Language policy and use in the Lodz ghetto 1940-1944[*]


William Bostock

University of Tasmania
(received June 1998)

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Published in Web Journal of Modern Language Linguistics in association with the publishers (to be announced). © 1998 William Bostock. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 11th National Languages Conference of the Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers' Associations, Hobart, 27-30 September 1997, and published in P. Voss (ed.), 1997. Joining Voices, Conference Proceeding of the Eleventh National Languages Conference, September 27-30. Hobart: Australian Federation of Modern Language Teachers' Associations and Modern Language Teachers' Association of Tasmania. The moral rights of the author(s) to be identified as author(s) of this work are asserted in accordance with §§.77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This work may be reproduced without the consent of the author, in part or in whole in any manner and in any medium subject only to the two following conditions: (a) no charge shall be made for the copy containing the work or the excerpt, (b) a copy of this notice shall precede the work or the excerpt.


1 Introduction
2 Language Policy in the Third Reich
3 Language Policy in the Lodz Ghetto
4 Language Use in the Ghetto
5 The Uses of Languages
6 Conclusion

Table: Functional Representation of the Languages of Lodz Ghetto



1.0 Introduction

The study of grief about language (Bostock 1993) leads to a consideration of language in situations of extreme crisis and an attempt to identify functions. The tragic episode of the Lodz ghetto provides a source of insight about this and is also a test case for some propositions about language and human organisation: (1) was there a relationship between language type and language role or function (Stewart 1968); (2) did the extreme hierarchy of the situation produce a degree of assimilatory pressure from the dominant language (Laponce 1984) and (3) did life and death depend on language (Fishman 1985:215)?

Unlike the ghetto at Warsaw, the ghetto at Lodz was not physically razed after its inhabitants were removed, and what remains is a priceless record of documents now held in various centres in Israel, Poland and the USA, and the testimonies of the few survivors, notably the playwright Avraham Cykiert (Cykiert 1995). Much information is available from two sets of documents which have been translated and published in English, and other sources. From these it is possible to outline a picture of the functions performed by language(s) in a community confronted by its own immanent destruction.

2 Language Policy in the Third Reich

Under a regime which sought to control every aspect of life language policy was also included by intention and effect (Klemperer 1996). The policy was politicisation of the language, language purism and germanisation in the occupied territories. Politicisation meant that language was seen as just another instrument of often crude policy manipulation of semantics and syntax (Klemperer 1996; Grunberger 1971: Ch. 21). The whole ensemble of politicised German has been called "Nazi Deutsch" (Lane and Rupp, 1978: xxvii). Purism saw the removal of words, phrases and concepts from the language, if considered ungerman or unaryan including many famous French dishes, or the Hertz, a unit of physical measurement (Grunberger 1971:328). However after 1940, this programme was eased because it was restricting to the Nazi leadership themselves (Henningsen 1989:47). As speakers of an un- German international language, many Esperantists were arrested and executed (Crystal 1987:355). Within countries occupied by the Third Reich, German was the official language but proclamations announcing curfews, lists of hostages, etc. were published in bilingual versions. In Poland where the Lodz ghetto was located, the country was divided into a Généralgouvernement, which had a measure of self-government, and that part included into the greater Third Reich. The latter, in which the city of Lodz was placed (after a short delay) was to be germanised, ensuring that the Polish language was barred from administration, education and entertainment, with German becoming the sole official language (Dobroszycki 1984:xxiii- xxiv). The name of the city was changed from Lodz to Litzmannstadt (Dobroszycki 1984:xxiii) in itself an example of crude language policy in operation. The Jewish languages of Yiddish and Hebrew do not appear to have been targeted for destruction in any way separate from the destruction of their speakers themselves, in that there was never any idea that the people might be permitted to live but without their languages. These languages were tolerated in the ghettos, but no letter of the Hebrew alphabet could ever be seen to frank a German postage stamp whilst being handled by ghetto post offices (Hilberg 1961:156).

It is also significant that the Nazi hierarchy were not personally multilingual: neither Hitler nor Goebbels ("the driving force of the Third Reich" as Meissner described him, 1980:146) had any knowledge of any language other than German: probably the only exception being Ribbentrop who had lived in Canada and the USA.

In 1939 Lodz, the "Manchester of Poland", had a large Jewish population and a large ethnic German population, as well as its indigenous Polish population, and in it was created Europe's second largest ghetto exceeded only by that of Warsaw. At its peak 200,000 people were crammed into the ghetto which consisted of the old quarter of Stary Miasto and the slum quarter of Baluty, an area amounting to only six square kilometres. Its main function was that of a holding centre for Jews from Germany, Luxembourg, Czechoslovakia and Austria, some 7,000 Romanies and about 25 Christians, mostly married to Jews. Of that population, 130,000 were deported and exterminated, mostly at Chelmno or Auschwitz, some 60,000 died in the ghetto through starvation, disease, hypothermia, suicide or execution and about 10,000 survived through interruption to their deportation by the ending of the war (Adelson, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:493-4). Another 877 survived by hiding inside the ghetto until its guards fled before the arrival of Soviet troops (Dobroszycki 1984:lxv).

As his strategy for survival the man appointed by the Germans as ruler of the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, turned it into a major manufacturing centre (Bostock 1995). Rumkowski, the highly controversial "Eldest of the Jews" (Mining Co. 1998), was encouraged to create a dictatorship within the ghetto, which unlike Warsaw did not rise, though it sometimes had industrial stoppages notably in July 1942. Rumkowski was suicidal for a considerable period in the autumn of 1942 (Dobroszycki 1984:li) when German demands for the names of deportees were at their most savage but did not commit suicide as did some ghetto leaders such as Adam Czerniakow, leader of the Warsaw ghetto (Hilberg 1961:319).

Sealed off from the rest of the city, and surrounded by the mainly hostile inhabitants of the incorporated Reich, opportunities for the illegal movement of persons in or out, the smuggling of food, supplies or even letters, were virtually non-existent, unlike other ghettos. The Lodz ghetto was thus sealed hermetically for a period of over four years which was also the longest period of survival of any ghetto in the Third Reich, thus adding to the controversy surrounding the evaluation of Rumkowski (Hawkwind 1998).

3 Language Policy in the Lodz Ghetto

Administration in the ghetto was bi-level: a German administration and a Jewish administration. The German Ghetto Administration was directed by an Amtsleiter, Hans Biebow, who controlled human and material resources, and who deployed three police forces for implementation: local police, criminal police and Gestapo (Dobroszynski 1984:xxxix). Their orders and internal and external communications were issued in German, and it is doubtful whether the personnel would have had great knowledge of Polish or even less so Yiddish. Biebow's self-written curriculum vitae makes no reference to any language skills or any time spent in any country outside Germany (Adelson, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:496- 7).

As well as the change of the name of the city from Lodz to Litzmannstadt, the names of the 133 streets in the ghetto were changed from Polish to German (Dobroszynski 1984:537-9). The signs outside the ghetto forbidding entry were exclusively in German (Adelson, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:393) as were the identity cards of the ghetto inhabitants (Dobroszynski 1984:311) and also the proclamations by the Mayor of Litzmannstadt and the Gestapo ordering the final liquidation of the ghetto (Dobroszynski 1984:423). The latter direct proclamations were rare as most official communications were via the Jewish administration.

As in other ghettos, the traditional Jewish community ruling body, the Kehillah, was replaced with a Council of Elders ( Ältestenrat ) which also became known as the Jewish Council ( Judenrat ). In Lodz Rumkowski was appointed Eldest of the Jews and Chairman of the Council of Elders, but ran virtually single-handedly an administration of 10,000 officials, covering police, hospitals, waste disposal, some twelve schools, a directed economy, an official archive, a kind of postal service and most hatefully, the selection for deportation, though the extent of his knowledge of the true nature of the final destination is the subject of debate (Bloom 1949).

Some knowledge of German though imperfect, and possibly a misunderstanding, may have been factors in Rumkowski's appointment to his dictatorial office (Dobroszynski 1984:xliv). He would have used this imperfect knowledge in his regular conversations with Biebow and even Himmler, on the occasion of the S.S Reichsführer's official visit of June 7,1941. Rumkowski's mother tongue was Yiddish, and the working language of the Jewish administration was Yiddish while official proclamations were in German and Yiddish. Rumkowski's many addresses to public meetings throughout the ghetto all appear to have been in Yiddish, including his most infamous speech, "Give me your children", of September 4, 1942, in which, to the sound of "horrible, terrified wailing", he called for parents to offer their children for deportation (Adelson and Lapides 1989:328-331).

Certain aspects of the Jewish administration's documentation were solely in German: the banknotes, the names of the ranks in the Order Service or Jewish police, and the lettering on the fire truck. The word Jude on the yellow star which detainees were required to wear on their backs and chests was of course in German, though required to be written in a pseudo Hebrew- looking script (Rosenfeld, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:167).

In public schools in the ghetto, the use of Yiddish was ordered by Rumkowski though many classes had been conducted in Hebrew and this change "created an element of chaos" (Rosenfeld, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:295) and this continued until all schools were closed on German orders, in 1942. In the grammar schools for boys and girls ( Gymnasien and Lyzeen ), both Hebrew and Latin were taught (Dobroszynski 1984:xlviii), while it was not permitted to teach German to the so-called "inferior race" (Bloom 1949:114). There was also, in 1942, a list of schools with a roll of 14,587 pupils and 715 teachers, preceded by a prayer of verse generally in Yiddish, but occasionally in Hebrew or Polish (Bloom 1949:115) which would seem to indicate that Yiddish was the predominant language of education.

While most administration was carried out in German and/or Yiddish, Polish did have one important semi-official function: as a language of the Chronicle , along with German. Rumkowski decided to create a Department of Archives, which was linked to offices of statistics, registration (of births, deaths and marriages), the Rabbinical Bureau, and a photographic section. The mission of the Archives was to create a source of materials "for future scholars studying the life of a Jewish society in one of its most difficult periods" (Dobroszynski 1984:x) and some ten to fifteen persons from its office embarked upon the project of producing a Chronicle of the ghetto, 90-95 percent of which has survived to form the priceless record that it is now.

Writing with the approval of the Jewish administration but neither the knowledge nor approval of the Germans, the teams of chroniclers wrote from January 12, 1941, to September 1, 1942, in Polish a Biuletyn Kroniki Lodziennej ("Daily Chronicle Bulletin") and from September 1942 to June 30, 1944 in German a Tageschronik ("Daily Chronicle") and for the period September to December 1942, two simultaneous versions in Polish and in German.

In one last aspect of its work the Jewish administration appears to have used exclusively German: the deportation lists showing number, name, given name, date of birth, occupation, pre-ghetto address (document reproduced in Adelson and Lapides 1989:237).

4 Language Use in the Ghetto

Reflecting the diverse origins of its inhabitants, the mother-tongues in descending order of speakers could be speculated to have been as: Yiddish, German, Polish, Czech, Russian, Ukrainian, Romanian, Slovak, Hungarian, Letzeburgesh and Romany. While the Ghetto was trilingual in Yiddish, Polish and German ( Language Encyclopedia of the Ghetto in Adelson and Lapides 1989:297), Yiddish seems to have been the main language of communication. Moreover, many Jews in pre-war Poland for whom it was the mother tongue, did not speak Polish, or at least spoke very little (Orenstein 1987:4). But the population included many highly multilingual people, reflecting their high standard of education in contrast to many of their German masters, although there were occasionally some Yiddish-speaking Gestapo (one was posted in Hrubieszow, a town some distance from Lodz (Orenstein 1987:128). One linguistically accomplished detainee was a young man who wrote his testament in English, Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish, in the margins of a French novel, Les Vrais Riches (Adelson and Lapides 1989:5, 419-39).

The main use to which this highly diverse and talented group of detainees concentrated their language resources could be described as nothing more nor less than the fight for survival. While much of their writing was concerned with the exigencies of physical survival: (the fight for a share of so many grammes of bread, or millilitres of soup, and resentment of those such as Rumkowski whose physical appearance seemed to indicate exemption from starvation rations), the greater part was taken up with intellectual, political, psychological and spiritual survival, or contemplation of the stage beyond survival, viz. the destruction of the individual, the family, the ghetto community, or the Jewish people. While considering the theme of survival, it is worthwhile to seek confirmation as far as is possible the validity of the psychoanalytic theory of grief. This theory advances the proposition that grief (including anger) is a mechanism of survival in that it enables an individual or group to adjust to loss and also anticipated loss (Haig 1990).

By intellectual survival is meant the use of language to establish the truth and to analyse its implications. In the sealed condition of the Lodz ghetto, this was not easily possible and though there were many rumours and a few reports as to the true nature of the unfolding holocaust, many detainees remained sceptical. As late as September 27, 1943, Jakub Poznanski still found it impossible to believe that a mass murder would take place (Poznanski, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:388). This view was an exception: most felt terror, as did the unknown writer in the margins of Les Vrais Riches when speaking of his sister

... when I watch the struggle this 12-year old orphan leads continuously, permanently - terror overcomes me that she too might be deported ...Woe is me ... Then I feel my heart break into pieces and I wish the sun were extinguished and our earth thoroughly pulverised. (Anonymous: "Les Vrais Riches", in Adelson and Lapides 1989:425)

The true situation was known to a very small number of detainees, through a letter from Rabbi Jakub Szulman which was delivered into the ghetto in summer 1942, and which it is probable that Rumkowski read. The letter clearly stated that Jews and Gypsies were being liquidated by either shooting or gassing (Adelson, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:490-1)

Language was also the means of political awareness, both externally, in regard to the general progress of the war, including following the speeches of Roosevelt (Sierakowiak, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:151), and internally in regard to the German and Jewish administrations, both of which were hated and loathed: Rumkowski was even described as a "sadist-moron" (Sierakowiak, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:157).

For their part, the administrators were deeply fearful of rumours, which were legion, and which could if left to run unchecked disturb the smooth flow of cooperation in the process of management, production and ultimately annihilation. Even the Chronicle acknowledged rumour: on Tuesday December 14,1943 it was recorded

A day of extreme agitation in the ghetto. The ghetto has not known such a grave hour since the days of the curfew (Gehsperre) in September last year. Towards 11.30 am a rumour spread through the ghetto like wildfire: the Chairman had been taken to the city by members of the Secret State Police ( Gestapo ) (Dobroszycki 1984:415)

Use of language by the Chronicle was value-neutral and was confined to objective reporting. Doubtless its writers responding to two contradictory values: that of reporting the truth, and that of ensuring a maximum chance of survival of their work should it be uncovered by the Germans. As well as day and date, temperature in Celsius, birth and deaths, weather and food supplies within the ghetto, it adopted the principle that though it was not possible to talk about who committed a crime, it could talk about the victims, and that for example the hunger rations supplied to the ghetto arrive in . . . "quantities which correspond to the quantities announced as needed" (Dobroszycki 1984:xviii).

The struggle to survive was implicit in the Chronicle , but the inner state of inhabitants was left to be said only in their own words. The grief they felt as their loved ones were taken was always present as they fought to come to terms with the unfolding tragedy and also anticipatory grief (Haig 1990:119) in preparation for their own deaths.

In serving this psychological process, language was required to meet the spiritual dialogue between man, woman, child and God. Many interrogated God as to his intentions for them, his motives in allowing such a state of calamity to come to exist and specifically, his existence.

In a remnant found on the back of four pages of kitchen records are the words of an unknown man who failed to hide his 5-year old daughter during the round-up of 20,000 children on September 8,1942 and asked God to punish him

I can't concentrate and describe it all chronologically. I am broken, I feel guilty, I am a murderer and I must atone, because I won't find peace. I killed my child with my own hands, I killed Mookha, I am a killer, because how can it be that a father deserts his own child and runs away? How can he run away and not save his own child? God, if you are watching please punish me. In what name did Mookha lose her life? Why did she have to perish? (Anonymous: A Father's Lament, in Adelson and Lapides, 1989:349)

Humour, another important mechanism of psychological adjustment (Bergson 1946) was also used in a number of languages, generally as ironic or black humour. The summons for deportation was called a "wedding invitation" (Adelson and Lapides 1989:246) but the lightning evacuation of the ghetto under the threat of the invading Russians was called Blitzkrieg (Adelson and Lapides 1989:443).

5 The Uses of Language(s)

So far it has been noted that language has served various administrative, intellectual and psychological needs. But did the users identify certain languages as more or less valuable to their purposes?

For intimate communication the mother tongue naturally seemed preferred, but had to be balanced against the need to reach as many readers as possible with the dreadful testament. To this end, the writer in the margins of Les Vrais Riches wrote in English of struggling against the "total lack of physical and mental energy" (Anonymous: "Les Vrais Riches", in Adelson and Lapides 1989:420), caused by starvation and depression, but also desperately desiring to write in Yiddish which he also did:

I dream of being able to tell the world, as much as this is possible, of my suffering. In fact, I should call it our suffering. For never before was suffering so collectively shared as it is for us in the ghetto. After all this writing in so many languages I turn again to my own language, to Yiddish to our graceful mother tongue, because only in Yiddish will I be able to express my true self, directly and without artificial embellishment. I'm ashamed to think how I've neglected Yiddish, because like it or not, it is my own language and the language of our fathers and grandfathers, mothers and grandmothers. So I shall love Yiddish, because it is mine. (In Yiddish). (Adelson and Lapides, 1989:421).

Sometimes writers in Yiddish found it necessary to turn to Hebrew for prayers and exhortation in extremis; the father who lamented the loss of his 5-year old Mookha turned to a variation on part of Yizkor, a prayer for the dead:

Merciful God in Heaven, grant perfect repose to the soul of my daughter Miriam, who was slaughtered in the deportation of September 8,1942, and who has passed to her eternal resting place. May she be under thy divine wings among the holy and pure who shine as brightly as the sky. May her place of rest be in paradise. O merciful One keep her soul forever alive under they protective wings. As the Lord is her heritage, may she rest in peace, and let us say Amen. (In Hebrew) (Anonymous: A Father's Lament in Adelson and Lapides, 1989:349)

There does not appear to have been resentment of the German language as such, (and it was the mother tongue of many detainees) though Oskar Rosenfeld did observe in his notes: "tragic that in Yiddish Jews drafted along the German jargon of the Middle Ages" (Adelson and Lapides 1989:363. )As a postscript to this, it is interesting to note that love of the German language has been a major factor in the rationale of some of the very few Holocaust survivors who decided to stay in German:

I have stayed because German is my native language, a creation with which I have never felt the slightest dissonance, not even during the darkest Nazi period, a living creature which lends us a universal ability to express ourselves down to the very last capillaries of the human soul, the wonderful instrument of a writer who could never have written in another language ... (Giordano 1995:46).

The great debate among Zionists over Hebrew versus Yiddish which had occurred for many years (Galnoor, 1981) continued in the ghetto to some extent. The writer in the margins of Les Vrais Riches was compelled to write, in the few remaining days left to him

Even though I write poor and dubious Hebrew, I cannot but write in this language because Hebrew is the language of the future, and because in Hebrew we will be proud Jews in Eretz Israel. (Anonymous: "Les Vrais Riches", in Adelson and Lapides 1989:438)

Language suffered in the general process of desecration where the synagogues were burnt (the Reform Temple on November 14, 1939) the public celebration of Jewish holidays was abolished, the Torah's were confiscated and the rites of marriage, divorce and funerals were disallowed (Rosenfeld in Adelson and Lapides 1989: 294). Marriages continued to take place, but with civil officials, often Rumkowski himself, officiating, probably always in Yiddish, while funerals would similarly be in Yiddish, though as a concession, the Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead, was permitted.

Before the rabbinate was abolished, its members corresponded in Hebrew which was also fostered by Zionists within the ghetto, though the orthodox spoke Yiddish and in the case of the young orthodox, Polish as well. (Rosenfeld, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:295)

One last application of language which the overwhelming majority of detainees were never to have the opportunity to employ was communication with the liberating Soviet troops. Jakub Poznanski was a fluent Russian speaker and was able to serve as translator (Poznanski, in Adelson and Lapides 1989:487).

6 Conclusion

This study of a community experiencing at an increasing rate for a period of over four years its own annihilation (and where in fact 95 percent of its members did perish) shows some of the ways in which language was used: in dealing with the decrees of two administrations, attempting to find the truth, practicing religious ritual, being educated, interacting socially and economically, the telling to the outside world and at some future time and place, expressing grief, interrogating and supplicating God, and lastly, for a precious few, communicating with their liberators. Following Stewart (1968), the use of individual languages in all of these activities has been summarized in the Table below.

Table: Functional Representation of the Languages of the Lodz Ghetto

Administration (German) + - - - - - - -
Administration (Jewish) + + - - - - - -
Intellectual, political, social and economic interaction + + + - - - - -
Education - + + + + + + -
Religious Ritual - + - + - - - -
Interrogating/Supplicating God - + - + - - - -
Bearing witness - + + + + - - -
Expressing Grief - + + - - - - -
Communicating with Liberators - - - - - - - +

Note: G = German, Y = Yiddish, P = Polish, H = Hebrew, E = English, F= French, L = Latin, R = Russian

In the records of the ghetto one can see language(s) taken to its (their) limits as human beings groped for the words to give meaning to the depth of their condition as they remained in suspension between life and the abyss, not over a short period but over four long years. While language played an essential role in the administration of destruction, it also played a fundamental role in the organisation for survival, collectively and individually, and at physical, intellectual, cultural and spiritual levels. This it did by enabling members of the ghetto to express their grief over loss, actual and anticipated. In regard to the hypotheses, the following conclusions can be made. In regard to the question of whether there is a relationship between language type and language role (Stewart) it can be seen that languages had specialised roles in the ghetto, and this was recognised by those detainees who were multilingual who particularly distinguished expressive, communicative and ritual functions. In regard to the question of whether power relations in the ghetto reinforced the position of the hierarchically dominant language (Laponce), it is likely that, had the ghetto existed long enough, this hypothesis would have been confirmed and the position of German would have been even further reinforced politically and possiblyin other domains of language use as well. With regard to the third proposition that "... life and death depend on language" (Fishman 1985:215), which is part of a quotation from rabbinical teaching which also states that "Language creates and destroys worlds" (Fishman 1985: 214-215), it is possible to see from the remaining records that language both kept hope alive and therefore sustained life but sometimes also stated that life should not and would not go on.


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[1] I wish to acknowledge the assistance of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Tasmania, with travel to poland in 1996 and some interviewess and translators who kindly assisted me and made my stay unforgettable.[Return to text]

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