There were elegant four-tiered candlesticks on the table in front of them in January 1944 in the Lodz Ghetto. Friends and relatives gathered. The men wore hats, the women hats or scarves, and there were even smiles on the guests’ faces. Of course, on such an occasion, everyone seemed a little stiff and nervous, for a wonderful ceremony—the marriage of Juda Putersznyt and Rywka Cala—was about to take place.
Despite accelerating brutality all around the incarcerated Jewish population, such assertions of human dignity, hope, and meaning through ritual and celebration were a form of resistance and a key to survival in the Lodz Ghetto and elsewhere during the Holocaust. Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Jewish council, gave Putersznyt a ring so Juda could place it on the hand of Rywka, his bride.
In March 1939, Juda Putersznyt had been a young soldier in the Polish army. When his unit was captured by the Germans, he was imprisoned and spent some time in a prisoner-of-war camp. Because he was a Jew, he was stripped of his military status, uniform, and papers, and given a pass to return to Lodz, where he had been born.
When he returned, in April 1940, he discovered that the Germans had appropriated the family’s venetian-blind factories. They had herded all the family members they could find, as with all Lodz’s Jews, into the ghetto, which was set up in a slum quarter of the city. Here, approximately 164,000 people were crammed, increasing the density of the zone seven-fold, in flimsy wooden houses with virtually no running water or sewers.
The Nazis immediately expropriated all Jewish property and factories, including the ones owned by the Putersznyt family. The factories were refitted to serve the German army and civilian population.
The Jewish Council, or Judenrat, set up by the Nazis to coordinate internal ghetto affairs and the production of useful goods, organized one of the Putersznyt family’s factories to produce wooden beds and toys for German children. With his knowledge of machinery and woodworking—having learned the business from his father, Israel—Juda Putersznyt became foreman of the factory. It was one of 96 factories employing tens of thousands of skilled, Jewish forced labor. The Jewish population’s productivity was the primary reason the Nazis kept the ghetto population alive in Lodz after all the other ghettos in Poland had been destroyed. The leadership of the Judenrat, headed by Chaim Rumkowski, felt the
only hope of saving some remnant of Jews from destruction was to keep the entire ghetto functioning as productively as possible.
For five years, Putersznyt worked in the factory, ten-hour days, with starvation rations that grew more meager as the war went on. The Nazis periodically entered the ghetto and removed the children, the elderly, the weak, and the many who had grown sick from malnutrition and the increasingly appalling conditions.
More than 20 percent of the population died in the ghetto from starvation, cold, and disease. Periodic deportations to Chelmno and other death camps also depleted the population. Because the ghetto was isolated not only from the world but also from other ghettos and even the Polish underground, the deported Jews did not have a clear idea of where they were being taken. Shortly after arrival at Chelmno, 47 miles west of Lodz, they were told they were being prepared to work in Germany, but they were to be gassed to death in specially equipped vans.
In spring 1944, the Soviet army reached the Vistula River, about 70 miles from Lodz. The Germans determined to eliminate all the Jews who remained alive in Lodz—approximately 70,000 people. Among these were the most valued and skilled workers, such as Juda Putersznyt; his father Israel; brother Berek; and other workers whom they had managed to train. Included in this group was Rywka Cala, who had earlier come to work in the same factory.
By the fall of 1944, when the Russians began their final advance toward Lodz, almost all of the Jews who had been alive in the spring had already been transported toAuschwitz-Birkenau, where many were killed. Juda and Rywka Putersznyt were among a detachment of some eight hundred Jews whom the Nazis planned to murder last. They were left behind to pack the belongings of the deported Jews. As the Soviet guns were heard in the distance, an average of 40 to 60 freight cars a day left the Lodz Ghetto, loaded with furniture and other personal possessions of every kind—all the Jewish community’s property and all usable factory machines.
The ghetto’s few remaining survivors now desperately hid from the Nazis. Even with the Soviets only a few kilometers away, the Nazis still went methodically from house to house through the ghetto to uncover the last survivors from their
bunkers and hideouts in order to shoot them on the spot.
Rywka, Juda, and Israel Putersznyt, together with 21 others, discovered a large hidden closet within a closet, prepared and abandoned by another group of Jews. After three days without moving, they heard a family friend, who had been hiding in another bunker, shout, “Putersznyt, we are free. The Russians are here!”
On January 19, 1945, the three Putersznyts returned to their home and factory. Here, no longer pursued and hunted, they were eventually able to reestablish their lives. By the end of the 1950s, Israel Putersznyt had immigrated to Israel,
while Juda and Rywka immigrated with their children to Canada and then to the United States. Because that first night of liberation was also a Friday night, Juda and Rywka Putersznyt lit candles and said the traditional blessings to welcome the Sabbath bride and to celebrate their freedom.