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Ghettos: The Ghettoization of European Jews

On September 1, 1939Hitler'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 Kraków 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:

21.September, 1939

To Chiefs of all Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police Subject: Jewish Question in Occupied Territory

I refer to the conference held in Berlin today, and again point out that the planned total measures (i.e., the final aim) are to be kept strictly secret.

Distinction must be made between:

  1. the final aim (which will require extended periods of time) and
  2. the stages leading to the fulfillment of this final aim (which will be carried out in short periods).

It is obvious that the tasks ahead cannot be laid down from here in full detail. 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.]

For the time being, the first prerequisite for the final aim is the concentration of the Jews from the countryside into the larger cities.

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 Reichskommissar for Ostland IIa 4

Provisional Directives for the treatment of Jews in the area of the Reichskommissariat Ostland.

The final solution of the Jewish question in the area of the Reichskommissariat Ostland will be in accordance with the instructions in my address of 27.July.1941 in Kovno.

Insofar as further measures are taken, particularly by the Security Police, to carry out my verbal instructions, they will not be affected by the following _provisional directives._ It is merely the purpose of these provisional directives to assure that where, and as long as, further measures for the final solution are not possible, minimum measures will be taken by the Generalkommissare or Gebietskommissare. . .

. . .As far as possible the Jews are to be concentrated in cities or in sections of large cities, where the population is already predominately Jewish. There, ghettos are to be established, and the Jews are to be prohibited from leaving these ghettos.

In the ghettos the Jews are to receive only as much food as the rest of the population can spare, but not more than is required for their bare subsistence. The same applies to the allocation of other essential goods.


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 participated—particularly 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:

Notice, Lublin, 17 III 1942, Ref (event) II, R/We On March 4, 1942, I received a telegram from the government in krakow, signed by Mr. [Friedrich] Siebert, the chief of the SS department, in which the concluding sentence reads as follows: I ask you to be helpful to the SS and Police Leader of Lublin in his actions.

On March 7 I received a telephone call from the government [in Cracow], from Major Regger, in which I was strictly requested, in connection with the resettlement of the Jews from Mielec to the Lublin district, to reach an agreement with the SS and Police Leader, and it stressed the highest importance of this agreement.... I arranged a conference with Hauptsturmfuhrer Ho"fle for Monday, March 16, 1942, and it took place at 17:30. In the course of this conference, Ho"fle explained the following:

  1. It would be appropriate if the transport of Jews that arrive in the Lublin district were split in the departure stations into those who are able to work and those who are not. If this division is impossible in the departure stations, eventually it should be considered to divide the transport in Lublin, according to the aforementioned point of view.
  2. All the Jews incapable of work would arrive in Belzec, the final border station in the Zamosc region.
  3. Hauptsturmfuhrer Ho"fle is preparing the erection of a big camp, where the Jews capable of work will be held and divided according to their professions and from where they will be requested [for work].
  4. Piaski will be cleared of Polish Jews and will become a concentration point for Jews arriving from the Reich.
  5. In the meantime Trawniki will not be populated by Jews.
  6. .The Hauptsturmfuhrer asks whether on the train section Deblin-Trawniki 60,000 Jews can be disembarked. After having been informed about the transports of Jews dispatched by us, Ho"fle announced that out of the 500 Jews who arrived from Suzic, those unable to work can be sorted out and sent to Belzec....

In conclusion, he announced that every day he can receive four to five transports with 1,000 Jews each for the destination of Belzec station. These Jews would cross the border [of the occupied territories of the Soviet Union] and never return to the General Government." <1> It is interesting to note here that even discussions regarding the true nature of the extermination camps with civilians not directly involved was a crime immediately punishable by death. Once you clearly understand that (this fact is well documented throughout the public histories of the period) fact, this document becomes quite chilling. Consider, for instance, the casual references to the Belzec depot, which proved to be a final stop for the Jews who were delivered there. In all, using German transportation, military, and civilian records, Arad estimates 1.7 million Jews were murdered during Operation Reinhard. A good many of that number drew their final breath on the Belzec platform.

The document cited above, coupled with known deportation figures for Piaski during March of 1942, suggest far greater numbers than those I have accounted for in the Arad book (see below), which does not include data for Jews brought into the General Government area from other parts of Europe (Germany, Austria, etc.) or for Jews deported to Auschwitz or other camps than the three noted in the Arad title. If anyone runs across such data during their reading, I would very much appreciate having it, so the information available here will be more complete.

For additional information concerning the fate of one Jew from Piaski, see Rashke, Chapter 10. ((Rashke, Richard. Escape From Sobibor, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1982)) <1> "Dokumenty i Materialy do Dziejow Okupacji niemieckiej w Polsce: Akcje i Wysiedlenia", Wydawnictwa Centralnej Zydowskiej Komisji Historycznej, Warszawa-Lodz-Kraków, 1946, pp. 32-33; Gerald Reitlinger, “The Final Solution”, second edition, London, p. 268. Excerpted from BELZEC, SOBIBOR, TREBLINKA - the Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press - Yitzhak Arad, 1987.

Yitshak Arad tells us:

“The millions of Jews who were taken from their places of residence, ghettos or transit camps did not in any way know that they were being brought to extermination camps nor did they know what fate awaited them. Most of them had not even heard of the existence of such camps. Rumors about the death camps did, it is true, reach Warsaw and other ghettos in Poland, but the public for the most part did not want to believe them.”

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:

“In late September 1939... Heydrich began to place all Polish Jews in ghettos, where they could slowly die of hunger and disease. The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of these segregated areas established by the Nazis in Poland.

In the summer of 1940 Heydrich, using the excuse that the spread of typhus had to be contained, set up a special section 11 miles in circumference enclosed by a brick wall 10 feet high.

In September 1940 more than 80,000 gentile Poles living in the "infected area" were ordered to leave, and the next month about 140,000 Jews living elsewhere in the city were moved in with the 240,000 still in the ghetto. Some 360,000 Jews, a third of Warsaw's population, were herded into a 3.5-square-mile area. 300 to 400 died daily... More than 43,000 starved to death during the first year, and 37,000 in the first nine months of 1942.

...Mass deportations to the gas chambers at Treblinka began. In two months 300,000 Jews were eliminated.

...Fewer than 100 escaped, and of those, only a handful survived the war.” (Snyder, Louis L. Encyclopedia of the Third Reich, NY: Paragon House, 1989.)

The creation of ghettos in Polish cities proceeded systematically.

...It was in April 1940 that the first ghetto was created, in Lodz. The steps taken were gradual. Warsaw came next, in October; then krakow in March 1941, Lublin and Radom in April; and Lvov in December. By the end of 1941 the ghettoizing process was almost complete.(Milton Meltzer, Never to Forget: The Jews of the Holocaust, NY: HarperCollins, 1976:78)

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