After almost a six-month break, the WGM returns with the series “The Taste of Life in the Ghetto” by Agnieszka Witkowska-Krych, in which the author introduces, among others issues of feeding the ghetto’s inhabitants, the activitty of the feeding points organised ad hoc for the starving residents and kitchens feeding children and babies, and the 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
Trading House – 14 Leszno Street
Before the war, the building at 14 Leszno Street housed a well-known male gymnasium, founded in 1915 by Jakub Finkel, who held the position of its director for many years. It was an eight-grade institution with the humanities profile, with incomplete rights of a state gymnasium. The language of the lecture was Polish. Jews were the vast majority of its teachers. During the occupation, the gymnasium building ceased to fulfill its educational functions and became a place where various institutions were located, which included welfare institutions. They also operated in the ghetto. One of them was self-sufficient folk kitchen, intended for social activists and officials. Abraham Lewin wrote that two types of dinners were served there, the more modest one, which cost 2.25 zlotys and consisted of a soup with vegetables, or a more generous one, at 3.50 zlotys and sold at the time along with a small piece of meat (The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto (Ringelblum Archive), vol. 23 , Warsaw 2015, p. 70. The same Lewin, writing about the kitchens organised for the residents of the ghetto, added that „a very small percentage of housewives cook dinners at home as in the good old days” (The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto (Ringelblum Archive), vol. 23, Warsaw 2015, p. 70). Among the documents collected by Emanuel Ringelblum’s collaborators, a letter from the end of June 1941 has survived, which is addressed to Icchak Giterman, in which the sender, Jakub Karo, who lived at Żelazna Street at the time, first thanks for the aid provided so far in the form of a food parcel, and secondly asks for another parcel, but also for permission to be granted a discount for dinners in the kitchen at 14 Leszno Street, which could be used by all his four-person family (Ringelblum Archive. Jewish Social Self-Help, vol. 27, Warsaw 2017, p. 552).
In addition to serving meals, the kitchen located at Leszno Street hosted various artistic events, including concerts (for example, in the first days of April 1942, an evening of the well-known singer Chana Braz, accompanied by other well-known ghetto artists, among others Anna Osser, Helena Ostrowska, and Michał Znicz took place). In the same building, in the premises occupied by the Fuel Department, a chess tournament was also organized, the profits of which were to be allocated to the action named: “The Winter Help” (Gazeta Żydowska 1942, no. 18, p. 2.).
The building at 14Leszno Street also had a distribution store, where – as we read in the surviving documents – in October 1941, the ghetto’s inhabitants were given bread, sugar, rye flour, oat and barley groats, wheat flour, lard, and bacon (Gazeta Żydowska 1942, No. 18, p. 708). In January 1942, the store was headed by a certain Zyskind, unknown by the first name, about which Gazeta Żydowska reported on its pages. (Gazeta Żydowska 1942, no. 6, p. 4.).
In the house which was also partly occupied by Jewish collaborators: Moryc Kohn and Zelig Heller, a traiding house, founded by them, was also located. It was this enterprise that, as Abraham Lewin wrote, that was licensed to import fish into the ghetto (The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto (Ringelblum Archive), vol. 23 , Warsaw 2015, p. 225). The following scene was supposed to take place in front of this building: „A policeman stopped a boy who snatched bread [from someone]. The policeman screamed louder and louder and began beating the boy. A man approached him and began to shout at him. A police officer arrived and started to take care of the one who intervened. He did not think for a long time and slapped the policeman on the face. An answer was given to the question about who the man was «It’s Kohn, of course»” (The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto (Ringelblum Archive), vol. 23 , Warsaw 2015, p. 226.).
Not everyone, however, had the possibility to make use of Kohn’s protection. Abraham Lewin recalled another event in his diary, which also took place at 14 Leszno Street. He wrote: „Hunger and poverty in Warsaw devour everyone. The streets are still full of unconscious and swollen people. The city of Jews is dying and there is no one to worry about it. I was at the courtyard ar 14 Leszno Street. A young boy, eighteen years old, is standing next to the containers and is eating out of the rubbish. This lasts for a long time. After two hours I was in the courtyard again, and the boy still couldn’t come away from the rubbish” (The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto (Ringelblum Archive), vol. 23 , Warsaw 2015, p. 225). Hunger was stronger than disgust.
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 author 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.
Photo: 14 Leszno Street, 1940, Referat Gabarytów, State Archive in Warsaw