The Taste of Life in the Ghetto. Group Thirteen – Leszno 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 a constant thirst, chapped lips dry out. The jaws clench of their own accord and you feel a 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 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.

Group Thirteen – Leszno 13

In December 1940, shortly after the creation of the ghetto, Group Thirteen, the task of which was to combat street trade, frauds, profiteering, or food fraud by unfair manufacturers and/or sellers, was created, independent of the Jewish Council. Licensed by the Germans, it was considered a Gestapo agency by the residents of the capital’s closed district. This institution was located at 13 Leszno Street, and so it was commonly called the “Thirteen”. Henryk Bryskier wrote about the employees of this institution in the following way: “The organizers of the said Office, strangers in Warsaw, coming from the provinces, unknown and unpopular, proceeded to recruit lower officers and senior officials from among the countrymen they knew. The ones who joined in were above all refugees, or provincial resettlers from Lodz and Czestochowa. They were dressed up in official hats with a green rim and yellow armbands, approved by the authorities. Ranks and identification cards were given […], entitling them to walk even after the curfew” (Henryk Bryskier, 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, p. 110).

The leaders of the “Thirteen” were: Abraham Gancwajch, from Czestochowa, a pre-war publicist and journalist, and Dawid Szternfeld. Emanuel Ringelblum wrote about the former: “A lot has been said about Gancwajch lately. […] In the street they say that night orgies are taking place in Gancwajch’s premises. How much truth there is in it – I could not find out. Gancwajch promises to set up a kitchen for Jews from Leszno (Street), where he is a manager of some houses. […] The street knows very well who he is, but people are craving to get into his premises” (Emanuel Ringelblum Kronika getta warszawskiego [The Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto], Warsaw 1983, p. 357). Gancwajch was known in the ghetto for arranging meetings to which he would invite representatives of the ghetto’s cultural and social elite. Adam Czerniaków noted in his diary under May 4, 1941, among others: “A few days ago Gancwajch organized a meeting (tea). He kept the guests all night long. Korczak was there” (Adama Czerniakowa dziennik z getta warszawskiego [The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow]: ed. by Marian Fuks, Warsaw 1983, p. 177). Ringelblum, commenting on the meeting, added: “There were decent people who had been in their entourage for some time. […] The fear of the <<Thirteen >> is so great that some honest people do not dare not come when invited by them. […] Unfortunately, there are many people who are fooled by his sweet words and [that] he is trying to prove what good deeds he has done to the Jews, how many severe restrictions he has overturned […]. The impression that his speeches make (he gives great speeches in Jewish and Hebrew) collapses very quickly. People sober up and all is left for them is a bad after-taste” (Emanuel Ringelblum, Kronika getta warszawskiego [The Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto], Warsaw 1983, p. 288). This is not surprising, the more so because the splendid (and therefore very expensive) parties thrown by Gancwajch are known among the ghetto’s inhabitants. We can read about one of them, connected with the bar mitzvah of Abraham Gancwajch’s son – Samuel, in the documents collected by Emanueal Ringelblum’s collaborators: “On the first day of Shavuot a morning performance took place at the New Azazel Theater, which had been bought out by the “Thirteen”. […] Here is what I saw there: […] A prince approaches the table and gives a <<drasha>> in the language of his forefathers. He assures that he will be a good Jew and – adds hesitating – a decent man. He announces that he is aware of his rights and obligations. He declares, states, promises, informs, reveals, assures, and announces – that this and that, and he knows and he can, that he understands and appreciates, he realizes, he will try, etc.” (Archiwum Ringelbluma. Getto warszawskie [The Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto], vol. 5, Warsaw 2011, p. 525). At the end of his report, the participant of this event asks with sadness: “What is to be admired more: the cynicism or the stupidity of the organizer?” (Ibidem, p. 527), knowing that its organization engulfed huge financial resources, which could certainly have been used, for instance, for the fight against the omnipresent famine.

Group Thirteen, headquartered in the tenement house at 13 Leszno Street, was officially shut down in August of 1941. It happened as a result of a conflict between the German civilian administration and the police in the General Government. In this way, this peculiar institution ceased to exist, the task of which was, among others, to combat the street food traders, so desired by the hungry masses of people. The tenement house in which the “Thirteen” had resided, as one of the very few in the area, survived the war in a very good condition. To this day, relics from that period have survived, among others the original tiles which can be seen in the building’s gate.

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