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Section: Life in Nazi-controlled Europe

Ghettos: an overview

With some 400,000 inhabitants the Warsaw ghetto was the largest of the Nazi ghettos.
With some 400,000 inhabitants the Warsaw ghetto was the largest of the Nazi ghettos. © 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

The first ‘ghetto’ in history was established in Venice in 1516. The word ‘ghetto’ comes from the Italian ‘getto nuovo’ or ‘new foundry’, the area in which the Jews were confined. It became common practice in the countries of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries to confine Jews to a specific area of a town. Ghetto is the name that the Nazis used when they concentrated Jews in separate areas of the various cities they conquered.

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. By 21 September 1939, an order had been issued that Jews were to be concentrated in separate areas within cities (ghettos). This ‘short-term’ measure to contain and control Jews son developed into a long-term policy towards the Jews.

This section will explain how ghettos were set up and managed. The ghetto case studies on Lodz, Warsaw and Theresienstadt will then demonstrate life within specific ghettos using experiences of those who lived in them.

The development of ghettos

A map of Europe showing the major Nazi ghettos
A map of Europe showing the major Nazi ghettos

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 (), 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.

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Why did the Nazis establish ghettos?

An entrance gate to the Riga ghetto, Latvia.
An entrance gate to the Riga ghetto, Latvia. © 2012 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

There are a number of reasons that the Nazis established ghettos. Originally a ‘short-term’ measure to contain and control Jews, ghettos were very soon incorporated into the Nazi’s long-term racial policy.

Types of Ghettos

Ghettos can be classified into three types; Open, Closed and Destruction. The most common type of ghettos were ‘closed’ ghettos, surrounded by walls, or high barbed wire fences. Jews from the surrounding area were ordered to move into the ghetto, after which time the area was sealed off. Extreme overcrowding, insanitary conditions and lack of food and water contributed to the deaths of a large proportion of the prisoners.

‘Open’ ghettos were less common, and existed in some parts of German occupied Poland and the Soviet Union after the German invasion. Open ghettos had no walls or fences, but had severe restrictions on who could enter and leave.

‘Destruction’ ghettos, most commonly constructed within German-occupied Soviet Union and Hungary, were sealed off areas of towns in which Jews were held for just a few weeks before being taken and murdered.

In short, the Nazis built ghettos in order to contain, confine and destroy the Jews of central and eastern Europe

Managing the ghettos

The SS were responsible for the setting up and effective administration of each ghetto. But in a refinement of cruelty they made the Jews themselves carry out the day-to-day running of the ghetto. The Nazis ordered that Jewish Councils should govern Jewish communities in Nazi-occupied Europe. The councils were made up of influential people and rabbis from the Jewish communities and were usually elected by the local population.

The council was responsible for implementing the Nazis policies regarding the Jews. These tasks included transferring Jews from their homes to ghettos, maintaining order within the ghetto and issuing food rations. Council members were in a very difficult position: if they carried out the orders of the Nazis to the letter, then they would also be responsible for the suffering of the Jews. Sometimes the councils tried to reduce the effect of the Nazis’ measures by obtaining and distributing illegal supplies of food. To relieve suffering within the ghetto they often established charitable organisations such as orphanages, hospitals, surgeries and mutual aid societies.

The councils were responsible for providing workers for forced labour. Some councils sought to demonstrate to the Nazis that the ghetto inhabitants were essential to the Nazis and that they should be kept alive. They did this by setting up workshops producing goods that were needed for the German war effort. This policy was named ‘rescue by labour’. When the Nazis began to murder Jews during the ‘Final Solution’, the councils had to supply the names of those to be deported. If they refused to cooperate the SS would enter the ghetto and indiscriminately take a greater number. All the inmates of the ghetto were in a hell not of their making. Decisions taken at this time were often very difficult ones. Some heads of the Jewish councils committed suicide rather than send people to their deaths.

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What role did the SS have in the ghettos?

A member of the Jewish Order Police looks on as an German soldier searches a Jewish inhabitant
A member of the Jewish Order Police looks on as an German soldier searches a Jewish inhabitant © 2012 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority
The SS were responsible for the establishment and effective administration of each ghetto. But in a refinement of cruelty they made the Jews themselves carry out the day-to-day running of the ghetto.

The Nazis ordered that Jewish councils (Judenrat) should govern Jewish communities in Nazi-occupied Europe. The councils were made up of influential people and rabbis from the Jewish communities and were usually elected by the local population.

The council was responsible for implementing the Nazis policies regarding the Jews. These tasks included transferring Jews from their homes to ghettos, maintaining order within the ghetto and issuing food rations.

Sometimes the councils tried to reduce the effect of the Nazis’ measures by obtaining and distributing illegal supplies of food. To alleviate suffering within the ghetto they often established charitable organisations such as orphanages, hospitals, surgeries and mutual aid societies.

The councils were responsible for providing workers for forced labour. Some Judenrat leaders sought to demonstrate to the Nazis that the ghetto inhabitants were essential to the Nazis and that they should be kept alive. They did this by setting up workshops producing goods that were needed for the German war effort. This policy was named ‘rescue by labour’.

DID YOU KNOW...

Suicides

When the Nazis began to murder Jews during the ‘Final Solution’, the councils had to supply the names of those to be deported. If they refused to cooperate the SS would enter the ghetto and indiscriminately take a greater number. All the inmates of the ghetto were in a hell not of their making. Decisions taken at this time were often very difficult ones. Some Jewish council heads committed suicide rather than send people to their deaths.

The Jewish Order Police kept order within the ghetto. This photograph shows a member of the Jewish Order Police checking the documents of a Jewish inhabitant of the ghetto.

Survivors reflect on life in ghettos

Jack

Jack was born in 1929 in the town of Novagrudek, in the Belarus. The Nazis invaded during 1941. In May 1942, they established a ghetto in Novogrudek.

In this excerpt Jack remembers life in the ghetto. Watch and listen as he tells us of his experiences and how he coped the treatment, conditions and events within the ghetto.

Simon
Clip 1 Simon remembers life in the ghetto

In 1939 Radyvyliv was invaded by the Soviet Union. Life didn’t change too much under the Russians. However, in 1941 the German army invaded the area. Life changed dramatically for the Jewish population. Very soon the Nazis built a fence around an area of the town and forced the Jews to live there. Watch Simon’s testimony and learn what happened when the Nazis invaded.

Clip 2 Simon’s father had an escape plan

By 1942 the Germans, wth the help of Ukrainian soldiers, began to clear part of the ghetto. Some 2,000 people had already been murdered. Simon’s father had already hatched a plan that would help the family to escape in order that they could survive. Watch Clip 2 to discover what the plan was.

Clip 3: Escaping the ghetto

By 1942 the Nazis, with the help of Ukrainian soldiers, began to clear part of the ghetto. By then some 2,000 people had been murdered. Simon’s father knew that he had to help the family to escape in order to save their lives. In Clip 3 you will learn how the family actually managed to escape from the ghetto.

Please note that the lead in may take a few moments to allow the video to begin.

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