“Little by little, before we knew it we were behind barbed wire and guarded by dogs and German soldiers,” Flushing resident Minia Moszenberg wrote of the build-up to the incarceration of Jews within ghettos in small towns and big cities across Eastern Europe.
Like so many Jews in that part of the world, Moszenberg and her family were forced to leave everything behind - an open invitation to gentile looters - and move into ghettos, areas established by the occupying Nazis.
These ghettos, the earliest of which were formed in 1940, were normally “in the oldest, poorest, most run-down sections of town,” explained Bonnie Gurewitsch, an archivist and curator at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan.
Living conditions were primitive. There was often no running water and inhabitants had to use outdoor latrines.
Ghettos “were designed to create conditions that were conducive to contagious disease, dirt and epidemics,” Gurewitsch said.
Western Europe, however, where Jews were more physically integrated into residential areas and assimilated into the culture of their respective countries, remained free of ghettos. Gurewitsch cited a public relations concern as a reason: the Nazis feared that non-Jews in Western European nations would object to the forceful deportation of their Jewish neighbors. Instead, Jews were rounded up and sent to detention camps, which were staging grounds for deportation to concentration camps.
In many Eastern European towns, Jews lived in close-knit communities, isolated from their non-Jewish neighbors. But ghettos were a far cry from close-knit. Jews from the surrounding area were forced to move, on foot - the use of public transportation was not permitted - into cramped quarters by a certain deadline. Newcomers often shared space with those who already lived within the designated ghetto boundaries. There were normally two or three families under one roof.
According to Gurewitsch, the population density in the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest in Eastern Europe, was nine people per room.
All ghettos, big and small, were characterized by horrid conditions, despite the fact that the larger ghettos often had some marginal form of plumbing. Across the board, there was an abundance of lice and a lack of food: the Nazis allocated a mere 300 daily calories, much of which was rotten, to ghetto inhabitants.
“It just was hunger - right away, was hunger,” Moszenberg recalled of her life in the Ozorkow ghetto in the Polish province of Lodz where she, as a 15-year-old, shared one room with her parents and siblings.
Thus, the smuggling of food became a major preoccupation, a survival technique, among Jews in the ghettos.
“We started to get really hungry,” remembered Steven Berger, who was 16 when the German army invaded his town in Hungary.
“One day, two friends of mine and myself decided to do something about the food situation, otherwise we were going to starve to death,” said the Little Neck resident.
The boys scaled the 6-foot wooden fence surrounding their ghetto and hid outside until daybreak when they ventured into town for food. Berger and his friends were successful a few times - children were small enough to tunnel under ghetto walls and young enough to be fearless. However, the trio was ultimately caught. A former non-Jewish neighbor recognized them and called the police, prompting a beating and a swift return to their new home within the ghetto walls, where they lived among the old, the sick and those imported from mental hospitals.
All ghetto men between the ages of 18 and 25 were conscripted into the manual labor service - meal tickets were procured only after intense laboring - where many were used as human mine detectors, Berger said.
Berger was forced to work in a morgue.
“I didn’t know if it was my blood or the blood of the people I was carrying,” he recalled of the morbid experience.
According to Gurewitsch, the Nazis used the traditional Jewish community structure, the kehilla, to their advantage in commanding Jews to comply with orders.
Nazis installed their own councils called Judenrat - Jewish Councils - often keeping the existing community board in tact unless the leader was uncooperative. Fear was the operative word.
If one person tried to escape, 10 people were shot. The Nazi presence inside the ghettos, while minimal - trigger-happy soldiers normally roamed the perimeters - was very unpredictable, Gurewitsch said.
On the inside, Jewish police forces were made to collaborate with their German occupiers, quelling any attempts at revolution. Not all challenges could be silenced, however; the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the largest single insurrection of the Holocaust, remains legendary.
“Effectively, the Germans tried to destroy all aspects of Jewish community life” with the establishment of ghettos, Gurewitsch said, explaining that all manner of economics, communication and education were cut off. Nursery schools were permitted, however, Gurewitsch explained, to prevent the rapid spread of young germs that would reduce the pool of potential laborers.
Gatherings of more than three people were forbidden, but the restrictions gave rise to various clandestine activities such as the publication of newspapers, soup kitchens, children’s homes, and even medical school courses in the Warsaw Ghetto. Secret radios, often fashioned from scratch, were one way of learning the progress of the war, Gurewitsch said.
Sneaking out of one ghetto and smuggling into others was another way of uncovering the truth. Ghettos were created, in one respect, to act as horse-blinders on the Jews within them, grossly limiting their knowledge of Nazi tactics and advancements. The ghetto smugglers, or couriers, who were not caught, returned with powerful information that bloomed into the resistance movement. More often than not, the brave travelers were women, who were not as easily identified as Jews as their circumcised male counterparts, Gurewitsch explained.
The ghetto in Losice, Poland that Eddie Weinstein and his family were forced into did not have walls or barbed wire, but roaming free was nevertheless out of the question.
The borders were streets and “if they caught a Jew one foot outside of the ghetto, he was killed on the spot,” said the 83-year-old resident of Little Neck.
Jews could not venture outside for medicine or firewood, which, in the sub-zero temperatures of Poland meant a death sentence for many people. A typhus epidemic broke out, Weinstein remembered.
“People started dying like flies in the late fall,” he said, and since the cemetery was beyond the ghetto walls, only one member of each family was allowed to take the deceased for burial.
In the Warsaw Ghetto, there were over 30,000 deaths between November of 1940 and September of 1941, according to Gurewitsch.
Attrition aside, populations fluctuated as ghettos were consolidated. Moszenberg, for instance, moved into the larger Lodz ghetto from the encampment in Ozorkow, but not before she experienced her fair share of atrocities.
“It became unbelievable. Impossible. Impossible,” Moszenberg said, shaking her head as she recounted hangings that everyone was made to watch.
“I remember like today. Everyone was crying,” she said.
Nevertheless, Moszenberg added, “As long as I had my family I felt secure because I had someone. I had someone.”
For Moszenberg, however, everything changed during one of the Nazis’ notorious “selections,” in which ghetto inhabitants were poked and prodded like caddle. While Moszenberg was spared along with an aunt and cousin, her parents and siblings were sent off to the Chelmno death camp - off to the slaughter.
Scores of other Jews would follow in their footsteps.