The essay addresses the issues of health and medicine in the ghettos of eastern Europe, emphasizing the centrality of oral testimonies and memoirs to historical analysis. It opens with some general remarks on Holocaust testimonies and then moves on to a discussion of medicine in the ghettos. It first deals with the state of public health and medicine there, which was shaped by both the community's medical experience and the catastrophic results of the Nazi policy of starvation, persecution, terror, and killing. More than any other factor in ghetto life, public health and medicine represented the coalescence of the private and public spheres. What reinforced the meshing of private and public health was the “work as rescue” strategy, adopted by some Jewish Judenräte (ghetto administrative councils), on the assumption that the Nazis would not kill the workers they needed. As a result, the physical ability of ghetto residents to work became a central interest of the ghetto's Jewish authorities: a health department was established in all large and medium-sized ghettos.
Documentation kept in the ghetto archives provided information about health services. Reports from clinics and hospitals on disease and mortality were included in Judenräte statistical bulletins. However, much of the activity of these health departments and doctors had to be concealed from the German authorities and thus is not reflected in formal ghetto records. Some information can be gleaned from the few surviving diaries and underground sources. Oral testimonies and memoirs not only fill in missing information but also contribute insights into the activities and efforts of the medical services. They are also centrally important for understanding the wider significance of these human efforts and their successes and failures in times of extreme crisis.