|Confining Jews in ghettos was not Hitler's brainchild. For centuries, Jews had faced persecution, and were often forced to live in designated areas called ghettos . The Nazis' ghettos differed, however, in that they were a preliminary step in the annihilation of the Jews, rather than a method to just isolate them from the rest of society. As the war against the Jews progressed, the ghettos became transition areas, used as collection points for deportation to death camps and concentration camps .|
Hitler incorporated the western part of Poland into Germany
according to race doctrine. He intended that Poles were to become
the slaves of Germany and that the two million Jews therein were to
be concentrated in ghettos in Poland's larger cities. Later this
would simplify transport to the death camps. Nazi occupation
authorities officially told the story that Jews were natural
carriers of all types of diseases, especially typhus, and that it
was necessary to isolate Jews from the Polish community. Jewish
neighborhoods thus were transformed into prisons. The five major ghettos were located in Warsaw , Lódz, Kraków,
Lublin, and Lvov.
On November 23, 1939 General Governor Hans Frank issued an ordinance that Jews ten years of age and older living in the General Government had to wear the Star of David on armbands or pinned to the chest or back. This made the identification of Jews easier when the Nazis began issuing orders establishing ghettos.
In total, the Nazis established 356 ghettos in Poland, the Soviet Union,
the Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary between 1939 and
1945. There was no uniformity to these ghettos. The ghettos in small towns
were generally not sealed off, which was often a temporary measure used
until the residents could be sent to bigger ghettos.
Larger cities had closed ghettos, with brick or stone walls, wooden fences, and barbed wire defining the boundaries. Guards were placed strategically at gateways and other boundary openings. Jews were not allowed to leave the so-called "Jewish residential districts," under penalty of death.
All ghettos had the most appalling, inhuman living conditions. The smallest ghetto housed approximately 3,000 people. Warsaw, the largest ghetto, held 400,000 people. Lódz, the second largest, held about 160,000. Other Polish cities with large Jewish ghettos included Bialystok, Czestochowa, Kielce, Kraków, Lublin, Lvóv, Radom, and Vilna.
Many of the ghetto dwellers were from the local area. Others were from
neighboring villages. In October 1941, general deportations began from
Germany to major ghettos in Poland and further east. Also, Jews from
Austria and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia were sent to the ghettos.
Ghetto life was wretched. The ghettos were filthy, with poor sanitation. Extreme overcrowding forced many people to share a room. Disease was rampant. Staying warm was difficult during bitter cold winters without adequate warm clothes and heating fuel. Food was in such short supply that many slowly starved to death.
Even in the midst of these horrible conditions, many ghetto dwellers resisted dehumanization. Parents continued to educate their children, although it was considered an illegal activity. Some residents secretly continued to hold religious services and observe Jewish holidays.
The Nazis established the Theresienstadt (or Terezín) ghetto in northwestern Czechoslovakia as a so-called model Jewish settlement to counter rumors in the international community about the poor conditions in the ghettos. Flower gardens, cafés, and schools were constructed to demonstrate to visiting International Red Cross inspectors and audiences of Nazi propaganda films the humane conditions of a "typical" ghetto. Terezín also functioned as a transit camp for many who were later sent to Auschwitz or other death camps.
The Nazis undertook to liquidate the ghettos as they began full implementation of "The Final Solution to the Jewish Question" in 1942. Massive deportations of Jews to concentration and death camps continued until the summer of 1944. By that time, almost all of the ghettos had been liquidated.
A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust