Family During the Holocaust

by Dalia Ofer
Last updated

In Brief

Although Jewish family life was destroyed and restructured in many ways during the Holocaust, it still often provided strength and a sense of normalcy. In labor and extermination camps, family members tried to maintain contact or create a kind of alternative family. Many men fled at the outbreak of the war, since it was assumed that they were in greater danger than women and children, leaving women as the main income earners. In ghettos, food and the lack thereof both helped preserve the family framework and caused division and alienation. After Kristallnacht and the deportation of many Jewish men, Jewish women in Germany and Austria became responsible for earning the family income, obtaining documents to enable their husbands’ release, and making difficult decisions regarding sending children abroad, further breaking up the family unit.


Where both the preservation of tradition and the acclimatization to social and cultural change are concerned, Jewish folklore attributes to the family a magic role in shaping the lives of individuals and the community at large. However, academic research on the Jewish family is only in its early stages and information on the Jewish family in Eastern Europe is particularly scarce.

The Holocaust dealt a mortal blow to the family and to Jewish life in general. Nevertheless, some sources indicate that, apart from the crisis and breakdown, there was also considerable strength in family ties so long as normal life could be maintained. Evidence from the labor and extermination camps, in which the sexes were separated, reveals that fragments of family remained intact, such as siblings and cousins who tried to maintain contact; where this proved impossible, the inmates created a kind of alternative family. Such evidence is more plentiful with regard to women in the camps, for whom memories of family life were a source of strength even while they also aroused fear of a loss of hope. One might have expected sad memories to cause profound depression because of the unbridgeable gap between them and the grim reality. But women survivors report conversations about recipes, holiday custom,s and family life in general as a way of coping with the violence of their daily lives. There is no better evidence of the family’s serving as a real anchor to life than the readiness of the survivors to set up families in the years immediately following the end of the war, even if they had lost a spouse and children.

Documentation of these phenomena is fragmented and scattered. Letters, diaries, and notes from the period relate what happened to families, and we can also learn from them of the decline that occurred in the ghettos of Eastern Europe as well as in Western Europe as expulsion threatened. Evidence collected after the war also provides a resource for researchers, but one must take into account the subjectivity of all the sources.

Contemporary sources reflect the terrible pressures on daily life in the ghettos and the fragility of life in Western Europe. Family members found it hard to convey their condition objectively and their personal evidence reflects the painful changes that occurred in relations between spouses, between parents and children and more distant relatives. These sources frequently reflect a harsh and judgmental attitude.

Evidence collected and memoirs written after the war often express nostalgia on the part of those who were children or young people at the time. Many of them also bore the heavy burden of recalling a “shameful act,” such as secretly stealing a portion of bread from a sibling or a parent, or of improper behavior, such as joining a youth group and abandoning their parents at a time of hardship. Since their parents, like most of their relatives, had been murdered, there were no survivors with whom to share these thoughts and feelings. Their feelings find expression in some of the memoirs and oral evidence.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Jewish families were typical of their times: a nuclear consumer unit whose adult members were partners in production and property. As in non-Jewish families, there was a clear division of responsibilities, with the woman in charge of domestic life and child-rearing and the man serving as income-earner. In Eastern Europe more married women shared the income-earning, since most of the families belonged to the lower-income bracket of laborers, artisans, and petty merchants. Most West and Central European Jews were middle-class, with a few in both the lower and upper classes.

However, women also dealt with extra-familial issues, such as neighborly relations, neighborhood activity, contact with teachers and fellow parents at their children’s schools, etc. Thus the mother had, as it were, two apparently contradictory functions: she was an agent of socialization with the surrounding society in everything relating to culture, customs, manners, and education, and hence an agent of change, but at the same time she was responsible for preserving Jewish identity via family customs, SabbathShabbat, holidays, and the like.

The family life of Jews in the ghettos existed in a constant state of tension between disintegration, on the one hand, and the preservation of solidarity by way of an enormous effort to maintain what might be termed “normality,” at a time of total absence of normality. The way families coped with reality differed from place to place and from stage to stage of the implementation of the “Final Solution.” The difficult daily life in the ghettos of Eastern Europe and the Western European countries in which Jews were not confined to ghettos was a major factor in determining family life. Hence, when we consider the everyday existence of both the family and the individual, we need to take into account the parameters by which we examine public life and the economic and social activities permitted to Jews under occupation.

In the unique reality of the “Ghetto Regime,” the private and public spheres were almost totally intertwined. In the west, too, the state penetrated into the private domain via confiscation of Jewish property, prohibition of various occupations, and study at state schools. Everywhere family life was influenced by economic status prior to the war and social contacts with non-Jewish surroundings.

Many families were left without a husband/father. Many men fled at the outbreak of the war, since it was assumed that they were in greater danger than the women and children. Many men were caught and imprisoned during the early weeks of the war and later more men than women were sent to forced-labor camps.

It is worth noting that while many women encouraged their husbands to flee, many others were so frightened by the situation and so feared remaining alone that they urged their husbands not to leave.

What follows is based primarily on the ghettos in Warsaw under the Generalgouvernement in Warthegau (an area that was annexed to the Reich), Lodz, and Kovno, which was occupied only in 1941. In the latter, as in all of the areas that were taken over by the USSR in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement of August 1939, the German occupation began with a series of mass murders even before the establishment of the ghetto. These continued during the early months of the ghetto, whose social composition reflected the remnants of the Jewish community and family. With regard to Western Europe, we shall deal mainly with Germany, where Jews experienced the Nazi regime from its beginnings, and with other countries that shared similar experiences, such as separation from children, concealment, etc.

Eastern Europe

Families with very different economic backgrounds and lifestyles before the war underwent a vast change in their lives and found themselves together in the ghetto. While the men in the various families did not all share the same fate, nor at identical times, the families functioned as a unit even after they were taken, establishing new divisions of responsibility in which every family member participated. Those men who underwent physical abuse and were in greater danger refrained from leaving the protection of the home. The women thus undertook new tasks, becoming the main income earners. This change in the relationship within the family was sometimes harmonious, but at other times led to friction, undermining relationships between husband and wife and leading to the disintegration of the family.

The chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto confirms the breakdown of marital relationships. A headline of December 1941 publicizes the case of a woman who requests a divorce because her husband, who is working in carpentry, is not supporting the family and there is no shalom bayit (domestic peace) between them. Their thirteen-year-old daughter has died of starvation and the woman requests aid for herself and her three surviving children. Other evidence also indicates that “in these days in the ghetto many couples quarrel over trivial matters.”

Apart from changes in the traditional division of functions that occurred in numerous families, other factors affected relationships between couples and between family members in general, especially the terrible shortages and the hunger that reigned in ghettos such as Lodz and Warsaw. The chronicles relate numerous stories and facts: an eight-year-old complains that his parents deprive him of the bread ration that is his due; parents who cannot afford medications for their sick children sell part of their bread ration, the sick child never recovers. In general, the shortage of bread weakens the children and leads to their death. Thus the chronicle reports the demise of an entire family in the ghetto. A document from the Warsaw ghetto describes a boy who strangled his sister in a dispute over bread after their parents’ death left them the sole survivors.

Other descriptions of families that remained with only one parent present a picture of great neglect of children in the difficult living conditions in damp cellars without heating or adequate clothing in the severe winter of 1941. Mothers who have to go out to work in order to bring some food home leave their (frequently sick) children at home without adequate supervision. Fathers left alone after their wives died of illness or exhaustion describe their helplessness and inability to provide even the little needed to protect the children. The danger of neglect among these groups, which usually comprised the poor and the refugees, was so great that no parental authority could survive the everyday conditions.

Food proved to be a factor either in creating greater cooperation and responsibility or in causing division and alienation between family members. In September 1942, David Sierakowiak described pitilessly and unforgivingly in his diary how his father concentrated on eating when the doctor came to determine which of the family members were too weak to work and would therefore be deported. After examining the mother he declared her unfit to work and thus to be among the deported. Mourning her fate, Sierakowiak explains that only because of the generosity that led her to do everything for her family and even to give them her own bread ration did she become so “shrunk.” And now the doctor determined her fate, despite the fact that she worked, kept the house, and even cultivated the small piece of ground the family received in order to grow vegetables.

Many could not stand the hunger and either begged or stole bread from other family members. Many diaries and other evidence describe the heavy sense of guilt that resulted. In the Lodz ghetto many people carried the bread about with them and as a result were attacked in the streets.

Eating at home was a factor that helped preserve the family framework. Some families gathered around a cloth-covered table to eat the little they had in the manner to which they had been accustomed in better days, but in most families there was no longer such a framework. The effort of getting food and preparing it was shared by all family members, but the main burden fell on the mother. One of the foods mentioned in the Lodz ghetto consisted of potato peels that were cooked, minced, and fried. This was a long and tiring process that began with the children gathering the peels or other remains from the garbage. They then waited for their mother to come home from work in the evening and then they began the process, which was usually completed only late at night.

The Judenrat impacted on family life in various, often brutal, ways. One example was the degrading process of disinfecting and checking for cleanliness, which frequently deprived many families of their precious utensils and clothing. The speech by Mordechai Rumkowski (1877–1944, chairman of the Lodz Judenrat) to the clothes pressers was an extreme example of interference in the feelings and considerations of the individual: he warned them not to share with their relatives the extra rations they received because of the hard work in which they were engaged. He thus deprived the individual of even his personal and familial considerations regarding matters of life and death. In the ghetto reality, control of human life was not an individual but a general matter and the head of the Judenrat was therefore authorized to determine it. That was the reason why the workers’ ration coupons had been replaced by additional food at the meal breaks at their place of work. “Of course these meals are intended only for you, while other family members benefited from the coupons. But this principle of Jewish partnership, that sense of Jewish family, do not hold good here. We are dealing with the general good, not that of the individual.” His most extreme and blatant interference found expression in the speech in September 1942 (during the deportation known as the Sperre), in which he asked parents to hand over their children for deportation. The deportation of children and wives who had no husband was the most brutal intervention in the fate of the remnants of families.

Such interventions on the part of the authorities were not an indication of opposition to the existence of families. On the contrary: the heads of the Judenrat generally saw families as a positive factor in ghetto life. When rabbis could not perform weddings, or if they refused to do so on The legal corpus of Jewish laws and observances as prescribed in the Torah and interpreted by rabbinic authorities, beginning with those of the Mishnah and Talmud.halakhic grounds, one could register a marriage through the Judenrat. In Lodz a married couple received a loaf of bread and a dish of honey, and families that remained whole were less likely to be deported. In the Lodz ghetto, marriages were recorded almost daily, even in 1942, the hardest year of deportation.

For ghetto residents the family was functional. Apart from granting both youngsters and adults a feeling of closeness and warmth, the family also helped in fulfilling daily duties such as providing food, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and so on. The way families organized in the Lodz ghetto on Sundays, when half the day was allocated for rest, is described in the ghetto chronicles, which reflect reason, order, organization, and the way all the members of the family prepared for the week ahead. All these were far more difficult for the individual who lacked a family. Therefore the ghetto authorities in Lodz and Kovno, for example, tried to create cooperative frameworks for lone persons, in order to maximize child care, employment, human resources, and mutual support in everyday life.

At the same time, the trials with which the family had to cope were unbearably hard, especially at the terrible times of deportation. In his diary, Zalek Prechodnik describes his inability to summon up the courage to join his wife and daughter, whom he had persuaded to report for deportation, when he discovered that the police chief had deceived him and they were deported and murdered. On the other hand, he writes about his friend, a fellow policeman, who joined his family on their final journey.

In September 1942, after the deportation of the elderly and those unfit for work from the Łódź ghetto, the chronicle reports:

Here in the ghetto, at the end of two years of war, the concept of “family”—with a very few exceptions—has been wiped out of the vocabulary and if we still had any illusions on this subject, now after the deportations these have been destroyed. It was a terrible time and horrible scenes were witnessed, such as children torn from their mothers’ arms, yet nevertheless a certain calm reigned immediately afterwards and even more so two days later. A calm of the masses, that same unmediated switch to everyday activities, that same stupefaction—if one may call it that—all of which testifies to an indescribable dulling of the senses and a total paralysis of the normal way of thinking. Of course there were exceptions, but they were scarce. Most people went on as usual after the disaster. After three years of war this dulling of the senses is nothing to be marveled at, nor can one blame people for carrying on as usual despite the pain of others, but it is hard not to notice it when the phenomenon is so blatant.

A year later, on The Day of Atonement, which falls on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and is devoted to prayer and fasting.Yom Kippur 1943, the chronicle reports:

SabbathShabbat of Yom Kippur bore all the signs of respect and ceremony. People moved quietly in the streets, dressed in their best. Everybody who could wore better clothing. … Once again, after a long interval, every family gathered together. Parents walked about with their children, holding them by the hand—on that day work in the workshops did not separate husbands from their wives and children. Here and there one could see a Polish Jew openly carrying a Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah scroll in the streets of the ghetto, in order to take it to the house where prayers were being conducted. … One can sum up the atmosphere in the homes and the streets by saying: On Yom Kippur 1943 the ghetto turned into a “shtetl” in the fullest sense of that word.

These two quotations are among the examples that depict the swinging pendulum of family life in the ghettos of Eastern Europe and the way in which the fine line between solidarity and rupture could crack as a result of the indescribable distress and threats to life.

Germany and Austria

At the very beginning of Nazi rule in Germany and even before the implementation of the laws expelling Jewish children from school in 1938, mothers were the first to learn from their children of Jew-baiting by teachers and fellow pupils, the first to sense the change in the attitudes of neighbors towards them and their children; they heard the comments—both loud and quieter—of customers in the grocery store or people in the neighborhood park. The mothers attended parents’ meetings and experienced ostracism there and hence better understood their children’s complaints. Usually, the mothers realized sooner than the fathers that something had happened, that they and their children were experiencing something they had never before experienced, and that they could no longer rely on the various authorities or on the law to protect them.

In addition, women’s function as spouses became more difficult. Their husbands were dismissed from work and the search for alternative sources of income became increasingly difficult in the Germany of the second half of the 1930s. From the start of “aryanization” (the transfer of ownership of businesses and property from Jews to Aryans) at the beginning of 1936, more and more men lost their income and the major sources of their self-respect, so that their masculine identity was crushed by their inability to provide for their families.

It became the women’s duty to run their households with limited means, to forgo the help of servants to which they had been accustomed, to provide a pleasant atmosphere for their troubled spouses and children, and to ensure that the home remained warm and supportive. Even though the family duties of the wife and mother remained virtually the same as always and the focus of their activity remained the home, they underwent a certain intensification. The women had to steer the lives of their families with sensitivity and great care in order not to disrupt completely the balance within the family and the respective status of each partner in preserving order in the family. It was important to maintain continuity in the face of changes in the mutual relationship between the parents and in their relations with the children.

After the pogroms of November 9 and 10, 1938 (“Kristallnacht”), thirty thousand Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration camps and many families remained fatherless. Now the women had to care for all the family’s needs and, in particular, to try to obtain the necessary documents, especially the emigration permits that would enable the release of their husbands. This compelled them to undertake a new kind of activity. They had to apply to the authorities and especially the SS, which since November 9 had borne virtually sole responsibility for the fate of the Jewish population, and to show entry permits to a destination of emigration. They turned to foreign consulates requesting such permits. The appeals to the SS and the Gestapo evoked unending humiliation and harassment, while waiting for the permits at foreign consulates was a Sisyphean task.

In 1938 and 1939, it became increasingly difficult to obtain the entry permits. It became clear to the women that they were no longer dealing with the kind of orderly emigration they had previously contemplated, but that their husbands must flee Germany and try to arrange for them and their children to join them. From then on, many women became responsible not only for earning the family income, but in addition for difficult decisions regarding their children—such as whether to send them abroad with the Kindertransport or to The Land of IsraelErez Israel with Youth Aliyah—which had to be made without joint consultation with their detained husbands.

From the early stages of the Nazi regime Jewish families realized that they must part from their children and send them to places where they could grow up and develop in greater security. Thousands of children were sent away from their homes to safety in strange, unknown places. Prior to World War II and during the first years of war, more than six thousand children went with Youth Lit. "ascent." A "calling up" to the Torah during its reading in the synagogue.Aliyah to Palestine, where they had to grow used to life in an institution in a country that was strange to them and with whose language they were unfamiliar. Many of them found themselves in an ideological framework whose values were frequently the opposite of those of their parental home and the cultural climate with which they were familiar. The parents knew that their children had been sent to a demanding framework, where they would have to work as well as study, and they worried about their acclimatization, even though they realized that they had very little influence on what was going on.

In 1939, nearly ten thousand children of both sexes, aged between twelve and seventeen, were sent to Britain as a result of that country’s agreement to assist the Jews after Kristallnacht. This program was known as the Kindertransport. In England some were accommodated in camps and institutions, while others were housed with families whom they did not know, including non-Jewish families, in a strange land, with an unknown language and customs unfamiliar to them. Many of them remember this period—and especially the first year, when they anxiously awaited the arrival of their parents—as the most difficult time in their lives. Even after the outbreak of war, when it became clear that their parents could not join them until it was over, the lives of many of them were filled with longing. For their part, the parents knew that their children’s lives would not be easy. They did not know who would shelter them or to which families they would be sent. They also feared for their children’s identity and longed for them. In her memoirs, Marta Appel, whose husband, Ernst Appel, was the rabbi of Dortmund, gives the following description:

My most difficult assignment was organizing the dispatch of the children themselves to the United States, Erez Israel, England and Italy. My heart bled as I witnessed the children’s parting from their parents. Yet it was the parents who turned to us, begging us to do everything possible to send the children away as quickly as possible, since they could not bear to see them suffering persecution and hatred. Out of love, the parents were ready to sacrifice what was dearest to them, just so that their children could grow up in peace and freedom.

She goes on to describe the parents’ leave-taking of the children at the Berlin railway station.

The platform of Berlin’s large station was completed packed with mothers and fathers. Nobody but the parents was allowed onto the platform. … I stood there and watched the train slowly pulling away, passing by me. I saw the children crying. Now, as they saw their dear ones for the last time, the enthusiasm drained from their young faces. Many little girls who had been laughing only moments earlier now stretched their arms out of the window in order to clutch their parents’ hands one last time, and all the while the tears poured down their cheeks. I saw many young boys screwing their faces into a forced smile. … The waving handkerchiefs had long gone and there was nothing more to be seen of the train, but the crowds of parents still stood silent and as if frozen, gazing at the spot where nothing more remained. … Suddenly I heard a scream and saw people running. “A woman has fainted,” someone said. They ran for a doctor. A long silence reigned as the doctor examined the poor woman. After a while a whisper went through the crowd and finally I understood, as I stood in the very back row: “She’s dead.” She had summoned up her strength to accompany her child to the threshold of a new life, and then her heart gave out.

Parents sent their children on illegal aliyah without any certainty that they would reach their destination. For example, a group of children who set out from Germany and Austria with Youth Aliyah in the summer of 1939 were unable to continue their journey when war broke out. For many months they were trapped in Yugoslavia, Slovenia, and Italy. They came to be known as “The Children of Villa Emma,” after the place where they lived in Italy. After the fall of Mussolini and the German conquest of Italy their organizers, headed by Yoshko Indig, a young man of twenty-two, who belonged to Ha-Shomer ha-Za’ir in Yugoslavia, managed to transfer them to Switzerland. They reached the Promised Land only after the war, weary with travel and worry. Every one of their stops marked a successful escape from the claws of the Nazis and a promise of life. But after the first hours of forced farewells in Germany of 1939, their mothers and fathers were no longer there to accompany them. In fact, during their years of wandering they had lost their parents in the murderous activities of Nazi Germany.

From the evidence we have on parents in Germany and other countries who sent their children away, we learn of the parents’ sense of emptiness, mingled with the hope that their children were really safe. Family life no longer existed and the crippled family could not resume normal life. The distress that increased at the outbreak of war, followed by the deportations to the east, cast a fresh light on the children’s fate, but the family per se was no longer able to function, even though the relationship between husbands and their wives remained one of partnership despite their unbearable wounds as parents.


In Western Europe under German rule, Jews lived in a state of peril and persecution until the deportations began. Thereafter, they were under the threat of extermination. Even before they were deported they suffered from a permanent lack of the normal family framework. As a result of discriminatory economic laws in all the countries of western and central Europe, shortage of food, lodging and alternative employment were the main problems from which Jews suffered. This was true of the first countries to be occupied, such as the Netherlands and France, as well as of countries such as Romania and Italy, where racial laws were promulgated. In these countries one cannot always discern any noticeable change in the patterns of married women’s behavior: few of them went out to work. The possibility of living on savings, from sale of household goods and on the earnings of other family members, as well as aid from Jewish organizations, all helped some of the families whose situations steadily deteriorated. Families that fled from occupied France to the unoccupied region were often unable to continue living together, either for financial reasons or because the danger that some members were in compelled them to separate. With the beginning of deportation, partings were inevitable, just as they were for Jewish families in Eastern Europe, especially when families attempted to smuggle children out of the ghettos in an attempt to save their lives. In most cases, this separation proved permanent, since the parents did not survive.



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How to cite this page

Ofer, Dalia. "Family During the Holocaust." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 14 July 2021. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 29, 2024) <>.