In the Łódź Ghetto of German-occupied Poland during the Second World War, Harold Bursztajn’s father could’ve received extra protections and privileges by agreeing to serve on the ghetto’s Jewish police force, which the Nazis used to control the local populace. Because he didn’t want to become so directly complicit with his oppressors, he declined.
Instead of receiving special treatment to keep his neighbors in line, the elder Bursztajn was put to work as a “fecalist,” a person who collected their droppings. Fecalists were given no protective clothing, no masks, and no gloves, and many had to work without shoes.
It is difficult to imagine how abominably dirty and disgusting the job must have been. Because they reeked with the smell of their work, the fecalists became the untouchables (or at least the “unapproachables”) of the ghetto.
Why this job?
The job was not meant solely to demean. You see, none of the thousands of apartments in the Łódź Ghetto had indoor plumbing, and there was no public sewage system to speak of. Risk of infectious diseases ran rampant. However, because Łódź was a manufacturing city that provided forced labor to fuel the Nazi war machine, keeping these people alive — at least until they had nothing left to give — was a high priority.
Thus emerged a perverse convergence of interests. The Jews wanted to survive, and the Nazis needed their labor. Out of nothing, a public health system emerged. At presumably the lowest rung of this system came the folks whose job was to remove the mounds of human waste that posed the threat of deadly disease.
How they made a difference
The fecalists may have stank, but they used this to their advantage: The Germans, too, gave them wide berth, which meant that they could smuggle information and small amounts of supplies without fear of being searched.
And, lest we forget, their work saved lives — however temporarily in view of the eventual fates of ghetto residents. Fatalities from infectious diseases dropped precipitously once this improvised public health system took shape, and the fecalists became part of the first line of defense by providing more sanitary living conditions for those in the ghetto.
A remarkable panel
This summary does not come close to adequately conveying the fascinating depth of this story and others that were part of a gripping panel on health care, medical ethics, and public health in the German-occupied Jewish ghettos, presented at the biennial Congress of the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, hosted this week by Berlin’s Humboldt University.
The story of the fecalists came from Dr. Harold Bursztajn of the Harvard Medical School, co-founder of its Program in Psychiatry & the Law. He shared it with passion, animation, and even humor. The only time he became visibly upset is when he recounted how his father saved a woman from being transported to the east to face almost certain death at an extermination camp. The father argued that she also was a fecalist and thus served too valuable a role to send away.
The woman, pulled off the train minutes before it was scheduled to depart, was Harold’s mother.
Thank you to Harold Bursztajn and to his fellow panelists — Tessa Chelouche (Israel), Geoffrey Brahmer (Boston), and Jacob Holzer (Boston) — for their excellent presentations. This blog post could’ve gone on for pages, and I plan to write again about another of the presentations.
Go here for more about the history of the Łódź Ghetto.