The Buchenwald Boys and their families, like other Jews under German occupation, experienced extreme hardship and loss. They were forced to wear yellow stars sewn as badges on their clothing. They were removed from schools and their parents and other family members were expelled from their jobs. Their families’ businesses were seized by the Nazis who incited chaotic and violent riots in many towns. Many were brutally evicted from their homes and incarcerated within designated areas or ghettos, as a short-term step in what was to become the near annihilation of the Jews of Europe.
By 1940, most of the Boys and their families had been moved into overcrowded, unsanitary ghettos, in or near their hometowns, where many suffered from disease or malnutrition. Henry S, who moved to Lodz, Poland before the outbreak of the War, described the poverty and hunger in the ghetto built where he and his family lived. He told how they did not know anything about the difficulties in the world outside of their ghetto.
Salek R, together with the Jews of Czestochowa, Poland, was forced into the ghetto established in that town. The Jewish Council in the ghetto, under the work orders imposed by the occupying Germans, selected Salek, then a young boy, to clean the Gestapo officers’ living quarters.
The Boys recalled how they had managed to survive the ghettos’ harsh conditions. For example, Henry S attributed his survival in the Lodz Ghetto to being able to find food, such as scraps of potato peel from the kitchen. Joe S, who was only 8 when the Germans invaded his town of Kozienice, Poland, told how he was young and small enough to sneak out of the ghetto, undetected, to scavenge for food to smuggle back in to his starving family.
Gabriel R, who had been in the Lodz Ghetto, had been lucky to avoid deportation and subsequent extermination, thanks to the protection of his uncle, who was in a position of influence as the chief accountant for Mordechai Chaim Rumkoski, the head of the Lodz Ghetto Jewish Council.
Salek R explained that he survived the Czestochowa Ghetto because he was artistic as well as lucky. In the ghetto, the Germans recognised that he was able to draw, so they put him to work as a calligrapher for their recordkeeping. Some of the German officers asked him to privately paint their portraits.