60th Anniversary of the Liquidation of the LODZ GHETTO

Piotr Lipinski, Jerzy Kropiwnicki – 23.4.2004

[From the online Polish magazine, Gazeta.Pl; translated from the Polish by Janina Fischler-Martinho]


This is the very last moment to remember the events of the Lodz Ghetto, whilst those who were of it, who passed through it, are still alive. Wrangling, elbowing, have no place here. Please do not ask therefore, how this one or that one reacted towards this project at its inception – says Jerzy Kropiwnicki, the Mayor of Lodz, chairman of the Christian National Union, who is being interviewed by Piotr Lipinski …


Piotr Lipinski: The City of Lodz has been bearing in mind, for a number of months now, the 60th Anniversary of the Liquidation of the Ghetto, and it is being said in town that you, Sir, are holding talks about the Jews with sincere willingness and singular knowledge. When did the Chairman of the Christian National Union become interested in the Lodz Jews?

Jerry Kropiwnicki: A year ago, before the Referendum on the European Union, the Minister, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, arrived in Lodz. He asked me to turn my full attention towards the preparations for the 60th Anniversary of the Liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, in August 2004. His first argument was presented as a moral challenge. Those who have survived the Ghetto are now in their seventies, eighties…… Many wish to be present in person at the Commemoration Services and this will be, in all likelihood, the last and the greatest journey of their lives. The second argument is that it will be, most probably, the only international remembrance ceremony relating to World War II. The West wishes to forget; the memorial and commemoration services covering the 50th Anniversary, in 1995, of the end of the 2nd World War were, for many people in the West, the final closing of that chapter. Only Poland accords the various successive anniversaries remembrance and dignity.

Were you already, earlier, familiar with the history of the Lodz Ghetto?

-- In perfect candor – only vaguely. I knew that there had been one, that the Jewish Community had been sizeable. I knew the name of Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, that he was the Judenrat leader in the Ghetto, pretty much everybody in Lodz knows his name. But that was the extent of my knowledge.

When you were strolling about Lodz’s "Baluty area," did you know, did you sense that it was in that very neighborhood that the Ghetto came into being?

-- No, and I did not know something else, which is worse. About a year ago, I was speaking to a representative of the Jewish Community and I learnt from him that Lodz is deemed to be the most anti-Semitic city globally. The walls here are smeared with anti-Semitic graffiti. I have seen such slogans in Paris, in Strasbourg and in various German towns, but that justifies nothing. At one time the City Council maintained that these acts of hooliganism were the outcome of social conditions. It is the City Council’s role to condemn and fight such attitudes. The Jews are aware that there is a change. They noticed that I took part in scrubbing the walls clean….. Vandalism, simply, receives zero tolerance. There is another, even more dramatic problem in Lodz: we walk over, we drive over human remains. Many years ago a block of flats was put up on the land of a Jewish Cemetery. A street corner also abuts onto that land…..

Can nothing be done about these two problems?

-- Nothing. At times children playing in the courtyards dig up fragments of human remains. I was to sort this matter out, if only symbolically – that is, re-build a section of the cemetery wall. I want a decent job done by the 60th Anniversary.

To approach and carry out the preparations for the 60th Anniversary properly, I have made sure I know what work had been done before I took up office. Ten years ago, under the auspices of my friend, Grzegorz Palka, the 50th Anniversary was commemorated, but somewhat privately, discreetly. A plaque was affixed, but nobody knew exactly where. At the same time, I realized how sizeable the Jewish Community in Lodz had been. In 1933 it had numbered one third of the inhabitants of Lodz – 250,000 people! A very large proportion has not even entered the consciousness of the people among whom I live today – an enormous congregation has been obliterated!

I have concluded that I carry the burden of duty, a duty which was unfulfilled by my predecessors. To begin with, I had to explain, to make clear to the City population, what my concerns are …. and not only to those who showed opposition, but to the Jews as well. For the latter, it was, of course, a positive move, but unexpected!

Were many people opposed?

-- I am unable to answer that but I would outline the problem and I would share my thoughts, plans, ideas equally with my supporters and those who opposed me – the detractors.

How did you set about convincing them?

-- I came to the conclusion that it was fruitless to compare the wrongs and the losses. If someone began to measure, to weigh the suffering of the Poles and Jews during World War II, I would say that we are talking at cross-purposes. That from behind the barbed wire Jews were being deported to Extermination Camps. Outside the barbed wire lived the citizens of Lodz. I understand that here, in Lodz, life was harsher than elsewhere, because twenty-four per cent of the population here was German. Both Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański were telling me that when, during the war, one came to Lodz, it was wisest not to remain overnight, for one of the tenants in the building was bound to inform the police, Here, it was not possible to carry out the same secret negotiations as in other Polish cities. Nonetheless, the question always remains how was the local population, who lived here to act towards that which was taking place behind the barbed wire? What could they do, how to help, when neighbours, friends from the dunes, from the schoolroom were being seized, arrested, vanishing without trace…. I have given a great deal of thought to the position of the witness of the crime – one thinks of the two sides – the killer and the victim. It is seldom that we are aware of the presence of yet a third person – namely, the witness. In Lodz – the criminals, the killers were the Germans – the victims – the Jews. And the witnesses, those who were not isolated, penned in the Ghettos – in that case – the first and foremost, the Polish people. In murder the role of the killer and the victim is, for all time, clearly delineated. The killer selects his victims, the method and the tools of the crime. But the witness faces ineluctable moral obligation. With the recognition, the evaluation of the murder, the witness may choose to remain silent, as does the murderer, or he may choose to scream with the victim. And when I reached the conclusion, I decided that there is no need to ponder further. Silence is morally unacceptable. In a crime of this magnitude and horror the witness must scream with the victim.

The voice of the victims can only rarely be heard – by far the majority of the Lodz ghetto Jews were murdered.

-- When the German army began to retreat from Lodz, 830 Jews were still left in the Ghetto – the workers of the Cleaning and Sanitation Brigade. All were "liquidated"; but the front-line had moved forward more swiftly than had been foreseen. From amongst those trapped in the Ghetto ten to twelve persons had survived. The last transport departed on 29th August – the Russian troops were then, roughly, about twelve kilometres from Lodz. The Lodz Ghetto is one of the best documented ghettos on Polish soil. Most of the transport lists have been salvaged; it is known from where a person being despatched in a transport came to the Lodz Ghetto. Many material artefacts have been preserved. The Germans did not burn down the Ghetto buildings – only the tenements around it were demolished so as to form a dividing passage between the Ghetto and the rest of the City. The railway station building has also remained, as have the spur-line, the ramp…… The rails still bear the imprint: "Krupp 1939."

The last stop enroute to death – from here transports were dispatched to extermination camps.

-- This station, named Radegaast, is the most important site for the Jewish people. Other important objects, around which there will be marches, are the buildings in the very body of the Ghetto; and, of course, the cemetery, the largest functional Jewish necropolis in Europe. The cemetery was a simple enough matter. Within its precincts the Nissenbaum Foundation is in charge, although the City of Lodz also makes, for some years now, a contribution towards its maintenance, but we do not enter the cemetery. It is the responsibility of the Jewish Administration. I have given instructions, however, for the roads leading to it to be neat and tidy, for the paving to be nice and even, for the surfaces to be smoothed out, but no asphalt or concrete to be laid. I have further given instructions for greenery to be arranged in such a way as to camouflage the 200 metre long avenue leading to a nearby estate; to give it an aspect of solemnity, gravity…. The station presented more of a challenge. I felt that it needed more than for the building to be given a coat of fresh paint. I do not wish that the day after the ceremonies, on the 30th August, we should feel that it is all over and done…..

I want these old people to leave here with peaceful minds knowing that when they, too, have gone, it will not fall into disrepair, become abandoned or erased from human memory. The station has to be reconstructed in such a manner that it is the most poignant monument, a memorial dedicated to that which took place here, then, in those days.

I lacked confidence in myself in these matters. I do not have Jewish roots. I might not have the necessary sensitivity. Last year at Katyn, I understood that the emotional frontier between the Poles and the Russians is virtually impassable. We were not able to understand each other concerning the memorial. The feeling, the emotions displayed were very deep. Offence was caused, even though the other side did not mean to be ill intentioned or offensive.

Were these great outbursts of emotion on both sides?

-- On the side of the Poles. The Russians felt slighted, because the Poles would not accept their design for the monument, which was, indeed, beautiful and poetic. I am not being ironical. In their minds, it was to be a monument dedicated to the nameless victims of the Soviet Totalitarian Regime. Even though the NKVD (Soviet Secret Police) had been committing atrocities, murder in those killing fields long before and long after the execution of the Polish Officers.

At the base of the monument there were to be religious and national insignia. Then a kind of springboard and a parabolically curved wide ribbon flying towards the skies. They believed it to be the correct symbolism. They wanted it to be gigantic, permanently lit up. They could not comprehend why we, the Poles, insisted that it need not be so large, but that there must be a flat wall, on which there will be engraved the names of the once living men, at the base of which flowers may be placed, candles may be lit. We were able to convince them that an alter must be erected at which mass can be said, but they did not understand that a wall with names, so wholly "unmonumental" is, for us, Poles, so important. I was afraid that I, too, might have an idea, a comment – something which the Jewish side would find unacceptable. I have, therefore, recruited Czeslaw Bielecki who, describes himself as a "Polish-Jew" – uttering both these words with pride. He understands both sensitivities – Polish and Jewish.

How did people view your activities – people who associated you chiefly with the post of chairman of the Christian National Union?

-- You know, there are moral obligations, which I see as perfectly natural and they have never interfered with my membership of the Christian National Union. I take as my example Pope John Paul II. His conduct no longer surprises anyone today.

And colleagues from the Christian National Union?

-- Accepted straight away. I went to them and told them what I have just told you. Only I spoke for a few hours. I explained what it all means and what difficulties we are facing, what the moral choice is. And that, really, a decent human being does not have a choice in this situation.

And the supporters of Radio Maryja?

-- I have convinced them too. Just like the Local Council. A year ago, when I embarked on this project, I was not certain if I would succeed in getting it passed through the Local Council. Actually, I was only certain of a few votes from the members of the Lodz Citizens’ Association, because I had thrashed it out with them, but 6 votes out of 43 is on the meager side ….. But when it came to voting to commit the City to support the marches, I received a full complement of votes. Thus, today, I tend somewhat reluctantly, to remember what went on before, in the past, and those who were anti. I have been able to convince them all that this matter is not a subject of political controversy. That we, all of us, have no choice but to bear witness. The 60th Anniversary is the very last opportunity when we can still do something positive for those still alive.

If we adopt this attitude, then there is no point in, no reason for splitting hairs, not for pettiness. I ask you, therefore, please, refrain from asking me about what the attitude of so-and-so may have been, at the beginning, towards this undertaking.

Does your experience bear out the fact that lack of goodwill towards the Jews is the result of little, or no, knowledge of their history?

-- I have not considered that point. I have not had the time. Time is of the essence. And one step at a time. I have to prioritize. Is my project going to be accepted by the Public Indigence Office? Fortunately, it has gone through. But it took half a year. Well, when the memorial column has been erected, the tunnel, the station built, when the cattle-truck has been positioned on the siding – then what should its interior look like?

During this last year, thinking of the role of the witness, have you identified, emotionally, with the victim’s tragedy?

-- I am very cautious. If I enter that territory, I might blunder, I might cause offence. It is a most delicate substance. I wanted to have information/direction notices placed (at various points of the trajectory) in Polish, Hebrew, English and German languages. I made enquiries via the Internet through which I have been in touch with the Jewish Community. I have received emails, altogether 250, from Brazil, from Toronto, from Israel, from Western Europe. They ask: "Why is there no Yiddish?" Marek Edelman himself has been in touch – he is being telephoned from Paris to take action in this matter. I mention this, as the last time he rang me was fifteen years ago. It appears that it is very important for the Jewish Community to have Yiddish. They lived, loved, died within the cultural framework of the Yiddish tongue. It is their mother tongue. No point in squabbling. Yiddish it will be, and that’s that.

And then came a second wave, not through the email, but in private conversations. Does the German language have to appear on the information/direction notice boards? It seemed to me that yes, it does. If only to inform young Germans of what their daddies and granddaddies practiced here. But I was told that such information should be confined to special guidebooks. On public notices, however, which will be worded in solemn, respectful language, we should use Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish and English. That will be enough. German, for them, is a language of misery, crime, tragedy. That is how they remember it.

There is one aspect in the history of the Litzmanstadt Ghetto which torments me in particular; have you considered, sir, how those Jewish parents, whom the Germans forced to hand over their children, felt?

-- This is the gravest, most painful consideration – emotionally and intellectually. For the question is, when the survival of a nation, of a people is at stake, how much ground may one cede in order to ensure that survival? Even though one has the very best intentions.

Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski said, when the Germans demanded that the children be surrendered: "Only yesterday I drew up a register of children up to the age of nine years. I wanted, at least, to save the older children (...) I have managed to rescue the children from the age of 9 up… May this be a solace in your suffering." As for the sick, the infirm, those in poor health: "There are many patients who only have days, maybe weeks, to live (…) You attempt to keep them alive at the cost of undermining your own health. We give our bread, our meager ration of sugar, our small piece of meat. And what is the outcome? It is of no benefit to them, but it endangers our health, leads to illness (...) We must sacrifice them, in order that those in health, who want and can live, may endure!"

-- I am familiar with Rumkowski’s fate. In the end, he did not receive the promised Aryan credentials, nor was a cosy nest set up for him – such measures and comforts would have turned him into a scoundrel and a collaborator. He was deported to Auschwitz – true, in a first-class carriage – not knowing what awaited him at the end of the journey. He was certain, right up to the end, that his approach of convincing the Germans of the Jews’ usefulness in the Third Reich’s Armaments War Effort was sensible. He believed that this way he would save a goodly number of Jewish lives. I do not know how a man whose nation, whose people are destined for extermination should conduct himself – one who is seeking a method, a means to save, at least, a handful of them? Where does one draw the line beyond which one must not venture?

It is hard even to imagine how one would act under those circumstances.

-- We are familiar, from history, from literature with such beautiful stories; a ship is sinking, there are not enough life-boats…..for everyone…. A decision is reached; women and children first. It is an impulse of the instinct of self-preservation. I do not even want to think of finding myself ever in such straits. Only the Jews themselves can judge Rumkowski.

There were 250,000 Jews in Lodz. How many are there now?

-- There are about 350 registered with the Jewish Community.

Are you not apprehensive about anti-Semitic demonstrations during the marches?

-- It is an odd thing. I was warned at first that I must reckon with this probability. My mind refused to accept it and it is all crystal clear – really, there is no choice. Up to now I have not encountered any such manifestations, nor any signs of hatred, none whatever.

Taking the "business" of the Jews to the people, did you not fear loss of popularity amongst your supporters?

-- You are not the first to put that question to me. I have only one answer: there are obligations which must be fulfilled. And the price? One will have to pay it…….or not. I am doing all I can to win the public over, to convert it to my point of view.



Translated from Polish by Janina Fischler-Martinho. Croydon 2004

Further editing help by Yale Reisner, Lauder Foundation

Typed for the internet by Leonie Flack, volunteer genealogist

Final editing and formatting by Roni Seibel Liebowitz, Co-coordinator of the Lodz ShtetLinks and LARG websites

Click here to see the original interview in Polish.



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