Photo Credit: David Michael Cohen/TPS

*Editor’s Note: This is part VII in a series from Dr. Grobman. You can read Part VI, here

Toward the end of 1939, the physical survival of Polish Jews became critical, particularly for the approximately 360,000 residing in Warsaw writes historian Yehuda Bauer. About 1.8-1.9 million Jews lived in western and central Poland at the end of 1939. By October, 1940 350,000 were living in ghettos under the Nazis.  


Nazi regulations, Bauer said, decimated Jewish businesses in Warsaw. During October –December 1939, Jews were forced to transfer their businesses to German commissars for no more than 500 zloty. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee succeeded in getting 10 or 11 zloty to the dollar by the spring of 1940. A Jew could receive on 250 zloty a month from his own account. A family was limited to 2,000 zloty from their cash deposits.  

By early 1940, personal possessions and property were taken, often in a brutal manner. By July 1940, Germans based in Kraków reported that Jews had been removed from industry, trade, banking, land ownership, insurance and other essential economic enterprises. Soon they would be eliminated from small trade and eventually from crafts and hawking their wares. 

The social and economic problems the Jews faced in Warsaw reflect the situation of Jews in other areas encountered Bauer notes, because with roughly one-fourth of the Jewish population of the General Government, (districts of Warsaw, Kraków, Radom and Lublin) Warsaw contained the greatest number of Jews. 

 On October 26, 1939, Hans Frank, Governor General of the General Government in Poland, signed an order making forced labor compulsory for all Jews between the ages of 14-60. The arbitrary abducting of Jewish man and women off the streets and spiriting them off to forced labor camps to perform humiliating and non-paying work, began right after Germany seized control of Poland. Jews then were forced to think twice before venturing outside of their homes. Germans were assisted in identifying Jews by Poles, who were quite adept at recognizing Jews. Beatings, verbal abuse and even murder were frequent. 

Had the Jews followed all of the severe regulations, they would have perished Bauer concluded. They were forbidden to engage in any economic pursuit, travel, retain money, and once the ghettos were established, they would be killed if they attempted to leave or escape from them. Overcrowding in the ghettos resulted in epidemics, particularly typhoid. In the Warsaw ghetto, nearly 400,000 people were compelled to live in an area formerly inhabited by 150,000. 

Their food rations of primarily bread and potatoes, Bauer added, were so meagre they were not sufficient to keep them alive, yet they were prohibited from acquiring food from any other source. In May 1940, the Warsaw Judenrat reported that Jews were allocated one kilo of bread a week, while the rest of the population were to receive 1,750 grams a week. Starvation of the Jewish population was clearly the goal.  

Jews found ways to evade most, if not all, these life-threatening restrictions. They survived on communal charity, begging, stealing, smuggling, and bartering with Poles who exchanged their produce for tools, clothes, and machinery and luxury items. During 1941 their suffering defied description, yet by 1942 they had mastered techniques that most likely would have enabled them to survive the war, had the Nazis not launched a systematic campaign to annihilate them.  

Efforts to Aid European Jews 

In 1940, the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) set a goal of $23,000,000. The Contemporary Jewish Record of March-April 1940 reported that among the major needs listed were aid to refugees abroad, assistance to Palestine, and helping refugees reconstruct their lives in the U.S. In early 1940 20,000 Ibs of used clothing were shipped to Jewish war refugees in Lithuania and Hungary by the Federation of Polish Jews in America. On February 13, a committee for the Polish Jewish Affairs sought Restoration of the Rights of Polish Jews; and United Galician Jews of America announced a relief campaign on April 7, which they revealed on June 27.  

The July-August 1940 issue of the Contemporary Jewish Record reported the formation of a movement by the Jewish Morning Journal and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis to rescue children from regions ravaged by war. On April 27, 1940 Der Tog reported the JDC distributed matzot for Passover. In Jewish Labor In The U.S.A. 1914-1951, journalist Melech Epstein wrote how the Jewish Labor Committee, the JDC and the World Jewish Congress (WJC) worked together to bring a number of Jews hiding in France to the U.S. during the first half of 1940. The WJC was founded in Geneva, Switzerland, in August 1936 as an international federation of Jewish communities and organizations to defend the interests of Jews and Jewish communities throughout the world. 

The New York Times, the JTA, Der Tog, and the Contemporary Jewish Record reported about plans to distribute relief in occupied Europe on a non-sectarian basis, which were initially rejected by the Nazis. After the relief agencies refused to begin their programs unless the Jews received their share, the Nazis relented. Although American organizations could operate only in proscribed areas, relief did reach many Jews according to the Forward, JTA, Congress Bulletin and other periodicals.  

On December 5, 1940 Joseph C. Hyman stated that in the 14 months since the War in Europe began on September 1, 1939, to October 31, 1940, the JDC has spent $8, 269, 247 in cash for relief and rehabilitation that extended into 50 countries.  

On December 21, 1940, the JTA quoted Morris C. Troper, European director of the JDC acknowledging that this sum was not sufficient. “The chief obstacle in bringing [more] effective assistance to Jewish refugees and war victims,” he said, was “the lack of adequate funds.” As he left the U.S. to resume his work abroad, he declared” “I am going to Europe with full knowledge of the frightful conditions existing there, and the equally discouraging knowledge that we shall not be able to feed all the hungry or provide care for all the sick.” 

Jonah B. Wise, Executive Director of the JDC, recognized that when considering the enormity of the problem, American Jews could not expect, in the “face of such staggering misery, to bring hope and life to all who suffer.” Once this is understood, Wise said, it was essential to “save those we can.”  

In addition to the lack of funds, the Nazis instituted an obstacle preventing the JDC to provide life-saving assistance Bauer explained. From June 1940, Jews were no longer permitted to receive cables in Warsaw. Every cable had to be sent to through the Judenrat (Jewish Council). The one post office in the ghetto could not possibly handle the substantial number of cables and food packages it received for the Jews from mostly young Jews who had escaped to areas controlled by the Russians. 

Until the Soviet-German war began in June 1941, they sent food packages to their relatives and friends in the west. Bauer notes that between December 1, 1940 and March 22, 1941, 197,758 packages reached Warsaw, 84.3 percent from the USSR, enabling Jews to survive. When they were lost or more likely stolen, the consequences could be disastrous, even fatal. Mail connections with neutral countries were initially not as important but became crucial between the time the Nazis attacked Russia and the American entry into the conflict.  

Bauer noted that the JDC encouraged American Jews to send food packages as a way of helping European Jews. The British stymied their plans by prohibiting food parcels from American Jews or anyone else to be sent to Germany once they instituted their blockade of Germany. The British reasoned that allowing these parcels would free the Nazis from supplying the local population with food. The British had no idea until sometime in 1943 that the Nazis had no intention of feeding Jews at all.  

Conditions in Perspective 

Not all of the Jews in the General Government suffered from starvation and epidemics Bauer points out. In Częstochowa, in south west Poland, and in Radom, south of Warsaw, for example, Jews were destitute, pressed into forced labor, endured beatings and humiliation and were subjected to random murderers, but there was no mass starvation. In other smaller areas, these same conditions prevailed. Jews in the ghettos in Lublin, Kraków and Kielce, however, experienced mass starvation and epidemics. 


Previous articleStrength Is Not In Numbers
Next articleYeshiva Student Was Attacked by Arab Mob, Police Closed the Case
Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.