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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
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tags: family ghettos

type: Manuscript

Ghettoization during the Holocaust had an enormous impact on the daily functioning of Jewish families. In the Łódź Ghetto, for instance, single rooms were inhabited by six people on average. Due to lack of sufficient housing, families were housed with strangers, leaving them without privacy or sufficient space and under significant psychological strain. Beyond these poor living conditions, they struggled to make a living in the meager economy of the enclosed Jewish district, leading to poverty and hunger. One historian of the Łódź Ghetto compared ghetto families to working units in which all members, including children, took responsibility for their own survival.1

The deterioration of family life in the Łódź ghetto did not go unnoticed by the authors of the Encyclopedia of the Ghetto.2 Ten employees of the Łódź Ghetto Archive began this secret initiative at the end of 1943.3 In his wartime records, Oskar Rosenfeld, one of the Encyclopedia's editors, explained the roots of this project: "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 Entries written in Polish, German, and Yiddish explaining various phenomena and personalities helped 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 "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 poignant description of everyday obstacles family members faced in the ghetto. The author highlights a critical issue: worsening relations between relatives. Further, Wertheimer acknowledges that even personal sacrifice would not save families from destruction. Before writing this entry in early 1944, he had surely witnessed deaths of many inhabitants of the ghetto. Yet Wertheimer's entry also reflects a degree of optimism, underlining that the spiritual strength of the whole family was necessary for survival.5

Despite the author's insightful observations about family life in the ghetto, he could not predict that the situation facing Łódź's Jews would soon become drastically worse. On June 23, 1944, German authorities ordered the final liquidation of the ghetto. Along with 67,000 inhabitants of the district, Wertheimer and Rosenfeld were deported to Auschwitz in August of 1944, where they both perished. Their encyclopedia remained an unfinished project. 

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

Published in English as 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); see also Robert T.A. Kogler and Andrea Löw, "The Encyclopedia of the Lodz Ghetto," in Kwartalnik Historii Żydów, no. 2 (206), 2003: 195-208.

The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941–1944, ed. Lucjan Dobroszycki, trans. Richard Lourie (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984). See the related item Forty-two Weddings in the Łódź Ghetto.

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.

Utilizing a concept called "Amidah" [Hebrew: "standing up against"], 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 may have constituted one element of "Amidah." 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
Author / Creator
Peter Wertheimer
Łódź, Poland
Document Type Manuscript
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