Daily Life

It is not possible to give a single framework of everyday life in the ghettos that would describe the experience of every ghetto inhabitant. There were great differences depending on how large a ghetto was, how long it existed, where it was established, whether it was a closed or an open ghetto and so on. The circumstances described in this chapter applied to many ghettos, especially the larger and closed ones, but not necessarily to all ghettos. The sources presented in this section will demonstrate the variety of experiences.

The Living Conditions: Lack of Space, Disease, Hunger

Constant problems in many ghettos were the massive overcrowding as well as the lack of food resulting in constant hunger and epidemic diseases. Ghettos normally were established in torn down and neglected areas without sufficient space, into which thousands of people were now concentrated. For many Jews, the first huge problem was to find housing. Strangers, often refugees with hardly any belongings, had to move in together, rooms with six, eight or even more inhabitants were not unusal. German authorities even downsized some of the ghettos as time went on. The issue of overcrowding was closely connected to the spreading of diseases. Typhus and typhoid fever were rampant, and death rates were extremely high independently of the deportations to the annihilation centres starting in 1942: In Lodz and Warsaw, almost one fourth of the total population died in the ghetto due to illnesses, weakness and malnutrition. After mass murder and the deportations started, daily life in the ghettos was also influenced by the constant fear of deportation and of the next round up. The majority of the inhabitants’ time was spent on trying to avoid this by having a work pass. In those ghettos which were established after the attack on the Soviet Union, this fear dominated life from the very beginning, as a ghettoisation after summer 1941 was closely connected to mass murder. Many of the aspects of daily life in the ghettos described here do not apply to those ghettos in the Soviet territory that existed only for a very short period of time.

When reading diaries and memoirs it becomes clear that the worst problem for most people in the ghettos was constant hunger. In April 1941 Dawid Sierakowiak, a teenager forced to live in the Lodz ghetto, wrote in a pessimistic but realistic manner in his diary: “The inevitability of death by starvation grows more evident.” (Sierakowiak 1996, p. 82) There are hardly any documents that neglect mentioning the constant hunger and the permanent lack of food [Document C04]. Gustavo Corni has characterised this very accurately, based on the examination of personal documents from many ghettos: “Hunger became the leitmotif of the ghetto existence, accompanying it minute by minute, day after day.” (Corni 2003, p. 155). Jews were at the lowest level of the hierarchical racist pyramid, which meant that they got the lowest food rations of any group living under German occupation. Official food rations sometimes were no more than 300 calories per day. Supply was organised in different ways, but in many ghettos so called ration cards were handed out which authorized the purchase of various goods at regulated prices.

It was necessary for people in the ghettos to find work to be able to buy food, but also because the factories or other working places provided them with a bowl of soup [see chapter d) Work]. A necessary condition to survive, however, was the ability to supplement the official starvation rations by buying extra food on the black market, where the prices were many times higher than the official ones. Those who were not able to do so were sentenced to death by starvation. Beggars populated the ghetto streets, trying to get some food in order to be saved for one more day. Little children with rags instead of clothes cried for a piece of bread. The streets were crowded with all those poor people running around or selling their last belongings, almost all their household items and clothes. Diaries and memoirs testify to the smell and the noise in the courtyards and the streets, the narrowness and the tight crowds. Especially for the Warsaw ghetto, documents show that after a while people got used to dead corpses covered with newspapers lying on the street. There were periods with 5000 deaths a month. Conditions tended to be better in the smaller ghettos and in those which were closer to the countryside.

As the official rations never were sufficient, smuggling became an important means of survival in many ghettos. Under the constant threat of death, ghetto inhabitants brought food and medicine into the ghetto. Smuggling could take place on an individual scale with persons, mainly children, trying to provide for their own families. Yet there were also a large scale, profit-oriented contraband trade networks (see document B 03).

Whereas in the Warsaw ghetto smuggling reached huge dimensions, there were also places where this was hardly possible at all: In Lodz the ghetto was hermetically sealed off; there was hardly any contact with the outside world. The ghetto also had its own currency which made trade with the outside world almost impossible.

Social Stratification

For most Jews ghettoisation meant radical impoverishment and social downgrading. The longer the occupation continued, the more Jews were living in extreme poverty. Yet the situation was not equally bad for everybody. A complex social hierarchy developed in the ghettos. For a minority in the larger ghettos, it was possible to make a limited fortune by smuggling on a large and organised scale or by becoming an informer of German officials, especially the Gestapo. A new elite emerged under these new circumstances. There were rich people who could buy almost everything (by ghetto standards), and in some cases even went to restaurants and cafes where they celebrated while outside on the pavement a beggar was dying. Even if these are extreme cases, many conflicts arouse under the conditions in the ghettos about how to react to persecution and how to behave in this extreme situation. Corruption played an important role in the ghettos, too: Knowing the right persons in the Jewish administration could help in finding a better job or get more and better provisions. Ghetto inhabitants even found a new language and created new words for these problems.

There were also far-reaching changes in family life and structures as well as regarding gender roles in the ghettos. There was hardly any privacy, a phenomenon which had a huge impact on family life and sexuality. Women who never had to work before started to do so; in many families the children as those who were able to cross the borders of the ghetto more easily became engaged in smuggling, often becoming the main bread-earners. Husbands often lost their source of income, whereas many men had even fled eastwards at the beginning of the occupation or had been sent to a labour camp. In the ghettos established in the area of the former Soviet Union, the situation was even worse, as in many cases mass killings were conducted before ghettos were established, so that most families had already experienced the loss of family members, for example in the cases of Kaunas or Wilno. Some families broke apart under these extreme conditions, while others drew closer together.

The arrival of refugees and deportees into some of the already overcrowded ghettos brought new problems; housing and supplies had to be guaranteed for new ghetto inhabitants, who did not have any connections, had no work and in many cases hardly any belongings [Document C05]. They were dependent on public-aid by the Jewish Councils and/or the Self-Help Organisations [see b) Jewish Administrations]. Especially when German Jews came to the Eastern European ghettos, such as Lodz and Warsaw, groups that hardly had anything in common except for falling under the Nazi definition of being a “Jew” were forced to live together under terrible circumstances. In Minsk and Riga the situation was different, as large parts of the local population were shot in order to make space for the arrival of the transports from the Reich. For these German or Austrian Jews daily life in the ghettos was an absolute shock, no matter how bad their situation back home had been. They were in no way prepared for the reality of the ghettos and many of them did not live long enough to get used to the situation.

Organising life and culture

It was not just the newcomers who found themselves thrust into a new reality: When the ghettos were established, the local population also had to get used to radical new conditions. Ripped out of their former normal lives, bereft of almost everything they had owned, in many cases unemployed, the new ghetto inhabitants had to organise their lives anew. They had to find a way to maintain their physical and mental health. At least in the larger ghettos where these structures could develop, both the official Jewish administrations and general members of society [see chapter b) Jewish Administartions] started organising help for the poor and the ill, but also an educational and cultural life. Many men, women and young people tried not to resign to their fate, but instead attempted to remain active and build up a society in which people cared for and helped each other. These activities were an important means of self-assertion. Many sources document the strong will of ghetto inhabitants to retain some sort of “normal” daily routine that was connected with their lives before the war – be it a normal family life, normal surroundings for children in an orphanage or school or a normal evening in a theatre.

Public kitchens were set up so that poor people were able to get a bowl of soup for a few pennies or even without paying – this often constituted their only meal each day. Doctors and nurses tried to help the sick in the hospitals as well as it was possible under these dire circumstances: In some cases hospitals had to move into the new ghetto borders where their new premises were unsuitable to the needs of a hospital. Medical drugs were missing and the constant lack of food made the patients even weaker. Due to the general conditions, the hospitals were also overcrowded. Often two or even more patients had to share a bed.

Diaries and memoirs testify how shocking the sight of hungry, sick and suffering children, wrapped in rags, was for the ghetto inhabitants and how important they all thought it was to help these youngest victims of ghettoisation. Many orphanages moved to the ghettos or were founded there to help children. The most famous was the one conducted by the author and educator Janusz Korczak in Warsaw, but there were many more (see document C03).

The youth was perceived as the future of the Jewish community. It also seemed important for people in the ghettos not only to feed, but also to educate their children, to ensure that they learnt about other realities than just the one in the ghetto, the reality of hunger, suffering and death. There were both clandestine and official schools where children and youngsters were taught and prepared for a life after the war. In schools and orphanages children also staged plays or sang in a chorus, sometimes even performing in public.

While some Jews lost their faith in the face of these terrible developments, other gained succour from religion in this situation. Rabbis were asked to rule on extreme questions that would have been unthinkable before [Document B06]. In some ghettos, like in Warsaw, Lodz or Wilno, there were cultural performances on a very high level as many actors and musicians were locked up inside the ghettos. Professional theatres and symphony orchestras were founded. There were also many groups of amateur actors or musicians who got together to play on a semi-professional basis. Often these performances were accompanied by social commitments as parts of the revenue was used to support orphanages, hospitals or soup kitchens, as all public welfare activities increasingly suffered from lack of funding. In cafes and restaurants, concerts or cabaret were performed as well.

In Wilno, where thousands of Jews were shot even before the ghetto was established in September 1941, a rich cultural life developed, too. There were intense discussions, however, as to whether it was appropriate to dance and sing when so many Jews had been killed. Slogans like “It is forbidden to sing in cemeteries” were written by passers-by on posters announcing the first concerts. Despite this, the performances in Wilno were also successful and attracted many visitors.

Many of these cultural activities were most likely only to be found in larger ghettos. We do not know enough about the situation in small ghettos, but surely there were at least similar activities on a less extensive level, like private readings or music circles. For many Jews who were forced to live in a ghetto for a certain period of time, it was a necessity to create an intellectual “Gegenwelt” to the destructive reality of the ghetto where they had to confront hunger, pain and death every day.

Andrea Löw