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The Kopelowitz Story: A Tale of Personal Heroism, Divine Intervention, and the Power of Our Sages

The Kopelowitzs have been residents of Kew Gardens Hills, Queens for over 45 years. This narrative was inspired by a visit to Aaron Kopelowitz, a shiva call, to console him after the passing of his father, Yaakov (Jack) z”l. Jack Kopelowitz, his brothers, Shimon z”l, Shmuel and their mother survived the Lodz Ghetto. Jack lived on 73rd Ave, Simon on 71st Ave and Samuel on Vleigh place. Aaron currently lives on 71st Ave.

The Context

On September 1, 1939, World War II started with the invasions of Poland by Nazi Germany.

The conquered territory was partitioned in to four districts called Reichsgaue. Lodz was situated in Reichsgau Wartheland and renamed Litzmannstadt. There were approximately 250,000 Jews living in  the city at the time. In three months, by December, the Lodz Ghetto was already a fact. Its function was stated clearly by Friedrich Ubelhor, Reichsgau Wartheland Inspector, Governor of the Lodz District, in his order for creating the Ghetto:

“The creation of the Ghetto is, of course, only an interim measure… The final aim must in any case be to totally cauterize this plague spot.”                                                                                                                                                              December 19, 1939

Conditions in the ghettos were devastating. Hunger was pervasive. Disease and death were all around.

“Hunger is the most tragic fact of the moment. The potatoes for May, distributed in the first half of April were eaten a long time ago… The great majority of the Ghetto is starving.”

“179 people died in the Ghetto during these days. 5 births.”

“The horrifying and unprecedented mortality in the Ghetto has forced the Burial Department to issue rulings to prevent a recurrence of a problem, namely, that bodies often were left at home for several days.”              Excerpts from a Ghetto Diary, 1942

Plans for making it Judenrein took hold.

The Reichsfurer, SS Himler and I have agreed on the following: “After removal of all the Jews from the Ghetto and its demolition, the entire area of the Ghetto will become the property of the city of Lodz.”

Arthur Greiser, Governor of Wartheland concerning the fate of Lodz Ghetto ,

Fedruary 14, 1944

“The evacuation is to be carried out by August 24, 1944. Anyone not leaving the area by that date will be subject to the death penalty.”

Gestapo Order, August 22, 1944

Our neighbors, the Kopelowitz family lived through the Nazi hell. Aaron Kopelowitz describes his father’s escapades and eventual residence in Kew Gardens Hills with his mother and 2 brothers. They were perhaps the only family that entered the ghetto and left the ghetto intact, as they had entered.

The Beginning

“This is a story of nisim shebinisim shebinism, miracles within miracles, within miracles.

To start with, my family had been rooted in the textile business in Lithuania before settling in Lodz where they continued their manufacturing trade. Lithuania was also home to Slonim Hassidim, of which we were, and continue to be, proud members. When the war  broke  out,  my  uncle  was concerned that many outstanding receivables due them from Lithuanian merchants may be lost. Since my father was the oldest and strongest, it was suggested that he make the trip and collect the debts. This would require a dangerous 14 hour train ride from Lodz to Baranowitz. His mother [my grandmother] was not in favor of his going. She reluctantly acquiesced on the condition that my father would commit and assure her that under all circumstances he would return. He made the promise. The trip became more complicated  as the Slonimer Chassidim asked my father to serve as chaperon for the Slonimer Rebbetzin’s safe return home to Branowitz.

She and her daughter had been in nearby town of Aleksander, visiting with her parents, the Aleksander Rebbe. The Aleksander Rebbe was being forced in to hiding as he was very much sought after by the Germans. The ride to Baranowitz while exhausting, constantly needing to be on alert, proved uneventful. The Rebbetzin arrived safely. When my father approached the debtors for payment he found their response to be remarkable. They had never met my father before, were very far from religious practice, yet they said,

B’H di hust gekumin.” Thank G-d you came. We owe you the money and want to pay you. They paid in gold tender. At that point, my father had the opportunity of leaving for Shanghai with the yeshiva. He had plenty of money on him now. Because he had promised his mother he made arrangements to return to Lodz rather than save himself.

My father needed to pass through Warsaw  for the return. He was caught  by the Germans and brutally beaten. A relative nursed him to recovery and made a pair of warm boots for him to battle  the frigid weather. Some time had passed since my father’s departure. The overall environment had changed for the worse. Lodz was under full siege. The ghetto was closed, cut off from the city. Sentries stood guard to control every entry and exit. My father had to find a way to get back in. He finally came across a family friend who was actually fleeing from Lodz for the “safe” haven of Warsaw and who ultimately made it to Shanghai. The Schwartzmans were in the wholesale grocery business. R’ Shmuel Schwartzman introduced my father to the lady who brought milk in to the city. She came up with a plan. My father was to dress up like a gentile. She arranged for my father to blend in with the group of dairy workers delivering milk to Lodz. Can you imagine this picture? My father, a young Slonimer Chassid, a bocher, dressing up as goy [gentile], crucifix and all! [he had been driven by his commitment to his mother. What daring!] When they came to the city gate at 4:00 AM, the German watchman shined the flashlight on my father and yelled out YUDA! At which point the woman leading the group became indignant. “How dare you question my pedigree, I am the so and so and so in so…” and my father got in to the city. The next challenge was getting to the ghetto, miles away from this point of entry. It was a train ride, but Jews were forbidden to even purchase a ticket. My father offered someone on the street 5 times the cost of a ticket. He was on his way. At one stop a group of Germans boarded. Again the Yuda! Cry. They locked him in the bathroom. When the train  stopped my father jumped out of the window and escaped.

The Middle

Life in the ghetto for my family was difficult and unbearable. But they were all together, three brothers and their mother.

Mordechai Rumkowski headed the Jewish Council and was liaison with the German authorities. To this day he remains an enigma. My father didn’t think he was that bad. He had no choice. My father would point out that at a certain stage Russia had advanced in to Warsaw and was headed to Lodz, but stopped short. Had they proceeded, another 90,000 Jews would have been saved and Rumkowski would have been declared a hero. Convinced that Jewish productivity would ensure survival, Rumkowski forced the population to work long and hard in abysmal conditions producing uniforms, garments, wood and metalwork, and electrical equipment for the German military. It may be argued that because of this productivity Lodz Ghetto operated longer than any of the others before it was finally liquidated.

Unlike the Warsaw Ghetto whose sewage system allowed for clandestine egress and entry, Lodz was totally sealed off from the outside. It needed to be totally self sufficient, to the extent of printing its own currency. Laborers were paid with the German backed currency. Outside of the ghetto the coins and bills were worthless. I have samples of the currency in our collection of memorabilia.

My uncle worked a coal mine. My father was recognized by one of the Jewish officers as having run the the family textile business and was assigned to be the factory supervisor. He was in charge of 3,500 workers. This position saved his mother’s life. He was able to “clock her in” as present performing various duties, changing her assignments, even her age, while she stayed in safe locations. This was especially critical to escape detection for the various selection orders for transport out of the ghetto to the Chelmno or Auschwitz death camps.

The End

In August, 1944 the Nazis gave the order to liquidate. They presented that the factories were so successful that they wanted to relocate the entire operation  to Germany. It would be accomplished in two stages, first the equipment, and then the workers. My father felt it would be better to remain behind if possible, though his co-workers advocated that he join them. He arranged for his family to stay as part of the cleanup crew. There had been 90,000 laborers in the ghetto. 877 were left after the liquidation.

The means for communication was through gathering in public squares. Posters were mounted in key locations alerting those affected details as to where the speeches would be held. See above: one of them, poster #421. Yad Vashem has #422.

From the month of September when liquidation was completed, the  ghetto no longer functioned as the slave labor industrial complex. There was plenty of food, flour, potatoes , from the inventory remaining. A mere 800 people needed to be fed as compared to 90,000 just a few weeks earlier.

My father had developed a relationship with one of the Jewish officers responsible for checking for any hidden jewelry among the Jews. My father had told him,” if you ever need something, I have something to give you.” It was understood that he would not press my father for his cache in exchange for something big he would receive in the future.

One evening in mid January the Jewish officer approached my father and told him “Now I need it.” He explained to my father that he had been summoned to report to the office of the senior German director. My father gave him a gold watch, the value of which was priceless, which he presented to the German superior.

At the meeting the Jewish officer was told that a call was received directly from Germany and everyone will need to report to the square the next morning. Upon admiring the value of his gift, the Nazi was so happy he said that we have to celebrate. He took out a bottle of liquor and drank and drank and drank. He got drunk and his tongue let loose “The Germans are coming tomorrow to kill out every one that is left- Leift vee vaht dana uygen ken zeyen. PS. During the stupor the watch was grabbed away from the German.

The ghetto had served as a large industrial complex with manufacturing plants, a few hundred buildings. These were now abandoned. Each of the remaining 800 had a special hiding place, generally where they had worked, unknown to the others. The next morning no one could be found.

Lodz was liberated the following day by the Red Army, January 17, 1945.”

I asked Aaron: Might you not say that your father was quite heroic and daring?

ak. My father would disagree. It was Hashgacha Pratis, Divine Intervention.

It is also significant that my grandmother had received a bracha from the Slonim Rebbe, the Divrei Shmuel, that she will never be separated from her children. It was fulfilled.

To this day a visitor to Lodz will find deep pits at the entrance of The Jewish Cemetery at Bracka Street. Hans Biebow, chief of German Nazi administration of the Ghetto had ordered that the pits be dug intending that the Gestapo execute the remaining 877 Jews who served as a clean-up crew.

A Lodz Ghetto website notes the following caption to the photo of the death pits.

The pits prepared for remained 800 people of the ghetto. Germans didn’t manage to carry out the execution.”

The ingenuity of our neighbor Jack Kopelowitz z”l was instrumental in the positive outcome, sparing the lives of the 800 Jews remaining in the Ghetto.

For  Additional  Reading

Isaiah Trunk, Robert Moses Shapiro, Łódź Ghetto: A History Indiana University Press 2006

Lucjan Dobroszycki, ed., The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, abr. ed. (New Haven, 1984)

Aaron Soroski, Remembering the Holy Ones: A Memorial to The Slonimer Shteibel in Lodz, Poland, Heb. (Kopelowitz, Schwartzman, Walfish, Krybus Families, New York, 2010)

                                                                                                                                      —By Aaron Kopelowitz & Reuven Becker

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