Previous Document Next Document

Yisrael Gutman

The ghettos in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe were established at the beginning of World War II, after the conquest of Poland in 1939, and the occupation of Soviet-annexed territories in June, 1941. There was no general directive to seal off the ghettos simultaneously. The first ghetto in occupied Poland-Piotrkow Trybunalski-was set up in the autumn of 1939. The Lodz ghetto, which at the time of its isolation from the outside world had 165,000 inhabitants, was formed in the spring of 1940. The Warsaw ghetto, the largest, which at its peak period contained 450,000 Jews, was sealed in November, 1940. The administrations of the various ghettos were not identical. Thus, the Lodz ghetto was hermetically sealed: No one might enter or leave it, and no article was brought in or out without the knowledge and consent of the authorities. On the other hand, although the Warsaw ghetto was strictly isolated, quite a large number of Poles were permitted to enter it, and a few Jews were allowed, under specific circumstances, to leave its confines for limited periods of time. Most important of all, however, was the fact that during the entire existence of the Warsaw ghetto, a brisk trade existed in smuggled goods, in the course of which food was illegally brought into the ghetto in exchange for Jewish valuables, clothing, and various household utensils. Conversely, there were ghettos from which Jews were permitted to leave for a few hours to make purchases and arrange matters of essential importance. The Warsaw ghetto was isolated from the outside word by a wall 9.8 feet high, covered with fragments of glass and barbed wire. Other ghettos were closed off by barbed wire or wooden fences. The Lodz ghetto was guarded by German sentries; the gates of the Warsaw ghetto were patrolled by groups of German, Polish, and Jewish policemen.

The first ghettos separating Jews from the Christian population were located in Italy in the sixteenth century. During the nineteenth century, with the Emancipation of the Jews in most European countries, the ghettos were abolished. Even in the twentieth century, districts and quarters of eastern European towns inhabited mainly by Jews were often dubbed ghettos, but Jews were, in fact, not legally obliged to reside in those areas. The ghettos were simply mixed neighborhoods with a predominantly Jewish population, and they were not naturally isolated from the rest of the city by any physical barrier. The ghettos of the later Middle Ages were designed to give practical expression to the Christian doctrine that Jews should live among Christians under inferior and menial conditions and that, consequently, communities must be divided and the Jews isolated. At the same time, it must be noted that, to a certain extent, this isolation was in accordance with the security requirements of the Jewish community, as well as with its unique religious and cultural character.

in contrast to the ghettos of the Middle Ages, the ghettos during the Nazi period were not intended as a permanent framework, but simply as a stage in preparation for a future general solution to the "Jewish Problem." The Nazis gave several pretexts for the establishment of ghettos: For example, they wished to prevent the dissemination of diseases supposedly prevalent among Jews, or to suppress alleged black-market activities by Jews. While the Nazi authorities definitely aimed at establishing an impenetrable barrier between Jews and non-Jews, their main objectives were the creation of extremely harsh living conditions, isolation from the outside world, and the internment of Jews in vast prisons under conditions of total helplessness. These goals would, in turn, lead to the breakdown of their physical, mental, and social structure, destroying their resistance as a community.

These ghettos became miniature self-contained states. The Nazis claimed that the ghetto was autonomous. At first, some Jews were deluded into believing that a separate ghetto in which the Jews would be left to their own devices would actually be to their advantage, but the bitter truth became rapidly clear. The Jewish community in the ghetto was obliged to arrange and handle matters with which it had never dealt formerly. Before the creation of the ghettos, the communal authorities looked after religious affairs, welfare, and supplementary education. Occasionally, the community appeared as a representative body to defend Jewish interests in various sectors. In the ghettos, however, the situation changed. The Jewish administration was obliged to take charge of such matters as labor, food, and housing, usually handled by the government. Activities formerly the province of municipal, welfare, or educational institutions were given to the Jewish ghetto administration as the sole representative of the Jews to German military authorities and Polish municipal bodies. The ghetto administration was also forced to create a police force and prisons, institutions far removed from the traditional activities of the Jewish community and in which it had no experience.

The ghetto administration, or Jewish Council (Judenrat), is a term with very negative connotations. During the past few years, scholars have carefully reappraised the individual Judenrte and their activities, and have concluded that a totally negative picture is not always justified. The Judenrte were set up in accordance with a general decree by the Nazis, who did not conceal their intentions: They wanted a Jewish representation that would carry out German orders and commands to the letter and would be responsible to the Nazi authorities for the implementation of those orders. The Jews, on the other hand, assumed that the Judenrte would represent and protect Jewish interests as far as possible. The respective expectations of both sides towards the Judenrte were, thus, diametrical opposites. In most ghettos, the first Judenrat leaders were eventually removed from office or murdered and were replaced by men the Germans found more compliant to their wishes, who accepted their fate without protest, knowing that the penalty for any attempt at rebellion was death.

The primary and most disturbing problem that faced the Jews in the ghetto was food and provisions. Almost all sources of Jewish income had been seized or prohibited. Moreover, the Germans had separated the Jews from the general economy, and forbade them to engage in most professions. Jewish property was confiscated, and Jewish-owned shops and factories expropriated. Jews were forbidden to hold private stocks of merchandise or cash, and periodically the Nazis raided Jewish homes and stole whatever they wanted. The Germans instituted forced labor for the Jews, but the Jews received either no payment at all or a sum that did not even suffice to buy a loaf of stale bread. This struggle for life in the ghetto was called "sanctification of life" by Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum in the Warsaw ghetto. He explained that previously, when those who persecuted the Jews wished to break their spirit and destroy their faith in God, the Jews' answer was "sanctification of the Name" (that is, it was permissible and preferable to die rather than deny the principles of Jewish law and faith). During the Nazi era, however, when the enemy planned the death of Jews, the answer could only be "sanctification of life" - one had to protect one's life and preserve the spark of life. How did the Jews respond to Nazi persecution? Chaim Aharon Kaplan, a Jewish teacher in

Warsaw who kept a diary in Hebrew, wrote on April 24, 1940:

Lord God! Where do all these people find the money to support themselves? Any form of business of profession is forbidden to them. All businesses have been liquidated; all positions which yielded an income have been abolished; thousands of out-of-work officials roam the streets of Warsaw; there is no [economic sector] apart from grocery stores, which can manage to exist; everything has been shut and closed down, smashed and shattered; all sources of income are blocked; and to top it all a life of shame and humiliation; for there are streets whose right or left sidewalk is forbidden to Jews, and a notice in enormous letters informs one of this. Nevertheless, the multitude lives; the multitude is alert; the multitude declares the conqueror's decrees null and void as the dust of the earth, and does everything in its power to hoodwink him and to deceive him, and to carry out all its activities secretly and indirectly, and God supplies it with sustenance. (1)
What is the meaning behind Kaplan's words? What he, in fact, meant was that the Jews did not capitulate and did not succumb without resisting. The Nazis demanded that Jews hand over their money and movable possessions, but the Jews did not comply with the order. The Nazis forbade the Jews to engage in trade or work as artisans, but the Jews labored in secret and manufactured goods clandestinely. The Nazis prohibited communal prayer, but the Jews gathered despite the prohibition and held services on weekdays and festivals. The Nazis forbade the Jews to open schools, but the Jews organized clandestine kindergartens and schools for all age groups. In Warsaw and the other ghet.tos, there was an incessant illegal trade in food to supplement the starvation rations imposed by the Germans. The Jews organized networks and individually smuggled contraband food into the ghetto. The ghetto wall was virtually a front line. Children and adults who were caught smuggling were killed at the wall, but trade did not cease. Approximately 80 percent of all food that entered the ghetto arrived illegally.

Should this tenacious regard for life shown by the eastern European Jews be considered solely the natural instinct of human beings in distress - to summon all of one's mental and physical powers in an effort to remain alive? it may well be that the powerful will to live in every person guided the Jews in their battle for life. But did the uniqueness of Jewish life in the ghettos lie solely in this desire for life?

From the communal and political points of view, the internal organization of eastern European Jews created a framework of unity and mutual responsibility. Despite the fact that prominent personalities among Polish Jews left Warsaw during the first days of the war, political Zionist bodies and the Bund (Socialist labor party) began to operate as underground groups immediately after the Nazi occupation of Poland. The leaders of the Zionist Halutz youth movement also left with the stream of refugees from the Polish capital, but they sent back a few of their activists on the assumption that their members would need guidance and leadership even under the occupation.

The political and social underground organizations were mostly concerned with mutual help and the acquisition of basic material necessities, but an argument speedily arose as to whether they should stop there. Following discussions, the political underground turned its activities in two directions - help and social aid on the one hand, and the organization of propaganda and political affairs on the other. Mutual aid, backed by prominent underground figures and heads of the American Jewish joint Distribution Committee (JDC), was organized. The organization's legal public activities coexisted with illegal operations. Thus, for example, soup kitchens provided the needy with bowls of soup and slices of bread and simultaneously served as schools, clubs for underground organizations, and sites for covert cultural meetings. In the Kovno, Vilna, and Bialystok ghettos, various departments of the Judenrat aided clandestine cultural activities. In the Warsaw ghetto, there was an underground Jewish press. in view of the fact that Jews were forbidden to possess radios, and that the official Jewish-Polish language newspaper only carried bulletins issued by the Germans, the secret press - which carried reliable news from the free world and the Yishuv (Jewish community in Palestine), criticism of the Judenrte and explanations of fundamental ideas - was a valuable organ which supplied the Jews with trustworthy information and encouragement. The secret press was operated by various political bodies, but the largest role in preparing and distributing the newssheets was played by members of youth movements from all political parties. These movements played a central role in the underground in the Warsaw ghetto; moreover, they initiated resistance in many other ghettos and maintained close contact among them by means of male, and particularly female, liaison officers, who concealed their Jewish identity and traveled on behalf of their organizations. The youth movements did not extend material help alone, or aim only at physical survival, but concentrated their efforts on creating spiritual and intellectual leadership for their young members, training them for their future roles. The youth movements established secret study circles and a Gymnasium (senior high school), organized seminars for youth leaders and secret national conferences, opened underground training centers, and established an organizational network that extended over all of occupied Poland.

In Warsaw, Emmanuel Ringelblum, the historian and Zionist communal worker, founded a secret archive code-named Oneg Shabbat. Workers in the archive collected many official documents, commissioned articles, and organized secret surveys in order to save the broadest picture of Jewish life under the Nazis. Much of the documentary material in our hands today comes from this source. A similar archive was founded later by Mordechai Tannenbaum-Tamrof, an active member of the Zionist Dror-Hehalutz movement in the Bialystok ghetto. In Vilna, a group of writers and underground activists also supervised the collection of historically valuable material. Many Jews wrote memoirs in which, apart from personal and family events, they recorded data concerning the community and Jewish life in general. Some of these diaries have been preserved and have aided in the reconstruction of the struggle for life and clandestine activities of the Jewish underground.

Gutman, Yisrael. "The Ghettos." In Genocide, Critical Issues of the Holocaust: A Companion to the Film Genocide, ed. by Alex Grobman and Daniel Landes. Los Angeles, CA: Simon Wiesenthal Center; Chappaqua, NY: Rossel Books, 1983.


  1. Chaim A. Kaplan, The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan, ed. Abraham I. Katsh (Megillat Yesurin), [Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Am Oved/Yad Vashem, 1966), p. 221.

Copyright © 1998, The Simon Wiesenthal Center
9760 West Pico Boulevard, Los Angeles, California 90035
Index to Aticles
Other Exhibits
Museum of Tolerance Learning Center - Home