That the Nazis persecuted and then murdered as many of Europe’s Jews as they could lay their hands on is well-known. But what is much less familiar is the story of what the Nazis did to many Polish children who were not Jewish. Their fate is a stark reminder that the Nazis tended to regard the Poles as a whole as sub-human, fit for nothing but enslavement.
In September 1939 the Germans started World War Two by invading Poland from the west. Two weeks later, the Soviets invaded from the east under the terms of a secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin. This was a disaster for Poles of all ethnicities and religions. But for the Jews of Poland in the Nazi sector, it was nothing less than a death sentence.
The Germans took the city of Lodz, where our story unfolds, on September 8, 1939, renaming it Litzmannstadt. General Karl Litzmann was the German commander who had defeated the Poles in the Battle of Lodz in 1914 during WWI. Lodz now officially became part of Germany.
When the Germans invaded in 1939, Lodz had a total population of almost 700,000, more than a third of whom were Jewish. It didn’t take long before the Nazis started imposing restrictions on the Jews of Lodz. Within a couple of months, by an order of December 10, a Jewish ghetto was established. All Jews in the city were required to live there.
In March 1940, to hasten the movement of all Jews into the ghetto, the Germans orchestrated a murderous operation that came to be called “Bloody Thursday.” Jews were assaulted in the city’s streets and in their own homes – some 350 were killed during the violence.
Secure fencing was subsequently built around the ghetto, and it was sealed off at the beginning of May 1940. Approximately a quarter of Lodz’s Jewish population had already left the city by this time, and the population of the sealed ghetto was around 165,000. These Lodz Jews, along with a number of Roma as well as Jews from elsewhere in Europe, were crammed into just 1.5 square miles.
The overcrowding, lack of food and 12-hour days the Jews were made to work for the Germans led to many deaths from disease, exhaustion and starvation. An estimated 18,000 ghetto occupants died of starvation in 1942 alone. By the end of the war, the total who had perished from disease and malnutrition was around 44,000.
And it wasn’t just starvation and disease that killed the Jews of the Lodz ghetto. In December 1941 the Nazis opened the first of their camps specifically designed for extermination. Chelmno is about 30 miles from Lodz, and it was there that this mass-murder camp was established.
At Chelmno, enclosed trucks were used as killing machines rather than the purpose-built gas chambers that would come to characterize the Nazis’ later extermination camps. As many as 150 people would be crowded into one of these modified trucks.
The truck’s engine would then be run, with the fumes piped directly into the back of the vehicle. This killed the occupants by carbon monoxide poisoning. Now laden with corpses, the trucks would subsequently be driven to mass graves that had been dug earlier.
The first Jews from the Lodz ghetto were taken to Chelmno to be murdered on January 16, 1942. This operation continued for a fortnight, until the Nazis had liquidated some 10,000 Lodz ghetto residents. These hideous crimes were repeated through to the spring of 1942, by which time around 55,000 of the Lodz Jews had been murdered.
Then, at the end of 1942 a different type of concentration camp was established within the boundaries of the Lodz ghetto. A wooden fence, patrolled by German guards, isolated this area from the rest of the ghetto. This new camp was specifically for children aged 16 and under, in fact. But these children were not Jews – they were Polish Christians.
The new camp was called the Kinder-KZ Litzmannstadt, and the Nazis made efforts to pretend that it was a place of rehabilitation for youngsters who had fallen on the wrong side of the law. The Reich Security Office stated that the camp was for children “who, therefore, are a dangerous element both for the German children, and because of the fact that they could continue their criminal activity,” according to Mary Brigid Surber’s The Last Stork Summer.
But the truth was very different from the Nazi pretense. The children’s names were replaced by numbers. They wore crude wooden clogs and grab grey uniforms just like those of other prisoners. The youngsters were forced to work and were physically assaulted as a matter of course. This brutal regime was a far cry from that of a reformatory school.
These children came from throughout the areas of Poland that the Germans had taken control of. Many of the records for the children’s prison are missing, but it’s believed that some 1,600 young Poles were imprisoned there. When Lodz was taken by the Russians in 1945, the camp had a little under 1,000 inhabitants.
The children were put to work in the same way that their Jewish peers in the main ghetto were. Their duties included crafting shoes and clothes, or repairing sacks and needles. Like the Jewish prisoners, these youngsters were vulnerable to disease, with more than 100 dying from typhus at the end of 1942 and during the early months of the following year.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website quotes the memory of one woman who had been in the children’s camp, Gertruda Nowak. She was just 12 when the Nazis arrested her father for allegedly being part of the Polish resistance. Nowak subsequently hid at her grandmother’s home but was later arrested there. “I was sent to a slave labor camp for children in Lodz’s Jewish ghetto, where I found my two brothers,” she said. “Children died there every day.”
Nowak also had horrific memories of the typhus outbreak at the camp, which are quoted on the Lodz-Ghetto.com website. “During the typhus epidemic, I saw terrible things,” Nowak recalled. “Those who were already dying, but were still alive, were carried out, naked, to the morgue, together with the dead bodies, and were loaded into trunks or paper bags, and there they were dying.”
For some children at the camp, a different fate was in store. Obsessed as always by their crackpot concept of racial purity, the Nazis handpicked children with so-called Aryan features: blond hair and blue eyes. They were then sent to Germany, where they would be brought up by adoptive parents.
If you visit Lodz today, you’ll see little evidence of the children’s concentration camp that was there during WWII. Only the administration building on Przemyslowa Street is still standing, in fact. There is, however, a commemorative statue dedicated to the children who lived and died there. The Broken Heart Monument was installed in 1971, a memorial to the horrific experiences that the Poles suffered.