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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 00:26 GMT 01:26 UK
Survivors recall Lodz ghetto horror
The Polish city of Lodz is to hold a major Holocaust memorial ceremony on Sunday dedicated to the thousands of Jews and Roma persecuted by the Nazis in the ghetto there during World War II.

BBC News Online's Sarah Shenker spoke to some of the survivors.


Lodz ghetto inmates were tormented by hunger, exhaustion and fear every day.

As the Nazi extermination programme accelerated, ghetto inmates were deported to death camps en masse and slaughtered, the last train leaving on 29 August 1944.

Child crying in Lodz ghetto, during WWII (Pic: Simon Wiesenthal Center)
Mass starvation gripped the ghetto's inmates (pic: Simon Wiesenthal Center)
Renee Salt was sent to Lodz in 1942, aged 13, from another ghetto in her Polish hometown of Zdunska Wola, with her parents and an aunt.

Her younger sister had already been taken away by the Gestapo.

"The overcrowding, starvation and disease were just appalling. People were dying in the streets," she told BBC News Online.

"We came with nothing - we didn't have a piece of underwear to change into. The day we arrived we were starving and my mother gave something to a shopkeeper for a piece of cabbage. We were so hungry we could have swallowed wood."

Slavery

Established in February 1940 after Germany conquered Poland, the Lodz ghetto imprisoned more than 160,000 Jews - Europe's second largest Jewish community after Warsaw. Later more than 30,000 Jews and Roma from around Europe were forced to join them.

Renee Salt (Beth Shalom Holocaust Centre)
We had no running water, no sanitation, no toilet
Renee Salt
Lodz ghetto survivor

Those who could work were sent as slave labour in the city's factories, which mostly made uniforms for the Germany army.

Those who were too weak, too old or too young to work, were sent to extermination camps at Chelmno and Auschwitz.

Only 877 people were left in the ghetto when it was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945. In total, only 5,000-7,000 survived.

Starvation rations

Renee Salt moved into a room with her grandmother, who lived in the city before the war, and found work in some of the ghetto's factories.

"We got up at 0630 every morning at the latest. You had a drink if you could boil the water, ate, perhaps, if you had crumbs of bread, and worked all day long. We worked hard on starvation rations.

"We had no running water, no sanitation, no toilet. There was always a bucket outside. Life was very, very difficult. If you had a piece of cabbage, you didn't have a piece of coal to cook it on."

Jews moving into ghetto (Pic: Simon Wiesenthal Center)
More and more Jews were herded into the ghetto during the war (pic: Simon Wiesenthal Center)
"How can one describe conditions like that?" Mrs Salt said. "Looking back, you really can't believe that you survived or that it happened, so how can others?"

Roman Halter was on one of the first transports into Lodz in 1940, and was on one of the last transports out.

The youngest of seven children, he arrived there from his hometown in north-west Poland in 1940 with his grandfather, father, mother, sister and two of her children. By 1942, the others were all dead.

Streets of death

"There were two concepts at Lodz," he told BBC News Online. "The first was to bring the Jews of Europe there to send them to camps, and the other was to set up factories to produce things for the army.

"I worked in a metal factory, making spades, buckets and food containers, and our reward was a soup. When you got your soup, you counted how many pieces of potato there were. People who could not work and get the soup were condemned to a slow death, or were deported and died.

"We worked eight hours a day, and you came out of work and you found people lying on the pavement dying or dead. You could not share any bit of your food because it would weaken you and you would have no chance of survival yourself," he said.

The ghetto, enclosed by fencing and barbed wire, was sealed off from the rest of the world. There was no radio, newspapers or post.

"It was a world of its own," said Edith Birkin, who arrived in Lodz in 1941, aged 14, with her parents. Both died within the year.

"We were hoping we would survive. I remember the hunger and the cold, and many people were walking around like zombies because they were weak and tired," she said.

Deportations

Every morning, a cart would travel through the streets collecting dead bodies.

In 1942, the Nazis started deporting Jews and Roma, who were told they were being taken away to work. In fact they were sent to Chelmno and Auschwitz death camps. By September of that year, 70,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma had gone.

"I got typhus and on my second night in hospital, the Germans cleared it all out except for the infectious ward," Mrs Salt said.

"My parents were frightened to leave me there. Every little noise I thought they were coming to take me away. It was like this until 1944."

Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp
Auschwitz stands as the most notorious of the death camps
Sometimes the Germans shut off areas of the ghetto and forcibly removed people, and sometimes they asked the chairman of Lodz's Jewish council, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, to provide them with a list of deportees.

Rumkowski was a controversial figure. Pressured by the Germans to provide more children and old people for the transports, he made a notorious speech in the ghetto asking fathers and mothers to give him their children.

Some survivors see him as a hero who saved the lives of thousands of Jews, while others believe he was corrupt and accuse him of collaborating with the Germans.

Either way, soon Roman, Edith and Renee were some of the few children their age left in the ghetto.

"No matter how hope existed for others, we found at a certain stage that we were all condemned to death," Mr Halter said.

"Whether Hitler was winning or losing, he was still murdering the Jews. We were aware that things for us were very black."

Nazi deception

The decision to liquidate the ghetto was taken in 1944, amid the noise of the approaching Soviet army.

"The SS came to our places of work and brought everyone out to say the ghetto was being shut down," Mrs Salt said.

"They promised us everything - good accommodation, good medical care, everything - as long as we came to the train station voluntarily.

"Soon the cleaners found notes in the cattle trucks saying people were being taken to concentration camps and killed. That was the first we heard of it. We couldn't believe it.

"If we had known, I have no doubt that many people would have taken their own lives."

Edith and Renee were taken to Auschwitz, then to German labour camps and eventually the Belsen concentration camp, where they were when it was liberated by British forces in 1945. Both eventually came to live in Britain.

Roman Halter was taken to Auschwitz and Stutthof concentration camps, then a German labour camp. He, too, ended up in Britain.

He was invited to participate in a ceremony in Lodz to commemorate 60 years since the ghetto's liquidation, but turned it down.

"I remember everything vividly, it is imprinted on my mind. I could not go there and listen to speeches," he said.

"The memories are so appalling... seeing families disintegrated in such a way. If you take a vertical measure, it was so far below the level of humanity that even the memories make one shudder."

Roman Halter will be participating in a discussion about the Lodz ghetto in October at the Beth Shalom Holocaust Education Centre in Nottingham, UK. For more information, visit www.holocaustcentre.net.


SEE ALSO:
Poles mark 1944 Warsaw uprising
01 Aug 04  |  Europe
Victims tell of Nazi experiments
27 Jan 04  |  Europe
Face to face with the Holocaust
08 Dec 03  |  Education


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