Book of Life Stories

Miriam Zimmet – Descendants of the Holocaust, Poland

Miriam Zimmet’s Presentation continues with her visit to Poland… 

Before I left for Poland I was fortunate that my girlfriend in Melbourne managed to locate the home address of my parents in prewar Lodz.

Also, due to the fact that the Germans kept such detailed records, I also had the address in the ghetto where my parents had been forced to move.

My father’s home was no longer standing, but, as you can see from this photo, I managed to find my mothers home. My mother’s home was on a beautiful tree lined boulevard that had been, and still appeared to be, the nicest street in Lodz.

Although it was an incredibly emotional moment standing there, it gave me a great deal of comfort to know that at least for her first 17 years, my mother had lived well and had hopefully been happy here.

Of course we can only imagine my mothers reaction to the move across town in May 1940 when the Lodz ghetto was established, where this photo was taken. 

From her beautiful apartment, she and her family were forced to move to a single room in the sealed ghetto shared with 4 other people. Her mother and father both died in her arms in the ghetto from starvation, aged 40.

My mother aged 22 and her sister aged16 were deported to Auschwitz in 1944

I have often asked myself how I would have reacted to one day being evicted from the warmth and comfort of my eastern suburbs home to a room, say in Brompton. Where did my 17 year old mother, from a wealthy cultured life, find the strength to handle this daily struggle for survival and the numerous horrors that were to come. ???? 

As I’ve said before, I wish she was alive now so that I could tell her, after seeing a little of what she endured, that I salute her and her courage and stand in awe of the strength and dignity of the human spirit.

Lodz Ghetto

The Lodz ghetto has a special place in the story of the destruction of the Jews of Poland as from the end of 1942 until its liquidation in August 1944, Lodz was the only remaining ghetto in the area.

The Lodz ghetto was the first of the large ghettos in occupied Poland and was established in February 1940 and was sealed off in April by wooden fences and barbed wires. The area of the ghetto was 4 square kilometres and it was located in the north of the city, a part, which was the poorest in housing and sanitation. On May 1st 1940 160,000 Jews were imprisoned within its walls.

Provisions were scarce and famine and disease were common. More than 43,000 people died there in the years 1940-1944 from hunger and epidemics. This “slow’ tempo of natural liquidation did not however, fit in with the Germans plans for the “final solution”. Towards the end of 1941 deportations to death camps began and continued till January 1945 when the Red Army entered the city. 887 Jews were all that remained to be liberated.

While deportations continued on a regular basis, the ghetto became the main Jewish slave-labour camp for the Nazis. Tailors and linen manufacturers made uniforms and civilian clothing. My mother had a job in one of the 120 factories, making hats for the German army. Shoemaking, tannery metal, electrical, furniture, furrier workshops existed. Several political and social groups met secretly in the ghetto. The health department ran hospitals, pharmacies and clinics. Public kitchens were organised in schools, factories and offices. The ghetto also included an orphanage, a courthouse and a prison.

At the head of the Lodz ghetto’s Jewish Council was a man called Mordechai Rumkowski who believed that some ghetto Jews would survive the war if they worked for the Germans. He and his staff constituted an efficient instrument in the hands of the Germans for blunting the alertness of the ghetto inmates and implanting in them the illusion that obedience to orders and observance of strict work discipline would save the ghetto.

However, Rumkowski ruled with an iron hand. The few Jews who dared to oppose him or criticized him in any way ran the risk of his taking revenge which in some extreme instances, meant being included on the list of candidates for deportation.

His figure, more than any other Jewish leader, has attracted the attention of historians and writers. In the view of some, Rumkoski was a traitor and a collaborator. Others believe that his policies helped extend the lifespan of the Lodz ghetto, which remained in existence when all the other ghettos in Poland had been liquidated.

In the end Rumkowski and his family met the same fate as his fellow Jews and he was deported to Auschwitz on August 30th 1944. Although I have not seen it anywhere in all my readings of the Lodz ghetto, one of the survivors who was with us in Poland and knew Rumkowski told me that Rumkowski was killed by other Jews when he arrived in Auschwitz and not by the Germans

We are standing here in front of the memorial to the Lodz Ghetto. 

Chelmno

70km west of Lodz we arrive at Chelmno

Unlike other concentration camps, the death camps at Chelmno and Treblinka, which we would later visit, were built to kill the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time. 

Barracks were not needed, except for the few prisoners who manned the gassing facilities and who themselves were later killed. So these camps were smaller.

Jews would arrive in lorries from surrounding ghettos and were then transferred to a special van. By the time the journey was over, they would all have been killed by carbon monoxide gas inside the mobile gassing vans.

Their bodies were then dumped in these pits, which sit so incongruously in the beautiful serene countryside. 

As the majority of people who were gassed here came from the Lodz ghetto, this is a memorial built to honour the victims of the Lodz ghetto. 

My father never knew exactly what happened to his mother, father and sisters. He returned one night from work in one of the Lodz ghetto factories and his family were gone. When asked, he always said ” they went up in smoke at Auschwitz”

However, from information I have been able to now gather, it appears that his family were deported from the Lodz ghetto in 1942 and were gassed on the way to Chelmno.

These memorial stones were brought to Chelmno from vandalized cemeteries in the area and stand in these empty fields as a bitter reminder of the 150,000 Jews who were killed here. 

TREBLINKA

60 miles northeast of Warsaw, Treblinka was set down in a dense pine forest, isolated by a 9 foot electrified barbed wire fence. 

It was hard to imagine that behind the always freshly painted railway station, adorned with geraniums in neat little window boxes, a death toll of 840,000 was being exacted, using highly mechanized extermination techniques. No planes, friendly or otherwise, were permitted to fly over or near it. The 300,000 Jews uprooted from the Warsaw ghetto were executed here during the summer months of 1942, and the historian of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising Emmanuel Ringelblum, referred to it in his diary notes as “the slaughter house of European Jewry”

Prisoners were ushered into gas chambers disguised as bathhouses and carbon monoxide was piped through the showerheads. At the height of the killing process, up to 20 railway carriages could be processed within a period of one to two hours. At first bodies were simply buried in mass graves, but by 1943, in an attempt to conceal all traces of genocide, corpses were cremated on massive pyres.

In some camps there were opportunities, though minimal, to smuggle in arms. This was impossible in Treblinka. Yet, on August 2nd 1943 an uprising occurred that involved 700 prisoners. Relying upon the skills of a Polish locksmith, the underground leaders obtained the impression of a key to one of the arsenals.

When the revolt started, the gas chambers were set on fire and some of the storerooms filled with clothing were destroyed. The prisoners made a break for the fields after killing about 20 guards and wounding others.

Hundreds of escapees were mowed down from the tower but nearly 200 reached the open countryside. Most of these, betrayed by the village peasants, were eventually hunted down, but a dozen got away.

What mattered most in the uprising was not the survival rate: its purpose was to destroy the camp. The total goal was not achieved, but the damage was substantial and slowed down the extermination process.

Unlike other camps, little remains of Treblinka.

Today it serves as a haunting site of remembrance, littered with memorial stones. 

These thousands of granite slabs were gathered, each reflecting in size the number of victims from the towns and cities of Poland who were killed in the camp. Small natural rocks were scattered on the site to denote the tiniest communities and the whole was dominated by a massive boulder that represented Poland’s 3 million victims. 

WARSAW 

The first Jewish settlers appeared in Warsaw around the start of the 14th century and by the late 18th century over 9% of the capital’s inhabitants were Jewish. By 1939 Warsaw was home to over 350,000 Jews. Today, only around 2,000 Jews remain.

Warsaw was heavily bombed by the allies and the city has virtually been completely rebuilt.

On October 12th 1940, Yom Kippur morning, the Germans set up loud speakers to inform Jews that they would have to move to the Jewish quarter by October 30th. One third of Warsaw’s population was to be crammed into just 2.4% of the city’s land.

In the summer of 1942 about 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to Treblinka from this spot. The Nazi commandment in charge of the deportation, lived directly opposite. 

When reports of mass murder leaked back to the Warsaw ghetto, a surviving group of mostly young people formed an organization called ZOB (translated from the Polish to mean Jewish Fighting Organisation). The ZOB, led by 23 year old Mordechai Anilewicz issued a proclamation calling for the Jewish people to resist going to their slaughter. In January 1943, Warsaw ghetto fighters fired upon German troops as they tried to round up another group of Jews for deportation.

Fighters used a small supply of weapons that had been smuggled into the ghetto. After a few days the troops retreated. This small victory inspired the ghetto fighters to prepare for future resistance.

On April 19th1943 the Warsaw ghetto uprising began. 740 half starved, disease weakened ghetto inhabitants fought the heavily armed and well- trained Germans.

The ghetto fighters were able to hold out for nearly a month but on May 16th 1943 the revolt ended. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured, about 7,000 were shot immediately and the remainder were deported to concentration camps. 

This is a monument labelled Mila 18. Essentially no more than a symbolic grassy knoll, it marks the spot from where the ghetto uprising was directed. 

Following the Ghetto Uprising, the whole area was levelled and few traces remain of the ghetto. This remaining part of the ghetto wall is all that we can see, a haunting epitaph to the past. 

Designed by Natan Rapaport, this monument pays tribute to the heroes of the Ghetto Uprising. It stands in an area where the heaviest fighting took place.

A few days after our stop in Warsaw, our tour of Poland ended and we headed for Israel.

The story I have attempted to tell of my experiences can convey only a fragment of the Jewish suffering and courage of those terrible years. With the Allied victory in 1945, the Holocaust became history, increasingly distant, remote, forgotten.

I hope in some small way I have given tribute to the human spirit of the Jewish people so each generation will remember and continue to remember.

Miriam Zimmet

April 2004

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