The problem of ritual animal slaughter under German occupation

On October 6, 1939, Jewish ritual slaughter was officially banned by the German occupying forces.

A significant percentage of the ghetto population adhered to the Jewish religious laws and traditions regarding food in one way or another. One of their primary concerns was to obtain kosher meat that had been prepared in accordance with Halacha, Jewish religious law.

In the years preceeding the war there were twenty-six poultry slaughterers in Warsaw who operated from 44 Zamenhof street, 1 Twarda street and several other locations. Additionally, there were facilities in Praga, Wola and other suburban locations.

With the onset of war and the bombing of Warsaw, the volume of kosher production decreased dramatically, and by the second week only twenty percent of the regular volume was able to be prepared. On the eve of the Jewish New Year in 1939 only five-hundred birds were slaughtered, as opposed to the usual ten thousand geese, twenty thousand chicken etc.

On October 6, 1939, Jewish ritual slaughter was officially banned by the German occupying forces. Initially the ban referred only to cattle, but the poultry shochtim (slaughterers) were afraid to continue practicing their trade. The fear was not of the Germans, who were ignorant as to the locations of slaughterhouses and identities of individuals involved in the trade, rather the concern was that the local police would report their activity to the occupying authorities. An organised system of bribery was conceived whereby the head of each police district was paid in order to guarantee co-operation. A huge part of the income of the various slaughterhouses was consumed by these bribes, sometimes seventy to eighty percent. Additionally, they disguised their activities with signs displayed on slaughterhouse walls stating “Non- ritual” and various tools used by non-kosher butchers were strategically placed in case of inspection by the authorities.

This situation continued throughout the winter of 1939-40, but by the summer of 1940 the production had fallen to approximately one percent of pre-war levels. With the sealing of the ghetto it became impossible to import live fowl and production all but ceased. According to the writings of Rabbi Shimon Huberband who recorded the events in the ghetto, the strictly religious refrained from eating poultry, with the exception of meat smuggled in from the outlying areas.

Concerning the slaughter of cattle, as with poultry, the production was severely disrupted with the outbreak of hostilities. With the entry of the Germans, operations resumed in various locations. When the ban on ritual slaughter was publicised in the German press and the Kurier Warszawski on the 6th of October, 1939, many shochtim ceased to work. The work was performed clandestinely by younger workers amidst the ruins of Niska, Mila and Stawki Streets, Grzybowska, Walicow and Krochmalna Streets, Praga, Wola, and certain other locations. The meat for sale was hidden by the vendors amongst vegetables etc. to be taken out on request by customers. The rigorous pre-war Rabbinical supervision and certification was abandoned, causing the strictly religious to abstain from eating meat unless obtained from a reliable source. The local police became aware that ritual slaughter was still being performed and were bribed in order to obtain their co-operation. They would carry the knives of the shochtim from place to place, and escort the workers home after the curfew, claiming that they were being taken to the station. Non-Jewish skinners worked alongside the Jewish skinners. Approximately fifty to sixty large cattle, and a similar number of small cattle, were slaughtered each week, with the work performed primarily in the evenings.

When the ghetto was sealed the slaughter of cattle became impossible. In the first few weeks there were still some cattle within the boundaries of the ghetto that were used, and by the second week a number of people had managed to bribe certain guards to allow cattle to be smuggled in. The volume, however, was insignificant, leading butchers to organise ritual slaughter outside the ghetto and smuggle in the prepared beef for sale to the population. In order to achieve this, shochtim had to be smuggled out of the ghetto, after disguising themselves by shaving their beards and wearing non-Jewish clothing. A shochet would generally stay for a period of about two weeks outside the ghetto, in the house of a non-Jew, where the work would be performed.

This type of activity was carried out in Pelcowizna, Ochota, Brodno, Malichy and other locations. The meat was subsequently smuggled into the ghetto in the trucks of electricity, gas, medical and sanitation services. Guards and Volksdeutsche were bribed, enabling operations to continue un-hindered.

The strictly orthodox Jews were not satisfied with the standard of ritual slaughter of these shochtim for a variety of reasons, and eventually stopped buying from such sources, which led to the organisers of the trade abandoning the practice of using shochtim altogether and selling meat that was kosher only in name.

Kosher meat from Otwock, considered to be of a higher standard and therefore accepted by all, caused serious competition for the Warsaw dealers. The local sellers responded by smuggling live cattle in to the ghetto several times a week, which were then killed and prepared especially for the strictly orthodox. A shochet discovered practicing his trade was liable to be punished by death.

The subject of Rabbinical permission to eat not-kosher meat will be discussed in a separate article.

David Berman – Talmudic scholar, researcher of Jewish texts. Born in Sydney, Australia. Studied in Gateshead Yeshiva in the United Kingdom where he obtained his rabbinical ordination. After relocating to Israel, he lectured and continued his studies of Jewish law and classical Hebrew works in various institutions specialising in in-depth analysis of halacha, among them the Tzanz Talmudic Academy. He resides in Warsaw.

Sources: the accounts of Rabbi Shimon Huberband 1909-1942

Photo: Hans Frank’s decree of October 26, 1939, banning ritual slaughter (Wikipedia: B. Engelking, J. Leociak, D. Libionka, Prowincja noc. Życie i zagłada Żydów w dystrykcie warszawskim, Wydawnictwo IFiS PAN, Warszawa 2007)