This lesson aims to present the unique difficulties that mothers in the ghetto experienced and the ways in which they dealt with them, as well as further discussion on the question of what strengths the mothers needed in order to contend with hardships in the ghetto.
Background: The reality of life in the ghettos affected the way that mothers functioned. On the one hand, it increased the mother’s natural desire and commitment to care for the needs of her family, especially those of the children, but at the same time, it undermined her ability to function in this reality. The overcrowding, hunger, loss, and constant deprivation had become an inseparable part of the reality of life in the ghettos, turning day-to-day life into an incessant battle for one’s very physical and human existence. The need to obtain food, as well as fuel to heat and cook, to maintain the home and care for the children was translated into an arduous daily battle for each family, but especially for mothers. In this unit, we will discuss how mothers contended with the various hardships they faced in the ghetto.
Irena, who was a young girl in the Lodz ghetto, wrote:
From what magical stream does my mother draw strength for all of this? She is a beautiful and pampered woman who never did a day of physical work in her life.
Irena Liebman, Yad Vashem Archives 03/3752
- What can we learn from what Irena says about the way her mother functioned in the ghetto?
Read the following data – what, in your opinion are the unique difficulties that mothers faced in the ghetto?
- The average number of calories per day allotted to people doing difficult physical labor was 1,100. There were cases in which the full amount of food was not supplied.
- The cost of a kilogram of bread on the black market at its highest was 1,600 marks.
- The average weekly salary of a ghetto worker was 15-130 marks per week.
- 1 in every 5 ghetto inhabitants died as a result of the living conditions in the ghetto.
- The percentage of people in the ghetto that were working was 66%-78%.
- Epidemics of tuberculosis, dysentery, and other diseases broke out in the ghetto periodically.
- An average of 8-10 people lived in each room.
- About 63% of the homes did not have bathrooms.
- Fewer than 2% of the homes were connected to gas.
- The Lodz ghetto existed from May 1940 to August 1944 (more than 4 years).
- About 440,000 people lived in the Warsaw ghetto.
- The ghetto covered an area of about 2.4% of the city, and about 30% of the population of the city was crowded into it.
- The official food ration for non-workers was 184 calories a day.
- About 80% of the food was smuggled into the ghetto.
- In the summer of 1941, the death rate was about 5,500 people each month.
- According to German figures, 6 to 7 people lived in each room.
- The Warsaw ghetto existed from November 1940 to May 1943 (about 2.5 years).
Shavli (Šiauliai) Ghetto
- On September 1, 1941 the two parts of the Shavli ghetto were officially sealed and fenced off. Lithuanian guards were stationed at its gates and only people with special permits were permitted to enter and exit the ghetto.
- About 5,500 Jews and refugees lived on an area of about 8,000 square meters, meaning that the average amount of living space per person was 1.5 meters. In addition, the ghetto area was repeatedly reduced.
- In January 1943, women represented 65% of the ghetto’s population.
- In September 1943, the inhabitants of the ghetto were categorized based on their fitness for work. Those considered unfit for work were deported from the ghetto and murdered.
Problems of Food in the GhettoProblems of Food in the Ghetto
Background: One of the most difficult tasks was the distribution of food to the family members in order to prevent ongoing starvation. The bread and other food products were distributed once every few days and the families had to make do until the next food distribution. The incessant hunger they suffered from caused the adults and children to constantly seek a feeling of satiation, even if only temporarily, sometimes without thought for the coming days. Often it was the women who took the distribution of the rations upon themselves, and they hid them out of consideration for the coming days of scarcity. Women in the ghetto stood for many long hours in lines for food. They were forced to improvise various dishes from the inferior products they were able to obtain, such as potato peels, in addition to the shortage of gas in many ghettos that required the rationing of cooking time according to the size of the family.
A further difficulty faced by the women in the ghetto involved caring for ill family members. The reality of life in the ghetto created a shortage of medications and caused their prices to soar. Often, a family was forced to sell its belongings or ration coupons in order to obtain medications for family members. In many cases, it was the mothers that gave up their own food rations in order to obtain the needed medicines.
The reality that the Germans created meant that it was extremely difficult for the mothers to fulfill their traditional role, forcing them to contend with impossible dilemmas.
In an essay, Josef Zelkowicz, a Jewish journalist imprisoned in the Lodz ghetto describes the terrible hardships he saw while visiting in the homes of people in the ghetto. From one such visit, he describes the following scene:
[...] Mendel, who, although already fourteen years old, cries like mother’s little baby:
– Mommy, I’m hungry…
– Mommy, if you only knew how hungry I am…
Josef Zelkowicz, In Those Terrible Days, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 144-145
This description can be read from two perspectives. From the first, one’s heart is filled with compassion for the 14-year-old boy who is so hungry that he is not ashamed to cry in front of strangers. However, it can also be read from the perspective of the mother and the helplessness she must have felt in this situation. There is nothing more natural than for a mother to care for and feed her children. From the moment a baby is born, his mother takes care of all his needs and keeps him from being hungry, but in the reality of the ghetto, even the most natural thing became impossible.
Following are some excerpts of testimonies dealing with the subject of food in the ghetto. Hand out the testimonies to the students and after reading them, discuss the dilemmas that arise from them and how to deal with them.
Please note: The purpose of the discussion is to underscore the complexity and problematic nature of the ghetto reality, to bring the dilemmas to the surface along with the difficulty in making rational decisions and the need to maneuver among the various types of difficulties.
The dilemmas dealt with a number of subjects:
- How did they obtain food?
- What was involved in obtaining food (discuss the dangers and moral dilemmas)
- What issues were caused by the need to obtain food, in addition to the dangers and moral dilemmas?
Preparing food under conditions of a shortage of products and staples – the need to improvise
- How did they cook food?
- What dishes did they prepare? What products did they make them from?
The distribution of food to the family members
- How was the food distributed among the family members?
- What problems and tensions did the distribution of food create?
Choose a statement from among the testimonies that in your view reflects the main difficulty that the mothers suffered in regard to the subject of food.
Food in the GhettoFood in the Ghetto
Read the testimonies below. Please note the subjects that come up in the testimonies:
- Obtaining food
- Preparing food under conditions of shortage
- The distribution of food to the family members
My mother managed to save the bread by hiding it from us in her bed. We children knew where the hiding place was but she always watched it. We were afraid to take the bread because she knew that if we ate it, there wouldn’t be any food afterwards. [...] Women filled a unique role in the organization and administration of the food. [...]I would say that my poor mother, who was eventually taken to Treblinka, was a genius in the way she managed to do it.
Feygl Peltel (Wladka Miedzyrzecki-Meed), born in Warsaw, Poland, 1921, Yad Vashem Archives, 3542 0.3
The apartment was big and contained a large number of rooms, large rooms, with at least 20 people living in each room, and eight to five people living in the smaller rooms. [...] On the other side was the kitchen. The kitchen was shared by all the families living in the apartment, and each family had its own corner and cooking time. And so the women would go to the kitchen carrying the food products with them through all the rooms and then return to their rooms, carrying the warm cooked food in the pot.
Shoshana Rabinowitz, A Mother and Daughter, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem 2002, p. 42.
[...] Mendel, who, although already fourteen years old, cries like mother’s little baby:
– Mommy, I’m hungry…
– Mommy, if you only knew how hungry I am…
Josef Zelkowicz, In Those Terrible Days, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2002, pp. 144-145
My siblings fell ill, one after another. The stove was cold and neglected because there was nothing to heat it up with. Mother, who was herself ill, ran around incessantly in an effort to obtain some food to revive us with. When she entered the room with empty hands, without even a cup of hot water, which she got at a neighbor’s, she looked helpless, although she tried to hide her anguish from us.
Sara Selver-Urbach, Through the Window of my Home, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1986, p. 96.
There were all kinds of methods that families used to live with the food rations they received. There were families in which each member guarded his own ration and ate it whenever he felt like it or whenever it was convenient. And there were families that shared, in which the children allotted from their portion for the parents, and that was seemingly more humane. And there were families that didn’t distinguish between my portion and yours, but continued to share family life.
And our family was among the last type, that lived according to the system in which there was no distinction between what I received and what you received, and if you got more. Everyone brought their ration home, and mother gave each one what she thought needed to be given, and there were no arguments or discussions, so that at that time, I lived at the expense of others in my family.
Alfreda Aizenman, Yad Vashem Archives, 03/5663
[...] “I don’t understand you,” Avraham said one day to Mother, banging his fist on the table. “Everyone is jealous of me because my mother has been working in the kitchen for two months, and you, you haven’t even stolen one potato.” “That’s true, but I give you my bread ration, because I eat soup twice a day,” Mother replied. “All right, but starting tomorrow, I want you to measure the bread in centimeters. You always give Lucie more!” “No, my son, I always divide it into equal parts, but if you want, I’ll measure the bread in centimeters to be sure both pieces are the same.”
The following day, Mother returned from work as pale as chalk. She was close to fainting. From her sleeve, she slid out two potatoes the size of a nut. When Avraham saw them, he kissed her hands. “Don’t do it anymore, Mother. I don’t want you to get sick. You’ll see, the Russians or someone else will liberate us. Don’t cry, little mother, our Pik-Cytryn princess. You’ll see, everything will be all right, the world won’t let us die. Dearest Mother, don’t cry!”
Avraham Cytryn, A Youth Writing Between the Walls, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2005, pp. 247-248.
Up to David’s illness, we never brought meat into our house because the miserly amount that we were allotted was non-kosher, either pork or horsemeat. But when David fell ill, mother determined that we had reached a crucial stage and should start using non-kosher meat.
At first, only David ate this meat, and we kept two separate kitchens, one kosher and one non-kosher. At the end of a year, however, we found it very difficult to observe punctiliously every rule of Kashrut, and as the two other boys started showing symptoms of ill-health, we gave in and ate from the non-kosher meat.
Sara Selver-Urbach, Through the Window of my Home, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1986, p. 85.
Mother, despite her fatigue, peeled some potatoes, and, with a little flour and a lot of water, made a soup which we ate for supper. The soup was very watery, but it was still important for us to eat something hot before going to bed. Some of the soup Mother reserved for Talka to have as a meal the next day.
Sara Zyskind, Struggle, Lerner Publications, Minneapolis, 1989, p. 98
Mother decided as always that we would eat the bread we had, but mother continued to lose weight. Her physical condition kept getting worse. She lost 30 kilos of her weight. We realized at home that mother wasn’t eating, so that she would have more to give the rest of the family. And so we began to argue amongst ourselves and we insisted with Mother that we would divide the bread up, because otherwise she wouldn’t eat anything and wouldn’t be able to carry on. It got to the point that she could no longer walk and I had to go to work. [...]I think that thanks to that, the family held on for much longer. The emotional support and the fact that each at least ate the portion needed to survive. Mother went above and beyond what was needed to keep the family going. The family atmosphere also continued, the lighting of candles – I have no idea what was used to light them – Shabbat was Shabbat, there were candlesticks, and we made Kiddush.
Dvora Berger, Yad Vashem Archives, 0.3/7033
A dish made of grated potatoes mixed with a little flour / or grated radish, kohlrabi, etc. / coffee substitute, sweetened with saccharine / with the addition of spices – cooked in boiling water / as a kind of pudding for an hour to an hour and a half. When potatoes were distributed in greater quantities, it served as a pleasant substitute for bread. During periods of famine, this dish would be made of potato peels or a coffee substitute.
Nahman Blumenthal, “Encyclopedia of the Lodz ghetto, Introduction and Part 1, Ghetto Fighters News 7, p. 14.
Mothers’ WorkMothers’ Work
Background for the teacher:
Due to the severe hardship in the ghettos, as well as the deportations that were anticipated in many places for those who did not have a work permit, mothers were forced to go out to work, and in many cases had no choice but to leave their young children for many long hours alone without supervision.
Many women and men did whatever they could to obtain a work permit, which in many ghettos was equivalent to a “life permit” for the entire family. This permit provided protection, albeit temporarily, from deportation. In some of the ghettos, the workers received food of a slightly better quality, part of which they saved for their children. The requirement to work, on the one hand, and the lack of any educational frameworks and supervision for the children, on the other, created enormous difficulty for the parents, and especially for the mothers. It is also worth noting that there were cases in which mothers went out to work on the orders of the Germans.
Re-read the words of Irena Liebman with which we began the lesson:
...From what wondrous spring does my mother draw her strength for all this? She is a beautiful and pampered woman who never did a day of physical work in her life.
- With what difficulty was Irena’s mother forced to contend?
My mother was a very quick and hard-working woman who never complained. They took away her sewing machine and she didn’t complain. In the ghetto, people grew and clothing tore. If you look at the pictures, you’ll see that people wore rags. Mother would go from door to door and ask for pieces of fabric to sew and fix all kinds of things. She took very little money so that it would be worth the people’s while. That’s how she found buyers, and people who began to give her clothing to sew. It was difficult to sew without a machine and she had to sew everything by hand with a needle and thread. When winter came, her hands froze because there was nothing with which to warm them. I remember that a tailor lived across from us and he told my mother that she was sitting and sewing and freezing and didn’t feel well and that he was no longer able to bear it because it was so difficult. He lay in bed all day in order to keep warm. Afterwards, he starved to death. My mother continued to work for pennies, which were barely enough to buy bread. She sewed as long as she had customers. Afterwards, she found work in a laundry.
Esther Zychlinski, Yad Vashem Archives 03.8362
- What difficulties did Esther’s mother have to deal with?
- What characterized the way her mother contended with these difficulties?
- Beyond the physical difficulties, how did the fact that the mothers went out to work affect them?
For instance, I cannot recollect how my mother managed to open a small vegetable store, or where she obtained her wares. Our huge window served as the counter. We placed scales on the windowsill, and some of the passers-by would stop and buy something. We were not particularly enthusiastic about that venture and hampered mother by acting like stupid snobs. It never occurred to us that mother was sacrificing her own dignity in an effort to improve a little her ungrateful children’s material circumstances.
Sara Selver-Urbach, Through the Window of my Home, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1986, p. 65.
October 3, 1943
The young children are a cause of great concern now in the ghetto. All the parents are forced to leave the home for 12 hours and longer. The toddlers remain at home for many hours without any supervision. The mothers are worried: What is to be done with the children for an entire day?
Eliezer Yerushalmi, Pinkas Shavli, Mossad Bialik and Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1998, p. 279.
And I was quite neglected at the beginning because there was no one to watch over me. I was dirty and had lice. I even had ringworm.
Esther Dublin, Yad Vashem Archives 0.3/5492
Sara Selver-Urbach notes that the fact that her mother began to sell vegetables was not “dignified.” It is interesting to try to gain an understanding of why the children felt that this activity offended their dignity.
It may be assumed that this was a reflection of the dramatic change that occurred in their world compared to the conditions they had been accustomed to in their home before the Holocaust. Then, their mother had been a homemaker who kept a clean and well-tended home, and now any passerby could look inside, into the privacy of their neglected home.
The fact that the children still had certain expectations of their mother was due to her efforts to preserve the family norms in which she continued to function as the mother, the leader of the family and its representative to the world. Consequently, what they perceived as a change in her status because of a job that they viewed as inferior harmed their status as well.
Background: In addition to having to go out to work to help support the family, the mothers also bore the burden of the housework. One of the most difficult tasks was keeping the house clean and doing the laundry. The women did the best they could to preserve the previous habits of cleanliness, however because of the severe shortage of cleaning supplies, keeping the house clean was an almost impossible task. There was a severe shortage of soap, no fuel with which to heat the water for the laundry, and most importantly, after many long hours of hard work and after standing in lines for hours on end to obtain food and in their continuing state of starvation, the women had no strength left to wash the floors of their home or do laundry in the tub. In addition to their physical exhaustion, the women also suffered from emotional exhaustion due to the constant struggle to survive under conditions of extreme hardship, uncertainty as to what the future would bring and concern for the safety and welfare of their families.
The condition of the buildings in the ghetto also made it difficult to maintain cleanliness. The ghettos were usually established in the poorest, most squalid parts of the city, whose buildings were old and dilapidated, many lacking proper drainage and sewage systems. A number of families lived in each house and the overcrowding further increased the difficulty involved in maintaining hygiene and cleanliness. The inability to keep the houses clean and maintain personal hygiene had serious implications for the health of the ghetto inhabitants. Disease was rampant and epidemics broke out frequently, contributing to the high mortality rate.
Sara Selver-Urbach describes her home before the war:
My father was employed in a big commercial firm, my mother was a housewife. We lived in one large room and a kitchen. Our home was filled with light and always sparklingly clean. It seemed to be constantly smiling. Our kitchen was oblong. Its white furniture and shiny red floor lent it a pleasant, holiday mood.
Sara Selver-Urbach, Through the Window of my Home, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1986, p. 14.
- Why do you think that the cleanliness and order in her home from before the war are so dominant in Sara’s memory?
- What difficulties did mothers who tried to keep their homes and family clean in the ghetto encounter?
- How did they deal with these difficulties?
[…] The housewives are not at fault for the filth in the ghetto apartments. It’s the fault of the walls, which keep crying and wetting the floor with plaster tears […] it is not the housewives’ indolence that makes the ghetto inhabitants’ sheets and linens so grimy. The conditions forced on them are to blame: there is no fuel to heat the water for laundering the linens, there is no soap, and – this is the main thing – after hours of queuing and days of fasting, people no longer have the strength to squat behind the bucket and scrub laundry in cold water without soap
Josef Zelkowicz, In those Terrible Days, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 106-107 (edited by Michal Unger).
- Besides the physical difficulties, what other difficulties did the mothers face?
- Read Esther Dublin’s testimony again. Why did her situation worsen?
- Some mothers insisted on trying to maintain a certain level of cleanliness, despite the difficulty. What motivated them?
We had no hot water for our laundry, nor fuel to boil it. My hands were not skilled in that chore and the things I washed came out grey and still soiled. With time, we started to itch. To our shame, mother found lice in the seams of our clothes. An embarrassing situation ensued, especially when a strong urge to scratch would seize us in the company of strangers and we had to curb that shameful urge. How to get rid of this affliction? Because of the cold, we could neither wash our bodies properly nor thoroughly launder our clothes. Our room was very damp, the corners actually wet so that, when the frost first set in, the water-drops would turn into glistening icicles.
Sara Selver-Urbach, Through the Window of my Home, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1986, p. 67.
In the ghetto, Mother proved to be extremely resourceful. Mother, whom I had never seen in the kitchen before the war, who never cleaned, did laundry, polished or washed dishes with her own hands, in the ghetto fought like a tiger to keep our apartment clean. We still had the large, heavy brush that Michia [the servant who had worked in our home before the war] had sometimes used to polish the parquet floors. She even had to polish the floor under the rug! In the ghetto, we no longer had any rugs, but Mother, with Father’s help, continued to meticulously polish the floor…
Mother once asked me to look on the Polish side* for wax and a little soap to help us keep ourselves clean and healthy. She once asked me to go to a pharmacy and buy a preparation against head lice. “Mother, who has lice?” I asked. “You do, Hanke, and so does Maricia and we have to get rid of them.” But I was too embarrassed to do so… Mother found a can of kerosene somewhere in the ghetto and smeared Maricia’s hair with kerosene with its terrible smell…
Hanna Avrutzki, A Star among Crosses, Kinneret, Tel Aviv 1995, pp. 96-97.
* Hanna Avrutzki smuggled food into the ghetto.