The Ghetto -

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Resource Type: Peula in: English
Age: 8-18
Group Size: 10-50
Estimated Time: 45 minutes

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Resource Goal

Aims OF Peula:

To learn about the concept of the ghetto

To see a little about what life was like in the ghetto

To think about what names say about a Person and why we are called Bnei Akiva

Resource Contents

The Warsaw Ghetto! Mila 18! Korczak! Anielewicz!

The dehumanization process that took place in the ghettos is difficult for us to understand. It was all part of the Second War against the Jews - the psychological war.

When the Nazis entered a region the first goal was to "relocate" Jews from the countryside to the larger cities. The Jews were to be placed in large cities and settlements at points located along railroad lines, "so as to facilitate subsequent measures" (Heydrich).

While this "interim stage of the ghettoization" was instituted our people sought to form a Jewish life and viable community, and did not give in to the Nazi campaign of destruction despite severe living conditions in the ghetto.

In this weeks peula you will come face to face with life in the ghetto. Read with your mind open. Try to project yourself into the readings. If you walk the streets of Warsaw and Cracow, you will only hear the normal noise of a city. But fifty years ago the sounds and sites were radically different. Each building has a thousand stories. Each square shouts out in Yiddish about the life that was obliterated. Each street whispers to us of the hundreds of thousands of Jewish souls that walked there before you. Each step you take will lead you to a better understanding of life in the ghetto.

Hitler's War Against the Jews

One of the earliest prayers still in use today is the Birkat Hamazon, the blessing said after eating. The Jews have long recognized that food is basic to life and even in times of plenty they have not taken sustenance for granted. The Torah commands that one bless God after partaking of a meal, for it is through God's infinite goodness that creation sustains us (Deuteronomy 9:10). The ancient rabbis pointed out that where poverty and famine exist, there is no time for people to study -- all their time is taken up in finding enough to eat. "If there is no flour, there is no Torah" (Avot ) became a basic Jewish dictum.

It was one of the great miracles of the Holocaust that Jews deprived of sustenance were able to find strength in one another.

Night - Elie Wiesel

Two ghettos were set up in Sighet. A large one, in the center of the town, occupied four streets, and another smaller one extended over several small side streets in the outlying district. The street where we lived,

Serpent Street
, was inside the first ghetto. We still lived, therefore, in our own house. But as it was at the corner, the windows facing the outside street had to be blocked up. We gave up some of our rooms to relatives who had been driven out of their flats.

Little by little life returned to normal. The barbed wire which fenced us in did not cause us any real fear. We even thought ourselves rather well off; we were entirely self-contained. A little Jewish republic...We appointed a Jewish Council, a Jewish police, an office for social assistance, a labor committee, a hygiene department-a whole government machinery.

Everyone marveled at it. We should no longer have before our eyes those hostile faces, those hate-laden stares. Our fear and anguish were at an end. We were living among Jews, among brothers...

Of course, there were still some unpleasant moments. Every day the Germans came to fetch men to stoke coal on the military trains. There were not many volunteers for work of this kind. But apart from that the atmosphere was peaceful and reassuring.

The general opinion was that we were going to remain in the ghetto until the end of the war, until the arrival of the Red Army. Then everything would be as before. It was neither German nor Jew who ruled the ghetto - it was illusion.

On the Saturday before Pentecost (Shavuot), in the spring sunshine, people strolled, carefree and unheeding, through the swarming streets. They chatted happily. The children played games on the pavements. With some of my schoolmates, I sat in the Ezra Malik gardens, studying a treatise on the Talmud.

Night fell. There were twenty people gathered in our back yard. My father was telling them anecdotes and expounding his own views of the situation. He was a good story teller.

Suddenly, the gate opened and Stern - a former tradesman who had become a policeman--came in and took my father aside. Despite the gathering dusk, I saw my father turn pale.

"What's the matter?" we all asked him.

"I don't know. I've been summoned to an extraordinary meeting of the council. Something must have happened."

The good story he had been in the middle of telling us was to remain unfinished.

"I'm going there," he went on. "I shall be back as soon as I can. I'll tell you all about it. Wait for me."

We were prepared to wait for some hours. The back yard became like the hall outside an operating room. We were only waiting for the door to open - to see the opening of the firmament itself. Other neighbors, having heard rumors, had come to join us. People looked at their watches. The time passed very slowly. What could such a meeting mean?

"I've got a premonition of evil," said my mother. "This afternoon I noticed some new faces in the ghetto-two German officers, from the Gestapo, I believe. Since we've been here, not a single officer has ever shown himself..."

It was nearly . No one had wanted to go to bed. A few people had paid a flying visit to their homes to see that everything was all right. Others had returned home, but they left instructions that they were to be told as soon as my father came back.

At last the door opened and he appeared. He was pale. At once he was surrounded.

"What happened? Tell us what happened! Say something!"

How avid we were at that moment for one word of confidence, one sentence to say that there were no grounds for fear, that the meeting could not have been more commonplace, more routine, that it had only been a question of social welfare, of sanitary arrangements! But one glance at my father's haggard face was enough.

"I have terrible news," he said at last. "Deportation."

The ghetto was to be completely wiped out. We were to leave street by street, starting the following day.

We wanted to know everything, all the details. The news had stunned everyone, yet we wanted to drain the bitter draft to the dregs.

"Where are we being taken?"

This was a secret. A secret from all except one; the President of the Jewish Council. But he would not say; he could not say. The Gestapo had threatened to shoot him if he talked.

"There are rumors going around," said my father in a broken voice, "that we're going somewhere in Hungary, to work in the brick factories. Apparently, the reason is that the front is too close here..."

And, after a moment's silence, he added:

"Each person will be allowed to take only his own personal belongings. A bag on our backs, some food, a few clothes. Nothing else."

Again a heavy silence.

"Go and wake the neighbors up," said my father. "So that they can get ready."

The shadows beside me awoke as from a long sleep. They fled silently, in all directions.

  • If you had to move into the ghetto and could only bring what you could carry in your hands, WHAT WOULD YOU BRING?

This question may be more personal if you lived in Southend and had to evacuate your home because of a hurricane, or if you lived in the Wales and had to rush out of your home because of a flood.

As the Nazis moved into each city

"The Holocaust, Can It Happen To Me?..."

Orders to move into the ghettos were given by large signs which were posted throughout the town and through loud speakers blaring announcements that the death penalty would be dealt to anyone who disobeyed. Movement into the ghettos was also facilitated by the victims' belief that this was the final measure of persecution against them and that the war would soon end. Unaware of the Nazis' plans to completely destroy them, they resigned themselves to the move. Furthermore, many of the Jews hoped that living together in mutual cooperation and self-rule would make it a little easier to withstand the Nazi brutality they had so often been exposed to as individuals. The assumption was (and the Nazis encouraged this belief) that if they carried out the Nazis' orders and were beneficial to the Nazis by being productive, they would be left alone. However, it was not long before it was discovered that these were false hopes.

Ghetto Features and Conditions

In most cases, ghettos were established in the poorest sections of the cities in Poland. Before the war, these areas had frequently been crowded Jewish neighborhoods. When the ghetto was established, the non-Jews had to leave (although many went to better apartments vacated by Jews who had been forced to abandon them) and Jews from other neighborhoods were ordered to move there. In order to concentrate Jews scattered throughout the countryside, those who lived in the rural areas were brought to the cities and also moved into the ghettos.

Conditions in almost all of the ghettos in Poland were inhuman. There was rationing of food to starvation levels. For example, in Warsaw, the largest of the ghettos in Poland, food allocation amounted to 183 calories per day; the Poles received 934, foreigners 1,790 and the Germans 2,310. The average ration per person each month was four pounds of bread. The bread dough was mixed with sand, sawdust and chestnuts. Periodically jam, made from beets and saccharine, was distributed. The Germans also were quite willing to bring in potatoes and "brukiew" (a large squash) -- provided it had frozen and turned rotten. Hunger was never ending.

One survivor who was 13 years old when she was in the Warsaw Ghetto, related her memory of the evening her mother put before her a sort of brown meat which looked like liver. Half-starved she could not believe her good fortune. The liver was exceptional, without any veins or coarseness. The young girl asked, "How were you so lucky to get the meat?" Her mother confessed that the "liver" was actually blood that had been taken from a dead horse and boiled until it had jelled. The young girl was nauseous but held herself back from vomiting.

In November 1941, the monthly ration consisted of:2 1/2> oz. fat; 3.3 lbs. of bread; 4.4 lbs. of potatoes. People grew onions in the cracks between cobblestones. Turnips became a luxury item.

Go to your kitchen, measure 50 grams of bread; this is your food for the day.

Testimony of Jan Karski, University Professor, U.S.A., former courier of the Polish government, in exile.

In the middle of 1942, I was thinking to take up again my position as a courier between the Polish (National) underground and the Polish government in exile in London. The Jewish leaders in Warsaw learned about it. A meeting was arranged...A few days later we established contact. By that time the Jewish ghetto did not exist anymore. Out of 400,000 Jews some 300,000 were already deported from the ghetto... So now comes the description of it, yes? Well... naked bodies on the street. I ask him: Why are they here?"

The corpses you mean?"

Corpses," he says, "Well they have a problem. If a Jew dies and the family wants a burial, they have to pay tax on it. So they just throw them in the street. They cannot afford it..."

Did it look like a completely strange world?"

It was not a world. There was no humanity. Streets full, full. Apparently all of them lived in the street, exchanging what was most important, everybody offering something to sell - three onions, two onions, some cookies. Selling. Begging each other. Crying and hungry... It wasn't humanity. It was some... some hell!"

In a corner, some children were playing something with some rags - throwing the rags to one another. He says, "they are playing, you see. Life goes on. Life goes on." So then I said: "they are simulating playing. They don't play."

  • Is there one word you can find to describe life in the ghetto?

Administration of the Ghetto

In the ghettos in Poland, the German authorities appointed a council of Jewish leaders to carry out their orders. These councils were called the "Judenrat." Although their powers were extremely limited, these councils, under strict German supervision, were faced with the impossible task of trying to organize ghetto life under ceaseless pressure and threats. Certain Jewish activities, such as religious services, were either closely monitored or forbidden outright. All political activity was prohibited, the main task of the Judenrat was to carry out the orders of their German overseers. In addition, they had to develop and provide health and welfare services and a police system. In the chaotic mass of frightened impoverished, starving residents, the task of meeting basic human needs was impossible and developing a police system from within their own ranks -- something completely foreign to the Jewish community -- was filled with problems and corruption. From the Nazi point of view, these councils served the darker purpose of having to collect and provide ransom money on demand, goods and services, and most important of all, people for deportations. The Nazis savagely exerted their power over the Judenrat and Jewish police. For example, in the Warsaw Ghetto when deportations were stepped up towards the end of the ghetto's existence, Jewish police were ordered to deliver seven people per day. If they didn't, their own families were taken.

The Nazis shrewdly recognized the potential of using Jewish leaders to coerce the population into their scheme of "resettlement." Initially, this deception was encouraged by the inducement of food which brought out many of the ghetto residents. However, if the Jewish leaders could convince their people that they were going to better living conditions, the task of evacuating the ghetto residents to the concentration camps would be substantially easier. Until the councils recognized the true fate of the deportations, some of them complied with the Nazi orders.

Members of the Judenrat were not accorded equal status and usually one person carried the weight of responsibility for the Judenrat's decisions. This individual was charged with the moral dilemma of giving into the Nazi demands now (with the hope or expectation of saving the rest) or resisting these demands completely (with the expectation of severe reprisals). Particularly noteworthy was the reaction of the head of the Warsaw ghetto Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow. He interceded with the German authorities in every way possible to alleviate the suffering of the people in the ghetto. Three days later, following the Nazis demand that Czerniakow cooperate with them in rounding up Jews destined for the deportations, he committed suicide.

His diary, most of which was recovered, tells of the anguish and the hopelessness of his situation as increasingly stringent orders were issued and he was forced to stand by and see his people die. Although exempted from the deportations (at least until the ghetto was liquidated -- a fact unknown to the council members) he chose death rather than to turn against his people.

The story of the Jewish councils has generated considerable controversy. Many of them have been condemned for willingly complying with Nazi demands. Yet there were extreme differences among the councils. Some appear to have been corrupted by their status, using their position to escape their own impending death or to reap benefits not accorded to those in their care; others acted in ways that can only be called heroic.

What types of bureaucratic decisions had to be made in order for the Holocaust to take place, to orchestrate the opening and eventual liquidation of the ghettos?

How did the ghettos unleash the psychological war against the Jews?

Glimpses of Ghetto Life.

Up to breathing, everything was forbidden. Everything was illegal."...
Ben Mead

Children of the ghetto - A cursed generation that played with corpses and death, that knew no laughter and no joy - children who were born into darkness and terror and fright; children who saw no sun."....
David Wdowinsky

  • One of the main characteristics about life in the ghetto was that there were no luxuries. So it would a good idea to not have the usual luxuries that you have in a meeting, for example sour sticks or any other kind of sweets. If you want to go further you could have the chanichim sitting on the floor and explain to them that sitting on a chair is a luxury.

  • Another part of life in the ghetto was that everyone was packed into one small space. There are various ways of getting this across. One of my favorites is twister, where you have to try and get as many people as possible playing.

  • So that these games canbe related to life in the ghetto, before you have any kind of discussion it might be an idea to trigger it off by asking someone to read the section in the choveret by Elie Wiesel.

  • If you know roughly which chanichim are going to come to your meeting then it would be a nice idea to prepare before hand a description of what their names mean. Then they can play a game of call my bluff so the rest of the group can try and work out which meaning is correct.

  • There are many reasons why Bnei Akiva is called after Rabbi Akiva. A way of giving this over to chanichim is to divide your group or sviva into small groups and each one has to prepare a play on a different part of Rabbi Akivas life. You can make it really funky by doing it in different styles or by putting in random quotes and objects. The plays can then be presented in an extra long mifkad Pop Idol Style.

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