Dissolution and Resistance

The setting up of ghettos in the various regions of Central and Eastern Europe occupied by Nazi Germany took a different course in each case – in the same way, the destruction of the ghetto populations took divergent routes for each ghetto: While the following text once again focuses on the General Government, the first region to experience mass extermination by gassing was the Wartheland, where Jews “unfit for work” from smaller ghettos were murdered in gas vans in the Chelmno/Kulmhof extermination centre since December 1941. As of January 1942, a number of waves of deportations from Litzmannstadt ensued, but “productive” Jews were allowed to remain there until 1944.

After the completion of “Aktion Reinhardt” in the General Government, the Jews in the neighbouring region of Upper Silesia experienced similar decimation by deportations to Auschwitz in 1943, whereas the Bialystok region was included in late 1942. In the occupied Soviet territories, most of the still existing ghettos were either completely dissolved in 1942, usually by mass shootings (Ukraine, Weißruthenien) [Document E02] with some major exceptions in 1943 (Minsk, Vilnius, Kaunas, Siauliai), or transformed into labour camps after those “unfit for work” had been murdered as in the Baltics.

“Aktion Reinhardt” in the General Government

In autumn 1941, anti-Jewish policy in the GG escalated. On the one hand, an envisaged deportation to the newly occupied territories in Belarus or the Ukraine could not be realized. On the other hand, German bureaucrats and medical administrators considered the ghettos a danger for German health and security. In the General Government a general order was issued to kill all Jews who were apprehended outside the ghettos, while in Galicia, the new fifth district of the General Government, tens of thousands of Jews were shot in order to keep the ghetto territories as small as possible before the establishment of ghettos in Stanislawow and Lwow. At the end of 1941, there was a broad consensus among the occupiers that it was necessary to get rid of the ghettos by any means. The ghettos, which they had created, were now considered dangerous, as well as a shame for their respective cities.

In September/October 1941, the SS and Police leadership in Berlin and in the General Government decided to start the systematic killing of Jews. In March 1942, the construction of the first extermination camp in the village of Belzec between the Lublin and Galicia districts was completed; at the same time work began in Sobibor on the eastern border of the General Government. Since early 1942 preparations for the deportations were on the way. All instances of the civilian administration, and especially its labour departments, issued new labour cards for those who would be temporarily spared. Some officials even divided the ghetto territories they were responsible for according to the economic value of the Jewish population.

During the first four months of the program later named “Aktion Reinhardt”, from mid-March 1942 until mid-July, this distinction – being considered fit or unfit for work - was the central criterion for selecting the victims. The main targets for deportation were elderly people without relatives, Jews who were forced to rely on Jewish Social welfare, and refugees who had been forcibly moved from other towns. Systematic mass murder started in the Lublin and Galicia districts on 17 March 1942. The organizers of the entire murder program, SS and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik and his staff, resided in the Lublin district. This was also the location of the first extermination camps. Another distinguishing feature of the Lublin area was the fact that deportation transports of Jews from other countries (Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia) were being sent there since spring 1942. Thus the civilian administrative bodies urged the police to deport as many local Jews as possible in order to make room for the deportees from Central Europe. The same dynamic had also come into effect further East: As German Jewish deportees began arriving in Riga and Minsk in late 1941, the majority of the local Jews were killed.

Approximately in mid-April 1942, the deportations to Belzec stopped in order to set up a larger building with gas chambers there. In early May the extermination centre in Sobibor became operational, leading to another wave of deportations from the Lublin district. When the new gas chambers at Belzec had been set up, a third district was included in the program: On 30 May 1942, thousands of Jews from Krakow were forced into freight trains, sent to Belzec and killed there. The same happened to Jewish communities in other towns of the Krakow district. Finally by mid-June 1942 all transports had to be stopped, since all non-military traffic was interrupted in order to prioritize the German military offensive in the Soviet Union towards Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Nevertheless, the civilian administration and police forced hundreds of Jews to walk to the extermination camps or deported them by trucks. After three or four months of continuous mass murder, almost 100,000 Jews had been put to death.

In June 1942, however, the SS and Police took full control over all “Jewish matters”. In a secret speech SS chief Himmler declared that there would no longer be any Jews under German rule within the time span of a year, that is by mid-1943. On the 22nd of July 1942, Gestapo officers ordered the chairman of the Warsaw Judenrat, Adam Czerniakow, to prepare 5,000 persons a day for deportation. Czerniakow committed suicide the following night, but the Germans took over and began deporting Warsaw Jews the same day. By that time, a third extermination centre had been established in Treblinka, in the Eastern part of Warsaw district.

The “Great Action” in Warsaw, as it was called, developed in three stages: During the first days the inmates were called upon to show up for resettlement by using posters. They were promised a handout of bread for the journey. After some days, rumours spread about the fate of the deportees and nobody appeared voluntarily. Now German units combed the ghetto area, even the so-called shops or ghetto enterprises for victims, and brought them to an area on the northern edge of the ghetto, the so-called Umschlagplatz. There they were crammed into freight trains and sent to Treblinka. During the last days of the “Great Action” the occupiers reversed their strategy. They forced all ghetto inhabitants to gather at one junction on Mila street, which then was blocked from all sides. Here German employers could look for their workers and send them back to their ghetto flats. All others were deported. On 12 September, after almost eight weeks, between 254,000 and 300,000 persons had been sent to death, among them nearly all the elderly and children.

In parallel to the Great Action in Warsaw, the deportations also started in the Warsaw region and the Radom district, and were also taken up again in the Krakow, Galicia and Lublin districts. Almost every day in August and September 1942, more than twenty thousand human beings were being murdered in the General Government, and not only there. Simultaneously, the occupiers committed giant massacres in Volhynia and Western Belarus, and transports from Western Europe arrived at Auschwitz. One can even claim that these were the worst weeks in history.

It is obvious that the SS and Police, but also parts of the civilian administration wanted to get rid of all ghettos. But already by September debates about the ghetto liquidations started, since the police not only deported those considered unfit for work or those who were unemployed, but also persons with work permits, sometimes even raiding ghetto enterprises. At this time, the Wehrmacht in particular protested, that Jewish armament workers should not be deported. Finally, Himmler prevailed in this debate. He continued the deportations but promised the Wehrmacht and armaments industries, that they could keep some of the Jewish workforce, which had to be put into camps under SS surveillance.

In October/November 1942 SS and Police forces repeatedly raided the ghettos in order to find Jews in hiding or those who had escaped to the woods in August/September. By the end of the year, ghettos were only allowed to officially exist in 52 locations, and they were subsequently transformed into working ghettos or camps. Only the workers themselves were allowed to stay, while most of their families were killed. In January 1943, only some 500,000 of formerly 2 mio. Jews in the General Government were still alive. Until June 1943, all of the ghettos, including Warsaw and Lwow, were dissolved in violent killing raids; all of the camps were similarly shut down in killing sprees by November, except for the camps in the Radom region which were working for the armaments industry.

Most of the ghettos in the Reichskommissariat Ukraine were liquidated in the second half of 1942 by mass shootings. Conversely, some ghettos in Reichskommissariat Ostland were allowed to exist a little longer until the summer of 1943, when only some labourers were transferred to forced labour and concentration camps. The Lodz Getto was allowed to continue to exist until the summer of 1944, but had already suffered waves of deportations to excise “unprofitable” parts of the population.

The Events During the Liquidations

This short overview of course does not show the actual reality of the ghetto clearings or ghetto liquidations. In most cases, these were violent manhunts within densely populated cities and towns. Only during the first months of 1942, and sometimes at the beginning of major deportations, did German functionaries try to force the Jewish Councils to organize the arrest of the victims themselves, by means of the Jewish Ghetto Police. Already during the March Action in Lublin, extreme force was applied. The ghetto raids were organized according to plans, which had been set up by the police, the civilian administration and the Reichsbahn, the German railways. Police units from the district capitals arrived a day before the deportations started, and coordinated the planning with the local administration and police. The next day the territory of the ghetto was surrounded by SS and Police forces, often police battalions, but also local Schutzpolizei, the Municipal Police, and Gendarmerie, the Rural Police. In Lublin, a unit had been set up for specific tasks composed of recruited former Soviet POWs, who had been trained at the Trawniki camp. These men not only guarded the extermination camps, but were also deployed in battalions or companies during ghetto liquidations predominately in Lublin district, but also in other cases such as Warsaw. Finally, the Polish Police and, in Eastern Galicia, the Ukrainian police served as auxiliaries.

After the ghetto was surrounded, small units composed of German and non-German policemen, sometimes accompanied by members of the Jewish Order Service, went through the ghetto streets, entered the houses and forced the inhabitants to come outside. Then the victims were herded to a central place where the selection of the people with permits began. German employers could pick out their workers and send them back. All others were convoyed either to the trains to be sent to the death camps or to nearby execution sites.

Jewish Reactions: Despair, “Salvation through Work”, Going into Hiding, Armed Resistance

Jews responded in many different ways to the liquidations of the ghettos: Many reacted with despair and apathy to the terrible circumstances and the loss of friends and family members. Others, particularly those whose skills were yet in demand for German war production, hoped that these needs would ensure their survival (individually or even for their core families). These workers thus went on working in the remnants of the ghettos or were sent to camps [see under Camps]. As these harsh to murderous locations were the only places where Jews were allowed to exist legally, many Jews who tried to escape eventually returned there to leave behind the even more dire circumstances they found themselves in.

Preconditions for escape were manifold: It almost always required help from the non-Jewish local population, which was threatened with collective capital punishment for hiding and aiding Jews. As locals were rewarded by the Germans for providing information on hidden Jews, those who were ready to help Jews escape death were under grave threat themselves. Also, it was very hard to procure additional rations for those in hiding under war-time conditions imposed by the occupier. Jews who wished to move over to “di arishe zayt” (the “Aryan” side) usually required established contacts to non-Jews, which tended to favour Jews who had socialised with non-Jews before the war, particularly those of the more assimilated middle class. Acquiring a second identity in the form of “arishe papirn” [Aryan papers] could be very costly. Many parents also handed over their children to sympathetic non-Jews for safekeeping.

In rural areas, particularly in Eastern Poland, forested areas could offer refuge to those escaping from the ghettos. While some Jews were absorbed into non-Jewish, often leftist or communist partisan units, only few purely Jewish partisan units were able to persist there. Most of the “family camps”, which included non-combatant women and children, fell victim to the Germans or inimical non-Jewish underground units. Rural settings with their face-to-face society could make hiding Jews quite difficult; here, German Gendarmerie would execute any Jews found in the countryside almost on the spot and exact vengeance on their helpers. Conversely, large and relatively anonymous cities such as Warsaw served as hiding locations for thousands of escaped Jews, at least for a time. In Warsaw, many who had successfully hidden were subsequently killed in the Warsaw Rising of the summer of 1944. Here as in other environments, not all non-Jewish supporters were completely benevolent, as some only provided assistance as long as their protégées could pay for their services. Others, so-called “szmalcownicy”, identified undercover Jews in order to blackmail them, reporting those who could not pay them off to the German police in order to collect a reward. This was made easier by the fact that many Jews only spoke the local vernacular (e.g. Polish) with a discernible Jewish accent.

Actual organised armed resistance against the Germans was rare. It seems to have required the realisation that mass killings were not just a local phenomenon but that a total destruction of the Jewish population was occurring. Coming to this conclusion was difficult during the German occupation when Jews were often not in a position to get information from other towns and cities. A first underground organisation, the Fareynigte Partizaner Organisatsie (FPO) was formed in Vilna in January 1942. During the wave of ghetto liquidations in September 1942, much of Eastern Poland followed suit, with desperate attacks against the troops charged with the ghetto clearances.

An important factor for Jewish armed resistance and particularly Jewish partisan groups was the local environment: Often the local Non-Jewish underground factions were hostile or indifferent to the fate of the Jews. Mostly it was leftist groups who were supportive and also accepted Jewish members. Forested areas offered shelter, which explains why Jewish partisans were most common in Lithuania, western Belarus and in some regions of Poland (the Lublin and Galicia Districts). Many groups of “forest Jews” were mostly concerned with their own survival and often included families. Systematic hunts by the occupying forces and hostile actions of other partisan groups mostly led to the discovery and destruction of these groups. Many even went back into the still existing ghettos and camps as their situation was too difficult in the forests.

During the deportation “action” in Warsaw in January 1943, German forces met with organised and armed resistance for the first time. When the Warsaw Ghetto was supposed to be cleared completely in April 1943, armed Jewish resistance groups fought a desperate and ultimately hopeless battle with German and auxiliary forces. It was to remain the only Jewish uprising of this scale. While the workers from the ghetto shops were transferred to labour camps near Lublin, SS troops mercilessly levelled the ghetto and killed all Jews found inside. Similar uprisings, albeit at a smaller scale, followed in other locations.

Armed resistance was only one of the patterns of behaviour exhibited by Jews towards the dissolution of the ghettos: Many despaired, while some tried to hide, escaped to the “Aryan” part of town or fled to the woods [Document B08 and B09]. Resistance was mostly chosen by those who wished to actively oppose their murderers, even at the cost of their own survival. Resistance as a choice of action was mostly adopted by Jewish youth movements. Most of its proponents were quite clear that armed action would most likely result in the deaths of those taking part – but they nevertheless advocated choosing this end instead of embarking on the strategy of alleviation pursued by most Jewish Councils. Armed resistance faced many problems: It was difficult to get weapons and means of gathering information such as couriers had to be organised. Additionally, the political parties in Warsaw had a hard time agreeing with each other, whereas a united front was achieved in Vilna [Document E05].

Dieter Pohl / Giles Bennett