Estimated reading time: 11 minutes
World 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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- Abraham Katsh, Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A, Kaplan (New York: Macmillan, 1965)
- Refuse to go Quietly: Jewish Survival Tactics During the Holocaust John D. Caraveo East Tennessee State University
- Warsaw Ghetto: A Survivor’s Tale
- Public Health in the Vilna Ghetto as a Form of Jewish Resistance
- Health Potential for Beer Brewing Byproducts