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In The Beginning Was The Ghetto

In The Beginning Was The Ghetto In The Beginning Was The Ghetto
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For the sake of bread


In February 1942, Oskar Rosenfeld, a Zionist intellectual from Vienna, was deported to the Lodz (Litzmannstadt) Ghetto by way of Prague. Rosenfeld remained in Lodz until late mid-summer 1944, and in the interim filled some 21 notebooks with his observations, thoughts, hopes, and suffering. When the ghetto was finally liquidated in August 1944, a friend hid the handwritten pages until they eventually found their way to Yad Vashem. Now, Hanno Loewy, who used the journals in a Lodz Ghetto exhibit in Frankfurt in 1994, has done an excellent job of putting them into a readable format.

Rosenfeld, like those gathered around Emmanuel Ringelblum in Warsaw, wrote for posterity. On May 20, 1942, for example, he records with great eloquence: "Many horrors were forgotten. Many horrors went unwitnessed. Many horrors were of a kind that those who described them were not believed. But they must remain alive in human memory."

His depiction of life in the Nazi maelstrom is riveting. At times he is philosophical and literary, at others he is spare and raw. Often instead of full sentences, Rosenfeld writes strings of words words so packed with meaning that normal sentence structure is superfluous.

The journal opens with an account of the deportation from Prague. It is a tour de force that evokes the wrenching act of leaving: the tearing asunder of families, the loss of friends, the dissolution of households and possessions, and the jarring arrival in the Lodz Ghetto. Rosenfeld articulates the fear of the unknown and the vague hope that somehow, everything still might turn out all right.

Rosenfeld portrays the horror of the deportations from Lodz, mostly to Chelmno, that began early in 1942. In a short paragraph, he evinces both the brutal thoroughness of the perpetrators and the inhuman suffering of the Jews: "Nobody was safe anymore from being deported; at least eight hundred people had to be delivered every day. Some thought they would be able to save themselves; chronically ill old people and those with frozen limbs not even that helped. The surgeons in the hospital were very busy. They amputated hands and feet of the poor patients and discharged them as cripples. The cripples too were taken away."

Rosenfeld frequently writes of the terrible hunger he endured and the dehumanization it could engender. "Almost twenty-five thousand human beings are going hungry honor does not exist, neither does responsibility nor keeping one's word, the days and nights have no hours, nothing exists through which one might become guilty," he says. "There is only one word, one concept, one symbol that floats before everyone's eyes: bread! For the sake of bread, people turn into hypocrites, fanatics, boasters, miserable wretches. Give me bread and you're my friend."

But Rosenfeld also writes of the selflessness that could accompany slow starvation: "How much courage all the dead victims had! At home mothers save small bites for their sons, sisters for sisters, even for distant relatives. Storing bread even though they are plagued by hunger. The husband has hunger cramps, makes his wife believe he is full, and vice versa."

Rosenfeld frequently alludes to the passing holidays and Sabbaths, and his descriptions and biblical quotations lend insight not only to religious observance, but to his state of mind. During the deportations of February 1942, Rosenfeld likens the ghetto to the Valley of the Dried Bones. On Simhat Torah, October 5, 1942, he is uplifted and writes: "Judaism and Jews won't vanish, in the end there is always immediately a beginning, thus eternity, no enemy can destroy us. Beautiful atmosphere, time spent wonderfully Jewish."

Death is a constant companion. As an employee of the statistics department, Rosenfeld sometimes records death statistics. A short entry written on July 15, 1942, testifies chillingly to the every day encounter with death: "Dying. Near the big bridge, woman is lying prostrate on the ground. A policeman approaches. A woman doctor arrives, moves on. Policeman waves male doctor. He shrugs his shoulders after examining the woman, leaves. None of the people crossing the bridge pay any attention to this scene. Death, simple, over with. The Jewish problem is being solved in installments."

Rosenfeld did not have clear, full knowledge about Nazi plans, even though he sometimes knew of events in other ghettos. For example he writes on October 9, 1942: "News from Warsaw. Of the remaining four hundred and ninety thousand Jews all but about thirty thousand were lately evacuated, families totally atomized, deliberately, completely." This is fairly accurate, but lacks the crucial detail that the Jews were murdered systematically in Treblinka.

Even to the very end, Rosenfeld displays a sliver of optimism that he will survive. In the last entry of his journal on July 28, 1944, he writes: "Tomorrow a new world. After five years of war we can finally breath free! The word is getting around that we'll soon be redeemed God shall provide. We are facing either apocalypse or redemption. After so much suffering and terror, after so many disappointments, it is hardly surprising that they are not willing to give themselves over to anticipatory rejoicing. The heart is marred with scars, the brain encrusted with dashed hopes. And if, at long last, the day of the redemption should be at the doorstep, it is better to let oneself be surprised than to experience yet another disappointment. That's human nature, this is the human mentality of Ghetto Litzmannstadt at the end of July 1944."

Within less than a month, Rosenfeld would learn that it was apocalypse, not redemption, that he faced. He was murdered in Auschwitz. His journal stands as a testament to the horrors of the Lodz ghetto and the fortitude its inhabitants were sometimes capable of showing. It is also a monument to Rosenfeld's keen powers of observation, his incisive intellect, his powerful writing, and his warm Jewish soul.

The writer is director of the Yad Vashem Library.

This book review originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post April 18, 2003

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