“We have entered into a new life, and it is impossible to imagine the panic that has arisen in the Jewish Quarter. Suddenly we see ourselves penned in on all sides. We are segregated and separated from the world and the fullness thereof, driven out of the society of the human race.” – Chaim Aharon Kaplan, Scroll of Agony (1999) pg. 225
On September 21, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) in the SS, sent the Schnellbrief, a directive that laid out the procedures and treatment towards the Jews in the areas of occupied Poland. It declared that Jews living in towns and villages would be transferred to join larger populations of Jews in the bigger cities, and that Jewish councils, known as Judenräte, should be established, whose purpose was to carry out the orders of the German authorities. The Schnellbrief also set the Aryanisation of Jewish factories as a goal, taking into consideration the needs of the German military and the economic importance of the factories. The Jews were generally housed in the poorest neighbourhoods, and these areas were eventually turned into sealed ghettos, in which the majority of Polish Jewry was incarcerated. A large, hermetically sealed ghetto was established in Lodz in the spring of 1940, and in the autumn of 1940, the largest of the ghettos was established in Warsaw, where nearly half a million Jews were interned.
After the initial mass killings in the Soviet areas occupied by the Germans beginning in June 1941, ghettos were established in these regions as well, even though the Germans intended to leave the Jews in these ghettos for a short time only before murdering them. The largest of these ghettos was established in Minsk, Belorussia, which held approximately 100,000 Jews. The Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944. In May, they began deporting Hungarian Jewry to Auschwitz, and in November decreed the establishment of a ghetto in Budapest in which approximately 70,000 Jews from the city were imprisoned. In all, the Germans established more than 1,000 ghettos in Eastern Europe and a few ghettos in central and Southern Europe.
The German authorities attained several goals by establishing the ghettos: they gathered large numbers of Jews together under conditions of severe congestion and close supervision, deprived them of their property, exploited their labour, isolated them from the rest of the world, made them vulnerable and unprepared at crucial moments, and incited the local population against the Jews, whom they resented anyway.
Daily Life in the Ghettos
The Jews were only permitted to take a few personal items with them to the ghetto, in the process being stripped on the homes and property that they had left behind. The ghettos were extremely crowded and often lacked basic electrical and sanitary infrastructure. The food rations were insufficient for supporting the ghettos’ inhabitants, and the Germans employed brutal measures against the smugglers, including both public and private executions. Starvation increased and worsened in the ghettos and may of the inhabitants became ill or perished.
Despite the inhumane conditions that persisted in the ghettos, communal institutions and voluntary organisations strove to imbue life with meaning and to provide for the public’s needs.
Many risked their lives for higher values, such as the education of their children, preservation of religious traditions, and the fulfilment of cultural activities. Books, intellectual pursuits, music and theatre served as an escape from the harsh reality surrounding them and as a reminder of their previous lives. Artists and intellectuals, children and ordinary individuals, wrote and drew in order to document the fear and dread that descended upon Jewish society. These activities enabled many to rise above the degradation and humiliation that they suffered. Despite the murderous reality to which the Jews were exposed, many enlisted in helping the weak amongst them and founded organisations for mutual aid and welfare. Many Jews placed themselves in grave danger in order to save the lives of others, including children who risked their lives to smuggle food into the ghetto.
The ghetto in Lodz, Poland’s second largest city and major industrial centre, was established on April 30, 1940. It was the second largest ghetto in the German-occupied areas and the one that was the most severely insulated from its surroundings and from other ghettos. Some 164,000 Jews were interned there, to whom were added tens of thousands of Jews from the district, other Jews from the Reich, and also Sinti and Roma. The ghetto, although intended to be a temporary transit facility, lasted for more than four years after the interests of local Nazis led to be a decision to exploit the Jewish labour force.
In the spring of 1940, the Lodz ghetto was sealed from the rest of the world by a wooden fence surrounded by additional barbed-wire fences. The Jews were packed into the ghetto with no electricity or water. Disease and starvation rapidly diminished their numbers.
Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the domineering, controversial chairman of the Lodz Judenrat, believed that labour would give the Jews an opportunity to go on living and the hope to survive. Thus, he established a multifaceted system in which the Jews of the ghetto worked for the Germans, including “Ressorts” (workshops) that employed even young children. The Germans, however, regarded the ghetto’s output as a mere pause in the task at hand – extermination.
In January 1942, deportations from Lodz to the Chelmno murder site began, where the Jews were murdered by means of gas vans. Rumkowski was forced to prepare lists of candidates for deportation and organise the rounding up of the Jews. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to lower the quota of Jews for deportation. By the end of the year, almost half of the Jews interned in Lodz had been murdered in Chelmno. The murder of the Jews of the Lodz ghetto and the surrounding areas continued intermittently until January 1945.
In Warsaw, Poland, the Nazis established the largest ghetto in all of Europe. 375,000 Jews lived in Warsaw before the war – about 30% of the city’s total population. Immediately after Poland’s surrender in September 1939, the Jews of Warsaw were brutally preyed upon and taken for forced labour. In 1939, the first anti-Jewish decrees were issued. The Jews were forced to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David and economic measures against them were taken that led to the unemployment of most of the city’s Jews. A Judenrat (Jewish council) was established under the leadership of Adam Czerniakow, and in October 1940, the establishment of a ghetto was announced. On November 16, the Jews were forced inside the area of the ghetto. Although a third of the city’s population was Jewish, the ghetto stood on just 2.4% of the city’s surface area. Masses of refugees who had been transported to Warsaw brought the ghetto population up to 450,000.
Surrounded by walls that they built with their own hands and under strict and violent guard, the Jews of Warsaw were cut off from the outside world. Within the ghetto, their lives oscillated in the desperate struggle between survival and death from disease or starvation. The living conditions were unbearable, and the ghetto was extremely overcrowded. On average, between six to seven people lived in one room and the daily food rations were the equivalent of one-tenth of the required minimum daily calorie intake. Economic activity in the ghetto was minimal and generally illegal, smuggling of food being the most prevalent of such activity. Those individuals who were active in these illegal acts or had other savings were generally able to survive longer in the ghetto.
The walls of the ghetto could not silence the cultural activity of its inhabitants, however, and despite the appalling living conditions in the ghetto, artists and intellectuals continued their creative endeavours. Moreover, the Nazi occupation and deportation to the ghetto served as an impetus for artists to find some form of expression for the destruction visited upon their world. In the ghetto, there were underground libraries, an underground archive (the “Oneg Shabbat” Archive), youth movements and even a symphony orchestra. Books, study, music and theatre served as an escape from the harsh reality surrounding them and as a reminder of their previous lives.
The crowded ghetto became a focal point of epidemics and mass mortality, which the Jewish community institutions, foremost the Judenrat and the welfare organisations, were helpless to combat. More than 80,000 Jews died in the ghetto. In July 1942, the deportations to the Treblinka death camp began. When the first deportation orders were received, Adam Czerniakow, the chairman of the Judenrat, refused to prepare the lists of persons slated for deportation, and, instead, committed suicide on July 23, 1942.
In 1941, the Nazis established a ghetto in Theresienstadt (Terezin), a garrison town in North-western Czechoslovakia, where they interned the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, elderly Jews and persons of “special merit” in the Reich, and several thousand Jews from the Netherlands and Denmark. Although, in practice, the ghetto, run by the SS, served as a transit camp for Jews en-route to extermination camps, it was also presented as a “model Jewish settlement” for propaganda purposes.
Internal life in Theresienstadt was administered by the Ältestenrat (Judenrat), headed by Jacob Edelstein. Despite severe congestion, food shortages and compulsory labour, the extensive educational and cultural activities in the ghetto reflected prisoners’ will to live and their need for distraction from their plight.
When reports about the death camps began to emerge at the end of 1943, the Nazis decided to present Theresienstadt to an investigative commission of the International Red Cross. In preparation for the commission’s visit, more deportations to Auschwitz were carried out in order to reduce the overcrowding in the ghetto. Fake stores, a coffee house, bank, school, kindergartens and the like were opened and flower gardens were planted throughout the ghetto. The commission arrived in the ghetto on June 23, 1944. Their meetings with prisoners were meticulously planned beforehand. After the visit, the Nazis produced a propaganda film about the new life of the Jews under the auspices of the Third Reich. After finishing filming, most of the actors in the film, including almost all of the independent leadership and most of the children in the ghetto, were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The appalling overcrowding, sanitary conditions and malnourishment led to the spread of diseases amongst the population of the ghetto. In 1942, 15,891 people died in Theresienstadt, half of the ghetto’s population. More than 155,000 Jews passed through Theresienstadt until it was liberated on May 8, 1945; 35,400 perished in the ghetto and 88,000 were deported to be murdered.