The development of ghettos

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Within a few days of the German army invading Poland, on 1 September 1939, it had succeeded in taking over a large part of Western Poland. The Eastern half of the country was invaded by the Soviet Union as part of a pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

From the beginning the treatment of the Jews at the hands of the German army was appalling and many atrocities occurred.

On 21 September 1939 Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office of the SS, issued an order that Jews were to be concentrated in separate areas within cities (ghettos). This was to be a short-term measure to contain and control Jews. The Nazi leadership would then decide their long-term policy towards the Jews.

Jewish communities living in small towns and villages across Nazi-occupied Poland were to be transferred to ghettos set up within the cities. Each of these communities were governed by a Jewish council (Judenraat), who in turn took their orders from the SS.

The first ghetto in Poland was set up during October 1939. Very soon ghettos had been set up all over Poland, with the largest in the capital, Warsaw. Over the next four years, the Nazis established ghettos in the major cities of many of the countries they invaded. They established over 1,000 ghettos in Poland and the Soviet Union alone.

Once a ghetto had been established, people were moved into them very quickly. They could take with them only those possessions they were able to carry. Living conditions were abysmal; often there were several families living where before there had been one.

Initially many ghettos were open, but very soon barbed wire fences or walls were built around them. Jews were then not allowed to leave or have any contact with the outside world. Food rations were at starvation level and disease was rife though lack of clean water and sanitation. Hundreds of thousands of people died in the ghettos.