Money in the Łódź Ghetto, 1940–1944

By Miguel Gracia-Zhang
Advised by Professor Yaacob Dweck

Some time in the fall or winter of 1944, at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, Primo Levi picked up a curious artifact from the ground: a small coin from the Łódź ghetto in Poland. The coin, part of an internal ghetto currency, bore the inscription “The Eldest of the Jews in Litzmannstadt.” Levi pocketed and kept the coin despite not knowing its significance.[1] Over 40 years later, Levi, then a retired chemist and successful writer, returned to the coin in his famous essay “The Gray Zone” in The Drowned and The Saved. The coin anchors his subsequent discussion of the Jewish leader of the Łódź ghetto, Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski. Rumkowski’s story, in Levi’s terms, allows us to study the “gray zone” — a space between good and evil in which victims were forced to cooperate with perpetrators.[2] Levi, writing with his signature scientific objectivity, acute perception, and (most importantly) empathy, did not pass judgement on Rumkowski. His interest was one of humanity: What happens to humans in such extreme conditions? His most famous work, a memoir titled Survival in Auschwitz in English editions but originally named “If This Is A Man,” asked this very question. For Levi, the coin’s value lay in its connection to Rumkowski. This paper argues that the coin can tell us so much more.

Examining the ghetto scrip and the history of money in the Łódź ghetto reveals important aspects of a community forced to live together under the most dire circumstances. Money played a variety of unexpected roles in the ghetto: a means of Nazi theft, a form of control, even a tool for exclusion. It also served as a gauge for both the ghetto’s economy and its population’s psyche. Finally, as the Łódź ghetto underwent significant (and traumatizing) changes, the scrip’s role also transformed and took on different meanings throughout the ghetto’s existence.

Existing scholarship has, for the most part, either ignored or merely mentioned the Łódź ghetto’s internal currency. Raul Hilberg, in his landmark volume The Destruction of the European Jews, mentions the currency but once, despite spending many pages on Łódź.[3] Isaiah Trunk’s Łódź Ghetto: A History makes frequent mention of wages, prices, and profits in the ghetto, but, being a comprehensive history of all aspects of the ghetto, does not delve too deeply into analysis of the scrip.[4] Gordon J. Horwitz offers a little more analysis in Ghettostadt, a study of how Nazis sought to re-invent the Polish city of Łódź according to new economic and aesthetic visions of modernity and purification (in which the removal of Jews was a necessary step).[5] However, Horwitz’s focus is on all of Łódź (both the gentile and the Jewish sides), and once again there is but brief mention of the ghetto scrip. Other books, such as Jewish Ghettos’ and Concentration Camps’ Money (1933-1945) and Das Lagergeld Der Konzentrations Und D.P.-Lager: 1933-1947, have done valuable work in cataloguing and organizing “currency” from various ghettos and concentration camps, but once again offer little in-depth analysis.[6]

This lacuna in the scholarship stands in contrast to the scrips’ prominence as part of the material record of the ghetto in the collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.[7] There are at least 500 of them cataloged online in USHMM’s digital archives ranging from 50 cents (pfennig) to 50 marks in both coin and bills — a significant repository in a collection of over 22,000 objects. In light of difference between the “material” and “academic” record, we should revisit existing scholarly and primary sources, asking questions such as: What can a ghetto scrip tell us about a community experiencing ghettoization (the process creating a ghetto and forcing a population inside), mass-starvation, or genocide? How did the Nazis implement policies of economic dispossession? How did ghettoized Jewish populations react?

Through the lens of an ordinary object (money), we can study the extraordinary circumstances of the ghetto. We can see how the internal currency served different purposes, some scripted by the Nazi occupiers, others perhaps not. At times even, its lack of importance in ghetto life was more notable than its limited function. Through studying the internal currency of the ghetto, we can see a community that is, for the most part, never stable or in stasis, but rather undergoing constant crises. Traumatic events follow one after another. These include initial ghettoization, multiple famines, violently quelled protests, deportations and other radical changes to the structure and makeup of the ghetto — all occurring in the backdrop of violent confinement, starvation, and disease. Looking at money in the ghetto provides a window into how the Nazis leadership, through the local Jewish administration, controlled the ghetto, extracted wealth, and continued exploiting the Jews while they were enclosed.

The Nazi’s were known to clothe genocide in layers of bureaucracy and order, sometimes creating a semblance of normalcy even in the most extreme circumstances. In fact, some holocaust deniers even claim that the existence of internal currencies in ghettos and camps served as evidence for the normality of those places. In other words, because such ordinary, normal transactions occurred, life within the ghettos must also have been normal and there could have been no genocide.[8] This argument is, of course, both ludicrous and appalling. However, it can provide a foil for what actually happened: that it is precisely by examining what might appear to be “normal” within the ghetto that we can begin to understand the truly extreme circumstances the ghetto’s inmates lived under. The ghetto mark’s existence is not a holdover from pre-Nazi-ghetto normality, but evidence of how truly unique and unprecedented this situation was.

To try to understand these extreme circumstances, this paper is divided into the six following sections. The first is an overview of the historical context of Łódź and its ghetto. The second deals with ghettoization and the subsequent implementation of the ghetto scrip in 1940. The third section covers the ghetto’s “rescue through work” ideology, and examines how its residents became poorer even as the ghetto generated more profits. The fourth deals with the deportations of 1942, and studies their effect on the ghetto through the lens of the prices and exchange rates. The fifth is an overview of the restructuring of the ghetto that followed the mass deportations of 1942. Finally, the paper concludes with some reflections on the nature of studying such a difficult subject and points to new areas of research.

Historical Context

The Łódź Ghetto, renamed the Litzmannstadt Ghetto during Nazi occupation, was the second largest ghetto in Poland after Warsaw. It was also one of the earliest and long-lasting ghettos, existing four years and four months from May 1940 until August 1944. About 210,000 Jews passed through its gates, most of whom were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz and Chelmno. As a topic of historical study, the Łódź ghetto is unique for several reasons. First, it was truly hermetically sealed, as compared to other ghettos that allowed more underground interaction of people and goods, such as the Warsaw ghetto. Second, it was led by one of the most controversial Jewish figures of the Holocaust, Chaim Rumkowski, who has been condemned for his willingness to comply with deportation orders, among other decisions. Third, the Łódź ghetto, as part of a city known for being an industrial hub, became even more centered around factory production as it churned out goods for the Third Reich (at some points the employment rate of the population exceeded 90%).[9] Fourth, it was one of two ghettos to utilize a surrogate currency, the ghetto scrip, instead of Reichsmarks.[10] Fifth, it did not see any armed Jewish resistance. Finally, it became the last ghetto in Nazi Germany to be liquidated, with final deportations occurring in August 1944, just as the Russian Army closed in. At that point, only about 800 residents remained, though around 10,000 survived the death camps.[11]

German-Occupied Pre-Ghetto Łódź

The process of separating the Jewish population from the Poles and Germans and sequestering them in the ghetto began soon after the invasion of Poland, in September of 1939. Though the boundaries of the ghetto were not formally established and enforced until late April and May of 1940, the Germans began their systematic persecution, violence, and economic dispossession of Jews in Łódź earlier. This persecution included forced evictions and deportations to the Generalgouvernement (a German territory established in conquered Poland) and other cities such as Warsaw, which diminished the Jewish population of Łódź. Many with the financial means, including much of the local leadership and members of the intelligentsia, also fled Łódź. This emigration brought the Jewish population of Łódź from over 200,000 to about 160,000 (out of a total population of about 670,000).[12]

Similar to other Nazi cities, Jews in Łódź were ordered to wear yellow stars, restricted from certain vocations, and allowed to possess and withdraw only limited amounts of money.[13] In addition, as Hilberg explains, the Nazi occupiers encouraged a policy of “Einselaktionen” or “short, violent outbursts against individual Jews” that “had the function of convincing both the authorities and the victims of the need for law and order.”[14] This contrived need for law and order helped convince local populations that a ghetto was necessary. One resident of the ghetto, Israel Litmanowicz, wrote that “It [the plan for a ghetto] all sounded very amiable. Jews would live with Jews! There would be no robbing, no looting…[However,] The ghetto was not what we had expected. Instead of peace, we encountered indescribable anguish and tragedy.” [15]

In the face of Einselaktionen, the Łódź Jewry was more willing to submit to ghettoization. Could they have also been more willing to use a different currency? If Jewish exclusion was painted as part of the road towards autonomy and self-protection, it seems likely that monetary exclusion would have been regarded similarly. By early 1940, the German occupying force had long decided that Jews were undesirable, but their precise future was yet to be determined. What purpose would the ghettos serve? And how would they be run?

Out of this uncertainty and vacuum of power, an elderly man named Chaim Rumkowski emerged as the sole Jewish leader in Łódź. Rumkowski would go on to wield broad powers in the Łódź ghetto, building a vast and complex bureaucracy. Believing himself capable of saving his city’s Jewish population, he was willing to send tens of thousands of children, elders, and the sick to what he certainly knew to be death camps. Though the idea of a ghetto scrip may not have originated with him, he implemented the new economic system of destitution with zeal and self-importance. The scrip was part of Rumkowski’s “rescue-through-work” ideology, a desperate attempt to save the ghetto by making it as economically profitable as possible.

Rumkowski: “Dictator” of The Łódź Ghetto

Chaim Mordechai Rumkowski, the man charged with heading this radical reorganization of Łódź’s Jews, was 62 years old when he became “Eldest of the Jews.”[16] Rumkowski had not experienced much professional success in his life as a businessman, manufacturer, manager of an orphanage, and insurance agent.[17] He served in local Jewish leadership, as a board member of a Zionist party, but was by no means a very prominent leader. In the months following the Nazi invasion of Poland, Jewish organizations were “thrown into a state of complete disorganization.” Many Jewish leaders fled the city, or were arrested, and the organizations’ bank accounts and freedom of movement were greatly restricted.[18] With existing Jewish leadership in shambles, the Nazis created the Judenrat, or Jewish Councils. In September 1939, Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the security police, ordered that Jewish Councils be established in occupied Poland for the “exact execution according to terms of all instructions released or yet to be released.” The Councils would also be responsible for the “concentration of Jews in the cities for general reasons of security.”[19]

In Łódź, Rumkowski was nominated by City Commissar Dr. Leister as the Elder of the Jews.[20] He was charged to “carry out all measures concerning the members of the Jewish race (ordered) by the German Civilian Administration of the City of Łódź.” (The question of jurisdiction is worth noting: the ghetto was controlled by the administration of Łódź, not the SS, which later controlled the extermination process.) Rumkowski was granted the right to tax the Jewish community, as well as total control over all existing Jewish institutions, governing organizations, and other “administrative authorities.” In short, in the execution of German directives, Rumkowski was given total control over the Jewish population of Łódź.[21] Hilberg writes that “measured in its powers to regulate and interfere with the life of the inhabitants, the Jewish bureaucracy of the Łódź ghetto was probably the most totalitarian of all ghetto bureaucracies.”[22] Despite Trunk and Hilberg’s disagreements about the extent to which Jewish councils could be held culpable in the Holocaust,[23] both agreed that Rumkowski held far more power than other ghetto’s Jewish council leaders. As Trunk writes, Łódź was under “the sole rule of one person.”[24] However, Rumkowski’s totalitarian control over Jewish life extended only insofar as the directives from his German overseers allowed. In a documented incident during the summer of 1944, following an unknown disagreement, Hans Biebow, who headed the German ghetto administration, angrily marched into Rumkowski’s office and beat the old man bloody — Rumkowski was a tyrant in his own domain, but his power was also severely limited.[25]

Rumkowski is a controversial figure in Holocaust history, and has been written about extensively. Hannah Arendt mentioned him in Eichmann in Jerusalem as an example of the extent to which Nazis corrupted the moral character of Jewish leadership. For Arendt, Rumkowski was a tyrant with delusions of grandeur who “issued currency notes bearing his signature and postage stamps engraved with his portrait, and who rode around in a broken-down horse-drawn carriage.”[26] In Gray Zones, a collection of essays, Richard Rubenstein writes that Rumkowski “took the historic Jewish strategies of submission to a new level, something that Adam Czerkiakow, chairman of the Warsaw Judenrate, was ultimately unable or unwilling to do.”[27] Hilberg is even more critical in The Destruction of the European Jews, writing that “many Jewish leaders felt an almost irresistible urge to look like their German masters” and that Rumkowski, as the ghetto’s “dictator,” was capable of “reigning and disposing over the ghetto community with a finality that was absolute.”[28] Records from ghetto residents suggest that Rumkowski cut an unpopular figure. Mass demonstrations during the famine in late 1940 were directed at Rumkowski, sometimes protesting outside his office near the hospital.[29] For example, a song meant to be in praise of him, “Rumkowski Chaim Gives Us Bran-a” included a line that was frequently changed from “may he live to be a hundred” to“may the devil take him away.”[30]

Rumkowski is relevant to the discussion of money in the Łódź ghetto for several reasons. In a general sense, no history of any aspect of the Łódź ghetto can be written without some exploration of his role as its leader. More specifically, as Arendt points out, the currency was issued under his name, and was both a symbol of his power and of his policy of making the ghetto as economically productive and profitable as possible. This policy has been described by historians as the theory of “rescue through work” (more on this later).[31]

Ghettoization and Money

Ghettoization occurred in the spring of 1940, when over 100,000 Jews from throughout Łódź were violently relocated to the slum quarter of the city, where 62,000 Jews already lived. The area of the ghetto was a little over 4 square kilometers, with even less habitable land. The relocations began in February 1940, and lasted for three increasingly violent months until May 1, 1940, when the Łódź police announced a “final sealing of the ghetto,” which forbade “any contact with Jews, also including commercial traffic of the civilian population.”[32] A barbed wire fence was erected and buildings were cleared to create a no-man’s land where guards would open fire at any trespasser (and just at people who wandered too close). Though some inmates of the ghetto did go to work camps outside of Łódź, and Rumkowski himself visited the Warsaw ghetto,[33] the majority of its population remained interned in the fenced area of over 4 square kilometers until deportations.[34] At the time, the ghetto was recognized to be but a transitory measure, as the plan at the time (put forth by Heydrich) was an “ultimate mass emigration,” as Hilberg puts it, first to the Generalgouvernement and then to the colony of Madagascar.[35] On December 10, 1939, SS-Brigadefuhrer Friedrich Ulbelhor, who was a chief of police in the Wartheland,[36] wrote that the ghetto was a “transition measure” and that “in the end, at any rate, we must burn out this bubonic plague.”[37]

The Ghetto Scrip

On June 24, 1940, less than two months after the ghetto was officially sealed, Rumkowski announced in order number 70 that all Reichsmarks and Polish Zlotys would be replaced by the Mark-Quittungen, or mark-receipts.[38] The ghetto mark was used in the ghetto’s “Provisions Department, food shops, meat shops, pharmacies, clinics, hospitals, tac and rent payment offices, as well as all other departments subject to [Rumkowski].”[39] It came in denominations of 1, 2, 5, 10, and 50 marks and 50 Pfennig, while its coins were issued in 10 Pfennig and 5, 10, and 20 marks. Residents could exchange their currency at Rumkowski’s bank at “the current rate of exchange.”[40] There is a slight discrepancy between the transcript from Trunk and the notes from the Nachman Zonabend collection. Trunk’s version states that the mark-receipts will be the sole legal tender by the 28th of June and the Zonabend Collection records the date as July 8. Either way, the expected turnaround from using Reichsmarks and Zlotys to the new ghetto scrips was short — between four days and two weeks. In reality, the transition proved to be much more drawn out.[41]

First, in addition to currency exchange Rumkowski passed a series of orders calling for residents to exchange their valuables for the scrips. For example, in order number 105 on August 13, 1940, Rumkowski set up a purchasing office where “trusted agents'' would evaluate and buy people’s personal belongings such as “jewelry, gold and silver, precious stones, furs, stocks and bonds, clothing, linin, etc.”[42] This purchasing office however, was clearly insufficient, as another purchasing office was announced on August 29, offering to buy more valuables and clothing and also allowed Reichsmarks to be exchanged for ghetto scrips.[43] Two months later, on October 30, 1940, the deadline for exchanging Polish coins was extended until November 4.[44] On December 17 of 1940, another announcement ordered that “all men’s and women’s fur coats, fur stoles, fur collars and skins” had to be sold at the purchasing places by January 1, 1941 or risk confiscation.[45] Reichsmarks were still in use in the ghetto, up to October 17, 1941, as another announcement declared that all notes from 0.5RM to 100RM were void and had to be exchanged by Oct. 28. Ten days later, on Oct. 27, order number 70, which first ordered the change in currency, was repeated.[46] Over a year after the legal currency became the ghetto scrip, Rumkowski’s administration continued to deal with resistance to change.

At first, the orders for exchange of goods for scrips were framed as a way to “prevent exploitation of the plight” of people who had “no way to make a living” and who were “selling their personal things in order not to be compelled to turn to the Welfare Department.”[47] However, while it was likely that many people were forced to turn to exchange their valuables for the scrip in order to survive, many other ghetto residents did not feel compelled to exchange everything they owned. For example, in early 1942 Rumkowski denounced “people motivated by extreme selfishness” who did not sell the articles that he demanded.[48] While the “exchange” for goods was initially framed as a voluntary opportunity to save the struggling members of the ghetto population, it quickly showed its true colors — a compulsory seizure of Jewish goods. Despite widespread passive resistance, the ghetto mark helped the Nazi administrators of Łódź siphon away its Jewish population’s wealth at little cost.


This large scale forced sale of Jewish goods, coupled with aforementioned economic hardships of ghettoization, resulted in complete destitution. Firstly, the ghetto and most of its inhabitants were completely pauperized and lacked any means to provide for themselves, resulting in mass famine, disease, and death. The pre-war Jewish population of Łódź was already not an affluent one. After a year of violent German occupation, economic persecution, theft and seizure of property, and forced relocation, much of the ghetto population lived in a state of abject poverty. Trunk estimates that out of a total of 8.5 million ghetto marks printed, only 1.8 million marks were released into circulation. This amounts to about 11-12 marks per ghetto resident on average (1,800,000/160,000 = 11.25).[49] Though money was not evenly distributed, Łódź did “achieve” a quasi-egalitarian state of abject poverty. Dr. Oskar Rosenfeld, a writer and publicist employed in the ghetto’s archives,[50] wrote in his journal that “of 104,000 inhabitants in July 1942, about 100,000 are all at one level” but that the “remaining 4000” were only “somewhat better, with larger food rations and better hygienic conditions.” In other words, nearly all people were poor and starving.

In late 1940, Rumkowski noted that as much as 70% of its population was without “additional cash.”[51] These extreme conditions motivated “largely spontaneous mass demonstrations” against famine and lawlessness (most likely looting caused by hunger) during June, July, August and September. These demonstrations were only quelled when German police entered the ghetto and opened fire on protestors, marking one of the few times that Jewish police were an insufficient force in maintaining order in the ghetto.

At the outset of the ghetto, the mark’s primary role was extractive. It provided an easy way to maintain economic order in the ghetto while essentially seizing Jewish property and valuables. But the scrip also played other supporting roles. For example, it served as an obstacle to smuggling. The scrip, worthless outside of the ghetto, meant that residents had fewer options to exchange goods with the outside world. However, the scrip likely played only a small role in the prevention of smuggling. Other factors, such as the wood and barbed wire fence, ruthless German guards, Rumkowski’s crackdowns on smuggling, and the lack of a large sewage system, proved more important.[52] [53]

Israel Gutman writes that “The Łódź Ghetto was evidently the only ghetto where smuggling was absolutely impossible.”[54] This is not wholly accurate, as a very limited amount of smuggling did occur: In Ghettostadt, Horwitz documents an episode in which a police officer witnessed smugglers drop off and pick up goods in an unoccupied building, using flashlights to signal one another.[55] Thus, smuggling occurred, but to a far lesser extent than it did in Warsaw, where residents at times subsisted almost entirely off of smuggled goods and used smuggling to plan and equip themselves for the revolt.[56]

The Nazi administration of Łódź used economic deprivation and seizure of goods to exert total control over the Jewish population. After the first few months of these extractive policies, a second more long-term plan began to dictate the economic changes in the ghetto. The plan was for the ghetto to become a production center for the Third Reich as a means of survival.


The Łódź ghetto (under the leadership of Rumkowski) re-oriented itself to becoming as productive and profitable for the Nazi’s as possible. This theory of rescue through work, as described by Rubenstein in Gray Zones, “was to make the Łódź ghetto so productive for the Germans that they would understand that their wartime economic interests were best served by allowing the ghetto’s inhabitants to survive.”[57] This idea of “rescue through work,” as Trunk describes it in Judenrat,[58] is reiterated by many other historians. In numerous speeches and announcements, Rumkowski justified even the most tragic sacrifices through “rescue through work.” He believed that keeping the ghetto as productive as possible would guarantee their continued survival. In a speech to deportees from Central Europe in November of 1941, Rumkowski characterized the workforce of the ghetto as a “gold-mine” and emphasized that “work provides the best publicity for the ghetto and enhances confidence in it.”[59] This idea that only the working population could survive would have been further strengthened during the 1942 deportations, when Rumkowski announced that only working people would be able to remain.[60] In a speech given in January 1942 on the eve of deportations, Rumkowski said that he wished to “demonstrate, on the basis of irrefutable statistics, that the Jews in the ghetto constitute a productive element, and that they are, perforce, needed.”[61] The sentiment could not be more clear: Rumkowski believed that work would save the ghetto from destruction.

History has made painfully clear that “rescue through work” did not save Jews in Nazi ghettos from their deaths. Most residents of Łódź, including Rumkowski, were murdered in the death camps of Chelmno or Auschwitz. Rumkowski and other Jewish councils could not fathom that the Nazi’s would commit genocide for its own sake, even if doing so meant giving up a valuable population of workers. Most residents in ghettos such as Łódź could not have believed that the Nazi’s would seek extermination despite there being logical and utilitarian reasons for keeping such a large and captive workforce alive. But ideology trumped material gain, as Trunk points out in Judenrat, and the deportation and death of Jewish labor forces in the Third Reich actually resulted in negative economic consequences for the German war effort, including decrease in production, delayed delivery, and lower profits.[62]

The “rescue through work” theory does require one important complication: When Rumkowski first expounded it in 1940, there was no perceived threat of mass genocide yet. In the early days of the ghetto, Rumkowski pushed for “rescue through work” not to avoid deportation and the horror of the gas chambers, but as a quick solution to the immediate problem of mass starvation. In 1942, after all those “unfit” to work were deported, “rescue through work” took on a new and more urgent meaning.[63] The term is apt in both contexts (staving off starvation and avoiding deportation), but it is important to make this distinction to understand the changing stakes surrounding the word “rescue” from 1940 through 1944.

In Ghettostadt, Gordon Horwitz writes a clear and extensive account of this short-term necessity of rescue through work. In mid-1940, the ghetto posed two critical questions to both its Jewish leadership and Nazi administrators: “how much would it cost to maintain the ghetto, and could the captive Jewish community cover the expense?”[64] The answer to the first question was complicated, as in mid-1940 many ghetto residents could still live off money they had saved prior to ghettoization, but estimates suggested that at least 2-3 million Reichsmarks per month (if not more) would be required. The answer to the second question, in 1940, also depended on how “cover the expense” was understood. The German ghetto administration did not count any of the money expropriated or seized before the ghetto’s establishment as “payment,” and so the ghetto community, having already lost so much, was faced with the impossible task of paying for its own forced relocation and survival. As has already been chronicled in this paper, the ghetto scrips facilitated this effort to squeeze as much money out of the ghetto as possible. In addition, through purchasing places, direct confiscation of valuables, and seizure of funds being sent into the ghetto by relatives, friends, and even debtors, the German administration found several more sources of quick income. In light of this, the ghetto scrip should be understood as (at least initially) serving the temporary purpose of extracting money from the ghetto.

The problem of finding sources of income to avoid immediate mass-famine also incentivized Rumkowski to make the ghetto as economically productive as possible. After all, the policy of quick extraction (exchanging currency, confiscating goods, etc…) could only sustain the ghetto for so long. As Horwitz notes, “by the fourth month of the ghetto’s existence, the Jews were fast approaching the limits of their available resources.”[65] Around that time Nazi officials also realized that emigration was not a realistic “solution” to the Jewish question, and moved to make the ghettos semi-permanent establishments. In August of 1940, Biebow gave the ghetto a six month loan of 3 million marks — an amount conveniently taken from seized Jewish assets.[66] Rumkowski and the Łódź ghetto administration had no choice but to try to create as much profit as possible to maintain the ghetto and repay the loan. In a sense, they were justifying their existence by paying for their cost of living, which could be classified as “rescue through work.” Once again, it is important to differentiate what “rescue” meant before and after 1942. In 1940, Rumkowski hoped to “rescue” the population as a single entity: if the entire ghetto could turn a profit for the Nazis, then it could afford enough food for everyone to avoid famine. In 1942, “rescue through work” only applied to the employable (10 and above, not old or sick). The population was divided between the employed, who would be saved, and the unemployed, who had to be sacrificed so that the rest of the ghetto could survive.

Rumkowski worked tirelessly to make the ghetto an economic powerhouse, setting up many workshops and factories to support the German regime. Industrialization began with tailoring workshops (Łódź was known for its textile industry before the war) and expanded to over 100 factories, workshops, and other work sites in the ghetto by fall of 1942, when around 70,000 ghetto residents were employed.[67] By the end of 1940, the ghetto was economically “self-sufficient” despite the raging famine and disease. Hans Biebow’s ghetto administration, or the Gettoverwaltung, reported a “a net profit from productivity and confiscations between November 1940 and August 1942 of 20 million Reichsmarks, after deducting 33 million for ‘maintenance’ of the ghetto.[68] In the following two years, from September 1942 to September 1944, the Gettoverwaltung reported a net profit of 26,211,485 Reichsmarks, after taking 43,232,485 for maintaining the Jews.”[69] In short, the ghetto created immense profit for the Germans, to the point that Arthur Greiser, the imperial lieutenant of the Warthagau territory, would later characterize it as one of the “largest industrial enterprises” in the Nazi German empire.[70] Economic productivity was a priority for both Rumkowski and the German ghetto administration.

Phasing Out Money

Between 1941 and 1942, wages in the ghetto decreased by one-third while the “worth of production” increased by a factor of five.[71] In other words, Łódź was becoming more productive and profitable as its inhabitants earned less and less money. This collapse in disposable income of the Jewish population was in part made possible by the ascent of a system of ration cards, developed in the fall of 1940. It became “the principal mechanism for distributing scarce supplies of food to the ghetto population,” according to Horwitz.[72] The ration coupons usually cost between 2 and 7 marks, and poorer residents on welfare received money to buy them, though often it was insufficient. This system was meant for the average worker to earn no more than the minimum needed to purchase rations for their family.[73] Thus, meals replaced monetary compensation for workers. Josef Zelkowicz, a journalist and intellectual who worked on the staff of YIVO before the ghetto, wrote the following in June of 1942:

“…when a Jew wakes up in the morning, he first checks to see whether anything is missing from the package of bread that he had weighed and tied up before he went to bed the night before. Only when he is convinced that even a mouse could not get to his bread, does the pounding of his heart slow down. After he checks his bread coupons, food coupons, vegetable distribution schedule, cigarette card, and other papers, he goes out… to stand in line. It doesn’t matter where. He stands wherever anything is being “given,” wherever anything is being “handed out…”[74]

What’s striking here, apart from the desperate attitude towards food and the bleak picture of food and supply lines, is that in a list of several papers critical to survival in the ghetto, Zelkowicz makes no mention of the ghetto scrip. This is not to say that the scrips were unimportant by 1942. From workers’ wages to black market goods, we know that the scrip still played important roles in the ghetto. However, from Zelkowicz’s notes we can see that a slew of other papers, vouchers, coupons, and notes may have actually been more important for survival.

For most ghetto residents who relied on a combination of soup kitchens, welfare, and work-meals, the ghetto scrip probably did not feature too prominently in their daily lives. For example, Dawid Sierakowiak, who was a teenager in the ghetto, celebrated in his diary in May of 1941 when his mother obtained a job working 14-15 hours for about 20-25 marks a month. The cause for celebration was not the salary, which was minimal, but that “she will receive the workers' two substantial soups a day for free. So at least Mom won't starve.”[75] In early 1941, a carpenters workshop went on strike to protest their loss of an extra bread ration.[76] This act of organized resistance in the ghetto, which was rare and quickly quashed by the ghetto’s Jewish order service, shows just how much that extra ration meant to the workers. Ghetto resistance was focused on what would help workers avoid starvation, and by 1942 that was not the scrip – paper of volatile value – but extra rations.

The rations amounted to a steady starvation. Nazi officials alloted 30 pfennig a day to feed each Jew, which was less than what they alloted for prisoners (20-40 pfennig).[77] Estimates of the caloric value per day range from a little over 1000 to about 2000, depending on whether the individual was working, and the benefits that said work offered. Trunk estimates that with this starvation diet, and under the stress of physical labor, the maximum someone could survive was six to eight months.[78] In October of 1942, Oskar Rosenfeld wrote the following: “We defy the laws of medical science, in that we’re still alive on this nourishment.”[79]Hence, for a large proportion of the population who worked jobs primarily for food and lived on welfare while on the constant brink of dying from starvation, the ghetto scrips were not so important. Not only was it a limited guard against starvation, it functioned also as a tool of total control exercised by Rumkowski’s administration over their lives, as they defered to the rationing system for food and provisions.

Still – in the years following 1940, the scrip also played roles in the “black market” sale of food and basic necessities, as will be explored in the next section.

The Deportations of 1942 and Their Effect on The Ghetto Economy

A limited black market, consisting of food and goods from within the ghetto, served some members of the ghetto population. While the black market in Łódź was not officially sanctioned by the ghetto administration, authorities “clos[ed] their eyes to its existence” because they were unable to enforce restrictions on the sale and purchase of food legally acquired from the distribution centers.[80] Prices in the black market tended to be too high for the average resident and varied greatly depending on supply and demand. During especially desperate times, such as during the 1942 deportations, intense speculation and desperate spending rendered the scrip virtually worthless. Analysis of the scrip in the black market reveals how the economy of Łódź functioned in a truly extraordinary manner through periods of intense instability.

Bread Prices: A Case Study

Bread prices, “an authoritative indicator of the situation in the food market,” according to the ghetto archives, reveal several important aspects of the ghetto black market in 1942.[81]

First, the value of the scrip fluctuated depending on arrivals of new populations and restrictions on receiving money from the outside. Following the arrival of about 20,000 western European Jews to the Łódź ghetto late 1941, their increased purchasing power (compared to ghetto residents that had already been pauperized) caused the scrip to be devalued. The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, an internal archive maintained in semi-secretive conditions, notes that from December 1941 to January 1942, after “postal limitations on deportees from Germany were lifted…over three quarters of a million [German] marks flowed into the ghetto.” This allowed the recent arrivals to purchase “whatever is available in the food market, regardless of price.” (Though resulting in inflation…) Bread, which cost 3 marks (for 2 kg) in September of 1941,[82] jumped to 19-21 marks, nearly a 600% increase.

Second, the deportations also coincided with a decrease in supply which further drove prices up. In early 1942, “food shortages kept step with the deportations” as the first deportations to Chelmno began.[83] Food shortages were also deliberately created in 1944 as a means to quell resistance and force people to “voluntarily” leave the ghetto,[84] suggesting that that halting of food deliveries by Nazis was formed part of their official deportation strategy.

Third, prices varied based on the latest announcement, rumor, and even location. Zelkowicz writes that “when rumors began circulating in the second half of February about impending new deportations, the price immediately jumped [from 25 marks] to 35 marks.”[85] Later, in April, when more rumors of a deportation circulated around the ghetto, the price shot up from 115 to 160 marks.[86] On April 18, an announcement ordering that all non-employed residents of the ghetto be “stamped”[87] caused mass-panic and increased the price of bread by 30 marks. During the deportations, bread at the central market was lower than near the Central Prison, which held deportees.[88]

The greatest price fluctuations, however, were caused by panicked buying and selling induced by deportation orders. In May of 1942, Sierakowiak wrote in his diary that following the deportation orders of German and Czech Jews, “the barter trade is prospering in the street” and “money is of almost no value anymore [because] those bedeviled Germans and Czechs are paying any price [for food] and the local Jews are following suit.”[89] In between getting a deportation order, which ghetto residents called “wedding invitations,” and the actual deportations was a short period of time (in the beginning of 1942 it was usually 3 days)[90] during which deportees desperately sold off their property and tried to purchase food.[91] “In connection with the state of panic, the price of food on the free market has risen with dizzying speed,” wrote the Chronicle at the end of April 1940.[92] A loaf of bread that cost 19-21 marks in January cost 180 marks in April, a kilogram of rye flour increased from 16 to 150 marks, and a kg of margarine from 50 to 450. Within two weeks, a loaf of bread would soar to 600 marks, and margarine over 1000.[93] The average skilled worker in the ghetto in 1942 earned about 20 marks a month.[94] Zelkowicz describes the mind-set of deportees in stark prose:

“Those receiving the summonses, to report to the Central Prison from where they’d be sent away, began liquidating their pitiful households, selling their last belongings, and spending their “Rumkies” on food and first of all bread, for which they paid exorbitant prices. Taking the “Rumkies” with them did not make sense.”[95]

Zelkowicz brings up another important aspect of the price fluctuations: selling of property. The Chronicle writes that in May of 1942 the entire ghetto was “possessed by a furious commerce,” and that everywhere one looked, “all people are doing is selling, trading, and examining goods.”[96] Those with deportation orders were only allowed to take with them 12.5 kilograms of luggage, which contributed to the frenzy of selling and trading.

During the 1942 deportations, the ghetto market was sent into a state of chaos by fluctuating prices, desperate spending and buying, deliberate supply shortages, and general panic — but what further conclusions can we draw from this about the economy of the Łódź ghetto?

Black Market Prices as a “Regulator of Commodities” in the Ghetto

Prices in the black market were out of reach for the majority of the population. However, they were still relevant to most people in their capacity as an indicator and barometer for off-the-books transactions in the ghetto. For example, while only the wealthy would have been able to buy a loaf of bread in May 1942, the prices on the black market allowed for a fixed exchange rate between bread and margarine (6:10 in this case). Thus, according to the Chronicle, “middle-class” people would sell their vegetables (which were viewed as lower quality items) so that they could buy “fat, meat, sausage, and even bread” from the lower classes. In turn, the lower (and largest) class would sell their small quantities of higher quality items (ie. meats) for large quantities of lower quality items (ie. vegetables). A very small third class of the “especially well-off” only interacted with the black market as buyers.[97]

If we study black market prices as an indicator for overall trade in the ghetto, then the dizzying fluctuations and turbulent market conditions point to broader conclusions about the Łódź ghetto economy, which operated in an unprecedented combination of hermetic enclosure, crushing oppression, and impending genocide.

One way to understand this complicated assortment of extreme factors is to think of how the economy of Łódź functioned in relation to various “borders.” First, the value of money in the ghetto had geographical boundaries — once a deportee traveled out of the ghetto on the train, the money carried no more value. Second, there were severe time-constraints. Following a deportation order, and even in anticipation of one, residents of the ghetto were given a couple of days to liquidate all their assets (goods and scrips) in the hope of obtaining food, the most valuable item in the ghetto (and one that did have value transferable through ghetto borders). The last “border” was one of life and death. The threat of extermination (which ghetto residents began to feel by the end of 1942), caused mass desperation. Nazi officials also operated in full knowledge of the deportees impending deaths, stripping them of their last material possessions before they boarded the trains.

By any metric, the economic side of daily life in the Łódź ghetto in 1942 was unprecedented: life existed in a sealed space where deliberate actions by a conquering force caused mass panic, sent markets into a tailspin, and devalued the currency. The scrip, once a means of controlling the ghetto and creating “income” to sustain it, was now both a cause and a symbol for the panic and chaos. Once a valuable slip of paper, the scrip was now so worthless that some deportees would throw it off the train as they left.[98]

At the same time, from the ghettoization through deportation, the scrip served as an effective means of creating an unbridgeable gap between the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. A brief note on exchange rates illustrates this.

Exchange Rates

Virtually none of the secondary sources mentioned in this paper discuss exchange rates from ghetto marks to Reichsmarks (Trunk mentions it once), which is notable for several reasons. First, the exchange rates served as an important metric for the value of the scrip, as the Reichsmark was more stable than the ghetto currency. Second, it can be used to measure the amount of market activity and speculation occurring in the ghetto. The Chronicle referred to it as “a barometer of tension during the deportation action.”[99] Finally, the lack of scholarship on it is itself notable because despite the importance that ghetto residents placed on it at the time, the ghetto mark was never meant to be exchanged back to the German Reichsmark. It was always meant to be part of a drastic and permanent exclusion of Jews from regular society. The exchange was never meant to be bi-directional.

The original order changing the legal tender in the ghetto noted that the Reichsmark and Zloty would be converted at “the current rate of exchange.”[100] It did not mention what that rate is. But a few important clues point to that rate being, at one point, about one to one. First, there is the name of the ghetto mark: “mark-quittungen,” which translates to mark-receipt, mark-scrip, or mark voucher, suggesting that the slips of paper are a type of fiat where each piece represents a corresponding value in Reichsmarks. A record from Abraham Benkel, discussing events that took place “three or four weeks” after he moved into the ghetto (probably around May 1940) says that a Polish-German debtor of his deposited 1000 German marks in his ghetto account, for which he received 1,000 “Rumkis.”[101]

The exchange rate was likely close to 1:1 at the beginning, but the scrip began to devalue, fluctuating in a similar way to black market prices, only less drastically. On April 1, 1942, an essay entered into the ghetto archives writes that the central treasury of the ghetto is no longer exchanging scrips for Reichsmarks.

“The Main Treasury used to change any amount into German marks, then it would only change 10 marks’ worth and recently, it would not change any amount whatsoever. Initially, the exchange rate was 1.5 ghetto marks for 1 German mark; later it went up to 2-3 marks and has not reached 4 Rumkis for 1 German mark.”[102]

“Initially” might mean at the time when the scrip was introduced, or perhaps the beginning of the Daily Chronicle bulletin, which was 1941. By May 1, 1942, the rate was 1 RM to 8 marks.[103] On May 15, following a lull in deportations, it fell below 1:7.[104] Another copy of the ghetto Chronicle reprinted in Trunk’s Łódź Ghetto writes that “furtive transactions for the German mark” brought the exchange rate to 10 marks per RM around May 9-11, 1942. Small notes of Reichsmarks were particularly valuable and had higher exchange rates.[105]

These fluctuating exchange rates and their illegality highlight the intensity of Nazi exclusion and ghettoization. The ghetto scrip served to seal off and distance the ghetto from Nazified Łódź despite their geographical proximity. During deportations, the inability to re-exchange the scrip illustrates a point of no-return, where the Nazis did not expect deportees to ever need currency again.[106] The question of who set the exchange rates is also fascinating. Initially ghetto officials set the rates to convert the Reichsmark and Zloty to scrips, but during deportations, exchange became illegal and the ghetto populace set the rates, which skyrocketed due to both high demand and lack of supply (without an official source of Reichsmarks, residents resorted to trading with those who has secretly kept the German currency). Only one “direction” of exchange was officially sanctioned. When ghetto residents tried to change their money back, their efforts were but another hopeless form of resistance, or perhaps a last grasp for normalcy that had long been destroyed.

Knowledge of the Final Solution

The questions of a) when deportees knew of their fate and b) when Rumkowski knew are too great to be studied in detail in this paper. However, considering their effect on the psyche (and thus the economy) of the ghetto, they are worth mentioning. Through the fall of 1942, the Łódź ghetto lived in ignorance of the fate of deportees. The Nazi’s ran a successful campaign of lies and misinformation, and sealed borders kept away news of the Final Solution that was already circulating though underground Jewish resistance cells in Polish ghettos. Oskar Rosenfeld’s notes from the spring of 1942 mention false rumors of deportees “work[ing] the land” in Poland, showing that misinformation was the norm.[107] It was only until after the September action, when about 20,000 children, elders, and sick people were rounded up and deported, that residents of the ghetto suspected mass murder. The brutal manner of these deportations, as well as the unemployable status of their victims, caused residents to have the “darkest predictions.”[108] Rumkowski’s famous “Give Me Your Children” speech, for example, can only be understood as a justification for the sacrifice of the ghetto’s most vulnerable.[109] When Sierakowiak’s mother was rounded up in September 1942, he suspected that she would die. “If I only knew that my mother wouldn't have to die, that she'd survive the war despite the deportation,” laments Sierakowiak.[110] Another ghetto resident, a father whose young daughter was also deported that December, wrote that she was “slaughtered in the deportation of September 8, 1942.”[111] Despite suspicion that deportees were being killed, the Nazis were able to prevent full knowledge of the Final Solution through a combination of well-sealed borders, limited correspondence with the outside, and deliberate lies and misinformation.

The question of Rumkowski’s knowledge is similarly complicated. Rosenfeld, who worked in the ghetto archives, writes that Rumkowski told him “If I were to tell you everything I know, you would not sleep. So I alone am the one who does not sleep.” A second piece of information, discussed by Adelson and Lapides, is a request by German officials in Chelmno for a “bone-grinder…either with a motor or hand-driven” — a chilling request with a purpose that seems obvious in retrospect.[112] The third and most damning piece of evidence is a letter dated January 19, 1942, written by a rabbi from Grabow. The letter, which only reached Łódź in the summer of 1942, states definitively that Jews (and gypsies) from towns across Poland, including Łódź, were being either shot or gassed to death in Chelmno. Accounts vary as to whether Rumkowski read the letter. In any case, news of mass killings reached Łódź in 1942, even if they did not circulate widely.[113]

By 1943, knowledge of mass killings had almost certainly reached Łódź. Sierakowiak wrote in March of 1943 that new resettlements were probably once again “deportation into scrap metal.”[114] In contrast, Jakub Poznanski, wrote in his diary in September that he did not believe that Jews were being mass-murdered.[115] However, this still implies that rumors of mass murder had reached the ghetto. Finally, while limited information reached Łódź, there were some underground radios and other forms of communication. Sierakowiak mentions several times that ghetto residents waited eagerly to hear news from the outside world, including speeches from Churchill and Roosevelt.[116] News of the Warsaw uprising was also able to reach the Ghetto.[117] Even in 1944, after years of official crackdown on underground radios, news of the failed coup against Hitler reached the ghetto, suggesting that some of its residents remained informed of current events.[118] The stubborn and unprecedented resistance shown by ghetto residents against the 1944 deportations also suggests that the population either knew or guessed their fate.[119] These surprising instances of knowledge of world-events suggest that the population of Łódź was not as ignorant as some historians would suggest. Unfortunately, access to outside news did not translate to communication with other resistance groups. In May 1944, the Jewish underground in Warsaw said that Łódź was “an island, totally cut off from the rest of the world.”[120]

Reconfiguration of The Łódź Ghetto

The soaring black market prices, variable exchange rates, and general chaos caused by deportations highlight another important aspect of the ghetto: conditions were never stable. Rather, new and shocking events caused waves of shock and trauma. The first months saw mass starvations and hunger protests. In late 1941, as conditions stabilized and more factories and industries opened, about 20,000 more Jews and several thousand Gypsies were forced into the already overcrowded ghetto. The most radical shifts occurred between 1942 and 1943, after mass deportations of about 70,000 residents to Chelmno. These deportations traumatized the population and dramatically shifted its demographics. It also resulted in a complete restructuring of the ghetto, which began to resemble a forced labor camp.

1943 – 44: The Ghetto as a Forced Labor Camp

After the chaos of 1942, the ghetto, now without most of its children, elderly, and sick, re-organized itself to be a forced labor camp where most worked without monetary compensation. The value of the scrip also declined, as evidenced by the dramatic increase of the average wage of a highly qualified worker (a minority), which rose from 20 to 50 marks. The price of bread also skyrocketed as a result of inflation, reaching over 1000% in early 1944.[121] Many departments and offices in the ghetto also were rendered obsolete. Schools, the orphanage, a home for the elderly, hospital space for the sick and those with disabilities, even spaces for religion and prayer, were eliminated. After the 1942 deportations there were about 89,500 people in the ghetto, and in 1943 the population dipped to 75,000 due to more deportations and deaths within the ghetto.[122] Nearly all people in the ghetto in 1943 and 1944 were employed: Whereas in mid-1940 about half (~ 85,000) of the ghetto was employed, in early 1944 the employment rate was over 90%. “Employment” is a loose term implying work; most of the “employed” were de facto slaves. By mid-1942, Nazi ghettos were already moving towards a “forced labor camp” model. An order from Authur Greiser from June 25, 1942 stipulates that laborers in the Wartheland are to receive free room and board but no wages except for rewards for “exceptionally exceeding a normal production quota.”[123] In June 1943, Heinrich Himmler ordered that the Łódź ghetto be turned into a concentration camp.[124]

This shift from Ghetto to ersatz labor camp can be seen reflected in the change in language of the “Daily Chronicle Bulletin” of the ghetto (the records kept by the ghetto archive), which was written in Polish as the Biuletyn Kroniki Codziennej from January 12, 1941 to September 1, 1942, and in German as the Tageschronik from September of 1942 to July 30, 1944.[125] Though the reasons behind the change are unclear, it coincides with the shift from a Polish ghetto to a Nazi forced labor camp.

Final Deportations

The Łódź ghetto was liquidated in the late fall of 1944 on orders of Heinrich Himmler.[126] A series of announcements from Rumkowski’s administration, first “appealing” to deportees to present themselves before issuing direct threats, suggests that the remaining 70,000 inmates were stubbornly resistant to deportation. On August 2, 1944, the first transports to Auschwitz were announced, calling tailor workships no. 1 and 2. By August 4, rations for workshops 1 and 2 were blocked because so many did not report for deportation. By Aug. 8, four more announcements had called for evacuees to report to the Central Prison to be deported. In the next week, five more announcements called for the “Leather Division,” the “western part [of the ghetto],” “underwear and dressmaking shops,” and the entire “ghetto population” to report for deportation. By the 15th, orders became more urgent. One of them read: “JEWS OF THE GHETTO! COME TO YOUR SENSES! Volunteer for the transports!” (Capitalization in original.) By the 17th, the announcements turned into death threats from the Gestapo, who were taking over control of the Łódź Jews from the Mayor of Litzmannstadt. Seven more deportation announcements occured between the 17th and the 22nd. During this entire time, the Nazi’s were reducing the ghetto’s borders, hemming its population in. Despite some resistance, by the end of August only a skeleton crew of about 700 workers and 200 more in hiding remained.[127]

Drawing conclusions from these final days is difficult, both on a historiographical and human level. Not many records remain of these final days. Many, like Sierakowiak, had already perished. Others simply did not write. The Chronicle’s last entry dates back to Sunday, July 30, 1944. Compared to the final deportations and the terrible fate awaiting in Auschwitz, the question of money and economy in the ghetto seems trivial, even completely irrelevant. In a sense, this is true. At that point, the scrip was materially worthless. After years of playing no small part in the exploitation, control, and suffering of inmates in the ghetto, the scrip was now only fit for kindling, or being thrown from the train, or tossed in the ground in Auschwitz. As a symbol, however, the scrip continues to have value: its meaninglessness is paralleled in the inconceivable suffering of millions — a suffering to which it is difficult to ascribe any value or meaning to. The scrip also represents a tragic end to the rescue-through-work ideology, and to the Łódź ghetto in general. In the end the scrip, like the ghetto, was but a transitory measure, even if its value as a historical object continues.


Money, Materiality, and Memory

Reconstructing the strange and complicated monetary system and economic culture of the Łódź ghetto offers a nuanced perspective into life in the Łódź ghetto: a life that was defined by shock and seizure of possessions, poverty and forced labor, deportations and mass panic, and finally, annihilation. Throughout this time, money took on different roles, some expected (ie. straightforward transactions for ration cards or in the black market), others more uncommon and perhaps unprecedented (ie. the scrips as a tool for Nazi theft or as an obstacle to smuggling, as a symbol). At times, the scrip was important, as Sierakowiak remarked in late 1941 while recounting his problems: “the main thing is cash!”[128] Other times the scrip’s lack of importance said more about conditions in the ghetto. At first, the scrip was meant to help maintain order and control over the ghetto’s populace. Later, it served as a sign of the ghetto’s panicked economy.

Raul Hilberg once stated in an interview for the documentary Shoah that “I have never begun by asking the big questions because I was always afraid I would come up with small answers… I have preferred therefore to address these things which are minutiae or detail in order that I might then be able to put together…a picture that, if not an explanation, is at least a description…of what transpired.”[129]

Claude Lanzmann, the director of Shoah, on the topic of understanding, once said:

“There is an absolute obscenity in the very project of understanding. Not to understand was my iron law during all the eleven years of the production of Shoah. I had clung to this refusal of understanding as the only possible ethical and at the same time the only possible operative attitude. This blindness was for me the vital condition of creation. Blindness has to be understood here as the purest mode of looking, of the gaze, the only way to not turn away from a reality which is literally blinding.”[130]

Yet Lanzmann also looked deeply into every detail in his decade-long quest to understand. This included (at times controversial) recreations of history: He had an ex-sonderkommando to give testimony while cutting hair (recreating his job in the death camps). He brought Simon Srebrnik back to Chelmno and asked him to sing the same songs that his Nazi tormenters made him sing. Lanzmann’s quest to understand also focused on the minutiae: At one point he stops his interview to figure out exactly (to the foot) where the death camp’s border was. The juxtaposition of these attitudes seems contradictory. Lanzmann is at the same time suspending belief and while also doggedly pursuing the smallest details, yet in many respects, that is the operative mind-set required for historical inquiry into such a difficult subject. While this paper cannot aspire to the historical exhaustiveness of Hilberg, or the documentary prowess of Lanzmann, it seeks to emulate them in spirit: ask the small questions in an attempt to understand, while acknowledging that at some point, understanding is no longer possible.

This cultural history of money in the Łódź ghetto points to larger trends and new avenues of study. It tells a story of ghettoization and genocide and the role that the scrips played in that loss of humanity. This perspective is inevitably filtered through the lens of perpetuator documents, and glosses over many moments of resistance and humanity in the ghetto. Its scope is also limited due to lack of comparison with other ghettos. For example, Terezin, which had an internal currency, and Warsaw, which was comparable in size and location, would be the two most obvious places to start.

Writing an economic history of the ghettos is difficult for several reasons. Many documents were destroyed by the Nazis as they attempted to cover up evidence of their atrocities. In addition, ghetto economies relied heavily on smuggling (though this was not so much the case in Łódź), of which even fewer official records remain. In Voices From The Warsaw Ghetto, Emmanuel Ringleblum writes that

“O[yneg] S[habes] was in general somewhat unsuccessful in the economic field. Good plans were set up… but very few of these were carried out, owing to a lack of suitable coworkers. Economic problems [also] require a tranquil mind. They require time and the right materials, based on comprehensive investigations; we had neither time nor the proper working conditions.”[131]

With the wealth of archival materials, memoirs, and testimony currently available, and, as Ringleblum notes, with the right coworkers and a “tranquil mind,” many avenues of research in this field are still possible. History is meant to be revisited and re-studied, and while the Łódź ghetto has mostly passed from living memory, part of its material record still remains, scattered in thousands of paper scrips and coins in museums and archives around the world.


Professor Mintzker first introduced me to the subject of material culture, and Jack Guenther provided valuable advice and guidance. Throughout the semester, Professor Dweck and my classmates in HIS400 gave me constant advice and constructive criticism that helped me grow as a researcher and person. My mom, dad, and brother offered invaluable support as I worked on this paper over winter break.


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[1] Levi, Primo, and Raymond Rosenthal. The Drowned and the Saved. First Simon & Schuster trade paperback edition. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017, pg. 48-49

[2] Levi and Rosenthal. The Drowned and the Saved, 25-56.

[3] Hilberg, Raul, The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961. Pg. 273

[4] Trunk, Isaiah, and Robert Moses Shapiro. Łódź Ghetto: A History. Bloomington, Ind: Indiana University Press, 2006.

[5] Horwitz, Gordon J. Ghettostadt: Łódź and the Making of a Nazi City. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008.

[6] Pick, Albert, and Carl Siemsen. 1993. Das Lagergeld der Konzentrations- und DP-Lager 1933 - 1947 ; [das Geld, die Dienstvorschriften, über Ausgabe und Wert] = Concentration camp and DP camp scrip.

[7] “Collections Search - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.”

[8] “Concentration Camp Money: ‘Lagergeld’ Used to Pay Prisoners for Their Work. Jennifer White.”

[9] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto, 157

[10] Terezin was the other ghetto that implemented an internal currency. For the purposes of this paper, the comparison between the two ghettos will be limited. The Terezin ghetto was created as a “false” ghetto to fool international media into believing that Jews were living in humane conditions in the ghettos, and as such its context and purpose differed from Łódź. The Terezin ghetto scrips could certainly be the subject of future research.

[11] Megargee, Geoffrey P. and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, eds. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Bloomington : [Washington, D.C.]: Indiana University Press ; In association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009. Pg. 81

[12] Gutman, Israel Introduction: The Distinctiveness of the Łódź Ghetto, in Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. Pg. xxix

[13] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. xxx - xxxi.

[14] Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 126.

[15] Eilenberg₋Eibeshitz, Anna. Preserved Evidence, Ghetto Łódź. Haifa: H. Eibeshitz Institute for Holocaust Studies, 1998. 84

[16] Dobroszycki, Lucjan. The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944. [abridged ed.]. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984. xlv

[17] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, xlv, xlvi

[18] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, xliv

[19] Trunk, Isaiah. Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996. 1-2

[20] Trunk, Judenrat. 8

[21] Ibid. 8-9

[22] Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 154.

[23] Hilberg was far more critical of the Judenrat, while Trunk tended to emphasize the extremely difficult positions the councils were put in by the Nazis. The question of the culpability of Jewish Councils in the Holocaust is a controversial one and outside of the scope of this paper.

[24] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 400

[25] Ibid. 504

[26] Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem. Page 119. The ghetto scrips, in addition to bearing Rumkowski’s signature, were also named after him. Ghetto residents referred to their currency as “rumkies” and “chaimkies.”

[27] Petropoulos, Jonathan, and John K. Roth, eds. Gray Zones: Ambiguity and Compromise in the Holocaust and Its Aftermath. 1. publ. Studies on War and Genocide, vol. 8. New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2005. Pg. 301.

[28] Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 146.

[29] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 5.

[30] Roskies, David G., ed. The Literature of Destruction: Jewish Responses to Catastrophe. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1988. 472

[31] Trunk, Judenrat. 83

[32] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto, 31

[33] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 55.

[34] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto, 172-3

[35] Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 144.

[36] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, xxxvi, xxxvii

[37] Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 149; This quote comes from a letter from Ulbelhor to Arthur Greiser, Governor of the Wartheland. This (a question of functionalism versus intentionalism) is another broad topic that this paper cannot cover. That being said, considering that in late 1939 and early 1940 many Nazi officials were still considering emigration as a viable option to remove Jews, and that mass deportations of Jews in Łódź did not begin until 1942, it seems that Ulbelhor’s extreme comments should be understood not as an official intent to commit genocide (yet), but rather as part of a plan to remove all trace of Jews from Łódź through emigration.

[38] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto, 69

[39] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto, 123

[40] Web, Marek., and Nachman Zonabend. The Documents of the Łódź Ghetto: An Inventory of the Nachman Zonabend Collection (record Group No. 241). New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1988. Pg. 56

[41] It is unclear who came up with the idea of using an ersatz currency in the Łódź Ghetto. Zvi Stahl writes in Jewish Ghettos and Concentration Camps’ Money that the monetary system was “attributed to the personal invention of Hans Biebow” because he was an “avid stamp and coin collector.” However, this claim is not repeated by other historians, and the book does not mention how Biebow’s hobby translated to an entirely new monetary system. Stahl, Zvi. Jewish Ghettos’ and Concentration Camps’ Money (1933-1945). 36; Gordon Horwitz attributes the idea of using scrips to SS official Karl Marder, who was Mayor of Łódź (renamed Litzmannstadt by the Germans) at the time. Horwitz, Ghettostadt. 63-64.

[42] Web and Zonabend. The Documents of the Łódź Ghetto: An Inventory of the Nachman Zonabend Collection (record Group No. 241), 59.

[43] Ibid. 60

[44] Ibid. 64

[45] Ibid. 67

[46] Ibid. 78

[47] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 82

[48] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 115.

[49] Trunk Page 39

[50] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, xii.

[51] Horwitz, Ghettostadt. 92.

[52] Sierakowiak, Dawid, Alan Adelson, and Kamil Turowski. The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Łódź Ghetto. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 123.

[53] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 117.

[54] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. xxxii; Introduction by Israel Gutman

[55] Horwitz, Ghettostadt. 102.

[56] Szpilman, Władysław, and Wilm Hosenfeld. The Pianist: The Extraordinary Story of One Man’s Survival in Warsaw, 1939-45. 1st ed. New York: Picador USA, 1999, Pg 11-13 & 126-128.

[57] Petropoulos and Roth, Gray Zones. 301

[58] Trunk, Judenrat. 400

[59] Trunk, Judenrat. 401

[60] Megargee and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. 80

[61] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 115.

[62] Trunk, Judenrat, 408-410

[63] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 272-275; Based on speeches to the public in which Rumkowski speaks of sacrificing the few to save the entire ghetto from annihilation, it seems clear that he (and most of his audience) knew by late 1942 that the deportees would not survive, even if he was unaware of the nature of their impending deaths.

[64] Horwitz, Ghettostadt, 63-64.

[65] Horwitz, Ghettostadt. 92.

[66] Ibid. 94

[67] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 53

[68] It is suspected that administrators such as Biebow pocketed some of these “maintenance” fees..

[69] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto, xix.

[70] Trunk, Judenrat. 89

[71] Trunk, Judenrat. 89

[72] Horwitz, Ghettostadt, 99.

[73] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 118.

[74] Zelḳoṿiṭsh, Yosef, and Michal Unger. In Those Terrible Days: Writings From the Łódź Ghetto. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2002. Pg. 181

[75] Sierakowiak, Adelson, and Turowski, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, 86-87.

[76] Zelḳoṿiṭsh and Unger. In Those Terrible Days: Writings From the Łódź Ghetto, 205.

[77] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto.107

[78] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 115-117

[79] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 367

[80] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 117.

[81] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 118

[82] Ibid. 78

[83] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 246

[84] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. In mid-late 1944, Rumkowski invalidated the names of deportees who still tried to collect food with ration cards. He also used food as an incentive, allowing those who were deported to collect their food rations first.

[85] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 247

[86] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 250

[87] Sierakowiak, Adelson, and Turowski, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, 156; The stamp, according to Sierakowiak’s diary, was literal: On April 20, 1942, he wrote in his journal that a German medical commission was putting an “indelible stamp” on people’s chests but that no one knew the letter’s significance.

[88] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 249

[89] Sierakowiak, Adelson, and Turowski, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, 162.

[90] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 124.

[91] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 248; The delay between getting the deportation order and leaving the ghetto varied. Based on the Chronicle’s records, it seems that in many cases there was enough time to try to sell belongings and buy food.

[92] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 157.

[93] Ibid. 119, 173.

[94] Trunk, and Shapiro. Łódź Ghetto: A History, 118.

[95] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 246-247.

[96] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 159.

[97] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 117.

[98] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 140.

[99] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 173.

[100] Web and Zonabend. The Documents of the Łódź Ghetto, 56.

[101] Eilenberg₋Eibeshitz, Preserved Evidence, Ghetto Łódź, 127.

[102] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 140.

[103] Ibid.161

[104] Ibid.173

[105] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto: A History, 143

[106] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 128; Records indicate that Hans Biebow at times allowed deportees to take 10 RM with them, which was likely meant to trick them into thinking they were being resettled for work.

[107] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 317

[108] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 248.

[109] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 231; Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto: A History, 272-275

[110] Sierakowiak, Adelson, and Turowski, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, 218 - 220.

[111] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 349

[112] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 317, 492.

[113] For more on this particular letter, see: Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto, 490-491; Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, xx-xxi; Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. l, li

[114] Sierakowiak, Adelson, and Turowski, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, 261.

[115] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, xxi; and Adelson 388

[116] Sierakowiak, Adelson, and Turowski, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, 85, 95.

[117] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto, 382

[118] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto, 434

[119] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 250-266; An overview of the 1944 deportations and resistance against them.

[120] Adelson, Lapides, and Web, Lodz Ghetto. 412.

[121] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto: A History, 118

[122] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, lix, lx

[123] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 195

[124] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 249

[125] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, xv.

[126] Trunk and Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto. 248-252

[127] Dobroszycki, The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941-1944, 535; See Dobroszycki’s footnote.

[128] Sierakowiak, Adelson, and Turowski, The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak, 130.

[129] Shoah. Directed by Claude Lanzmann. New Yorker Films, 1985; a clip of this quote may be viewed on YouTube.

[130] Lanzmann, Claude, Cathy Caruth, and David Rodowick. “The Obscenity of Understanding: An Evening with Claude Lanzmann.” American Imago 48, no. 4 (1991): 473–95.

[131] Roskies, David G., Samuel D. Kassow, and Ringelblum-Archiv, eds. Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto: Writing Our History. New Haven ; London: Yale University Press, 2019. Pg. 54