Construction of part of the wall that sealed off the Warsaw ghetto from the rest of the city, 1940. (YIVO)

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Establishment of Ghettos

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Although the Nazis borrowed the term ghetto from districts in which Jews had been forced to live—at least until the nineteenth century—in many central and southern European cities, there was little resemblance between Nazi ghettos and their progenitors’ goals, function, or conditions.

Despite the fact that various Nazi officials raised the idea of confining German Jews to ghettos early in the regime, no ghettos were actually established in Germany. The first Nazi order that referred to ghettos for Jews came from SS security chief Reinhard Heydrich’s Schnellbrief (express letter) to senior commanders in Poland on 21 September 1939. The earliest ghetto was established in October 1939 in Piotrków. Heydrich explained the measures to concentrate Polish Jews in large towns near rail lines as a step toward achieving the “final aim” for Jews. However, he did not issue a general order to confine Jews; nor, in fact, did the Nazis ever issue a central order to put all Jews in ghettos. In some places Jews were not put into ghettos until a relatively late stage, or not at all.

Jews moving into the Łódź ghetto, 1940. Photograph by Mendel Grossman or Henryk Ross. (YIVO)

Local German leaders made their own decisions about establishing ghettos in towns under their control and regarding conditions in them. Preexisting Jewish neighborhoods were often used as the basis for a ghetto, especially in poorer districts. The result was a wide range of conditions, from very harsh in the tightly closed Warsaw and Łódź ghettos, which led to tens of thousands of deaths, to the “open” ghettos of some places in the Lublin district, which confined Jews to a certain area but were not fenced in.

The Nazis’ goals in putting Jews in ghettos varied according to place and time. Wherever ghettos were established, one aim was to isolate Jews from the surrounding population and from the Germans. Those responsible for establishing and overseeing ghettos in Poland were generally the German civilian occupation authorities, although the SS also set up ghettos, especially in the later stages of the war. German authorities would pass on the ghettoization orders through the Judenrat, as they generally did with decrees regarding Jews. Ghettos established in 1939–1940 fit more or less into the framework laid out by Heydrich—they were places where Jews would be contained, supervised, and conscripted for forced labor before being sent to another place. These early ghettos, especially the two largest and best known among them, Łódź and Warsaw, became more permanent fixtures as the months passed. As a result, Nazi officials adapted their anti-Jewish policies to fit this reality. Officials followed two general approaches—some wished to fully exploit potential Jewish labor, and some sought to diminish the Jewish presence altogether.

The ghettos established in Poland in the first half of 1941 were created for different reasons. In Kraków, Lublin, and elsewhere they were meant to clear space for German armed forces that were gathering for the impending invasion of the USSR. In Kraków, the head of the Generalgouvernement, Hans Frank, also wanted to rid his capital of Jews for “aesthetic” reasons. Whereas some ghettos therefore concentrated Jews from surrounding areas, others expelled and dispersed them from the city to outlying areas as part of the ghettoization process.

The ghettos established in the USSR following the German invasion in June 1941, like those erected in Poland after that time, had a very different purpose. From the start they were clearly integrated into Nazi plans for murdering Jews; these ghettos were to serve as holding centers for Jews until their time came to be murdered. Indeed, once the Nazis embarked on the “Final Solution,” they began systematically to empty ghettos of their Jewish residents and send them to killing centers. In many places, a small number of Jewish forced laborers were selected to be temporarily left behind, while the others were murdered.

Part of the wall that sealed off the Warsaw ghetto from the rest of the city, at Okopowa Street, ca. 1940. (YIVO)

Ghettos in Hungary and Romania were different. These countries were independent allies of Germany. Thus ghettoization was decreed by each country’s government and implemented by its own police and military. The Romanians deported some 150,000 Jews from the provinces of Bessarabia and Bucovina to Transnistria, in occupied Ukraine, between fall 1941 and fall 1942. Many were killed on the way, while others were confined to Transnistrian ghettos and camps. Conditions there were extremely harsh, and the death rate was very high.

Beginning with Subcarpathian Rus’ in Hungary, the regime began putting Jews from the provinces into ghettos on 16 April 1944, four weeks after the German occupation of the country and nearly two weeks before a formal ghettoization decree was issued on 28 April. These ghettos, like those in the eastern German-occupied areas in the USSR, were short-lived—two to six weeks—and served as temporary holding centers before Jews were deported to their deaths in Auschwitz-Birkenau. The regime then confined the Jews of Budapest to specially marked Jewish houses in June 1944. In December, weeks after the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross party came to power on 15 October, Budapest’s Jews were put into a ghetto where conditions were appalling. Thousands died before the Soviet army liberated the city on 17–18 January 1945.

Suggested Reading

Randolph L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, rev. and enl. ed. (New York, 1994); Christopher R. Browning, “Nazi Ghettoization Policy in Poland, 1939–1941,” Central European History 19.4 (1986): 343–368; Lucjan Dobroszycki, ed., The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 1941–1944, abr. ed. (New Haven, 1984); Israel Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939–1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt, trans. Ina Friedman (Bloomington, Ind., 1989); Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation (Lincoln, Nebr., 1996).