Historiography: Ghettos during the Holocaust

1. Ghettos and Camps

When we speak about the Holocaust, the word “ghetto” appears among the central terms. Nevertheless, ghettos have received much less attention among scholars, and partly among the general public as well, than, for example, the camps. While the compulsory residential districts in Warsaw and Lodz have certainly been dealt with to some extent, as have those in Budapest or Salonika, hundreds of other ghettos, most of them in Poland and with significantly more occupants than the camps, have been virtually ignored. In contrast to the situation with the camps, there are several fundamental questions concerning the ghettos, which pose difficulties for their investigation. The first of these is: what is a ghetto? Firstly, a distinction must be made between the ghettos under the occupation regime on the one hand and Jewish districts or residential streets inhabited primarily by Jews on the other; the latter already existed before the war, but were sometimes referred to as ghettos even as late as 1940. During the entire period of occupation, Jews were forced to leave their homes and to reside elsewhere. One can only speak of a ghetto, however, if the majority of Jews in a town or area were concentrated in the district in question and were forced to reside there. The number of districts fulfilling these criteria far outweighs the number of districts referred to in the jargon of the time as “Jewish residential districts,” even by the German occupation forces (for more details, see Pohl, Ghettos in Benz / Distel, Ort, 161-191).

            A fundamental distinction can be made between three types of occupation ghettos: the most well-known are certainly the closed ghettos, primarily those in Warsaw and Lodz. They were hermetically sealed, surrounded by high walls and guarded by the police. Although a very large number of people were forced to live in these ghettos, which were comprehensive ghettos from the perspective of the occupiers, they in fact constituted a minority of all ghettos. More common was the second type, the open ghetto. Here, the structural demarcation was limited to pre-existing walls or buildings often situated at the edges of towns and open towards the countryside. In the Warthegau in western Poland, there were even several village ghettos (Alberti, Verfolgung, 196). Despite the lack of walls and sometimes even of guards, the inhabitants of these so-called open ghettos were also subject to strict limitations on their movements and were only allowed to leave their district under certain conditions. The third and final type was the work ghetto, examples of which mostly developed from other ghettos. Following the large-scale massacres directed initially against the unemployed, the elderly and children, it was mostly only workers who remained behind, sometimes with their families. These ghettos were reduced in size and were often structurally sealed off for the first time during this phase (especially from autumn 1942 onwards). Further to the east, for example in eastern Ukraine, only a small number of specialist workers with technical expertise were left alive after the initial mass murders. They were kept in a single block of houses, or sometimes in just a single building. In this case, the distinction from a camp is somewhat problematic, especially since some ghettos were even officially declared “Judenlager” (Jew camps) following the extensive murder operations, for example in Lemberg. The camps, however, consisted almost exclusively of the workers themselves, mostly men, with women being a rarity and children only present in exceptional cases. The camps usually had a different topographical structure and their operations were more strictly regulated, for example with daily roll calls, central facilities etc. Prisoners there were kept under constant watch, while in the ghettos they were more or less left to themselves.

            The difficulties in determining the exact number of ghettos thus begin with the definition of a ghetto. Such difficulties are enhanced by the fact that the majority of documents from the occupation period have been lost, and in many places only a small number of Jews or none at all, survived to provide eyewitness accounts after the war. Only a small proportion of the ghettos existed for an extended period of several years, with many lasting only a few months or even just a few weeks. The most recent research on the history and extent of the Ghetto system in German-occupied Eastern Europe can be found within the newly published USHMM Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, Vol. II, edited by Martin Dean. His introductory remarks in the Encyclopedia lay claim, that “there were many more ghettos than recorded on the previous lists…most Western lists… estimated that somewhere between 400 and 800 ghettos may have existed” (Dean, Encyclopedia, XLIII). The volume provides ample information on roughly 1,150 ghetto sites, an estimation that greatly surpasses the former. The most recent research by Martin Dean, who works at the Holocaust Memorial in Washington, has produced the following numbers: approximately 600 ghettos for Poland within the borders of 1939, approximately 130 for the Baltic region, 250 for the occupied territories of the Soviet Union within the pre-1939 borders, with further ghettos existing under Romanian control and in Greater Hungary. The fortress Theresienstadt in Bohemia must also be counted among the ghettos (Klein, Theresienstadt, 111-123 - see document A10). All in all, one can safely assume that there were between 1100 and 1200 ghettos in German-controlled Europe, with the figure possibly being even greater.

            How many of the persecuted Jews lived in these ghettos? This question can only be answered indirectly, namely by reconstructing the structural progression of the persecution in individual regions. In four countries – namely Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary – the vast majority of those targeted by persecution were forced to live in ghettos for periods of time ranging from several weeks, which was particularly the case in Hungary, up to four years, for example in Lodz. If one also includes the Jews imprisoned in the ghettos of Transnistria and several locations within the pre-war Soviet borders, it can be assumed that around one-third of the subsequent murder victims and 50 to 60 percent of all persecuted Jews had to live in the compulsory residential districts at some point in time or another. The ghetto experience was thus an experience shared by a majority of those persecuted.

2. Current State of Research and Sources

Due to the focus on the extermination camps, and most recently on the mass shootings, the fact that the ghettos also had a deadly dimension for many of those subjected to persecution is in danger of being forgotten. This is particularly true of the hermetically sealed compulsory residential districts, which were entirely dependent on the occupiers for supplies. The lack of food, the lack of fuel for heating in winter and the extremely cramped living conditions produced fertile ground for the spread of disease, especially in the spring of 1941 and 1942. In Warsaw and Lodz alone, more than 100,000 people died under such conditions. The mortality rates were thus higher than in most concentration camps if one does not include the executions. According to the estimation of Raul Hilberg, around 600,000 Jews altogether died in the ghettos from starvation and disease; Frank Golczewski and Gustavo Corni believe the number was even larger. These figures, however, are very difficult to verify; Hilberg's estimation is probably fairly accurate (Hillberg, Destruction, 1312; Benz, Dimension, 411-497; Corni, Ghettos, 218).

            Research into the history of the ghettos began just as the last ghettos were being dissolved through processes of systematic murder – namely in 1943 with the first publications in the USA. Substantial investigations were published immediately after the war, such as those by Philip Friedman and Melech Neustadt (Friedman, Roads; Neustadt, Khurbn). The YIVO Institute in New York was particularly quick to conduct systematic investigations into the ghettos. Most of the monographs on the large ghettos which appeared from the 1950s to the 1990s were written by survivors; Yitzhak Arad wrote about Vilnius, Yisrael Gut­man about Warsaw, and most recently Eljachu Yones about Lemberg (Arad, Ghetto in Flames; Gutman, Jews; Jones, Evrej L’vova). The so-called territorial associations in Israel and in both North and South America were also particularly prolific in their considerable efforts to commemorate their home communities in comprehensive Yizkor or remembrance books. There are around 700 of these books alone, most of which are now entirely available on the Internet ( http://yizkor.nypl.org - for a treatment and bibliography of the Yizkor books on Polish towns, see Adamczyk-Garbowska, Księgi).

            These findings have been systematised in a large-scale project undertaken by the research and commemoration centre Yad Vashem under the name Pinkas Hakehillot (Book of the Communities) and extended to include the history of smaller ghettos. This lexicon of Jewish communities in Europe, which outlines their fate particularly between 1918 and 1945, will likely encompass 32 large-sized volumes once completed; 22 have already been published. In the seven volumes on Poland alone, there are around 1400 entries, i.e. many more than the number of ghettos there. Since they are written in Hebrew, these lexicons are unfortunately not accessible to everyone, although a significantly abridged selection has also been published in English (Hakehillot, Jewish Communities). Both Yad Vashem and the Holocaust Memorial Museum are currently preparing special encyclopedias of the ghettos, which attempt to integrate information from the latest research (Dean, Encyclopedia; Giron, Encyclopedia).

            In the last 15 years, particularly following the collapse of the communist regimes, the research on the ghettos has gained unexpected momentum. The access to Eastern European archives, the disappearance of political considerations and the newly awakened interest in local Jewish history were the factors contributing to the publication of numerous studies on the Eastern European Jewish communities and the ghettos. Such books are available for many Polish cities, or at least for those which are still within Polish state territory (Kiełkowski, okupacji w Kra­kowie; Bilanska, Krakowskie getto; Bieberstein, Zagłada; Peled, Krakov ha-Yehudit; Zimmerer, Żydów w Krakowie; Rączy, Krosnie; Radzik, Lu­bels­ka dzielnica; Hartman/Krochmal (ed.), Losy Żydów przemyskich; Szymanska, Otwocku; Kotula, Losy Zydów rzeszo­wskich; Kopówka, Żydzi siedleccy; Kopciowski, Zamościu). For the regions further to the east, research on areas outside the few major cities is much more thinly spread. This is even true of the ghetto in Minsk, which has only recently been the subject of intensive investigation. In the states of pre-war Soviet Union, there is often a lack of scholarly and political initiative to deal with local Jewish history; this is often left to small, under-financed Jewish cultural organisations. The many memoirs, however, do help bridge this gap to a certain extent.

            The potential sources have by no means been exhausted though: while a significant proportion of the German and Romanian occupation documents have been examined, the records of the local municipal administrations remain virtually untouched. Much new information on the ghettos is even to be gained from the respective non-Jewish underground movements. Finally, the eyewitness accounts of survivors, despite the need for a certain degree of source-critical caution when examining them, are of immeasurable value for the reconstruction of ghetto history. National investigation commissions and the territorial associations of the Jewish communities began to create written records of these accounts even before the end of the war. Tens of thousands of witness interviews can be found in the documents of the investigation into National Socialist crimes – statements by perpetrators, Jews and other witnesses. These, however, concentrate on the murders in the ghettos and only deal peripherally with general life in isolation. Most recently, the Spielberg Foundation conducted a large number of video interviews, a significant proportion of which dealt with the history of the ghettos (interviews available online: http://vhaonline.usc.edu/login.aspx) .

            Bringing together all of these sources is necessary before a critical analysis of the history of individual ghettos is possible, which also requires a systematic investigation of the entire spectrum of available information. Such integral approaches have thus far been realised only in isolated cases and spread over several monographs. The history of the Lodz ghetto had already been the subject of numerous books when Andrea Löw set new standards with her outstanding depiction of Jewish life in the city (Löw, Ghetto Litzmannstadt). A study on German ghetto policy in Lodz has also recently appeared (Klein, Gettoverwaltung Litzmannstadt). Surprisingly, a comparable work for Warsaw is still lacking, although excellent overviews of the ghetto in general have been published, covering day-to-day life and resistance (Sakowska, Menschen im Ghetto; Engelking/ Leociak, Warsaw Ghetto: a Guide to the Perished City). Worthy of particular mention is the history of the ghetto in Riga by Andrej Angrick and Peter Klein. With this study and several others, German historiography has now firmly cemented a place among international ghetto research (Angrick/ Klein, „Endlösung“ in Riga; Dieckmann/Babette Quinkert, Im Ghetto; Zarusky, Ghettorenten; Anders, Białystok; Löw (Ed.), Alltag)

            As previously mentioned though, comprehensive analyses remain rare. Such attempts were initially made primarily by Holocaust survivors, the results of which were published by Jewish research institutions such as the YIVO Institute in New York and the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. Monumental works on the Jewish resistance or the history of the so-called Judenräte (Jewish Councils) include both systematic and comparative overviews of the ghettos in general (Ainsztein, Widerstand; Trunk, Judenrat; Weiss, Ha'mishtara ha'yehudit). Christopher Browning integrated the history of German ghetto policy in Poland into his analysis of the development, which led to the “Final Solution,” i.e. the mass murder of all European Jews (Browning, Origins of the Final Solution, Pgs. 111-151). Gustavo Corni, mentioned above, finally produced the first scholarly general overview of the history of the ghettos in 2001, which also contains a closer investigation into day-to-day life and the massacres. Nevertheless, we are still far from having documented a comprehensive general history of the ghettos. Such a work would have to integrate the pre-history, the development of the German and the Romanian ghettoisation policy, and a comparative analysis of life and death in the various types of ghettos.

3. Ghettos and Mass Murder

The ghetto essentially belonged to the ideological arsenal of all antisemites. However, it only began to play a role in National Socialist politics after a period of several years, as the initial plan was to drive all Jews out of Germany and Austria. The subject of ghettos seems to have been mentioned by Hitler for the first time in 1935, and from the middle of 1938 onwards, there is evidence of such considerations among the National Socialist leadership in connection with the stagnation of emigration. While the forced grouping of Jews into certain housing blocks did in fact begin in the summer of 1939 within the Reich, ghettos as such were only established in the occupied territories, primarily in Eastern Europe. The fact that ghettos were never established within the Reich and in most parts of Western Europe must be attributed to the general way in which the persecution of Jews unfolded. Furthermore, the creation of such a compulsory residential district was naturally dependent on the contour of the cities, with the inner structure of Eastern European urban spaces lending themselves to the formation of ghettos, while Jewish residential districts within the Reich would have been difficult to imagine.

            Directly following the German invasion of Poland, the regional occupation administration took the initiative and began to establish the first ghettos fairly independently, with those in Piotrków and Radomsko in central Poland set up before the end of 1939 (Młynarczyk, Judenmord, p. 112 f). Essentially, however, this contradicted the overarching principles of German Jewish policy: at this point in time, the plan had namely been to deport all Polish Jews, particularly those from the annexed western territories, to something resembling a death reservation on the eastern edge of the German territorial conquests. Once this project had proved to be a failure, increasing numbers of regional and local occupation administrations turned to establishing ghettos. The motives were similar in most cases: the aim was to isolate the Jewish minority and steal their real estate property, thus acquiring additional residential space for Germans and Poles. The ghettoisation was also regularly accompanied by a virtually complete dispossession of the Jews, who were only permitted to take a small portion of their property with them. The reliable information on these processes, however, is relatively sparse, for example concerning the real estate property of Polish Jews, the topography of the cities, etc. (Lehmann, Symbiosis).

            While the occupation administration continued to anticipate the imminent deportation of all Jews – the French colony Madagascar was discussed as a destination since summer 1940, while there were secret intentions of using Soviet territories from spring 1941 onwards – this was seen by most functionaries to be taking too long. This led to the establishment of the first large ghettos, particularly those in Lodz, Warsaw and Krakow. When the Wehrmacht began to take up formation in occupied Poland for the attack on the Soviet Union in spring 1941, the Jewish population was, in many regions, systematically forced into ghettos for the first time in order to provide quarters for German soldiers. Even at this point, however, the German occupiers were far from having rounded up all Polish Jews into such compulsory residential districts. 

            In the territories occupied by the Wehrmacht from June 1941 onwards, i.e. eastern Poland, the Baltic region and the pre-war Soviet territories, the new masters quickly began with the mass murder of Jewish men. It was only later that the occupying forces, sometimes still the military, began establishing ghettos. In the course of the subsequent advances beginning in September 1941, the extermination policy started to change. Women and children were increasingly being included among the victims of the mass executions, and soon, German units began wiping out all the Jews whom they encountered in the newly conquered towns and cities. One prominent example of these crimes was the massacre in the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev, through which the Jewish community was nearly wiped out (see Ukraine, B). While the high command of the army issued an order in September 1941 that provided the military with the possibility of establishing ghettos, the fact that nearly all Jews in the eastern occupied territories had been or were in the process of being murdered made this order more or less redundant.

            During the autumn of 1941, Lithuania and parts of Latvia also became the site of the almost complete destruction of the Jewish population. In both countries, the occupying forces established only a small number of ghettos for Jewish workers and for Jews who had been deported there from the Reich. The ghettoisation process was thus closely connected with mass murder by autumn 1941 at the latest. The same is true of the ghettos under Romanian control, which were established primarily in Romanian-occupied Transnistria in the vicinity of Odessa. The German-Romanian murder campaigns here were concentrated in the months between October 1941 and March 1942. In summer 1942, Romania ceased participation in the extermination programme, meaning that a significant proportion of the ghetto prisoners remained alive despite the horrific conditions.

            In October 1941, the mass murder of Jews also began in Poland. All those were killed who were supposedly not needed for the German war economy. From May until July 1942, these crimes grew into a programme of total extermination. Even during this phase, the occupation administration still established additional ghettos, but now primarily for the pre-selection of victims and for the preparations of mass murder. In most cases, two or three districts of a city, separate from one another, were selected, and the Jewish population was divided amongst these districts: A-B or A-B-C, meaning unfit to work, fit to work, and vital to the war effort. By the end of 1942, many of these ghettos had already been dissolved, with only the Jewish workers believed to be of use for the German war economy remaining alive. Following the widespread killings of summer/autumn 1942, the work ghettos were the only ghettos still officially in existence. By August 1943, also their prisoners, with the exception of the ghetto in Lodz, which constituted something of a special case, had either been murdered or transferred to forced labour camps, where they similarly faced the constant threat of death.

            By the end of 1943, therefore, the ghettos had virtually ceased to exist. This situation was not to change until the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944. In Hungary and the territories annexed by Hungary between 1938 and 1941, more than 50 ghettos and places of concentration were hastily established in order to make preparations for the deportations to Auschwitz. Most of the Jews in the provinces were affected by this. While the Jews in Budapest were spared from this fate by the ceasing of deportations from August 1944, they were not able to escape the forced marches to the Austrian border and the terror of the extreme right-wing Arrow Cross Party. With the exception of Budapest, Jews in German-occupied Europe from summer 1944 onwards could only survive in camps or in hiding.  

4. Summary and Perspectives

From this brief overview, the change in function of the ghettos begins to become clear – a transformation from places of isolation on the local level to holding pens for mass murder and temporary work ghettos which came to resemble camps. The actions of the German occupation administrations responsible for this development, however, have not yet been adequately investigated. There is a particular lack of knowledge about the general German occupation policy in the cities, namely the policy not specifically related to the Jewish population alone, and the role that the ghettos played in this policy. The Jews indeed constituted a third of the population in most towns and cities and sometimes even as much as two-thirds. The Romanian and, to a certain extent, the Hungarian administrations were also important in their own right, with the details of their activities remaining virtually untouched by scholars. We also know very little about the activities of the local municipal authorities, which, with the exception of the Polish territories incorporated into the Reich, continued to exist almost everywhere under German occupation. They were able to exert considerable influence on policy in medium-sized and small towns in particular.

            It can generally be ascertained that dispossession and forced labour – two of the principal focuses of research on National Socialism in recent years – have mostly remained untouched by scholarly investigation for Eastern Europe, concerning both the Jewish and the non-Jewish population; here, historians have concentrated almost exclusively on the Reich and on Western Europe (Loose, NS-Verbrechen; Levin, Walls; Ancel, Romanian Jewry). The role of German businesses in the exploitation of Jews in Eastern Europe also remains for the most part unclear. The same is true of the behaviour of the non-Jewish local population who were confronted with the ghettos on a daily basis. This delicate subject has only been taken up in the last few years and is still in need of a thorough investigation.

            The state of research concerning the Jews in the ghettos is very imbalanced. While the work of the Judenräte and the resistance of the Jews have received much attention, the same cannot be said of the Jewish welfare organisations, despite their immense importance. It was only because of these organisations that the majority of ghetto occupants were able to survive for any length of time at all (Silberklang, Lublin District). The case is similar for the role of religion, which was of fundamental importance as a cultural and mental lifeline, and also for the role of families, which gradually fell apart as a result of deportation, disease and murder. Questions of gender history and the life of children have seldom been the subject of in-depth investigation.

            Concerning the living conditions within the ghettos, however, we are relatively well informed, particularly about the miserable dwellings and poor nutrition as well as the medical care available, which was often just as bad. The situation, however, did vary considerably from ghetto to ghetto. It was not without reason that many Jews from the Warsaw ghetto attempted to reach Lublin, where they hoped to find better conditions. Life could also vary within individual ghettos, as a glance at the inequality of some ghetto societies reveals. A small group of better-off Jews could be distinguished from tens of thousands of poor Jews who had been driven out of other cities and found themselves on the bottom rung of ghetto society as refugees. This sometimes had an influence on one's chances of survival, although these continued to depend primarily on German extermination policy, as well as coincidence, which also played a substantial role.

            Altogether, the significance of the ghettos for the persecution of the Jews can hardly be overestimated. It was the ghettos which enabled the perpetrators to gain extensive control over their victims in the first place and to achieve their complete ostracism from the rest of society. The ghettos proved to be places of death, especially for the sick, the elderly, those lacking familial connections and young children. From the end of 1941 onwards, they also became holding pens for the mass murder of the extermination camps and the mass shooting pits. Research into the ghettos is thus, to a large extent, research into the Holocaust as a whole. Thus seen from this perspective, there remains much to do for historians.

Dieter Pohl


An earlier version of this article in German under the title: Ghettos im Holocaust. Zum Stand der historischen Forschung, in: Zarusky, Jürgen (Ed.): Ghettorenten. Entschädigungspolitik, Rechtsprechung und historische Forschung, München, Oldenbourg (Zeitgeschichte im Gespräch; 6), 2010, p. 39 – 50



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[Translated from the German by Kerry Jago]


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