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"Food, Money, and Human Life"

US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

Desperate living conditions in the Warsaw ghetto caused by overpopulation, disease, and hunger forced ghetto inhabitants to smuggle food into the sealed district.1 The terrible conditions of the ghetto caused many family roles to change, and children sometimes became responsible for smuggling food for their parents and siblings. Despite threats from Polish police and civilians who tried to blackmail them,2 many children took the risk of crossing the ghetto wall to support their families.

This anonymous essay titled "Smuggling" was preserved in the underground Oyneg Shabes archive. It shows some of the different forms of this activity in the ghetto. The excerpt featured here—"Food, Money, and Human Life"—offers dramatic examples of adolescents pushed by their mothers to sneak out of the ghetto in search of food for their relatives. This passage shows some of the desperation and hunger that people experienced in the ghetto, but it also shows how Jewish parents and children were sometimes forced to switch roles during the upheavals of the Holocaust.3

The portrayal of Jewish mothers in "Food, Money, and Human Life" raises certain ethical questions. Should parents ever place the burden of breadwinning on their children's shoulders? Should older offspring be asked to risk their own safety in order to keep younger siblings alive? 

Other sources praise the extraordinary courage of Jewish children in their efforts to obtain food for their families. A well-known ghetto poem—"The Little Smuggler" [Mały Szmugler] by Henryka Łazowert—was adapted into a popular song. It helped to establish the figure of a child smuggler as one of the heroic symbols of the Warsaw ghetto:

[...] Through wires, through rubble, through fences
Hungry, daring stubborn [....]
And only one grim thought
A grimace on your lips
Who, my dear Mama, who
Will bring you bread tomorrow?4

To learn more about life in the Warsaw ghetto, see Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City, trans. Emma Harris (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 446–459.

Although children younger than 12 were not forced to wear armbands with the Star of David like other Jewish people, they were easily recognized on the so-called "Aryan" side of Warsaw. See Jan Grabowski, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 101–120.

To read more about family roles and functions during the Holocaust, see Lenore J. Weitzman, "Resistance in Everyday Life: Family Strategies, Role Reversals, and Role Sharing in the Holocaust," in Jewish Families in Europe, 1939–Present: History, Representation, and Memory, ed. Joanna Beata Michlic (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2017), 46–66. 

Henryka Łazowert did not survive the Holocaust. She was murdered at the Treblinka killing center in 1942. "The Little Smuggler" was published for the first time in 1947 in Michał Borwicz, ed., Pieśń ujdzie cało: Antologia wierszy o Żydach pod okupacją niemiecką (Warszawa: Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna w Polsce, 1947). This translation comes from Patricia Heberer, Children during the Holocaust (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2011), 343. 

Refers to "quintals," a unit for measuring weight. One hundred quintals is equivalent to roughly 2,200 pounds or 1,000 kilograms.

The złoty is a unit of Polish currency.

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There by the boundary, by the wall, by the gateway, the question is being decided: whether the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto will die of hunger or not. Whether it's a question of the smuggling of a handful, or a dozen kilos of potatoes by an individual child, or the hundred quantals1 of grain thrown over the walls, or the thousands and tens of thousands of kilos of potatoes and grain that passes the ghetto's main gates—it is the same choice everywhere: death by starvation, or death by bullet, and in all cases the latter is the preferred option. Here are a few tragic occurrences: a mother of five-six children stands with three of them by the boundary on Krochmalna street. She puts a few dozen złotys2 into to the hand of one child, of about 10-12 years of age, and pushes the child out through the wires. The child, emerging on the "lucky" Aryan side, is immediately shot and falls down dead. The mother, without wasting a moment or shedding a single tear, grabs the money from the dead child’s little hand and gives it to the second child, who is also pushed through the wires and also falls victim to a bullet; the mother does the same as she did the first time: she grabs the money from the dead child's hand and gives it to the third child (all three were girls) saying: "At home I still have three more mouths to feed." The third child manages to crawl through unharmed and succeeds in smuggling home the contraband to fill the mouths of those who remained. The mother did not need to look out for them long: that very same day she too fell victim. The eldest girl, fourteen years old, was then left to provide for them. She continued smuggling. This story of the mother and her children is not a unique one: people tell of another woman who pushed her fourteen-year-old son through the fence and as soon as he fell, she grabbed the money from his hand and gave it to a second child—a twelve year old—who was not frightened by his brother's tragic fate. With luck he succeeded in crawling through.

Here is a conversation overheard between two children by the wire fence on Krochmalna street: "You’re going over to the German side? Are you not afraid?"

"What do I have to be afraid of? My mother has no food to give me so I’m going over to the other side, I've managed it before."

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw
RG Number 205/349
Date Created
July 1942
Page(s) 6-9
Author / Creator
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Manuscript
How to Cite Museum Materials

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