Four Years in the Lodz Ghetto
“There is not a day or night not to dream of my people.”
– Felicia Fuksman
Felicia Fuksman (Lewkowitz) was born in Lodz, Poland, on May 20, 1920. Her parents were Abraham and Hana Lewkowitz. Abraham was a tailor. Felicia was the second of five children. Her siblings were Simon, Shmil, Rachel and Esther. The family lived in a single room at #7 Brzesinka. “I’m coming from a very poor home,” Felicia tells us. “But we had a very happy life because we had each other.”
Life Before the War
Before the war, Felicia worked as a student nurse in a hospital (where our survivor Lila Millen was born) during the day and attended nursing school at night, “and I had a lot of friends in school. I was a happy teenager. And I thought I am on the top of the world because I didn’t experience no better life and I thought that is the best that I can have, and I was happy with that.”
Felicia’s future grew bleak in the late 1930s. Hitler seized the rump state of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. He next turned his attention to Poland. Its military government was anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, anti-Western. Prior to the spring of 1939, the Polish government enjoyed cordial relations with Hitler’s government. They signed a non-aggression pact. After all, their enemies were the same: both feared the Soviets, and both wanted to kick out the Jews. England and France issued a guarantee of Poland’s independence in April 1939, attempting to dissuade Hitler from further aggression. Felicia, proud to be a Polish patriot, was confident Poland would triumph over Germany.
Blitzkrieg in Poland
Hitler attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. On that day Felicia and her brothers and sisters were visiting grandmother Hanja in the town of Zgierz, a short tram ride from Lodz.German planes passed over and dropped bombs on Zgierz. Hanja and the grandchildren went to the cellar and recited the prayer Shema Yisrael: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” On September 3rd, England and France, honoring their obligation to Poland, declared war on Germany. For the second time in little over twenty years, the world was at war. Felicia, 19 years old, had no idea the Nazi goal was to annihilate the Jewish people: “There were two wars actually. One against Jews, and one on a regular front.”
The Germans quickly occupied Lodz. The synagogues were burned down. The Kosciusko statue (national monument) was blown up. Jews and Poles were plundered. There was a mad rush to profit off the misfortune of others. The Nazis and the Volksdeutch were thieves as well as murderers, and sadism came easily to them. The dehumanization of the Jews was part of the strategy. As Felicia makes clear, “They were having a lot of satisfaction and to see us fighting over that crumb of bread.”
Felicia’s father Abraham and brother Simon were grabbed off the street and taken away for “work.” They never returned. The region was renamed Wartheland and annexed to the Reich. The Polish population was uprooted and expelled to the so-called General-Gouvernment.
Lodz was renamed Litzmannstadt in honor of the World War I general who captured the city. The Jews were ordered to wear the “Star of David” patch – sewn on the chest and the back of the outer garments. In early 1940, the Nazis created a ghetto in the neighborhood called Baluty. This part of Lodz was filthy and run-down long before the war. In the spring of 1940, the Jews were ordered to the ghetto, along with gypsies from the region. Beginning on October 15, 1941, some 38,500 Jews from Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Luxembourg were deported to Lodz. The misery in the ghetto came as a shock to the Western Jews, but it wasn’t long before they were “stripped of their European finery.” Sara Zyskind, a Polish Jew in the ghetto, wrote in her memoir:
“Unlike the original ghetto inhabitants, who had been exposed to malnutrition over a period of several years, these newcomers had no time to develop a defense against the disease. The death toll among them soon reached inordinate proportions.”
Felicia believed the poverty of her youth prepared her for the impossible hardship in the ghetto: “And because I came really from a very poor home and not starvation but we didn’t have any luxury, so I gradually got use to this kind of life in the ghetto.”
Felicia describes the hunger in the Lodz ghetto where “every ten days we were getting a ration of a piece of bread, and some marmalade, some barley. This was just enough to eat for one person and not to have enough. Not just provided for ten days. But we were trying hard to survive on it.” Felicia’s sister Rachel died of tuberculosis. Esther, begging for food, froze to death on the street. Grandmother Hanja died in bed, with Felicia at her side.
The Nazis established a Judenrat (Jewish Council) in Lodz. Mordechai Rumkowski was appointed “Jewish elder.” He was responsible for executing German orders. A Jewish police force was organized. It played a heartless role in the ghetto’s life and death. Under German scrutiny, the Judenrat operated ninety workshops in the ghetto, producing goods for the German war effort (and filling the pockets of corrupt Germans). The workshops employed 77,000 Jews. They received extra food. Rumkowski declared, “Only work can save us.” With her experience as a student nurse, Felicia possessed valuable skills. She was assigned to a workshop and later to a hospital. She received extra food. When the transports to Chelmno began in January 1942, her name was kept off the list of people destined for “resettlement.”
A Friend Named Bronia
Felicia’s friend Bronia Lewkowitz was born in Poland. She moved to Salzburg, Austria, after World War I. She was a highly skilled surgical nurse and lived comfortably with her husband and two young daughters. The Nazis murdered her husband on Kristallnacht. Bronia put the two girls on a “Children’s Transport” to England. She was deported to Poland and ended up in the Lodz ghetto. She was assigned to work at the former Hospital for the Working People. That’s where she met Felicia. The two became devoted to one another. Bronia saved Felicia many times. She wouldn’t let her give up. Felicia explains the source of Bronia’s strength: “Her determination to survive was so great that it had a lot of influence on me. Because she had…she wants to see her children. She says she has to see her children. And she will see her children.”
Deportations to Chelmno
Chelmno was the first death camp established in Nazi-occupied Poland. It began operations on December 8, 1941. At Chelmno the Nazis used gas vans to asphyxiate people. The bodies were thrown into mass graves in a nearby forest. Later, when the tide of war changed, the bodies were exhumed and burned in huge pyres. The Nazis wanted to erase the evidence of their crimes, indicating that the murderers themselves were the first Holocaust-deniers.
The Nazis began deporting Jews from the Lodz ghetto to Chelmno in January 1942. The victims didn’t suspect a thing. They received an official letter from the Judenrat. They were to report for “resettlement.” They were being sent to “work camps.” They were permitted to take 12 kilograms of luggage. Each (starving) deportee was promised a loaf of bread. In regular transports during the next nine months, 116,000 Jews were deported to Chelmno and murdered. Felicia and Bronia were spared this fate. They were exempted from deportation because of their “war essential” work.
In September 1942, the Nazis conducted a nine-day “action” to deport the children and the old people. “The decree cannot be revoked. It can only be slightly lessened by our carrying it out calmly,” Rumkowski told the ghetto. His strategy was based on saving some people, including himself and his mistress, by handing over others. “Brothers and sisters, hand them over to me. Fathers and mothers, give me your children.” When the bloodletting was over, 20,000 children and old people were transported to Chelmno. During these terrible days, Felicia worked in a hospital where “sometimes we kept a dead body a little longer in order to receive a slice of bread for this dead person because it was counted, so many slices of bread per person and we counted the dead bodies sometimes so we had a couple of slices of bread more.”
During the final liquidation of the ghetto in August 1944, Felicia’s mother Rachel, sick and bedridden, was murdered. Schmil, 13 years old, was put in the “bad line.” Felicia knew what that meant: “I was still with him ‘til last day. They took him away and they put him, they formed two lines in the courtyard, and they put my little brother in the line with the old, sick people so I know he will not survive this either.”
Felicia and Bronia were on one of the last transports to leave the Lodz ghetto. They were sent to Ravensbruck, a concentration camp for women in northern Germany. The conditions were deplorable. Of 132,000 prisoners at Ravensbruck, 92,000 never left. Felicia tells us that she came with typhus and lost her will to live. She had nothing to live for. She gave up, but Bronia didn’t. “And I knew my family’s gone. So I gave up. I really didn’t care if I live or die, but she pushed me to it. And she had so much influence on me.”
In the last months of the war,Felicia and Bronia were transported from Ravensbruck to a labor camp at Wittenberge, near Berlin. Felicia worked assembling airplanes, and “they gave us just a uniform to wear from blue jean material. Nothing underneath. No socks. Not even underwear. So it was very cold. But we wrapped ourselves in the paper.”
Liberated by the Russians
As the Red Army approached Wittenberge in April 1945, the Germans dynamited the camp, intending to get rid of the last witnesses of their crimes. While the fighting was still going on, Felicia and her friends scavenged for food in abandoned German homes. They discovered some potatoes: “And as we boiled the potatoes a shot came through the window and she fell immediately dead. And without any excitement, with no feelings, I stood, she was lying in the front of me dead, and I stood to finish boiling the potatoes. We couldn’t wait to be ready. We were hungry. And I’m just thinking: what became of me at the time? I was so cold, so without any feeling. And we left her behind and we took the potatoes.”
Return to Lodz
After the war, Felicia made her way back to Lodz. She knocked on the door of her family’s apartment. A Polish woman answered. Felicia knew her quite well. She was a neighbor from before the war. Now she was the new occupant of Felicia’s apartment: “She was so surprised to see me, that maybe I should apologize to her that I’m still alive.”
Felicia’s experience wasn’t unique. Ordinary people profited from the Holocaust. They moved into Jewish homes. They took over Jewish shops. Many people had an investment in the disappearance of the Jews. It was no surprise that hostility greeted the survivors when they returned. Jews were killed after the war. Forty-two survivors, accused of kidnapping a Polish child, were murdered by a mob at Kielce, Poland, on July 4, 1946.
Felicia spent a year in Lodz. She worked as a nurse to save enough money ($25) to pay a smuggler to take her to Germany. In 1947, hidden beneath the seat of a truck, Felicia finally arrived in Berlin. She spent three years in a Displaced Person’s camp in the French zone of the former Nazi capital.
Bronia immigrated to England and was reunited with one of her daughters. But the cold weather in England was too much for her. She moved to Israel where her other daughter lived.
Arriving in New Orleans
In 1950, Felicia arrived in New York City and boarded a train for New Orleans. She didn’t know anyone and spoke only a few words of English. A few months later, she met Max Fuksman. He was also a survivor from Lodz.
They couple were married in February 1951. As Felicia explains, “We really didn’t marry for love in the beginning, because we just have the same need for each other, so much in common, that we thought it will work out eventually. But it worked out very well. We were very happily married.”
The Fuksmans owned and operated Fox [Fuks] Furniture in New Orleans. They were known for their generosity, especially towards black people who had fled the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. Max and Felicia raised three daughters, Roslyn, Beth, and Abbie. They were taught not to utter the word “hate.”
Bronia came to visit Felicia and stayed several weeks. Felicia’s daughters called her Aunt Bronia. Tragedy again struck when Max died in a car accident in 1982. Felicia spent the next thirty-one years watching her five grandchildren grow up and spoiling them as best she could.
For many years, the Southern Institute accompanied Felicia across the Deep South as she shared her wartime experiences at our workshops and school presentations. Her message was this: “To fight. Because it’s up to them. They can prevent from happening again because history repeats itself, and it can happen again if we let it.”
In August 2005, Felicia lost her home to flood waters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She died on October 17, 2012, and was buried next to Max.