What makes a classroom? Are there desks, books, pencils and a teacher? Do students show up ready for a day of learning? In the ghettos of Europe, a school could be simply a cold shed or a concealed room. It was somewhere students went to escape cramped living spaces or to get something to eat that day.
A sketch by Jacob Lifschitz titled “At a ghetto school.” The artist perished in the Holocaust. Yad Vashem Photo Archive, Jerusalem. 3380/720.
In 1939, the Nazis established the first ghetto in Poland. More than one thousand followed. Jews were forced to move into these overcrowded areas, where they experienced starvation and disease. Often, even children were required to work to earn what little food they were given. Every day in the ghetto was a fight against violence and death.
In many ghettos, Jewish youth were forbidden from going to school. This was one of many restrictions the Nazis imposed, isolating Jews and targeting their cultural institutions. But despite the risks involved and the lack of resources, Jewish organizations and individuals in the ghettos set up schools, which often operated in secret. They tried to give young people a place where they could receive an education, feel safe and forget what was going on around them.
What was school like in a ghetto?
Conditions in the Borszczów Ghetto
“We lived crammed together. My parents had a bed and I was sleeping on the floor, on a blanket. That was just the beginning. We were given some food rations, but it was not enough…. [M]any people were dying, some of them from hunger, particularly little kids. I was always hungry. There were epidemics of typhus and dysentery; there was never enough drinkable water….
In spite of the terrible conditions, my father insisted that I study. He found a teacher, and we went to cheder in a little room, five or six of us. When my father said I had to go, I had to go. It was non-negotiable. I was afraid. If the Nazis found us studying, they would shoot us because it wasn’t allowed. Yet, I enjoyed studying because I felt that maybe I was doing something good, something worthwhile.”
Inside the Warsaw Ghetto
Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto
“So many terrible things were going on in the Warsaw ghetto…that, if you weren’t there, you really can’t understand it. Even if you were there, you can’t understand it….
And there was always resistance to what was forbidden. There were lots of underground newspapers, underground schools for the children, universities where professors had smuggled in research materials and people were being taught, some of them to become doctors.”
Did you know that?
When the Nazis established the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, they made it illegal to open schools. Although they began to allow the Jewish administration in the ghetto to open schools in 1941, secret schools were set up from the very beginning.
Teaching and Learning in the Lodz Ghetto
“School was a world without war and without Germans. Cold and hunger were forgotten. We were eager to learn. Our teachers were gentle and understood us. They, too, were hungry and cold. They were completely devoted to their work, and they encouraged us and gave us hope. But the ghetto schools had a short life. The Germans did not want Jewish children to study, to attend school or even to have a little fun. Everyone had to work and children from the age of ten became part of the workforce…
The schools went underground….I was given a group of young children to teach. I taught them mostly at work during breaks since my group of five children worked at the same factory. It was then that I promised myself that if I survived the war, I would dedicate my professional life to teaching Yiddish to children.”
Concern for the Children
Report on educational issues in the Warsaw ghetto, written for the Ringelblum archive in December 1941:
“One of the major concerns of our lives in Warsaw is the complete lack of education for Jewish children. For the past eighteen months, our children have been deprived of that ever so important atmosphere found in school, and are thereby isolated from the source of knowledge…. [T]he Jewish Community’s Council of Elders will certainly address this issue with due attention and appeal to the German authorities for permission to launch a school system.”
A Secret School in the Krakow Ghetto
“We gathered every morning in the attic of a shoemaker’s shop and were taught almost one-on-one in this ‘classroom’ — just two benches and a long table. Our lessons included English, mathematics and geography….
The danger was that members of the Jewish police and the Polish police would come into the shop periodically for shoe repairs. It would have been disastrous for everyone if the school were discovered, so the shoemaker devised a signal system. When the police were coming, he would take his shoe hammer and hit it three times in quick succession on a metal anvil. With this warning we would go into ‘silent mode.’ When it was safe to talk again, he would strike the anvil once and we could resume our class.”
School on a Dirt Floor in Transnistria
“My parents learned that five shanties down the street from us lived a woman named Mme Victor who used to be a teacher. For a while, I went with four girls from different families and different towns in Romania to Mme Victor’s shanty and sat on her dirt floor three times a week as she taught us about geography and history. There were no books, no pencils and no paper. We were the ‘People of the Book’ without any books.”
Learning a Trade
In some ghettos, the Jewish leadership believed that if Jews had practical work skills then there was hope that the Nazis might spare their lives.
They established trade schools to teach young Jews skills that were vital for the German war effort. Jews trained as metalworkers, carpenters, garment workers and electricians. This type of education later helped some Jews stay alive.
Did you know that?
By the summer of 1943, there were
Jewish children under the age of seventeen working in the Lodz ghetto.
Learning in Ghetto Trade Schools
“We had several classes alternating between mornings and afternoons. We taught the theory of metals, engineering drawing and some clandestine cultural classes on Hebrew and Jewish history, which were forbidden by the Germans.
All these activities allowed me to direct my mind away from the one thought that floated in my head during the three years in the ghetto: How will I die?”
Cultural Life in Theresienstadt
“Later I moved into the Mädchenheim, the girls’ home. In every room there were wooden bunks stacked one over the other in layers of three. I had fun living among the children. During the afternoon, teachers stood in the middle of the room and taught us the high school curriculum. Whenever the person standing guard announced that a Nazi inspector was on his way, the books disappeared under mattresses and knitting took over….
We were hungry for a normal life we did not have, but in our little dreams, we tried to forget reality.”
Key Ghettos and Camps
How did the conditions in Nazi ghettos and camps affect Jewish youth and their education?
Click on “Learn more” to read about six of those ghettos and camps.