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Section: What were the ghettos and camps?

Warsaw Ghetto

This map shows the boundaries of the Warsaw Ghetto, where 400,000 people were incarcerated. It was published by the Yiddish Scientific Institute in 1944.
This excerpt from 7 November 1939 is taken from Hans Frank’s diary. Hans Frank was the leader of the General Government. This was an area of Poland that was controlled by Germany after invasion in September 1939. The diary shows notes from a meeting between high ranking Nazis, and states that a special ghetto ‘has to be established for the Jews’ in Warsaw.  This document is a translation used in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials.

Prior to the Second World War, Warsaw was the capital of Poland. The city had 1.3 million inhabitants, of which 380,567 were Jewish. This was the largest Jewish community in Europe at the time.

The Nazis occupied Warsaw on 29 September 1939, four weeks after invading Poland. The Jewish population in Warsaw had grown following orders from Heydrich to concentrate Jews in cities and towns, but a ghetto was not decreed until 12 October 1940.

The ghetto was segregated from the rest of the population by a wall and sealed on 15 November 1940.  Jewish policemen guarded the inside of the wall, and Nazi and Polish officers patrolled the outside. Only those with special permits could leave the ghetto. Over 400,000 people were imprisoned.

Conditions inside the Warsaw Ghetto

Conditions inside the Warsaw Ghetto were very poor. An average of over seven people shared each room. Whilst the Jewish Council administered the ghetto, they did so at the jurisdiction of the Nazis. The Warsaw Jewish Council was led by its chairman, Adam Czerniaków.

Food

From the outset, rations for food were minimal and starvation was common. Rations were initially set at approximately 800 calories a day – less than half of the daily recommended allowance for women (2000 calories per day) and men (2500 calories per day). The rations consisted of bread, potatoes, and ersatz fat. In attempts to supplement their diets, ghetto inhabitants organised a thriving black market where goods could be exchanged for food.

Smuggling food into the ghetto became a common survival method. Children often wriggled through the sewers to enter the city outside of the ghetto and sneak food back in. Others paid off Nazi gate guards, and some even climbed the 10ft wall.  Some of those outside the ghetto also used the inhabitants’ unfortunate circumstances to their advantage, importing food and medicine into the ghetto to the highest bidder.

Work

Almost a year prior to the establishment of the ghetto, on 26 October 1939, forced labour was made compulsory for all Jewish men and boys aged 14 – 60. This was extended to men and boys aged 12-60 in January 1940. Some Jews managed to keep their jobs following ghettoisation in Warsaw, but most were made unemployed.

As the war effort continued, the need for cheap, and preferably free, labour increased. The Nazis increasingly turned to utilising the incarcerated Jews for forced labour such as construction work. By the summer of 1940, the Jewish Council in Warsaw was asked to supply lists of able-bodied Jewish men to work in labour camps. Failure to supply the amount of men asked for resulted in random round-ups of Jewish men in the streets. Conditions in the camps were abysmal, and workers sent there would often die as a result of the lethal conditions, or return back to the ghetto scarred by their experiences. Workers were not paid for their efforts.

Hygiene

With over 400,000 people crowded into an area of 1.3 square miles, hygiene immediately became an issue in the ghetto. Many homes did not have access to running water. Soap was sparse and of poor quality. In addition to this, there were just five public bath houses, serving approximately 17,000 people a month.

DID YOU KNOW...

Janusz Korczak

Janusz Korczak was a well-known Polish Jewish teacher, doctor, and children’s author based in Warsaw. Korczak studied medicine at the University of Warsaw before serving in both the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War as a military doctor. Between 1911 and 1912 Korczak set up and led an orphanage in Warsaw for Jewish children.

In 1940, following the German invasion of Poland, the orphanage was moved into the area designated to be the Warsaw Ghetto. Despite the terrible conditions, Korczak worked tirelessly to ensure the children had adequate food and social activities.

Over the next few years, Korczak was repeatedly offered opportunities by underground resistance groups to escape the ghetto, but he refused to abandon the children in the orphanage. In the first week of August 1942, the Nazis came to the orphanage to collect the 200 children who were still housed there. Korczak insisted that he would accompany them. Korczak and the children were marched to the Umschlagplatz, the deportation point of the ghetto, and sent together to their deaths at the Treblinka extermination camp.

Janusz Korczak

Korczak pictured with children from his orphanage.

Culture in the Warsaw Ghetto

The Warsaw Ghetto had several bars where inhabitants could, if they had spare time and money, go to momentarily escape their circumstances. This picture was taken in a bar in 1940. 
Photographer unknown.

The Warsaw Ghetto had several bars where inhabitants could, if they had spare time and money, go to momentarily escape their circumstances. This picture was taken in a bar in 1940.

Photographer unknown.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Whilst conditions in the ghetto were extremely difficult, some inhabitants were determined to continue cultural aspects of their previous life.

Despite education being banned at almost all levels, there were schools throughout the ghetto. Adults could also attend seminars and lectures, often led by those at the top of their field, such as Professor Hirsczfeld, a prominent bacteriologist who led lectures for medical students. Until 1942, Jewish book stores also operated in the ghetto.

There were also several theatres which showed plays, as well as artists, musicians, bands and writers, who published covertly.

From 15 January 1941, inhabitants of the ghetto could also send and receive post through the Warsaw Post Office based in the ghetto. Post was unreliable and could be temporarily suspended. It was also censored and could only be sent to neutral countries not at war with Germany.  Despite these challenges, the postal service meant that inhabitants could receive food packages from relatives in Poland or abroad, and spread the word about the poor conditions there, albeit using indirect language or drawings.

Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto

Jews in the ghetto resisted Nazi rule and the conditions imposed on them in different ways.

Perhaps the most common form of resistance took place in the form of smuggling basic supplies over, under or through the ghetto walls. Estimates suggest that between 80 – 97.5% of the total food intake of all inhabitants entered the ghetto this way. Without this form of resistance, thousands more people would have died from starvation.

Others Jews imprisoned in the ghetto resisted the Nazis by continuing to take part in religious activities and holidays, despite these often being banned. Participants were subject to extreme punishments if caught. An example of this religious resistance in the ghetto was the group prayers held in secret at the house of Rabbi Szapiro.

Similarly, some set up schools, despite the ban on education for Jews. Others created or attended other cultural activities, such as plays, exhibitions, cabaret performances, and cafés with live music.

The historian Emanuel Ringelblum, in collaboration with others such as Rachel Auerbach, resisted Nazi rule from within the ghetto by creating an archive documenting the Nazi crimes. Ringelblum’s collection became known as the Oyneg Shabes archive. Facing the threat of deportation to Treblinka extermination camp, Oyneg Shabes buried their extensive collection in milk cans and metal boxes to prevent the archive from falling into the hands of the Nazis. After the war, some of this record was dug up and rediscovered.

Some Jews also physically resisted the Nazi rule. The most largest and most significant case of armed resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

On 22 July 1942, the Jewish Council of Warsaw published a Nazi notice to the ghetto, stating that almost all of its inhabitants would be deported to camps in the east, regardless of age or gender. Mass deportations began, and by 12 September 1942 approximately 300,000 of the ghetto’s inhabitants had been deported to the Treblinka extermination camp or murdered. Roughly 50,000 people remained in the ghetto.

When the deportations halted in September, the utter despair felt by many Jews throughout the mass deportations hardened into growing resistance. As the historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who was incarcerated in the ghetto, noted ‘it seems to me that people will no longer go to the slaughter like lambs. They want the enemy to pay dearly for their lives. They’ll fling themselves at them with knives, staves, coal gas…they’ll not allowed themselves to be seized in the street, for they know that work camp means death these days’ [The Journal of Emanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, Jacob Sloan (ed.) (McGraw-Hill Book Company, USA, 1958), p.326].

Inhabitants of the ghetto had heard rumours of the extermination camps operating in the east, and many guessed what fate awaited them. Determined not to be taken to their deaths, preparations were made to resist the Germans should any more deportations take place. These preparations were led by a variety of resistance groups, such as the Jewish Combat Organisation and Jewish Military Union.

At 6am on 18 January 1943, deportations from the ghetto were resumed. As the Germans began to gather Jews, the remaining inhabitants in the ghetto surprised the Nazis by defying orders, hiding, and putting up an armed resistance. Several Nazi soldiers were injured, and, by 21 January 1943, the deportations ceased. Between 5000 and 6500 Jews were taken to be deported to camps in the east.

Following this resistance, Jews built bunkers and hideouts for a defensive battle, assuming that the Nazis would soon retaliate. They continued to collect weapons and bullets through connections with the Polish underground, and prepared for an attack.

On 19 April 1943, the Nazis began their attack, led by SS General Jürgen Stroop. Within fifteen minutes, Jewish fighters retaliated, many with handmade weapons, initially forcing the German troops to retreat on the first day.

The Nazis changed tact, and slowly destroyed the ghetto, building by building, forcing Jews remaining in hiding to appear or be killed. 27 days after the initial April attack, on 16 May 1943, the uprising was crushed by the Nazis, and the ghetto destroyed. The 42,000 survivors of the uprising were deported to concentration camps and extermination camps in the east.

Whilst the uprising ultimately failed, it was an extremely significant display of resistance from Jews in Warsaw. It delayed the Germans timeline of deportations, and inspired other resistance movements across the German-occupied areas.

DID YOU KNOW...

The Stroop Report

SS General Jürgen Stroop (26 September 1895 – 6 March 1952) was the Nazi commander in charge of crushing the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

After the Uprising had been defeated, Stroop wrote an official account from the Nazis perspective. This became known as the Stroop Report. The report was 125 pages long and also contained several photographs of the Uprising. Three official copies of the report were produced, one for Himmler, one for Krüger, and one for Stroop himself.

The photographs within the report show several scenes from the Uprising, from the violent ways in which Jews were removed from their hiding places, to how buildings in the ghetto were set on fire and destroyed.

These photographs have since become widely recognisable images of Nazi atrocities.

Despite this, most of the Jews depicted in the photographs remain unknown.  The Nazi photographer(s) who took the photographs also remain uncertain. The Nazi officers depicted in the photographs are also mainly unidentified (with the exception of Josef Blösche).

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