Desider Davidowitz arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, June 6, 1944.

A Jester's Courage

A Jester’s Courage: Illuminating the Shadows Between Life and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto

A book review by Breman librarian Maureen MacLaughlin of The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak

» Other books on the Warsaw Ghetto in The Breman library

» A Short History of the Warsaw Ghetto

Abraham Rubinsztajn was a self-professed clown.  He roamed up and down Leszno Street in the Warsaw Ghetto dressed in a short brown jacket with a worn wool collar, his trousers wrapped around his thin legs, sometimes with a filthy torn quilt covering it all.  He hopped up and down, laughing and accosting passers-by, and shouting at them in a hoarse voice.  He taunted the German guards and haunted the offices of the Judenrat, all the time singing songs and chanting verses he had composed. 

Rubinsztajn was famous for his sayings, which made the rounds in the ghetto.  Among them were “Alle glaych, utym yn raych.”  (Everyone’s equal, rich and poor!) in the face of death.  His “Song of the Coupons” was a hit.  “Hand over your coupon!” he would shout at passers-by (meaning turn in your ration card and die).   

When Rubinsztajn was hungry he would stand in front of the best-stocked food store in the ghetto screaming “Down with Hitler!  Down with the German murderers!” which always brought the proprietor running out to give him food so he would go away and not attract the attention of the Germans.  A photograph of Rubinsztajn sold for 2 zloty in one of the photographic studios in the ghetto. 

Rubinsztajn prophesied how the Ghetto was going to end.  Only three people, he said, would survive:  Adam Czerniakow (the head of the Judenrat) because he was a decent man; the undertaker, Model Pinkiert, because he was needed to bury the dead; and Rubinsztajn the Clown, because he was crazy.  

Abraham (?) Rubinsztajn.

In November 1941, Rubinsztajn disappeared from the streets and a rumor spread that he had died of typhus, but he surprised everyone by turning up alive one week later.  He made the rounds of the institutions and important Ghetto personages, thanking them in person for taking part in his funeral and for their expressions of sympathy on his behalf.  The final rumor noted that he died as he lived—with a jester’s courage.  At the beginning of the deportations he went as a volunteer to the Umschlagplatz, laughing as he hopped around the deportation area and while boarding the train.

It was a mad time and place, so it is not clear from our vantage point in the present whether Rubinsztajn was really crazy or was a canny street philosopher—one of the few who were able to comprehend the true intent of the Germans toward the Jews and who dared to utter the true and terrible meaning of the times.  He—together with many others—illuminates a city of shadows, now vanished.

Shelves of non-fiction books have been written about the vibrant life and tragic death of the Warsaw Ghetto and its inhabitants, but none are more impressive and useful than the recently released (2009) encyclopedic volume The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City by Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak (Yale University Press).  It was originally published in Poland in 2001. 

The authors, a scholar in literature and culture studies and a psychologist, have both studied the Holocaust for many years.  Their sources are documents in major Holocaust archives in Israel and Warsaw; the Oneg Shabbat archives; the legal and clandestine press in the Ghetto; and diaries, journals, chronicles, letters, memoirs and accounts.

About their work the authors explain:  “The Warsaw Ghetto no longer exists.  It is true that we can still find fragments of its walls or remnants of the cobblestones, but the essence of this part of the city, the sealed district of Warsaw, is hidden from us by earth, asphalt, the foundations of new houses, and oblivion.  If we want to see that lost world, we have to dig it out from under layers of indifference, lapses of memory, and ignorance.  The only place in which the inhabitants of the ghetto can still be found—along with their homes, the streets they lived in and their lives, suffering, and deaths—is a place in our memory.” 

Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City is the most complete resource to date on the vanished Ghetto.  It is illustrated with eight full-color maps, three of which are poster-sized fold-out maps in the appendix and five which are located in the color insert in the book.  The maps are thematically linked to the contents of each chapter, and contain all the addresses and points of interest mentioned in the text and appendices.  The three large fold-out maps show the ghetto borders before the Great Action, the borders after the Great Action and a modern map showing where the ghetto streets had been (many still match up but the area was so destroyed by the end of the war that new streets were created without regard to former streets).  Individual buildings with street numbers, major institutions, synagogues, schools, sites of resistance bunkers and battles and even the residences of important people in the Ghetto are identified. 

The contents are both chronological and thematic.  Included is a detailed chronology of the ghetto, lists of the German overseers, demographic data, lists of membership in the Judenrat and Jewish police, the “Thirteen” (a group of German collaborators), and in-depth discussions of each department, its personnel and its function in this city inside a city and much more. Want to know who the head of the Cemetery Department was?  Rabbi Meszulam Kaminer.  He died on October 1941 of typhus.  He was succeeded by one Zygmunt Hurwicz.  The Ghetto newspaper observed that “because of the shortage of burial plots in the cemetery it became necessary to bury the dead in collective graves. . . Under these conditions it was difficult to observe the rituals or to respect the majesty of death . . . “  The business office was at 26-28, Grzybowska St, tel. 2-04-56.  The office at the cemetery was at 49, Okopowa Street, Tel. 12-19-89.

Although all imaginable data (and more) is presented for the serious researcher, the book is haunted by people such as Rubinsztajn, the “rubblers,“ child smugglers, “Robinson Crusoes” (Jews in hiding), and first-person descriptions of every type.  Alongside all the facts, the shadows of people whose lives were desperately balanced on the edge of death clearly emerge.



Just as for Rubinsztayn, food quickly became the dominant subject in the Ghetto.  In the spring of 1941 “sztynki”—“tiny little fish in a state of decay.  A pound of them cost one zloty”—became very popular and wagons full of stinking fish traversed the ghetto streets.  The ghetto newspaper recorded the story of a man who was sent to shop by his wife who complained that his wife served him sztynki three times a day.  The shopkeeper suggested “a fish ball spread with honey or marmalade and drink it down with fish cause with saccharine.  At midday your wife makes a fish salad to sharpen your appetite.  That’s the first course.  For the second course you eat fish fried in oil. . . . Later there’s vegetable stew with the heads and tails . . . And then in the evening there is cold marinated fish and hot fish balls, with a piece of ration card bread.” 

The desperate situation regarding food forced children into the role of smugglers.  Small children often provided for their entire families at great risk to themselves.  “The wall.  The boundary of the ghetto. . . . At the bottom of the wall there is a drainage hole, through which a child can pass.  In a corner by the walls two soldiers are standing, and on the Jewish side a mother and child come from the ghetto. . . . This six-year-old elderly man smuggled into the ghetto through sewers and gutters food for the family.  And now, with money and a sack, he bends down and begins to wriggle through the opening.  He puts out his head and begins to look around, catching sight of the waiting soldiers.  The child struggles and tries to get back, but there stands his mother, who pushes him by the legs through there, there—for food.”



In the Ghetto, there were about 1,700 food shops and 550 other types of shops.  There were 4,954 active commercial enterprises and 2,980 factories (the larger enterprises were under the control of the Germans).  If you had money you could buy lace curtains from Schlenkier at 85-91, Dzielna Street; a bicycle from Zwadski at 43, Grzybowksi Square; cosmetics from J. Szach at 40, Leszno Street); chocolate and sugar from Mary J. Mokobudski at 24, Muranowska Street; cellophane flowers from M. Maschler at 27, Nowolipki Street; and porcelain and crystal from R. Spirytus at 18, Grzybowska Street, (Apt. 20).   You could get your hair done by Estera Frenzel at18, Dzielna Street), buy perfume from Zolberg at 17, Nawlewki Street (in the courtyard), get a suit made by Elbaum, a tailor at 8, Biala Street (Apt. 11) or sell your old false teeth to Kaplan at 12, Muranowska Street, (Apt. 37).

For those without money, the black market, especially in food, was a lifeline.  The authorities tried to combat street selling, imposing stiff fines and running street vendors off regularly, but to no avail.  Gesia Street was the center for black market selling in an enormous bazaar that seemed to have sprung from the cobblestones.  The Gesia Street market was a reflection of the ghetto’s poverty, hunger, and despair.  Here one could buy and sell literally anything.  “Scraps of things and of people, what a miserable sight of hand embroidered and hand . . . net curtains, washed-out children’s underwear, the last towel brought out ‘to the talczok’ [flea market], often people unpick the lining from their coats and sell it for a quarter of a loaf of bread, for medicine and for a sudden illness . . . the last bits of furniture, the last shoes pulled from the feet along with the last shoe brushes, there is nothing that cannot become an item of trade . . . .and sometimes you see in the streets people dressed . . . in only a sheet of material on a bare back.  Apparently things belonging to the living fetch a higher price, because a large percentage of the things in fact come from the dead.” 

The authors provide detailed lists of black market food stuffs and their prices over time.  Bread could be bought in the streets by the loaf, half loaf, quarters, and even slices.   In November 1940, one kilogram of bread could be bought for 4 zlotys; by July 1943 it cost 50 to 100 zlotys.  In July 1942 a single kilogram of coffee cost 712.50 zlotys.  In June 1943 the going cost for taking one person from the ghetto through the sewers was 8,000 zlotys.  One month later it was 15,000 zlotys.



Model Pinkiert’s funeral services were advertised in the paper.  His funeral parlor was called "Eternity."  Pinkiert was known as “the king of corpses” and his establishment was a symbol of manic economic activity in a city of the dying.  His headquarters were at 24, Grzybowska Street and there were twelve branch offices.  Pinkiert and his employees were exempt from deportations and worked right up to the end, even during the Uprising.  He had competition: Natan Wittenberg opened the Last Road funeral parlor right next door to Pinkiert’s at 23, Grzybowska Street.  Rubinstzajn was nearly right on Pinkiert.  Pinkiert was said to have escaped from the ghetto during the uprising via the sewers with a group of fighters.  His fate is unknown but it is said that he died fighting with the partisans in the forest. 



The role of the Jewish police in the ghettos are a matter of controversy—largely due to their role in rounding up Jews to fill the German quotas for deportation.  Their duties on paper relate largely to keeping order in the Warsaw Ghetto, but in that role they found themselves dealing with “criminals” called “grabbers.”  Grabbers were people who were starving and who snatched food parcels from passersby and immediately ate their contents.  The Ghetto newspaper commented on one such case:  “On the corner of Ciepla Street and Grzybowska Street, Mozsek Goldfeder (14 Twarda Street) grabbed a 2 kilogram loaf of bread from a passing woman and began to run away, eating it as he ran.  Goldfeder was arrested, and it proved that he had committed this act under the influence of several days’ starvation.  Taken to the SP, Goldfeder was given something to eat, after which he apologized to his victim and promised the mend his ways.” 



In the section on the health service you can read about the desperate struggle to keep hospitals open and to treat patients without medical supplies, the epidemics, the state of medical education in the Ghetto, and the research that was carried on against all odds.  We learn how the doctors smuggled “patients” out of the Umschlagplatz on the very edge of deportation, returning them to the ghetto swaddled in bandages as “wounded” or dressed in the white coats of “doctors.”  We learn that people flocked to the hospital during the Great Action, thinking it was a place of safety only to have the Germans invade the hospital and drag them away.  Dr. Chaim Einhorn, a witness to the emptying the hospital recalled:  “The patients crawled on their stomachs to the exit to get as far as possible from the hospital; those who were bedridden and couldn’t move begged despairingly to be saved.”  The scene for those who could not escape was described by Sabina Gurfinkiel-Glocerowa, a nurse, who accompanied the last of the patients to the Umschlagplatz“It was a terrible sight with inadequately clothed patients, wrapped in blankets, going in a long line to the place of execution, and those who could not walk loaded on trolleys.” 

Jewish children and infants were not exempted from deportation.  Adina Blady Szwajger, a nurse in the children’s hospital, described the horrifying perversion of medicine for the children in her care.  During the liquidation, even as the Germans poured into the building to brutally remove the infants and children, she and the other nurses moved among their charges with the last of their morphine.  “So we took a spoon and went to the infants’ room . . . I bent down over the little beds . . . I poured this last medicine into those tiny mouths.”



For instance, we learn that there were telephones in the Ghetto.  The demand for telephones was so high, that they were often stolen.  Emanuel Ringelblum recalled, “The installers have a scam—for a bribe they’ll install a telephone for a shopkeeper after stealing the number from somebody else.  Doctor M.’s telephone stopped ringing, and a shopkeeper in Leszno Street had the same number.”  The telephones worked right up to the end of the Ghetto.  During the uprising Symcha Binem Motyl telephoned his wife, who was in hiding on the Aryan side, to reassure her that he was still alive:  “I conducted this conversation lying on the floor, for the telephone was by the window . . . . where a patrol of the SS and gendarmes were stationed.”  Motyl’s plight is a measure of the extreme isolation of the Ghetto because if he had been able to stand and look out the window, over the ghetto wall he would have been able to see the house he was calling. 

The isolation worked both ways.  Jews who were on the Aryan side when the Uprising began could only watch helplessly.  Helene Merenholc recalled “For me it was the most hurtful experiences that I endured on the Aryan side.  It was an absolute shock.  It was the Easter holiday period.  Crowds in the streets on foot . . . I was going to visit friends in Zoliborz.  From among the passersby I heard, “The Jews are frying, spoiling our holiday, it’s their fault that we have to go on foot.’ . . .  I walked along and wept.”  Maria Lewi-Kurowska noted the crowds of Poles who stood outside the ghetto watching the smoke and fire billow over the walls and listening to the sound of machine guns.  She recalled how the carousel in Krasinski Square (just outside the ghetto) was running merrily as the Jews were murdered.



Mixed in which descriptions of the larger issues of life are the tiny poignant details that marked the shadows between life and death.   

Want to know what the weather was on a given day?  On July 22, a Wednesday, as Jews were driven from their homes at the beginning of the Great Action it was drizzling.  The next day was rainy off and on.  On July 26, a Sunday, Solna Street, Nowolipie and Nowolipki Streets were starting to be cleared out.  The day 6,400 Jews were sent to their death in the gas chambers of Treblinka was a fine, sunny day.  On July 29, a Wednesday, when 5,480 people were deported from Kupiecka and Nowolipki Streets, it was cool, but it did not rain.

Understandably concerned about your future?  In the Jewish newspaper fortune tellers advertised their services and offered to find missing persons.   A renowned palm reader who lived at 12, Orla Street, Apartment 34.  “Based on unprecedented second sight, extensive secret knowledge, and deep intuition, he solves complex problems in life; defines character faults and good points; explains the past, present, and future, the fate and destiny of each individual; and speaks of people who are far off” explains the Jewish newspaper for January 2, 1942.   One wonders if his trade flourished in the Ghetto, at least for a while.



One wonders if the “renowned fortune teller” on Orla Street foresaw his own fate or the total destruction of the Ghetto.   Did he foresee the “rubblers” and “musters”?

The “rubblers” were armed groups who hid in the ruin of the Ghetto even after it was officially liquidated and who continued to sporadically fight the Germans.  Estimates say that there was between 10,000 and 20,000 Jews hiding in the rubble.   The “Robinson Crusoe’s” did not fight but continued to hide in the rubble, literally disappearing into the earth or crawling into an unstable corner in the remains of buildings.  The Germans turned over the ruins of Ghetto stone by stone, equipped with special listening apparatus, and wearing boots with rubber soles to silence their foot steps.  When they found a bunker they filled it with poison gas or forced the hiders out into the open and shot them on the spot. 

And what of the “musters”?  These were Jews who were caught and not executed immediately but were taken to the barracks in Zamenhof Street where they were terrorized by threats and deluded by promises of salvation, into revealing the location of bunkers which were immediately emptied and the occupants murdered.

Miraculously a few “rubblers” and “Robinson Crusoes” made it through to liberation on January 17, 1945.  In a bunker on Sienna Street, 37 people, among them Professor Henryk Beck and Roman Fiszer, crawled out into a destroyed world to find themselves completely alone—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

In 1945 you could at least still return to the site of the Ghetto as Michal Zylberberg did in August 1944, just before Warsaw was liberated.   “It was as silent as a grave.  The whole area lay under thick snow.  The whiteness, which should be a symbol of purity, frightened me.  Under that whiteness flowed a sea of innocent Jewish blood.  I wandered aimlessly over the ruins.  There was no recognizable sign of what had once existed there.  It was eerie and terrifying.  Without realizing it, I found myself at what used to be the cemetery at Gensia (Gesia) Street.  Here I felt a sense of relief . . . All the people buried here, everyone who had been in the ghetto, seemed to come to life again.  I felt almost sprightly here, much better than in the silent ruins.  The cemetery wall had been destroyed—it seemed to break down the division between the two world of life and death.” 

Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perish City returns to us the intricate details of lives lived on the edge of death and fills in the shadows of the people who lived and died in the Ghetto.  In the extremity of their suffering we can learn from them about the heights the human spirit can attain and the depths to which it can descend.  It is apt that the authors refer to the ghetto as the “Perished City.”  “Perish” means to pass from existence, to disappear gradually, to deterioriate” or waste away.  While the Ghetto is mercifully gone from the physical world, the Guide returns it at least to our imagination and memory.

The Warsaw Ghetto is available from Amazon for $54.00.



Halina Birenbaum, Hope is the Last to Die (Auschwitz State Museum, 1971).

Yisrael Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1945: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt (Midland Books, 1989).

Hanna Krall.   Shielding the Flame: An Intimate Conversation with Dr. Marek Edelman, the Last Surviving Leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Henry Holt, 1977).

Kazik (Simha Rotem),  Memoirs of a Warsaw Ghetto Fighter (Yale University Press, 1994).

Michel Mazor, The Vanished City: Everyday Life in the Warsaw Ghetto (Marsilio Publishers, 1993).

Gunnar S. Paulsson, Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 19401-1945 (Yale University Press, 2002).

Vladka Meed, On Both Sides of the Wall: Memories of the Warsaw Ghetto (Ghetto Fighters’ House, 1973).

Havka Folman Raban, They Are Still With Me (Ghetto Fighters’ House, 2001).

Frank Stiffel, The Tale of the Ring: A Kaddish (Pushcart Press, 1984).

Adina Blady Szwajger, I Remember Nothing More: The Warsaw Children’s Hospital and the Jewish Resistance (Pantheon Books, 1990).

Yitzhak Zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising University of California, 1993).


The ghetto was established on October 16, 1940.  About 400,000 Jews, or about 30% of the entire population of Warsaw, were pushed into an area comprising only about 2.4% of the city’s area.  A brick wall was built around the ghetto on November 16, 1940 which sealed it off from the rest of the city.

Jews from smaller towns surrounding Warsaw were also pushed into the ghetto, so that the population at its highest was between 400,000 and 450,000 people.  Starvation, disease, hardship and random executions killed about 100,000 Jews in the ghetto even before the ‘Great Action’ began in late July 1942.  In one month about 250,000 ghetto residents were swept up and sent to Treblinka where they were murdered.   Most of the remaining Jews were spared temporarily because they were working for the Germans. 

By the end of 1942 it had become clear that the deported Jews had not been pushed farther east but had been murdered and a Jewish resistance movement arose in the ghetto determined to fight to the death.  When the Germans returned in January 1943 to liquidate the ghetto they were met with the first wave of resistance and after three days they retreated in confusion.  In the following months of quiet the resistance fighters worked even harder building bunkers, training, obtaining weapons and preparing for the German’s return. 

Finally on the eve of Passover on April 19, 1943, the Germans returned with a new man in charge, General Jürgen Stroop, who showed no mercy in liquidating the ghetto.  It took six weeks, but Stroop systematically burned and blew up the ghetto, building by building and block by block, until the last of the resistance fighters, led by Mordechai Anielewicz, took refuge in their last bunker at 18, Mila Street.  When the bunker was discovered by the Germans, about the Jewish fighters took their own lives rather than be captured.  Only a handful of fighters managed to escape the ghetto’s destruction. 

Stroop documented the destruction of the ghetto in reports and photographs which he compiled into an album called "The Stroop Report" that was presented to Heinrich Himmler.  The first page celebrates his victory in large print:  “The Jewish Quarter is no more!”



Recommended Websites and Resources on Jewish life in the South:

The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life

The ISJL Encyclopedia offers interesting histories of Jewish communities around the South.

The Breman's Exhibition Catalog for Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited explores a pivotal era in southern Jewish history. The catalogue features an introduction by Eli N. Evans; "A Model of the New South," by Andy Ambrose; "Lynching," by Clifford Kuhn; "The Press & the Frank Case by Steve Oney; "Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film & TV," by Dr. Matthew H. Bernstein; "The Frank Case & the Law," by Leonard Dinnerstein;
and images and text from the exhibition by Sandra Berman & Jane Leavey. Buy a catalog.

The Atlanta Jewish Times covers Jewish communities around the South.


Recommended Websites and Resources on the Holocaust:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website has a broad range of teacher materials available, in addition to every type of resource to help you teach your students more about the historical context in which the Holocaust took place, about events during Holocaust, the aftermath, and genocide today.

Start with Topics to Study or browse through some of the subjects in the Holocaust Encyclopedia. The online exhibitions are excellent and include educational resources.

Mapping the Holocaust

Chronology of the Holocaust

Facing History and Ourselves offers teacher resources to help educators guide students in understanding how to build tolerant, respectful communities. Facing History resources help students think about their role as members of local, national and global communities. Facing History also presents on-line seminars and courses.

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and education center in Israel, offers exceptional online exhibitions, teacher resources and on-line courses.

Resources for Teachers can be found at the Museum of Tolerance site.

In 1991, Teaching Tolerance, and initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center, began supporting the efforts of K-12 teachers and other educators to promote respect for differences and an appreciation of diversity.

At Teaching Tolerance's website,, visitors can find a wealth of resources, including:

  • Teaching Tolerance magazine, including current and back issues;
  • Ordering instructions for multimedia kits, handbooks, and the magazine;
  • Web-exclusive features such as "Writing for Change," lessons that challenge bias in language;
  • Classroom activities and resources, classified by subject and grade level.

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Abraham (?) Rubinsztajn.

Abraham (?) Rubinsztajn.


Online Resources for Students

There are a wide variety of online resources available to those interested in Jewish life in the South and in the Holocaust. Be aware that there are many, many sites out on the Web, especially on the topic of the Holocaust, that contain misinformation.

For any and all questions about genealogy, one of the best umbrella sites is JewishGen. The FAQ page is a terrific place to start learning about how to find your family's roots.

The Jewish Virtual Library has tons of general information.


Recommended Websites and Resources on Jewish life in the South:

The Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life

The ISJL Encyclopedia offers interesting histories of Jewish communities around the South.

The Breman's Exhibition Catalog for Seeking Justice: The Leo Frank Case Revisited explores a pivotal era in southern Jewish history. The catalogue features an introduction by Eli N. Evans; "A Model of the New South," by Andy Ambrose; "Lynching," by Clifford Kuhn; "The Press & the Frank Case by Steve Oney; "Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film & TV," by Dr. Matthew H. Bernstein; "The Frank Case & the Law," by Leonard Dinnerstein;
and images and text from the exhibition by Sandra Berman & Jane Leavey. Buy a catalog.

The Atlanta Jewish Times covers Jewish communities around the South.


Recommended Websites and Resources on the Holocaust:

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Website is chock full of every type of resource to help you learn more about the Holocaust. Start with Topics to Study or browse through some of the subjects in the Holocaust Encyclopedia. The online exhibitions are excellent and address a broad range of subjects.

Mapping the Holocaust

Chronology of the Holocaust

Facing History and Ourselves

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum and education center in Israel, has exceptional online exhibitions on its site.


Return to the Top

Rabbi Tobias Geffen celebrating Passover with his grandson, David, Atlanta, Georgia, 1954.

Rabbi Tobias Geffen celebrating Passover with his grandson, David, Atlanta, Georgia, 1954.