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“Work is the Only Way” – the Story of Ryszard Lerczyński

During the German occupation, in Łódź, tailor Ryszard Lerczyński helped his Jewish friends, Chaim Putersznyt and Ruchl Frymar. He provided them with refuge in his parents’ apartment and then supported them by providing food and medicine when they found themselves in the Łódź ghetto. This was the second largest ghetto in occupied Poland and was the only one to be still functional at the end of the war.


After the War, Ryszad Lerczyński stated: “After obtaining the consent of my parents, I prepared a warm, small room in the attic of our home. It was equipped with everything that they would need and I suppested to Mr Chaim Putersznyt that he move into our single-family home, into a room prepared in the attic.”

The Offer of Refuge. Help for Łódź Jews

During the German occupation, Ryszard Lerczyński, his mother Mariann and father Stanisław, lived at 43 Ogrodowa Street in the town of Ruda Pabianicka near Łódź (today Pokładowa Street in the Południe district of Łódź). Many Volksdeutsch lived in the area. 

Lerczyński already knew Chaim Putersznyt from before the War. His offer of help was made in October 1939, one month before the offical incorporation of Łódź into the borders of the Third Reich (within the so-called Warta Country). A few days after Chaim moved into the Lerczyński home, he was joined by Ruchla Frymar, his future wife.

“In our conversations with Mr Chaim Putersznyt about the war, we were convinced that it would end quickly, that being well-hidden from the Germans and having a guaranteed food supply would enable us to survive the dangerous period of the War.”

The Establishment of the Litzmannstadt Ghetto. Jews in a City Annexed to the Reich

The ghetto in Łódź was established on 8th February 1940 in the area of Bałuty and the Old Town, the poorest districts where Jewish craftsmen and workers lived. Initially, it operated as an open Jewish district but, on 30th April, as the first ghetto in occupied Poland, it became completely isolated from the rest of the city which was now officially known as Litzmannstadt. 

In June, around 200,000 people were to be found in this four square kilometres. Apart from the Łódź Jews, there were Jews from nearby towns and deportees from western Europe, including from Germany, Austria, Luxembourg and Czechia. In addition, a “Gypsy Camp” was opened, intended for the Roma and Sinti. The Łódź ghetto was the second largest – after Warsaw – in occupied Poland.

Rumkowski’s Strategy. Work in the “Departments”

Mordechaj Chaim Rumkowski, a prewar community and Zionist activist, became of head of the Jewish Council of Elders – the Jewish ghetto administration set up by the Germans. He believed that the Jews would remain safe so long as the Germans needed them:

“Work is our only way”, Rumkowski stressed. 

As a consequence, he agreed to a series of deportations of Jews to extermination centres in Chełmno nad Nerem (Kulmhof am Nehr) and in Oświęcim (Auschwitz-Birkenau), which resulted in him being accused of collaborating with the Germans. However, this tactic maintained the Łódź ghetto until the summer of 1944, making it the longest functioning ghetto in occupied Poland. 

Rumkowski established production workshops, “departments”, and dozens of ghetto administration agencies. Being given work was a protection against deportation. The number of “departments” and, consequently, the number of employees steadily increased. At its peak, they kept 70,000 people alive. The workshops produced uniforms, backpacks, footwear and other equipment for the Wehrmacht. 

Rumkowski communicated with the ghetto inhabitants through announcements. They were created in a manner as to be perceived as personal. On 28th December 1940, he wrote: 

“[…] Once again, I would like to draw to your attention my concern that everyone should have as much to eat as possible. I have already started a whole range of kitchens and there will be more. I will also ensure that the majority of the population receives meat lunches. […] Brothers and sisters in the ghetto, trust me! I know my duty and I will fulfill it!”.

Entering the Ghetto. Lerczyński Provides Food and Medicines

“Throughout his stay in our house, Mr Chaim Putersznyt remained in constant contact with his relatives and friends inside the Łódź ghetto. I was his liaison officer. I took the organised food and medicines to the ghetto and, on the return trip, letters to Chaim and Ruchla”, Ryszard Lerczyński wrote.

In October 1940, when the Central Office of Labour Departments (Centralne Biuro Resortów Pracy) was established, which dealt with the organisation of production in the ghetto, Chaim Putersznyt’s friends, carpenters like him, persuaded him tomove into the ghetto. As his host recalled, the decision was made “[…] in the belief that, as a good carpenter, he would survive until the end of the War”. He and Ruchla moved out but remained in contact with the Lerczyński family. 

Although the city was tightly isolated from the “Aryan side” of the city, he managed to get inside.

“[…] knowing the secret passage into the ghetto, until the end of the War [ed.: it is unknown if he means the liquidation of the ghetto], I smuggled for Chaim and Ruchla, as well as for their family and friends, bringing them the medicines and feeded they needed.”

As a tailor, he was often paid in food, which he would then share with his friends in the ghetto. 

Surviving the Hard Years – Honouring Lerczyński

The total liquidation of the Łódź ghetto began on 23rd June 1944 and lasted until 29th August. Over the four years of the ghetto’s existence, over 200,000 people had passed through it. More than 45,000 had died from hunger and exhaustion. The number of survivors is estimated at around 7,000. 

Chaim Putersznyt and Ruchla Frymar were among those who were sent to concentration camps. They managed to survive. In 1989, they stated: 

“[Ryszard Lerczyński] helped us and our loved ones, throughtout the entire period of Nazi occupation, completely selflessly and for purely humanitarian reasons, to enable us to survive the hard years of Nazi persecution.”

On 1st September 1992, the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem honoured Ryszard Lerczyński with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.

Bibliography

  • Archiwum Żydowskiego Instytutu Historycznego w Warszawie, Dział Dokumentacji Odznaczeń Yad Vashemł, 349/24/1469
  • Archiwum Instytutu Yad Vashem w Jerozolimie, Departament Sprawiedliwych wśród Narodów Świata, M.31.2/5424