Ghettos under the Nazis

During World War II, the Nazis established more than 400 ghettos for the purpose of isolating and controlling the Jews.

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The term "ghetto" originated in sixteenth-century Venice where it was used to refer to the Jewish quarter. As medieval restrictions on Jewish residence spread across Italy and beyond to central and western Europe, the word "ghetto" followed, referring to the section of the city where Jews were forced to live. The following article chronicles the Nazis' use of the medieval concept of ghettos to isolate Jews during World War II.

During World War II, the Nazis established more than 400 ghettos in order to isolate Jews from the non-Jewish population and from neighboring Jewish communities. The Germans regarded the establishment of ghettos as a provisional measure to control and segregate Jews. The assumption behind this separation was to stop the Jews, viewed by the Nazis as an inferior race, from mixing with and thus degrading the superior Aryan race. Nazi high officials also believed that the Jews would succumb to the unfavorable living conditions of the ghetto, including lack of food, water, and living space. Furthermore, the ghettos served as round-up centers that made it more convenient to exterminate large numbers of the Jewish population later. 

warsaw ghetto uprisingThe ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe--primarily Poland--were often closed off by walls, barbed-wire fences, or gates. Ghettos were extremely crowded and unsanitary. Starvation, chronic food and fuel shortages, and severe winter weather led to repeated outbreaks of epidemics and to a high mortality rate. Ghettoization, however, was seen as a temporary situation, and in many places the ghettos existed only for a brief time. With the implementation of the "Final Solution" in 1942, the Germans began to destroy the ghettos through deportation of the Jewish occupants to forced-labor and extermination camps.

The first ghetto was established in Lodz, Poland, on February 8, 1940. Approximately 155,000 Jews, almost one-third of the city's total population, were forced to live in the Lodz ghetto. As Lodz was a center of textile production, this ghetto was of considerable economic importance to the German war machine. Jews played an important role as workers in the textile factories there. For this reason, the deportation of Jews from the Lodz ghetto was only completed in August 1944.

The Warsaw ghetto was the largest ghetto established in Poland. Approximately 450,000 Jews were crowded into an area of 1.3 square miles that was the Warsaw ghetto. Other major ghettos were located in Krakow, Bialystok, Lvov, Lublin, Vilna, Kovno, Czestochowa, and Minsk. Conditions in the ghettos were appalling. For example, the majority of the apartments in the Warsaw ghetto were unheated during winter, and the Nazis determined that the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto could survive on an official food allocation of 300 calories per day (compared with 634 calories for the Poles and 2,310 for the Germans).

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Susan D. Glazer is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative History at Brandeis
University. She is writing a dissertation about the activities of a German-Italian insurance organization during World War II.