in East European Ghettos During
(the hebrew university)
In the course of the destruction of European Jewry between 1939 and 1945, the family as a social unit and as a personal sanctuary faced unprecedented pressures and duress. Unlike previous tragedies of deportation, war atrocities and economic persecution that were the lot of European Jews—particularly from Eastern Europe—from the First World War onwards, the Holocaust challenged the very basis of family cohesion. Nonetheless, during the long months of ghetto life and through the deportation to the death camps, families and remnants of family units did not cease to exist. Even in the death camps following the separation of the sexes and the killing of virtually all mothers, children and the elderly, inmates clung to what was left: either to a fragment of the family, such as siblings or cousins, or to “surrogate families” such as friends or landslayt1—or, in the absence of all, to memories of the family that once was.
After the Holocaust, a salient characteristic of the Jewish survivors was their will to establish new families. Those who had lost their spouses and children tended to remarry and have other children as soon as possible. The same was true of young men and women who had been deprived of the normal experience of family life from the war's onset. In the displaced persons (DP) camps in Germany, Austria and Italy, rabbis performed hundreds of weddings and the rate of birth was extraordinarily high— forty-one births per year per thousand individuals in the years 1946 and 1947. Commemorating the dead was part of the impetus for having children; just as important was the need to retrace and recreate the rhythms of lost family life.
This article seeks to analyze the Jewish family—specifically, the relationships between members of the nuclear family unit—during the ghetto period in Eastern Europe. Utilizing the framework of the history of the Holocaust, it will reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the Jewish family in extremis, highlighting the role of tradition in the cohesion or dissolution of family bonds. Attention will be given to the impact of ghetto conditions on families from different social groups, and on the role of the Jewish authorities in shaping the patterns of responses and behavior in the family. The focus on family provides a different perspective on the ghetto system, both from the point of view of Nazi policy and from that of the Jewish administration and