An account of the Warsaw Ghetto (1942)

Professor Ludwik Hirszfeld was an eminent Polish scientist of Jewish extraction. In 1941, Hirszfeld and his wife were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, where they lived before escaping in 1943. Here he describes pitiful scenes in the ghetto:

“The streets are so over-populated, it is difficult to push one-way through. Everyone is ragged in tatters. Often they no longer even possess a shirt. Everywhere there is noise and uproar The thin piteous voices of children crying their wares – “Pretzels, cigarettes, sweets” are heard above the din. No-one will ever be able to forget those children’s voices.

There are heaps and piles of filth and refuse on the pavements. Often a child will snatch a packet from a passer-by and run away, ravenous over the food inside. Even when he is caught and beaten, the young creature will not give up his meal.

I see an enormous number of men, women and children being hounded by the police. When I approach and ask what is going on, I learn that they are refugees, dragging with them their last possessions — a bundle, a cushion or just a straw mattress. They were thrown out of their homes at five minutes’ notice and not allowed to take anything with them. They come from the small towns in the surrounding district. Old people and cripples, the sick and infirm were liquidated on the spot.

Anybody who does not keep pace and falls behind is despatched on the march. Should a son stay behind with his murdered father, he is also killed in the same way. The tragic expressions on the faces of these refugees vary between fear of death and resignation…

Often there is something lying on the pavement, covered with newspaper. Emaciated limbs or morbidly swollen legs usually stick out from underneath. These are the corpses of the spotted typhus victims. The other people living in the house simply carry them outside because they cannot afford the burial expenses. Or it may be one of the homeless paupers who has collapsed in the street.

Every opening in the wall is guarded. The guard consists of a few Germans, who look at the crowd with contempt, Polish police and the Jewish police. These last are slapped in the face if they do not carry out their orders properly.

There are always countless children inside the ghetto. People on the ‘Aryan’ side gape curiously at the piteous spectacle presented by these tattered gangs. In fact, these gangs of children are the ghetto breadwinners. If the German looks away for one second, they run nimbly over to the ‘Aryan’ side. The bread, potatoes and other things that they buy there are hidden under their rags, and then they have to slip back the way they came…

Not all the German sentries are murderers and executioners but, unfortunately, many of them do not hesitate to take up their guns and fire at the children. Every day — it is almost unbelievable — children are taken to hospital with gunshot wounds.

All Jews must wear the armband with its Star of David. The children are the only exceptions, and this makes it easier for them to smuggle food in. Often, in less than no time, they will throw small packets into the ghetto from the tramway that runs along the ‘Aryan’ side of the street just as the train is passing the gate of the ghetto and then jump in themselves. They also climb over the wall, but this must be done very quickly, lest one of the sentries chooses that moment to look round. If he sees this happening, he shoots immediately…

The thousands of ragged beggars are reminiscent of a famine in India. Horrifying sights are to be seen every day. Here a half-starved mother is trying to suckle her baby at a breast that has no milk. Beside her may lie another, older child, dead. One sees people dying, lying with arms and legs outstretched in the middle of the road. Their legs are bloated, often frost-bitten, and their faces distorted with pain. I hear that every day the beggar children’s frost-bitten fingers and toes, hands and feet are amputated…

I once asked a little girl: “What would you like to be?” “A dog,” she answered, “because the sentries like dogs.”

The Jews who work in “Aryan” sectors are given passes in order to get to their place of work. They have to (pass the guard at the double, hat in hand. Sometimes the sentries stop a group and order them to undress and grovel in the dirt. They also like to make them do “knee-bends”. Sometimes they even have to dance. The sentries stand by and almost kill themselves laughing.”