Jewish Ghettos

Jewish Ghettos

On 21st September, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich told several Schutz Staffeinel (SS) commanders in Poland that all Jews were to be confined to special areas in cities and towns. These ghettos were to be surrounded by barbed wire, brick walls and armed guards.

The first ghetto was set up in Piotrkow on 28th October 1939. Jews living in rural areas had their property confiscated and they were rounded up and sent to ghettos in towns and cities. The two largest ghettos were established in Warsaw and Lodz.

In October 1939, the SS began to deport Jews living in Austria and Czechoslovakia to ghettos in Poland. Transported in locked passenger trains, large numbers died on the journey. Those that survived the journey were told by Adolf Eichmann, the head of the Gestapo's Department of Jewish Affairs: "There are no apartments and no houses - if you build your homes you will have a roof over your head."

In Warsaw, the capital of Poland, all 22 entrances to the ghetto were sealed. The German authorities allowed a Jewish Council (Judenrat) of 24 men to form its own police to maintain order in the ghetto. The Judenrat was also responsible for organizing the labour battalions demanded by the German authorities.

Conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto were so bad that between 1940 and 1942 an estimated 100,000 Jews died of starvation and disease in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Three boys in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940.
Three boys in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940.
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Adolf Eichmann, head of the Gestapo's Department of Jewish Affairs, speech made to Jews deported to Poland from Austria and Czechoslovakia (October, 1939)

There are no apartments and no houses - if you build your homes you will have a roof over your head. There is no water. The wells are full of epidemics. There's cholera, dysentery, typhus. If you dig for water, you'll have water.

(2) Macha Rolnikas and her family lived in the Soviet Union and were deported to the Vilna Ghetto in 1941. In her diary she reported the arrival of the German Army in June 1941.

The Nazis have occupied the town. People are crying and talking about the Nazis' hatred of Jews and Communists. And we, we are both. And on top of it all, Papa has been working very actively for the Soviets.

New decrees have been posted in the town: all the Jews - adults and children - must wear insignias, a white piece of cloth, ten square centimeters, and in the middle the yellow letter "J". Is it possible that the invaders no longer regard us as human beings and brand us just like cattle? One can not accept such meanness. But who dares oppose them?

(3) Elchanan Elkes, letter to his son and daughter living in London (19th October, 1943)

I am writing these lines, my dear children, in the vale of tears of Vilijampole, Kovno Ghetto, where we have been for over two years. We have now heard that in a few days our fate is to be sealed. The ghetto is to be crushed and torn asunder.

Whether we are all to perish or whether a few of us are to survive, is in God's hands. We fear that only those capable of slave labor will live; the rest, probably, are sentenced to death.

We are left, a few out of many. Out of the thirty-five thousand Jews of Kovno, approximately seventeen thousand remain; out of a quarter of a million Jews in Lithuania (including the Vilna district), only twenty-five thousand live plus five thousand who, during the last two days, were deported to hard labor in Latvia, stripped of all their belongings. The rest were put to death in terrible ways by the followers of the greatest Haman of all times and of all generations. Some of those dear and close to us, too, are no longer with us. Your Aunt Hannah and Uncle Arich were killed with 1,500 souls of the ghetto on October 4,1941. Uncle Zvi, who was lying in the hospital suffering from a broken leg, was saved by a miracle. All the patients, doctors, nurses, relatives, and visitors who happened to be there were burned to death, after

soldiers had blocked all the doors and windows of the hospital and set fire to it. In the provinces, apart from Siauliai, no single Jew survives. Your Uncle Dov and his son Shmuel were taken out and killed with the rest of the Kalvaria community during the first months of the war, that is, about two years ago.

Due to outer forces and inner circumstance, only our own ghetto has managed to survive and live out its diaspora life for the past two years, in slavery, hard labor, hunger, and deprivation. (Almost all our clothing, belongings, and books were taken from us by the authorities.) The last massacre, when ten thousand victims were killed at one time, took place on

October 28, 1941. Our total community had to go through the "selection" by our rulers: life or death. I am the man who, with my own eyes, saw those about to die. I was there early on the morning of October 29, in the camp that led to the slaughter at the Ninth Fort. With my own ears I heard the awe-inspiring and terrible symphony, the weeping and screaming of ten thousand people, old and young-a scream that tore at the heart of heaven. No ear had heard such

cries through the ages and the generations. With many of our martyrs, I challenged my creator; and with them, from a heart torn in agony, I cried: "Who is like you in the universe, my Lord!" In my effort to save people here and there, I was beaten by soldiers. Wounded and bleeding, I fainted, and was carried in the arms of friends to a place outside the camp. There, a small group of about thirty or forty survived to witnesses to the fire.

(4) Yitskhok Rudashevski was fourteen years old when was sent to the Vilna Ghetto in June 1941. Until his death in 1944 he kept a diary where he wrote about his experiences.

11th December: 1942: Today the ghetto celebrated the circulation of the one hundred thousandth book in the ghetto library. The festival was held in the auditorium of the theatre. We came for our lessons. Various speeches were made and there was also an artistic programme. The speakers analyzed the ghetto reader. Hundreds of people read in the ghetto. The reading of books in the ghetto is the greatest pleasure for me. The book unites us with the future, the book unites us with the world.

7th February, 1943: We have good news. The people in the ghetto are celebrating. The Germans concede that Stalingrad has fallen. I walk across the street. People wink at each other with happy eyes. At last the Germans have suffered a gigantic defeat. The entire 9th German army is crushed! Over three hundred thousand Germans killed. Stalin's city is the enemy's grave.

25th March, 1943: A command was issued by the German regime about liquidating five small ghettos in the Vilna province. The Jews are being transported to the Vilna and the Kovno ghetto. Today the Jews from the neighbouring little towns have begun to arrive.

28th March, 1943: The mood of the ghetto is a very gloomy one. The crowding together in one place of so many Jews is a signal for something. Danger is hovering in the air. No! This time we shall not permit ourselves to be led like dogs to the slaughter.

6th April, 1944: We now know all the horrible details. Instead of Kovno, 5000 Jews were taken to Ponar where they were shot to death. Like wild animals before dying, the people began in mortal despair to break the railroad cars, they broke the little windows reinforced by strong wire. Hundreds were shot to death while running away. The railroad line over a great distance is covered with corpses. In the evening I went out into the street. It is 5 o'clock in the afternoon. The ghetto looks terrible: heavy leaden clouds hang and lower over the ghetto.