The Ghettoization of European Jews: Deportation and Resettlement in the East
On September 1, 1939, Hitler's troops invaded Poland. Two days later Britain and France declared war on Germany World War II has begun. But, within three weeks, Poland has completely succumbed to Hitler's Blitzkrieg. In 1939 there were approximately 3.3 million Jews living in Poland (about 10% of the Polish population. One week before the invasion, Hitler signed a secret non-aggression pact (The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) with Stalin. Under German occupation, Poland was divided into 10 administrative districts. The western and northern districts (Pomerania, Brandenburg, Saxony, Upper and Lower Silesia and Danzig) were annexed to the German Reich and the eastern districts were ceded to the Soviet Union. The largest district, the central section including the cities of Lublin Krakow and Warsaw, was set aside as a German colony and came to be known as the General Government (Generalgouvernement). So, with the conquest of Poland, an additional 2 million Polish Jews were brought under German control.
The stunning victories of the German armies in the early years of World War II brought the majority of European Jewry under Nazi control. Consistently, Jews were deprived of human rights. Their property confiscated, most of them were herded into ghettos and concentration camps. The victories also increased Hitler's confidence that he could proceed with his plans with minimal opposition from the outside world. Almost from the beginning of the campaign against Poland, the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing units were at work just behind the front lines. Over the next 18 months these units killed, either by shooting or by mobile gas vans, over 1,300,000 Jews.
Hitler's long-standing commitment to lebensraum, or "living space," was an obsession almost as important as the solution of the Jewish "problem." Following World War I (1914-1918), the Versailles Treaty outlined the conditions which would be imposed on Germany. As a result of the territorial provision of the treaty,
...Germany was stripped of one-sixth of her arable land, two- fifths of her coal, two-thirds of her iron and seven-tenths of her zinc. Her province of East Prussia was cut off from the rest of her territory, and her port city of Danzig, almost wholly German, was subjected to the political control of the League of Nations and to the economic domination of Poland...(Edward McNall Burns, Western Civilizations: Their History and their Culture, NY: W.W. Norton, 1958:836)
Further, the burdensome reparations (some $33 billion) were clearly designed to so totally cripple Germany that she would never again be a threat to the world. The Great Depression which gripped the western world after 1929 was especially severe in western Europe and was keenly felt i Germany, Austria and Italy. The war had divided the world into "have" and "have-not" nations. Germany, Italy and Japan were clearly "have-not nations. It appears now, in retrospect, that the aftermath of World War I increased rather than diminished the intense nationalistic spirit of the central European republics and contributed directly to the rise of Fascism in Italy and the Nazi movement in Germany.
The immediate origins of Fascism in Germany may be traced to a meeting of seven men in a little beer hall in Munich in 1919 and the establishment of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (later shortened to NAZI). One of those seven was, of course, a thirty year-old German National from Austria, Adolf Hitler.
The Nazi Party's rise to power was built upon two dominant ideologies: RACIAL PURITY and LEBENSRAUM These two became so intertwined over the following years (1933-1939) that it is almost impossible to separate them. They became the basis for Hitler's foreign policy (e.g., the Anschluss and the invasion of Poland, and his domestic policy with regard to all groups whom Hitler considered "inferior" races. As a result of the territorial restructuring of Germany following World War I, the average German citizen had .004 of a square mile of living space. Even tiny England, with its vast imperial territories around the world, could offer its average citizen 3 square miles of space.
In 1939, Hitler demanded the abolition of the Corridor which separated Germany from its eastern territories and the return of Danzig to German control. Believing that the western powers (the United States, France and Britain) would not honor their commitment to protect Poland, Hitler announced his intent to invade Poland and take back those areas lost in the war. The successful annexation of Austria and the successful conquest, first of Czechoslovakia and then, of Poland opened up vast territories of available space to Hitler for colonization and resettlement. It also brought into focus the "Jewish Problem" and the quest for a "Final Solution."
The General Government, headed by Governor Hans Frank, seemed to offer the greatest potential for lebensraum. First, however, there was the problem of clearing the area of Polish nationals and the more than 2 million Jews who lived in the area. Accordingly, Heydrich issued the following memorandum to the Einsatzgruppen officers under his authority regarding their mission:
That Heydrich's orders were clearly understood by those under his command is clear from the following directive from The Reichskommissar for Ostland IIa 4 in 1941:
The first task in the transformation of Poland into German "living space" was to remove Poles and Jews from the Polish countryside as well as Jews from the German homeland concentrate them in the cities of the General Government. Despite the effectiveness of the Einsatzgruppen on the Russian front, there were problems with carrying out mass extermination in that manner. First, it was too public. The shootings at places such as Babi Yar, were often carried out in full view of civilians and regular Wehrmacht (regular German army) troops. Second, there are indications that such firing squad activities were having a demoralizing effect on those military personnel who participatedparticularly the close-range shooting of women and children. Himmler suggested that a "more humane" and "rational" method of "disinfecting" the area was needed. Already, at this point, Himmler was planning the construction of special annihilation centers staffed with special technology and specially trained staff for mass extermination. The ghettoization process was merely a necessary first step in organizing the operation. Then the incorporated territories could be re-populated with ethnic Germans (Ger. volksdeutsche from the Baltic states, Austria, etc.
Kenneth McVay provides the following text and commentary from Arad's discussion of the strategic issues and goals in the deportation of Jews to the ghettos of Poland:
"Organizing the deportation of the 2,284,000 Jews who, according to German data, lived in the General Government in hundreds of ghettos dispersed all over the country demanded thorough planning. The geographical dispersion of the Jewish ghettos, the location and killing capacities of the death camps, the available means of transport and their projected optimal use would all have to be considered.... The earliest known German document regarding any cooperation between SS authorities and civilian officials in the deportation of Jews in the framework of Operation Reinhard is a note written by Dr. Richard Turk, the head of the Department of Population Affairs and Welfare ... in Lublin district. The document states:
Yitshak Arad tells us:
In the spring of 1940, Hitler became convinced that Poland did not offer sufficient space for both German resettlement and Jews. The deportation of Jews to some other place in the world, e.g., an African colony [the Madagascar Plan], was considered briefly and then discarded. By late 1940, there had occurred a clear shift on German mentality. It was now a foregone conclusion that the Jewish Question had to be dealt with in some "Final" way. Territorial final solutions seemed to be unfeasible. The Euthanasia program and the success of the Einsatzgruppen had two important consequences for German policy: (1) extermination was not a viable option and (2) the technology of gassing had already been successfully tested and demonstrated.
As Louis Snyder informs us:
The creation of ghettos in Polish cities proceeded systematically.
The Structure of the Ghetto
In contemporary usage, ghetto means separate living quarters for a specific racial or ethnic group. In this sense, many inner city areas in the United States may be characterized as ghettos. This was, clearly, not the case for Jews in Poland between 1940 and 1942. The ghettos created by the Nazis were transitional areas between deportation and the Final Solution. Many, though not all, were enclosed areas; barbed wire at Lodz, a brick wall in Warsaw and Cracow. Almost all were heavily guarded by armed military personnel.
While the ghettos were under Nazi control, each ghetto had an internal administrative structure the Judenrat, or Jewish council, generally made up of leading rabbis and other influential persons in the Jewish community. Their functions were to administer Nazi policy within the ghetto. There has been considerable controversy regarding these councils' role in the fate of Jews. On the one hand, they provided some sense of autonomy to the Jewish community. They were responsible for health and welfare, the distribution of food, and for policing the ghetto internally. On the other hand, the Judenrate were, intentionally or unintentionally, a tool of the Nazis in the destruction of the Jews. While they had authority within the ghetto, they had no authority at all in representing the needs and interests of the Jews to the Nazi government. The members of the Jewish Councils were themselves subject to on-the-spot execution for any failure to carry out Nazi policy.
Living conditions in most of the ghettos were horrible. Malnutrition was widespread and death by starvation was a daily occurrence. Between 1941 and 1942, 20 percent of the population in the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos starved to death (over 112,000 people). At the same time, Jews during these two years were used extensively as slave labor and had, at least, some economic value to the Nazis. Why, then, would the Nazi government intentionally deprive them of food necessary for survival? For one thing, a steady flood of Jews were streaming into the ghettos from other parts of Europe. Any who starved to death, or were executed for disobedience, would likely be replaced very quickly. Also, despite the fact that the Final Solution had not begun officially, previous activities, e.g., the Einsatzgruppen, the Euthanasia Program, had demonstrated that ridding the Reich of Jews was a desired outcome. Finally, starving the Jews to death was cheaper than shooting them or gassing them and all available foods and other survival necessities were needed at the front for military personnel.
After 1942, and the decisions reached by the Wannsee Conference, the liquidation of the ghettos became a much more systematic process.
Source: The Holocaust\Shoah Page.