- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

By Oskar Rosenfeld
Edited by Hanno Loewy
Translated from the German by Brigitte M. Goldstein
Northwestern University Press, $40, 3l3 pages

When a castaway on a desert island puts a message in a bottle and throws it into the ocean, does he really expect someone to read it and come to his aid? Chances are he is not so disoriented. He wants the world to know that the island exists, that he exists, and that he and the island are part of the external world. It is not surprising, then, that diaries from the Jewish ghettos of Nazi Europe, like messages in bottles washed ashore, keep appearing in the literate world.
Oskar Rosenfeld, confined in a Polish ghetto far from his birthplace in Moravia and his home in Vienna, was so struck by the bizarre cruelty of his fate that he too must have felt the need to transcribe messages into bottles. His notes were buried before the inevitable destruction of the ghetto, and rescued upon Lodz's liberation. "In the Beginning Was The Ghetto" is a transcript of 890 days of his life before both he and the ghetto were destroyed.
The book's editor, Hanno Loewy, comments on the religious imperative that drove many to record the events they were living through. In the Warsaw ghetto the group which tried to collect and write down all information about what was happening called themselves Oneg Shabbat, or The Joy of Sabbath, as if to underline the religious significance of what they were doing. This same mystic faith must have been held at least in part by all the many diarists.
Pre-World War II Poland had a large Jewish minority, and Lodz, a city near its western border with Germany, contained a larger percentage of Jews than any other community in the country. At the outbreak of the war the Nazis captured Lodz quickly and incorporated it and the neighboring area into Germany. A new German province was formed while other parts of the country remained Polish. In Lodz itself all Jews were forced into a poorer section of the city surrounded by a wire fence, and were told that anyone trying to go over, under, or through the fence would be shot on sight. A ghetto had been formed.
To administer the area, for reasons of economy, the Nazis wanted some sort of Jewish body, and appointed one Mordechai Rumkowski as the "Eldest of the Jews." This title had nothing to do with the man's age but signified his senior position without granting him an honorific such as Mayor, which typified the Nazis' peculiar use of language.
Mr. Rumkowski along with everyone else realized that they were all on the verge of extinction. To avoid this fate he hoped to make the ghetto so economically valuable to the Germans that they would forego the "final solution." Thus small textile and clothing factories ran almost continuously; their workers were paid, literally, starvation wages; but economics was not the main consideration of the Nazis. If so, the ghetto would never have been formed to begin with.
The death rate in the ghetto was extremely high. Disease brought on by overcrowding, lack of hygiene, and semi-starvation was rampant. Suicides were common. Escapes from the ghetto were rare. Houses in the area outside the ghetto were demolished while the native Poles were moved elsewhere and replaced by German settlers. The Protection Police (Schuppos) shot at anyone even coming near the surrounding wire.
The ghetto residents were never able to establish any significant contact with elements outside, neither the Polish resistance, nor even smugglers. The only real link they had was through homemade radios. The author does tell the story of a young man who was able to get through the fence undetected, and because he was fluent in both German and Polish was able to survive for a considerable time. He, too, however, was eventually caught and executed.
Although conditions in the ghetto were indescribably bleak, there also were extraordinary manifestations of human hope and faith. Religious services were held daily; libraries were formed and used; lectures were given; and even a play or concert attempted.
The famous Yiddish humor was also omnipresent. One joke commentating on their existence ran, if you see a Jew eating a chicken you know that either the Jew is sick or the chicken is sick. The despair of that presumed joke mirrored their lives. They were all doomed, they all knew it, and no one had any solution. The reader is forced to ask himself how he would behave, how he would act, under the same circumstances.
This is not an easy book to read. It consists of notes for, and passages from, various literary works. It taxes the reader. It is not a cheerful book to talk about. But we should be grateful that it exists.

Sol Schindler is a retired Foreign Service Officer who writes and lectures on international affairs.

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