Excerpts from Chapter 9: Courage Under Siege

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Courage Under Siege:
Disease, Starvation and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto

(New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).


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From Chapter 9, pp. 183-185:


The attitude of the Jews of the ghetto to child birth inevitably was strongly affected by what they saw going on around them. They knew how increasingly unlikely it was that children could survive. This conclusion naturally affected their feelings about having children in the ghetto. The birth rate fell drastically. In Warsaw at the beginning of 1942, the ratio of births to deaths was 1:45, whereas normally the ratio would be approximately 1:1.

Nevertheless, there were some births. Maternity hospitals were located at Elektoralna 11, Twarda 35, and Ceglana 17. But babies also were born in Czyste hospital, in the mother’s home, and even in bunkers while hiding from the Nazis.

Dr. Wigdorowicz describes one childbirth that took place at the Leszno 1 division of Czyste. She remembered being horrified at first that anyone would dream of having a baby at such a time. Then her human sympathy took over, faced with a terrified mother whose husband had been in a labor camp for eight months; she had three children at home and had had no money to pay for an abortion. She had already sold her last pillow to put some food in their mouths.

Not everyone was unsympathetic to the idea of creating new Jews despite the uncompromisingly bleak outlook. One unknown diarist commented, on seeing two pregnant Jewish women in the Warsaw ghetto:

“If in today’s dark and pitiless times a Jewish woman can gather enough courage to bring a new Jewish being into the world and rear him, this is great heroism and daring. . . . At least symbolically these nameless Jewish heroines do not allow the total extinction of the Jews and of Jewry.”

The Starkopf family couldn’t afford an obstetrician, so their baby daughter was delivered at home with the help of a midwife. Pele, the mother, lay on the dining room table. Because anesthetics were impossible to find, she had the baby while she was fully conscious. The next day, the midwife returned and stitched up Pele’s episiotomy, again without anesthesia.

Far worse was the experience of an anonymous Jewish woman who gave birth, in January 1943, while hidden along with several others in an attic. The Nazis were searching for hidden Jews to be either shot on the spot or taken to theUmschlagplatz and hence to Treblinka. The young woman gave birth without uttering a sound: “. . . every sound, every murmur, even the slightest, caused antipathy and hostility among our companions of misfortune.” What of the baby’s cries? It died later, it is said, from lack of nourishment.

Crying, noisy children were a serious problem in the bunkers. Discovery by the Germans meant certain death. In one of the Mila Street bunkers, in April 1943, some of the Jews tried to persuade mothers of crying children to give them Gardenal (a barbiturate preparation). At first the women were too frightened fortheir children to agree, but eventually they gave their approval. The drug must have worked, since an observer lived to tell the story.

One young doctor in hiding with, among others, a pregnant woman, remembers the joy the expectant woman radiated at feeling the baby move in her belly. But when it was born she smothered the child because its crying would have betrayed the group. The doctor carried the body away in a cardboard box.

The Starkopf baby survived its birth, and later was drugged also, though under different circumstances. The parents devised a plan for escape. To succeed, the scheme required a “dead” baby for them to follow, weeping, to the Jewish cemetery. There, with suitable bribes, they could see an empty casket buried and then escape over the cemetery wall. A doctor friend injected the little girl with something that put her to sleep, and the plan worked.

But if some babies not only were born, but were welcomed, many were not. Edelman relates an experience during one of the late deportations in the ghetto. While the Nazis were actually clearing out patients on the first floor of the hospital, a baby was being born upstairs. A doctor and a nurse were with the mother:


      And when the baby was born, the doctor handed it to the nurse, and the nurse laid it on one pillow, and smothered it with another one. The baby whimpered for a while and then grew silent. This woman was nineteen years old. The doctor didn’t say a thing to her. Not a word. And this woman knew herself what she was supposed to do.

This nurse survived the war and became a prominent pediatrician.

In another situation, Edelman remembered, it was 8 September 1942. A hospital in a vocational school was being liquidated. As the Germans entered the ground floor, a woman doctor poisoned a number of children, giving them cyanide. “She saved those children from the gas chamber. People thought she was a hero.” The heroism was not only that she saved these sick children from a hideous final few hours, but also that the cyanide she used was her own. Having given it to shorten the sufferings of these children, she had none left for herself.

Statue commemorating Janus Korczak.
  Children who survived the ghetto and the subsequent concentration camps usually did so at great cost, physically and mentally. When Dachau was liberated, the American commander forced the German inhabitants of the town to visit the camp and see with their own eyes what Naziism had achieved. An elderly woman, correctly dressed all in black, spoke to one inmate, expressing her compassion.

“‘It must have been very difficult for people your age to endure all this suffering.’

‘How old do you think I am?’ Livia asked her.

‘Maybe sixty,maybe sixty-two,’ replied the German woman.

‘Fourteen,’ replied Livia.'”

The German woman crossed herself and fled in horror.


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.


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