- The Book of Laughter and "Unforgetting":Countersigning the Sperre of September 1942 in The Legend of the Lodz Ghetto Children
One might, for example, speak of an unforgettable life or moment even if all men had forgotten it. If the nature of such a life or moment required that it be unforgotten…Walter Benjamin, "The Task of the Translator"
"Go," cried the Mayor, "and get long poles,"Poke out the nests and block up the holes!"Consult with carpenters and builders,"And leave in our town not even a trace"Of the rats!"Robert Browning, The Pied Piper of Hamelin
Written in Polish in the form of a long poem accompanied by 17 illustrations, The Legend of the Prince was created in Leon Glazer's tailoring workshop in Lodz Ghetto, and was found in the ruins of the Ghetto after the war by a survivor, Abraham Wolf Jasny. Ostensibly a laudatory tale of the happy events (or diverting hardships) in a small village under the caring leadership of a prince, The Legend offers itself as a chronicle of the lives of the children who laboured in Glazer's workshop, the adversities they faced in learning their task, and their eventual triumph over these adversities. Designed in the form of an album for presentation to the Ghetto's Elder, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the work purports to convey the perspective of those having the good fortune to work in Glazer's tailor ressort ("workshop"). However, buried within its bright illustrations and rhyming, metered verse is the tragic story of the Sperre ("curfew") which took place on September 5-12, 1942. All the factories in Lodz Ghetto were closed, and the residents had to stay at home while patrols of the Ghetto police and later Nazi [End Page 41] forces called each family outside and selected the elderly, the sick, and children under the age of ten for deportation. Offered in the spirit of a light-hearted and diverting fairy tale and tribute to the protectors of the children, The Legend is in fact a sophisticated memorial act.
Established by edict of the Nazi authorities shortly after the invasion of Poland in September 1939, Lodz Ghetto operated as a "city within a city" until its final liquidation in September 1944. The Nazi administration renamed the city of Lodz "Litzmannstadt," after the German general Karl Litzmann who fell in the conquest of Lodz during World War I. By the spring of 1940, all the Jews in Lodz had been forced out of their homes and into the city's poorest district, Baluty, with only as much property as they could carry (of what had not yet been confiscated by Nazi officers or stolen by neighbours). The Nazis selected from the Jewish population an "Elder" assigned to supervise all activities and to enforce the policies of the Nazi administration. By May 1940, the Ghetto was sealed, leaving its inhabitants to struggle for survival under conditions of extreme deprivation, starvation, overwork, disease, and isolation. In addition to the struggle to survive under unsustainable living conditions, Ghetto incarcerants constantly faced the threat of deportation to unknown destinations. After several waves of deportations starting in January 1942,1 it became apparent to most Ghetto inhabitants that deportation was not a desirable fate. That Ghetto Elder Chaim Rumkowski first selected for deportation from among those he deemed to be subversive or criminal2 no doubt contributed to the collective understanding that deportation was a [End Page 42] punishment.3 Consequently, within Lodz Ghetto deportation came to be seen as an eventuality to be avoided at all costs.4
Much is written about the September 1942 eight-day Sperre in documents connected with Lodz Ghetto: it started a new era in the Ghetto's life. Although not the first of the mass deportations to cut traumatically into the rhythm of Ghetto life, the Sperre nonetheless remains distinctive in the memories of survivors. It marked a moment when the inhabitants witnessed an irreparable betrayal by their leader Chaim Rumkowski, der Aelteste der Juden (The Eldest of the Jews), chief Ghetto administrator and the only Nazi-sanctioned mediator between the Ghetto's Jewish population and the Nazi authorities...