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Ghettostadt by Gordon J. Horwitz

Jeffrey White

The book is exhaustively researched and while that’s admirable, it's done at the expense of a narrative momentum for an important story that might otherwise appeal to the layperson.


Publisher: Belknap
Subtitle: Lódz and the Making of a Nazi City
Author: Gordon J. Horwitz
Price: $29.95
Length: 416
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 067402799X
US publication date: 2008-05

History’s cruel mirror appears early in Gordan J. Horwitz’s weighty World War II history of Lodz, Poland’s second largest city, which once had, at more than 200,000 strong, the country’s largest Jewish population outside Warsaw.

Capturing the city in the fall of 1939, the Nazis put into motion a plan to corral Lodz’s Jews into what would become the second largest ghetto in Poland. Soon after, Lodz readied itself to receive a flood of ethnic German settlers who arrived from places like the Baltics, lured by the promise of a new life in a model Aryan city. Horwitz describes the scene of their arrival:

The Nazi death camps were a few years away, but in Horwitz’s deliberate use of words and descriptions, the reader is meant to picture another time still to come when such a scene of arrival – train platforms, women and men separating, the promise of showers – played out to a much more appalling end.

Ghettostadt: Lodz and the Making of a Nazi City is full of such parallels, some wrought with a heavy hand, and it is unusual as an act of scholarship in that Horwitz lets his objective pen slip at times to pour out real condemnation at the evils perpetrated on Lodz’s Jewish population. “To recall the events long afterward,” Horwitz writes, “is to be reminded of the inadequacy of language in gaining psychological purchase on such outbursts of cruelty as would characterize these initial assaults on human dignity, human life, and human limb.”

Unfortunately, such lyricism is the exception rather than the rule here. Most of the time, Horwitz’s prose is dense and plodding, weighed down by minute detail, which keeps the book obscure for the general interest reader. The book is exhaustively researched – the workings of the ghetto’s sanitation system are given whole pages – and while that’s admirable, it comes at the expense of a narrative momentum that might appeal to the layperson.

That’s a shame, because Lodz is a story that needs telling. Often eclipsed my more notorious symbols of Nazi insanity, the suffering of Lodz’s Jews during WWII is more or less forgotten now. When the Nazi’s first arrived, there were roughly 240,000 Jews in Lodz. By the summer of 1944, the population had dwindled to 68,500. At the time of liberation, there were fewer than a 1,000.

Horwitz is interested in two interweaving storylines: The formation and operation of the Lodz ghetto (and its eventual liquidation) and the refashioning of Lodz into Litzmannstadt, an “internal city of the Reich”, where pure Germans could live and prosper, the “Jewish problem” held safely at bay behind walls and sentries. Still, the latter storyline doesn’t get the attention of the former – and perhaps that’s as it should be.

Not that ghetto life is fully rendered here. No detail goes unreported, and the reader is taken methodically through the ghetto’s creation, its administration, its battle with disease and hunger, and its eventual transformation into an industrial complex that allowed it to survive long after other ghettos, notably Warsaw and Krakow, had been liquidated. But while it is clear that Horwitz is plying personal diaries and correspondence for his information, the faces inside these walls rarely come into focus.

Another writer might have chosen to tell Lodz’s story through that of a family or a single person; the scholar decides to work with source material (most of the quotations in the book are footnoted in that annoying term-paper way). The bulk of the book unfolds as deportations of the ghetto’s residents begin and then increase. There is real suspense here, as Lodz’s Jews slowly confront the fate that is awaiting them (they note the trains leaving full and, after a short time, returning empty). Unfortunately, these scenes often get Horwitz’s most detached writing in lifeless sentences such as: “Residents of the ghetto were now only too aware that, come what may, their survival remained very much in doubt.”

Still, some incidents do not need help to achieve verisimilitude. Horwitz’s recounting of a Nazi raid on a children’s hospital is horrifying, and he later details the work of Lodz Jews pressed into building brick furnaces in the woods in nearby the Chelmno extermination camp. One arresting fact is simply reported: The Nazis would have some deportees write fake letters home, to allay fears about where the trains ended up.

One figure in Ghettostadt given whole treatment from start to finish is Chaim Rumkowski, one of the most controversial figures in recent Jewish history. The head of the ghetto’s Jewish council, he was charged with keeping law and order among the Jews. At times he seems little more than a flunky, falling at the feet of the Nazi Hans Biebow, his superior. Yet Horwitz lists toward another school of thought regarding Rumkowski: He saved lives.

Using his sway, Rumkowski single-handedly turned the ghetto into an industrial machine for the Nazi war effort, with the motto: work, be useful and survive. Horwitz may be a little too keen to label Rumkowski the Jewish Oskar Schindler, but he presents plenty of other details – Rumkowski’s concern for orphans, his efforts to increase the supply of food and essentials to the ghetto – that lend evidence that he was using his position for at least some good.

But Romkowski’s position did not save him. In a passage that Horwitz imbues with a pathos missing elsewhere in the book, he, too, boards a train bound for Auschwitz.


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