Warsaw Ghetto Life – 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 and will only be sampled. Before things became too difficult, it was possible to joke about the shortage of food, as was the case with the previously plump middle-aged women who laughed about no longer needing to diet. The ghetto slang for food coupons was Bona — bone — a play on the idea of throwing a dog a bone. Another bit of ghetto slang was the phrase, “to surrender [ration] coupons,” as a euphemism for “to die.” A poem has survived titled Fun Letztn Hurbn, “The Ration Card,” which ends: “To part with you is very hard / I won’t give up my darling card.” And another anonymous rhymer wrote:


      When we have nothing to eat,
      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 of soup, the main meal of the day, farther and farther. The neighbors and others who had no food were invited in, so more water was added to the soup. There came a 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 with apprehension. A young man, recently married, recalls the delight they felt when his wife could afford to buy a pound of horse meat to make a feast. Later, even horse meat was unavailable, and some ghetto residents were reduced to eating coagulated horse blood mixed with salt and pepper and spread on bread. Dr. Jakob Penson collected the blood from cows secretly slaughtered in the ghetto, mixed it with onions and a small amount of fat, and fed it to patients swollen with hunger edema. He hoped to increase their blood proteins in this way, and reduce the swelling, but it didn’t seem to help.

Starving Jewish boy in the Warsaw ghetto.  In the spring of 1941, shop workers were fainting from hunger, and the ghetto inmates had become blasé about seeing dead bodies lying in the streets although recollections of the bloated corpses of children remain vivid 45 years later. The chief historian of the ghetto, Emmanuel Ringelblum, recorded the case of a 6-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. A similar painful account is that of a family of four, starving, who were given some 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 by uncontrollable 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 in the house where Emmanuel Ringelblum lived, a father, mother, and their son all died of starvation on the same day in March 1941.

An unidentified inhabitant of the ghetto recorded seeing a boy, walking down Grzybowska 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 waif tried to make a meal of a package of starched collars. But nothing describes more nauseatingly the state of many of Warsaw’s Jews than the incident of a young girl walking to the doctor’s office, carrying a jar with a sample of her sick mother’s feces; the jar was snatched from her on the street and the contents gulped down by a starving man. Another version of this story, or a separate but similar occurrence, was related by Henryk Rubinlicht. His sister, a trained bacteriologist, was visiting a sick friend. She had some human excrement samples with 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 that the samples were eaten, though he is not explicit on that point.

When a woman committed suicide by jumping from the fifth floor of their building into the courtyard, she landed on a large cooking pot in which fish were being prepared. The pot collapsed and she lay dead, her head badly smashed. Pieces of brain lay mixed with the bloody fish. “Suddenly, small children crawled out of every nook and cranny; they headed for the scene like crawling ants. They grabbed the pieces of fish covered with brain and blood and shoved them into their mouths. I can never forget this scene.”

People of all ages died in the streets, in shelters, in homes, and in hospitals. 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, and often saw six to ten bodies lying in the street each day. Night-time created a special hazard because: “. . . even the most courageous or insensitive lost their nerve when, in the darkness of the night, they happened to accidentally step on some soft object that turned out to be a cadaver. On those occasions, invariably, hysterical screams rang out.

Dead man lying in street  Those found dead on the street usually had not died there. The family commonly removed a body from their home onto the street, after removing all evidence of identity. In that way, they might be able to use the extra ration card for a few days; if the family attended the funeral at the cemetery they were sure to stand well out of the way so as not to be recognized and risk having the card taken away.

Similarly in the refugee shelters, mothers hid dead children under beds for days in order to receive a larger food ration. An official Ordnungsdienst report for 22 July 1941 records the investigation conducted when the decomposed body of 6-year-old Moszek Borensztajn was found in front of Krochmalna 16. His mother, Chudesa, was found living in No. 14. She stated that the Judenrat refused to bury anyone without payment. Her child had died and she would soon die 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 the Borensztajns lived.

In desperation, starving mothers left their babies where pedestrian traffic in the ghetto was heaviest, or near a district Ordnungsdienst office, hoping that a passer-by would take pity on the child, or that the Jewish police would take it to an orphanage or other institution. Abandonments such as this happened almost daily.

Conditions were especially bad in prison. In Gesiowka, the prison on Gesia Street run by the Ordnungsdienst, there were 1600 prisoners in May 1942, about half men, half women. There was no sick bay or hospital, and many died from hunger. There were frequent cases of starvation-diarrhea, which had been found to 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 Pawiak Prison and to Gesiowka. Dr. L. Wulman, who had escaped from Warsaw to the USA some months after war broke out, reported in a letter to the Joint that in one month in 1941, TOZ had supplied 7,652 meals to two houses, one at Gesia 24, the other Dzielna 61. Wulman made a point of mentioning this otherwise banal fact because he knew that Gesiowka and Pawiak Prison were located on these streets under the numbers given. He concluded that TOZ had been compelled to take over the feeding of the inmates of these institutions.

An infuriating contrast based on food partially explains the hatred aroused by the Ordnungsdienst amongst the ordinary Jews of the ghetto. Amidst scenes of starving beggars and emaciated corpses there were a few Jews such as Szerynski,the head of the Ordnungsdienst, and his deputy, Stanislaw Czaplinski.  Because of their positions, these men had unlimited though illicit access to food. Adler, a deputy in the Ordnungsdienst, has described the effect: “On the hunger-stricken streets of the Jewish Quarter, the sight of Szerynski and Czaplinski, those two obese men rolling along, produced a tragi-comic effect.”

Another highly visible victim of his own gluttony was the lawyer who headed the tribunal set up by “The 13.” Aleksander Bramson had been corpulent before the war; with his new position and the resulting easy access to black market food and drink, this morbidly obese man grew even fatter. “He presented a fantastic and almost unbelievable sight with his insatiable appetite when he sat stuffing food into himself at a loaded table in the Adas restaurant where the ‘court’s’ clientele gathered to drink and to make deals. . . .”

Starvation as Policy

Vendor of bred in the Warsaw ghetto.  After they occupied Poland, the Nazis laid down a table of rations for all who resided there. Hans Frank, the governor of the General gouvernement,predicted unequivocally that the Nazis had condemned 1,200,000 Jews to death by starvation. The provision of food in the General gouvernement was difficult from the beginning. The Germans prohibited the importation of food from the Reich,including those parts of Poland that had been incorporated into the Reich as soon as the surrender took place in 1939. Thus Warsaw effectively was cut off from its usual source of supply, the farms of western Poland.

At first there was no differentiation between the food allowances for Poles and for Jews, but as the Nazi machine revealed its increasingly restrictive and destructive policies against the Jews, they were deprived even more than were gentile Poles. And the Nazis were quite capable of biased distribution of food relief, 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 brought motorized kitchens with them. These traveled throughout Warsaw and fed large numbers of Poles, “. . . but Jews were not permitted to receive any food through this source. It was obvious that this caravan feeding was conducted as propaganda to curry favor with the Poles….” This discriminatory relief was confirmed by William McDonald, an American Quaker official of the Commission for Polish Relief, who visited Warsaw early in October 1939. He described an automobile procession of 142 cars, three miles long, distributing 250,000 meals daily. None of these meals was served to Jews. When he returned to Berlin he was informed by the National Socialist Welfare Organization (a propaganda arm of the Nazis) that “. . . the word Pole does not under any circumstance include Jews.”

Rationing began in December 1939, though the fact that an item was rationed did not mean that one necessarily could buy it. In May 1940, the bread ration was cut from 500 gm daily to 200 gm for Jews, though Poles continued to receive 570 gm. Moreover, from this time Jews were allowed essentially no sugar. Poles could obtain limited amounts.

Thus although the non-Jewish Poles were hungry too, their situation was not nearly as bad as it was in the ghetto. Various estimates show that Christian Poles received about 500 calories officially. The allotment for patients in general hospitals was increased from 1000 to 1400 calories during 1942. Despite this change, hospitals were hardly idyllic places with respect to rations.

One Jewish woman who had taken up a Christian identity in Warsaw told of looking after a friend who had a baby in a Warsaw hospital. She had to struggle to 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 orphanages and nursing homes, the ration remained at 500 calories, the standard Polish daily caloric supply. Because of steadily diminishing resources, the caloric value of self-help meals provided in Christian Warsaw fell from 460 calories in December 1940 to 153 calories in July 1941.

By 1941, the official ration provided 2613 calories per day for Germans in Poland (including the Volkdeutsch), 699 calories for Poles, and 184 calories for Jews in the ghetto. Gutman states rather naively that there was “little chance”of surviving on the official ration alone. Actually, there was not the slightest chance for Poles or Jews to survive on the official ration.

Gutman also makes the important observation that at no time during the existence 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 1940 and severe in 1942 as a generality. But one’s dietary status depended on whether one 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 in successive waves. People used up their money or lost their jobs, and these events took place at different times. Thus the population was never homogeneous with respect to their position on any imaginary scale between well-being and death by starvation.

Trunk has provided a graphic representation of the insolubility of the money/food equation in June 1941, midway through the existence of the ghetto. He presents a monthly budget, for a family of four Jews, to purchase from the black market only those staples not supplied in the Nazi ration. That is, what the family needed to survive, over and above what was officially permitted. The family needed to buy food that added up to a total monthly expenditure for staple foods alone of 1,114.16 zlotys. A skilled carpenter, if able to work at all, 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 Jews could not find any type of paid work. Both within the ghetto and in the rest of Warsaw, 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. The Nazis forbade raises, and then claimed that there was no inflation, only high prices. Inside the ghetto, food prices increased 27 times.

By way of comparison with the food supply in the ghetto, prisoners-of-war from the Western nations averaged perhaps 1700 calories from German supplies,though one estimate suggested a range of only 128 to 684 calories a day. The remainder needed to sustain health came from the highly esteemed Red Cross parcels. Fortunately for the POWs, Red Cross supplements usually were available. French civilians in Northern France during the war averaged 1200 calories during 1941. For an ordinary-sized adult, performing only sedentary activities, the minimum caloric intake needed simply to sustain the status quo is between 2,000 and 2,400 calories daily. This figure is the same whether one is German or Polish, Christian or Jewish.

Yet German policy depended upon who was interpreting it. While Hans Frank calmly observed the Jews starving to death on 200 calories daily, Dr. Wilhelm Hagen 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 was sincere the likelihood of being able to do this was small. And, of course, it did not happen. On 19 August 1941, Heinz Auerswald told Czerniakow that theKrakow administration of the General gouvernement “. . . is also inclined not to starve out the ghetto Jews. However, the ration cannot be increased at this point 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 the expense 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 of 1940. There, on 11 November 1940, “Missie” Vassiltchikov saw a dead donkey being carried in the back door of her butcher’s shop.

Nevertheless, had the Nazis wanted to do so, the rations to the Jews probably could have been increased at least to the level of bare subsistence. But we know now, unequivocally, that by late 1941 or early 1942, the Final Solution had as its avowed end point the extermination of the Jews. Thus increasing their rations could not have become policy.

The midday meal in the ghetto varied, depending upon who you were and what your resources were. Lewin has summarized the various alternatives for those who were 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 the small minority who could afford it, however, a lunch could be purchased that included nourishing soup, a large portion of meat, vegetables, and dessert, forup to 20 zloty. This was apparently outside Lewin’s means since he outlined the meal “as it was described to me.” Yehoshua Perle left an account of the daily food available to a “permitted” person in the shrunken, broken-up ghetto that remained after the major deportations of the summer of 1942. By then, everyonewas merely a number:


    My number receives one quarter of a loaf of loamy bread a day, a tasteful stew,consisting of cooked water, a potato that has been stolen earlier from the pot by someone or other, and also two or three grains of groats which swim around eternally chasing one another and, alas, never catch up. Moreover, from time to time they allot to my number an egg of yesteryear with a drop of blood in it, sometimes a lick of honey, and once in a century also a tiny lump of ancient meat which, crush it into as many pieces as you wish, will never have the taste of vintage wine.

With a prescribed ration of about 200 calories daily, how did the Jews survive almost two years in the ghetto? Many attempts were made to increase the daily ration. All efforts to have the German supplies increased proved to be dead ends. But other routes were more effective. These included the provision of 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, most commonly, the purchase on the black market of smuggled food.

Before the war, estimations had suggested that a laborer required 2380 calories per day. The official ration actually received in the ghetto in January 1941 was 219 calories (9.2% of normal), and in August 1941, 177 calories (7%). Yet more calories actually were received, thanks to the various clandestine methods mentioned. In December 1941, actual caloric intake was estimated to be 784 calories for beggars and 1125 for the general population, with a select few receiving as many as 1665 calories daily. These figures include food from all sources.

What did the actual 800-calorie diet for refugees contain? Researchers in the 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 was grossly deficient in vitamins.” The consequence was predictable. Trunk estimated the percentage of refugees swollen with starvation edema in four centers: at Stawki 9, 49 percent; at Dzika 3, 62 percent; at Grzybowska 48, 63 percent; and at Zelazna 64, a remarkable 73 percent. In May-June 1941 there were about 20,000 refugees living in the centers; 609 died of hunger, only four from typhus.

One startling observation emphasizes the severity of the hunger even before the ghetto was set up. In May 1940, the public kitchens had to be closed for 10 days, and by the end of this time a large number of cases of starvation edema were diagnosed. The Jews being fed from these kitchens were chronically and severely undernourished despite the feedings. Otherwise edema would not have appeared so quickly.

In hospitals in the ghetto, starving children, often bloated with the edema that accompanies hunger, were given half a powdered egg and one vitamin C tablet daily, in addition to whatever daily ration of food was available. The supplement had to be distributed by the doctors because the ward attendant, himself swollen with hunger, “. . . cannot handle the torture of the distribution.” Only doctors and nurses received special rations: 500 grams of soup and 60 gms bread. Other hospital employees did not get this ration, so the doctors and nurses had a meeting and agreed that everyone in the hospital would share, each therefore getting the same amount: 300 grams of soup and 40 grams of bread 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.