In her Holocaust memoir, The Cage (Simon & Schuster, 1997), Ruth Minsky Sender compares the Lodz Ghetto not to imprisonment of human beings, but to a cage that animals are trapped in. The metaphor is powerful and apt. A medium sized city in Poland, Lodz had a relatively large Jewish population. Out of the city’s nearly 700,000 occupants, about a quarter of million were Jews. The Germans established the Lodz Ghetto in February, 1940. They forced the Jews who lived in other areas to abandon their homes and squeeze into the tiny, 4 square kilometer area, of the Jewish Quarter. The cage grew smaller and smaller as outside contact became more and more difficult. German Police units patrolled the perimeter of the ghetto, to eliminate contact between Jews and Poles. The ghetto walls trapped inside 162,681 human beings, left with meager means of survival. Many of them, particularly those who had moved from other parts of town, were also left homeless, at the mercy of the ghetto’s dissipating community resources. To ensure that the ghetto didn’t receive outside help, the Germans passed punitive laws towards anyone that sold food or goods to its inhabitants. While in the Warsaw Ghetto the underground food smuggling and black market trade flourished for a while, in the Lodz Ghetto it was practically impossible. As contact with the Poles was strictly punished, the Jewish inhabitants were at the mercy of the Germans for all the resources they needed to survive.
The ghetto was governed by a Jewish Council whose “Elder”, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, ruled with an iron fist. One of the most colorful and controversial figures of the Holocaust, Rumkowski became so used to the power he exercised within the ghetto walls that he came to be known as “King Rumkowski”. The historian Raul Hilberg describes him as a megalomaniac autocrat hungry for power. He notes, however, that Rumkowski had some benevolent tendencies, which he exercised on behalf of the ghetto inhabitants and particularly on behalf of children:
“A Zionist, he involved himself in community affairs and managed several orphanages with devotion. Widowed and childless, he became a dedicated autocrat in the ghetto. He was able to act alone, because the fear-stricken men who had replaced the murdered councilmen were merely his advisory board… When bank notes were printed in the ghetto, they bore his likeness. Frequently he made speeches with phrases like ‘I do not like to waste words,’ ‘My plan is based on sound logic’, ‘I have decided,’ ‘I forbid,’ and ‘My Jews.’ Rumkowski presided over his community through periods of starvation and deportations for almost five years” (Perpetrators, Victims and Bystanders, New York: HarperPerennial, 109).
To appease Hans Biebow, the ruling Nazi official in the area, and to keep the inhabitants alive, Rumkowski established a ghetto manufacturing economy for the Germans. Even so, most of the ghetto inhabitants, particularly the poorer ones and those unable to work, barely had enough food to survive. Most subsisted on a meager diet of about 900 calories a day. Starvation and disease thinned out the ghetto population even before the Nazis began deporting people to the death camps.
Ruth (Riva) Minsky was only 16 years old when her mother was taken away by the Nazis, never to be seen again. Her father had already passed away earlier from an illness. So Riva, only a child herself, was left to take care of herself and her three younger brothers, including the youngest, Laibele, who suffered from tuberculosis. They barely have enough food to survive; in the harsh Polish winter they shiver from cold. Eventually Riva manages to find a job as a seamstress making German army uniforms. Despite being orphans, Riva and her brothers resist with all their might moving to the ghetto orphanage or being adopted by different families. In fact, the way their nuclear family clings together—with such tenacity that even the director of the orphanage decides to give Riva custody of her brothers—is one of the most moving aspects of the memoir.
Even so, during the winter, the living conditions become so harsh that the Jewish Council decides to burn all the old homes in order to have firewood for the ghetto inhabitants. Riva and her brothers, who live in an old house, are obliged to move into a room of an old grocery store with an underground cellar. This new place, though much smaller and bereft of their family memories, serves them well. Later they hide in the cellar, during the repeated raids by the Jewish Police looking for Jews to meet the Nazi quota for deportation to death camps. Riva and her brothers are particularly at risk since “Operation Reinhard”, or the Final Solution, initially targets children, the ill and the elderly. All those in the Lodz Ghetto deemed by the Nazis “unfit” for work are sent to the Chelmno death camp. Riva escapes several of the selections by hiding and depending on a network of teenage friends. But she cannot escape for long.
In the summer of 1944, the Nazis begin to liquidate the entire ghetto as the Soviet forces approach. They transport the remaining population, including the Elder himself, to Auschwitz. Although he had been promised safety and protection for his cooperation with the local Nazis, Rumkowski himself perished in the concentration camp. Out of the nearly 200,000 inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto, less than 1000 survived to be liberated by Soviet troops on January 19, 1945. Only 12 of them were children. Riva is one of the relatively lucky ones. She survived the unspeakably harsh conditions in Auschwitz due to her youth and resilience; her network of friends that helped each other; luck, and a kind prisoner doctor that took her to a local hospital. Her moving memoir, written in a simple and didactic prose intended for the young adult audience, offers a unique and informative look into the horrendous human cage that was once the Lodz Ghetto.