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World War II: Life in the ghettos


"How did people live in the shadow of death - what choices did they make in a world that was fraught with "choiceless choices"? This expression was coined by Lawrence Langer, a foremost scholar of Holocaust literature, to describe a situation where every action had a consequence that was often life and death; where decisions had to be made between one abnormal result and another in the crushing reality of life in the Holocaust. The role of mothers and their choices during the Holocaust is an example of attempts to cope with the reality; physically and mentally. Due to severe food shortages which in many cases led to mass starvation, mothers were faced with almost impossible challenges. They had to make choices in a situation where there were virtually none. How does a mother divide food between her children? Does she divide it equally? Does she give more to a child who needs more? In the ghettos, there was never enough food distributed in order to sustain life. In certain ghettos, food distributions occurred infrequently. Often, mothers were placed in the position of being forced to hide food from their children in order to ensure that the rationed amount would last until the next rations were given out."

Source: “Educational philosophy in teaching the Holocaust” from Echoes and reflections – Teaching the Holocaust

From Yad Vashem. The Warsaw ghetto was the largest ghetto under Nazi rule, housing at its peak as many as 450,000 Jews. In this film Sheryl Silver-Ochayon presents the study unit for high school ages, "Everyday Life in the Warsaw Ghetto -- 1941", designed at the International School for Holocaust Studies. By juxtaposing rare photos taken by a Nazi soldier in the ghetto during 1941 with testimony and documentation of Jews, we get a deeper picture of the life and death within the ghetto walls.

From Yad Vashem. This video outlines day-to-day life of Jews within the ghettos during the Holocaust, featuring archival video and photographs from the World War 2 period. Topics covered include formation of ghettos, comparison between ghetto characteristics, hunger, overcrowding, disease, self-help organization, labor, smuggling and more.

From DW Documentary [a German public-broadcast servcie]. A Polish businessman risked his life to film everyday life in the Warsaw Ghetto. These harrowing 8 mm movies were stored for decades in archives, and are shown publicly for the first time in this documentary. The original title of the film is "Warsaw: A City Divided", directed by Eric Bednarski. The Warsaw Ghetto was located in the heart of the Polish capital. In November 1940, one year after Germany invaded Poland, the occupation authorities completed work on a three-meter-high wall that surrounded the ghetto. The Jewish residents were sealed off from the outside world. The ghetto was intended to serve as a concentration camp for Jews from all over Europe. They would later be deported to the extermination camp at Treblinka. As many as 500,000 people were rounded up and herded into the ghetto. The films shown in this documentary portray the daily lives of those who lived there. Food and clean water were in short supply. The Germans demolished the ghetto in May 1943, and sent the residents to concentration- or extermination camps. Today, a series of memorial plaques marks the district's boundaries. In this documentary, witnesses describe what life was like in Warsaw before the German invasion, and provide graphic accounts of life in the ghetto.

Survivor testimonies

George Shainfarber was born on January 4, 1927, in Lodz, Poland. He was forced to live in the Lodz ghetto and was also imprisoned in the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. His interview was conducted in the United States. When the war began, George was twelve years old.

Source: USC Shoah Foundation

Eva Safferman was born on April 15, 1928, in Lodz, Poland. She was forced to live in the Lodz ghetto and imprisoned in the Hamburg-Sasel, Auschwitz I, and Bergen- Belsen concentration camps. Eva was also a prisoner in the Auschwitz- Birkenau extermination camp. Her interview was conducted in the United States. When the war began, Eva was eleven years old.

Source: USC Shoah Foundation

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