The Streets
Icon by Alex Mena

Jews from all over Eastern Europe were brought to the biggest ghettos, which would have made them crowded enough. The next stage of the Nazi plan brought Jews from all over the continent (from Austria, Holland, Germany, France, and Greece), from all the countries under German control. They were being held in the ghettos, although they did not know it, until the Nazi "Final Solution" could be brought into action.

The terrible overcrowding, with seven to ten or more in each room, brought inhabitants outside in the daylight hours. There they joined the homeless in aimlessly walking through the streets. A non-Jewish Pole brought to the Warsaw ghetto for a brief visit described what he saw:

"These were still living people, if you could call them such. For apart from their skin, eyes, and voice there was nothing human left in these palpitating figures. Everywhere there was hunger, misery, the atrocious stench of decomposing bodies, the pitiful moans of dying children, the desperate cries and gasps of a people struggling for life against impossible odds. . . ."

"The entire population seemed to be living in the streets. There was hardly a square yard of empty space. As we picked our way across the mud and rubble, the shadows of what had once been men or women flitted by us in pursuit of someone or something, their eyes blazing with some insane hunger or greed."

Jews selling off their possessions in the streets of
the Krakow ghetto.
Photo from USHMM Archives.

If the ghetto can be said to have a life's blood, then the smugglers kept it flowing. It is even possible that if it had not been for the smugglers, the Nazis would have succeeded in starving the ghettos to death. There was some large-scale smuggling, but most of it day by day was small. Workers outside smuggled in whatever they could. Those who could afford it bribed guards not to notice. If the Jews were caught smuggling anything, no matter how small, the penalty was death. This punishment was carried out sometimes by being shot immediately. Here is the official report of a German guard in the Lodz ghetto: "On December 1, 1941, I was on duty between 2:00 and 4:00 p.m. at Sentry Point No. 4 in Holstein Street. At 3:00 p.m. I saw a Jewess climb onto the fence of the ghetto, stick her hand through the fence, and try to steal some turnips from a passing cart. I made use of my firearm. The Jewess received two fatal shots.
"Type of firearm: carbine 98
"Ammunition used: 2 cartridges
"[signed] Sergeant Naumann"

Some were not so lucky as to be killed right away. A Jewish mother was caught buying an egg from a Polish peasant. Both were held until ghetto inhabitants could be gathered to watch. Then they were hanged. Their bodies were not removed for three days "as a lesson to all who would learn."

Most of the smugglers were children ten to fourteen years old. Their small, thin bodies could slip under a hole in the barbed wire or through a small opening in the wall and get back the same way. If they were successful, then starvation was postponed for another day. If they were not, they might be shot as their waiting mothers watched. Sometimes they too were not lucky enough to suffer the penalty right away. An adult remembered: "Once when I was walking along the wall, I came across a 'smuggling operation' being carried out by children. The actual operation seemed to be over. There was only one thing left to do. The little Jewish boy on the other side of the wall had to slip back inside the ghetto through his hole, bringing with him the last Piece of booty. Half the little boy was already visible when he began to cry out."

"At the same time, loud abuse in German could be heard from the Aryan side. I hurried to help the child, meaning to pull him quickly through the hole. Unhappily, the boy's hips stuck fast in the gap in the wall. Using both hands, I tried with all my might to pull him through. He continued to scream dreadfully. I could hear the police on the other side beating him savagely.... When I finally succeeded in pulling the boy through the hole, he was already dying. His backbone was crushed."

Jewish Life
The ghetto was a giant cage, its thousands of imprisoned inhabitants forced there. They came from all backgrounds, from all occupations, skills, and abilities. In the midst of the vast Nazi terror, these doomed people gave the ghetto some of the variety and vitality of a true city. They were suffering from starvation and disease, and death was all round them,. Teaching was forbidden, yet there were secret classes in history, languages, and the arts. They secretly took examinations, earned grades, and even received diplomas.
Theatrical groups, professional and amateur, put on plays. Noted authorities and scholars gave lectures. Musicians gave concerts and singers put on recitals. Scientists conducted experiments. Operas were composed and performed. Secret libraries sprang up, with long waiting lists for books: history, political science, cheap novels, classics, poetry, romances, and adventure stories. The Jews were very much alive in the face of the Nazi desire for their deaths.
From the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Jews herded down the street by the SS during the
liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Photo from the National Archives.

The End of the Ghettos
It has been estimated that one-fifth of ghetto inhabitants died of disease and hunger-related illnesses. At that rate, the entire population of all the ghettos would have died out within five or six years. But that was not fast enough. Chief of Security Reinhard Heydrich explained: "The evacuation of the Jews to the already supplying practical experience of great importance, in view of the coming Final Solution of the Jewish Question."

Adler, David A. We Remember the Holocaust. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1989.
Ausubel, Nathan. Pictoral History of the Jewish People. New York: Crown, 1956.
Berg, Mary. Warsaw Ghetto: A Diary. New York: L. B. Fisher, 1945.
Dawidowicz, Lucy. The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945. Tenth ed. New York: Seth Press, 1986.
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: The History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1985.
Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.