life. When the ghetto was liquidated in 1944, almost all the remaining youth group members were annihilated. Only a few hundred survived, and went on to become a progressive and dominant force in the “She’erit Haplita” (surviving remnant) movement, which moved to Israel after the war.
*based on the Doctoral work of Dr. Michal Unger – “The Internal life in the Lodz Ghetto”
Copyright © 2013 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority