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The Ghettos of Poland

Jews are captured during the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto and taken to the Umschlagplatz to be deported to the extermination camps, USHMM #26543.

The Polish Jews came under German rule after the Nazi invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, and during 1940 most of them were being assembled in ghettos. The one in Warsaw was the largest of these and reached almost half a million residents. For the Jews, the situation in the ghettos was frequently terrible: hunger, disease and forced labour claimed many victims. Added to this, beginning in the summer of 1942, constant deportations to the extermination camps began to empty out the ghettos. From 1942-1943 around 2 million Polish Jews were murdered by gassing. As the last remaining, about 80,000 Jews from the Ghetto in Lodz were deported to Auschwitz in 1944.

More about:
The partition of Poland
The establishing of the ghettos
The deportation plans are dropped
Daily life in the ghettos
The ghettos are emptied
Want to know more?

The partition of Poland

According to the Soviet-German agreement that was reached ahead of the German invasion of Poland, the country was to be partitioned as follows:

> The German-Soviet partition of Poland, 1939, USHMM #eeu7160.
  • The western parts of Poland were incorporated into the German Reich,
  • The eastern parts of Poland were occupied by the Soviet Union and were under Soviet rule until the German invasion in the summer of 1941,
  • The middle part of Poland became the so-called ‘General Government’ (also under German rule).

Poland thus seized to exist as an independent country.

By the end of the Nazi invasion of Poland in the autumn of 1939 the number of Jews living under German rule had been greatly increased: more than 2 million Polish Jews were now living in areas under Nazi control.

The establishing of the ghettos

The ghettos in occupied Poland were established in connection with the planned deportation of the Polish Jews, but as locally directed initiatives by the German occupation forces in the area.

At first, the plan was to establish a sort of “Jewish reservation” in the eastern part of the General Government (the ‘Lublin Plan’). Later, in the course of 1940, plans were made to deport all Jews under German rule to the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. The ‘Madagascar Plan’ was developed by an expert in the German Foreign Ministry. Today the plan sounds mostly like a joke, but after Germany’s victory over France in the summer of 1940, there existed serious possibilities for a German takeover of the French colony of Madagascar. Besides the surfacing practical possibilities, it was an old anti-Semitic dream to see all Jews of Europe live their lives as slaves on Madagascar.

Both the Lublin Plan and the Madagascar Plan presupposed a concentration of the Polish Jews in certain areas, from where they could easily be deported when the plans were to be realised. Therefore, the Jews were forced to move to the large cities, and shortly afterwards to specific areas of the cities. Especially in the largest cities in Poland, Warzaw and Lodz, there were thus established large Jewish neighbourhoods. In time, these neighbourhoods were shut off from the rest of the city, thus establishing the ghettos.

From the Nazi point of view, the ghettos were seen exclusively as a temporary measure. It was by no means the intention that they exist in the long run. The local German occupation authorities merely wanted to make sure that they could easily move the Jews - ‘when the time came’. Besides this, the intention of this policy was to isolate the Jews from the rest of the Polish population and make them give up their businesses, apartments, etc. As in Germany, the Jews were to disappear from public life. To this was added the Nazi preoccupation with diseases, and the Nazis hoped to isolate the most probable carriers of disease – according to Nazi race ideology the Jews, of course –by confining them to specific zones.

The ghetto in Lodz: ghetto residents on the foot-bridge between the two parts the sealed ghetto, USHMM #30082.

The fact that the ghettos remained a temporary measure meant that the Jews had to pay for their own necessities, such as food, without having any possibility of earning their living by working. There existed, in other words, no plans to make the ghettos self-sustaining. The Nazis wished to squeeze all remaining valuables from the Polish Jews by making them pay for all their supplies. The Polish Jews were generally poor, and it quickly became clear that their funds could only sustain them for a very brief period of time. However, this constituted no particular problem, since the Jews were soon meant to be deported east- or southwards anyway.


> Official orders and remarks about the establishing of ghettos

The deportation plans are dropped

It became clear to the Nazis already during the summer of 1940 that the planned deportations could not take place. To move all of the Polish Jews to the area around Lublin was untenable. At the same time, the Madagascar Plan was deemed equally untenable because of the British fleet’s dominance in the Mediterranean. It was simply impossible to move more than 2 million Polish Jews.

> Map of the largest ghettos in Poland, USHMM #pol74490.

Simultaneously, the Germans had to realise that the ghettos no longer possessed funds enough to sustain themselves with food and other necessities. The poor state of supplies meant that more and more of the residents died. In spite of this, the ghettoisation policy was continued through the autumn of 1940 – mostly because of the fear of epidemics. This fear also meant that the ghettos went from being relatively open areas to becoming almost hermetically closed off from the remaining city. The ghetto of Lodz was the first ghetto to be sealed off completely, in April of 1940. The largest Polish ghetto, the one in Warsaw, was not established until the autumn of 1940, and it took almost a year to finish it.

As a result of the massive number of ghettos being established, almost all of the Polish Jews lived in some form of ghetto by the end of 1941 - 500,000 in the ghetto of Warsaw alone.

Daily life in the ghetto

Market in the ghetto in Lodz, around 1941, USHMM #51128.

The Germans’ most serious problem in relation to the ghettos was the supply of food. It quickly became clear to the Nazi occupation authorities that this problem meant taking an overall decision: should the ghetto populations be consciously starved and thus the problem solve itself, or should the ghettos be made self-sustaining by making the Jews work? There were supporters of both ideas among the German administrators. But in most cases (e.g. in both Warsaw and Lodz) the “productionists” gained the upper hand, and the Jews were allowed to work.

To the Jews, hunger was the most serious problem in the ghettos. The food supply was completely dependant on the good will and possibilities of the Germans, and it goes without saying that the Jews remained firmly at the back of the line as far as food supply was concerned. The completely inadequate food supplies meant that the ghettos were frequently plagued by hunger, just as black markets and food smuggling flourished. Even potato peels were becoming at hot commodity.

At the end of 1940 and the beginning of 1941 the Germans still counted on being able to liquidate the ghettos relatively soon. In other words, all measures were viewed as temporary, although everybody was by now aware that the Jews had to remain in Poland longer than expected. It demanded a great psychological adaptation for the Germans in order to accept the fact that they had to supply the ghettos with food.

To the Nazi occupation power in Poland, the ‘Jewish Question’ was thus first and foremost one of economics. The Jews necessarily had to work for a living, but this was much easier said than done. By moving all the Jews to the ghettos, they had been effectively shut off from the ordinary Polish economy, and the Germans thus had to start anew by creating special ‘ghetto economies’. They soon came to produce goods almost exclusively for the German army. As the war progressed – in particular after the failed German invasion of the Soviet Union – the ghettos thus became an important part of the German armaments production. The ghettos had gained a raison d’être.


> Statistics: mortality in the ghettos
> Order instituting forced labour for the Jews in Lublin
> Excerpt from the Lodz Ghetto Chronicle, 1941-1943

The ghettos are emptied

At the German attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the Nazi regime’s Jewish policy was strongly radicalised. One of the first areas to be conquered from the Soviets was the part of eastern Poland – Galizia – that had come under Soviet rule following the partition of Poland in 1939. This area, which like the rest of the Soviet Union was hit by the Einsatzgruppen massacres, was incorporated into the General Government.

Jews from Drogobych are deported to the Belzec extermination camp.

Everything seems to suggest that no general plans existed to exterminate the Polish Jews through 1941. As late as October 1941, governor general Hans Frank tried in vain to gain support for a deportation of the Polish Jews to the occupied Soviet territories. In spite of this “moderate” suggestion, murder was definitely on peoples’ minds, especially inspired by the massacres on the Soviet Jews following the German invasion in June of 1941.

From different sides within the Nazi state- and security institutions, concrete plans surfaced about killing all eastern European Jews that were unable to work, as they were seen as an economic and ideological burden. Jews, however, that were seen as important to the armaments industry, were in general allowed to live for as long as they were still able to work.

At the same time, the first deportations of German Jews to the east were initiated. In order to make room for them in the overcrowded Polish ghettos, for instance in Lodz, it was deemed “necessary” to have the weakest Jews (those unable to work) murdered.

The untenable situation in the ghettos was another important reason why the Nazis began the systematic mass murder. There were constantly problems with the food supply to the ghettos and with frequent epidemics – hardly surprising considering the fact that too many people were crowded together with insufficient hygienic facilities.

Simultaneously, the Nazis tried to develop a method for quickly and effectively killing many people. In the course of 1941 such a method was discovered: gassing. The first mass killings with the use of gas were carried out in the newly founded extermination camp Chelmno in December of 1941, whereto Jews unable to work were sent from the ghetto in Lodz.

In the beginning of 1942, the liquidation of the Polish ghettos was begun, and the Jews were sent to the so-called extermination camps, where they were gassed to death. ‘The Final Solution of the Jewish Question in the General Government’ can thus be said to have started with these deportations. In three extermination camps within the General Government, whose only purpose was to exterminate the Polish Jews, almost 2 million Jews were gassed to death in the course of 1942-1943. The operation to exterminate the Polish Jews was called ‘Operation Reinhard’, named after the head of the Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich, who was assassinated in June 1942.

In Warsaw, the first transport of Jews left the ghetto on 22 July 1942. Officially, the Jews were to be ‘transported to work outside the ghetto’, but in reality among 5,000 people were driven directly to their death in Treblinka. In the course of the following two months around 350,000 Jews from Warsaw were murdered in this way.

From the five districts of the General Government the Jews were transported to the extermination camps:

From the Cracow District to > Belzec
From the Warsaw District to > Treblinka
From the Lublin District to > Treblinka, > Sobibor and > Belzec
From the Radom District to > Treblinka
From the Galizia District to > Belzec

As a result of the Operation Reinhard, only about 300,000 Jews were alive in the General Government by the end of 1942. The rest had perished, either of hunger, illness, forced labour, or by gassing in the extermination camps.

First of all, the liquidation of the Polish ghettos meant a shortage of labour for the German armaments industry. Some Jewish workers were thus able to survive longer because their skills were deemed important to the German war effort. This was especially the case for skilled workers, whereas the old, the sick and the children were seen as merely a burden.

The first large ghetto, the one in Lodz, was also the last to be liquidated. In the summer of 1944 the last remaining residents, approximately 80,000, were deported to Auschwitz.

> Extermination camps
> Deportations


> Sources regarding the liquidation of the ghettos in Warsaw and Lodz
> Liquidation - eyewitness accounts


SS soldiers guard the captured Jewish resistance fighters during the Warsaw ghetto uprising, USHMM #46193.

The reaction of the ghetto-dwellers to the deportations was in general disturbingly passive. Many have probably been unaware that the transports went to a sure death. It is highly discussed whether the so-called Jewish Councils (which were responsible for the internal governing of the ghettos) knew what was expecting the residents. Some historians believe that they must have known, but chose to sacrifice some in order to save other (and themselves). Other scholars believe that the Jewish Councils were themselves held hostages and had no choice in the matter.

There are very few examples of armed Jewish resistance in the ghettos. Among the explanations to this is the fact that very few really believed that the Nazis had their minds set on murdering all Jews. Another explanation is perhaps that the Jews at this point had an almost 2,000-year-old history of compliance with the authorities. Finally, an important point is the fear of retaliation: to make armed resistance against the Germans not only meant bringing yourself in danger, but also your family, friends, etc.

The bodies of Jewish ghetto-fighters in Warsaw, shot by the SS during the uprising in 1943, USHMM #26547.

One of the only exemptions to this rule of passivity is the great uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in the spring of 1943. At this time, approximately 300,000 of the ghettos’ residents had been systematically exterminated in Treblinka, and the ghetto had only 70,000 residents left. Starting in October 1942, armed resistance groups were established. In January 1942 they carried out their first act of armed resistance against the Germans. This happened because the Nazi authorities had ordered another 6,500 people to be deported from the ghetto. As a result of the ghetto fighters’ action, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler gave orders to liquidate the ghetto completely. Following this, the Jews started to systematically attack the Germans, and it took more than a month of fighting between Jewish resistance groups and German Waffen-SS soldiers (commanded by Jürgen Stroop) before the Jewish uprising was crushed.


> The Jewish uprising in Warsaw
> Jürgen Stroop's report about the suppression of the Jewish uprising

Want to know more?

> Extermination camps
> Operation Reinhard
> The Final Solution
> Deportations
> The murder of the Soviet Jews


Christopher R. Browning, The Path to Genocide: Essays on Launching the Final Solution (Cambridge, 1992)
Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (New York, 1994).

Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides, eds., Lodz Ghetto: Inside a Community under Siege (New York, 1989).
Lucjan Dobroszycki, ed., The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto 1941-1944 (New Haven & London, 1984).
Raul Hilberg et al., eds., The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow: Prelude to Doom (New York, 1979).
Emil Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto (New York, 1974).

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