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Excerpts from Chapter 6: Courage Under Siege
Excerpts from: Charles G. Roland,
Courage Under Siege:
Disease, Starvation and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).
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From Chapter 6, pp. 99-104:
Scenes of Hunger and Starvation
Anecdotal evidence attesting to this desperate situation is voluminous andwill only be sampled. Before things became too difficult, it was possible to jokeabout the shortage of food, as was the case with the previously plump middle-agedwomen who laughed about no longer needing to diet. The ghetto slang for foodcoupons was Bona — bone — a play on the idea of throwing a dog a bone. Anotherbit of ghetto slang was the phrase, “to surrender [ration] coupons,” as aeuphemism for “to die.” A poem has survived titled Fun Letztn Hurbn, “The RationCard,” which ends: “To part with you is very hard / I won’t give up my darlingcard.” And another anonymous rhymer wrote:
They gave us a turnip, they gave us a beet.
Here have some grub, have some fleas,
Have some typhus, die of disease.
Obviously, it was easier to rhyme “disease” with “fleas” than with “lice,”the true culprit in typhus.
One of the interviewees remembers her mother stretching the noon meal ofsoup, the main meal of the day, farther and farther. The neighbors and otherswho had no food were invited in, so more water was added to the soup. There camea time for most families when they had to stop inviting others to share a meal. One’s own family had to come first. Another survivor, a girl at the time,recalls how upset she was that her mother wouldn’t let her give food to beggars,not understanding that her own family was short of food and her mother sick withapprehension. A young man, recently married, recalls the delight they felt whenhis wife could afford to buy a pound of horsemeat to make a feast. Later, evenhorsemeat was unavailable, and some ghetto residents were reduced to eatingcoagulated horse blood mixed with salt and pepper and spread on bread. Dr. JakobPenson collected the blood from cows secretly slaughtered in the ghetto, mixed itwith onions and a small amount of fat, and fed it to patients swollen with hungeredema. He hoped to increase their blood proteins in this way, and reduce theswelling, but it didn’t seem to help.
In the spring of 1941, shop workers were fainting from hunger, and the ghettoinmates had become blasé about seeing dead bodies lying in the streets althoughrecollections of the bloated corpses of children remain vivid 45 years later. The chief historian of the ghetto, Emmanuel Ringelblum, recorded the case of a6-year-old beggar boy who lay in front of Muranowska 24 one night in August 1941,too weak to roll over to a piece of bread thrown down to him from a window. Asimilar painful account is that of a family of four, starving, who were givensome soup and four rolls. The two children ate their rolls, as did the father;the mother saved hers till the next day. During the night her husband, driven byuncontrollable hunger, crawled to her bed, stole the roll from under her pillow,and then fell over dead still clutching his shameful prize. In an apartment inthe house where Emmanuel Ringelblum lived, a father, mother, and their son alldied of starvation on the same day in March 1941.
An unidentified inhabitant of the ghetto recorded seeing a boy, walking downGrzybowska Street, bend over to sweep something up out of the dirt and eat it;there was some ersatz coffee made of roasted wheat mixed in the mud. One waiftried to make a meal of a package of starched collars. But nothing describesmore nauseatingly the state of many of Warsaw’s Jews than the incident of a younggirl walking to the doctor’s office, carrying a jar with a sample of her sickmother’s feces; the jar was snatched from her on the street and the contentsgulped down by a starving man. Another version of this story, or a separate butsimilar occurrence, was related by Henryk Rubinlicht. His sister, a trainedbacteriologist, was visiting a sick friend. She had some human excrement sampleswith her, en route to the laboratory, when they were snatched out of her hands. Since he is discussing the extremes of hunger at this point, we can assume thatthe samples were eaten, though he is not explicit on that point.
When a woman committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of theirbuilding into the courtyard, she landed on a large cooking pot in which fish werebeing prepared. The pot collapsed and she lay dead, her head badly smashed. Pieces of brain lay mixed with the bloody fish. “Suddenly, small childrencrawled out of every nook and cranny; they headed for the scene like crawlingants. They grabbed the pieces of fish covered with brain and blood and shovedthem into their mouths. I can never forget this scene.”
People of all ages died in the streets, in shelters, in homes, and inhospitals. As Adler observed, “Natural death in the street from hunger,exhaustion, exposure, heart attack, or infectious disease had become the rule.” Wdowinski used to walk about one kilometer from his home to Czyste Hospital, andoften saw six to ten bodies lying in the street each day. Night-time created aspecial hazard because: “. . . even the most courageous or insensitive lost their nerve when, in thedarkness of the night, they happened to accidentally step on some soft object that turned out to be a cadaver. On those occasions, invariably, hystericalscreams rang out.
Those found dead on the street usually had not died there. The familycommonly removed a body from their home onto the street, after removing allevidence of identity. In that way, they might be able to use the extra rationcard for a few days; if the family attended the funeral at the cemetery they weresure to stand well out of the way so as not to be recognized and risk having thecard taken away.
Similarly in the refugee shelters, mothers hid dead children under beds fordays in order to receive a larger food ration. An official Ordnungsdienstreport for 22 July 1941 records the investigation conducted when the decomposedbody of 6-year-old Moszek Borensztajn was found in front of Krochmalna 16. Hismother, Chudesa, was found living in No. 14. She stated that the Judenratrefused to bury anyone without payment. Her child had died and she would soondie also, precisely because she had no money. The boy had starved to death. Another body was found in the courtyard, and a third in the apartment where theBorensztajns lived.
In desperation, starving mothers left their babies where pedestrian trafficin the ghetto was heaviest, or near a district Ordnungsdienst office, hoping thata passer-by would take pity on the child, or that the Jewish police would take itto an orphanage or other institution. Abandonments such as this happened almostdaily.
Conditions were especially bad in prison. In Gesiowka, the prison on GesiaStreet run by the Ordnungsdienst, there were 1600 prisoners in May 1942, abouthalf men, half women. There was no sick bay or hospital, and many died fromhunger. There were frequent cases of starvation-diarrhea, which had been foundto be a sign that death is imminent. “In such cases people are not let out atall. They dirty themselves until they die.”
There is some evidence that TOZ may have been providing food both to PawiakPrison and to Gesiowka. Dr. L. Wulman, who had escaped from Warsaw to the USAsome months after war broke out, reported in a letter to the Joint that in onemonth in 1941, TOZ had supplied 7,652 meals to two houses, one at Gesia 24, theother Dzielna 61. Wulman made a point of mentioning this otherwise banal factbecause he knew that Gesiowka and Pawiak Prison were located on these streetsunder the numbers given. He concluded that TOZ had been compelled to take overthe feeding of the inmates of these institutions.
An infuriating contrast based on food partially explains the hatred arousedby the Ordnungsdienst amongst the ordinary Jews of the ghetto. Amidst scenes ofstarving beggars and emaciated corpses there were a few Jews such as Szerynski,the head of the Ordnungsdienst, and his deputy, Stanislaw Czaplinski. Because oftheir positions, these men had unlimited though illicit access to food. Adler, adeputy in the Ordnungsdienst, has described the effect: “On the hunger-strickenstreets of the Jewish Quarter, the sight of Szerynski and Czaplinski, those twoobese men rolling along, produced a tragi-comic effect.”
Another highly visible victim of his own gluttony was the lawyer who headedthe tribunal set up by “The 13.” Aleksander Bramson had been corpulent beforethe war; with his new position and the resulting easy access to black market foodand drink, this morbidly obese man grew even fatter. “He presented a fantasticand almost unbelievable sight with his insatiable appetite when he sat stuffingfood into himself at a loaded table in the Adas restaurant where the ‘court’s’clientele gathered to drink and to make deals. . . .”
After they occupied Poland, the Nazis laid down a table of rations for allwho resided there. Hans Frank, the governor of the Generalgouvernement,predicted unequivocally that the Nazis had condemned 1,200,000 Jews to death bystarvation. The provision of food in the Generalgouvernement was difficult fromthe beginning. The Germans prohibited the importation of food from the Reich,including those parts of Poland that had been incorporated into the Reich as soonas the surrender took place in 1939. Thus Warsaw effectively was cut off fromits usual source of supply, the farms of western Poland.
At first there was no differentiation between the food allowances for Polesand for Jews, but as the Nazi machine revealed its increasingly restrictive anddestructive policies against the Jews, they were deprived even more than weregentile Poles. And the Nazis were quite capable of biased distribution of foodrelief, even in the beginning. According to the leaders of the Joint in Warsaw,L. Neustadt and David Guzik, when the Germans entered the city they broughtmotorized kitchens with them. These traveled throughout Warsaw and fed largenumbers of Poles, “. . . but Jews were not permitted to receive any food throughthis source. It was obvious that this caravan feeding was conducted aspropaganda to curry favor with the Poles….” This discriminatory relief wasconfirmed by William McDonald, an American Quaker official of the Commission forPolish Relief, who visited Warsaw early in October 1939. He described anautomobile procession of 142 cars, three miles long, distributing 250,000 mealsdaily. None of these meals was served to Jews. When he returned to Berlin hewas informed by the National Socialist Welfare Organization (a propaganda arm ofthe Nazis) that “. . . the word Pole does not under any circumstance includeJews.”
Rationing began in December 1939, though the fact that an item was rationeddid not mean that one necessarily could buy it. In May 1940, the bread rationwas cut from 500 gm daily to 200 gm for Jews, though Poles continued to receive570 gm. Moreover, from this time Jews were allowed essentially no sugar. Polescould obtain limited amounts.
Thus although the non-Jewish Poles were hungry too, their situation was notnearly as bad as it was in the ghetto. Various estimates show that ChristianPoles received about 500 calories officially. The allotment for patients ingeneral hospitals was increased from 1000 to 1400 calories during 1942. Despitethis change, hospitals were hardly idyllic places with respect to rations.
One Jewish woman who had taken up a Christian identity in Warsaw told oflooking after a friend who had a baby in a Warsaw hospital. She had to struggleto find food to take to her friend since the hospital was woefully lacking. Dr.Hagen admitted that in health institutions outside the ghetto, such as orphanagesand nursing homes, the ration remained at 500 calories, the standard Polish dailycaloric supply. Because of steadily diminishing resources, the caloric value ofself-help meals provided in Christian Warsaw fell from 460 calories in December1940 to 153 calories in July 1941.
By 1941, the official ration provided 2613 calories per day for Germans inPoland (including the Volkdeutsch), 699 calories for Poles, and 184 calories forJews in the ghetto. Gutman states rather naively that there was “little chance”of surviving on the official ration alone. Actually, there was not the slightestchance for Poles or Jews to survive on the official ration.
Gutman also makes the important observation that at no time during theexistence of the ghetto did the entire public find itself in the same situation. It is tempting to simplify the facts and to think that hunger was slight in 1940and severe in 1942 as a generality. But one’s dietary status depended on whetherone was a native Varsovian or a refugee, and whether one had money or valuables,or was working regularly, or had neither money nor a job. Refugees arrived insuccessive waves. People used up their money or lost their jobs, and theseevents took place at different times. Thus the population was never homogeneouswith respect to their position on any imaginary scale between well-being anddeath by starvation.
Trunk has provided a graphic representation of the insolubility of themoney/food equation in June 1941, midway through the existence of the ghetto. Hepresents a monthly budget, for a family of four Jews, to purchase from the blackmarket only those staples not supplied in the Nazi ration. That is, what thefamily needed to survive, over and above what was officially permitted. Thefamily needed to buy food that added up to a total monthly expenditure forstaple foods alone of 1,114.16 zlotys. A skilled carpenter, if able to work atall, and working 10-11 hours daily, might earn about 1,000 zloty ($200) a month. And few Jews were skilled carpenters, one of the better paid trades; most Jewscould not find any type of paid work. Both within the ghetto and in the rest ofWarsaw, the increase in prices far exceeded any alterations in wages. Indeed,wages for the Jews probably decreased somewhat for those who could obtain work,while in gentile Warsaw wages doubled but prices increased by 20 times. TheNazis forbade raises, and then claimed that there was no inflation, only highprices. Inside the ghetto, food prices increased 27 times.
By way of comparison with the food supply in the ghetto, prisoners-of-warfrom the Western nations averaged perhaps 1700 calories from German supplies,though one estimate suggested a range of only 128 to 684 calories a day. Theremainder needed to sustain health came from the highly esteemed Red Crossparcels. Fortunately for the POWs, Red Cross supplements usually were available. French civilians in Northern France during the war averaged 1200 calories during1941. For an ordinary-sized adult, performing only sedentary activities, theminimum caloric intake needed simply to sustain the status quo is between 2,000and 2,400 calories daily. This figure is the same whether one is German orPolish, Christian or Jewish.
Yet German policy depended upon who was interpreting it. While Hans Frankcalmly observed the Jews starving to death on 200 calories daily, Dr. WilhelmHagen protested that the food supply in the ghetto needed to be improved up tothe bare subsistence level (einer Aufbesserung bis zum nackten Existenzminimum),which would have meant providing at least 2000 calories daily. Even if Hagen wassincere the likelihood of being able to do this was small. And, of course, itdid not happen. On 19 August 1941, Heinz Auerswald told Czerniakow that theKrakow administration of the Generalgouvernement “. . . is also inclined not tostarve out the ghetto Jews. However, the ration cannot be increased at thispoint because the newly captured territories [in the USSR] absorb a lot of food.” That is, the Nazis would permit nothing to benefit the Jews if it was at theexpense of any other group.
Germany itself had a serious shortage of food. Even in the capital city,Berlin, the heart of the Third Reich, food was scarce as early as the end of1940. There, on 11 November 1940, “Missie” Vassiltchikov saw a dead donkey beingcarried in the back door of her butcher’s shop.
Nevertheless, had the Nazis wanted to do so, the rations to the Jews probablycould have been increased at least to the level of bare subsistence. But we knownow, unequivocally, that by late 1941 or early 1942, the Final Solution had asits avowed end point the extermination of the Jews. Thus increasing theirrations could not have become policy.
The midday meal in the ghetto varied, depending upon who you were and whatyour resources were. Lewin has summarized the various alternatives for those whowere able to afford to pay anything at all for their food. For a large majority,the noon meal was a dish of watery soup for which they paid 90 groschen. For thesmall minority who could afford it, however, a lunch could be purchased thatincluded nourishing soup, a large portion of meat, vegetables, and dessert, forup to 20 zloty. This was apparently outside Lewin’s means since he outlined themeal “as it was described to me.” Yehoshua Perle left an account of the dailyfood available to a “permitted” person in the shrunken, broken-up ghetto thatremained after the major deportations of the summer of 1942. By then, everyonewas merely a number:
With a prescribed ration of about 200 calories daily, how did the Jewssurvive almost two years in the ghetto? Many attempts were made to increase thedaily ration. All efforts to have the German supplies increased proved to bedead ends. But other routes were more effective. These included the provisionof food to the poor by the Judenrat and by several social welfare agencies,direct smuggling of food by hungry Jews, increased production of food and, mostcommonly, the purchase on the black market of smuggled food.
Before the war, estimations had suggested that a laborer required 2380calories per day. The official ration actually received in the ghetto in January1941 was 219 calories (9.2% of normal), and in August 1941, 177 calories (7%). Yet more calories actually were received, thanks to the various clandestinemethods mentioned. In December 1941, actual caloric intake was estimated to be784 calories for beggars and 1125 for the general population, with a select fewreceiving as many as 1665 calories daily. These figures include food from allsources.
What did the actual 800-calorie diet for refugees contain? Researchers inthe ghetto estimated that there were 3 gm fat and 20 to 30 gm vegetable protein:”It consisted of dark bread, rye flour, kasha, potatoes, traces of butter, lard,oil, sugar, and a plateful of soup. It contained mostly carbohydrates and wasgrossly deficient in vitamins.” The consequence was predictable. Trunkestimated the percentage of refugees swollen with starvation edema in fourcenters: at Stawki 9, 49 percent; at Dzika 3, 62 percent; at Grzybowska 48, 63percent; and at Zelazna 64, a remarkable 73 percent. In May-June 1941 there wereabout 20,000 refugees living in the centers; 609 died of hunger, only four fromtyphus.
One startling observation emphasizes the severity of the hunger even beforethe ghetto was set up. In May 1940, the public kitchens had to be closed for 10days, and by the end of this time a large number of cases of starvation edemawere diagnosed. The Jews being fed from these kitchens were chronically andseverely undernourished despite the feedings. Otherwise edema would not haveappeared so quickly.
In hospitals in the ghetto, starving children, often bloated with the edemathat accompanies hunger, were given half a powdered egg and one vitamin C tabletdaily, in addition to whatever daily ration of food was available. Thesupplement had to be distributed by the doctors because the ward attendant,himself swollen with hunger, “. . . cannot handle the torture of thedistribution.” Only doctors and nurses received special rations: 500 grams ofsoup and 60 gms bread. Other hospital employees did not get this ration, so thedoctors and nurses had a meeting and agreed that everyone in the hospital wouldshare, each therefore getting the same amount: 300 grams of soup and 40 grams ofbread daily, per person.
From Charles G. Roland, Courage Under Siege: Disease, Starvation and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Copyright © 1992 Oxford University Press. Excerpts used by permission of author.