A designated area of a city in which Jews were permitted to live. Ghettos were sometimes surrounded by a wall and had gates that would be closed for the night, and were sometimes called "Jewish cities" or "Jewish quarters". The term "ghetto" was probably first used in the sixteenth century, though its origins are unclear. The most popular theory speculates that the term comes from the word for "foundry" [borghetto] located on the Venetian island that in the early sixteenth century was designated as a place where Jews could live. According to other theories, the name comes from the German gehecker ("surrounded", "closed"), the Hebrew get ("divorce", "separation"), or the Greek geitos ("neighbors”).  Jews usually settled along one street or in a certain part of a city, which was often designated by the authorities. Separate Jewish districts began to be created in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries during the Crusades. This was in part brought about by the need to defend themselves against the Crusaders, but also because of the Jews' own desire to maintain their religious identity. Life in the ghetto gave them a sense of security, allowed the development of self-government, satisfied the natural need for every ethnic or religious group to have their own community, and facilitated the observance of religious practices without interference. It also allowed them to freely cultivate their own customs. In the Middle Ages, many ghettos were formed in the countries which existed in the territory of today’s Italy and Germany, particularly in Hamburg, Frankfurt am Main and in Prague. Church legislation forbidding Christians from living near Jews and visiting their homes stipulated that separate Jewish districts be created. At the same time, legislation in the Jewish Sejm banned close contacts with Christians.

In Poland, few actual ghettos existed; there was just a handful of Jewish quarters surrounded by walls that had received the privilege de non tolerandis christianis. These included the Krakow suburb of Kazimierz. In most Polish cities, on the basis of privileges and agreements concluded with the municipal authorities, an area was designated where Jews could live, or, alternatively, provisions existed which specified the number of buildings that they could own. Most often, these restrictions were not enforced. Jews bought or rented buildings outside the Jewish quarter, even on the main square. It was usually religion, and not administrative borders, that distinguished Jewish quarters from others in Polish and Lithuanian cities, as their residents had different holidays and rituals, customs, culture and even garb. In the late eighteenth century, shtetlekh begin to appear provincial towns, inhabited primarily by Jews. In the nineteenth century, the name "ghetto" was used to refer to the poorer Jewish districts. The wealthiest families lived in the best parts of town, along the main streets. During the Second World War, the Germans created ghettos that were separated from the rest of the town, officially known as the Jüdische Wohnbezirk [German, "Jewish Residential District"]. Nazi propaganda justified their existence with the need to protect the "Aryan" population from diseases allegedly being spread by Jews. In the Polish territory, about 400 ghettos were established. There were also some in Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Hungary (from 1944 onwards), and one in the Czech territory (Terezín, Theresienstadt). Jews from Western Europe, Germany and Austria (where ghettos were not created) were at first brought to the ghettos in Poland, and then directly to the death camps. In the General Governorate, the first ghetto was created in October 1939, in Piotrków Trybunalski. The largest ghetto in Poland was organized in Warsaw in September 1940. At first, it held 360,000 people; after the deportations, its population rose to 450,000.    In 1941, the Krakow ghetto was established (18,000 people), Kielce, (27,000), Lublin (34,000), Radom (32,000), Tarnów (40,000) and Częstochowa (48,000). Within the areas annexed directly to the Reich, the largest ghetto was in Lodz, which was created in 1940. It had a population of 200 thousand people. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, ghettos were also established in Poland's former eastern territories (Vilnius, Lviv).  In larger cities, ghettos were usually surrounded by a wall about three meters tall, which was topped by barbed wire.

The gates were guarded by the German police, the Polish ("blue") police, the Lithuanian police in Wilno and by the Jewish Ghetto Police. Passes were needed to enter or exit the ghetto. The smaller ghettos were separated by barbed wire barricades, or by wooden fences. Some, such as the one in Piotrków Trybunalski, were slated for quick liquidation and had only specific administrative borders, with an order for Jews not to cross them (these were called "open ghettos"). The ghettos were located in the poor Jewish districts, to which Jews from other neighborhoods and the surrounding area were relocated. In Warsaw and Łódź, there were on average six to ten people to a room, and sometimes more. There was a very high mortality rate due to overcrowding and the shortage of food, medicines and personal hygiene products. Wherever possible, "people's kitchens" providing free soup were set up by philanthropic and self-help organizations, the Judenräte or underground political parties.

Smuggling through the outer walls was often the only way of supplementing the meager food rations. This was done by both specialized groups and by children. Used clothing was usually taken out of the ghetto, (in most cases, the clothes belonged to those who had died) and food was brought back into the ghetto, which was then sold on the black market for much higher prices than on the "Aryan side” of the wall. In less than twenty months, about 80 thousand people died of disease and hunger in the Warsaw ghetto. In 1941, the mortality rate was ten times what it had been before the war. In Łódź, it was eight times the prewar rate. In late 1941, the Germans began preparing to liquidate the ghettos
(Endlösung). Jews leaving the ghetto without permission were to be killed, as were Poles who were harbouring and assisting runaways (order of October 15, 1941). Beginning in November, the post office stopped accepting food packages addressed to Jews. A few weeks later, the negligible food rations were reduced even further in many ghettos.

The liquidation of the ghettos began in 1942. Of the 650 ghettos that existed earlier that year, just sixty were left in the end; these were called the "residual ghettos". Although uprisings broke out in several of these ghettos (resistance movement in ghettos and camps), they could not prevent the ultimate extermination of Jews. In mid-1943, the ghettos in Warsaw, Lviv and Białystok were liquidated. The Łódź ghetto was liquidated last, when the Soviet offensive drew close to the city in July 1944; at that time, about 8 thousand of its residents were sent to Auschwitz.

Hanna Węgrzynek, Gabriela Zalewska


 The text comes from the Diapozytyw Portal, formerly owned by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute.
The text above comes from the book entitled "Historia i kultura Żydów polskich. Słownik” (History and Culture of the Polish Jews. A Dictionary) by Alina Cała, Hanna Węgrzynek and Gabriela Zalewska, published by WSiP (Educational and Pedagogical Publishers).


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