THE GHETTOS, 1939-1945
September Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi in charge of "the Jewish
question" in Poland, sent out an order: all small-town and shtetl Jews in
Poland were to be relocated to the large cities where the Gestapo, the Nazi
secret police, could "watch" them more efficiently. By 1941, most
Polish Jews had been moved to the slums of Warsaw, Kovno, Krakow, Lublin, and
other cities. Western Jews, including those of Germany, were moved eastward into
Poland to join them. Walls were built to separate the Jews from the Polish
people. The Nazi ghettos had been established.
The Warsaw Ghetto
Because the documents that survived the destruction of
the Warsaw ghetto are so complete, they provide a detailed picture of Jewish
life in isolation. In Warsaw alone almost 450,000 Jews were squeezed into an
area in which 145,000 had lived before. There were fifteen hundred buildings in
the ghetto and about fourteen people lived in each apartment. There were no
gardens or open spaces, so finding fresh air was nearly impossible.
With so many people in such a small space, disease
spread and there were many epidemics. In 1941 a typhus epidemic struck. Doctors
had little or no medicine,
and many Jewish lives were lost.
But disease was hardly the greatest threat to life.
Hunger was. Cut off from the rest of the world, the Jews depended on the Nazis
for food. The Nazis refused to give them meat, fish, fresh vegetables, or fruit.
Instead, the Jews were given bread, potatoes, and fats to live on; and each
person was limited to about eight hundred calories a day. (An adult male uses
about two thousand calories a day just to maintain normal body weight.) People
died by the dozens.
There were fifteen entrances to the Warsaw ghetto, each
guarded by Polish and German soldiers who were told to shoot on sight any Jew
who came too close. Only work gangs, closely watched by soldiers of the Gestapo,
were allowed to leave the ghetto.
Controlling the Ghetto
The Germans had no offices in the ghetto and seldom
appeared there. For a while the Nazis amused themselves by conducting tours of
the ghetto for German soldiers on leave, taking them into the Warsaw ghetto to
show the Jews lying dead in the streets. But some soldiers did not find this
amusing--in fact, they were so disturbed by what they saw that the Nazis
canceled these tours in 1942.
Control of the ghettos was put in the hands of Jewish
"councils" or Judenrate (often made up of individuals
handpicked by the Germans). They were told to obey German orders or be replaced.
To enforce their decisions, the Nazis also set up Jewish "police forces."
They tried to find Jews who would be a part of these forces willingly, even
recruiting Jewish criminals. The Nazis gave these police forces uniforms, armed
them with whips and clubs, and allowed them to terrorize other Jews. Many of
these "policemen" were all too ready to comply, reasoning that the
Nazis would spare them in the end. But in the end the policemen were sent to
their deaths along with all the other Jews.
Finding Jews who were eager to cooperate was a favorite
Nazi trick for controlling the ghetto. In one ghetto in particular they managed
to find such a person among the top Jewish leadership. This was Chaim Rumkowski,
head of the Lodz Judenrat. The Nazis
saw in him a man who loved power, and so they gave him almost complete power. He
was the ruler of the nearly 160,000 Jews in the Lodz ghetto, and he behaved as
if he were their king.
Rumkowski often appeared in public surrounded by his
admirers, wearing a white cape and hat. He raised taxes for the ghetto, coined
money, and even had postage stamps printed with his picture on them. He reserved
the right to arrest or pardon his "subjects." He told everyone that
what he wanted was "peace in the ghetto," and that he hoped to save
the lives of the Jews of Lodz. In 1944, when the last trainload of Jews was
transported out of the Lodz ghetto, the Nazis stuffed Rumkowski aboard. They had
no more use for him: he was just another Jew. But Rumkowski had served them well--there
was never an uprising or rebellion in Lodz.
In general, the Judenrate
tried to watch over the sanitation and health of the people in the ghetto,
running its clinics and hospitals. They were also in charged with assigning
people to work forces--both inside the ghetto and in factories outside the
Everyone wanted to work, for those who did not were soon
rounded up by the Germans and sent away to concentration camps. People often
tried to bribe members of the Judenrat to
assign them work, and the members of some Judenrate
soon discovered that assigning the "right" people to work could
make them rich. In fact, bribery became a part of Jewish life in the ghetto.
Smugglers, for example, grew wealthy and powerful
through bribery. They bribed SS men to ensure that shipments could be sent out
of the ghetto and other shipments brought in. So small industries grew up in the
ghetto which produced things to be sold outside. There was even one insurance
company set up to insure shipments being made by smugglers. In Warsaw one
smuggler became so wealthy that he gave parties for writers and artists and even
ran his own ambulance service.
Children, too, became smugglers to help their families
survive. Sometimes they slipped past the guards at the gates, at times through
small openings in the ghetto walls, and at times through the sewers that
connected the ghetto with the Polish city outside. Once out of the ghetto, the
children begged and stole food and firewood to be taken back inside. Many
families depended on their children to be clever smugglers.
Threats and Deception
In effect, the Nazis controlled the ghettos by a kind
of blackmail. They said that if a certain command was not followed, or a certain
number of Jews not turned over to them, thousands would be killed. In this way
they slowly emptied the ghettos. They threatened the Judenrat to force them to cooperate. If the Judenrat refused to turn over a certain number of Jews to be shipped
out of the ghetto, then, the Nazis said, the whole ghetto would be wiped out.
Deception also played a large part in the Nazi strategy.
For example, in Kovno in 1941 the Germans told the Judenrat that five hundred young scholars were needed outside the
ghetto for a special task. They claimed that these scholars would be spared any
hard labor. So the Judenrat drew up a
list--young people even volunteered for this special duty. Five hundred Jewish
scholars were taken away--never to be seen again.
Using the strategy of deception, the Nazis would say
that those who had been taken from the ghettos were being "transported"
to work in the east. Sometimes postcards came from those who had been
transported; there would be one postcard saying they were well--and never
another. There was never a return address.
The Jews began to realize that something unpleasant was
happening to these people. They heard rumors that those transported were being
sent to concentration camps and starved, or to death camps where they were
gassed. But most of the Jews in the ghettos found these rumors too incredible to
believe. What the Nazis were saying seemed more logical--that the Jews who were
taken from the ghettos were being sent to hard labor camps.
In itself, that seemed harsh enough; and many Jews
resisted when the Nazis came to transport them. Families struggled to stay
together. Jews hid when they heard that the Nazis were entering the ghetto to
conduct one of their regular "roundups." In response, the Nazis
increased pressure on the Judenrate. Any
resistance, they said, would mean death for all.
Why Did the Jews Not Rebel?
In the Nazi ghettos, death came quickly for thousands.
Death by disease, death by exposure to the cold Polish winters, death by
starvation. People suffered and died, but they did not often revolt. In his
diary (July 1942) the famous Polish historian, Emmanuel Ringelblum, tried to
understand why this was so.
Why are they
silent? Why do complete families die, father, mother, and children without a
single protest? Why haven't we carried out the threats we made a year ago, the
rebellions, the pillages, the threats that aroused the house committees and
moved them to collect stores of food? [Emmanuel Ringeiblum, Notes
from the Warsaw Ghetto]
Time and again Ringelblum asked this question of people
he met on the street and friends he spoke with in his home. Finally, he pieced
together some answers.
First, there was the fear of reprisals. The Jews knew
that the Nazis' answer to violence would be violence. If any Jews rebelled, the
Nazis would simply kill other Jews by the thousands. So, many submitted, hoping
to save others from dying needlessly.
There were also those who did not wish to fight because
they had found ways of "getting along" in the ghetto. Some worked with
smugglers or became smugglers themselves. People who were permitted to work
wanted to go on working. Others had taken to peddling in the street, selling
whatever they could for whatever profit they could make. The people who were
"getting along" believed that fighting would only make things harder.
Many simple country people had been transported to the
ghettos from the shtetls and small towns. For these people the city was
bewildering, and its closed-in life was unbearable; they had lost the will to
live. Many of them had no homes; they slept and begged in the streets.
talked with one of these refugees, who had been starving for a long time. All he
thinks about is food, particularly bread: wherever he goes, whatever he does, he
dreams of bread; he stops in front of every bakery, in front of every window ...
nothing interests him any more. [Emmanuel Ringelblum, Notes
from the Warsaw Ghetto]
Thoughts of rebellion had no meaning for people whose
every waking moment was consumed by the search for food.
The Jewish police acted as another barrier against
revolt. They were the only Jews allowed to carry weapons and they were more
interested in retaining power over other Jews than in fighting the Nazis. They
would not fight, and fear of them kept many another ghetto Jew from fighting.
The Struggle for Humanity
The Nazis were able to control the ghetto physically.
Yet within the ghetto walls the Jews created a way of life based on Jewish
values. They tried to feed their spirits, even as their bodies starved. Like
Ringelblum, many continued to study and write. Reading became more popular than
ever before, and the few books in the ghetto were shared among all, read again
and again. War and Peace by Leo
Tolstoi was a favorite book, for in it the tyrant Napoleon met his downfall.
Unlike the Jews of western Europe who had been set free from the ghettos by
Napoleon, the Jews of eastern Europe had no love for the French conqueror.
Reading of Napoleon’s fall, the Jews dreamed of a time when Hitler, too, would
Schooling in the ghetto had been forbidden by German
decree, but teachers continued to teach. They conducted classes for children and
adults. Jews prepared for their hoped-for future by studying English. Diplomas
were granted, and being a good student remained a mark of pride.
Jewish actors formed theater groups--amateur and
professional--to entertain the ghetto. Those Jews who could afford it went to
the coffee houses at night to sip schnapps ("liquor") or
watered-down coffee. Those who could not afford cafes gathered to tell jokes and
stories. Though death was everywhere, young people still found the courage to
marry and even to have children.
To Cooperate or Not to Cooperate
In many ghettos Jewish leaders refused to cooperate
with the Nazis in deciding who would live and who would die. Dr. Adam Czerniakow
of Warsaw finally drew the line at sending children to their deaths. Both
Czerniakow and Dr. Rotfeld of Lvov, heads of their ghetto Judenrat, committed suicide rather than decide the fate of their
people for the Nazis.
In Kovno, the Judenrat
called on the chief rabbi to ask what should be done according to Jewish
law. The chief rabbi knew what Jewish law would normally say: not even a single
Jew should be given to the enemy no matter how many lives were being threatened.
But he saw, too, the people’s terror; and so he ruled differently. Since this
was a unique situation, the rabbi said, and the Jews were really all being held
as hostages, the Judenrat should
cooperate with the Nazis as long as they thought that by doing so some Jewish
lives might be saved. But rabbis in other communities refused to allow any
What seemed such a pressing problem at the time, proved
of little importance in the end. Whether the Judenrat
cooperated or not, the Nazis rounded up Jews and transported them to the
concentration camps and death camps. All the threats and all the deceptions were
only being used to keep the Jews as peaceable and manageable as possible. From
the outset, Nazi policy had been to send the Jews to their deaths.
In Czechoslovakia the Germans set up a special ghetto
at Theresienstadt. Conditions there were better than in most of the ghettos and
camps. To this "privileged" ghetto they sent well-known Jews,
decorated war veterans, and old people. Of course, Jews who were transported out
of this ghetto were sent to their deaths, but the Nazis kept life at
Theresienstadt bearable for a very good reason: like all criminals, they wanted
to hide the truth of what they were doing from the rest of the world.
When the International Red Cross came to inspect German
ghettos or concentration camps, they were taken only to Theresienstadt. Nothing
terrible seemed to be happening there. And that is what the Red Cross reported.
For a very long time, as far as the outside world was concerned, Jews in ghettos
and concentration camps were not being mistreated.
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“Seymour Rossel, a
long-experienced and gifted educator, here gives yet another important
contribution for readers of every age and background. This book is a rare
and valuable overview of an enormously challenging subject. Every chapter
is accessible, intelligent, and compelling.” — David
Altshuler, PhD, Founding Director, Museum
of Jewish Heritage, New York