Starvation Rations — A Holocaust Survivor’s Story: Part II

The angel of death in Lodz Ghetto was hunger. The results of enduring, unceasing hunger became simply catastrophic for the health condition of the ghetto population and produced, both absolutely and relatively, the largest number of victims. 11,273 people died in the ghetto from January to June, 1942, 26 percent of them from starvation. Most of the rest from tuberculosis and heart disease.

Jack Welner describes his experience dealing with hunger in the Lodz Jewish ghetto.

For part one of his story, see here.

When we lived up on the fifth floor there, there was no running water, no toilet. Everything froze during the winter 1939-40. It was unattended, so of course it froze. To use the facilities we had to go down to the outhouse five floors down.

Water we would get … Everybody had to go to work. we went to work, we took along a pot for some soup. Twelve o’clock we’d get watery soup, a little bit … we were told we’d each get four pieces of potatoes. So we push in our pot, and the woman there would dish it out with a ladle and with our spoons we would check if there were four pieces of potato.

Some guys were more enterprising. They would put a piece of screen on top of the pot and when she poured it in, the pieces of potato, if there were not four pieces, they would ask, she would add a piece.

So on the way home, since I worked in the lumber mill, sometimes I would steal pieces of wood or sawdust in the pot and take it home. My brother and I worked in the same place. We would gather sawdust little by little, and then during the winter we had a special stove that burned sawdust to keep a little bit warm.

Lodz market, courtesy Jewish Virtual Library

So when we got home from work, the janitor would turn on the well. Every building in our city had its own well. There was no central system for water. Every building had a well and they had big reservoir on top of the attic with a pipe sticking out of the building. So the janitor would turn on the pump, it would pump the water up there, and when it became almost full, the water started dripping out from the pipe, and he knew then to shut it off. So when we got home from work, instead of going up there, it would come out of a spout and we would stand in a line to fill up a bucket of water. I would call up to mother. My mother would let down from a balcony, on a rope she would down and empty bucket, I would tie up my pot from work before we went upstairs. And we would carry up the bucket of water five flights of stairs. Sometimes toward the end it would take like an hour because, you know, we could hardly walk.

In the four-and-a-half years we were in the ghetto, we didn’t have any fruit, any butter, any milk, any eggs. In five years. We lacked calcium. We couldn’t walk. We couldn’t walk. Somewhere in the city, a hundred, a hundred-fifty people died every day of starvation.

So we couldn’t get enough of the vitamins, whatever, so when somebody fell in the street, they just lay there, couldn’t get up. And nobody would try to help them because we were afraid we’ll fall down too. This went on until August of ’44. The rations were smaller every time. Smaller and smaller.

QUESTION: What was the attitude of the people in the ghetto?

What they succeeded in doing, they succeeded in dehumanizing us. We became animals. The only thing we were talking about or thinking about was food.

Of the many enemies in the Lodz ghetto, starvation was the deadliest. In the years prior to the war, the death rate in Lodz was 9.6 per thousand. In 1940, in the Lodz ghetto, the death rate was 39.2 per thousand; in 1941, 75.7 per thousand; and in 1942, 159.8 per thousand.

For the last third of May, 1942, Lodz ghetto residents were allocated an average of 1,100 calories per day, per person. In practice, even these starvation rations were given out only on paper. The actual amount of food they received was usually less.

In the beginning, when we came to the ghetto, I was nineteen years old. I had friends. I remember we used to get together with friends, since we didn’t have any radios, any record players, my brother and I we made a sled and piled up our belongings, and went to the ghetto. One sled. They wouldn’t let us go back. We had it piled up real high and my sister and my mother were all set to keep it from tipping over. We put on clothes, ten shirts or whatever we could, and that’s how we went to the ghetto. Nobody would take any record players.

But we young kids, we would get together … I remember I had a harmonica. I played harmonica, we would dance. But then little by little we stopped going together. Because hunger took over everything. We didn’t know any news of what was going on, and we didn’t think about anything else. Just food. Dreaming about food.

I remember one time the Germans gave us for our ration some leaves from beets, from the red beets, you know, just the leaves. I remember, I’ll never forget, mother would put a little bit salt on it, we got some salt with our two weeks ration. Starvation diet. Not enough to live, and not enough to die. So mother would salt the leaf, she roll it up, you know, and would fry it on a fry pan. We would eat and say, “Oh, it tastes like herring.” We would make believe that we were eating this or that.

Lodz soup line, courtesy Jewish Virtual Library

I remember one time we got a piece of sausage made out of horse meat. To us it was the best kind of sausage. You never got sausage. We used to call it “slide sausage.” Everyone would get two or three thin slices. We called it “slide sausage.” Why slide? Because we would put it on a piece of bread and smell the sausage. Before we took a bite, we would slide it away, so you took only a bite of the bread. We would have the sausage towards the end, to last for the whole piece of bread.

We got a loaf of bread to last for eight days, a two kilogram loaf of bread, we would cut it in eight portions, it would be like 250 grams of bread a day. That’s all you got. But that was not enough. I would borrow a piece from tomorrow, a piece from the day after. When it came to the last two days, I didn’t have any bread left. I would go out in the field and pick some leaves of grass. I would take it home and my mother would cook it. Just grass. My mother would cook it and I would stuff myself with it.

This went on until August of 1944. And that’s when they sent us to Auschwitz.

TOMORROW: From Lodz to Auschwitz to Dachau

Videography and production assistance by Jake Whipple

Read the entire Holocaust Survivor series.