Long before the Nazis had decided to murder all of Europe’s Jews, the miserable living conditions in the ghettos of eastern Europe caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. Although ghettos were created at different times and varied in size and nature, they all had two common characteristics: they were located in poor areas of towns and they were catastrophically overcrowded. Józef Zelkowicz was an official of the Jewish Council in Łódź in Poland, where a ghetto was created in the spring of 1940. Later that year, he recorded an inspection of a typical apartment.

The one and only window in the apartment, facing north with its shattered panes, is plugged with sundry coloured rags. Along the swollen walls, their living flesh eaten away by the mould, a few flies creep lazily. The ceiling is covered with grey-blue stains like a soiled cushion on a child’s pushchair.

The two iron beds in the middle of the room are heaped with bare pillows and mildewed mattresses, from which bundles of packed, crushed straw protrude. Next to the beds is a wooden bucket and around the bucket, strewn on the floor, is white and coloured laundry.

Filth, deprivation, neglect. Mouldy, frightening. Pins prick your body when you remember that human beings live in this gloom. In this cellar room, drenched in water that tears hunks of life out of the silent walls in summer and winter, human beings are breathing. In the repugnant bedding and on the rusty crooked iron beds, people sleep. Living people, whose open eyes have seen another life. People with mouths that know how to speak and scream and, nevertheless, keep their silence and wallow in silent despair, like those flies that creep lazily on the walls until, one hour or one day on, their wings will palpitate one last time and they will settle lifeless on the dirty floor.

In the four years of the Łódź Ghetto’s existence, more than 45,000 of its approximately 200,000 inhabitants died in the ghetto.

Photo: a woman and girl in the Łódź Ghetto; Yad Vashem

Report: Józef Zelkowicz, In Those Terrible Days: Notes from the Lodz Ghetto, ed. Michal Unger (Yad Vashem, 2003)