The following text will focus on an aspect of Jewish labour in ghettos under German occupation which only recently has become the focus of research: the fact that work for limited wages was the norm for most ghetto inhabitants for long periods of time. Once again as in other chapters of this unit, the General Government will serve as the main example – many of the work conditions there also existed in other regions (e.g. the types of work and production, the long working hours, the fact that social security contributions were deducted from Jewish wages).

For many years, forced labour has dominated the discourse about Jewish work in the ghettos. Recently, stimulated by legal developments in Germany regarding cases brought by Holocaust survivors against the German pension system, historians served as expert witnesses. They have brought to light that Jewish work during the first years of the German occupation took various forms and that work taken up voluntarily against remuneration was the norm for much longer periods in the existence of many ghettos than previously generally understood. The labour market such as it existed under these extreme conditions was heavily tilted against Jews in every important way (e.g. quality and number of available positions, the certainty of receiving remuneration in full or even at all, the amounts paid out, work conditions and hours). The fact that ghetto inhabitants nevertheless engaged in it is yet another example of their strong will to survive.

There are many reasons for this lacuna: Many Holocaust survivors who had spent time in a ghetto only survived subsequently as forced labourers in camps, so that later even worse experiences often predominated and were superimposed over previous experiences. Even more importantly in the legal sphere, official German restitution questionnaires issued during the 1950s and 1960s in their short section on the biography of the submitter did not address the issue of voluntary work in the ghettos, as they were targeted at measures of persecution.

Forced Labour under the SS and Police Administration (Autumn 1939 to Summer 1940)

When the German Wehrmacht occupied Western and Central Poland in September and October 1939, the first form of work experienced by Jews under the new regime was forced labour. Jews were seized in their homes or on the street by German soldiers, were subsequently often kept incommunicado for days, sometimes without access to food, while usually having to clear streets and buildings from rubble and the detritus of war. Soon, they were also used to clear the streets or undertake other auxiliary duties by various German agencies, businesses or even civilians.

Particularly in large cities such as Warsaw this proved to be so disruptive that the Jewish Council under Adam Czerniakow organised a standing Jewish labour battalion of approx. 5.000 workers. The selection of the workers was also left to the Jewish councils. Supervision by Jews promised better work conditions, as it removed the corporal abuse dealt out by many German supervisors. Jews who were still relatively well-to-do were officially able to buy the right to skip their days on duty on the forced labour battalion. For some of the poor, duty in the battalion offered a meal at noon and, inasmuch as the local Jewish council was capable of offering it, a modest salary, so that there were some volunteers (in Warsaw, the number of volunteers was sufficient to suspend forced conscription between autumn 1940 and 1941). Nevertheless, “wild recruitment” by the various German agencies which were establishing themselves did however continue into 1940. Even individuals who had received passes because of their work in the Jewish Councils, the JSS or other necessary positions, were sometimes seized.

At the same time, German anti-Jewish policies as they had been developed over the last six years of Nazi rule in the Reich were being implemented and expanded at an accelerated rate: Jewish property was stolen, bank accounts were frozen, Jewish businesses were expropriated. Among these measures was the expulsion of Jews from their previous employment positions. Simultaneously and in a contradictory manner, the obligation to work for Poles and the compulsion to work for Jews was introduced on 26 October 1939 (the date of the setting up of the German civilian administration for central occupied Poland, the General Government for the occupied Polish territories) [see Document D01] 

. This meant that Jewish men, e.g. between the ages of 12 and 60, had to be in employment, just as many in the Jewish middle classes were expelled from their white-collar jobs. While many Jews were in theory subject to this compulsion to work, there was not enough work to go round in any case. This vicious cycle for the Jews was intentional: They were removed from the general economy, separated from the rest of the population, and forced by unemployment to accept unattractive positions to the benefit of the German war economy.

While the obligation to work for ethnic Poles was fully administered by the Department of Labour and its Labour Offices from the start, the compulsion to work for Jews was also supposed to be administered by the Higher SS- and Police Leader (HSSPF). The Jewish Councils were ordered to have the male Jewish population of working age (12 to 60) to fill in labour registration cards indicating their profession in order to prepare a card index for the administration of Jewish labour. The degree of coverage remained very low in practice, however, despite continuous efforts to get Jewish Council to improve it until 1942.

By the summer of 1940 it had become clear that the HSSPF and his police units were proving ineffective at organising Jewish labour in the General Government. At the same time, the SS and police was generally experiencing losses in a general struggle for power with the civilian administration of the General Government (a situation which would reverse itself two years later). The result was a shift in responsibility for Jewish labour to the Department of Labour [Document D02]. The German administration realised that “voluntary” work – even under the conditions in the ghettos – was more effective than forced labour.

At the same time, a system of forced labour camps for unskilled workers set up in mid-1940 still remained in operation. Most of these camps were located in the Lublin District, were SS- and Police Leader Odilo Globocnik used the 8.000 Jewish workers to build a “moat” along the border with the Soviet Union. Another 10.000 Jews had been sent to 34 camps for land improvement in swampy regions. Initially there were quite a few volunteers, but the generally bad conditions, even in the camps under Jewish administration, led to a steep decline. As these camps were rated to be of little economic use during control visits [Document D03], the Labour Offices mostly stopped sending people there in autumn 1941. Overall there were almost 500 (often short-lived) forced labour camps for Jews throughout the General Government with about 50.000-70.000 inmates, mostly working in terrible conditions. While this was a considerable number, this also means that 80-90% of Jewish labour between the summers of 1940 and 1942 took place on the free market such as it could exist under the conditions of the occupation, with often similarly squalid conditions as in the camps.

The Period of the Predominance of the Department of Labour (Summer 1940 – Summer 1942)

Since the summer of 1940, it was in the interest of the German Labour Offices to preserve the Jewish workforce. The only way the workers could get food was by receiving remuneration, so the Labour Department introduced wages (either in cash or in vitals) for Jewish employees (otherwise the starvation rations would have fallen under the administration’s budgets). Officially, Jews were supposed to earn 20% less than Poles employed in the same position. This led to complaints by employers, who had so far had access to Jewish labour for free. Paying out wages in vitals was not necessarily unattractive to workers, as prices for food on the black market could vary considerably. However, payments often went en bloc through the Jewish councils who financed their budgets by taxes on these wages. Sometimes this meant that the workers would not procure their wage in full or at all, receiving only their rations.

As Poles increasingly became subject to deportations for forced labour in the Reich, Jewish workers were supposed to replace them on the local labour market. There was even pressure on German and Polish businesses to employ Jews in order to free up Poles for deportation in order to meet deportation quotas particularly after mid-1941. Social insurance payments were deducted from every Jewish wage, even though they were barred from accessing any of the benefits. The Jewish Councils were ordered to supply benefits, but without receiving any budget for it. The JSS unsuccessfully lobbied for the cessation of payments to the general social security system, but to no avail – the German administration was not ready to forgo Jewish payments to fill the holes in their budgets.

The development of a specific ghetto economy was particularly felt in Warsaw, even as there were similar developments in other cities and towns on a smaller scale [Document D08]: After the closing of the Warsaw ghetto in November 1940, a new office, the Transferstelle, was charged with exchanging Jewish produce for food shipments. The management of its first director, Alexander Palfinger, was considered quite ineffective by the spring of 1941 – also, the fact that he ran a centralised economy like at his former position at Litzmannstadt Getto displeased economic officials in Krakow. He was promptly fired and replaced with the Austrian banker Max Bischof, who implemented the encouragement of private enterprise. He engaged in a publicity campaign in German newspapers and with the chambers of commerce in the Reich, pointing towards the scarcity of workers in Germany, the high degree of skill among the Jewish craftsmen and Warsaw’s relative safety from the Allied bombing campaign [Document D04]. German companies set up so-called “shops / szops”, often resorting to Jewish businesses as subcontractors. As much of the production went to the Wehrmacht, particularly in the field of textiles, the Rüstungskommando’s importance grew in the procurement of raw materials. These developments led to an improvement of the lot of the workers in the “shops” and their families, since they received a large part of the rations assigned to the ghetto as they were considered the “productive” part of the ghetto population.

Many Jews were, however, not employed officially by anyone. Next to the many jobless, particularly among deportees and refugees, many worked in service industries, in cottage industries, or got involved in street peddling – often selling off their last possessions. Much better established were those who were employed by the bureaucracies of the Jewish Councils, in the Jewish Order Service or the JSS. Of course, many also engage in the risky, if rewarding “illegal” work of smuggling [Document B03].

In June 1942, there was a takeover of all Jewish affairs by the SS and police. Labour assignments of Jews were now only permitted under orders of the local police commander. The Labour Offices, German businesses and the Rüstungskommando only preserved the most necessary workers from annihilation to keep the most urgent war production going. There was a special role of work during the liquidation of the ghettos – it was the only official grounds for survival.

Ghetto Work in Other Territories

Here it is only possible to give some brief indications about the other regions with ghettos under German occupation (not to mention detailed coverage of Romanian occupied Transnistria) [Document D09]. In the Wartheland, Jews were sent to a large number of forced labour camps, including some located along the construction sites of the Autobahn on old Reich territory. The ghetto in Litzmannstadt was transformed into a working ghetto early on by the efforts of the Judenälteste Chaim Rumkowski and, for quite different reasons, Hans Biebow, head of the German Gettoverwaltung – here, production under a centralised economy run by the city administration (Gettoverwaltung) prevailed [see Document D05].

Early on, this administrative body successfully displaced competing private businesses. As mentioned in other chapters, Getto Litzmannstadt was not only one of the earliest, but also the longest lasting ghetto until 1944. In Upper Silesia the so-called Organisation Schmelt under the eponymous police official regulated Jewish labour since September 1940. About half of the total of 17.000 labourers in autumn 1941 had to work in camps along the Autobahn under bad conditions, while the factories in Bedzin and Sosnowiec were more favourable (workers could stay with their families in their flats). Work conditions in territories occupied after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 were quite different, as they were preceded by waves of mass killings [Document D07]. But even here, Jews thrust into leadership positions in ghettos pursued a “work to live” strategy, as Jacob Gens did in Wilno. In some areas, only highly skilled Jews (doctors, highly specialised craftsmen), sometimes with their families, were left alive.


Giles Bennett