“…And We Eat Like on Yom Kippur”

Women, Food and the Struggle for Survival in the Lodz Ghetto

Reports from Darfur and Niger this season record horrific images of death and destruction, including photographs of the slow agony of human wasting that predicts imminent death. Within weeks of being cut off from food, people begin to die of starvation -no other killing necessary—-yet this slow pause before the death tolls rise often garners less attention that the dramatic destruction of human lives by bloodier means.

The same was largely true of the Nazi policy of genocidal starvation of Jewish populations. Though books and films have described other forms of Jewish resistance—the wielding of weapons (usually by men) in the ghettos and forests, for example we are only beginning to know about the battles fought each day (mostly by women) against the inexorable encroachment of hunger once food supplies were choked off. This agonizing fight for enough to eat to survive was a core resistance effort by women in the Jewish ghettos the Nazis created.

These battles are documented through small, unassuming artifacts: recipes, wartime diaries, songs from the ghetto, photographs and the testimony of survivors. While the Nazi regime degraded their bodies and souls with increasingly harsh restrictions, they were physically sustained by the women who tried to make miracles in empty kitchens. Here, Helene Sinnreich s research on some of the extraordinary practices.

The Nazis entered Lodz, a city with a pre-war Jewish  population greater than that of the Netherlands, Italy and Denmark combined, in September of 1939. Within six months, a ghetto was established in the poorest area of the city. The Nazis sealed the ghetto, cutting off food and aid from the outside world. The Jews who lived there quickly began to succumb to enforced starvation. A battle for survival in the form of acquiring food ensued. In many cases, the heroes were women.

Early in the war, women found creative ways to put food on the table when their previously well-stocked pantries were empty. Basic war rations like ersatz “coffee,” made from grains, became popular replacements for flour. A cake recipe from the Lodz Ghetto calls for 12-15 spoons of ersatz coffee, three potatoes, two spoons of flour, 10 saccharine tablets, one spoon of drinking soda, and a little salt. Ersatz coffee could also be used to stretch traditional dishes where the ingredients were missing. For example, potato latkes. Women living in the ghetto made this traditional Eastern European Jewish dish— normally made of flour, potatoes and eggs—by combining coffee and potatoes with a little flour They found that the coffee-based dough could be stretched even further by adding cooked and ground vegetable leaves. One survivor noted that the water used to cook the leaves could be re-used to make soup— turning into nourishment what had once been considered waste.

These recipes were not all original to the ghetto. Finding ways to stretch meager food allotments had been forced upon various Jewish populations during World War I and the Great Depression. As in these other times of hardship, the women of the ghettoes learned to sacrifice and innovate in order to fight for their own and their families’ survival. One recipe called for beet leaves to be salted and fried and turned into “herring.” When even imaginative cooking couldn’t fill the table, women routinely sacrificed their own rations to the family food pot. And as in times before the war, women helped each other to find the means to feed their families. Neighbors borrowed a spoonful of flour or a few ounces of noodles from each other, promising to return the items when the next ration was distributed.

Breaking Kashrut to Save a Life

As starvation set in, the Jews who were squeezed into the ghetto ate foods which under better circumstances they would never have consumed. Pork and horsemeat (strictly taboo for the Lodz Jews, most of whom, before the war, had observed the laws of kashrut) became hoarded, life-saving delicacies. Not only did ghetto Jews begin to eat whatever non-kosher meat they could find, but a rabbinical decision in the Lodz ghetto even made it permissible under Jewish law for certain persons to eat it—the ill, pregnant women and the like. This development led to new phrases in the language. Robert Moses Shapiro, in an article “Yiddish Slang Under the Nazis,” says that “If a Jew in the Lodz ghetto saw someone running he might comment that ‘er est vishtshinove ferd‘—he eats racehorses.”

One recipe from the ghetto called for making five large cutlets from 200 grams of horsemeat, two shredded potatoes and a bit of rye flour, and seasoning with salt and pepper. The cutlets were then fried in a little oil. When there was no cooking oil, motor oil was sometimes used. Meatballs made from horsemeat became a popular commodity, found primarily on the black market. A ghetto song describes this “delicacy,” recounting that their taste had to be masked by drinking saccharine- sweetened tea. Another song laments the plight of the many ghetto Jews who sold off the last of their possessions to purchase whatever food was available: “I’ve already sold the cabinet and my mother-in-law’s bed. I’ll get bread and butter and horsemeat meatballs.” People often sold off their possessions to obtain food, sometimes on the black market. Most people utilizing the Lodz ghetto black market traded items from their official rations, selling more valuable portions such as meats and fats, for a larger quantity of less valuable items, such as vegetables. People who managed to grow or sell processed foods such as “candy” made from saccharine could make a trade on the black market. Although the Jewish administration frowned on the black market—particularly “middlemen” profiteering off the selling of food—a daily record of prices on the market was kept. Not only do the prices reflect what was available in the official rations, but they are indicators of the community’s mindset. As waves of fear rose—when there were deportations out of the ghetto to the unknown—black market prices spiked too.

Scavenging for Sustenance

With the sealing of the ghettos, food became even more scarce, and people began to seek new edibles and more ways—beyond potatoes and coffee substitute—to stretch their limited food supply. Jews in the Lodz ghetto began to consume foods which, before the war, had been animal fodder Hunger drove people to eat rotting vegetables, peels and dead outer leaves of cabbages. They found that you could eat these if you cooked them, and these items quickly became precious staples. Potato peels, in particular, became an important part of the ghetto diet. As time went on, though, even these remnants became so scarce that, at one point in the Lodz ghetto, a doctor’s prescription was needed to get a coveted ration of potato peels. Bella Karp, a survivor of this ghetto, described eating “bread” made from ground up peels, and, in even more desperate times, making patties out of the hard outer shells of coffee beans. :

Finding something—anything—that could provide nourishment went beyond merely rescuing food scraps from one’s own kitchen. The refuse dump became a life- . ‘ saving cache of nutrients, an important resource for the ghetto dinner table. As Lodz ghetto diarist Oskar Rosenfeld, writing before his death in the ghetto tells us, it was children who went “through this trash, crawling and scratching around, fishing something out and sticking it in their pocket or in a pot.” The more desperate would attempt to eat food that had been doused with chlorine. Photographer Henryk Ross in his post-war testimony told how a batch of rotten potatoes were doused in chlorine and buried, to prevent starving people from consuming them and getting sick. Children dug up the potatoes and ate them anyway. According to Ross, “…they were so hungry that it didn’t matter to them what they ate.”

Jews in the ghetto ate discarded meat as a last resort. They even ate meat that was in a state of advanced decay. In August of 1941, a freight car of meat—rotting and already covered with worms after a three-day’ journey through the summer heat—arrived in the ghetto. Nevertheless, it was turned into sausages and fed to the factory workers, many of whom then fell ill from food poisoning. And records from a court case in the Lodz ghetto depict a number of people eating a horse designated for burial that had been doused in chlorine to prevent consumption. The convicted Jews pleaded that they had stolen the meat to relieve their desperate hunger.

Making Something out of Nothing

Jews survived day to day in this hell through determination and innovation. As food sources deteriorated, people began attempts at food production. One survivor noted: “…because of the intense hunger, people began to plant things on rooftops, window sills, backyards. Each vacant spot was used for planting.” Plants sprouting up in corners and alleys nourished broken spirits and filled hungry bellies. The Jewish ghetto administration tried to encourage some of these planting efforts. In May of 1940, land parcels in the ghetto were made available for growing vegetables. In June of 1942, it was announced that fruit trees and shrubs could be leased from the ghetto’s Department of Agriculture. In addition, in one area of the Lodz ghetto, there were communal garden plots, which were farmed by youth groups including Zionists, Bundists and others. In the early days, the ghetto administration even worked towards providing matzah and other kosher foods for Passover.

The most innovative food production in the ghetto, described by Oskar Singer, was the ghetto “salad.” The ghetto dairy, having run out of milk to distribute, gathered the scraps left over from the ghetto kitchens and turned them into an edible mix. Leftover scraps of wilted vegetable leaves were soaked until they appeared regenerated, and the edible bits that could be salvaged from rotten vegetables were soaked until their smell diminished. These re-hydrated greens were mixed with unblemished pieces of moldy bread, and well-seasoned with spices to mask the smell. This ghetto salad was served to inhabitants “fortunate” enough to have a ration coupon for it.

Lodz ghetto survivor Lucille Eichengreen explained the plight of the starving Jews of the ghetto: “We went to almost any length to get something edible, a bite to eat, rancid or not, and still we were hungry.”

Helene J. Sinnreich is Director of Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Youngstown State University. She spent three years in Poland researching Nazi starvation policy in the Lodz ghetto.