The Taste of Life in the Ghetto #23. Smocza Street

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

Smocza Street

Beggars asking passers-by for food or holding out their hands for money to buy some were a common sight in the streets of the ghetto. They were both adults and children, trying to arouse people’s pity and obtain any kind of alms by begging, and often also by singing and playing instruments. One such scene, taking place in Smocza Street, was described by Janusz Korczak. In his text entitled Dwie trumny [Two coffins], which was intended for the pupils of the Orphanage he ran, one can read: “You know Smocza Street. It’s just the way it always was. So many people – crowded, rushing, bargaining, praising their wares out loud: one is selling potatoes, another, cigarettes, a third, clothing, a fourth, candies. The handsome lad lay quietly on the snow, very quietly, there can be no quiet more quiet than that. He lay on the white snow, on the clean white snow. His mother stood next to him, saying over and over again, with pauses: «People, help!». There is no doubt that she was his mother. She kept repeating only those two words, not shouting, repeating her words with a clear whisper and not adding anything: «People, help! People, help!». People passed by him, and no one tried to save him, and there was nothing bad about that, because the boy no longer need to be rescued. He lay quietly and tranquilly, bright and calm on the white snow. His mouth was slightly open, as though smiling. I didn’t notice the colour of his lips, but certainly they were purple. And his teeth were white. His eyes were also open, and in one eye, in the centre of the pupil, a small flash, and maybe the smallest of stars, a shining star. «People, help! People, help!». He does not need help. The boy is lying quietly and comfortably in the white snow. He is no more hungry, does not feel cold, only one his hand is holding the pocket of his overcoat; and his other hand is white, without bruises, not dark blue, not frostbitten. It is white and smooth. – The boy in the snow is holding his other hand quietly and gently” (Janusz Korczak. Pamiętnik i inne źródła z getta [Janusz Korczak. The diary and other sources from the ghetto], el. Marta Ciesielska, Warsaw 2012, pp. 230-231.).People dying of hunger were part of the ghetto landscape. While at the beginning their presence may have aroused compassion, with time passing by and against the background of increasing poverty, their presence became common. The sight of beggars sitting on the streets, and later also the bodies of people who died of hunger lying there, often naked, did not surprise anyone anymore. However, one of the most disturbing experiences of passers-by until the end of the ghetto’s existence was the sight of children’s dead bodies covered with posters of various charity campaigns. Rachela Auerbach wrote about this: “Life, especially life so ripe for death as in our closed-off city, sometimes fabricates bizarre and glaring symbolic cuts, like melodramatic conceptions in a banal film. I once saw with my own eyes a corpse of a child covered with the poster of the Children’s Month campaign. It was at the entrance to the patisserie, near the entrance to the building where kitchen and the Jewish police beat are located” Rachela Auerbach, Pisma z getta warszawskiego [Letters from the Warsaw Ghetto], Warsaw 2015, p. 125.). Stefan Chaskielewicz commented in a similar tone. He also observed equally farce and macabre picture on the street of the ghetto – that time, the corpse of a child was covered with a poster saying “Our children must live” (Stefan Chaskielewicz, Ukrywałem się w Warszawie [I was hiding in Warsaw], Krakow 1988, p. 116). Meanwhile, Emanuel Ringelblum noticed a waste visible to the naked eye. He wrote that that campaign “was conducted with the help of a huge poster advertisement (a new poster every two or three days), thus a great amount of money was spent on it”. (Emanuel Ringelblum, Kronika getta warszawskiego [The Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto], Warsaw 1983, p. 335).

After many years, the unfortunate advertising campaign was also commented by Maria Czapska, who wrote that those posters: “proclaimed the care of a child – the nation’s greatest value. […] There were children’s corpses under the torn posters, others were moaning behind the walls: We are hungry.” (Maria Czapska, Gwiazda Dawida. Dzieje jednej rodziny [Star of David. A Story of a Family], London 1975, p. 20.). The contrast between the goodwill slogans coming from the colourful posters and the starvation experienced on the streets of the ghetto on a daily basis must have been striking. Even for people like Maria Czapska, who lived outside the wall and visited the ghetto only occasionally or only heard of it.

Agnieszka Witkowska-Krych – anthropologist of culture, Hebraist, sociologist, in recent years a custodian at the Museum of Warsaw, researcher of the life and legacy of Janusz Korczak, collaborator of the Forum for Dialogue Foundation and the Centre for Yiddish Culture, author of texts on “the final issues” – the last journey of Korczak and his charges, the last performance given by the children from the Jewish Orphanage and the final notes in Korczak’s Diary.

Photo: 10 and 8 Smocza Street, relocations before the ghetto was closed, 10-14 November 1940. (The State Archive in Warsaw, Zimmerman’s Collection, FOND 2230)