Jewish family life, which deservedly enjoys worldwide renown, has to stand a very difficult test in the ghetto. Even the family structure per se, in the form it takes in the cramped space of the ghetto, is called into question. Most of a family’s members are separated from each other, usually because they fled in time or were evacuated, so that the individual members do not even know whether their closest relatives are alive and where they are. Naturally, this casts a deep, gloomy shadow on those who are crowded together in the limited space of the ghetto rooms. In most cases, however, they are not even solely with other loved ones in the extremely poor living quarters; instead, they share the space with equally unfortunate persons, who, being unrelated, offer countless sources of friction. The intimacy of the relations between spouses obviously suffers as a result. Moreover, the primary purpose of marriage, the production of offspring, presents especially great difficulties. As a result, the birth rate is declining to the lowest level imaginable. But for the existing children too, the absolute lack of private life for everyone concerned is anything but a blessing. The social milieu of a completely regulated economy, in which each individual, in equal measure, is allotted rights and duties, weakens parental authority to such an extent that one can hardly continue to speak of a structured upbringing. It often happens that under-age children are economically more important for the preservation of the family group than the parents. Generally speaking, the norms of obedience and respect for one’s elders are necessary if the commandment “Honor your father and mother” is not to become an empty phrase. Destitution and, in particular, hunger do their destructive work. Frequently the result is conditions that, in their grim reality, exceed anything the imagination can conceive.
But, in defense of these families’ honor, one must bear in mind the instances, by no means rare, when love, which overcomes all difficulties, makes the heart’s purest gold shine forth. Parents and children, siblings and more distant kin, all sacrifice their health, indeed their lives, one for the other, all the more tragically because it is often done in vain. Entire families—and a great many of them—have been wiped out in this way. What is true for all human suffering applies here too: it breaks the weak mentally, but the strong, by overcoming it, become hard as steel in spirit, even though the physical frame often does not withstand the dreadful strain. And so it lies in the eye of the beholder whether, from the overwhelming abundance of material, he chooses what brings the highest renown to Jewish family life in the unnatural, artificial atmosphere of the sealed-off ghetto, or what brings shame that further weighs it down. The noblest tragedy and the ugliest distortion collide and intertwine, as everywhere in the ghetto.
P.W. [Peter Wertheimer]