Section: Judaism and Jewish life

Pre-war Jewish memories

The survivors interviewed for this site have given us an insight into their own pre-war life. In this section you have an opportunity to see, hear and learn from their testimonies about life as a child within pre-war Europe.

Reflect on the richness of the lives that existed before the Nazis came to power. Reflect on what was lost and what has been left behind.

Memories of pre-war life

The survivors interviewed for this site provide an insight into their pre-war life and that of their family. On this current page you have an opportunity to see, hear and learn from their testimonies about life as a child within pre-war Europe.


Freddie, one of three boys, was an Austrian Jewish boy born in Vienna, Austria in 1921. Watch and listen as Freddie talks affectionately about his childhood in Vienna.

Freddie talks about an antisemitic event in school that. What was this event?



Jack was born in 1929 in the town of Novogrudek, in Belarus. He describes how the vibrant community of his hometown coped with conflicts.

Jack also talks about the cultural richness of Jewish life in the town before the Soviet Army arrived during September 1939.


Joan was born to Polish parents in Brussels during February 1940. Her birth name was Fanny Zimmerbaum, but it was changed later in her life. (You can learn how Joan came to change her name by watching all of Joan’s video excerpts or the whole interview)

Watch and listen as Joan explains her family background, how her parents met and other aspects of life before the war.




As you watch the videos reflect on the richness of the lives that existed before the Nazis came to power.

Then, as you use The Holocaust Explained, reflect on what was lost, but also what has been left behind.

Rabbi and Rabbitzen: a very simple way of life

This picture was created on the eve of the First World War. It depicts a Rabbi and Rebbetzin.

The picture shows a very simple way of life. We would not know that the man is a Rabbi unless we read the title of the work. There is no religious setting depicted nor any religious clothing or artefacts. It is, however, drawn in a style that draws on techniques of the Modernist artists of the time, such as Cubism. This reveals a tension between the subject and content of the picture, which is ‘traditional’ and simple, but it is drawn in a modern style. This can be seen to represent what is happening in the world at the time: the simpler and more traditional ways of life are being threatened and changed by the modern world and the coming war, as well as the development of technology, industry and machinery.


The couple can be seen as representative of Jewish people throughout history; their large eyes could allude to past Jewish persecution and suffering. However this apparent vulnerability contrasts with the fact that the figures appear robust. They have large strong hands, which could be compared to the hands of peasants who have had to struggle and work hard in their lives. Furthermore, the figures have their arms locked into each other like a chain that cannot break. The figures are strong and boldly drawn. They look resilient, as though they can withstand anything

Importance of Mother

The woman (the Rebbetzin) is central to the picture. This can be seen to represent the importance of the Mother within Judaism. However, we also know that Gertler’s mother was of great importance to him. This may explain why the Rabbitzen is shown in the first place (Rebbetzins were not usually depicted in art works) but also why she is central in the composition of the picture.

The picture is made by drawing over a grid, which you can see in the background. This was a very common technique for artists who were studying at the time at the Slade School of Art. It also indicates that Gertler may have been planning to turn the work into a large painting at some point, though there is no evidence that he did. The grid helps artists to enlarge their pictures at a later date.

Find more art resources for Holocaust education by the Ben Uri gallery in collaboration with the London Grid for Learning.


Mark Gertler (1891-1939)

Gertler was the youngest son of poor Jewish immigrants from Austria who settled in London’s East End.

In 1908, he was among the first Jewish, working-class students of his generation to enrol at the Slade College of Art. He and other Jewish East End artists became known as ‘The Whitechapel Boys’.

In the 1930s, he found it hard to sell his work and was forced to teach part-time. On 23 June 1939, depressed by ill-health, a badly-received exhibition, lack of sales and fear of imminent war, he took his own life.

Interpreting the image

Gertler has linked the arms of the couple like a chain. What message do you think Gertler was trying to give by representing the couple in this way?

How would you describe the expressions on the faces of the couple?

The simplified geometric shapes can be described as representative of the ‘Modernist’ style of this painting.

Gertler has also used repetition of shapes in this work, such as in the similarity between the loaf of bread and the ‘bun’ hairstyle of the Rebbetzin .

What other shape repetitions can you see?

The Shtetl

The painting shows a traditional Shtetl in Eastern Europe during the 1930s.

A Shtetl is the Yiddish word used to describe the small towns or villages of Jewish communities commonly found in Russia or Poland during the 19th and 20th centuries. The village’s population consisted mainly of Jewish residents although non-Jewish residents also resided within some of these communities.

The Shtetl was typically seen as a rural market town, with the residents living a simple life centred on religion, community, family and tradition. All of these activities focused on living the life of a ‘good Jew’.

Life in the Shtetl however began to change with the economic and political upheavals of the 1900s across Europe and Russia.

As in all industrial countries of the age, the rural population began moving into the rapidly expanding industrial cities. This was particularly prevalent in Soviet Russia where the ruling Bolshevik or Communist party placed great emphasis on industrialisation and production targets through measures such as Stalin’s Five Year Plans. As a result of these changes, many Jews and non-Jews alike moved out of the countryside and away from rural life.

In Kowalska’s painting we see a view of everyday life in these communities. The old way of life continues, here the residents are seen fetching their own water from the communal well, but it is being encroached upon by the new industrial world. The telegraph wires and street lamps show the arrival of modern amenities.


Entire villages rounded up

In 1941, less than ten years after this painting was produced, the Nazis breached their pact with Stalin and invaded Russia. In the months that followed, over 500,000 Soviet Jews were killed by Nazi soldiers.

By 1942 Nazi leaders were looking for more organised and faster methods of killing, in January of that year they met to discuss the ‘ to the Jewish problem. In many cases entire villages were rounded up and deported to labour or concentration camps. The Holocaust physically wiped out any semblance of these villages from Eastern Europe.

Today this distinct folk/traditional way of life is often remembered and celebrated by the descendants of those villagers who emigrated before the war began, many of whom settled in areas as far afield as the United States of America.


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Rabbi and Rabbitzen: a very simple way of life

Rabbi and Rabbitzen: a very simple way of life

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