Film Synopsis

Song of the Lodz Ghetto, the new feature-length documentary by David Kaufman, is a comprehensive and moving account of the history of Poland’s “first and last” Jewish ghetto, established by the Nazis during the Second World War in Lodz, Poland’s leading industrial centre. It was the first closed ghetto established in 1940 and the last to be liquidated in August, 1944. The film has a particular focus on music in the Ghetto and is built around a selection of ghetto songs performed by the renowned Jewish music group, Brave Old World. The film is also the first documentary to feature extensive interviews with survivors of the Lodz Ghetto, all of whom are in their late 70s or 80s today.

The film tells its story partially through a focus on the lives of two historical figures: the controversial and despotic, Nazi-appointed Jewish leader of the ghetto, Chaim Rumkowski, who is reviled by many historians, and the Ghetto’s beloved and popular street-singer, Yankele Herszkowicz, whose remarkable songs lifted the spirits of the Jews of the ghetto when their lives were full of despair, and whose own tragic life mirrored the fate of Polish Jewry. Rumkowski was a Jewish community functionary, elevated by the Nazis to be the head of the Ghetto, who gambled on German economic self-interest to sustain the lives of the large, highly-skilled and productive Jewish labour force in Lodz. Herskowicz was a poor tailor who had a genius for broadside lyrics. He sang, literally, for his supper, to keep himself alive in the impoverished ghetto, and he formed a sort of one-man opposition to the corrupt ghetto administration. He was, in many respects, the Bob Dylan of the Lodz Ghetto.

The film is a feast of historical photography, three hundred images selected from approximately 13,000 taken in the Lodz Ghetto. The Ghetto had three photographers of note: Two official Jewish photographers, Mendel Grossman (1913-1945) and Henryk Ross (1910-1991), who managed to ensure that significant portions of their work survived the ghetto. Henryk Ross settled in Israel after the war and, before he died, organized his life’s work. His collection from Lodz of about three thousand negatives and two thousand prints has been bequeathed to the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is planning a major exhibition of the work. There were also several hundred colour slides taken in the Lodz Ghetto by Walter Genewein, a German accountant employed by the German ghetto administration. These images, only uncovered in the 1990s, are now part of two museum collections, in Germany and the United States.

The film features interviews with the following survivors from Lodz: Chava Rosenfarb, the renowned Yiddish writer, now retired in Lethbridge, Rabbi Peretz Weizman, formerly of Winnipeg, now retired in Toronto, Irving Stal, an industrialist, and Genia Rybowski, a former actress in the Lodz Ghetto theatre, now both in Toronto, Abraham Neuman and Esther Freilich, both of Montreal, Miriam Harel of Haifa, Israel, and Jo Wajsblat, Paris, France, who was Herszkowicz’s best friend. All these people were teenagers at the time of the ghetto. Central to the story of the life of Yankele Herszkowicz, who died in 1972, are interviews with his family in Lodz. The film also features interviews with two Israeli academics, Gila Flam, an ethnomusicologist who compiled the first major collection of songs from the ghetto, and Michal Unger, who has written a significant historical study of the Lodz Ghetto.