Introduction: Ghettos in German Occupied Eastern Europe

The majority of Jews persecuted by the Nazis shared the experience of being forced to live in a ghetto for a certain period of time. Some of these ghettos existed for several years, others merely for a few weeks or even for days. While several ghettos were hermetically sealed and surrounded by walls or a fence, others were left open and only defined by certain designated streets. According to recent research conducted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), there were more than 1100 ghettos in occupied Eastern Europe, among them about 600 on former Polish territory, 130 in the Baltic States and about 250 in the pre-war territories of the Soviet Union. To these numbers one can add the ghettos in Romanian controlled Transnistria and those established in Hungary in 1944. The latter two categories will not be part of this online panel, as it focuses on ghettos in German occupied Eastern Europe. We will also concentrate on ghettos in occupied Poland, as many of them existed long enough to allow for the development of social structures and the creation of a plethora of documents. However, this does not mean that the other regions will be left out of consideration completely.

As there was no centralized German policy of ghettoisation, there was no consistent typology of the ghetto. Instead, there were significant local differences and also – even more importantly – differences concerning the aims and means of ghettoisation throughout the years of the Second World War. Where and when a ghetto was established had great influence on the resulting living conditions, the duration of its existence and ultimately the fate of its inmates. Two important periods can be differentiated: between September 1939 and summer 1941 ghettos were set up in German-occupied Poland at different times and for different reasons. They were intended as a means to temporarily concentrate Jews before their ultimate displacement. However, many of these ghettos existed longer than expected by the occupiers. The second period started with the German attack on the Soviet Union in summer 1941. Ghettos which were established after this time in the newly occupied territories were immediately connected with the implementation of the “Final Solution”.

There were closed ghettos which were sealed off, so called open ghettos without borders, which were clearly marked by a wall or fence, as well as work ghettos and destruction ghettos, where Jews were only concentrated for a short period of time before they were killed. Even today there is no clear definition of what constituted a ghetto at that time. It is sometimes not easy to define whether there was a ghetto or not in a particular location, particularly if the situation in question only lasted for a short time. Some ghettos were huge like the ones in Warsaw or Lodz, but there were also small ghettos with only a few dozen inmates. Living conditions differed extremely. In some cities more than one ghetto was established, sometimes due to lack of space in one designated area, sometimes in order to separate the workers from those unfit to work and sometimes in order to separate the local population from Jews deported from Germany as was the case in Riga and Minsk.

The official contemporary terminology also differed, with terms such as “Wohngebiet der Juden”, “Jüdisches Wohnviertel” or “Jüdischer Wohnbezirk” as well as “Ghetto”. There was no precise definition of the term “ghetto” by central German authorities, nor was there an overarching order from Berlin for the creation of ghettos. Instead, the establishment of ghettos depended on local initiatives and developments. As Dan Michman puts it: “What we do have is a welter of explanations and interpretations produced by Nazi bureaucrats while the Holocaust was raging – suggesting that the Germans themselves were certain neither about the ghetto´s origins nor its rationale.” (Michman, p. XII) The different approaches by various German local administrations are portrayed in chapter a) The German Administration.

In the larger ghettos which existed for a longer period of time, social structures developed and many Jews tried to organize their lives under these completely new circumstances. On the one hand, there were the Jewish Councils or Councils of Elders, established on German orders to organize Jewish life under occupation and – above all – to fulfil German commands. On the other hand, there were also many initiatives from within the community to organise life under these terrible new conditions with the objective of resisting physical and psychological destruction. People tried to handle a life as normal as possible under these abnormal circumstances. In some ghettos,  a rich cultural and social life developed, including schools, concerts and theatres. In contrast to concentration camps, families continued to live together in the ghettos, even if they now existed under totally changed circumstances than they had known before. Thus, family and private life still existed there, which is – with all the changes that took place over time – quite well documented for some of the ghettos. The sources we can use to analyse internal ghetto life and structures are presented in some detail in the introduction on “Sources”.

Ghettos in occupied Poland 1939-1941

About 2 million Polish Jews came under German rule when World War II started. Whereas in 1933, the Nazi government counted about 500.000 German Jews, it was now faced with a much larger Jewish population under its control. There were no plans for ghettoisation, as the occupiers on the contrary hoped to get rid of all the Jews in their sphere of control. They hoped to accomplish this by provoking their mass escape to Soviet territories and by deporting the remaining Jews to reservation territories, either in the Eastern part of the Polish territories or on the French colonial island of Madagascar. Due to the impossibility of implementing these grandiose schemes, the plans changed: Heydrich´s infamous Schnellbrief of 21 September 1939, complemented by the minutes of the actual meeting of this day, show that he did not intend to stabilise ghettoisation [see Document A01].

His goal was only to ensure the concentration of Jewish communities in well-connected cities to control them and make their future deportation easier. Heydrich also ordered the establishment of Jewish Councils as the central organ designated to fulfil German orders and organize Jewish life. The establishment of the Jewish Councils was not necessarily linked to the emerge of ghettos in their respective towns: There were many places in occupied Poland where a Jewish Council was established, but the Jewish population continued to live in their homes and no ghetto was created at all. This was often the case in smaller communities. The history of Jewish Councils and Councils of Jewish Elders is analysed in chapter b) Jewish Administration.

It depended on the local administration as to whether, when and under which circumstances ghettos were established. In the Radom District of the General Government in Poland orders to separate the Jewish population were issued soon after occupation started. The Landräte had been assigned to regulate local conditions, which some did by ordering the establishment of special Jewish quarters in Petrikau/Piotrkow Trybunalski (October 1939) and Radomsko (December 1939). Similar orders in Pulawy in the Lublin District (even though this ghetto was dissolved again by the end of the year) also led to the establishment of a ghetto at this early stage.

The two largest ghettos in occupied Eastern Europe were the ones in Warsaw (in the so called General Government) and Lodz (the city, which was annexed to the German Reich, was renamed Litzmannstadt in 1940 and became part of Reichsgau Wartheland). They were closed ghettos: the one in Lodz was sealed off with a fence, the one in Warsaw with walls. Preparations for the Lodz ghetto already started in late 1939. In this case, the ghetto was clearly meant as a transitory means of concentration until it was possible to expel all Jews from the city, which was supposed to be “germanized”. By confining all Jews in a closed district, officials also wanted to extort all valuables from them in exchange for food. In February 1940, the Chief of Police ordered all Jews in Lodz to move to run-down areas in the northern part of town: the Old City, Baluty and Marysin. On 30 April the ghetto was closed. After a while, it became clear that the Jews would not be expelled in the near future and local officials had to accept the ghetto´s long-term existence. It then became the first ghetto where Jewish labour was exploited on a large scale: The Wehrmacht, but also many German companies benefited from cheap Jewish labour. In the end, the ghetto in Lodz turned out to be the ghetto in occupied Poland which existed for the longest period of time. Throughout 1940 and 1941, most of the smaller communities in the Reichsgau Wartheland were ghettoised as well – the majority of them were in the Eastern part of the Reichsgau, as Jews in the western part had been expelled further east in the first months of the occupation.

The ghetto in Warsaw was not established before November 1940 (even though this ghettoisation was preceded by several earlier plans which did not work out). In Lodz and Warsaw just as in many other places, the act of moving the Jews to the designated area was quite complicated as far too many people had to find housing in an area that was almost always much too small. The Jewish Councils had to organize this complicated task. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz and Adam Czerniaków in Warsaw were the most well-known chairmen of such Councils. During the war and subsequently their behaviour and enforced cooperation with the German administration have been the subject of many, sometimes heated discussions [see b) Jewish Administration].

A new wave of ghettoisation which occurred in spring 1941 can partly be explained by the preparations for the attack on the Soviet Union: Already earlier, the lack of housing had been one possible reason for the establishment of ghettos; now German soldiers were supposed to be accommodated in apartments or houses formerly owned by Jews. In March, ghettos were established in Krakow and Lublin, one month later in Kielce, Radom and Czestochowa; ghettoisation was ordered throughout many communities in the Krakow and Radom Districts. In smaller towns, this tended to result in open ghettos. Sometimes ghettoisation was limited to the order to the Jews not to leave the limits of their villages.

But even after this period, ghettos had not yet been established throughout the General Government. By the end of 1941 in the Lublin district, for example, neither did “most of the Jews nor most of the communities live in ghettos in the full sense of the term ‘ghetto'; the conditions in most communities in no way resembled those that prevailed in Warsaw and Lodz and caused so many deaths” (David Silberklang, in Michman, XXVIf). The most important ghettos were those in Lublin, Opole, Piaski and Zamosc. In the Krakow district, most ghettos were also not established before 1941 and 1942.

The motives for ghettoisation varied during this first period: Jews were supposed to be isolated from the rest of the population and concentrated to make their future resettlement easier. A reason frequently cited by German officials was the alleged danger of diseases spread by Jews. The fear of typhus caused a more systematic wave of ghettoisation in the fall of 1941. Ghettoisation was alo a lucrative strategy of enrichment: Jews were forced to leave many of their belongings behind when they had to move to the designated area within a very short time frame and had to sell everything they could beneath its actual value. In occupied Poland some ghettos were only established much later, in 1942, when deportations to the annihilation centres had already started, in order to serve as assembly points of the future victims.

There were also differences concerning the policy towards the Jews within the ghettos: There were German officials who wanted to take advantage of the available cheap manpower for German production, while others in contrast to this policy sought to annihilate the Jewish population by letting them starve to death or die of epidemic diseases, something scholars have called “indirect annihilation”. Work in the ghettos, a central factor both to occupational agencies as well as one of the few sources of sustenance for the inmates, is dealt with in d) Work.

Ghettos and mass murder

In spite of all these differences the ghettos established in occupied Poland before the summer of 1941 were quite distinct in character from those installed after 22 June 1941. As of this time, ghettos were clearly connected to mass murder. From the very beginning, Einsatzgruppen and police forces shot Jewish men; in August 1941 they started shooting women and children, while as of September they wiped out entire Jewish communities.

In the occupied Soviet territories, there was even less of a uniform policy of ghettoisation than in occupied Poland. It strongly depended on the timing and logistics of the mass murder of the Jews. In many cases, conflicts arouse between the SS and police forces and the newly installed civil administration, which sought to use Jewish labour for their purposes. Sometimes there were mass shootings resulting in the annihilation of whole Jewish communities without the setting up of any ghettos at all, as was the case in the Babi Yar shooting in Kiev [for the development in Ukraine see The Holocaust in Ukraine]. Sometimes Jews were concentrated for a very short period of time before first shootings were conducted. Often there were mass killings before the remaining Jewish population was concentrated in a ghetto. In many cases the survivors were workers and their families. For them, the ghetto was a place where they only had a chance of survival by working for the Germans. But even these survivors of the first massacres were by no means safe - there were selections and further “reductions” of the population, so that they were all living in constant fear.

In Wilno (Vilnius) mass murder in nearby Ponary already started in July 1941, when about 5000 Jews were killed; another 14.000 were murdered during the first days of September, before two ghettos were established for the remaining approximately 40.000 Jews. There were more selections and shootings of those unfit to work in November and December. Afterwards the situation stabilized, as most of the ghetto inhabitants were workers for the German war economy. Before the ghetto was liquidated in September 1943, about half of the remaining Jews were taken to labour camps. A similar development occurred in other large cities in the region, such as in nearby Kaunas.

Ghettos were also set up in the areas where the Einsatzgruppen carried out the first mass shootings in summer 1941, but then moved on further east, such as in the Bialystok District and Generalkommissariat Wolhynien und Podolien. Here the ghettos, which were established after the first wave of killings, existed for quite a while afterwards. An example for this is the Bialystok ghetto, where structures developed which were similar to those in the ghettos in the areas of Poland that had been under German occupation since September 1939. Some of these ghettos were not established until 1942, so that these regions also exhibited notable differences concerning the particular time when ghettos emerged.

Eastern Galicia was incorporated into the General Government. After a first wave of killings in summer 1941, two ghettos were established in Tarnopol and Stanislawow in the autumn; in Stanislawow, about 10.000 Jews were killed in October as the area designated for the ghetto was considered too small to hold them all. In Lemberg (Lwów) Jews were ordered to move to a designated area within the period of one month in November 1941, but this was interrupted as epidemics spread in the city.

During 1942 the majority of Jews in Eastern Galicia was killed, mainly in the Belzec extermination camp [see The Nazi Camps and the Persecution and Murder of the Jews]. Most of the ghettos in this region were only established in 1942, shortly before the local population was transported to Belzec. Mass deportations from Lwow were conducted in August 1942. Only afterwards was a ghetto established and sealed off by a fence. Before the perimeter was completed, the chairman of the Jewish Council as well as members of the Jewish Order Service were hanged in public in early September 1942. Jews still alive in Eastern Galicia by the end of 1942 were forced to live either in labour camps or in one of the “work ghettos”.

The ghettos in Minsk (Belarus) and Riga (Latvia) were specials cases, as German Jews were deported there in late 1941 and at the beginning of 1942. For a while they lived in special parts of the ghettos. Thousands of local Jews were killed by SS and Police because they wanted to make space for the new arrivals. The ghetto in Minsk had already been established in July 1941 under military administration. At its peak about 80.000 Jews were held here. After several mass murder operations, thousands of Jews lived in this ghetto, working for the German war effort until October 1943.

Relatively few ghettos in the occupied Soviet territories (whether in those areas annexed by the USSR between 1939 and 1941 or on old Soviet territory) existed long enough to develop the community and social structures exhibited by the larger Polish ghettos. Wilno, Kaunas, Riga and Bialystok could be mentioned as examples, as they lasted until 1943. Yet in general, ghettos established in the occupied Soviet Union differed a lot from those in occupied Poland.

Deportations and the liquidation of the ghettos

The escalation of anti-Jewish violence developed into genocidal killings during the attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941. This was accompanied by a process of decision-making in the German leadership which eventually led to the inclusion of all Jews in the German sphere of influence into a program of total extermination. The large Jewish population in the ghettos in occupied Poland would soon become the target of mass murder by gassing.

The Lodz ghetto was the first major ghetto from which Jews were selected to be deported en masse to their deaths. Mass murder by gassing in the Chelmno (Kulmhof) extermination centre had started in December 1941. At the same time Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski was ordered to choose 20.000 Jews to be deported – supposedly to villages and small towns to improve the overcrowded situation in the ghetto. In January 1942 deportations from Lodz to Chelmno started. Until end of May, more than 55.000 Jews were deported, while in September more than 15.000 sick persons, children under 10 and people older than 65 years were selected for death. Just under 90.000 Jews remained in the Lodz ghetto, which by then was the only ghetto that remained in the Reichsgau Wartheland. Almost all of those whose deportation had been postponed worked in the factories. The ghetto had turned into a working ghetto and existed until summer 1944, making it both the first large ghetto to be subject to mass deportations to an extermination camp and the ghetto which existed for the longest period of time.

Most Jews in the ghetto's in the General Government were murdered in the extermination camps of the "Aktion Reinhardt". Here, there were no long pauses in the annihilation process as had been the case in Lodz. Starting in March 1942, Jews from the Lublin and Galicia Districts were murdered in Belzec. To make the mass murder more efficient, two more killing centres with gas chambers were installed in Sobibor and Treblinka [see d) Camps of Operation Reinhard]. At the latter, the majority of the Jewish men, women and children of the biggest Jewish community in Europe were murdered right after arrival: On 22 July 1942, Adam Czerniaków, the chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council, was ordered to organize the deportation of 5000 persons a day – the following night he committed suicide. More than 260.000 Jews were murdered in Treblinka until the 22 September, while several thousand were shot in the ghetto during the raids.

Only some ghettos remained in the General Government after the mass murder campaign of 1942. Examples of these ghettos are Warsaw, where the deportations to Treblinka stopped in September 1942 as well as Radom, Kielce, Częstochowa and Krakow. They were all liquidated during the course of 1943 together with the last remaining ghettos in the Galicia District. The dissolution of the ghettos and also attempts at armed resistance are presented and documented in e) Dissolution and Resistance.

Ghettos outside Eastern Europe?

No ghettos were established in occupied Western or Northern Europe. In Greece a ghetto existed for a short period of time in Salonika. As mentioned above, Romania and Hungarian authorities under German occupation also established ghettos in some territories under their control. There were discussions about setting up a ghetto in Amsterdam, but these were cancelled by the end of November 1941.

There is one notable geographic exception: In the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in the German-occupied Czech Lands, a ghetto was established in Theresienstadt by the end of 1941. During a secret meeting on 10 October 1941, convened by the newly arrived deputy “Reichsprotektor” Reinhard Heydrich, the “Jewish Question” in Bohemia and Moravia was discussed. To clear the Protectorate of Jews, a ghetto seemed to be the appropriate interim solution. Later on, Theresienstadt was chosen as the location of the ghetto. There has been a scholarly debate about the question whether Theresienstadt was a ghetto or rather a concentration camp as German sources refer to Theresienstadt both as to a “ghetto” and a “camp”. There is good reason to define it as a ghetto, however: Some aspects to be mentioned in this regard are the Jewish administration (Council of Elders) and the social and cultural life that was still possible here. Also important is the fact that family members were still able to meet freely after work hours, even after the introduction of separated housing for women and men [see c) Daily Life, see also Document A10].

In particular, Czech, Austrian and German Jews were sent to and concentrated in Theresienstadt. For many Jews, it was only a stopover on their way to the sites of mass murder further East. The Germans also used it as a ghetto for elderly and privileged Jews and as a “model ghetto” for propaganda purposes such as a visit by the Red Cross in June 1944. Theresienstadt was also the last ghetto: It was liberated by the Red Army in May 1945.

This short overview cannot aim at any kind of completeness. It is designed to shed light on several different types of ghettos, established during different periods of the German occupation in different areas for different reasons - no consistent policy of ghettoisation existed. The questions of when and where a ghetto was established is of the highest importance when analysing the history of a ghetto and the fate of its inhabitants. There were ghettos that existed for quite a long period of time. In these cases one can analyse the daily life, social patterns, behaviours and views of the inhabitants. The Jews in the ghettos had different experiences and reacted differently, even if many of them ultimately shared the same fate.

Andrea Löw