In the months after the outbreak of World War II, there was debate in the Nazi Party about how Germany should respond to the so-called ‘Jewish question’. The NSDAP’s earliest policy, formed in the first days of the war, was called the Nisko Plan. It called for the construction of a huge reservation, several hundred square miles in area, in which Europe’s Jewish population would be resettled and detained. The proposed location for this reservation, selected by Hitler, was in southern Poland, between the cities of Lublin and Nisko. In late 1939 the SS began constructing labour camps on the rim of the proposed Nisko reservation. Jews from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia were shipped there from the start of 1940, to be used as forced labour. The Nazis began planning Jewish resettlement to the Nisko territory, preparing space for one million people; one American newspaper reported they were actually preparing for double that number. But the Nisko project ran into logistical problems, including inadequate funds, supplies or soldiers. By mid-1940 the idea of a Jewish reservation in Europe had been abandoned.
Other proposals recommended the Jews be deported and confined to some remote continent, where their influence could not reach Europe in general or Germany in particular. One suggested location was Africa. Before the war, Hitler and other Nazi leaders enthusiastically supported the idea of relocating Jews en masse to a remote colonial territory. After the German invasion of France in 1940, one Nazi official, Franz Rademacher, drew up plans for four million ‘evacuated’ Jews to be housed on the French island colony of Madagascar. Their property would be seized to pay for this grandiose scheme; the SS would manage its operation and oversee government in this new ‘Jewish state’. The ‘Madagascar Plan’ with the Nazi hierarchy because it would rid western Europe of its Jews while painting Germany as their benevolent saviour, delivering them a new homeland. By July 1940 evidence suggests that the ‘Madagascar Plan’ had obtained Hitler’s approval and was about to proceed – but within weeks it had been abandoned.
The war killed off the Nazis’ ambitious plans for a mass resettlement of European Jews. Instead, they opted to gather up and confine Jews in urban ghettos (a word derived from an Italian term for areas where waste products are stored). SS commanders in occupied regions were ordered to set aside sectors of large cities, to provide accommodation for large numbers of Jews. These sectors, which were almost always in impoverished or run-down parts of the city, became virtual prisons. Walls and barbed wire were erected around their perimeter; pathways and windows on the exterior of the ghetto were bricked up. SS guards and checkpoints were placed at every exit point, while armed guards patrolled inside and outside the ghetto.
To assist with management of Jews within the ghetto, many of whom could not speak German, the SS appointed a Judenrat (‘Jewish council’). Usually comprised of Jewish elders or community leaders, the Judenrat became the liaison between Nazi authorities and those in the ghetto. The Judenrat relayed SS orders and instructions, filled work details, allocated accommodation and organised food distribution. They also ran schools, hospitals and other services with the few resources available to them. The SS also relied on squads of Judischer Ordnungsdienst (‘Jewish ghetto organising police’), formed from bands of Jewish volunteers. The Ordnungsdienst wore armbands, carried batons, and assisted the Nazis with marshalling and deporting ghetto inmates. These ghetto police were viewed as race traitors and were despised for their corruption and cruelty.
Conditions inside these ghettos were cramped, miserable and deadly. Most SS-run ghettos were vastly inadequate for the people they contained; there was insufficient housing, shelter, water and sewage facilities for all inhabitants. The Warsaw ghetto, for instance, housed 30 percent of the city’s population in just two percent of its buildings – or more than 400,000 in little more than a square mile. The ghetto in Krakow contained 3,167 rooms for about five times that number in people. It was commonplace for several families to share an apartment – or even a single room. In Warsaw there were more than seven Jews per room on average; one anecdotal account has 13 people sharing one small bedroom. Some ghetto inmates were less fortunate and had to take shelter on the street.
The greatest physical danger in the ghettos came not from the Nazis but from starvation and disease. The quantity and quality of food was pitiful: most meals consisted of watery soups, some brewed with a few beans or grains, others with straw or grass. In the Warsaw ghetto, the daily food ration for Jews was 186 calories, the equivalent of two slices of bread. German soldiers, in contrast, received more than 2,600 calories per day. Thousands of Jews died a slow, miserable death from malnutrition, their bony corpses left exposed in the streets of the ghetto. Starvation would have been even worse if not for Jewish children, some as young as four, who risked their lives to smuggle food into the ghetto. On top of food shortages, a lack of effective sewage and sanitation allowed diseases like typhus and dysentery to run rampant. By the time deportations to the death camps commenced in 1942, more than 100,000 Jews had already perished within the walls of the Warsaw ghetto.
Though Poland housed the most notorious Jewish ghettos, there were other large ghettos in Hungary, Romania, Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union, the Netherlands and the Baltic states. Some of the better-known ghettos included:
- Warsaw. The Polish capital was home to the largest ghetto in Nazi Europe, containing around 450,000 Jews and other minorities. It was formed in October 1940 when the SS ordered all Polish Jews to leave their homes and relocate to the city’s west bank. In 1942 the Nazis began deporting ghetto inmates to the nearby extermination camp at Treblinka. By September, between 250,000 and 300,000 of the Warsaw Jews had been gassed there. Reports of these executions contributed to the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943.
- Lodz. The ghetto in Lodz in central Poland was the second-largest and longest-running ghetto in the Nazi empire. It was formed in February 1940 with the order that Jews must confine themselves to the ‘old city’. The Lodz Judenrat imposed strict rules and regulations on their fellow Jews, forcing inmates to work and punishing those who did not. This was not a cruel tactic but was designed to make Lodz a productive ghetto – and thus prolong the lives of its inhabitants. Deportations from Lodz started in December 1941, with Jews there sent to Chelmno or Auschwitz. In August 1944, as the Russians approached from the east, the ghetto was dissolved.
- Krakow. Formed in March 1941, the Krakow ghetto was much smaller than that of Warsaw, with around 15,000 Jews. The ghetto was liquidated (cleared of inhabitants) in mid-1942 by the notorious SS captain Amon Goth. Most inmates were sent to the Plaszow labour camp, on the southern fringes of the city. The Krakow ghetto and its liquidation by Goth are portrayed in the film Schindler’s List.
- Lublin. Also opened in March 1941, this ghetto in eastern Poland housed almost 35,000 Jews and an unknown number of Romany. By late 1943 almost all were dead, either transported to the Belzec death camp, worked to death in labour camps or murdered by einsatzgruppen.
- Amsterdam. The Netherlands was home to 140,000 Jews when Nazi troops invaded in 1940. Dutch Jews were forced to relocate to Amsterdam, while non-Dutch Jews were deported to other countries. With the support of local collaborators (the Netherlands had the largest Nazi Party outside Germany and Austria) the SS began forming a Jewish ghetto. The Jewish quarter of the city was sealed in February 1941 and a Judenrat was appointed. An estimated 100,000 people lived in this ghetto; most were later deported to the death camps in Poland.
- Vilnius. Nazi troops entered Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania, in 1941. After the einsatzgruppen slaughtered one-third of the city’s 60,000 Jews, the rest were herded into a poor neighbourhood, which was transformed into the Vilnius ghetto. Further killing sprees in September and October 1941 reduced the ghetto’s Jewish population to around 20,000. By late 1943 the remaining Jews had been deported to labour or death camps and the ghetto was effectively empty.
The Polish ghettos were intended as a temporary or intermediate response to the ‘Jewish problem’. By early 1941, the majority of Europe’s Jews were being detained in a holding pattern in Polish ghettos and labour camps, while the Nazi hierarchy finalised its plans for them. By early 1942 the Wannsee Conference had accepted the Final Solution – the mass extermination of the Jewish people – was the culmination of Nazi Jewish policy. Over the next two years, Jews would be deported en masse to either labour camps or death camps. By the summer of 1944, the dozens of ghettos scattered around occupied Europe were mostly cleared of Jews, their walls and buildings little more than historical artefacts.
1. The Nazis initially planned to house Europe’s Jews in a huge reservation in eastern Poland (the Nisko Plan).
2. Another proposal was to relocate four million Jews to the former French colony of Madagascar, near Africa.
3. Both plans were abandoned, the Nazis instead relocated most Jews to ghettos within eastern European cities.
4. Ghettos were closely guarded and cramped; many thousands died from malnutrition and disease.
5. In 1942, the Nazis began deporting Jews from ghettos, some shifted in labour camps, others to death camps.