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"Family Life" in the Łódź Ghetto

Family Life in the Lodz Ghetto
US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH), Warsaw

When German authorities forced Jewish families to move into ghettos during World War II, the overcrowded conditions there had an enormous impact on the daily functions of family life. For example, in the Łódź ghetto an average of six people shared a single room. There was not nearly enough housing for the ghetto's inhabitants, so families were often housed with complete strangers. This left families without enough physical space or privacy, which caused severe psychological and emotional strains.

Jewish families that were forced to live in the Łódź ghetto struggled to make a living in the meager economy of the enclosed Jewish district.1 Extreme poverty and hunger existed everywhere. Traditional family roles were often challenged or destroyed. Family members of all ages helped secure food for the family. In the Łódź ghetto, many children were forced to take responsibility for their own survival.2

At the end of 1943, ten employees of the Łódź ghetto archive began a secret project called the Encyclopedia of the Ghetto in order to document life in the ghetto.3 According to one of its editors, the project was started because "Words and the word order were no longer adequate for the demands of the ghetto world. New words had to be created, old ones had to be endowed with new meaning."4 They created entries in Polish, German, and Yiddish to help preserve the history of the Łódź ghetto and create a basis for future historical research. 

One of the Encyclopedia's authors, Peter Wertheimer, was deported with his family to the Łódź ghetto from Prague in 1941. Originally trained as a chemist, in Łódź Wertheimer worked in the ghetto's Department of Statistics and authored a column called "Little Mirror of the Ghetto." For the Encyclopedia, he prepared 10 entries written in German. 

Wertheimer's entry on "Family Life"—featured here—is a short but powerful description of some of the everyday obstacles faced by families in the ghetto. It documents the deterioration of family life amid the terrible conditions of the Łódź ghetto. Wertheimer's entry highlights a critical issue experienced by many people—worsening relations between relatives. Wertheimer acknowledges that hunger had a destructive influence, but he also celebrates the noble sacrifices that family members made out of love for one another.5

Wertheimer did not survive long after writing this entry. German authorities ordered the final destruction of the Łódź ghetto on June 23, 1944, Wertheimer was deported to Auschwitz in August of 1944, where he was killed. The encyclopedia he and his colleagues were producing remains unfinished. 

For more primary sources on life in the Łódź ghetto, see the following related Experiencing History items—Forty-two Weddings in the Łódź Ghetto"The Program of the Ghetto Newspaper," Calendar from the Łódź Ghetto, Oral History with Solomon Fox, Diary of Irene Hauser, and Petition of Meir Halle.

 

To learn more, see Isaiah Trunk, Łódź Ghetto: A History, trans. and ed. Robert Moses Shapiro (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2006), 299. See the related Experiencing History item, "Food, Money, and Human Life."

To learn more, see Encyclopedia of the Ghetto: The Unfinished Project of the Łódź Ghetto Archivists, ed. Adam Sitarek et al.; trans. Katarzyna Gucio et al. (Łódź: Archiwum Państwowe; Księży Młyn Dom Wydawniczy, 2017); Robert T.A. Kogler and Andrea Löw, "The Encyclopedia of the Lodz Ghetto," in Kwartalnik Historii Żydów, no. 2 (206), 2003: 195-208; and The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941–1944, ed. Lucjan Dobroszycki, trans. Richard Lourie (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984). 

 

Oskar Rosenfeld, In the Beginning Was the Ghetto: Notebooks from Łódź, ed. with introduction by Hanno Loewy; transl. Brigitte M. Goldstein (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002), 229.

Holocaust scholar Yehudah Bauer has argued that both “unarmed and armed reactions intended to keep the [Jewish] community and its components going existed...[enabling it] to stand up to the existential threat posed by the German regime.” The strength of the family unit and the sacrifices family members made for one another could be considered a form of unarmed resistance to Nazi plans to kill all the Jews living in the ghetto. For more on this subject, see Yehudah Bauer, The Death of the Shtetl (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 7.

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Family Life

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]

 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Jewish Historical Institute (ŻIH), Warsaw
RG Number 15.083M
Date Created
1944
Author / Creator
Peter Wertheimer
Language(s)
German
Location
Łódź, Poland
Document Type Manuscript
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