During World War II, with most Jews living in poverty, having been
robbed of their possessions by the Germans and having lost their sources
of livelihood, the provisions, acquisitions, and effects of limited
food supplies greatly impacted life in the ghettos. When they were confined
to walled-in ghettos,
where there were no openings for work, the struggle for physical survival
became a constant reality and threat.
Nutrition in the Ghettos
From the moment that the Jews were isolated from the Polish society
and were surrounded by a fence, their food distribution was entirely
controlled by the Germans. A strict food rationing was in effect. A
working person was given food rationing that was sufficient barely for
one person. In order to feed the sick and the old, they were put on
the list of the producing people and their relatives had to cover for
them by working even longer hours and producing a larger quota. The
quantity of allocated food was insufficient and many basic food items
were non existent in the ghetto. "The official ration in the ghetto
probably amounted to about 800 calories a day per person. This was half
the ration for non-Jewish Poles and a third the ration for Germans in
Poland. As the Nazis knew, people cannot survive for very long on 800
calories a day (One peanut butter sandwich on white bread contains over
350 calories) (Feldman 149). A report on the food status of the Warsaw
In the Polish ghettos, official supplies were distributed on the basis
of ration cards issued by the occupation authorities, a method that
was implemented even before the Jews were confined to separate city
quarters. Already at that early stage, the food rations allocated to
the Jews were far short of those supplied to the rest of the population.
"Items supplied on the basis of ration cards were sold at a much
lower price than they were on the free (black) market. The items supplied
on the basis of ration cards were few in number: 70-250g of bread, 250g
sugar/month, a few potatoes and sometimes jam cabbage and beets"
(Gutman 583). Since the food supplied on the ration cards was far from
enough, people with means tried to buy more food. In general, Jews paid
for their food purchases with the proceeds of the sale of their possessions
on the "Aryan" side. As a result, the price of clothes and
household goods declined the most. People who did not have any savings
went hungry or starved to death, despite the additional nourishment
available in the soup kitchens. These provided a calorie-poor soup (the
nutritional value of one portion of soup in the Warsaw ghetto at the
end of 1941 was 110 calories) (Gutman 584).
Hunger and malnutrition were everyone's reality. People ate potato
peelings. Anyone walking down a ghetto street with a package that might
contain food was taking a risk. Packages were often grabbed from an
owner's hands by people desperate for something to eat. Sometimes the
snatchers ripped open the package and stuffed the contents into their
mouths while they were still running. For most of the time that the
Warsaw ghetto existed, for example, hunger was the main problem that
residents dealt with daily. Food in German-controlled Poland was rationed,
so even people with money could legally buy only what the Germans allowed.
Each person had ration coupons for different categories of food. Jews
were not allowed to buy meat, poultry, fish, fruits, vegetables, eggs,
or white flour. Their diet consisted mainly of potatoes and bread.
When the ghettos were first established, Poles used to come to the fence
of the ghetto and sell flour, bread, butter, milk, and other food products.
They traded food for articles like sheets, coats, blouses or other pieces
of material that were hard to obtain during the war. Some people risked
their lives by smuggling meat and other food items into the ghetto.
They used to leave the ghetto at night and went to Polish farmers. There
they bought a cow, slaughtered it and brought the meat back into the
ghetto. These ventures were costly since the Polish guards had to be
paid off as well. The meat was sold in the black market for extremely
high prices. Only the rich people could afford to purchase their food
in the black market. Jewish laborers who were working outside the ghetto,
like road construction battalions, used to buy food items from farmers
near their work sights. They used to bring necessary food into the ghetto
The smugglers, especially the Jews, risked their lives each time they
brought something in or took something out of the ghetto. . This activity
was very risky and those who were caught were executed on the spot.
In October 1941, the Germans officially made smuggling an offense punishable
by death. The majority of smugglers were ordinary people who needed
the food to feed their families. Many were children because it was easier
for them to slip in and out of the ghetto without being caught.
Some smugglers were professionals who made large profits and lived
very well inside the ghetto. Some of them had been ordinary criminals,
thieves and burglars, before the war. Smugglers became a very important
factor in the struggle to obtain food and survive in the ghetto. Until
August 1942 it was relatively easy to buy food in the ghetto. People
with economical means had everything they needed. The economical situation
in general was bad, yet with money you could get all the necessities.
Food, soap, candles, and even luxury items like champagne were available
for money. One day a week people were allowed to bring their own dough
to the bakery and had loaves of bread baked for them and their families
for the whole week. People in the ghetto used to hire local Poles in
different capacities for domestic help. It was possible due to the fact
that there were no access restrictions to or from the ghetto for non-Jews
until August 1942. For those who could not steal extra food or buy it
from smugglers, death by starvation was certain.
Most of the Jews were impoverished, abused and suppressed by Germans
who took their property and possessions, and were also confined to strict
and harsh conditions of the ghettos. About 60 percent of the Jewish
population had no opportunity to work in the ghettos, and therefore
had extreme difficulty in obtaining additional food besides the severely
meager ghetto rations. This meant that only the relatively wealthy could
afford to buy food on the black market; but even those who had not lost
their source of income, or had accumulated savings, had to scale down
their food purchases because of the high prices and the uncertain future
they were facing. The lack of food in the ghettos was sometimes exploited
by the Germans to persuade the Jews to report for deportation of their
own free will. "In one period, Jews in Warsaw who volunteered for
deportation were given 3 kg of bread and 1 kg of jam" (Gutman 584).
Feldman, George. Understanding the Holocaust. Vol.2. United
Goldstein, Bernard. The Stars Bear Witness. New York, 1949
Gutman, Israel; Editor in Chief. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust.
Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990
Marrus, Michael R. The Nazi Holocaust: The Victims of the Holocaust.
Vol.6. Westport: Meckler, 1989
Erika Bourguignon . "Ghetto." Encyclopedia Americana Online.
Grolier, Inc., 2001. http://ea.grolier.com/cgi-bin/build-page?artbaseid=0174940-00
(Accessed: May 1, 2001).