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Play in the Absence of Childhood: Games and Toys in the Ghettos in Occupied Poland

Posted by Ella Bowie, Wednesday 1st February, 2017

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Photograph of three boys in the Litzmannstadt ghetto wearing the Yellow Star

Three boys in Litzmannstadt ghetto wearing the Yellow Star, ca. 1942; WL1761

For the historian of modern warfare, the voices of civilians and their quotidian experiences provide an intimate perspective to the realities of living during conflict. As a recent History graduate from the University of Bristol, I have been fortunate enough to utilise a stunning array of individual stories to piece together a snapshot of life under siege, sparking an interest in the causes and dynamics of conflict which I am currently applying to an MSc in Security Studies at University College London. My interests have been specifically rooted in children’s experiences of war; as victims, observers, rescuers and participants.

Following on from my last piece which centred on children’s creativity in Terezin, further understanding of children’s daily realities in the ghettos can be garnered from surviving stories and remnants from the ghettos in occupied Poland. Previously I stressed the importance of temporal and spatial context when engaging with children’s creativity as historical sources; this creativity reflecting the children’s immediate environment and wider inferences about childhood under the Nazis must be conceived with caution (Pine, 373-4).

The content and format of children’s games and creative artefacts is strikingly contrasted in the Polish setting. Unlike the children of Terezin, who lived in isolation from the adult population in purpose-built communal and pedagogical settings, Polish children remained situated firmly on the front line, in the eye of the storm of ghetto depravity and despair. Vignettes of play, games and creativity from the midst of the ghettos in occupied Poland present an additional prism through which we can study childhood under the Nazis.

My last piece related the content of children’s written works (“Vedem”) as representative of the children’s engagement with their futures and aspirations. The art work produced in Friedl Diker-Brandeis’ art classes demonstrated how the home, home comforts and food provided an emotional crutch for the girls. Unlike the children of Terezin, the increased exposure to suffering rendered both the past and future as redundant forces; the children lived firmly in the present.

“Ghetto games”

Games played in the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos offer a harrowing yet fascinating insight into the childhood psyche during life under siege, these “ghetto games” as evidence of children’s capabilities to process their environments and to resourcefully incorporate quotidian ghetto struggles into play (Rosenfeld, qtd. in Dobroszyecki, 360-1).

“Market” games mimicked the anxieties of adults; the children playing shopkeepers and anxious buyers, squabbling over rations, bargaining, vocalising the stresses of feeding the family. The repetition of such anxieties indicates children’s acute awareness of hunger, unemployment and poverty as central facets of daily life, reflected most poignantly in a game conversation between “workers”, unveiled in the testimony of an unknown child:

“I talked to them and told them that I had earned nothing the whole day, that these were bad times.” (Unnamed child, qtd. in Michlic).

Michlic’s work thoroughly engages with children as “adults”; their childhoods dominated by wholly adult anxieties and choices. Many Polish children became the breadwinners for their families as parents faced death, deportation and unemployment, and the financial responsibilities imposed upon these youngsters transcended the childhood space of play, reflected in these “market” and “smuggler” games.

“War Games”

Everyday life in the ghetto was equally haunted by the increasingly omnipresent phantoms of death, disease and cruelty, these harsh realities reflected in children’s play.

Unlike the sources from Terezin, children’s games a discussed in the diaries of Mary Berg and Emmanuel Ringelblum situate children in the centre of this depravity. An entry by Ringelblum in May 1941 reads:

“The children are no longer afraid of death. In one courtyard, the children played a game tickling a corpse.” (Ringelblum, 174.)

Play was uncoordinated, and the children created toys from their immediate environments. Bodies and bones were climbing frames, rubble and rags became footballs, burnt out streets the pitches. As conditions deteriorated, the meagre offerings of clandestine education and organised play so too disintegrated. Void of toys, security and purpose, the children translated their immediate environments into war games; unlike Terezin the children were only too aware where the “railway tracks led next” (Stargardt, 233).

The children played “Gestapo-men”, replicating round-ups, deportations and killings. Children played roles as Nazis, Jews, policemen, Judenrat and partisans, demonstrating an astute awareness of the actors and fates that awaited them, in contrast to the experience of many children in Terezin.

The Holocaust provided a backdrop to children’s creativity which manifested in extraordinary and nuanced ways, based on spatial and temporal context. The children of Terezin remained highly attached to the past and hopeful for the present. It appears that the structured routine, continued (if unsatisfactory) access to meals and sustained care of other adults from home workers and pedagogues retained a level of engagement with the more “normal” elements of childhood. Although these children lived in often dire, stressful conditions, their youth allowed them to be separated from many of the horrors one can see replicated in the Polish children’s play. Unlike Terezin, the ghettos in occupied Poland were comprised mostly of Jews, thus education was outlawed and such adverse living conditions rendered the heightened focus on and protection of childhood impossible. Play and imagination were figuratively and temporally confined to the ghetto environment, comforts of the past and dreams of the future cruelly halted. Eisen has noted how the most impoverished Polish children, in the final days of the Warsaw Ghetto, were simply unable to play; the physiological effects of starvation and trauma manifesting into psychological and physical incapacity (Eisen, 99-108).

Children’s play and games in the ghettos in occupied Poland illuminate their proximity to the brutality of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, what is remarkable is how children were able to deftly translate their suffering into a force for temporary relief; to use adversity as fodder for the play, games and creative outputs which serve as a reminder that childhood could be repressed but never silenced in the Holocaust. For the children of both Terezin and Poland, their ghetto experiences may have differed but their fates were sadly all too similar. Snippets of childhood ingenuity and creativity are the only legacies of these young lives, and must be included in our attempts to reconstruct life during the Holocaust.

Works Cited:

Berg, M. The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto. Edited by S. L. Pentlin and S.L. Shneiderman, Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

Dobroszycki, L. The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941-44. New Haven: University of Yale Press, 1984.

Eisen, G. Children’s Play in the Holocaust: Games Among the Shadows. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

Michlic, J. B, “Toys and Games.” YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, 2010.

Pine, L. “Gender and the Family.” The Historiography of the Holocaust, edited by Dan Stone, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, 364-382.

Ringelblum, E.  Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto: The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum 1940-3. Edited and translated by Jacob Sloan, New York: Schocken Books, 1974.

Stargardt, Nicholas. Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives Under the Nazis. London: Jonathan Cape, 2005.

Suggested Further Reading:

For more related sources, try a search for any of the following keywords in our online catalogue: Children; Personal Narratives; Łódź (ghetto); Warsaw; Boys

Photo Credit: From a German soldier’s album held in The Wiener Library Photo Archive, GH. Album 137, WL1761; View the complete photo record on our Online Catalogue. 

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