The Taste of Life in the Ghetto 13

We invite you to read another article by Agnieszka Witkowska-Krych in a series entitled “Life in the Ghetto”, in which the authoress writes about such issues as problems with feeding the residents of the ghetto, the activity of meal points that were organized on an ad hoc basis for its starving residents, as well as kitchens dedicated to children and infants, Transferstelle.

The author talks about the buildings of Courts that served as trafficking points for food smugglers, Janusz Korczak’s efforts to obtain help for the Main House of Shelter, the so-called house committees, about people and institutions which had to face a nearly impossible task: feeding and saving people from starving to death. The articles are published on our website every week. We invite you to read these uneasy accounts, based on diverse and solid sources.

Bogdan (Dawid) Wojdowski, born in Warsaw, was placed in the Warsaw ghetto as a teenager. He portrays the hunger that accompanied the life of the residents of the closed district in a dramatic novel entitled “Bread for the Departed”, based on facts and his own experiences: “The first days of hunger are the worst, then it becomes bearable. First comes the weariness, your arms and legs feel heavy, each word becomes a painful noise ringing in the ears. The colours do not bring joy to the eyes, the light hurts them. (…) You feel constant thirst; chapped lips dry out. The jaws clench of their own accord and you feel pain behind the ears at the sight of a tin spoon abandoned on a table. Then, thoughts about food start; terrible, exhausting daydreams. The stomach works like a syphon. A simple thought about a piece of swede is enough – suddenly your teeth tear the stringy pulp apart with a crunch, and the juice resembling black turnip, milder and sweetish in taste, flows down your throat and wets the swollen tongue, leaving a tart residue in the mouth. (…) The thought separates itself from swede and floats high above. – When will they bring the bread?” (1971, pp. 24-25).

Bread – the object of desire of dozens, hundreds of thousands of people crammed in a small, designated area of the so-called North District. People, the vast majority of whom died of hunger, illness, exhaustion, during displacement actions, and in the Treblinka death camp. Food: in the ghetto, next to people who were craving bread and dreamed about swede, there were those who ate at the L’Ourse café, and “Gazeta Żydowska” [“The Jewish Newspaper”] informed on August 1, 1941, that the kitchen at 11 Leszno Street „will distribute 50 grams of candy for adults and additionally for children.” This does not change the general picture of the place in which acquiring food was a matter of great importance – necessary for, but not a guarantee of survival.

Prof. Konrad Zieliński, Head of the Scientific and Research Department at the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.

Bakery – 56 Leszno Street

Definitely, one of the most desirable products in the ghetto was good quality bread. Official food rations were far from being sufficient, and what was available on the free market, even though not for everyone, was far from pre-war memories or even imaginations. The so-called ration card bread, although subject to official inspections, often did not meet any standards whatsoever. Baked using the economical method, from sometimes bizarre ingredients, it had neither taste nor nutritional value. In one of the issues of “Gazeta Żydowska” [“Jewish Gazette”] one could read that “bakers, instead of trying to make the consumer receive healthy, well-baked bread with a fair weight, often provide bread with an admixture, baked from sifted flour and with a fraudulent weight” (“Gazeta Żydowska” [“Jewish Gazette”] 1941, Issue 74, p. 2).

Henryk Bryskier, among others, wrote about how the quality of the ghetto bread used to be, recalling a case pending at the Group Thirteen [Pol. Urząd do Walki z Lichwą i Spekulacją]: “Baker accused of baking bread mixed with sand. Evidence in the case files. In order to determine the grounds for the accusation, the judge takes a sample of old bread into his mouth. You can hear the crackling of sand ground by teeth. The second analysis follows: a piece of bread goes into a glass of water in which sand is to fall from the softened bread to the bottom of the glass. The baker objects to this. He claims that the sand crackling in the chairman’s teeth is within standard limits and comes from millstones, that he received such flour from the baking allocation, and that any sediment in the glass cannot be reliable for assessment. The judge and the jury are not experts. During the council everyone is of the opinion that the bread contains a lot of sand and even other admixtures. The prosecutor insisted on severe punishment” (Henryk Brykier, Żydzi pod swastyką czyli getto w Warszawie w XX wieku [Jews Under the Swastika, i.e. the Warsaw Ghetto in the 20th century], Warsaw 2006, pp. 112-113).

This not always tasty ghetto bread, if it was placed on sale, was all the same an object of desire for many inhabitants. The people begging in the street would persistently ask the passers-by for even a piece of it. Bogdan Wojdowski, who stayed in the ghetto as a teenager, wrote about it after the war: “A bunch of beggars were approaching down the street. A steady hum was approaching, the rattle of tin plates shaken in despair. An outcry was approaching, the cry of a hungry crowd: <<People, good people, people, have mercy. Give us a piece of bread, people>>. Bowls and spoons of almoners rattled in fury” (Bogdan Wojdowski, “Chleb rzucony umarłym”) [“Bread Tossed to the Dead”], on-line access: , ibid: p. 15).

At 56 Leszno Street there was one of the bakeries belonging to Daniel Blajman who was the head of the Bakers Association in the ghetto. He came from a baker’s family, his father already in the twenties ran a well-known bakery at 19 Gęsia Street, which on the pages of “Nasz Przegląd” [“Our Review”] newspaper advertised at the time as Poland’s first automatic matzah factory (Nasz Przegląd 1926, issue 90 (1150), p. 1). People in the ghetto spoke of Daniel Blajman that on the one hand he was a financial tycoon (“The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto”. Part 2, v. 34, Warsaw 2016, p. 269), and on the other hand that he had supported the underground’s activity, but above all that he had provided bread and other food free of charge to the children in need. It is likely that it was his wife Felicja, also known for her assistance related activity, that Korczak’s letter was to be addressed to in which he asked for support for the largest ghetto orphanage, namely the Main Shelter Home. The draft of the letter’s contents has been preserved and it reads as follows: “Good and kind Madam. Have you heard about the ill-fated orphanage at 39 Dzielna Street? Ninety-six children died in January. Today Śliska [Street], formerly Chłodna, and even formerly Krochmalna has 200 kilos of hardtack from those that you donated. How much good they did when there was no bread. Let me visit you, ask you for advice (bread test) – to ask for a donation for children suffering from gastrointestinal tract problems” (“Janusz Korczak w getcie. Nowe źródła” [“Janusz Korczak in the Ghetto. New Sources”, elab. by Aleksander Lewin, Warsaw 1992, p. 131). Unfortunately, it is not known whether this letter was ultimately sent, nor is it known whether it triggered any reaction from the addressee.

Agnieszka Witkowska-Krych – cultural anthropologist, Hebraist, sociologist, in recent years curator at the Museum of Warsaw, researcher of Janusz Korczak’s life and legacy. She cooperates with the Forum for Dialogue Foundation and the Centre for Yiddish Culture. She is the authoress of texts on “the final matters” – the final journey of Korczak and his charges, the final performance given by the wards of the Jewish Orphanage, and the final notes in Korczak’s Diary.

Prepared by: Anna Kilian