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How People Survived The Jewish Ghetto in WWII


How People Survived The Jewish Ghetto in WWIIWorld War II and the holocaust serve as terrifying reminders of how ethnic persecution and totalitarian regimes can lead to some of the worst atrocities humans are capable of.

Each theatre of the war and each city occupied present their own collection of horrors, heroes, and stories that we should strive to remember and learn from. It is from learning these lessons and using them that we can best honor those who lost their lives.

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One of the most terrifying and inspiring accounts from this era is the story of the Jews and their survival and resistance under the Nazis. From the Warsaw ghetto to the forests of Eastern Europe, stories abound of hope and defiance against all conceivable odds.

Stroop Report - Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

But before the famous uprisings or terrifying removals to the camps, thousands of Jewish survivors in the ghettos struggled through harsh winters and hostile forces to survive in a dense urban environment.

We can learn a lot by looking at how. We are going to focus on their struggle for food, sanitation, and warmth. By doing so, we may better understand the realities of urban survival in the worst possible scenarios.

We will also briefly touch on the resistance – which can be informative for various urban self-defense scenarios.


Life and Surviving in the Jewish Ghettos

Life and Survival in the Jewish Ghettos

As World War II raged, the Germans began to construct over a thousand ghettos that were separated from their surrounding city by walls, guards, and barbed wire. The size of each ghetto varied, but they all suffered from horrendous conditions that progressively worsened over time. Poor clothing, starvation, and death from the elements were common.

On average, over 3 people (up to 8 in some places) occupied each livable room with less than 50 square feet per person. In the Warsaw ghetto, the Jewish population was around 30% of the city but they were limited to an area of around 2.4% of the total municipal area.

The Germans installed local Jewish councils to collect taxes and to manage the labor teams for the German factories. The stories and nuances involved in the politics of these councils would require a whole post in itself.

Suffice to say, they were a council of the local Jewish leaders responsible for keeping order in the Ghetto—they had varying degrees of success and autonomy depending on the ghetto you are examining.

Jewish Women in Occupied Lublin

Jewish Women in Occupied Lublin

Since most residents had been forcibly moved to the area with minimal belongings, they were subjected to mass cases of instant poverty and great social disadvantage. Only a small percentage of the ghetto population had any form of regular work. Street trading became common and almost anything could become an item of exchange.

Most of life struggled to continue with children attending illegal schools and making toys out of scrap material, such as turning the tops of empty cigarette boxes into playing cards.

Warsaw Ghetto Market

Warsaw Ghetto Market

Between October 1940 and July 1942, around 92,000 Jewish residents of the Warsaw ghetto died of diseases, cold, or starvation. These deaths accounted for nearly 20% of the entire pre-war population.

Let’s look closer at their struggles for food, sanitation, and warmth. Then we’ll briefly glance at the resistance and subsequent urban combat. Most of this information is coming from Refuse to go Quietly: Jewish Survival Tactics During the Holocaust written by John D. Caraveo and Public Health in the Vilna Ghetto as a Form of Jewish Resistance by John D. Caraveo at East Tennessee State University.

Getting Food

The Jewish Ghettos also provide a grim reminder of the desperate need for food in an environment where growing food is impossible and leaving the urban area for extended periods is too dangerous.

While the Nazis promised some rations, in most cases they were purposely starvation rations. In many ghettos, a Jewish inhabitant was only allotted 300 calories of food per day. Obviously, this is not enough to live, let alone work on.

Many without the means to trade for food starved. Hundreds and thousands starved. The families that didn’t starve were the ones able to perform some trade or service in exchange for food. The food came from smugglers who would make dangerous runs into the local territory. Without the ability to farm, these smuggling runs to trade or steal became one of the only sources of food.

One diarist, Chaim A, Kaplan, who perished in the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, recorded:

Smuggling was carried out through all the holes and cracks in the walls, through connecting tunnels in the cellars of buildings on the border, and through all the hidden places unfamiliar to the conqueror’s foreign eyes … trolleys make no stops inside the ghetto, but that’s not a handicap. The smuggled sack is thrown out at an appointed spot and caught by trustworthy hands. This is the way they smuggled in pork fat, in particular, which the religious leaders have permitted us to use in the time of destruction.”

The smuggling would also extend to winter clothes, medicine, and eventually, weapons.

Warsaw Ghetto Smuggling Food

Warsaw Ghetto Smuggling Food

In the Vilna Ghetto, they were more industrious than most. The Vilna ghetto had a large population of pre-war doctors and a strong central community keeping the people together. They were able to manufacture vitamins to supplement their food with waste and by-products from the local brewery.

Amongst what they produced was Vitamins B1, D, and iodine. Calcium and phosphorus preparations “ghetto phosphatin” were made from the horse bones. This community saw much better results than those that lacked the same level of organization and forethought.

The Lesson Here About Food and Nutrition:

The lessons to take away here are that you need to stock up on food and have a method with which to barter for more. You never know how long after SHTF you will need to be entirely self-sustaining.

You should also have a plan for creating, offering, or collecting something that you can barter for more food. Tools out of scrap metal, mechanical repairs, medical services, etc. Lastly, it should be noted that even things you may consider ‘waste’ can be used to supplement your nutrition.

Learn to make your own vitamins, learn to reuse the things you use on a daily basis too. Learn to use the whole buffalo, so to speak; all that is available to you in your survival environment.  It may not seem appetizing, but you need to be able to operate at full strength to make the best of your situation.

This also shows that if you can produce food, you may have an incredibly valuable commodity to trade. It is possible to raise animals for food in the city, as well as forage.

Maintaining Sanitation

In the dense environments where water, food, shelter, and medicine were scarce, the sanitation was horrendous. In places like the Vilna ghetto, they were able to enact strict sanitation laws where residents were made to cut their hair and their clothes on a regular basis.

The rampant diseases in a population that dense meant that sanitation was the only thing preventing them all from becoming sick and perishing. Areas where residents failed to maintain some semblance of sanitary conditions were ravaged by disease.

Few areas had access to clean water and electricity. This made cleaning yourself and washing your clothes with hot water near impossible. This led to the creation of “tea houses” like in traditional Chinese cities. In these places, some people were dedicated to providing hot water and washing clothes for a nominal fee or trade. Steam from one of these facilities was even used to heat some other communal rooms.

Warsaw Ghetto - Transfer of Dead

Warsaw Ghetto – Transfer of Dead

Another issue was waste disposal. Bodies and other forms of waste began to pile up. Some communities made a deal with the local farms so that the farms would use this waste as manure and cattle feed. In January of 1943 alone it is said that 518 wagon loads of waste were removed from the Vilna ghetto.

As a side note: They didn’t have the same type of garbage we do today, and this problem will likely be much worse for us due to the inorganic and plastic nature of our modern waste.

The Lesson Here About Sanitation:

This is something often overlooked by urban survivalists but is your greatest tool against a killer you will likely face: disease. Have a plan for having hot water and for disposing of your waste. You can’t rely on an organized community doing it for you like in these cases.

This isn’t my specialty, but there is a lot of information out there about how to live a low waste lifestyle and how to recycle most things you use. Though this is currently more an arena of environmentalists and conservationists, these methods can be absolutely necessary for survival when the SHTF. You should also learn to upcycle.

Surviving the Winter

During the winters, maintaining heat was a constant struggle and cold became the greatest killer in the ghetto. The winter of 1942 was severe and the Nazis decided to use it at the Drohobycz ghetto as an extermination method. The food rations were cut even smaller and no coal was provided to heat the homes. In the following days, many found what they could from inside their homes to destroy and set on fire.

Eventually, even all the wooden fences had been used for kindling. Clothing was another issue as well. Exchanging clothes for food became a balancing issue for many. Starvation versus freezing to death was a decision many were forced to make. Thousands died from exposure to the cold.

The Lesson Here About Winter:

Have a plan to stay warm. You will eventually run out of things in your area to burn so have a  more sustainable plan. We have a wide array of other articles detailing ways of staying warm and even one on building a solar-powered furnace.

Also, ensure you have enough food so you aren’t forced to trade away your warm clothes in order to eat. Obviously, some environments are more prone to this issue than others. I’m sure you are in no fear of freezing to death down in San Diego.

Fighting Back

On 22 July 1942, the Warsaw Jewish council was informed that “all Jewish persons living in the Warsaw Ghetto, regardless of age and gender, would be resettled in the East.” They all knew by this time what that meant. They were going to a death camp. Rather than go peacefully, they began to erect barricades and stockpile weapons (in reality, these defensive preparations had been in the works for a while).

While the members of the resistance lacked adequate military training and possessed few weapons, they made an effective network of tunnels and hodge-podge bunkers.

When the German columns of tanks and soldiers first started to move into the intersections, the Jewish resisters rained down Molotov cocktails, grenades, and bullets. The barricades were able to prevent the movement of the tanks, and the Germans were forced to fight room by room, door by door. The Jewish fighters would rain down gunfire and Molotovs in an ambush then quickly melt away into the booby-trapped buildings.

In Warsaw, the Germans were forced to use flamethrowers to burn the buildings down block by block and to blow up the sewers entirely.

[they] were beaten by the flames, not the Germans; there was no air, only black, choking smoke and heavy burning heat radiating from the red-hot walls, from the glowing stone stairs.”

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

The Lesson Here for Fighting in an Urban Environment:

While you may not need to be fighting back against any large occupying force, you will need to be able to defend your home. The first lesson here which we already covered is your physical condition. You can’t fight back if you are weak from hunger or suffering from hypothermia. The first step in combat is being able to fight.

Secondly is have a supply of weapons and tactics effective for your scenario or situation. Machine guns cover roads, Molotovs can be dropped, booby-trap doors, etc. Have multiple escape routes mapped and planned.

This shows the tactical advantage you can have defending yourself against even the largest and best trained military forces. It also shows they may resort to trying to burn you out.

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  1. Ela on May 27, 2020 at 2:28 am

    I live in Poland near the capital, Warsaw – there was a great ghetto. Every year, on April 19, Poles commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – there are official celebrations, but also ordinary people attach yellow daffodils to their clothes (or to their pictures on Facebook) – just in memory …

  2. Rick Palmer on September 23, 2019 at 6:20 pm

    While the article was excellently done ,the biggest lesson of the Warsaw ghetto and all of nazism is this: You fight any oppressing government when they start getting the idea that they are more powerful than the people they serve.

    Vote them out while you still have that right. If they usurp your rights, fight to get them back through constitutional law. If they suspend the constition, it is your obligation to get rid of them any way possible.

    NO , I am not an anarchist, I am a two tour Vietnam veteran who took an oath to protect and defend our country from all enemies both foreign and domestic. Any of us that took that oath owe it to the country and the people we love to stand by that oath.

    • Ultra Skeptic on August 21, 2020 at 7:18 pm

      The hardest part isn’t just fighting the oppressors. In our circumstances, the hardest part will be distinguishing at what point we must fight. There is (and probably always has been) a waxing and waning of government idiocy, a determination of those in charge to “control us for our own good”, or to lie, cheat and steal for their own benefit, and perhaps other forms of evil which so far we’ve been able to overcome without the need for yet another civil war or revolution. Meanwhile, we’ve got stooges screeching that China & Russia are influencing our elections – and ignoring our own overthrow of democratic nations for the benefit of our big corporations. And we’ve got people insisting that all police are evil, when there are bad apples in every trade and profession, and well-trained cops are essential to an orderly society. We’ve got buyouts of all kinds, from cops being paid to read newspapers beside road construction (originally a devious way of subsidizing poorly paid cops, but now a total waste of money), we’ve got politicians pursuing their own agendas and to hell with the best interests of our country.

      Yet all of this, however bad, isn’t bad enough for us to justify internecine violence, though such threats are increasing. But it might well exponentiate to that point, even if justifications don’t ever arise. And then what? We’ve already passed our world dominance… oops… leadership. That time is gone, never to be recovered. We passed our hat (and skills, production technology, etc. to China). But will we be like Britain, France, Holland, etc. and recede from world power while still keeping our population healthy and content? Or will we be like Rome, Persia, etc. and suffer grievious fractious violence?

      I really regret that I’m old. I’m very curious how this will all play out. But these things usually take time. Look how many years we’ve been declining in productivity and power, yet everyone still insists everything is fine. Reality is generally ignored so long as normalcy bias can be relied on. And as long as the politicians can keep lying to us for their own benefit. I really feel bad for my kids.

  3. Nigel Duncan-Adam on September 23, 2019 at 2:20 pm

    This country has already successfully beaten the environment where gangs tried to take control of towns but in those days settlers would group together for mutual defences if a group can relearn that instinct they will become a successful enclave however success will only be viable if they install and abide by a set of rules that are survival driven without foolishness and a survival punishment is enforced such as break a survival law means instant expulsion of the whole family group.

    Any tolerance of rule breaking means the whole enclave is finished tolerance is the weakness that will destroy and group trying to survive the law of survival is cruel and unforgiving, weakness in that environment means being a victim survival accepts no excuses ever.

  4. Mic on September 23, 2019 at 11:06 am

    The article was good in regards to what they faced and how they dealt with it.
    However Post SHTF, it will be gangs, not government troops controlling you.
    They will have no orders, no code of conduct controlled by military law.

    They will kill indiscriminately and take whatever they want, work you to death or just rape and kill you.
    Whatever it takes to terrorize the locals into obeying them.

    A close look at the conditions of living under the War Lords of Somalia, would be much closer to what the city dwellers will face, Post SHTF. If you want to study something, try the Black Hawk Down, movie.

    But even it gives a poor idea of what a civilian living under a War Lord or Gang would face on a daily basis, but it would give a good general idea of the type of conditions one can expect.
    There are some documentaries of life in Somalia, that have been made in the last few years, which are very eye opening.

    You will probably have more freedom, more access to growing food, mostly for the gang, but a small amount for yourself. Because there will be no “government rations” or handouts, to try to live on.

    Even in Somalia,Today, things are better than what one can expect Post SHTF.
    They have limited access to supplies from the outside world. So they have Gasoline, Weapons, some food and medical supplies coming in from the outside world.

    The same goes for Venezuela or even the Serbian conflict.
    So these are not truly representative of a Post SHTF world. Just a mild version of it.

    So beware how much you rely on these for info. They only give a limited insight into what it might be like.

    • Dtr on September 23, 2019 at 12:23 pm

      Make no mistake about what happened in the holocaust “ they killed indiscriminately, worked and starved people to death. They made an industry out of it. Look at the killing fields in Cambodia etc etc etc Bosnia, Biafra etc the list is endless.

      No matter how prepared you are if someone more prepared or a bigger gang comes along you are f***ed! All you can do is prepare and be lucky.

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