Jewish ghettos (1939–1945)

Jewish ghettos (1939–1945) – a closed residential district for Jews (German term: jüdische Wohnbezirke); districts of this type were created from 1939 onwards, mostly on occupied territories of Poland (which had the largest Jewish population in Europe at the time); furthermore, after 1941, a dozen-odd ghettos were established in the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia), in Belarus, in the Ukraine, in the Czech Republic (Terezín) and in Hungary (in 1944). The ghettos formed an intermediate stage in the operation aimed at the total extermination of Jews (Endlösung der Judenfrage). The first ghetto in the General Governorate, the first ghetto was established in 1939 in Piotrków Trybunalski. The largest ghetto in Poland was organized in Warsaw in September 1940, its population reaching 450 thousand in 1941. Other ghettos established in years 1940-1941 included the ghettos in Częstochowa, Lublin, Cracow, Radom and Tarnów. Within the areas annexed directly to the Reich, the largest ghetto was in Łódź, which was created in 1940 (population of approximately 200 thousand). The ghettos in Silesia and in the Dąbrowa Basin (Zagłębie Dąbrowskie) were established at a later stage, with some of them being created as late as 1942; After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, ghettos were also established in Poland's former eastern territories in Białystok, Lviv, Vilnius, Stanyslaviv, Drohobych and Rivne. In total, there was approximately 400 ghettos in the Polish territories, with their subsequent numbers being reduced through the relocation of Jews from smaller to larger ones. The ghettos differed in their degree of isolation from Polish districts. In larger cities, ghettos were usually surrounded by a wall; the gates were guarded by the German police, aided by the Jewish Ghetto Police and  the Polish police (“blue police") in Warsaw. Passes were needed to enter or exit the ghetto. The number of those entitled to receive a pass was gradually decreased. The goods transported in and from the ghetto were subject to detailed inspections on the ghetto boundaries. The smaller ghettos were separated by barbed wire barricades or by wooden fences. In some cases the borders were only demarcated, with no additional security measures; these were known as “open ghettos”. The ghettos were established in the oldest districts which featured the worst living standards and communal infrastructure.

From 1941 onwards, Jews from Germany, Austria and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were being deported into ghettos in Poland and in the East. The management of the ghettos was assigned to the Judenräte (Jewish Councils of Elders), appointed by the German authorities and entirely dependent on the said authorities; in addition, in some ghettos the Germans established dedicated authorities known as the Gettoverwaltung. All fundamental decisions concerning the life in Jewish quarters were adopted by the German institutions. The authority of the Judenräte extended solely to matters of secondary importance or to the enforcement of the decisions of the Nazi authorities: implementation of the orders given by the Germans, ghetto administration or social welfare. The Jewish Ghetto Police theoretically answered to the Judenräte, even though its responsibility to the given Judenrat was only partial, as it was under an obligation to carry out the orders given by the German police in the most important matters; in the Warsaw ghetto, the Jewish Ghetto Police initially reported to the Polish police force. The Judenräte played an important role insofar as social welfare was concerned, most of the activities in this regard being performed by the Jewish Self Aid. The Jewish Self Aid organisation provided financial support to the Centos, which ran numerous aid and care institutions for children. As the existence of the ghettos was drawing to a close, some of the Judenräte became nothing more than obedient instruments in the hands of the occupying power; some of the officials of the Judenräte also used their position for material gains for themselves and their families. These issues are still widely debated among historians.

The populations of the ghettos was being decimated by the adverse living conditions (extreme concentration, destitution resulting from the relocation process, scarce opportunities for labour and extremely low wages, catastrophic sanitary conditions and the limited allocation of food which amounted to a mere 25% of the allocations for Poles and 8% of the allocations for the Germans); another problem was the fact that ghettos were isolated from the neighbouring population (walls, barbed wire, guard posts manned by the German police). The ghetto in Łódź was particularly isolated; despite the associated difficulties, food was being smuggled into all of the other ghettos in greater or smaller quantities, accounting for approximately 80% of the food consumed by the ghetto population in the case of the Warsaw ghetto. However, food smuggled into the ghettos remained expensive, which meant that the poorest people residing therein could not afford it. The conditions in the ghettos resulted in extremely high mortality rates; whereas before the war the average mortality rate among the Jews of Łódź was 9.6‰ per annum, in 1940 it rose to 39.2‰, followed by 75,7‰ in 1941 and a staggering 159.8‰ in 1942. In the Warsaw ghetto, a mere 27 thousand people were employed; most of them were working at the local storage facilities. As a result, nearly 50% of the population of the Warsaw ghetto were on the brink of starvation, with 30% suffering from hunger, 15% receiving insufficient food rations and a mere 5% enjoying the privilege of adequate nutrition. It is estimated that about 750 thousand Jews (approximately 25% of all Polish Jews murdered by the Nazis) died or were killed in ghettos in the Polish territory, including approximately 500 thousand during the establishment and existence of the ghettos; the remaining victims died during the liquidation of the ghettos, i.e. forced relocation to larger ghettos or deportation to extermination camps. Despite the exceedingly harsh living conditions in the ghettos, including, in particular, the larger ones, Jewish schools (including vocational schools) continued to operate; in addition, secret learning was also conducted at the secondary school level and sometimes even at university level. Cultural activities were also available in the larger ghettos, including musical concerts and performances by Jewish singers. A characteristic feature of Jewish conspiracy was the creation of archives in which various materials documenting the life in the ghettos were compiled (the largest such archive known as Oneg Shabbat – the Joy of Shabbat, was created by E. Ringelblum in Warsaw); in addition, underground press was also being published and political parties of various sorts remained active inside the ghettos. The Warsaw Ghetto remained the centre of this type of activity due to the largest concentration of the Jewish intelligentsia; over 50 various press publications were available in the ghetto, affiliated with various political groups. Left-wing parties – from the leftist faction of the Poale Zion and the associated scouting organisation, the Hashomer Hatzair, through the Zionist Socialists and the Dror and Gordonia youth movements to the Bund – enjoyed the greatest popularity among the Jewish population. The extremely harsh living conditions inside the ghetto did not encourage the development of resistance movements. Various underground organisations operated, among others, in Warsaw (the Jewish Combat Organisation – ŻOB, the Jewish Military Union), Cracow (Hehalutz Halochem), Vilnius (United Underground Organisation), Białystok (Anti-fascist Combat Organisation). In December 1941, the Nazis began the process of liquidation of the ghettos. Throughout the year 1942, most of those who lived in ghettos were transported to extermination camps and executed (Reinhard Aktion). The most extensive deportation scheme was conducted in the Warsaw Ghetto in July-September 1942, with more than 300 thousand people transported to the death camp in Treblinka. The final round of deportations took place in August 1944, with 74 thousand remaining residents transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In 1943, the remaining ghettos were liquidated. Despite the obvious lack of prospects for success, the Jews who remained locked away in ghettos have taken up arms and tried to defend themselves. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began in April 1943 and ended in May of the same year, followed by an uprising in Białystok in August 1943. Clashes on a smaller scale took place in a number of other ghettos. The provision of aid to the Jews was a difficult and dangerous task; the activities performed by the Poles were limited to sporadic contacts between family members and professional groups as well as the meagre military support granted by the Polish Home Army and the People's Guard to the Warsaw Ghetto; more extensive support was provided to those who have managed to escape from ghettos (the Council to Aid Jews). In years 1942–1944, the Germans have liquidated the very last remaining ghettos, including the ghetto in Pińsk (X 1942), Cracow (III 1943), Warsaw (IV–V 1943), Lviv (VI 1943), Sosnowiec (VIII 1943), Mińsk and Vilnius (IX 1943), Riga (XI 1943), Kaunas (VII 1944) and Łódź (VIII 1944).

  • A. Eisenbach Hitlerowska polityka zagłady Żydów (The Nazi Policy of Holocaust), Warsaw 1961;
  • Kronika getta łódzkiego (The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto), Łódź 1965;
  • E. Ringelblum Kronika getta warszawskiego. Wrzesień 1939–styczeń 1943 (The Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto. September 1939 – January 1943), Warsaw 1983;
  • I. Gutman Żydzi warszawscy 1939–1943 (The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943), Warsaw 1993;
  • Archiwum Ringelbluma. Konspiracyjne Getto Warszawy (The Warsaw Ghetto Underground), vol. 1 Listy o zagładzie (The Letters on Genocide), compiled by R. Sakowska, Warsaw 1997;
  • I. Gutman Walka bez cienia nadziei. Powstanie w getcie warszawskim (A Struggle with No Hope. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising), Warsaw 1998.

The content of this entry has been prepared on the basis of the source materials provided by the Polish Scientific Publishers (PWN)




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