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“A Jewish Woman in Warsaw from September 1939 to the Present”

Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH), Warsaw
View this Manuscript

tags: family sex women's experiences

type: Manuscript

In 1942, an unnamed Polish Jewish journalist prepared this study for the underground Oyneg Shabes archive in the Warsaw Ghetto. The author focused on descriptions of women with different backgrounds to illustrate a wide spectrum of female experiences shaped by confinement in ghettos.1

"Mrs. G.," also known as Guta, was one of the women discussed in this work. Despite her young age, she got married at the outbreak of the war. Her new husband fled Poland and abandoned her only two days after their wedding, and Guta and her family faced a difficult financial situation. While working as a waitress in her parents' restaurant in Warsaw, she began a love affair with a "Mr. J."—a young ethnic German2 who was the family tenant. Thanks to his connections, Guta had access to goods exported from the Reich, which she could use in the restaurant or sell. Mr. J's help much improved her and her relatives' material situation, which remained relatively stable until the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed off in November 1940.

The featured description of Guta's story relates her struggle after moving to the enclosed ghetto. Taking responsibility for her parents and a brother, Guta performed several different jobs. Eventually, she found a position as a waitress—and a sex worker—which allowed her to develop relationships with the most well-off customers, particularly from the so-called "Aryan" side of Warsaw beyond the ghetto. 

Guta's decisions should be considered within the wider context of forced prostitution and sexual violence during the Holocaust—a subject that was not openly spoken about or studied for decades after the Holocaust.3 In Guta's case, financial benefits and higher living standards likely motivated her first sexual relationships with privileged men. Nevertheless, prostitution eventually became an important way to help her family survive. Her mother explained her daughter’s actions this way: "If not for Guta, we'd be lying on Gęsia long ago."4 But her father disapproved of her choices. The author of this piece depicts Guta as an immoral person, but her commitment to supporting her family is an important part of her story.

Historian Dalia Ofer argues that Cecylia Slepak is most likely the author of this work. See Dalia Ofer, "Gender Issues in Diaries and Testimonies of the Ghetto: The Case of Warsaw," in Women in the Holocaust, ed. Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), 143; see also Ofer, "Her View through My Lens: Cecilia Slepak Studies Women in the Warsaw Ghetto," in Gender, Place, and Memory in the Modern Jewish Experience: Re-placing Ourselves, ed. Tova Cohen and Judy Baumel (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003), 29-50. 

German: Volksdeutscher.

For more sources on these topics, see the related Experiencing History collection, Gendered Experiences of Jewish Persecution.

A reference to the Jewish cemetery on Gęsia Street in Warsaw.

The ghetto was sealed off on November 16, 1940.

See the related item "Food, Money, and Human Life."

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In any case, November 14, 1940 arrived, the last day for Aryans to move out of the streets within the ghetto.1 Mr. J. moved out of Mrs. G.'s. But they stayed in contact. At first, Mr. J. visited his girlfriend every day, often coming at night, at 8 o'clock in the evening and leaving at 5–6 o’clock in the morning. The strong smell of alcohol wafting off him and his whole appearance—as Mr. E., the building watchmen, later recounted—testified to a night enjoyably spent. Often late in the evening, Mrs. G.'s mother would run to their neighbors to borrow a little real coffee, to help make Mr. J. a coffee with liqueur or cognac, the way he liked it. She took great care to fulfill her daughter's boyfriend's tastes for food and drink, because they needed him. At that moment, they were going through a severe financial crisis. They had sold the rest of their possessions and rented a space on one of the main, busiest arteries of the ghetto and opened a restaurant there. Mrs. G. became the soul of the new business. She worked hard, as a waitress, and additionally was in charge of acquiring supplies. Mr. J. helped her considerably in this regard. Thanks to him, she had copious stocks of certain items, allowing her to compete with other restaurants, but with time his visits grew less frequent, his help grew weaker and less consistent, until it finally ended entirely. The business began to falter. Mrs. G. tried to rescue it through her contacts with the Jewish police—these, however, were Sisyphean efforts. After nine months of struggling along the restaurant was closed down. Mrs. G.'s family found themselves utterly ruined. They were suffering hunger. Mrs. G. devoted all her energy to finding new sources of support. Indeed, in this period Mrs. G.’s neighbor had opened a gastronomic and leisure establishment on G. Street. Mrs. G. applied for a job as a waitress. The position did not appeal to her for its financial benefits, for she knew that wages calculated as a percentage of takings could not be high, but because of the prospect of new relationships and contacts opening up. And she calculated right. Her beauty and outward refinement attracted customers, she was the luckiest one on the waitstaff, making a string of acquaintances there, though she could not always convince them to submit to her material and feminine aims. She worked hard, alternating one day from morning to mid-afternoon, the next day from mid-afternoon to evening. Her income was fluid and barely covered her own modest needs. But she was tormented with worry for her family, her mother, father, brother being able to get by. So she was constantly seeking secondary ways of earning money and began smuggling. To this end, she made the most of her acquaintance with a certain shoemaker, K., an Aryan who had set up a smuggler's den in his workshop and would sneak various goods into the ghetto.2 "Deliveries" took place at night. Mrs. G. lived on the border of the ghetto and "Aryan Warsaw." The wall stood just beside the entranceway to her building, while a wooden fence that adjoined to it ran along the sidewalk. Starting at midnight, Mrs. G. would wait in the entranceway for Mr. K.'s signal. When a familiar whistle sounded she bravely ran to recover the goods. The business relationship between Mrs. G. and the shoemaker quickly took on a more personal character. On more than one occasion at night, after delivering his goods, Mr. K. jumped the fence and, under the pretense of "settling accounts," went into Mrs. G.'s apartment. He would also often come by during the day, when she was off work. Despite Mrs. G.'s efforts to maintain appearances and conceal that her business with Mr. K. had become erotic behind the scenes, their secret got out among the building's residents thanks to allusions to intimate secrets made in front of some neighbors of Mrs. G.'s father (a stern, rebellious judge of his daughter's actions, while her mother took a position of fully resigned tolerance toward them), due to stories from residents who'd seen them together, and due to juicy stories from Mr. K.'s friend, an Aryan and also a smuggler, Mr. Z., who often went with Mr. K. to the restaurant where Mrs. G. worked and where the three of them would polish off a small fortune's worth of vodka on the house. He recounted, among other things,how one night, Mr. K. had leapt up, half-conscious from drunkenness, and, quickly pulling on his clothes, cried out: "I’m going to Guta’s! I have to see her." Then his sister threatened that if he did, she would "denounce that Jew."

Though it had improved, Mrs. G. and her family’s economic situation was still difficult and problematic. Matters were made worse because the specter of uncertainty also hovered over Mrs. G.'s job, because the business where she worked was prospering poorly and tumbling toward bankruptcy. Mrs. G. began looking around for a new waitressing position. By then she was already well-known among bar and restaurant owners as an "attractive, profitable worker," hence, when Mr. R. opened a large café-bar with a back room on the same G. Street in 1941, he offered her a job as a waitress in his establishment. Mrs. G. accepted the offer and under the pretense of her official position as a waitress she was in fact to play the role of a "bar girl." A period of financial improvement for her began, though she simultaneously stumbled deeper into a moral quagmire. A specific clientele gathered in Mr. R.'s restaurant, predominantly Aryan: Polish police officers, Aryan agents and detectives of a different type, and Germans often came as well. Mrs. G. worked alternately one day from 8 o'clock in the morning until the restaurant closed, and on the second, from 3 o'clock in the afternoon to 8 o’clock in the evening. Her pay was 10 percent of takings. However, the main compensation for Mrs. G.'s work came from "tips." Before long, she'd made her mark at the head of a team of waitresses doing her same job under the official pretense of employment and became a magnet for customers. She was invited to tables, greeted with sought-after dishes, the most expensive liqueurs, cognacs, or wines, while the finale of these feasts now usually took place in the intimate atmosphere of the back room. She was not excessively fussy in choosing her play partners, Aryans attracted her the most. She became all the more intoxicated with this erotic gambling because it raised her onto increasingly secure financial ground and gave her broad means to help her family. She would often spend the night there and as she headed home at 6–7 o'clock in the morning, her neighbors would run into her as they left, enjoying company that was invariably Aryan. There were even periods when she would go a few days without coming home, and once she’d gotten away for a few hours’ rest, she would be suddenly called back at the request of some "higher quality" customer who had come specially to see "Miss Tula."

This momentum at "work" was slowed by an intimate relationship, also born within the restaurant, between Mrs. G. and a secret intelligence agent of the Polish police, "Bolek." At first Mr. "Bolek" would visit the café for professional purposes, yet his love for Mrs. G. soon outgrew these purposes. He began coming every day, specially for her, and, in his infatuation, fueled by alcohol and ample food in Mrs. G's company, he burned through large sums, to the delight of the restaurant's owner. Their relationship, initially hidden out of shame within the walls of the back room, soon became overt. They go to other restaurants together when they are off work. For instance, they go to the Sztuka for lunch with liqueurs, wine and peach melba, while Mrs. G. is no longer even slightly embarrassed to run into friends. In this respect, a typical change has taken place within her: perhaps she has found a restoring approval for her actions in the general mood of shallow and warped Epicureanism (a symptom of every war!), in the prostitutional psychosis, as it were, recently growing among Jewish women, or perhaps ignoring what people think of her is a tactical maneuver, meant to lend a "deeper" meaning to their bond in the eyes of her boyfriend, or perhaps is simply refined self-promotion? One way or the other, she ripped the veil of secrecy from her relationship with the police secret intelligence officer with cynical, distasteful courage.

"If not for Guta, we’d be lying on Gęsia long ago" – confides Mrs. G.'s mother with a shade of making excuses for her daughter's actions. Indeed, her work as a waitress, particularly in the most recent establishment, Mr. R'’s restaurant, has brought Mrs. G.'s family significant financial relief, while her relationship with Mr. "Bolek" has given them security for tomorrow. When Mrs. G. lost her apartment on December 21, 1941, due to a new edict from the German authorities shrinking the borders of the ghetto, Mr. "Bolek' helped her acquire a three-room apartment on Ch. Street, and recently—to rent a shop on Ż. Street. Mrs. G. still gets expensive presents from him and does a range of profitable business thanks to him, including freeing prisoners. For example, her former neighbor came to her with the following matter: shortly after the German incursion into Grudziądz (September 1939), repressive measures against Jews were in full swing. Repeated mass and individual executions were occurring every day. One of this neighbor’s closer acquaintances had escaped the city on her Aryan friend's sister's papers. And with those papers she lived "on the other side." After a declaration in 1941 banned Jews from crossing the border of the ghetto on pain of death, someone denounced her. She was arrested and brought to Pawiak prison. The prisoner's family tried asking Mrs. G.'s boyfriend to free her. This time, Mr. "Bolek’s" intervention was unsuccessful. The prisoner was shot. "My boyfriend's influence," explained Mrs. G., "is infallible on the grounds of the prison on Daniłowiczowska. He can always get prisoners out of there, there have already been plenty of such cases, but these things got complicated inside the ghetto."

The personal services Mr."“Bolek" performs for his girlfriend are often of tremendous importance. Once, for example, in mid-May (Friday, May 16, 1942) a nighttime round-up took place in the ghetto for young people to send to a labor camp. The Jewish police were going from house to house with personal orders. They came for Mrs. G.'s brother as well. Mrs. G. asked her boyfriend for help. Thanks to his intervention, the following day the head of the Arbeitsamt, Mr. C., issued an immediate order to free the young man. Still, they had to get him working somewhere as quickly as possible, so he would be "clean" from the camp. And once again thanks to intelligence agent "Bolek," he was accepted into Schultz's fur shop. The following week Mrs. G.'s brother went to the Arbeitsamt itself, to sort out the final formalities before he started work. Due to the long lines stretching out the door of the director’s office, he gave up and decided to return the next day. It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon (Friday, May 23, 1942) and right then a "round-up" for the labor camps was taking place in the street. This time, bad luck saw Mrs. G.'s brother fell into the hands of the police. He was taken to the district station on L. Street. Mrs. G.'s boyfriend let her know a "round-up" was to take place. She had also immediately sent a courier home with a message about it, at the same time warning them her brother was not to go out on the street. But the letter arrived too late, and when her mother went out into the city to look for her son, following a trail of lucky information, she found him already at the district station. Intelligence agent "Bolek" had already left the ghetto by that point and could not come when Mrs. G. telephoned, because that day he was busy with some important official celebration related to the police service. So on their own initiative, Mrs. G. and her mother set about trying to free him through a policeman acquaintance. It cost her several hundred złotys and her efforts were fruitless. Fate was unkind to the young man. He'd had the certificate accepting him to employment in Schultz's shop with him. A policeman took the certificate with the aim of securing his release, to show his "protection." Meanwhile, a representative from Schultz's shop reported to the station and freed his co-workers. Since he didn’t have his document, Mrs. G.'s brother had to stay. And when Mrs. G. came to the station with her boyfriend early the next morning, her brother was gone. A train of "campers" had left at the crack of dawn for an unknown destination. Mrs. G.'s boyfriend has been expending enormous energy to discover where this group of"“campers" has been deported to, because he can only help her brother if he knows the exact address. So far, his efforts have only yielded vague information, some naming Poznań province, others Russia, as the region of their exile.

For several weeks, Mrs. G. has been on leave. The initial two-week period she is still extending to an as-yet undetermined date. "I’m not hurrying back to slog away in a closed-up, stuffy restaurant – in the summer," says Mrs. G. All the more so because her time on leave will be spent in pleasure. Mr. "Bolek" comes every day to visit her at home and enwraps her in the utmost care for her material peace and entertainment. They often visit the Sztuka or other cafés, where at truly sumptuous feasts, glistening with elegance, Mrs. G. interweaves a game of skill with the sober diplomacy of a businesswoman. "In human life there is little true happiness," says Mrs. G. (exactly), "so we must take advantage of every opportunity which creates a substitute for it." And she consistently lives up to this motto, with an unfailing instinct for self-preservation. 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH), Warsaw
RG Number 15.079M
Date Created
Page(s) 8–17
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Manuscript
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