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Ghettos: History & Overview

Ghetto is an urban section of a city serving as compulsory residential quarter for Jews. Generally surrounded by a wall shutting it off from the rest of the city, except for one or more gates, ghetto would be bolted at night. The origin of this term has been the subject of much speculation. It was probably first used to describe a quarter of Venice situated near a foundry and which in 1516 was enclosed by walls and gates and declared to be the only part of the city to be open to Jewish settlement. Subsequently the term was extended to all Jewish quarters of the same type. It has come to indicate not only the legally established, coercive ghetto, but also the voluntary gathering of Jews in a secluded quarter, a process known in the Diaspora time before compulsion was exercised.

- Crystallization of German Policy
- Jewish Reations
- Typology of the Ghettos
- Jewish Administration
- Liquidations

Crystallization of German Policy

While ghettos were traditionally permanent places of Jewish residence, in Poland, under the Nazis, the ghettos were viewed as a transitional measure. "I shall determine at which time and with what means the ghetto, and thereby the city of Lodz, will be cleansed of Jews," boasted Hans Biebow, the Nazi official who ran the Lodz ghetto. "In the end … we must burn out this bubonic plague."

A secret memo issued on September 21, 1939, by Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Security Police, to the chiefs of all task forces operating in the conquered Polish territory, established the basic outlines of German policy in the territories.

Heydrich distinguishes between the ultimate goal (Endziel), which would require some time to implement, and the intermediate goals, which must be carried out in the short term. He said: Some goals cannot yet be implemented for technical reasons and some for economic reasons. Room was left for innovation.

He wrote: "The instructions and directives below must serve also for the purpose of urging chiefs of the Einsatzgruppen to give practical consideration to the problems involved."

His language was specific: the Endziel, the final goal, must be distinguished from the language that is later to be used, the endlossen, or final solution, a polite euphemism for the murder of Jewish men, women, and children. The ultimate goal was unarticulated.

The first intermediate goal was concentration. Jews were to be moved from the countryside into the larger cities. Certain areas were to become Judenrein, free of Jews, and smaller communities were to be merged into the larger ones.

Heydrich ordered local leaders to establish a Council of Jewish Elders, 24 men to be appointed from the local leaders and rabbis that are to be made fully responsible, "in the literal sense of the word," to implement future decrees. A census must be taken and leaders are to be personally responsible for the evacuation of Jews from the countryside. It was unnecessary to indicate what personal responsibility implied; clearly, the lives of individual Judenrat members were at risk.

Due priority was given to the needs of the army and to minimize economic dislocation, not of the Jews, but of industries essential to German economic interest. Businesses and farms were to be turned over to the locals, preferably Germans, and, if essential and no Germans were available, even to Poles.

The Einsatzgruppen were to issue reports, a census of people, an inventory of resources, industries, and personnel.

It is within this framework that the Jewish Councils were established and that the work of securing the occupied territory began. A second decree dated two months later and signed by Hans Frank, the head of the General Government, further specified the role of the Jewish Council, which was to have a chairman and a deputy.

The Jewish Council is obliged to receive through its chairman and his deputy the order of the German official agencies. Its responsibility will be to see that the orders are carried out completely and accurately. Jews were ordered to obey the orders of the Jewish Councils.

In retrospect, but only in retrospect, it can be seen that the ghetto was a holding pen, intended to concentrate Jews and hold them captive until such time as an infrastructure was created that could solve the Jewish problem.

Researchers have identified 1,150 Jewish ghettos, the biggest located in Warsaw where at one time 500,000 people were confined. The ghetto originally had two goals. The Germans created a situation in which hard labor, malnutrition, overcrowding, and substandard sanitary conditions contributed to the death of a large number of Jews. One in ten died in Warsaw in 1941, before the deportations, before shots were fired. This policy was at odds with the other use of the ghetto as a source of cheap labor that could be of benefit to the Reich and also to individual commanders. In the end, and often only in the end, even the availability of cheap labor gave way to the Final Solution.

The lifespan of some ghettos was extended because they provided a large reservoir of cheap labor; but while this consideration might forestall the murder process, it did not prevent it. Thus the commander of Galicia, for example, sent out an order in the fall of 1942 to decrease the number of ghettos from 1,000 to 55, and in July 1943 Himmler decided to transfer the surviving inhabitants of ghettos throughout Ostland to concentration camps. The last ghetto on Polish soil (Lodz), which had been in existence since April 1940, was liquidated in August 1944.

Special ghettos were established for Jews deported from Romania to Transnistria and resettled in cities or towns and in neighborhoods or on streets that had been occupied by Jews who had been murdered shortly before by the German army. One exception was the ghetto at Theresienstadt , which was established at the end of 1941 to house Jews from Bohemia and Moravia and later Jews from Germany and other Western countries were deported there as well. The Germans intended Theresienstadt to be a showcase to the world of their mass treatment of the Jews and thus to mask the crime of the "Final Solution." Still Theresienstadt was actually a ghetto – a holding pen for captive Jews – a concentration camp where conditions of imprisonment prevailed, and a transit camp: of the 144,000 Jews sent to Theresienstadt, 88,000 were shipped from there to Auschwitz, while 33,000 died in the ghetto. Of the 15,000 children sent to Theresienstadt, fewer than 100 survived.

There were several crucial differences between ghettoization in Poland and ghettoization in former Soviet territories. In Poland, ghettoization began shortly after the onset of war, before mass killings and before the murderous intentions of the Germans were clear to all. In former Soviet territories, ghettoization occurred only after the Einsatzgruppen murders; Jews were certain that German rule would be murderous even if the nature of German intensions was unclear. Some ghettos were situated near forests which could facilitate escape and a chance, however remote, of survival.

Jewish Reaction to the Establishment of Ghettos

In Poland, the Jews, who were unaware of the Nazis' intentions, resigned themselves to the establishment of ghettos and hoped that living together in mutual cooperation under self-rule would make it easier for them to overcome the period of repression until their country would be liberated from the Nazi yoke. They gave a name to their strategy of survivor, iberleben, to live beyond, beyond German rule until liberation. If within the ghetto, they presumed they would somehow be safer, as they would no longer interact with non-Jews in quite the same way and be freed of daily humiliations and dangers. Based on past experience and also on rational calculations or economic self-interest, it seemed to them that by imprisoning Jews in ghettos, the Nazis had arrived at the final manifestation of their anti-Jewish policy. If the Jews would carry out their orders and prove that they were beneficial to the Nazis by their work, they would be allowed to organize their community life as they wished. In addition, the Jews had practically no opportunity to offer armed opposition that would prevent the Germans from carrying out their plans. The constant changes in the composition of the population (effected by transfers and roundups) and in living quarters made it more difficult to express opposition; the hermetic imprisonment from the outside world prevented the acquisition of arms; and conditions in the ghetto (malnutrition, concern for one's family, etc.) weakened the strength of the opposition. On the other hand, the Germans had the manpower and technical equipment to repress any uprising with ease, and the non-Jewish population collaborated with them, or at best remained apathetic. Any uprising in the ghettos, even if it could be pulled off, was thus doomed to military failure. Any attempt at resistance was risky as the German practice of collective responsibility and disproportionate punishment left the remaining ghetto population at risk. Thus uprisings, when they occurred, were usually last stands undertaken when all hope for collective survival was lost and when the only question was what could be done in the face of impending death.

Typology of the Ghettos

In most cases, the ghetto was located in one of the poor neighborhoods of a city that had previously housed a crowded Jewish population. Moving large numbers of widely dispersed people into ghettos was a chaotic and unnerving process. In Lodz, where an area already housing 62,000 Jews was designated as the ghetto, an additional 100,000 Jews were crowded into the quarter from other sections of the city. Bus lines had to be rerouted. To avoid the disruption of the city's main transportation lines, two streets were walled off so trolleys could pass through. Polish passengers rode through the center of the Lodz ghetto on streets that Jews could only cross by way of crowded wooden bridges overhead.

In Warsaw, the decree establishing the ghetto was announced on October 12, 1940Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Moving schedules were posted on billboards. Whole neighborhoods were evacuated. While Jews were forced out of Polish residential neighborhoods, Poles were also evicted from the area that would become the ghetto. During the last two weeks of October 1940, according to German figures, 113,000 Poles (Christians) and 140,000 Jews had to be relocated, bringing with them whatever belongings they could pile on a wagon. All abandoned property was confiscated. In every Polish city, the ghettos were overcrowded. Jews were transferred from the other neighborhoods in the city, and in many cases from nearby villages, to housing there, while the non-Jewish inhabitants of the neighborhood were forced to move to another area. These transfers caused great overcrowding from the outset. In Lodz, for example, the average was six people to a room; in Vilna there were even eight to a room during one period. Whenever the overcrowding lessened because of the deporting of Jews to extermination camps, the area of the ghetto was reduced significantly.

At first there were two types of ghettos: open ones, which were marked only by signs as areas of Jewish habitation; and closed ones, which were surrounded by fences, or in some cases even by walls (as in Warsaw ). This difference, however, lost all significance during the period of deportations before an open ghetto was destroyed, or what the Germans called liquidated. In advance all access roads were blocked by the German police, whereas in closed ghettos shifts of German police or their aides constantly guarded the fences and walls. A more significant distinction was the fact that the Germans regarded the closed ghettos as large concentration camps, and therefore most of them were liquidated later than the open ghettos. In contrast to these ghettos, which were all in Polish and Russian territory, the ghettos in Transnistria were not predestined for liquidation. Neither was the ghetto in Theresienstadt. Transnistria even succeeded in maintaining contact with the outside world and received assistance from committees in Romania. Theresienstadt was, in fact, cut off from the world (except for the transports that came in and went out), but the standard of living was higher there than in Eastern European ghettos.

Jewish Administration

For every ghetto, the German authorities appointed a Judenrat, which was usually composed of Jewish leaders acceptable to the community. The Judenrat was not a democratic body, and its power was centered in one person, not always the chairman, who was responsible for its cooperation in matters relating to the ghetto. The leader of the Judenrat was subordinate to the German authorities, who delegated to him much authority with regard to the Jews but treated him disrespectfully and often cruelly. Many Jews appointed to the Judenrat believed that they were placed in their position in order to serve the Jewish people in its time of great need. They faced two masters. To the Germans they represented Jewish needs and to the Jews they represented German authority. The Germans were uninterested in meeting Jewish needs and German authority was eventually lethal for the Jews.

Ghetto life was one of squalor, hunger, disease, and despair. Rooms and apartments were overcrowded, with 10 or 15 people typically living in space previously occupied by four. Daily calorie allotments seldom exceeded 1,100. Without smugglers who brought in food, starvation would have been rampant. The smugglers' motto: "Eat and drink for tomorrow we die," was only too apt.

There were serious public health problems. Epidemic diseases were a threat, typhus the most dreaded. Dead bodies were often left on the street until the burial society came. Beggars were everywhere. Perhaps most unbearable was the uncertainty of life. Ghetto residents never knew what tomorrow would bring.

In the ghetto, life went on. Families adjusted to new realities, living in constant fear of humiliation, labor conscription, and deportation. Survival was a daily challenge, a struggle for the bare necessities of food, warmth, sanitation, shelter, and clothing. Clandestine schools educated the young. Religious services were held even when they were outlawed. Cultural life continued with theater and music, poetry and art offering a temporary respite from squalor.

From the beginning, the Jewish leadership was faced with the impossible task of organizing ghetto life under emergency conditions and under the ceaseless pressure of threats of cruel punishment. Jewish institutions, to the extent that they existed, continued to function, either openly, such as the institutions that fulfilled religious needs, or in secret, such as the various political parties. The major function of the leadership, however, was the provision of sustenance and health and welfare services (including hospitals) and sanitation, and this had to be accomplished without adequate means. Raul Hilberg likened their task to a small isolated municipal government living in hostile territory. The authority of leaders always derived from the Germans. To provide these services, they taxed those who still had some resources and worked those who had none. They practiced the time-honored traditions of their people honed by centuries of exile and persecution. Decrees were evaded or circumvented. They tried to outwit the enemy and alleviate the awful conditions of the ghetto, at least temporarily. Some behaved admirably; others became infatuated with their power and imposed it on the powerless, captive population.

Despite what was often their best effort, in the course of time these institutions collapsed in most ghettos. It was even more difficult to establish those services which had not existed within the Jewish community before the Holocaust, such as police, prisons, and courts. The authority vested in these institutions was broad within the narrow autonomous framework that existed in the ghettos, and in many instances they were, of course, not properly utilized under conditions of the life-and-death struggle imposed on the inhabitants of the ghetto.


The lifespan of the Polish ghettos was brief; formed in 1940, most were destroyed beginning in 1942 shortly after the Wannsee Conference . The destruction of the ghettos was conducted as part of the policy of the Final Solution for which purpose the Germans prepared special death camps, what they called extermination camps. When it was decided to liquidate a ghetto, they would call on the Jews to present themselves voluntarily to be transferred to labor camps (sometimes with false promises of improved living conditions), but if deception proved unsuccessful, they would round up the residents and bring them by force to assembly areas, from where they would be transported, usually by train, to their destination. Ghetto leaders faced the ultimate decision. For a time they could save some but only at the sacrifice of others. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz saved the able-bodied and shipped the children to Chelmno, reasoning that the best chance of survival was if the ghetto was transformed into a work camp, productive for the Wehrmacht. "Survival by work" was his motto. In Warsaw, Adam Czerniakow tried to save the children; when he could not, he killed himself rather than participate in their deportation. Jewish police were employed to send Jews to the trains. In some ghettos – but not many – the leadership chose suicide rather than cooperation. The great majority of the ghetto inhabitants were killed immediately upon their arrival in the camps; a minority, the young and the able-bodied, women without children, were employed in forced labor and were killed after a short time by one of the regular means of extermination. Only a very small number remained alive, sometimes after having been shunted from camp to camp.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

G. Reitlinger, Final Solution (19682), index; R. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews (20033), index; P. Friedman, in: JSOS, 16 (1954), 61–88 (incl. bibl.). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: E. Sterling, Life in the Ghettos during the Holocaust (2005); I. Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw 1939–1943 (1982); A. Tory, Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary (1990); L. Dobroszycki, The Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto 1941–44 (1984); I Trunk, Judenrat (1972).