Passover 1942 and the Warsaw Ghetto was dying of hunger.
Hunger marked the first stage of the German extermination of Jews in Poland. In Warsaw, the Jews struggled for food from the start of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Within four months, hunger became rampant in the Jewish community, by then ordered to a ghetto. From 1940, the mortality rate among Jews in Warsaw skyrocketed by up to seven-fold. Warsaw became Hitler’s laboratory on how to starve the Jews into submission before sending them to their death without resistance.
Rachel Auerbach helped establish the first public soup kitchen in Warsaw in the fall of 1939. Administered by Emanuel Ringelblum, the kitchen served 50 meals on its first day. Soon, the number reached 2,000. By December 1939, 40,000 people were waiting on line.
“Soup was their only form of sustenance,” Auerbach wrote as part of the secret ghetto documentation project headed by Ringelblum and called Oneg Shabbat, or “Joy of the Sabbath.”
When the Germans sealed the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940, hunger dominated Jewish life. On Aug. 4, 1941, Auerbach wrote of the cries by Jews on the streets, “Please give, throw us something, merciful Jews.” Soon, most of these Jews would be found dead.
By the spring of 1942, few Polish Jews were in a position to celebrate Passover. Britain, with support of the United States, imposed an embargo on food and other civilian relief to German-occupied Europe. The American Joint Distribution Committee, which had spent millions of dollars establishing food kitchens in Poland, was forced to stop aid. Agudath Israel tried to continue and encountered protests by Zionist-led organizations that accused the Orthodox group of aiding the German war effort. Throughout the war, Agudah would urge JDC — criticized for mismanagement — to finance food relief.
“At present, one week before the holiday, the projects treasury is empty,” Chaim Kaplan wrote in his diary, later published as Scroll of Agony. What then will we eat during the eight days of the coming holiday? For prayer there are no synagogues or houses of study…For eating and drinking there is neither matzah or wine.”
On April 16, 1942, just after Passover, Auerbach recalled walking past a second-hand goods market in the ghetto. Jews were selling their last possessions — whether furniture, jewelry and even clothes — for food.
“But hunger cannot be driven away by a quarter loaf of bread,” Auerbach wrote. “The stomach swallows and the next morning calls for more.”
Without Western assistance, the remaining soup kitchens in the ghetto were on the verge of collapse. Everybody was hungry and the Germans were executing food smugglers. The SS claimed this was for the good of the Jews: The Jews who left the ghetto would spread typhus throughout Warsaw.
A demoralized Auerbach saw her own work as helping the Germans. She wrote that the kitchens merely “regulated death,” and merely stopped all of the Jews from perishing at once.
“No soup could have saved the neediest from death,” Auerbach wrote.
Ringelblum agreed. He understood that starvation marked German strategy. By April 1942, he had received reports of “extermination squads that are wiping complete Jewish settlements off the face of the earth.”
At one point, Ringelblum wondered how to divide the little food left in the ghetto. Distributing a little food to many people would doom everybody. Perhaps, his soup kitchens should “reserve the available money for selected individuals, for those who are socially productive, for the intellectual elite; etc.?”
The Germans soon made that question moot. On July 22, 1942, the SS, aided by Jewish police, Ukrainian militiamen and the Judenrat, began what was called “The Great Deportation.” On the eve of the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av, the first of 265,000 Jews were sent to their death in Treblinka.
Few survived the Warsaw Ghetto. In March 1944, Ringelblum was executed along with many other Jews caught in Warsaw after the ghetto was destroyed in the spring of 1943. His Oneg Shabbat files, however, were found under the ghetto rubble in 1946 and for years went unnoticed, particularly in Israel. There was too much information on Jewish collaboration with the Germans, particularly by leading members of the Zionist movement.
Ringelblum had witnessed collaboration even in his relief network. Michal Weichert had been chairman of the network, known by its Polish acronym ZSS. Weichert, a Yiddish theater director, handled the money and goods supplied by JDC throughout Poland.
After the July 1942 deportation, Weichert disappeared into German custody. He reappeared in March 1943, now head of a relief office in Cracow, another ghetto slated for imminent destruction. In July 1944, with the Red Army nearby and days before the outbreak of the Warsaw uprising, Weichert again disappeared — this time until the liberation of the capital in January 1945.
After the war, Weichert was arrested by Polish authorities and charged with collaborating with Germany. He was acquitted. But the Central Jewish Committee in Poland disputed the verdict and held its own trial. In December 1949, the Jewish court handed down a verdict of guilty. In 1958, Weichert was allowed to immigrate to Israel where he was rewarded with an official stipend as well as employment. He died in 1968 after writing a four-volume autobiography.
From the start of World War II, Ringelblum warned against collaboration and dissension. He urged the terribly divided Jewish community to unite or else German extermination would be ensured.
“The war presented the public with very important questions,” Ringelblum said. “It was necessary to put an end to the relationships based on political differences which existed before the war. There had to be a united front from the left to the right. The Nazi war against the Jews had become a war of annihilation. It was being waged against every class and level of the entire Jewish population. As far as the Nazis were concerned, there was no difference between the Zionists and the Bundists; they were equally despised… Only by joining forces could we face such crucial and constant problems.”