Ghettos in Poland


Millions of Jews lived in eastern Europe. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, more than two million Polish Jews came under German control. After Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, several million more Jews came under Nazi rule. The Germans aimed to control this sizable Jewish population by forcing Jews to reside in marked-off sections of towns and cities the Nazis called "ghettos" or "Jewish residential quarters." Altogether, the Germans created at least 1,000 ghettos in occupied territories. The largest ghetto was in Warsaw, the Polish capital, where almost half a million Jews were confined. There was no love lost between the Germans and Poles and it soon became clear that Nazis did not value Polish life.

Many ghettos were set up in cities and towns where Jews were already concentrated. Jews as well as some Roma (Gypsies) were also brought to ghettos from surrounding regions and from western Europe. Between October and December 1941, thousands of German and Austrian Jews were transported to ghettos in eastern Europe. The Germans usually marked off the oldest, most run-down sections of cities for the ghettos. They sometimes had to evict non-Jewish residents from the buildings to make room for Jewish families. Many of the ghettos were enclosed by barbed-wire fences or walls, with entrances guarded by local and German police and SS members. During curfew hours at night the residents were forced to stay inside their apartments. Anyone over the age of twelve had to identify themselves by wearing a Star of David on their sleeve. They were forbidden to work in either key industries or government institutions, to bake bread, to earn more than 500 zloty a month, to travel by train or trolley-bus, to leave the city limits without special permits, to possess gold or jewelry, plus all Jewish shops and enterprises had also to be marked with the Star of David. In addition to these official oppressions, Jews were frequently humiliated, beaten or even executed for little reason. In short they lived their lives in a state of constant fear.

Life in the ghetto was difficult. At first it was somewhat like normal life:cafe's were still open, newspapers were published, children attended school.The official food ration of about 200 calories a day per person was less than 10 percent of the ration for Germans and about 25% of the ration for Poles.Food was smuggled into the ghetto by underground canals or by bribing the guards at the gates. Some parents sent their children to other side of the fence to steal what they could. As more and more Jews were imported from nearby towns the ghetto became overcrowded. The money for bribes was gone and large numbers of people died from starvation. Poor sanitation caused a typhoid epidemic that killed thousands more.

In the Polish cities of Lodz and Warsaw, trolley lines ran through the middle of the ghetto. Rather than reroute the lines, workers fenced them off, and policemen guarded the area to keep the Jews from escaping on the trolley cars. The passengers from outside the ghetto used the cars to get to work on weekdays, and some rode them on Sunday outings just to gawk and sneer at the ghetto prisoners.

Jews work on the construction of a wall around the Warsaw ghetto