Daniel Espinosa
Cristina Durana
Luigi Weber
Sarah Zuckerman

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 ghetto

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 as well.

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.

In Depth

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).

Works Cited

Feldman, George. Understanding the Holocaust. Vol.2. United States, 1998

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).