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The Character of the Ghetto

Pages 23-27

Throughout the autumn everyone was preoccupied with the nature of the ghetto. Would it be an open district with Jews free to leave and Poles free to enter during the day? Would it close only at night, when the curfew was in force? Or perhaps contact between the two populations would be restricted to several hours? Not many could bring themselves to consider the nightmarish possibility of an hermetically sealed ghetto, shut off completely from the outside world. But during the hectic weeks of population exchange and wandering, when finding safe quarters became the most pressing and urgent concern, no time was left of speculation or anything else.

Jewish owners of shops, workshops, and other businesses excluded from the designated ghetto found themselves on the horns of a painful dilemma: should they close down, remove the remaining merchandise from the store, their work tools from their workshops, and resign themselves to the loss of livelihood, or should they stay put in the hope that after the closure of the ghetto they would still be allowed to pursue their occupations outside the ghetto? On November 16, all questions, dilemmas, and speculation were settled in one single blow. Polish and German policemen were posted at the ghetto gates, and only those with special permits were allowed to leave or enter the district. The ghetto had been effectively sealed off. Some 1,700 grocery stores and about 2,500 other Jewish owned businesses remained outside the ghetto perimeter.

The group that was particularly hard hit by ghettoization consisted of assimilated Jews and Catholic converts. The proportion of assimilated Polish Jews and Jews who had strong ties to the non-Jewish milieu was smaller than in Western and Central Europe. Nevertheless, there were thousands of Jews in Poland, and especially in Warsaw, who regarded themselves as full-fledged Poles; their social, cultural, religious, and family ties with Jews and Jewishness were tenuous at best. Also in this hard-hit category were mixed families and several thousand converts, who were classified as Jews by the race laws.

Before July 24, 1940, Jews residing in the General Government were classified according to social-religious criteria, not by race. A Jew was a person of the Mosaic persuasion or a member of the Jewish community. This loophole seemed to provide am opportunity for converts to evade the anti-Jewish decrees and other discriminatory practices; in fact, a spate of conversions took place, although the phenomenon did not turn into a mass flight to Christianity. In his notes, Emmanuel Ringelblum mentions several hundred Jewish converts to Christianity. In other places the figures were higher, particularly in Warsaw, but the “wave” of conversions appears to have encompassed no more than a few hundred.

In Hungary, for example, from 1938 to 1939, when the anti-Jewish laws which came into effect at that time either applied only partially to converts or not did not apply to them at all, nearly 15,000 Jews converted. The relatively small number of converts in Warsaw, and in Poland in general, must be attributed first and foremost to the more tightly knit structure of Polish Jewry and to its strong sense of collective identity, traditions and religion.

Even before the establishment of the ghetto, the Germans had imposed a number of proscriptions in line with Nazi racial doctrine. For example, Jews and converts alike were required to wear an armband with the Star of David. This summary order issued by Governor Frank left the question of directives in this matter to the discretion of local executive agencies. Acting on Frank’s decree, Ludwig Fischer, the governor of Warsaw, issued a directive defining a Jew as a member of the Jewish community or who had belonged to the Jewish community at any point in the past. Thus the order applied even to the offspring of converts.

The directive of July 1940, which defined a Jew, went further still -in fact, it came close to the definition spelled out in the Nuremberg Laws: a person was a Jew if all four of his or her grandparents had belonged to the Jewish community; a person with only two or even one such grandparent was considered Mischlinge, or of mixed Jewish blood. The definition, then, went back three generations. Even if one’s parents were true Christians, the religious denomination of one’s grandparents could dispatch the offspring of converts toward the foreign and strange world of the ghettoized Jews. At a certain stage, a ban on baptizing Jews in the General Government was under consideration, but Frank refused to sign the necessary decree. At the same time efforts were apparently made to release the converts from having to wear the identifying armband.

The only organization that maintained contacts with the authorities was the Central Welfare Council (R.G.O.), which assumed responsibility for lobbying and intercession on behalf of the converts. The heads of the R.G.O. argued that among the converts were prominent Polish cultural and social figures who had absolutely nothing in common with the Jews; for such persons the armband amounted to an intolerable burden. In response, the Germans asked for a list of persons that the Council recommended for exemption, and they promised to consider the request. It seems that a list of 2,000 names was delivered to the authorities. The reply followed shortly: after serious consideration the appropriate authorities had decided that the request to release converts from the obligation of wearing the Star of David armband could not be granted.

To be sure, most converts did manage to evade the order, although some of them suffered harassment on this account. Just before the deadline for the closure of the ghetto, however, the Germans came to the homes of those converts whose names had appeared on the list and forced them to move into the ghetto. In all, some 2,000 Christians were forced into the ghetto. They formed their own community around the church on Leszno Street which had been included within the ghetto borders. The priest, too, was a converted Jew. The community received assistance from Caritas, a Christian welfare agency, and many years later Cardinal Wyszynski endeavored to portray the aid extended by the Church to the Jewish converts in Warsaw as assistance to the ghettoized Jews.

Ghettoization marked a turning-point in the life of the Jews, a point no less radical I than the beginning of the war and the occupation. The ghettos created by the Nazis during I World War II were not comparable to their medieval namesakes. The latter consisted of Jewish quarters or streets that separated Christians from Jews by designating a religious, social and cultural enclave. Apart from that, however, social and economic intercourse between the two groups remained unobstructed. Although the medieval ghetto may have , been established in order to humiliate the Jews as prescribed by Christian doctrine- and –conditions may have been crowded and unsanitary even by contemporary standards, the ghetto as an institution was often regarded favorably by the Jews, since it facilitated the preservation of their traditional way of life and protected them from potentially unsettling developments in the outside world. In March of 1941, Ringelblum wrote in his diary that “analogy with the ghetto as it existed in the past is inaccurate, since in those times the ghetto was an outcome of historical development, a general phenomenon, whereas now it is a concentration camp.”

Articles in the underground press offer ample evidence of the Jews’ preoccupation with the sense of isolation, humiliation, congestion, hunger, and disease rampant in the ghetto. The December 1940 issue of Befraiung, for example, the organ of the Socialist Zionist Poalei Zion, published an extensive historical survey of the ghetto, which opened with these words:

The sky over our heads is again overcast with the clouds of the Middle Ages. All the antiquated edicts and repressive measures, which appeared to have been completely forgotten, and which seemed to be of interest only to a professional historian, resurfaced in our everyday lives shrouded in darkness, becoming part of our bitter reality. At this moment the problem of the ghetto, in all its gravity and terror, is our most pressing concern. With all the savagery mustered by the beast lurking in man, we have been counted as impure and cast out from among the surrounding non- Jewish population, and we remain hermetically sealed off behind narrow walls, without light, air, or greenery.

The ghetto was in fact circumscribed so as to exclude from its bounds the smallest patch of green or cluster of trees. Adjoining Nalewki Street, Krasinski park, a tiny public garden in the heart of the Jewish district, was not included in the ghetto. The question of its inclusion was the subject of numerous discussions. Czerniakow was made many promises, but, like so many others, these promises proved false, a cruel act of deception by the Germans.

The ghetto streets thronged with people the penned crowds, nervous and always in a hurry. It was a constant stream of humanity. In April 1941, the press organ of the youth section of Hashomer Hatzair published an article entitled “A Walk Down the Ghetto Streets.” Its author noted that it took him “three quarters of an hour to traverse the cage designed for half a million people.”

Dry statistics accurately convey the horrendous congestion in the ghetto: 30 percent of the city’s population was squeezed into an area 2.4 percent of the city’s size. According to an official Jewish newspaper appearing in Cracow several times a week, in January 1941, the population of the Warsaw ghetto consisted of 38O,979 Jews, 1,718 Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, and 43 members of other religions.

The ghetto boundaries shifted constantly, in accordance with the ongoing tendency to reduce its area by “amputation.” At the same time, the population kept increasing due to deportations and evacuations from the neighboring towns and villages and to the transfer of refugees in the wake of complete or partial liquidation of other Jewish ghettos and settlements. Because of the soaring death rates among the ghetto population, this incessant influx was not always reflected in the statistics.

In April 1941, the refugee population in the Warsaw ghetto stood at 130,000. In January 1941, the entire ghetto contained 380,000people. By March the number had risen to 445,000, and then in June it declined to 440,000. In July it suddenly dropped to 420,000, and the downward trend continued throughout 1941. A similar ebb and flow was evident in 1942, when the ghetto population rose from 369,000 to 400,000 between February and June, then fell by 45,000 in the month of July, just before the “great deportation.”

The death rates reflect the dreadful conditions of life in the ghetto. Thus, from January to April 1941, the number of deaths per month rose from 898 to 2,061; then in July and August it soared to 5,550 and 5,560 respectively. The annual death toll that year reached 43,000, or 10 percent of the total ghetto population. Even if the death rate had maintained its 1941 levels which is to say, even if the Nazis had not instituted their policy of mass murder in the death camps in 1942 the harvest of death in the Warsaw ghetto alone would have surpassed the loss of life in countries such as France, Belgium, Italy, or Romania throughout the war. In other words, if the ghetto had been kept in operation for another ten years, the entire Jewish population of Warsaw would have been decimated even without the gas chambers of Treblinka and Auschwitz.

It is impossible to say for certain whether this appalling mortality rate was linked to a cold-blooded, calculated Nazi plan regarding ghettoization, but statements such as the l following by Governor Frank are more than suggestive. “The fact that we are sentencing 1.2 million Jews to death by hunger,” Frank said in August 1942, “there is no need to elaborate on that. This is quite clear, and if the Jews do not die of hunger, anti-Jewish decrees will have to be expedited. Let us hope this will be the case. ” By that time, however, Frank was aware of the plan for the complete and final extermination of the Jews.

On the other hand, we know of other statements by senior Nazi officials in which better food rations are recommended for Jews so that the population might be utilized properly as a labor force. According to still other statements, the harshest possible measures were to be taken against the Jews since they could not be put to death.

It appears, however, that before early or mid- 1942, German authorities in the General Government did not actually have a plan, or simply did not know what fate awaited the Jews there. It was clear to them that the ghetto and other anti-Jewish measures amounted to an interim phase, which would have to be followed by permanent arrangements for the future in line with Nazi doctrine. Various proposals were put forward, including the aforementioned plans to concentrate all or most of the Jews in a kind of reservation in the Lublin area or on the island of Madagascar. With the launching of the ”final solution” in 1942, all of these plans were abandoned.

Although some of the ghetto afflictions might be seen as an amplification of the shortages and hardships that plague every society even in normal times, the ghetto residents faced many adversities that stemmed directly from the quarantine and the dreadful conditions the Nazis had imposed on them. Hunger and the permanent shortage of food were among the most acutely felt hardships. The hunger problem was not just a “matter of bread,” for bread ranked as a delicacy in the ghetto. The food that people l dreamed about night and day was of a much coarser kind.

Food was rationed to everyone. The official daily rations were as follows: 2,614 calories for Germans, 669 calories for Poles, and 184 calories for Jews. Germans and Poles, however, found ways to obtain additional, higher quality food in the free and black markets to which they had access. This source was closed to the Jews, who could not tap into the supply networks linking the countryside with the city. Smuggling food into the ghetto thus became the only source of acquiring supplementary provisions.