Ghettos were designated areas for the separation and confinement of the Jewish community from the rest of the population in the Nazi-occupied territories in Eastern Europe.
Most ghettos were enclosed by high walls or fences and heavily guarded by armed Germans and local collaborators. Living conditions were harsh: Jews were subjected to congested and decrepit spaces without adequate access to food, water, medicine, and proper sanitation. As a result, disease, starvation, and diseases were rampant. It also led to the physical, moral, and spiritual deterioration of the inhabitants.
Forced labor was mandated early on in occupied Poland. It was overseen by the Schutzstaffel (SS) and the German civilian ghetto administration. In Będzin, the German head of the regional civilian administration was Udo Klausa.
Some laborers worked within occupied towns and cities. Others were relocated to small factories or large-scale production sites. Lastly, concentration camps also exploited slave laborers, often as a penalty for defying or violating Nazi rules. Men and women between the ages of twelve and sixty years were selected for intensive labor. It included the sweeping of city streets, the collection and removal of garbage, breaking stones, cutting trees, constructing bridges, or manual and industrial manufacturing in workshops and factories. In Będzin, one those of those manufacturing sites that relied in Jewish labor was the Alfred Rossner factory.
Severe food restrictions characterized ghetto life. Nazi officials relied on insufficient food supplies to ensure malnourishment. The German perpetrators, in line with the ideology of Aryan superiority, declared that all inferior races required less food. The rations for Poles were half of what Germans would receive; Jews received half of the Polish rations. Jews consumed about 10% of the recommended daily calories during their ghettoization. The intense malnourishment resulted in a high rate of death from starvation. Starvation inhibited the body’s ability to defend itself against diseases such as typhus, typhoid fever, cholera, tuberculosis, and the plague. Confined in the ghettos, Jews did not have access to medical supplies and treatment. Jewish medical professionals were ill-equipped to help the many individuals in need.
The two largest ghettos in Poland were in Warsaw and in Lodz. In Warsaw, the Jewish resistance fought the Nazis during their plans of final deportations. In Lodz, the Jewish Council, headed my Mordecai Rumkowksi, complied with most of the German orders by trying to become an indispensable labor force for the German war efforts. As in other ghettos, Rumkowski kept “order” in the ghetto with the help of the Jewish ghetto police. Lodz, too, was eventually liquidated.
The ghetto in Będzin was headed by the Jewish Council elders Moshe Merin and his brother Chaim Merin. Compared to Warsaw and Lodz, it was smaller, but its conditions and the fate of the Jewish population were fairly typical of what happened in the many ghettos in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.
Jacob Apenszlak, Jacob Kenner, Isaac Lewin, and Moshe Polakiewicz. The Black Book of Polish Jewry: An Account of the Martyrdom of Polish Jewry under the Nazi Occupation (American Federation for Polish Jews in Cooperation with the Association of Jewish Refugees and Immigrants from Poland, 1943)