In our third weekly podcast, the Trust's Head of Education Alex Maws and Education Officers Martin Winstone and Tom Jackson discuss how the Holocaust evolved during the Second World War and the implications this has for teaching about the Holocaust.

Click here to read a transcript of the podcast.   



Long before the Nazis had decided to murder all of Europe’s Jews, the miserable living conditions in the ghettos of eastern Europe caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Although ghettos were created at different times and varied in size and nature, they all had two common characteristics: they were located in poor areas of towns and they were catastrophically overcrowded. Józef Zelkowicz was an official of the Jewish Council in Łódź in Poland, where a ghetto was created in the spring of 1940. Later that year, he recorded an inspection of a typical apartment.

The one and only window in the apartment, facing north with its shattered panes, is plugged with sundry coloured rags. Along the swollen walls, their living flesh eaten away by the mould, a few flies creep lazily. The ceiling is covered with grey-blue stains like a soiled cushion on a child’s pushchair.

The two iron beds in the middle of the room are heaped with bare pillows and mildewed mattresses, from which bundles of packed, crushed straw protrude. Next to the beds is a wooden bucket and around the bucket, strewn on the floor, is white and coloured laundry.

Filth, deprivation, neglect. Mouldy, frightening. Pins prick your body when you remember that human beings live in this gloom. In this cellar room, drenched in water that tears hunks of life out of the silent walls in summer and winter, human beings are breathing. In the repugnant bedding and on the rusty crooked iron beds, people sleep. Living people, whose open eyes have seen another life. People with mouths that know how to speak and scream and, nevertheless, keep their silence and wallow in silent despair, like those flies that creep lazily on the walls until, one hour or one day on, their wings will palpitate one last time and they will settle lifeless on the dirty floor.

In the four years of the Łódź Ghetto’s existence, more than 45,000 of its approximately 200,000 inhabitants died in the ghetto.

Photo: a woman and girl in the Łódź Ghetto; Yad Vashem

Report: Józef Zelkowicz, In Those Terrible Days: Notes from the Lodz Ghetto, ed. Michal Unger (Yad Vashem, 2003)



Along with overcrowding, the biggest single problem in most ghettos was lack of food because the Nazis provided insufficient rations. Thousands of people died each month in the Warsaw Ghetto as a result of starvation and the population relied on smuggling to provide food. Most of the smugglers were children; the photograph shows one being caught by a German policeman. In this poem, Henryka Łazowertówna paid tribute to these child smugglers and the huge risks they took to support their families.

The Little Smuggler

 Over the walls, through holes, through the guard posts,
Through the wire, through the rubble, through the fence,
Hungry, cheeky, stubborn,
I slip through, I nip through like a cat.

At midday, in the night, at dawn,
In snowstorms, foul weather, and heat,
A hundred times I risk my life,
I stick out my childish neck.

A rough sack under my arm,
Wearing torn rags on my back,
With nimble young legs
And in my heart constant fear.

But you have to bear it all,
And you have to put up with it all,
So that tomorrow you
Will have your fill of bread.

Over the walls, though holes, through bricks,
At night, at dawn, and in day,
Cheeky, hungry, crafty,
I move as quietly as a shadow.

And if the hand of fate unexpectedly
Catches up with me one day in this game,
It is an ordinary trap of life.
Mother, don't wait for me anymore.
I will not be coming back to you again,
The voice will not be heard from afar;
The dust of the streets will bury
The fate of the lost child.

And I have only one request,
And the grimace is set on the lips:
Who, Mother, will bring you
Your bread tomorrow?

Henryka Łazowertówna was murdered at Treblinka extermination camp in August 1942.

Photo: a boy caught smuggling in the Warsaw Ghetto by a German policeman; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leopold Page Photographic Collection

Poem: Michał M. Borwicz (ed.), Pieśń ujdzie cało... Antologia wierszy o Żydach pod okupacją niemiecką (Centralna Żydowska Komisja, 1947)



This photograph shows Jewish men in the Kraków Ghetto chopping up furniture for use as firewood. The mood of despair in the ghettos caused by overcrowding, disease, and lack of food and fuel increased in the spring of 1942 with the news of mass shootings of Jews in the Soviet Union and the first deportations to extermination camps in Poland. It was at this time that the Yiddish writer Mordechai Gebirtig wrote this poem in the Kraków Ghetto.

Our Springtime

Springtime in the trees, in the fields, in the forest,
But here, in the ghetto, it's autumnal and cold,
But here, in the ghetto, it's cheerless and bleak,
Like the house of a mourner – in grief.

Springtime! Outside, the fields have been planted,
Here, around us, they've sowed only despair,
Here, around us, guarded walls rise,
Watched like a prison, through the darkest night.

Springtime, already! Soon it will be May,
But here, the air's filled with gunpowder and lead.
The hangman has ploughed with his bloody sword
One giant graveyard – the earth.

Mordechai Gebirtig was shot in the ghetto when deportations from Kraków to Bełżec extermination camp began in June 1942.

Photo: a group of Jews chop up furniture for use as fuel in the Kraków Ghetto, 1941; Archiwum Państwowe w Krakowie/Archiwum Dokumentacji Mechanicznej/YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, courtesy of Natalia Rothenberg (public domain)

Poem: Mordechai Gebirtig, Undzer shtetl brent! (Moreshet, 1967)



In early 1942, a theatre was established in the Vilna Ghetto in Poland (now in Lithuania), an event which seems to challenge our preconceptions of life in ghettos. In fact, theatres were established in a number of larger ghettos such as Warsaw and Łódź. These theatres typically staged performances of classic Jewish literature and musical concerts. One of the most popular songwriters in the Vilna Ghetto was Leyb Rozental; these are the lyrics of his song ‘I Long for My Home’.

When you are young,
Your spirit’s strong,
Then your pursuit is gain,
Forsake – forget
Your home, your nest,
The time is not regained.
When your old age draws near,
The past then reappears,
We question what occurred.
How little we observed –
Just yesterday my childish voice was heard.

I want to see my home once more –
Are things the way they were before,
The old worn porch, the old gnarled tree,
The roof from which the walls hung free,
My poor old home.

Four walls, a table and a bench,
T’was here my childhood years were spent;
And here I dreamed my dreams alone,
My song of youth, my wild oats sown,
I long for home.

I hear the soulful singing sounds of night.
The wind like a mother holds me tight.
Oh, the longing for the charm once known
Fond in a mother’s humble home.
It may be brick or made of stone,
It may be straw or built of loam,
I long for home.

With life carefree,
The hours flee,
I stand aside and think;
Man has, I’m sure,
His place, his fare,
His warm bed, nothing more.
My home is marred for me.
My home is barred for me,
I wander all about
And I must do without.
If I now only had my humble home.

Some inhabitants of the Vilna Ghetto argued that it was inappropriate to “make theatre in a cemetery”, a reference to the murder of most of the city’s Jews in 1941. However, most valued the theatre as a means of sustaining morale, preserving Jewish culture and asserting basic human values in the most inhuman of circumstances. As these lyrics show, the theatre also offered the chance to comment on the trials of ghetto life. Leyb was murdered at Klooga labour camp in Estonia in 1944.

Photo: a theatre performance in the Vilna Ghetto, June 1943; Yad Vashem

Song lyrics: Eleanor G. Mlotek & Malke Gottlieb (eds.), Mir zaynen do: lider fun di geṭos un lagern (Educational Department of the Workmen's Circle, 1983)



Theatre was only one of the forms of culture which provided opportunities to comment on ghetto life. This was especially true in Terezín, a ghetto created north of Prague in late 1941. Terezín was intended to hold Czech Jews prior to their deportation but was also designated as a ‘model ghetto’ to which prominent German and Austrian Jews, including many famous artists and musicians, were sent in an attempt to convince the world that the Nazis were not mistreating them. Pavel Friedman, a 21-year-old Czech Jew, wrote this poem in June 1942.

The last, the very last,
so brightly, bitterly, dazzlingly yellow
perhaps the sun's tears chimed against a white stone
such, such a yellow
floated easily so high
certainly, certainly, it went because it wanted to kiss the last of his world.

For seven weeks I've lived in here
but I have found myself here
dandelions call to me
and white chestnut branches in the court
but I have never seen another butterfly here.

It was the last
Butterflies do not live here,
in the ghetto.

Despite Terezín’s status as a model ghetto, approximately 35,000 people died there from disease and starvation. More than 80,000, Pavel Friedman amongst them, were deported to their deaths in extermination camps and other killing sites in eastern Europe: Pavel died in Auschwitz-Birkenau in September 1944.

Painting: Detail from ‘Flowers and a Butterfly’, by Dorit Weiser, a girl in the Terezín Ghetto; Ghetto Fighters’ House

Poem: Hana Volavková (ed.), Dětské kresby na zastávce k smrti Terezín 1942-1944 (Státní židovské muzeum, 1959)




As most Jews living in ghettos were sent to their deaths, the minority who remained faced an increasing struggle to survive. Those who had been spared were mostly adults of working age who were deployed by the Nazis as slave labourers. Avraham Tory, who worked as an official of the Jewish Council in the Kaunas Ghetto in Lithuania, commented in his diary in June 1943 on the strange realities of life in the shadow of death.

No less than 60 percent of the Ghetto inmates go out daily to do forced labour. The work is back-breaking. The inmates risk their lives trying to purchase goods for themselves and for their families and then smuggling them in through the Ghetto gate – all this under the watchful eyes of the German and Lithuanian policemen.

The unrelieved pressure during work, the worry over what tomorrow will bring, and the fears of extermination – all these sap the strength of the forced labourers...

An observer might come to the conclusion that the life of the Ghetto inmates runs entirely in the shadow of a permanent fear that the enemy is threatening to put an end to their lives. This was, indeed, the situation in the first period of the Ghetto, at the time of house raids and ‘actions’...

Little by little, however, the mood changed. The Ghetto inmates became accustomed to the Ghetto gate, to their work, and to the injustice. They tried to forget all of the unpleasant things, the dangers and the yoke. Some of them even began inviting friends and colleagues for meals, for a drink of wine or vodka. Others sought an escape in study, in writing, in giving lectures, in composing poems, etc... All these activities provided the Ghetto inmates with some relief.

By law, of course, all these activities are forbidden... The Germans regard us as slaves, and slaves must not be allowed to enjoy life.

The Kaunas Ghetto was one of several where, as Avraham Tory suggested, illicit cultural activity flourished. However, this was stamped out in late 1943 when the SS converted the ghetto into a concentration camp and resumed the murder of its inhabitants. The ghetto was liquidated in July 1944. Avraham was one of around 2,000 of its 30,000 inhabitants who survived the war.

Photo: a boy works at a machine in a Kaunas Ghetto workshop; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of George Kadish/Zvi Kadushin

Diary extract: Avraham Tory, Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary, ed. Martin Gilbert (Harvard University Press, 1990)




In the fourth of our weekly podcasts, the Trust's Head of Education Alex Maws and Education Officer Martin Winstone are joined by historian and educator Jeremy Leigh of Hebrew Union College, Jerusalem, to discuss the evolution and nature of ghettos during the Holocaust and the responses of Jewish communities to them. 

Click here to read a transcript of the podcast. 



The destruction of Jewish communities typically began in towns and cities with the separation of the population into those designated for murder and those chosen for work. In November 1941, a few thousand Jewish men of working age were ordered into a fenced-off section of the Riga Ghetto, leaving behind the other 25,000 inhabitants. One of the men was Elik Rivosh who recalled spending a last night with his wife Alya and his young children Dima and Lida.

The alarm clock calmly ticks away, its hands unmercifully tracing their path. The hours pass. My shirt has grown wet where Alya is resting her head on my shoulder. Heavy, silent tears. What is happening in her soul, what is happening in the souls of thousands of women, no one knows; indeed it is impossible for the words to convey. And the alarm clock continues to tick...

Our little girl is sleeping, lying on her tummy; her rosy heel is sticking out from under the blanket. I lean over and tickle her heel with my moustache; her little foot disappears under the blanket. I hugged Dima so very tight. But he did not cry out. What will happen to him? What will they do with him? Why? For what? Hatred, despair, and hope blend into one lump that chokes and squeezes my throat. Our greatest suffering comes not from our own pain but from that of our closest friends and loved ones.

The 25,000 Jews, including Alya, Dima and Lida, were marched in two waves – on 30 November and 8 December 1941 – on foot to Rumbula forest outside Riga where all of them were shot. The memorial that stands at Rumbula today is shown in the photograph. Elik Rivosh was murdered in 1942.

Photo: memorial, Rumbula; Holocaust Educational Trust

Testimony: Ilya Ehrenburg & Vasily Grossman, The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, ed. David Patterson (Transaction, 2003)




The largest killing operation of the Holocaust – which would later be codenamed Aktion Reinhard in honour of Reinhard Heydrich who was assassinated in Prague in May 1942 – began on the night of 16 March 1942 in the Polish city of Lublin. An unnamed Jewish nurse described what happened on that night and in the following days.

At about 11.30 p.m. the city was suddenly put under bright illumination... Small groups of Germans or Ukrainians broke into apartments, expelling everyone, regardless of dress, down into the yard. Here selection followed, according to age, sex, families, [work] stamps, depending on the whims of the thugs. Needless to say, screams, blows and even shots were part of the process... The vacated houses were immediately surrounded by the Ukrainians. As for the deportees, they were immediately escorted to the Marszak synagogue and there sorted into families who had stamps and those who had not...

From then on, there were several actions each day, none lasting longer than 2-3 hours. Gradually, they increasingly assumed brutal forms. Whoever did not leave the apartment in time, did not keep in line, did not march well, was sick or was regarded unfit to work was likely to be shot on the spot...

Transports were directed to unknown destinations. Unable to bear the suspended horror any more, many who didn’t have [work] cards were reporting for deportation voluntarily. Their numbers were so large that the Germans were forced to send hundreds of them back each day, saying that there was not enough room for them.

Between mid-March and late April 1942, more than 30,000 Jews from Lublin were murdered, mostly through deportation to the newly operational Bełżec extermination camp – the photograph shows a group awaiting deportation. Several thousand others were shot in the ghetto. Similar scenes were repeated across the General Government region of Poland in the following months as Aktion Reinhard developed: between March and December 1942, close to 1½ million Jews were murdered in the General Government.

Photo: deportation of Jews from Lublin, 1942; Yad Vashem

Testimony: Joseph Kermish (ed.), To Live with Honor and Die with Honor!... Selected Documents from the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Archives “O.S.” (“Oneg Shabbath”) (Yad Vashem, 1986)


26lublin nurse.jpg


Dr Janusz Korczak was Poland’s best-loved children’s author and the director of an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. As the situation for Warsaw’s Jews deteriorated, Korczak’s Polish friends offered to hide him, but he refused to abandon the children. On 5 August 1942, Korczak and the children were marched through the streets of the Warsaw Ghetto to a waiting train, as witnessed by the writer Yehoshua Perle.

These 200 children did not cry, 200 innocent creatures did not weep, none of them ran away, none hid. Like sick swallows, they clung only to their teacher and mentor, their father and brother, Janusz Korczak, so that he might preserve and protect them.

He stood in the first row. He protected the children with his weak, emaciated body. The Hitlerite beasts showed no pity. The pistol in one hand, the whip in the other, they barked: “March!”

Woe to the eyes that had to watch this terrible scene.

Janusz Korczak – bareheaded, with a leather belt around his coat, and in high boots – stooped, held the hand of the youngest child and led the way. Several nurses in white aprons followed him, and then came the 200 clean and freshly combed children.

Korczak, the orphanage staff and the children were deported to Treblinka extermination camp. The orphans were among approximately 50,000 children from the Warsaw Ghetto who were murdered at Treblinka in less than two months. Yehoshua Perle was murdered in 1943.

Photo: Janusz Korczak with staff and children of his orphanage, pre-war; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Romuald Wroblewski & Shlomo Nadel

Diary extract: Tatiana Berenstein et al. (eds.), Faschismus – Getto – Massenmord. Dokumentation über Ausrottung und Widerstand der Juden in Polen während des zweiten Weltskrieges (Rütten & Loening, 1960)



The deportations to killing sites presented Jewish communities with agonising dilemmas, nowhere more so than in Łódź, where Chaim Rumkowski was the chairman of the ghetto’s Jewish Council. In September 1942, the Nazis demanded that the Jewish Council hand over all children under the age of 10 and old people over the age of 65 for deportation to Chełmno extermination camp. In response, Rumkowski gave the following speech to the residents of the ghetto.

The ghetto has been struck a hard blow. They demand what is most dear to it − children and old people. I was not privileged to have a child of my own and therefore devoted my best years to children. I lived and breathed together with children. I never imagined that my own hands would be forced to make this sacrifice on the altar. In my old age I am forced to stretch out my hands and to beg: "Brothers and sisters, give them to me! − Fathers and mothers, give me your children..."

Yesterday, in the course of the day, I was given the order to send away more than 20,000 Jews from the ghetto, and if I did not – "we will do it ourselves." The question arose: "Should we have accepted this and carried it out ourselves, or left it to others?" But as we were guided not by the thought: "how many will be lost?" but "how many can be saved?" we arrived at the conclusion – those closest to me at work, that is, and myself – that however difficult it was going to be, we must take upon ourselves the carrying out of this decree. I must carry out this difficult and bloody operation, I must cut off limbs in order to save the body! I must take away children, and if I do not, others too will be taken, God forbid.

Rumkowski has been criticised by many as a collaborator. However, his dilemma illustrated the choiceless choices faced by many Jews during the Holocaust. Had he refused to cooperate, the children would have been deported anyway. By working with the Nazis, he believed that he could save the adults who worked in essential war industries in the ghetto. This strategy almost worked: Łódź was the very last ghetto to be liquidated, in the summer of 1944 when its inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau where most of them, including Chaim Rumkowski, were murdered.

Photo: Chaim Rumkowski; Yad Vashem

Speech: Yitzhak Arad et al. (eds.), Documents on the Holocaust: Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland, and the Soviet Union (Yad Vashem, 1981)



Jews in western Europe were not interned in ghettos but rather sent to transit camps, where they were held prior to their deportation to the extermination camps. Etty Hillesum, a young woman who was interned in Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands, described witnessing the departure of one deportation train to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 23 August 1943.

There was a moment when I felt in all seriousness that after this night it would be a sin ever to laugh again… I have told you often enough that no words and images are adequate to describe nights like these. But still I must try to convey something of it for you...

But the babies, those tiny piercing screams of the babies, dragged from their cots in the middle of the night to be transported away. I have to put it all down quickly, in a muddle, because if I leave it until later I probably won’t be able to go on believing that it really happened. It is like a vision, and drifts further and further away. The babies were easily the worst. And then there was the paralyzed young girl, who didn’t want to take her dinner plate along and found it so hard to die…

One more piece of our camp has been amputated. Next week another piece will follow. This is what has been happening now for over a year, week in, week out. We are left with just a few thousand. A hundred thousand Dutch members of our race are toiling away under an unknown sky or lie rotting in some unknown soil. We know nothing of their fate. It is only a short while, perhaps, before we find out, each one of us in his own time. For we are all marked down to share that fate, of that I have not a moment’s doubt.

Etty and her family were transported to Auschwitz two weeks later; she died there in late November 1943. In total, almost 100,000 Jews were deported from Westerbork, mostly to Auschwitz-Birkenau or Sobibór extermination camps. When Westerbork was liberated in April 1945, there were only 876 people left alive in the camp.

Photo: Jews boarding a deportation train, Westerbork; Yad Vashem

Testimony: Etty Hillesum, Letters from Westerbork (Jonathan Cape, 1987)



Most of the almost three million Jews who were sent to extermination camps were deported by train. Journeys could range from a few hours in the case of transports from Poland to more than a week from Greece, but almost all were made in scarcely imaginable conditions. Helena Katz (later Helen Lewis) was deported from the Terezín Ghetto to Auschwitz-Birkenau in May 1944, in a cattle wagon similar to that shown in the photograph.

If we had ever thought that two years in Terezín had left us sufficiently tough to bear any hardship, the first few minutes on the train taught us otherwise. We travelled in conditions designed to inflict the greatest possible suffering. Old and young, invalids and babies were all crammed together so tightly it was impossible to move. There was no air, no light, no water, and one bucket. When the train moved out of Terezín station, many panicked, others wept, a few prayed, and most sank into silent despair. At night the train arrived in Prague and stopped there for a while, a long line of sealed cattle wagons, each with a tiny window behind a grille. There must have been people on the station platform, people who saw and heard. What did they think, what did they know, and how much did they care?

Another day and another night and there were few left in the wagons who were still in full possession of their physical and mental capacities. The dead were everywhere. Could one really pity them?

Many thousands of people died on these transports. Hard though it may be to believe today, arrival in the camp was thus often greeted with relief. Helena survived Auschwitz because she was selected to work and was transferred to Stutthof concentration camp. She escaped during the evacuation of Stutthof in January 1945. Following her liberation, she returned to Czechoslovakia, married and then emigrated to Northern Ireland.

Photo: Czech Jews boarding a deportation train, 1942; Yad Vashem

Testimony: Helen Lewis, A Time to Speak (The Blackstaff Press, 1992)




In our fifth weekly podcast, the Trust's Head of Education Alex Maws and Education Officer Martin Winstone discuss the round-ups and deportations which characterised the destruction of Jewish communities during the Holocaust.

Click here to read a transcript of the podcast.



Although knowledge of the Holocaust was fairly widespread by mid-1942, many of the Jews sent to extermination camps still harboured the faint hope of survival.  Rudolf Reder was deported to Bełżec from Lwów in August 1942. He later described what happened when his train arrived.

Several dozen SS men yelling “Come on” opened the trucks, chasing people out with whips and rifle butts... The sick, the old, and small children – in other words, all those who could not walk on their own – were thrown onto stretchers and taken to pits... As soon as the train was empty, all the victims were assembled in the courtyard... There was a deathly silence. Irrmann [an SS officer] stood close to the crowd. Everybody wanted to hear him. We all suddenly hoped that, if we were spoken to, then perhaps it meant that there would be work to do, that we would live after all... Irrmann spoke loudly and clearly: “You are going to take a bath now, afterwards you will be sent to work.” That was all.

The crowd rejoiced; the people were relieved that they would be going to work. They applauded. I remember his words repeated day after day – three times on average, during the time I was there. It was a moment of hope, of illusion. The crowd was peaceful. And in silence they all went forward.

Almost everybody on the transport, and on all others to Bełżec, was immediately sent to the camp’s gas chambers; only a small number of men, like Rudolf Reder, were selected to work and most of them were murdered after a few days. Bełżec operated for just nine months in 1942. During that time, approximately 434,500 Jews were deported there; Rudolf was one of only two who survived. The camp was then destroyed by the Nazis: the photograph shows the modern memorial at the site.

Photo: memorial, Bełżec; Holocaust Educational Trust

Testimony: Rudolf Reder, Bełżec (Centralna Żydowska Komisja Historyczna w Polsce, 1946)




Jankiel Wiernik was deported from Warsaw to Treblinka extermination camp on 23 August 1942. On arrival, he was one of the very small number of prisoners selected to work in the camp, disposing of the bodies. He escaped in the Treblinka Uprising of 2 August 1943 and told his story in a pamphlet distributed by the Polish underground in 1944. This was the first detailed account of life in an extermination camp to be published.

I almost went insane on the day when I first saw men, women and children being led into the house of death. I pulled my hair and shed bitter tears of despair. I suffered most when I looked at the children, accompanied by their mothers or walking alone, entirely ignorant of the fact that within a few minutes their lives would be snuffed out under horrible tortures. Their eyes glowed with fear and still more, perhaps, with amazement. It seemed as if the questions: “What is this! What for and why?” were frozen on their lips…

Although our physical suffering surpassed the endurance of normal human beings, our spiritual sufferings were far worse. New transports of victims arrived each day. They were ordered to disrobe immediately and were led to the three old gas chambers, going past us on the way. Many of us saw our children, wives and members of our families among the victims. And, when on the impulse of heartache, one rushed to his kin, he was killed on the spot.

At least 780,000 Jews were murdered at Treblinka. More than 700,000 of them were killed in just five months in 1942: in other words, more people in a single calendar year than at any other place in any other year in the history of the world. The camp was destroyed by the Nazis in 1943: the photograph shows a memorial created in the 1960s.

Photo: memorial, Treblinka; Holocaust Educational Trust

Testimony: Jankiel Wiernik, A Year in Treblinka. An Inmate Who Escaped Tells the Day-To-Day Facts of One Year of His Torturous Experience (American Representation of the General Jewish Workers Union of Poland, 1944)



Unlike the other extermination camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau was also a slave labour camp. This meant that some Jews – mostly young people – were selected for work on arrival. The remainder were sent straight to the camp’s gas chambers. The reprieve of those Jews selected to work was only intended to be temporary, with prisoners confronted by disease, starvation, exhaustion, and brutality from their guards. The following testimony from Kitty Felix (today Kitty Hart-Moxon) demonstrates how conventional notions of status and decency were irrelevant to survival in Auschwitz.

Shifting shit was one of my happier jobs in the camp. It was a great step up in the Auschwitz world when I was drafted into the Scheisskommando… Each of the specially constructed lavatory blocks at the rear of the camp had a long row of slightly raised concrete with holes, like some sort of misshapen bagatelle board. They provided a wonderful new meeting-place. If you could find one of your friends during a roll-call commotion, you could sit sharing a hole and talk for as long as you dared. As a matter of course there was a guard at the door to hit you going in or out. But it was worth it. In the Scheisskommando, digging out the mess from underneath and carrying it away in buckets on a yoke across my shoulders to be dumped in the pits, I had the privilege of frequent access to the toilets. This meant twenty times the conversation and organising I’d been able to manage up till now.

By ‘organising’, Kitty was referring to the secret bartering between prisoners of items such as clothing, shoes or food which enabled them to survive. Kitty and her mother survived Auschwitz for almost two years. Following their liberation at Salzwedel concentration camp in 1945, they emigrated to the UK.

Photo: latrines in a women’s barrack, Birkenau; Holocaust Educational Trust

Testimony: Kitty Hart-Moxon, Return to Auschwitz (Quill Press, 2010)



The prisoners selected to work in Auschwitz-Birkenau lived under the constant threat of death. Nowhere was this truer than in the Sonderkommando, those prisoners forced to work in and around the gas chambers: as ‘bearers of secrets’, they knew that the Nazis would not let them live. The following letter, written by Chaim Herman in November 1944, was discovered buried by the gas chamber ruins after the war. It was addressed to his wife and daughter in France.

When I write today with great risk and danger, I do it in order to tell you that this is my last letter, our days are numbered and if one day you receive this missive, you will have to include me among the millions of our brothers and sisters who had vanished from this world. I am taking this opportunity of assuring you that I am leaving calmly and perhaps heroically (this will depend on circumstances), with one sorrow only that I cannot see you once more, not even for one moment…

I ask your forgiveness, my dear wife, if there had been, at various times, trifling misunderstandings in our life, now I see how one was unable to value the passing time; I constantly thought here that, should I by some miracle get out of here, I would begin a new life... but alas, this is impossible, nobody gets out of here, all is over…

I am sending you my last farewell for ever, these are my last greetings, I embrace you most heartily for the last time and I beg you once more, do believe me that I am going away calmly, knowing that you are alive and our enemy is broken...

Farewell my dear wife and my dear Simone, accept my wishes and live in Peace, may God keep you in His care.

Thousands of kisses from your father and husband.

Chaim Herman was murdered three weeks after writing this letter.

Photo: Crematorium III, Birkenau; Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oświęcimiu

Letter: Jadwiga Bezwińska & Danuta Czech (eds.), Amidst a Nightmare of Crime: Manuscripts of Members of the Sonderkommando (Państwowe Muzeum w Oświęcimiu, 1973)




Not all Jews were sent to extermination camps or other killing sites. Some, mainly younger adults, were selected for forced labour camps, such as Poniatowa – shown in the photograph – where it was intended that they would die from overwork. However, following growing Jewish resistance in Polish ghettos and camps in 1943, the SS leader Himmler decided to accelerate the killings. 14,000 Jews were shot in Poniatowa on 4 November. There were only three survivors, all women who were wounded by the shooting and pretended to be dead. One of them was Ludwika Fiszer.

We lay down quickly to avoid looking at the dead bodies. My daughter asked me to cover her little eyes, because she was afraid, so I put my left hand around her head, and with my right hand I held her right hand and so we lay, faces down. In a moment, shots were fired in our direction; I felt my left hand burn... The hours dragged slowly; each hour seemed a century. When twilight came, the Ukrainians returned and covered us with spruce twigs, I thought they might be planning to burn us. I was scared and wanted to shout I was still alive, but could not make a sound. I heard the steps receding in the distance, and only then did I whip up the courage to raise my head; the leaves of the branches covered me, so I was able to look around a little. It was nearly dark. My first glance was at my daughter. She always had an oval face, but now her face was round and was deadly pale. I touched her hair and back with my lips and her hand slipped out from mine.

The Poniatowa massacre was one part of the Erntefest (‘Harvest Festival’) Aktion in which 42,000 Jews were shot in just two days in camps in and around the city of Lublin. 

Photo: Poniatowa forced labour camp; Yad Vashem

Testimony: Andrzej Żbikowski (ed.), ‘Texts Buried in Oblivion: Testimonies of Two Refugees from the Mass Grave at Poniatowa’, Holocaust. Studies and Materials, 1 (2008)