About the Sources

Sources central to research on the ghettos in Eastern Europe are spread almost all over the world: They are mainly found in those countries where ghettos were set up during the German occupation, but also in Germany, the UK, France, Israel, the USA and many more. The opening of archives in Eastern Europe after 1990 made many especially valuable documents openly available to scholarship for the first time. Many personal sources such as diaries or letters have been found in private households over the years – nobody knows how many more will still be discovered. Detailed references to sources relevant for specific ghettos can now be found in the new Encyclopaedia of the Camps and Ghettos published by USHMM; for an earlier Polish approach to gather such information, one may also refer to the ”Obozy hitlerowskie” encyclopaedia. For the Holocaust in Poland, an important guide to sources has been published by Alina Skibinska.

This online panel seeks to present an array of different sources from different regions to give the user an idea of the sheer variety of sources connected with the history of ghettos in Eastern Europe during the Second World War. These sources come to us in a number of different languages, which few researchers have mastered equally in their entirety: Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian etc., etc. Many of the sources presented here have not been previously accessible in English.

German Sources

While German institutions often managed to destroy most of their documentation relating to Jewish matters or the respective files were destroyed at the end of the war, the surviving German documents can shed light on the decision-making processes, the inner conflicts and the struggle for precedence among the various administrative bodies. Understanding these processes is essential to understand a ghetto, as the establishment of ghettos was not necessarily a part of Nazi anti-Jewish measures and their aim could be subject to changes during the course of their existence. To understand the perpetrator perspective, these documents are essential. However, due to their use of camouflage language and other lacunae regarding topics such as direct murder, it can be useful to supplement one’s selection of sources with those (relatively few) Jewish and bystander sources which offer some deeper insights into the inner workings of the German institutions (for instance, testimonies from persons who through their work in various organisations came into contact with German officials). In this way, the sources arising from different perspectives can help in the understanding of each other.

Unfortunately, very little of the local files of the SS and police apparatus on Jewish matters remains – more can be found at the central level in Berlin, available at the Bundesarchiv or in microfilm copy in many institutions in the world. Regarding the Wehrmacht, many local commandos dealt with ghettos to some extent, whereas the Rüstungskommandos coordinated war production by ghetto labourers, so that their files shed light on this central aspect. Files of the regional and superregional administrative bodies, although comparatively few, can reflect on trends in ghetto policy – often, reports by departments, but also general reports on the local, District or superregional level contain section on “Jewish Policy”. The official diary of General Governor Hans Frank is particularly interesting in this regard, as it contains the record of the meetings in which decisions were made at the top level which subsequently affected ghettos throughout the General Government. Official gazettes and the like contain the legal pronouncements upon which the implementation of the occupation and ghetto life were based. Posters were similarly used to transmit the orders and the news of the German authorities, the local non-Jewish municipal administrations, but also the official Jewish administrations to the ghetto population, as well as telling the local non-Jewish population how they were supposed to behave towards the Jews.

Some information on ghettos can also be found in files of central German institutions in Berlin – even if some of these documents can be something of a needle in a haystack (such as one sheet in a pile of bills). They show how developments in the centre could affect the periphery and vice versa. The former Berlin Document Center collections and similar compilations of personnel files held elsewhere (for instance at the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, IPN) as well as telephone directories and organisational charts can help in the identification of German and auxiliary personnel and the establishment of their background.

A rare example of a well-preserved perpetrator collection can be found in the State Archives of Lodz: the extensive documentation of the German Gettoverwaltung, which has been preserved not least due to the fortunate course of the war which spared Lodz from large-scale destruction. Lodz is thus a special case, as the rich documentation of the Jewish administration also survived, making an integrated approach particularly feasible.

Trials, bystander-sources, visual media and the contemporary press

Post war judicial investigations and trials – at the supranational level such as the Nuremberg trials, but especially local trials in the areas affected by Soviet and Polish courts as well as in Germany – can contain a plethora of information, as they include contemporary documents, victim and witness testimonies as well as (unfortunately often dilatory) perpetrator testimonies. Similarly, very few in post-war Germany spoke or wrote frankly about their time in the East during the war – there are however, some interesting, if partial exceptions, for instance documented in personal collections or in certain trials. A category mostly limited to the (generally not up to standards of due process) Soviet and (mostly thorough) Polish trials is the trials of collaborators, including some proceedings against Jews accused of collaboration.

Another important group of sources relate to the non-Jewish majority population in the areas where ghettos were set up – a group of sources usually referred to under the term “bystander sources”. The term bystander is now considered to have a far too passive connotation. But since it has been introduced into the scholarly literature and no adequate replacement is in sight, it is still in use. Next to the documents connected with institutions which were allowed to exist under German supervision - such as municipal administrations or lower level courts such as in the General Government -, underground documents, whether produced by Soviet partisans or the Polish underground, can offer insights that can be found nowhere else. The relationship between the local Jewish and non-Jewish population under German occupation could - of course - be central to Jewish survival in the short, medium and long term. The Polish underground was particularly well developed: Next to local transmissions of documents in regional archives, the central collections in the Archiwum Akt Nowych in Warsaw and at the Polish Underground Movement Study Trust in London, where the Polish Government in Exile received reports from inside and sent orders into the country, stand out in their importance, also to Holocaust research.

A type of source that can come from each of these perspectives – perpetrator, Jewish or “bystander” – is visual media. A rare few original films from the period are preserved in various scattered archives, while photographs are much more common. Their interpretation can sometimes be particularly difficult, e.g. if context information is lacking or if the arrangement in the picture is particularly propagandistic. The perspective of the photographer can also be defining for the events, situations, places and persons depicted, resulting in highly different results even when taken in the same basic environment [see Documents A06 and C01].

Contemporary newspapers and journals have been preserved, too. Official German publications were published in the occupied areas, both in German as well as in local languages. Simultaneously there was an active underground press, especially in occupied Poland, where the entire political spectrum was represented. In the General Government, there was even an official newspaper for Jews under German auspices, the Gazeta Żydowska (Jewish Newspaper), with information about Jewish communities and therefore many ghettos in occupied Poland. The fact that this was a censored newspaper, however, somewhat limits its value. Many documents stemming from the Jewish underground press, which did not suffer from these deficiencies, survive in the Ringelblum Archive described below.

Jewish sources

To analyse the inner life of the ghettos and Jewish reactions to persecution, different categories of documents are useful: For some ghettos – unfortunately not for many of them – documents of the Jewish administration exist, sometimes at least small parts of them (for example, Warsaw, Czestochowa, Bialystok, Lublin). For the General Government the documents of Jewish Self-Help [see b) Jewish Administrations] and related institutions are of great value: In these reports on the use of financial aid, one can often find information about even the smallest communities. Additionally, this collection also contains correspondence between local JSS employees and the head office in Kraków, but also between the JSS and the Jewish Councils as well as the German authorities. Another source of information are letters written by individuals in the ghettos who desperately asked for support from the JSS. As much of this was financed by international Jewish aid organisations, especially by the American Joint Distribution Committee, documents from this provenance also offer insights into these topics. As these Jewish aid organisations also operated outside the occupied territories, they also collected information in order to put together detailed reports on the threats Jews faced in the various countries.

The large archives of Yad Vashem, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw and the USHMM in Washington hold dozens of diaries, thousands of (often self-written) memoirs and testimonies (recorded by others) written by Holocaust survivors. Many sources related to the Warsaw ghetto can be searched in the database [ https://new.getto.pl/en ]. Numerous memoirs have been published in memorial books (Yizkor book) of the communities [http://yizkor.nypl.org – for a bibliography on Poland, see Adamczyk-Garbowska]. Besides that hundreds of memoirs of survivors have been published, providing intense insights into the inner life of the ghettos. Both video and oral testimonies have been collected (among the most important depositories: Yad Vashem, Yale University http://www.library.yale.edu/testimonies/, the USC Shoah Foundation Institute [http://dornsife.usc.edu/vhi/] – a.k.a. the Spielberg Foundation – and USHMM; for Polish projects, see the entry in the guide by Alina Skibinska [ http://jri-poland.org/help/Sources-on-the-Holocaust-in-Occupied-Poland.p... ]) and interviews with non-Jewish local inhabitants have been conducted [ see e.g. https://portal.ehri-project.eu/units/us-005578-irn38217#desc-eng ]. Material on the Theresienstadt Ghetto is covered within the context of EHRI in a research guide [ https://portal.ehri-project.eu/guides/terezin ].

Above all, Jewish contemporary diaries and other written documents – supplemented by secretly taken photographs or paintings – from the ghettos which are of the greatest value for any researcher analysing the inner history of the ghettos. They contain no changes due to post-war hindsight or the effects on memory of the ghettos by later experiences of different forms of persecution experienced by the survivors. At the time of the events, many Jews felt the strong need to create documentation of the crimes of the Germans and the Jewish reactions. Two amazing examples of organised attempts of documentation will be presented in the following. As Jakub Poznanski put it in his diary written in the Lodz ghetto in July 1943: “Hauptsächlich schreibe ich, damit ein zukünftiger Chronist nicht nur aus offiziellen Quellen wird schöpfen können, sondern auch aus privaten Quellen.” ["I mainly write, so that a future chronicler will be able to not only draw upon official, but also private sources."] (Poznanski 2011, p. 130).

It is mostly because of the documentary efforts of the Jewish ghetto inmates that it is possible for us today to write the history of the ghettos and the people who had to live in them for a time. Thanks to these efforts, we have access to a large part of the central documents, which will be explored in more detail in the following.

The Example of Lodz

In Litzmannstadt (the name assigned to Łódź or Lodz by the Germans in April 1940) an archive was set up within the Jewish administration for the sole purpose of preserving a record for posterity. In November 1940, the “Eldest of the Jews in Litzmannstadt Getto”, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who had been appointed by the Germans, ordered the establishment of an archive in order to create a record of the history of the ghetto and - more important - his own achievements. The employees began collecting announcements and other documents from the ghetto. Soon they started going beyond this by creating sources themselves: Jozef Zelkowicz, for instance, wrote a number of reports on various aspects of ghetto life. Also a number of texts about factories and workshops survived (Trunk 1962, Trunk 2006, Zelkowicz 2002).

The central work of the archive was its daily chronicle, which was kept between 12 January 1941 and mid-1944. Each day the employees would note down the daily life in the ghetto in detail without any knowledge of what the next day would bring. Unlike private records, however, these notes were created in the offices of the Jewish administration, so that the chroniclers always had to expect that it could be discovered, perhaps even by the Germans. Therefore the tone of these texts is usually very careful. It seems, however, that the archivists wrote the more about the people in the ghetto, the less they were able to report on those committing the crimes. It is the specificity of this detailed account of those locked up inside the ghetto which makes the daily chronicle such a unique source [ www.ghettochronik.de ].

Between January 1941 and September 1942, the chronicle was written in Polish, in an intermediary phase in both Polish and German and afterwards until July 1944 in German. These linguistic changes came about because of the deportation of almost 20.000 German-speaking Jews from various cities in the German Reich, from Prague, Vienna and Luxembourg to the Lodz Getto in autumn 1941. This led to an expansion of the group of archival employees. In February 1942, Dr. Oskar Singer and Dr. Bernard Heilig were added, with Dr. Oskar Rosenfeld joining in June.

The authors used the daily chronicle to record various aspects of ghetto life, starting with the weather and daily temperature, the level of the ghetto population, and the number of births and deaths. They also recorded any shootings at the fence as well as suicide attempts at the beginning of the entry. Afterwards the authors entered various events or news items. The delivery of food stocks and black market prices were noted down just as figures on the productivity of the factories and about the medical supply of the ghetto. This chronicle is an essential source for the investigation of the inner life of the Lodz ghetto.

This is supplemented by the ghetto encyclopaedia, which was begun by the ghetto archivists in spring 1944. Using filing cards, they created a dictionary, introducing important personalities and institutions as well as explaining terms, which had either arisen anew or had gained a new meaning under the specific conditions of the ghetto. Unlike the chronicle, where the entries arose out of the immediate events of the respective day and which thus serves as a record of the course of events, the authors of the encyclopaedia attempted a first taking of stock. In the entries they analysed the inner life of the ghetto.

Most of the texts from the Litzmannstadt Getto archive were saved. Nachman Zonabend was a postman in the ghetto. He knew about the archive, as the post office and the archive were housed in the same building. Zonabend was among the small group of Jews who remained in the ghetto area after the dissolution of the ghetto in the summer of 1944 to facilitate the clean up of the area. This last group of Jews, who were permitted to live a little bit longer, were supposed to sort all objects from the ghetto and prepare them for shipping to Germany. It was also their duty to remove the traces of the existence of the ghetto. Zonabend however did the opposite: He sneaked into the building and found almost the entire archive collection packed up mostly in suitcases, some of it in bundles. He hid the documents in the courtyard of the building in a disused well and was able to recover them after the liberation. Most of the sources are kept in the Lodz State Archive and in YIVO in New York, some are available in copy in Yad Vashem and at USHMM.

The Example of Warsaw

Also in November 1940, the underground archive of the recently sealed off Warsaw ghetto was founded in Emanuel Ringelblum's flat. This group (known in Hebrew as Oneg Shabbat - “Joy of the Sabbath” – in Yiddish Oyneg Shabes, due to its regular meetings on the onset of the Sabbath on Friday night) aimed at recording and researching all aspects of the history of the Polish Jews during the Second World War. As Ringelblum wrote himself, work was shaped by two principles: “Universality” and “Objectivity”. The contributors collected documents from highly divergent origins, filing everything that was in some way connected to life in the ghetto: Posters, invitations to cultural events, ration cards, passes to temporarily leave the ghetto, work permits, invoices, documents relating to religious and cultural topics as well as underground newspapers. They were especially interested in sources which elucidated the individual life of persons living in the ghetto: Diaries, reports and letters. They conducted interviews in order to record the problems and the life of those who did not write themselves. They themselves wrote reports and studies about various aspects of ghetto life. Many writers who were locked up in the Warsaw ghetto handed over their works, while others entrusted their family photographs or diaries to the underground archive. Refugees and forcibly resettled persons wrote accounts about the fate of the Jewish population in their home towns. The contributors also collected reports about various work camps.

In early 1942 Ringelblum and his friends began a large new project: A scientific study about “Two and a Half Years at War”. They were planning for a comprehensive treatment of the fate of Polish Jewry during the war with a total length of approx. 1600 pages. The project was not finished due to the deportations of the Jews of Warsaw to Treblinka beginning in July 1942, but a number of texts survive at least in fragmentary form, allowing for detailed insights into the society of the ghetto and its social stratification.

Most of the contributors both in Warsaw and in Lodz did not survive the Holocaust. Many sources, however, remained. The documents of the Warsaw underground archive were hidden in three instalments in different locations: The first in August 1942 in ten metal boxes, the second in February 1943 in two large milk cans and the third in April 1943. After the war they were found in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto, the first part of the archive in September 1946, the second in December 1950 during earthworks. Only fragments of a diary were found of the third part. Today, the Ringelblum Archive is kept at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw (with copies available at USHMM and Yad Vashem) and is included in the UNESCO Memory of the World register. Before the war, this building used to contain the Main Judaic Library; between 1940 and 1942, it was also one of the venues used by the Oneg Shabbat group.


A great variety of sources is available to researchers of the history of the ghettos in occupied Eastern Europe. Depending on the questions under consideration, the size of the community under consideration and the duration of its existence, contemporary sources from different perspectives may even be available in abundance. While access restrictions do not generally constitute a hindrance to such research, linguistic hurdles often need to be overcome not least due to the multi-lingual environment documented in these sources. Yet once these – as well as the various forms of handwriting employed during the period – are overcome, it is possible to approach the primary sources related to this core area of Holocaust research.

Andrea Löw / Giles Bennett