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Whatever Can Be Saved: Daily Life in the Ghettos

Burial in Warsaw, 1941. CL:Bundesarchiv.

Selling old books at the ghetto's lending library. Winter 1941. CL:Joe Heydecker, Vienna and Sao Paulo. Brazil.

Theatrical performance in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1941. CL:Bundesarchiv.

"There is a vigorous cultural life in the ghetto. Last night we had the premiere of the choir a lecture in the literary club on the subject of 'Shylock and Nathan.' Today a siyum (ceremony) on the completion of the tractate Kidushin by the Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Ozer." Zelig Kalmanovich, Diary. Vilna Ghetto, January 24, 1943.

Secret ghetto archives were established to preserve the history of life in the ghettos and document Nazi inhumanity. The best known, the Oneq Shabbat of Warsaw, was founded by Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, who convinced poets, artists, physicians, journalists, social scientists, and rabbis to contribute. Diaries, commissioned reports, and documents were preserved and buried in three milk cans in non-Jewish sections of Warsaw. Two cans were recovered after the war and one is still to be found.

Chaim Rumkowski, German appointed "Elder of the Jews," officiates at a wedding. CL:Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot.

"We are left naked. but as long as this secret power is still within us we do not give up hope. And the strength of this power lies in the indigenous nature of Polish Jewry, which is rooted in our eternal tradition that commands us to live." Chaim A. Kaplan, The Warsaw Diary. March 10, 1940.


While death took its daily toll through starvation and disease, the Nazis' goal in the ghettos was to brutalize and break the spirit of the inhabitants. To combat this, underground social, religious, educational, and political organizations were created. Newspapers were published, classes held, religious services conducted, despite the threat of death for such activities.



Religious worship, Warsaw Ghetto. CL:Bundesarchiv.
Janusz Korczak (1879-1942), son of a wealthy Warsaw family, was a physician who was especially concerned with social issues and authored books on the plight of homeless orphans (Children of the Street). In 1911, he became head of a Jewish orphanage in Warsaw. He lectured at the Free Polish University, did radio broadcasts on topics relating to children, and wrote children's books. As a Polish representative in the Jewish Agency, he visited Kibbutzim in Israel. After the Nazi invasion, his main interest was saving the orphanage in Warsaw. Despite temporary exemption from deportation to Treblinka, Korczak voluntarily went to his death with the children when they were deported.
Dr. Janusz Korczak with children from his orphanage, 1940. CL:BPK.

An orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto. CL:SWC.

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