East European Jewry commonly adhered to Ashkenazic legal traditions and customs in family matters even as people were exposed to new Sephardic traditions through close ties to Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Italy. Even as emerging political states strove for standardization, family practices and arrangements remained diverse, reflecting a wide range of collective strategies and individual interests.
Medieval and Early Modern Periods
In Eastern Europe, an elaborate system of communal authority mandated strict control over the individual in the sphere of marriage and family. To ensure that matchmaking remained under parental control, the Lithuanian Council decreed in 1623 that any marriage contracted without the knowledge of a father or close relative would be annulled. Secret marriages threatened not only parental authority but also class interests. Thus, in responsaShevut Ya`akov, Ya`akov Reischer (also known ad Jakob Backoven or Back; ca. 1670–1733) warned against femail domestic servants who aspired to marry the sons of their employers. In the late eighteenth century, towns such as Poznań required women to bring a dowry of at least 400 zlotys and established a quota for people of limited means; domestic servants could only marry with the consent of at least two-thirds of the communal administration. Communal ordinances often attempted to control extravagance at weddings, engagement parties, and circumcisions. The antiluxury laws (Anti-Luxusgesetz) of 1770 in Prague stipulated the kinds of food that could be served based on a family’s tax status.
A peddler of pletslekh (flat onion breads), Warsaw, 1927. Photograph by Menakhem Kipnis. It was common for Jewish women to play the dominant role in earning their families’ livelihoods. (Forward Association/YIVO)
Unlike East European burgher families in which married children formed new units, Jewish couples often lived with their parents or in-laws who supported them for a period of one year or longer—a practice known as kest that continued well into the twentieth century. The multiple-family household, consisting of parents, dependent married children, and their offspring, was the most common arrangement due to custom, a young marital age, and financial necessity. As economic conditions deteriorated, parents found it harder to support extended families. In 1765, for example, some 10.7–12 percent of rural Jews in Poland lived with their parents—a figure that decreased to 5.8 percent in 1791; a similar albeit less dramatic decline took place in urban centers. By the same token, dire economic circumstances hindered couples from setting up their own households, forcing them to live at home for an extended period of time until they gradually reversed roles to take care of their aging parents.
Largely social class and family occupations determined gender roles in the family. Jewish women performed traditional tasks such as childcare and household management but also contributed actively to the family economy. The responsa literature deals routinely with the presence of women in the marketplace as well as their ability to act as independent agents in financial transactions. Poorer women often worked out of necessity as domestic servants, cooks, and wet nurses to supplement their family income. In some scholarly families, the wife served as the sole breadwinner to free her husband to study Torah. However, in most families the couple shared the task of earning a living. The welfare of children was another important concern for East European Jewish families. Elaborate rituals surrounded the birth of a child, who was believed to be vulnerable to attack by evil spirits. Families resorted to amulets, charms, and incantations to avert “body replacement” or banemen—that is, the snatching of an infant’s body by female demons (typically Maḥlat or Lilis), who left a doll made of straw or grist in the cradle.
Fathers were responsible for providing their sons (as young as age three) with a formal religious education that began in the heder. Memoirist Salomon Maimon (1754–1800), a sharp critic of traditional Jewish schooling, recalled the dilapidated “classroom” (his melamed [teacher]’s “small smoky hut”) and abuse by tyrannical teachers. Students could continue their studies at a yeshiva or learn a trade or business. By contrast, Jewish girls generally remained their mothers’ wards and received an informal home education, which emphasized women’s rituals, prayers (tkhines), and practical knowledge of running a household or family business.
Due to the high mortality rate among women during childbirth, it was not unusual for children to become orphaned or semiorphaned and integrated into new families with stepparents. The extended family was expected to provide financial support for orphaned children, especially with respect to marrying off daughters. Responsa literature reveals that some relatives refused to give orphaned brides a dowry, compelling rabbis to intervene on their behalf.
During the period of Polish enlightenment, reformers such as Stanisław Staszic lauded the Jewish family as a model of fidelity and intense love between parents and children. He added that Jewish fathers and husbands exercised the kind of paternal authority that was lacking in Polish families. At the same time, the Jewish family faced sharp scrutiny from maskilim and their Polish counterparts, who castigated the practice of early marriage as the root of divorce, poverty, and lack of productivity. Responsa literature also reveals internal family problems such as wife beating, the divorce of mentally ill spouses, ritually “unclean” wives who had sexual intercourse with their husbands, and other sexual scandals that remained within the purview of the community.
Inheritance laws underwent change during the early modern period as East European Jewish society grappled with gender inequities that threatened the welfare of its daughters. As was true of their counterparts in Italy and Germany, Jews in Poland granted daughters “inheritance contracts” whereby they shared in the distribution of family assets. However, the daughter had no right to those assets that her father accumulated after the contract date. More importantly, the father had the right to transfer original assets at any time; moreover, creditors could place liens on an estate, inevitably reducing the daughter’s portion. In the sixteenth century, Polish rabbis developed the “half a male’s portion contract” in which the father assumed a debt of “1,000 coins” (zlotys) to his daughter. Male heirs could pay this sum to their sisters upon the father’s death or grant them “one half of a son’s portion in the estate” (the more typical option, since most estates were worth less than 1,000 zlotys).
In short, during the early modern period, the Jewish family remained largely traditional with an emphasis on parental and communal control, strict religious observance, and adherence to Jewish customs.
The Habsburg Empire
The modernization of Jewish family patterns and practices varied significantly throughout Eastern Europe. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the centralizing drive of the Habsburg state inevitably clashed with rabbinic ambitions to maintain autonomy in the realm of family law. The Ehepatent (Marriage Edict), issued on 16 January 1783, defined marriage as a civil contract that could be dissolved only by death or legal dissolution by a state court. At the same time, the law sought to accommodate religious freedom by allowing Jews to maintain their religious ceremonies and record keeping by rabbis. It recognized the “religious bond” of marriage, which rabbinic authorities interpreted as the necessity of a legal Jewish divorce. At least in Trieste, civil confirmation of a religious bill of divorcement was required to complete the process. This created an incomplete separation of religious and civil spheres, prompting some to take advantage of the confusion to obtain the most expedient solutions to their marital crises.
Pidyon ha-ben (redemption of the firstborn son) celebration for the son of Holocaust survivors from Eastern Europe at the Hindenberg displaced persons camp, Ulm, Germany, 1947. (YIVO)
The state also introduced the Familiants laws that remained in force from 1726 to 1846 and that shaped marital patterns of Jews in the Czech lands. To prevent an increase in the Jewish population (8,600 in Bohemia, 5,400 in Moravia, and 119 in Habsburg Silesia during the reign of Joseph II) the law allowed issuing marriage permits only proportionally to the number of deaths in the community. In practice, only the eldest son could submit an application for a permit, which consisted of a birth certificate, proof of elementary school education, certificate of a religious examination based on Herz Homberg’s book Bne-Zion (1812), an employment tax document, proof of payment of 300 guldens, and several other documents that attested to his morality and the absence of consanguinity with the bride. Younger sons had to emigrate in order to marry, resort to illegal cohabitation, or remain celibate. In 1797, a new law allowed “useful” men to marry by special merit—namely those who had served in the army, or were engaged in agriculture or skilled technical work. The Constitution of 4 March 1849 abolished all marital restrictions by extending civil and political rights to Jews, but a new interpretation required a court license (kreisamtliche Bewilligung) for Jewish marriage in 1853, albeit without quotas. That law was repealed on 29 November 1859.
In the urban centers of Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary, the “West European family type” emerged as the dominant model in the nineteenth century. In contrast to smaller, tightly knit settlements, cities offered choices—to lead a private, anonymous life, create personal networks, and select a marriage partner of choice. The middle-class Jewish family was based on the model of companionate marriage with an emphasis on sentiment and mutual respect. The ideals of bourgeois domesticity prescribed specific gender roles: men earned a living in the public sphere while women cultivated the family and domestic life at home. Emulating their coreligionists in Germany, Jewish couples in East Central Europe began to limit family size earlier than the surrounding populations, which led to an accelerated process of demographic transition. Smaller family size allowed Jewish parents to devote greater energy to their children’s education, which often served as the sole path to upward social mobility and respectability.
Although Jewish families in urban centers witnessed a decline in religious observance, many retained Jewish foodways and customs at home. Others, however, rejected everything in favor of complete assimilation: Hugo Herrmann (1887–1940) recalled that his Bohemian grandfather’s household was “completely non-Jewish” and observed neither the Sabbath nor the Jewish holidays. Despite his grandmother’s attempts to retain a few traditions, her husband scorned them as “a ballast from an outdated era.” Notably, village and lower-class Jews in the Czech lands maintained a more traditional family life. According to the Czech dramatist František Langer (1888–1965), his grandparents, who resided in a small village, kept a strictly kosher home and observed the Sabbath and holidays.
Although endogamous marriages were the norm, the rate of mixed marriages began to increase in melting pots such as Budapest at the end of the nineteenth century. An important factor was new legislation: mixed confessional marriages (i.e., Judeo-Christian) were prohibited in the empire until 1894 in Hungary. In principle, the couple could retain their individual religious affiliations; in reality, however, the fear of social ostracism and the challenges of raising children with a dual identity forced families to choose one faith (usually Christianity). By the eve of the First Anti-Jewish Law of 1938, approximately 20 percent of marriages contracted by Jewish men in Budapest were with non-Jewish spouses. In Czechoslovakia, the rate of mixed marriages rose from less than 2 percent in 1910 to 29 percent in 1930.
In Galicia, Subcarpathian Rus’, Bucovina, and areas of Slovakia, the “East European family type,” which upheld traditional patterns of marriage and family life, was the dominant model. The failure of the Habsburg marital reforms to take effect in Galicia serves as a case in point. Even after the state issued its new Ehepatent in 1783, Galician Jewry rejected civil marriage and continued to marry religiously until 1848. Economic backwardness and general anti-Jewish hostility hindered social integration, making it easier for families to retain Yiddish, religious observance, and parental authority at home. Thus, Hinde Bergner (1870–1900), who was born in the small town of Redim, described an adolescence permeated with visits from local matchmakers and preparations for becoming a good wife. Fertility remained high throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1882, Jews reported 46 births per 1,000 inhabitants in Galicia, surpassed only by 47 births per 1,000 in Romania between 1881 and 1886.
Modern patterns began to emerge, however, starting in such urban centers as Kraków and Lemberg, as Jews acquired secular education, embraced Polish culture, and adopted a middle-class lifestyle. Even in small towns, Jewish women, including Bergner, began to express a desire for self-determination, which was due largely to the gendered system of education that facilitated women’s exposure to secular culture through interaction with non-Jewish servants, theater, and books. Indeed, women who consumed romantic chapbooks, European classics, and even maskilic literature were instrumental in the transformation of values and expectations in the traditional family. Interestingly, women accounted for two-thirds of Jewish converts in Kraków in the late nineteenth century—some of whom may have converted to marry Christian men. However, these mixed marriages were exceptional; Galician Jewry had a negligible rate of 0.4 percent of Jews marrying non-Jews between 1895 and 1909.
The modernization of the Jewish family was hardly uniform across the Habsburg Empire. However, the gradual secularization of family law, impact of European culture, and new social patterns all challenged traditional East European Jewish family practices, which remained tenacious in the more economically depressed and less socially integrated areas of the empire.
The Russian Empire
In the absence of civil marriage in the Russian Empire, the state conceded complete autonomy to rabbinic authorities to regulate the family. However, in response to mounting criticism by state reformers about “unhealthy” family practices among Jews (i.e., early marriages and hasty divorces), the regime sought to establish, at the very least, administrative uniformity. This led to the creation of a dual rabbinate in 1835—that is, state-appointed rabbis (crown rabbis) who were responsible for performing ceremonies and record keeping and spiritual rabbis who resolved religious issues. The attempt to introduce civil procedures in an empire that theoretically only recognized confessional marriages produced confusion about authority as well as competing and contradictory verdicts. As in the Habsburg Empire, the incomplete separation of civil and religious sectors shaped the crisis of the Jewish family as it sought to navigate through this legal vacuum.
The Jewish family experienced far-reaching transformations during the nineteenth century as it confronted modern ideologies, new socioeconomic realities, and political upheaval. While everyday practices were slow to change, a distinct transition toward companionate marriage took place in the mid-nineteenth century, with greater emphasis on consent, individual sentiment, and compatibility. One driving force behind this cultural shift was the Haskalah movement, which campaigned against early marriage, arranged matches, and the economic dependency of married couples on their in-laws. Moreover, the rise of secular education and popular reading habits of the new generation contributed to the new expectations of love and fulfillment. Even as arranged marriages remained the norm, parents sought to secure consent and facilitated meetings between the couple prior to the wedding. Self-made matches also became more common as the age of marriage rose dramatically in the late nineteenth century.
The Haskalah’s attempt to transform gender roles by promoting bourgeois domesticity was less successful in tsarist Russia, where the division of roles was far more complex than in Western Europe. Among Misnagdim in the northern provinces, cultural ideals allowed husbands to study Torah while wives earned the livelihood; in the southwestern provinces, Hasidic wives were likewise expected to support their families while their husbands made lengthy pilgrimages to their rebbes or passed their time in the prayer house. To be sure, this allocation of roles was more ideal than real; however, the dominant role of women in the family economy was a defining characteristic of the East European Jewish family. In the eyes of the maskilim, women had extended this domination into the domestic sphere, much to the detriment of the family. As Mosheh Leib Lilienblum complained, his father-in-law “did not wear the pants in his house.” This revolt against a perceived matriarchal family may have stemmed from a desire on the part of maskilim to usurp power from the very women who dominated them in their adolescent marriages.
Another significant change was the decline in Jewish divorce rates from extraordinarily high rates in the first half of the nineteenth century to a much lower frequency in the second half, contrary to divorce patterns in Western Europe. A sharp rise in age at first marriage, a variety of impediments to formal divorce (i.e., expensive financial settlements, child support and custody, resident rights), and a decline in rabbinical authority that undermined traditional procedures of family dissolution contributed to this unusual decline. Yet the declining divorce rate did not automatically mean increased stability in the family. Marital breakdown, if not official divorce, remained high. Some causes were timeless (i.e., in-law disputes, financial tensions, childlessness, mutual hatred) but there were also modern dynamics. For example, the new mentality of more educated and economically independent women generated a lower degree of tolerance for certain forms of behavior such as infidelity or abuse. Secularization and changing attitudes toward religious observance also had an impact on spousal relations. Everyday tensions involved the maintenance of a kosher household, physical appearance (attitudes toward wigs, beards, and clothing), and the upbringing of children (choosing a religious versus a secular education).
As official divorces became more difficult to secure and ambiguous laws grew easier to manipulate, unresolved cases of marital breakdown that ended in desertion, bigamy, and the plight of the ‘agunah (a woman whose husband denied her divorce or had disappeared) became more common. To prevent bigamy, state rabbis required Jews from other towns to demonstrate their single status; and individuals who were convicted of bigamy in state courts were to be subjected to severe penalties. The ‘agunah crisis stemmed from several causes: recalcitrant husbands who refused to grant their wives a formal religious divorce, malicious desertion and emigration, involuntary disappearances, and unreported deaths. Rabbis such as Yitsḥak Elḥanan Spektor sought to ease the requirements on witnesses in order to facilitate resolution of cases generated by pogroms and war.
Although marriage between Russian Orthodox and other Christians had been legalized since the early eighteenth century, that rule did not extend to non-Christians. Unions of Russian Orthodox with Jews, Muslims, and Karaites were strictly forbidden. The only means of legitimizing a mixed marriage was to have the non-Christian become a convert to the dominant Russian Orthodox faith. Although marriages between Jews and Protestants were not banned, a protracted list of conditions reflected the state’s ambivalence toward such unions. Mixed marriages (after conversion) remained at a low rate throughout the modern period. In Saint Petersburg, for example, there were no more than two mixed marriages involving one Jewish spouse in 1905. While some historians have argued that more Jewish women converted than men to enter a mixed marriage because they were driven by forces of demographic and economic circumstances beyond their control, archival records reveal that many exercised agency in the decision in pursuit of love.
Conversion not only served Jews who sought to marry Christians, but also those who sought to dissolve a marriage without a formal Jewish divorce. This avenue held a special appeal for wives whose husbands refused to grant them a religious divorce. Husbands who sought to evade their monetary responsibilities also seized on this opportunity, in particular low-ranking soldiers for whom the state assumed responsibility for child support payments. From the view of the Russian Orthodox Church, baptism did not automatically annul existing marriages but permitted the Christian spouse to divorce the “unbelieving partner” without the requisite Jewish legal procedures, a factor that had dire consequences for wives who needed a religious divorce to remarry.
In sum, what made the modernization of the Jewish family in Imperial Russia unique was the combination of internal change (rebellion against traditional customs) and exogenous factors such as the decline of rabbinical power and intrusion of state institutions.
Interwar Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union
The modernization of small nation-states in Eastern Europe between the two world wars accelerated changes in the Jewish family that had begun in the nineteenth century. The final stages of a demographic transition took place as the Jewish birthrate plummeted in many countries while mortality rates remained low due to improved personal hygiene, medical care, nutrition, and lifestyle. For example, Romanian Jews reported 47 births per 1,000 inhabitants in 1881–1886, a total that fell to 14 by 1936–1938 while the general population only experienced a slight decline (41% to 36%). Serious demographic deficits could be found among Jews in Budapest, with a birthrate of 8 per 1,000 individuals from 1931 to 1934 and in Czechoslovakia with no more than 7 per 1,000 (compared with 18 per 1,000 in the general population).
Several factors facilitated this rapid and intense decline in the Jewish birthrate. A rise in marital age that had begun in the nineteenth century was influential as couples elected to delay marriage and have fewer children. Increased knowledge of birth control and sexuality also gave women more control over their fertility. In Warsaw, the Polish-language Jewish women’s weekly newspaper Ewa: Tygodnik (Eva: A Weekly) routinely published frank articles about birth control, abortion, and women’s legal rights. The periodical advocated voluntary motherhood in more than 40 articles calling for rational family planning and the legality of abortions. Finally, rising popular antisemitism, discriminatory laws, and high unemployment rates may also have contributed to the decision to limit family size.
Family conflicts about acculturation and assimilation, which began in the nineteenth century, became more intense, especially in a country such as Poland. Tensions were especially poignant in lower- and middle-class families that were too burdened with economic cares to pay much attention to their children’s education in the Polish schools. The newly acculturated children soon had little in common with parents who spoke Yiddish and rejected the children’s new cultural ideals. Moreover, economic depression and discrimination left many lower-class Jewish men unemployed, leading to the breakdown of the father’s status and authority. In impoverished families, it was not uncommon to hear the father referred to as a luftmentsh (“a man of air”).
Autobiographies and diaries reveal that mothers were an important mediating force in the family during this period of crisis. The gender division of childrearing, which left the discipline of sons to fathers and daily care (feeding, clothing, grooming) to the mothers, created a more positive relationship with the latter. Autobiographies routinely describe mothers who placed themselves in front of their children to shield them from a violent spanking. In fact, many cited the emotional attachment to their mothers for their inability to break with the family. Middle-class mothers were also often influential in fostering Polish culture at home and served as engines of acculturation.
An integral part of Jewish adolescent and teenage years was active involvement in the variety of youth groups associated with the Bund, Po‘ale Tsiyon, He-Ḥaluts, Betar, and the Communist Party. Jewish youth formed intense friendships and bonds in these tightly knit groups, which provided a refuge from family conflicts. The organizations also provided a sense of purpose, self-esteem, and identity in a society that was becoming increasingly hostile to Jews.
In response to generational tensions, Orthodox Jewry stressed the preservation of traditional culture in the home while introducing a few critical changes. While the heder remained the primary institution for educating boys, a new type of school emerged in Poland that incorporated some secular subjects into its curriculum. The opening of the Beys Yankev schools for girls also represented an innovation in Orthodox educational patterns; educators acknowledged that the neglect of female religious education had led to greater acculturation among women, even in the most observant households.
Divisions of labor in the family also began to shift by social class. In Poland and Czechoslovakia, most affluent and educated women no longer worked outside the house. However, the opening of universities to women in the early twentieth century enabled some to pursue careers in education, medicine, and social work. In Poland, women of the lower middle class continued to participate actively in their family businesses or in small stores while working-class women dominated the textile and paper industries in Warsaw (55.2% and 63.5% respectively). Skills acquired in the garment and fashion industry would become a prized asset in the ghettos during the Holocaust.
The uprooting of the Jewish family from its traditional moorings occurred rapidly in the Soviet Union. The first Family Code of 1918 immediately secularized family law by introducing civil marriages and setting up local bureaus to register births, deaths, divorces, and paternity. Liberal laws made divorces relatively easy to obtain with few specific provisions for alimony and child support. The state also recognized the legitimacy of all children, whether they had been born in or out of wedlock. At least in traditional areas of settlement (Ukraine and Belorussia), anecdotal evidence suggests that Jews continued to turn to their rabbis to address family matters.
Demographically, war and migration had created an imbalance in Jewish gender ratios; a disproportionate number of women to men resulted in declining birthrates. The 1926 Soviet census showed 1,122 Jewish women per 1,000 men in Belorussia and 1,140 per 1,000 in Ukraine. Intermarriage rates remained low in Belorussia and Ukraine (3.2% and 5% respectively) but rose significantly in central Russia (21%) as Jews integrated rapidly into the new socialist society. More Jewish men than women contracted marriages with non-Jews throughout the Soviet Union.
A progressive increase in mixed marriages and dramatic decreases in births characterized Jewish family patterns between the wars to the present. Two important factors that contributed to mixed marriages were rapid assimilation into Soviet society and the shortage of Jewish marital partners. Jews in Russia with a greater sex imbalance reported more mixed marriages than their counterparts in republics that had more moderate ratios. The majority of children of mixed parentage registered under the non-Jewish nationality to avoid legal discrimination. Births to endogamous Jewish parents showed the greatest decline between 1958 to 1988 in Russia and Ukraine (76% and 74% respectively). Endogamous families often maintained social ties to other Jews and retained some cultural traditions such as foodways.
The recognizable world of the Jewish family in Eastern Europe came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War II. In the long-term ghettos established by the Nazis in Poland and Lithuania (Warsaw, Łódź, and Vilna), families were able to remain intact until their deportations; by contrast, in the Soviet areas Einsatzgruppen squads exterminated families en masse. Due to the military mobilization, flight, and conscription of men for forced labor, there were far more women with young children and elderly parents in the ghettos. In Łódź, for example, there were 119.4 women for every 100 men—a ratio that increased to 196 per 100 in 1944 (due to deportations and a higher mortality rate among men).
Family life relationships were shaped by the struggle for survival in the ghettos. Jewish women assumed the critical task of feeding their families, which they viewed as a “natural extension” of their traditional roles. Yet even the basic task of securing food required ingenuity and courage due to shortages and exorbitant prices. Women invented foods composed of potato peels, ersatz coffee, and other discarded products to stretch out meals. Numerous memoirists recalled their mothers waiting in line for food rations and sacrificing their portions to feed the children. Mothers also sought to provide some old vestige of family life by performing domestic chores (after a long day’s work) and organizing at least one meal that the family ate together. Observant families continued to light candles on Sabbath and celebrate the holidays with a slight change of menu as conditions allowed.
Gender roles shifted as work became a necessity for survival in the ghettos. Women who had not worked previously were forced to join the labor force to obtain meager food rations and wages. Two-parent families earning dual wages had a better chance of survival, especially because men earned a higher income. By July 1944, women comprised 55.5 percent of the working force in the Łódź ghetto. Severe hardships such as exhausting labor, hunger, and overcrowded living quarters naturally tested marriages. Michael Unger’s examination of family court hearings in 1944 reveals a sharp deterioration in marital relations: complaints of wife beating, verbal abuse, and conflicts over food rations sometimes led to divorce.
Children were the most vulnerable inhabitants of the ghetto. Families with non-Jewish contacts outside attempted to smuggle their children out through the underground corridors to the safety of convents and foster homes. Organizations such as Żegota aided in the process by securing financial aid, false documents, and contacts. In Warsaw, the Jewish Council had to pay at least 500 zlotys to convents to provide for the new wards. Factors such as the age at separation from parents, living arrangements (i.e., in open or in hiding), and character of the host family or institution influenced the experiences of the hidden child. Children who found refuge in observant Christian homes or convents assumed new identities; some converted and grew up as Christians. Some only discovered their secret Jewish identities long after the war.
Before the period of mass deportations, Jewish self-help organizations and ghetto authorities sought to sustain children by organizing vital services. In the Warsaw ghetto, organizations such as CENTOS (the National Society for the Care of Orphans), TOZ (the Society for the Preservation of Health), and others provided clandestine education for children under the guise of soup kitchens and daycare facilities. In addition, underground clubs for painting, drama, crafts, sport, music, and other activities alleviated the emotional and physical hardships of ghetto life. Young children amused themselves by making homemade toys such as wooden instruments and engaging in play.
Older children often found themselves burdened with new responsibilities to sustain their families. Girls performed household chores such as cleaning, cooking, ironing, and even procuring food while both genders worked as apprentices in the workshops. In part, the training of children for skilled labor was done to protect them from deportations. Indeed, in work ghettos that survived on productivity (i.e., Łódź and Vilna), children were prime candidates for deportation quotas. In 1942, Khayim Mordkhe Rumkowski was forced to turn over children under age 10 in Łódź.
The fear of becoming an orphan proved much too real. Despite entreaties of ghetto officials for Jewish families to adopt orphaned children, the burden was simply too great. Rumkowski bemoaned the breakdown of the family when he sought to place 1,500 orphaned children; he stated, “Here in the ghetto, after three years of war, the concept of family has been erased from the lexicon, with a few exceptions.” Orphans resorted to begging but quickly succumbed to the elements, hunger, and illness. Philanthropic organizations with meager resources expressed frustration with their inability to aid “street urchins” whose frozen bodies were found daily on the ghetto streets.
The process of segregation from non-Jews and transition to transit camps and ghettos also represented a major rupture for Jews in Eastern Europe. The demise of the bourgeois family structure proved very traumatic for men who lost their jobs, status, and financial security, and women who were forced to work outside the home for the first time. The division of labor in the ghetto followed traditional lines: men performed heavy manual labor while women worked as seamstresses, laundresses, nannies, teachers, and so on.
In the ghetto (transit camp) of Terezín, families were allowed to remain together initially; after the first transports of prisoners arrived, however, women and children were housed separately from men. Only after June 1942 (when the ghetto was completely emptied of its Czech citizens) did some semblance of normalcy return. Family members could visit each other in the barracks or meet on the streets. In fact, some studies suggest that separate barracks prevented daily conflicts and strengthened some marriages. Although a few mothers were reluctant to let their children move into different quarters, which were set up that same year, others welcomed the better conditions that they offered, including additional food and education. Hunger and malnutrition nonetheless remained a serious problem. Fear of family separation always loomed over the inhabitants of Terezín, who were destined to be deported to the East. Family members voluntarily joined parents, children, and siblings rather than be left behind.
The death and labor camps marked the end of Jewish family cohesion. The Nazi program of genocide linked the fates of mothers and their young children, who were selected for immediate extermination. Women’s reproductive capacity no longer held the same meaning: pregnancy, which had meant new life, now signaled an instant death sentence. Those who succeeded in carrying a pregnancy to term experienced a harrowing birth experience. One witness described how one mother delivered her baby in the toilet in the Skarżysko-Kamienna labor camp. However, pregnancies were rare because of the malnutrition and physical deprivation that caused the cessation of menses in most women.
The destruction of family structures led to new coping mechanisms such as creating surrogate families in the camps, especially among women. Inmates sought out familiar faces while others bonded with bunkmates or people with whom they worked. In forced labor camps in Poland, where male and female inmates had greater opportunities to interact, romantic relationships developed. The phenomenon of so-called kuzyns and kuzynkas (“cousins”) who formed sexual partnerships proved to be a successful survival strategy as couples shared resources and emotional support. Some of these relationships eventually resulted in marriages.
The end of World War II and the liberation of the camps exposed the complete devastation of Jewish families. Survivors held out hopes they would be reunited with old family members and return to their former lives. In reality, very few nuclear families survived intact; those who returned home encountered indifference and even outright hostility. The majority of East European Jews were forced to recreate new families in Israel, America, or Western Europe, often passing on their trauma to the next generation.