Nutrition and Food Distribution Within Polish Ghettos

By Sarah Stinski

Many of Sara Spira’s postcards indicate that she was in both Gorlice and Krakow for some time. She continually mentions food packages and requests that her children send only coffee, tea and cocoa, suggesting that she was placed in a ghetto and the availability of food was limited where she was living.[1] Although little information is known about the Gorlice Ghetto, and the nutritional experience there can be compared to that of the nearby Krakow Ghetto.

After the Germans invaded Poland, the Nazi army quickly initiated the isolation and discrimination of the Jews, and in March 1941, the Nazis concentrated about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews into the Krakow Ghetto.[2] In the early stages, both the Gorlice and Krakow ghettos were not closed off from the rest of the city and the people living in them could maintain contact with the outside world. Although this allowed for the smuggling of food into the ghetto, the quantity was minimal and very highly priced. The Nazis closed the Krakow Ghetto in the fall of 1941 and the Gorlice Ghetto in February 1942,[3] declaring that any Jew caught without a permit outside the ghetto would be sentenced to death.[4] Most people had no choice but to rely on aid from abroad from their family or organizations like soup kitchens and the American Joint Distribution Committee, which provided essential services like food, medicine, clothing, and educational and religious materials.[5] However, once the post office in the ghetto was closed, all food packages and letters were prevented from arriving and being delivered. As Nazi policies became increasingly restrictive, it was more difficult for the Jews to access food within and outside the ghettos. The Nazis set up a rationing policy that provided more food and medicine for those who were higher up in their hierarchy. The Germans reallocated most of the food for themselves, giving themselves more food than the Poles, and the Poles were given more food than the Jews. “The daily portion for each individual was hardly a sufficient amount to remain healthy: twenty grams of bread, kasha or porridge, soup, and occasionally a small amount of sugar. On top of that, the Germans allowed themselves 2,310 calories per day; the Poles received 644 calories per day, and the Jews only 184 calories.”[6] Even those that were fortunate enough to have a job could not afford to buy food because of the highly inflated prices, and as a result, also suffered from a lack a food. For a comparison to the personal experiences within ghettos, Chaim Kaplan in Warsaw writes in his diary that “because of these exorbitant prices on even essential foods, such as bread and potatoes, most families bring food home from the public soup kitchens” and “respectable, formerly well-to-do people who never had to worry about matters of food now stand in line next to all sorts of coarse and vulgar characters waiting their turn for a bowl of watery soup.”[7] Because food was so scarce among the ghettos, it was seen with high value; however, the scarcity of food and poor diet caused major starvation problems that resulted in a constantly rising death rate.

[1] Spira, Sara. Sara Spira to Georg Sternreich, July 2, 1941; July 9, 1941; August 19, 1941; October 23, 1941.Postcards.

[2] “Krakow.”United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.Accessed February 19, 2016.  

[3] Samuel Fishman, Martin Dean, and Jolanta Kraemer. “Gorlice.” Ed. Geoffrey P. Megargee.United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945.(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009). 508-510.

[4] Guy Miron and Shlomit Shulhani. The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the

Holocaust. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2009).

[5] “Archives.”American Joint Distribution Committee.Accessed February 19, 2016.

[6] Alfred Katz.Poland’s Ghettos at War. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970).

[7] Chaim A. Kaplain. The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan. (New York: Collier Books, 1973).


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