Ghettoes were places in Poland and other areas of Nazi-occupied Europe where Jews and other ‘untermenschen’ were forced into by the Nazis during World War Two. Found in major cities or large towns the most infamous ghettoes in Poland were found in Warsaw, Lodz and Bialystok. Life in ghettoes was very hard and difficult and few survived by the end of the war.
When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1st1939, they swiftly overran the country. While Nazi Germany celebrated such a swift victory, it also left them with what they considered to be an ‘administrative problem’ of the highest order. The Nazis had effectively captured a huge number of Polish Jews. The treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany before World War Two had set a marker as to how Jews in the rest of Europe would be treated once countries had been conquered. The Nazi hierarchy decided that the easiest way for them to deal with the ‘Jewish problem’ was not to allow the Jews to maintain their usual day-to-day lifestyle but to forcibly move them into a much smaller part of a major city where they would be allowed to ‘live’ but their living zone would be surrounded by barbed wire and guards to ensure that they lived within that zone – the ghetto.
Life within the ghettoes was extremely hard. The Lodz Ghetto established workshops and they traded what they produced – uniforms and military equipment for the Nazis – for food. The Elder in Lodz, Chaim Rumkowski, has been criticised by some for his actions in setting up such schemes with the Nazi head of Lodz, Hans Biebow. Those who criticised Rumkowski said that he betrayed the Jews held in Lodz. Those who have given him their support said that he had no choice and that he had as leader to do what he could to provide food for the Jews in the Lodz Ghetto. Rumkowski was not to know that the Nazis would renege on the deal they had made with Rumkowski regarding food in exchange for goods. Critics of Rumkowski also believed that he abused his power as Head of the Jewish Council and treated his friends much better than anyone else.
Starvation was rife in the ghettoes and medical facilities barely existed. Many people lived a day-by-day existence. Anyone caught trying to smuggle food into the ghettoes faced almost certain death. In the Warsaw Ghetto children were used (because of their size) to leave the ghetto under the cover of night and return with food paid for with the jewellery that some Jews had managed to hide from the Nazis .It was a highly risky business and those children who were caught with smuggled food faced being shot on the spot by the guards who patrolled outside of the ghetto’s barbed wire perimeter.
The Lodz Ghetto had its own currency, stamps and schooling system. But the schools worked on a minimal budget and the stamps became a source of controversy when Rumkowski had his own image printed on them, which led to some nicknaming him ‘King Chaim’.. In many senses life in ghettoes became a dog-eat-dog lifestyle with the survival of the fittest becoming the norm. However, the Jews effectively trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto eventually had enough and rebelled in 1943. They paid a terrible price for their rebellion but may have found some degree of satisfaction that many who died in the rebellion against their oppressors died fighting as opposed to some who were forced against their will into cattle trucks before being transported to the death camp at Treblinka. In Lodz, the rebellion was effectively against Rumkowski. The Nazis ordered deportations from the ghetto and Rumkowski gave the impression that the orders for these should be followed without complaint. His argument was that the Jews in the Lodz Ghetto had no way of fighting their Nazi guards and that they had to comply or face major retribution. Possibly his most controversial act was to co-operate in handing over 20,000 children under 10 years of age for deportation from the ghetto. No senior Jew in the ghetto would co-operate with him over this. He had to plead with the mothers in the ghetto to ‘give me your children’.
The Warsaw Ghetto ceased to exist after the 1943 Uprising, as did the Bialystok Ghetto. In modern Warsaw there are few signs that a ghetto ever existed. One synagogue did survive destruction as it was used by the Nazis as a stable. The so-called ‘small ghetto’ of Warsaw – where the richer Jews lived – was also barely touched as those in it were not viewed by the Nazis as being part of the uprising. By the time the Red Army reached Lodz the ghetto only had 900 Jews within its walls.