GERSZ ZYSKING was born November 17, 1913, in Łódź (the so-called Kingdom of Poland at the time, part of the Russian empire). He was registered as a prisoner of KL Auschwitz on June 9, 1942 and assigned the number 39178. His time in the concentration camp was brief: according to the official records kept by Auschwitz’s SS administrators, Gersz died on August 4, 1942—a little over a month from the time that he was incarcerated and a few months short of his 29th birthday.
We know very little about Gersz Zyskind. We cannot tell what he did for a living before the Nazis came for him or who he loved and what he aspired to. All that is left of Gersz are these photographs. His eyes tell a story of a young man simultaneously terrified and numb.
The Litzmannstadt Ghetto
The Wehrmacht captured Łódź on September 8, 1939—spoils taken as part of their victory over the Armia Łódź (Łódź Army) as part of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland. Shortly after establishing order in the city (the name of the town was changed to German Litzmannstadt), the ghetto was created within the city’s borders. Designed as a holding area for Polish Jews and Roma, the Litzmannstadt Ghetto was the second largest ghetto in German-occupied Europe second in size only to the Ghetto in Warsaw, Poland. The Litzmannstadt Ghetto was established in February 1940 and completely isolated end of April. At that time, it contained 164,000 residents. This number was further bolstered by Jews forcefully transported to the city from Germany and other parts of occupied European territories. Despite the intake of new arrivals, the number of people kept in the Ghetto fell over time as deportations to concentration and extermination camps increased – a consequence of many of the Jews and Roma who were forced to call the ghetto home being deported to extermination camps. By May 1st of the following year, the population of the ghetto had shrunk to 148,547.
The Nazi hateful anti-Jewish policies and disdain for the disabled, Roma and other groups that they deemed to be unusable or undesirable ensured that the population of the ghetto continued to shrink. In July of 1941, the majority ofmost of the the ghetto’s psychiatric hospital patients were tranquilized and removed to an unknown location, never to be seen again.
On 20 December, 1941, 20,000 Jews were ordered to be deported from the Litzmannstadt Ghetto to a number of undisclosed concentration camps. The individuals to be deported were chosen by the ghetto’s Judenrat – an administrative council composed of Jews, chosen by German authorities to ensure that their orders were carried out within the ghetto. In January 1942, 10,000 additional Jews were deported to the Chełmno (Kulmhof) extermination center to be killed by the carbon monoxide gas produced in modified cargo vans. Between April and early September 1942, it is estimated that another 55,000 residents of the Łódź ghetto were separated from their loved ones and brutally killed at the hands of Nazi executioners.
In September 1942, in the wake of a raid on a Jewish children’s hospital where eyewitnesses saw Jewish children being loaded into the back of trucks, flung out of windows by Nazi German soldiers, the Judenrat was ordered to select an additional 24,000 people for deportation. At the time, food, shelter and what medicines there were, came as a result of working for Nazi Germany to produce goods for the war effort. 12-hour workdays were a fact of life in the ghetto. Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Council of Elders of the Litzmannstadt ghetto, believed that maintaining peak productivity was the best chance for survival that the Jews of the city could hope for. Hoping to save the majority of the ghetto inmates, Rumkowski cooperated with the Nazis and continued to organize waves of deportation to extermination and concentration camps. In September 1942, Rumkowski decided that the most unproductive residents of the ghetto—the 11,000 elderly and 13,000 children—would be chosen for deportation. At the time, the fact that deportation was a death sentence at the hands of Nazi Germany was no secret to the residents of the ghetto. Rumkowski himself was later transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
By the time the Soviet Army liberated the town in 1945, only 877 Jews remained alive in the area of the ghetto.
Learn more about the Jewish Councils (Judenrat).
Special thanks to Auschwitz Memorial and Museum for collaborating with me on this project and providing all the information above.
Author: Séamus Bellamy.
Editor: Maria Zaleswska.
Sponsored by: Michael Frank Family Charitable Fund.