Holocaust Educational Trust Ambassador Blog

The Ghettos in Poland

Ambassadors Mihika and Soraya share their research into ghettos established in Poland during the Holocaust.

Following the invasion of Poland in September 1939, roughly three million Jews fell under Nazi control. This presented a problem for the Nazis, who wanted their newly acquired land to be “judenfrei” (free of Jews) to fall in line with their beliefs. As a result of this, the Nazis separated the Jews from the rest of the population, and ghettos were set up to detain them. On 8th October 1939, the first ghetto was opened at Piotrków. This was soon followed by the ghetto in Radomsko on 20th December 1939, and the first major ghetto in Łódź in February 1940. The Łódź Ghetto was the second largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland with more than 165,000 Jews being forced into an area less than four square kilometres.

Two men haul a full cart along a cobblestone street in the Łódź Ghetto. Two men haul a full cart along a cobblestone street in the Łódź Ghetto.
Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Muzeum Sztuki w Lodzi

Between 1940 and 1942, hundreds of ghettos were established across Poland. Overcrowding, little food and poor hygiene meant that the ghettos were commonly riddled with diseases, including typhus and tuberculosis. Conditions worsened when Jews from nearby towns and villages, and then from other countries, arrived. It is estimated that around 500,000 Jews perished in ghettos during the Holocaust.

Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.
Picture by United Nations Photo - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Living conditions within ghettos were often atrocious; they were rife with disease and uncleanliness. It is undeniable that the ghettos were an institutional part of the Nazis' attempts to dehumanise Jewish people. We cannot even begin to imagine the confusion, loss, horror, many millions felt when forced out of their homes, relocated to cramped and unfamiliar places. Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, wrote in his memoir “Night”, about the lack of autonomy, and the lack of respect for the principle, as the process of uprooting families and relocating them to ghettos and concentration camps was intended to be chaotic, so as to prevent victims from ascertaining their surroundings, and the reality of their situation. The 2002 film, “The Pianist”, based upon Władysław Szpilman’s biography, depicts the fear of raids which demanded relocation; ghettos were not intended to be a permanent place of residence, merely a temporary form of torture before being transported to death or concentration camps.

Ghettos encompassed both physical and psychological segregation; the most dilapidated and dirty parts of cities were cordoned off, with the purpose of forcing and relocating almost all Jewish people within a given region, into an area of a few hundred or thousand square feet. By mid-1941, nearly all Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Poland had been forced into overcrowded ghetto districts. Each community was ordered to establish a Judenrat (a Jewish Council) which was responsible for enforcing German orders. Jewish people living within ghettos had already been forced to surrender their homes and belongings. They were then forced to supply labour to the German war machine and were exploited as they struggled to survive.

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, chairman of the Jewish council, meets with a group of rabbis around a table in a dining hall in the Łódź Ghetto.
Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Muzeum Sztuki w Lodzi

The ghetto was a place of torment and suffering, and it remains a permanent part of the memories of the survivors. Please see our article on hearing from survivors of ghettos to read more about their personal experiences. It is important that when we as Ambassadors speak about the Holocaust we share all of its different aspects so people listening can go away knowing just how complex and different individual experiences were during the Holocaust.

By Mihika Chopra & Soraya Lunn