Into the Pabianice ghetto
(c. November 1939 - August 1942)
On October 26, 1939, territories along the former German-Polish border are annexed to the German Reich. Lodz and Pabianice are located in the newly incorporated Warthegau region of German-annexed western Poland. The eastern part of German-occupied Poland (not annexed to the Reich) is called the Generalgouvernement and placed under a German civilian administration with its seat in Krakow. The former capital city of Warsaw is also located in the Generalgouvernement.
A long column of Jews marches through the streets of Pabianice during a deportation action.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Regina Frant Stawski
In the newly incorporated Reich territories, authorities move to consolidate Jews prior to their deportation to the east. This follows Hitler’s intent to gain “living space” (Lebensraum) for Germans and appropriate the wealth and property of people considered inferior according to Nazi racial ideology, this is foremost Jews, followed by Poles and other groups.
Ghettos are established as a temporary means of concentrating and isolating Jews from the rest of the population. Even before Jews are forced into the Pabianice ghetto, their property is appropriated and many Jews are forced to leave their homes in certain neighborhoods. Jack’s grandparents are among them, and they come to live with Jack’s family.
Excerpt from Jack’s memoir, Y? A Holocaust Narrative:
Our ghetto was an open area in one of the oldest parts of Pabianice, a city steeped in history, old buildings, and tradition. It was actually called Old Town. The fact that it was open meant that there were no fences, barbed wire, or other deterrents surrounding us and keeping us in. Our barbed wire was psychological. It was the guns the soldiers carried, their willingness to kill, and the hopelessness that already afflicted us like a disease. They didn’t need a fence to keep us in.
We were too scared to leave.
Old Town had previously been home to Christians and Jews alike, but as a section of this quaint part of town was established as our official and secluded housing sector, the Christian inhabitants had to leave. The government took care of them, however. They moved into nicer parts of Pabianice, some gaining possession and moving into the homes and apartments of former Jewish residents who themselves were forced to relocate to the ghetto.
The buildings in this area were older than others, host to climbing vines, crumbling masonry, and cracked windowpanes. Our entire family was forced to live in one room. Others were made to live the same way, and thus we found ourselves without privacy and without space.
The Nazis gave us a very strict curfew, and we had to obey. We did so without question, making sure not to leave our designated areas except when we were allowed, usually for work or during daylight hours. But without school, temple, and humanity, there was little cause to leave anyway. We spent our time talking, sharing rumors, and hoping for an end we all promised ourselves would come soon.
There were other rules as well, rules that transformed us into cattle. The ghetto in Pabianice was split in half, a main street dividing it. We were only allowed to move between buildings during the daylight hours and only then to cross the street twice a day, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. The Nazis tracked our movement and kept close watch on us. All the while, the beatings and shootings continued.
It became habit to look for soldiers in all directions before moving at all. As shadows of humanity, we clung to corners, alleys, and darkness for safety.
We also became slaves.
The Nazis formed a Jewish committee in the ghetto, but this was not a committee formed to represent the people there to any degree. The committee’s primary function was to provide the Nazis with a list of names for slave labor to work outside the ghetto. The work varied from construction to baking to other more militaristic pursuits that could serve the war effort.
But it wasn’t always the committee’s task to name and secure workers. Often, Nazi soldiers would barge in through our doors and take people away for whatever job needed doing. These intrusions into our lives were always abrupt and violent, but—after a while—never a surprise. I was still a little too young for work and my brother was already becoming sickly. It was my father who had the most to fear from these spontaneous visits to procure slave laborers.
Jack Adler: Well, I remember in our house, we had what you call like a clothes hamper. But it was a tall, something about this height. I would say it was probably around a couple of feet in diameter. And when they would come in-- as I said, we lived in a courtyard like. So they had to come in through the main gate. And we would have young kids, including myself, who would notify the adults that the Germans are here. And we know what they came in for, to grab some men for work.
And from time to time, I would hide my father in the-- in that little hamper-- I'll never forget that-- and put dirty clothes on top of him. And he escaped. They'll come in, and they look around. They wouldn't ask you because they knew you wouldn't tell them the truth, where the men are. They just walk in the apartment, look around, and they just didn't see anyone, they would walk out.
So I remember that. And [PAUSES] we had to, within, I would say, oh, within-- September, October-- by November of 1939, they moved us into a ghetto. Fortunately, for that period of time, we lived in a section which became part of the ghetto. So we didn't have to move. However, my grandfather, his building was taken away from him almost immediately. It was a nice building. And they moved in with us, my grandfather and my grandmother. [PAUSES]
Something-- the other uncles and aunts escaped to Lódz. They figured Lódz is a bigger city. For whatever reason, they figured it will be safer. And [PAUSES] within a few weeks thereafter, after we were moved into the ghetto, in order for us to obtain food rations, we had to work. The adults had to go out to work, to earn that. There was a black market initially. There were-- because our ghetto in Pabianice was an open ghetto, meaning it was not surrounded by barbed wire.
"They wouldn't ask you because they knew you wouldn't tell them the truth..."
USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Interview 18433
Despite the danger, small acts of resistance do occur. Jack recalls hiding his father from Nazi patrols rounding up Jews for labor.
In the ghetto, Jews live under conditions of severe overcrowding with insufficient sanitation. Food rations are meager: one bowl of soup and one slice of bread per day; if flour was scarce, it would often be supplemented with sawdust. Jack’s brother, Chaim, suffers from severe malnutrition and becomes ill. His constitution weakened by hunger, he cannot fight off infection. Their mother, Faiga, takes grave risks to help him, but is not able to save him. She never recovers after Chaim’s death, and soon passes away herself.
Despite the threat of Nazi reprisals and the horror of their existence under Nazi rule, Jews in Pabianice and throughout Nazi-occupied Poland still find ways to practice their faith and uphold Jewish traditions.
Jack Adler: And twice daily, they allowed us to cross from one side of a street to the next-- once in the morning, once in the afternoon. Subsequently, what the-- we did in the ghetto is we would break through walls from one building to the next so we didn't have to go outside. So we had sort of a underground tunnel from building to building, where we could gather. And they somehow allowed that. They-- they found out, but they didn't care, as long as we didn't go outside.
And in the ghetto, in Pabianice, things weren't too bad. We somehow got sufficient food rations. However, after a while, the rations diminished, got smaller and smaller. And my brother, the oldest, Chaim, he got sick. He got double pneumonia. Then he developed tuberculosis in the ghetto.
And I remember that my mother, who spoke fluent German-- and we had so many friends-- we thought, at least, we had before the war, who were non-Jewish. And she wanted to save my brother. [CRYING, PAUSES]
And, you know, anyone who was found after dark outside walking, outside the ghetto, they shot him on the spot. And she didn't care. I remember one evening, she said she's going out. And my father, we all objected. You know what's going to happen. And she was going. We had no telephones there. So she was going to someone she hoped would help and get her some special food for my brother. [PAUSES]
And she left for two, three hours. And we were worried. And then finally, thank God, she showed up. And she had one egg someone gave her. And she risked her life. [PAUSES, SIGHS]
My brother died in 1942 from complications of his disease. And my mother took it very hard. And she died of a broken heart few months thereafter.
Interviewer: While in the Ghetto?
Jack Adler: In the-- in the Pabianice ghetto. But also, in February of '42, before my mother and brother died, I turned 13, bar mitzvah. And the Jews hid the Torah. They passed it on, you know, from building to building for a special occasions, where they had a minyan. You know what a minyan is, meaning 10 adults to pray?
And so what we did-- it was my bar mitzvah in the ghetto. We had a big wardrobe, from the floor up to the ceiling. And there was a door to another room. So from the outside, they placed the wardrobe against the door so it appears there is no other room. And the-- and my bar mitzvah was in, with a minyan, 10 people, behind. [PAUSES, CRYING]
"And she had one egg someone gave her. And she risked her life."
USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive, Interview 18433