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Section: What were the ghettos and camps?

The ghettos

Living conditions in most ghettos were very poor and survival rates were low. This envelope, dated 19 November 1941, is addressed to Helene Sara Oelsner in Berlin. It did not reach her. Typed underneath the address is a message: ‘return to sender, recipient died in Theresienstadt’.

Living conditions in most ghettos were very poor and survival rates were low. This envelope, dated 19 November 1941, is addressed to Helene Sara Oelsner in Berlin. It did not reach her. Typed underneath the address is a message: ‘return to sender, recipient died in Theresienstadt’.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

A ghetto is a place where groups of people are kept forcibly segregated from others. The Nazis used ghettos to isolate and contain the Jewish population of occupied Europe.

This section explores when the Nazis began using ghettos, the different types of ghettos, how the ghettos were run, and what life was like for those imprisoned in them.

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History of ghettos

The Łódź Ghetto was the one of the first major ghettos to be established by the Nazis. The ghetto opened in February 1940, just five months after the invasion of Poland.

The Łódź Ghetto was the one of the first major ghettos to be established by the Nazis. The ghetto opened in February 1940, just five months after the invasion of Poland.

 

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

The first Jewish settlement to be called a ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. This ghetto was extremely different from the places that we now – following the Holocaust – associate with the word ghetto.

In Venice, Jews from the nearby mainland were granted refuge in Venice after fleeing from a besieging army. Prior to this point, an organised Jewish community had not been permitted to exist in the city. After granting refuge to Jews, the leaders of the city ordered that they must live on a single island, known as the Ghetto Nuovo, or the new ghetto. Whilst very different to the Nazi ghettos, the ghetto in Venice was still extremely cramped and overcrowded, and the residents lacked freedom of movement.

Although this is the first recorded incident of a Jewish settlement being called a ghetto, it was not the first Jewish settlement that was confined to a specific area in a town or city by authorities. Jewish settlements, confined to specific areas, had existed for years prior to this point but had been named differently, such as ‘Jewish Quarter’.

Despite this, the word ‘ghetto’ soon caught on, and new settlements termed ‘ghettos’ were established in Ragusa in 1546 and Rome in 1555. These ghettos primarily existed to ensure that Jews and other occupants of the city remained segregated. This added to growing antisemitic stereotypes prevalent at the time.

New ghettos continued to be established across Italy until the end of the eighteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, the term ghetto had become common across Western Europe. Ghettos for Jews were established in places like Frankfurt and Prague as well.

Following the Enlightenment, ghettos across Europe were legally abolished as Jews gained equal rights for the first time, including the freedom to live wherever they pleased. However, despite ghettos no longer existing as physical places in pre-war Europe, the idea of them, who they held, and what they represented, remained. As the Polish Journalist Bernard Singer wrote about pre-war Warsaw ‘There were no drawbridges or guards at its borders; the ghetto had been abolished long before, but nevertheless there still existed an invisible wall which separated the [Jewish] quarter from the rest of the city’ [Bernard Singer, Moje Nalewki, (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1993), p.7].

The use of the term ghetto soon also spread as a derogatory way to refer to other non-Jewish, unenclosed, communities and settlements. One example can be seen in the United States of America where the term ghetto was used to describe spaces where communities of African-American people had settled in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

The Nazis’ use of ghettos following the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 changed the perception of ghettos forever. The Nazis used ghettos to confine, exploit, and persecute the Jews of Poland and eastern Europe. Thousands of people lost their lives to the inhumane conditions inside the ghettos, and millions more died following the ghettos’ liquidation and the transportation of Jews to extermination camps.

Why did the Nazis develop ghettos?

As a result of their antisemitic ideology, following the invasion of Poland the Nazis developed ghettos to segregate and control Jews.

Historically, ghettos had been used to segregate Jewish communities from the rest of the population across Europe. The Nazi leadership, Wehrmacht soldiers, Einsatzgruppen, SS, SD and various local authorities across Poland built on and adapted this historic idea.

The Nazis also introduced ghettos due to their false theories that Jews spread diseases and therefore should be segregated to protect the rest of the population. This was in line with their racist and eugenic beliefs.

The development of ghettos

This order from Himmler, issued on 21 June 1943, highlights the escalation of policy against Jews following the Wannsee Conference - from ghettoisation to extermination. This order states that all Jews remaining in ghettos in the Ostland area have to be concentrated in concentration camps ‘or evacuated to the East’.  This document is a translation used in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

This order from Himmler, issued on 21 June 1943, highlights the escalation of policy against Jews following the Wannsee Conference – from ghettoisation to extermination. This order states that all Jews remaining in ghettos in the Ostland area have to be concentrated in concentration camps ‘or evacuated to the East’.

This document is a translation used in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Invasion of Poland and the Madagascar Plan

Following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, three million Jews came under Nazi control. This presented a problem for the Nazis, as they wanted their newly acquired land to be free of Jews in line with their antisemitic beliefs. In response, the Nazis segregated the Jews from the rest of the population, and ghettos were developed to forcibly detain them.

These ghettos were initially thought of as temporary holding spaces. The Nazis initial plan to remove Jews from Poland was to deport all Jews to the island of Madagascar. This was called The Madagascar Plan.

The establishment of ghettos

On 21 September 1939, Reinhard Heydrich issued an order to the chiefs of the Einsatzgruppen known as the Schnellbrief. This order stated that Jews in Poland were to be concentrated in large towns and cities near railway lines. The order also declared that councils of Jewish Leaders were to be set up to administer the newly uprooted Jewish communities.

As steps were taken to concentrate Jews in towns and cities, the problem emerged of what to do with the Jews when they arrived. Whilst Heydrich’s order detailed generally where to concentrate Jews (in towns and cities with railway access), it did not detail where in each town Jews would then live, or how they would reestablish life there. These decisions were left to the local authorities and Jewish Councils that had been set up in towns. Each local authority improvised and responded to this problem differently. As a result, no two ghettos were the same.

On 8 October 1939, the first ghetto was opened at Piotrków. This was soon followed by the ghetto in Radomsko on 20 December 1939, and the first major ghetto in Łódź in February 1940. Over the following two years, hundreds of ghettos would be established across Poland.

Abandonment of the Madagascar Plan and the ‘Final Solution’

By September 1940, Britain’s remaining naval superiority meant that The Madagascar Plan became regarded as unfeasible and indefinitely postponed. This development meant that the ghettos became more permanent features of the Nazi occupation.

However, this was not the Nazis’ intention. As the invasion of the Soviet Union brought millions more Jews under Nazi rule, the question of what to do with the Jews segregated in ghettos across Poland became more pressing. The decision was made to start exterminating racially undesirable groups. To coordinate this decision, a conference was called in January 1942. This conference was held in a suburb of Berlin, called Wannsee, and became known as the Wannsee Conference.

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Roma in ghettos

The Nazis extensively persecuted Roma as well as Jews.

Most Roma were segregated into camps, however some were also placed in ghettos. One example of this is the 5007 Roma who were deported from Austria to the Łódź Ghetto in late 1941. Within a few months of arrival, almost half of those deported had died.

Roma in ghettos

This account is taken from The Wiener Holocaust Library’s eyewitness testimony project. The account was given by Professor Dr. Herbert Lewin, a German physician who was incarcerated in the Łódź Ghetto in 1941.

Types of ghettos

Although no two ghettos were the same, ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe were broadly catagorised into three different types: open, closed, and destruction.

Open

Open ghettos had no fences or walls around their perimeter. Despite this, there were still restrictions against who could enter or leave, when, and how often.

Closed

Closed ghettos were closed in by fences or walls. Leaving or entering the ghettos was prohibited. These circumstances made conditions inside extremely unsanitary, with huge shortages in food and water leading to high death rates.

Destruction

Destruction ghettos were spaces in towns and cities that were sealed for short periods of time, typically around two weeks, before their inhabitants were deported to extermination camps and murdered.

Who controlled the ghettos?

Within the ghetto, a Jewish police force was recruited to enforce order. Here, the Jewish Ghetto Police of the Warsaw Ghetto are pictured.

Within the ghetto, a Jewish police force was recruited to enforce order. Here, the Jewish Ghetto Police of the Warsaw Ghetto are pictured.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

The SS were responsible for setting up each ghetto and ensuring that the administration of the ghetto ran smoothly.

In addition to the SS, Jewish Councils called Judenräte were set up to carry out and govern the day-to-day running of the ghetto. The Jewish Councils were controlled by the SS and had to comply and carry out its demands.

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Jewish Councils

 The Judenräte were Jewish Councils which were responsible for the administration of the ghetto. In Warsaw, the Judenrat was based in this building.

The Judenräte were Jewish Councils which were responsible for the administration of the ghetto. In Warsaw, the Judenrat was based in this building.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

The Jewish Councils were elected by the local population and made up of influential or high profile Jews and Rabbis from the community.

The Councils were responsible for tasks such as transferring Jews from their homes to ghettos, maintaining order and discipline 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 relieve suffering within the ghetto they also often established charitable organisations such as orphanages, hospitals, surgeries and mutual aid societies.

The councils were also responsible for jobs such as providing an internal police force for the ghetto, providing workers for forced labour and supplying names of Jews to be deported to camps in the east.

Whilst the councils sought to be benevolent, they were in a difficult position. Any SS demands that were not complied with resulted in serious sanctions, which could endanger not only the council members but the population of the ghetto as a whole. The morally difficult decisions made by the Jewish Councils inevitably took a toll on their members, and many resigned or committed suicide rather than carry out the tasks required of them by the SS.

Daily life in the ghettos

Life inside the ghettos was extremely difficult, and, for many, conditions were deadly.

Housing

As huge populations were forced into small areas, several families were forced to share each house. In the Warsaw Ghetto an average of just over seven people shared a room. This overcrowding, coupled with a lack of clean running water and proper sewage systems, resulted in poor sanitation and rampant disease.

Food and medicine

Medical supplies were sparse and, after many ghettos were sealed and cut off from the outside world, quickly ran out altogether.

Food supplies were extremely sparse to the point that many ghetto inhabitants quickly died of starvation. To try and alleviate this situation people went to great lengths to smuggle food into the ghetto. If caught, they faced death.

Work

After having lost their businesses and normal forms of employment, most people in the ghettos had no regular source of income. This led to a thriving black market, where people attempted to exchange possessions for their everyday needs.

As the ghettos became more established, the Nazis sometimes used inhabitants for forced labour.

Work in each ghetto differed. Inhabitants could be used for anything from construction work to making clothes. Forced labourers worked extremely long hours in brutal conditions.  Some work was used as a form of torture rather than for productivity, although most work did attempt to productively use the free labour, typically for the war effort.

For some Jews, work offered a temporary lifeline, as those who were being used for labour often received extra rations (although these were still minimal) and were less likely to be chosen for deportation lists. Temporary exclusion from transport and additional rations could save lives. Work often also offered a chance to escape the ghetto walls, which gave workers additional chances to smuggle in extra food or rationed material, although this also heightened their risk of being caught and punished.

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A survivor reflects on life in the ghetto

Jack

Jack was born in 1929 in the town of Novagrudek in today’s Belarus. In 1941, the Nazis invaded the country. In May 1942, they established a ghetto in Novogrudek. In this excerpt, Jack describes life in the ghetto.

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