Jews selling off their household goods, Przemyśl ghetto, Poland, 1942. (YIVO)

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Life in Ghettos

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The establishment of the 800 to 900 ghettos in Poland, the Soviet Union, and Romania between late 1939 and mid-1942 introduced radical and rapid changes in Jewish communal and individual life, and was a multifaceted and complicated phenomenon. Those changes and the coping strategies Jews invented in response can best be examined from three perspectives—physical space; social welfare; and educational, cultural, and religious activity.

Physical Space

The confined physical space of the ghettos had a direct impact on the daily routines of the inhabitants and on their way of coping for survival. “Around us are walls,” wrote Ḥayim Aharon Kaplan, a resident of the Warsaw ghetto, in his diary, but such an absolute barrier between the inhabitants of the ghetto and those outside, which even became a symbol, was present in only a few ghettos, including Warsaw, Kraków, Tarnów, and Kremenets. Barbed wire and wooden fences bordered the majority of ghettos in Eastern Europe. There were also open ghettos, as in the Lublin district, which allowed for its inhabitants to leave the enforced living quarters. In Szydłowiec and Skrzynno, towns in the Radom district, where the majority of residents were Jews, the entire town was turned into a ghetto, except for a small number of streets designated for non-Jews. The so-called Special Sector for Jewish Residence in Lwów was initially open, but within a year the area was reduced and the ghetto enclosed by a fence.

Khayim Mordkhe Rumkowski, the head of the Łódź ghetto, on a visit to the Marysin, the "suburban" part of the ghetto where the retirement home, orphanage, schools, and communal gardens were located, ca. 1942. Photograph by Mendel Grossman. (YIVO)

Except for the Łódź ghetto, which was hermetically sealed and subject to strict border patrols, all walled ghettos had gates and openings through which Jews could maintain some form of contact with their neighbors. Though it was often forbidden for Jews to pass through those openings under penalty of death, the physical border did not stop give-and-take with the locals. Food, medicine, and heating fuel were regularly smuggled into the ghetto. Trade continued illegally. In Minsk and Baranowicze (Bel., Baranovichi), Jews could escape through vulnerable points in the barbed wire fence to the “Aryan” zone, enabling them to barter with the non-Jewish population.

Some ghettos were erected as a consequence of the slave labor and productivity policies dictated by the Germans. In these, legal departure from the ghetto by various work groups became a virtual lifeline, and the ghetto gateway became the main artery for survival. Jewish physicians from the Shavli (Šiauliai) ghetto, who were sent to work in the city daily, smuggled medicines and essential equipment back into the sealed quarter. In Kaunas and Grodno, the thousands of workers exiting and entering the ghetto on a daily basis were able to smuggle basic foodstuffs and other staples that made their lives somewhat more tolerable.

Some ghettos found other avenues of contact with the outside world. In return for hefty fees, the occupation authorities sometimes allowed ghetto inhabitants to receive letters and packages from outside the ghetto, even overseas. Besides relieving feelings of isolation, these contacts enabled the receipt of food as well as important classified information about the fate of Jews in other communities. Still, the degree of contact with the surroundings did not necessarily have a significant impact on the survival abilities of the people inside the ghettos, as witnessed by the similarly high mortality from hunger and disease in the isolated ghetto of Łódź and in Warsaw, where smuggling operations flourished; this points to the central importance of the policies created by the local governing bodies, the economic importance and necessity of the ghettos, and the Jewish authorities’ methods of reaction.

Other factors governing survival rates were location and living conditions inside the ghettos. In many instances, ghettos were established on the outskirts of cities or towns, in run-down areas with poor physical infrastructures. Such was the case with the Bałuty quarter, where the Łódź ghetto was established. In part of the Slobodka (Wiliampole) neighborhood, where Jews of the Kaunas ghetto were lodged, there was no indoor plumbing, and most lodgings consisted of wooden shacks. Housing shortages and space limitations forced considerable improvisation. In Warsaw, the Jewish hospital Czysta was split and moved into two buildings within the confines of the ghetto. In the Shavli ghetto, the Judenrat established a hospital in the ritual purification room that had formerly served the Jewish cemetery. In Lwów, the scarcity of lodgings was accommodated by the institution of two and even three sleep shifts, while in Lunna and Skidel, near Grodno, Jews built underground living spaces. In contrast, major institutions sometimes remained within the ghetto: for example, in Vilna, whose two sections were located in the heart of the city, the ghetto included the Jewish hospital and the Mefitse Haskalah library within its borders, somewhat lessening the feeling of distress caused by the new situation. Still, on the whole, overcrowding, lack of sanitary infrastructure, and poor building standards took a severe toll upon the physical state of ghetto residents, and in the ghettos of Warsaw, Łódź, Minsk, and Kielce the death rates reached unprecedented numbers.

Social Welfare

Welfare institutions became major factors affecting the quality of life of ghetto residents. German policy turned ghettos into segregated economic entities that, in addition to their isolation and lack of resources for their own needs, caused rapid impoverishment of most of the populace and a significant increase in the numbers needing welfare assistance.

Children digging for discarded bits of coal, Łódź ghetto, ca. 1941. Photograph by Mendel Grossman. (YIVO)

Many factors influenced the functioning and effectiveness of the social welfare system in the ghettos. In the occupied territories of Poland and Lithuania, the welfare system was established on the foundations of the social service apparatus that Jewish communities had maintained before the war. In the part of occupied Poland known as the Generalgouvernement, a legal Jewish welfare organization, Jüdische Soziale Selbsthilfe (Jewish Self-Help; JSS), united such prewar Jewish organizations as TOZ (a health-care organization); CENTOS (a center for the care of orphaned and abandoned children); ORT (an organization for occupational training); CEKABE (a free loan society); JEAS (an organization for immigrant aid); and TOPOROL (an organization that assisted farmers). The directorate of JSS, headquartered in Kraków, included representatives from ghettos throughout the Generalgouvernement and maintained continuous contact with all Jewish communities, including the most remote, as well as with Jewish prisoners in camps. The financial resources allotted to the organization by the occupying authorities—which were extremely modest compared to their needs—helped ghetto inhabitants operate soup kitchens and warehouses, as well as provide medical aid. In the Lithuanian ghettos established in fall 1941, the prewar communal system served as a significant anchor in troubled times.

Despite harsh economic restrictions and Nazi starvation policies, the contributions of Jewish aid organizations to public welfare in the Generalgouvernement and Lithuania were notable, especially when compared to the situation in ghettos established in occupied Soviet territory, where the Soviet government had already destroyed the prerevolutionary Jewish communal structure. Thus in the Minsk ghetto, which encompassed a population of more than 80,000, for example, there was not even one functioning Jewish public assistance organization that could aid the needy; the welfare department of the Judenrat was the only legal institution that functioned in this area. It established a soup kitchen where Jews could receive a bowl of soup and a slice of bread in exchange for coupons, but at most it served only about 120 to 130 individuals. A similar reality prevailed in the ghettos of the Russian Republic and Ukraine.

Another factor that influenced the character of social welfare activities in the ghettos was the managerial methods of the Jewish councils, which evolved in response to German policies. A significant number of ghettos in eastern Poland and Lithuania were designated to provide a steady supply of forced labor for the German war effort. The heads of the Judenräte in these ghettos, who understood the economic necessity of this arrangement, knew how to extract benefits for the entire population. In many instances, connections that were established with the occupying authorities in order to strengthen the ghetto workforce brought improved conditions. In Vilna, the local German authorities sent thousands of doses of vaccines to prevent the spread of a typhus epidemic, and in Grodno, thanks to close connections between the Judenrat and various German officials, ghetto inhabitants did not suffer severe hunger. In the ghettos of Lithuania, as well as in Grodno and Białystok, the heads of the Judenrat were meticulous in maintaining buildings and public sanitary conditions, assuming that in this way they were improving conditions for survival. Conversely, the Warsaw Judenräte failed to deal with the many difficulties that befell the population, and in the Minsk ghetto the inexperience of leaders in Jewish public affairs was felt in their inability to reduce the extensive poverty.

Ration card from Warsaw ghetto, October 1941. The Polish and Yiddish slogans read: "Our children must live!" and "Children are what is most sacred." Polish, Yiddish, German. RG 225, Hersch Wasser Collection, F46. (YIVO)

For all of the harsh economic conditions that prevailed in the ghetto, however, the Nazi regime did not try actively to destroy the Jewish family unit. The authorities allowed Jews in ghettos to preserve the nuclear and even the extended family framework, to live together, and to take care of each other’s needs. Nevertheless, although official data from the majority of medium-sized and smaller ghettos are not available, it appears that male-to-female ratios were anomalous. In a significant number of ghettos, the population was approximately 55–60 percent female. The imbalance was greater among Jews of working age. This phenomenon may be explained by the fact that men were the first victims of mass murders (in the Soviet Union, Lithuania, and eastern Poland) and the first to be sent to forced labor. Moreover, young men were more likely to escape from the ghettos. Statistics also reveal that the mortality rate among ghetto inhabitants was higher for men than for women (in both absolute and relative terms).

Ghettos became places of shelter for Jewish refugees arriving as a result of internal displacement and from neighboring occupied countries. Together with the skewed sex ratio, the need to absorb downtrodden and destitute refugee populations harmed and sometimes even destroyed the ability of ghetto communities to sustain them. In the case of Warsaw, the largest of the ghettos, the fact that one-third of the inhabitants (about 150,000 people) were refugees caused a dramatic change in the sociodemographic character of the community and in its ability to withstand hardships.

Educational, Cultural, and Religious Activity

Passersby and an adult who has collapsed from hunger on the sidewalk outside the offices of TOZ (Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Population), Warsaw ghetto, ca. 1942. (YIVO)

Because of various restrictions imposed by the Nazi regime, regular education schedules for Jews were not maintained anywhere in occupied Eastern Europe. The economic and logistical constraints associated with the ghettos, including shortages of buildings and teaching aids and growing numbers of needy unable to pay tuition fees, made educating children even more difficult. Jewish councils tried to maintain some type of school-year routine, but with the passing of time, the rise in the levels of distress, and the radicalization of German anti-Jewish policies, studies in schools were suspended. In the Białystok ghetto, school facilities housing more than 2,000 pupils were closed at the beginning of 1942. In Lublin, the troubled Judenrat was so concerned with establishing the ghetto and the large influx of refugees that the issue of education was neglected. Nevertheless, educational efforts did not stop completely; in most ghettos attempts were made to find alternative arrangements, and varied educational activities went on in secret.

Political parties, youth movements, and even certain individuals harnessed themselves to this effort alongside the Jewish councils and other legal institutions. In the Warsaw ghetto, Jews were permitted to open schools only after September 1941; those schools functioned until mass transports to Treblinka began in July 1942. Even earlier, youth movements and political parties had arranged illegal educational activities. In Łódź, youth movements filled the educational void that resulted from the closing of the ghetto school in autumn 1941, and professional training workshops for children organized by the Judenrat in order to save them from extermination also served an educational function. In the medium-sized and smaller ghettos, the initiative in launching educational activities was taken mostly by teachers, who would sometimes lead underground study groups in their homes.

In Vilna, the Judenrat established a variegated educational system, enrolling 1,400 pupils in schools of various types. It also operated two youth clubs. This educational system, which remained in place until the ghetto’s final days, was exceptional among ghettos in its scope and vitality. Nevertheless, there were impressive efforts, rooted in Jewish tradition, to maintain educational frameworks in many ghettos; these were a sign that Jews continued to hope for the future. In the final analysis, though, the education offered in the ghettos was limited. In addition to institutional limitations, ghetto children needed most of their strength for their ongoing battle to survive.

Jewish smugglers on top of the wall surrounding the Warsaw ghetto, 1941. Jakub Wierzbicki (third from left) and the others were photographed by a Jew whom the Germans had granted a permit to have a camera in the ghetto to photograph corpses in the cemetery. Only his first name, Edek, is known. His photographs were smuggled out and hidden by a non-Jewish Pole, Jan Kostanski, who also rescued several Jews during the war. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Jan Kostanski)

The Nazi regime’s total war against the Jewish people made its religious symbols objects of persecution as well. Although the Nazis had no coherent policy regarding Jewish religious life, religious Jews faced special difficulties adjusting to the life in the ghettos. Among the first to comment upon the upheavals that the Nazi occupation wrought upon the religious life of East European Jews was Shim‘on Huberband, a rabbi and Oyneg Shabes archivist in the Warsaw ghetto. In his studies on this subject, he noted a twofold reaction pattern: on one hand, efforts by religious Jews to hold on to their religious way of life as much as possible and to adapt it to the changing circumstances, and on the other hand, instances of heresy and breakdown of traditional observance. The rabbinical leadership in the Warsaw ghetto undertook to establish kosher soup kitchens for the Orthodox populace, and provided for ritual slaughter in defiance of the authorities. In the ghettos where public prayer and celebration of Jewish holidays were forbidden, prayer quorums met secretly in private homes. The need to celebrate religious rituals was felt in non-Orthodox circles as well. Religious observance reflected a yearning to strengthen Jewish identity that had been disgraced, as well as fear of the inevitable, and even a kind of spiritual rebellion. In instances where rabbis needed to make fateful decisions where fulfilling religious commandments might have brought death, most stood by the principle that the commandments were for living. Some spoke of “sanctification of life” as a religious value.

Art provided another way of dealing with the harsh realities of ghetto life. At the same time, it offered ghetto residents a form of escapism. Cultural activities of all sorts took place in the ghettos of the Generalgouvernement and Lithuania, in places that already had a previously existing foundation of autonomous Jewish culture. The activities, organized for the most part by the Judenräte, included musical and theatrical productions, literary events, painting, and sports. It is difficult, however, to gauge the extent of participation in these events. Cultural activity in the shadow of mass murder also sometimes aroused moral qualms. Herman Kruk, the chronicler and director of the library in the Vilna ghetto, rebelled against the very idea of theater in the ghetto. In contrast, the prolific literary works that writers (such as Yeshue Perle of Warsaw) produced as Jews were being transported to their deaths reflect the passion to create even amid the hopeless realities of the ghettos.

Kiosk with posters, Warsaw ghetto, ca. 1942. Among the events and businesses being advertised are a Lag b’Omer event benefiting children (“Give a child a little joy!”) and a cafe located at 16 Sienna Street. (YIVO)

Much of our information about the ways Jews survived in the ghettos is based on the writings of contemporary chroniclers. The work of recording what befell the Jews during the period of Nazi occupation and the collection and storage of these records constitute one of the most amazing episodes in Jewish historiography. The project of documentation within the ghettos was carried out in secret (except in Łódź). It was led by Jewish communal bodies aided by segments of the intelligentsia. In the Warsaw ghetto, historian Emanuel Ringelblum headed the Oyneg Shabes archive. Assisting him were members of Jewish self-help societies and the underground resistance movement. In Vilna, the staff of YIVO collected material, while in the Białystok ghetto, members of the underground movement founded an archive. In Kaunas, the Judenrat took responsibility for a documentation project. Countless other individuals, charged with the same fevered sense of purpose, also worked to document the events. Many such efforts went unnoticed.

In sum, many factors working in combination—local policies handed down by different occupation authorities, circumstances peculiar to specific places and times, the behavior of Jewish leaders, preexisting communal-organizational foundations, and the sociodemographic structure of ghetto populations—influenced the character of Jewish life in the ghettos of Eastern Europe.

Suggested Reading

Yehuda Bauer, “Buczacz and Krzemieniec: The Story of Two Towns during the Holocaust,” Yad Vashem Studies 33 (2005): 245–306; Israel Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939–1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt, trans. Ina Friedman (Bloomington, Ind., 1989); Dan Mikhman, Ha-Sho’ah ve-ḥikrah: Hamsagah, minuaḥ ve-sugyot yesod (Tel Aviv, 1998); Dalia Ofer, “Yeladim ve-no‘ar bi-tekufat ha-sho’ah: Sugyot le-diyun,” in Ha-Sho’ah: Historyah ve-zikaron, ed. S. Almog, Daniel Blatman, David Bankier, and Dalia Ofer, pp. 58–92 (Jerusalem, 2002); Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman, eds., Women in the Holocaust (New Haven, 1998); Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation (Lincoln, Nebr., 1996); Michal Unger, Lodz´: Aḥaron ha-geta’ot be-Polin (Jerusalem, 2005); David Zilberklang (Silberklang), “Ha-Sho’ah bi-meḥoz Lublin” (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University, 2003).



Translated from Hebrew by Sharon Makover-Assaf