In September Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi in charge of "the Jewish question" in Poland, sent out an order: all small-town and shtetl Jews in Poland were to be relocated to the large cities where the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police, could "watch" them more efficiently. By 1941, most Polish Jews had been moved to the slums of Warsaw, Kovno, Krakow, Lublin, and other cities. Western Jews, including those of Germany, were moved eastward into Poland to join them. Walls were built to separate the Jews from the Polish people. The Nazi ghettos had been established.
The Warsaw Ghetto
Because the documents that survived the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto are so complete, they provide a detailed picture of Jewish life in isolation. In Warsaw alone almost 450,000 Jews were squeezed into an area in which 145,000 had lived before. There were fifteen hundred buildings in the ghetto and about fourteen people lived in each apartment. There were no gardens or open spaces, so finding personal space or fresh air was nearly impossible.
With so many people in such a small space, disease spread, particularly infectious disease. In 1941 a typhus epidemic struck. Doctors had little or no medicine, and many Jewish lives were lost.
But disease was hardly the greatest threat to life. Hunger was. Cut off from the rest of the world, the Jews depended on the Nazis for food. The Nazis refused to give them meat, fish, fresh vegetables, or fruit. Instead, the Jews were given bread, potatoes, and fats to live on; and each person was limited to about eight hundred calories a day. (An average adult male uses about two thousand calories a day just to maintain normal body weight.) People died by the dozens.
There were fifteen entrances to the Warsaw ghetto, each guarded by Polish and German soldiers who were told to shoot on sight any Jew who came too close. Only work gangs, closely watched by soldiers of the Gestapo, were allowed to leave the ghetto.
The Germans had no offices in the ghetto and seldom appeared there. For a while the Nazis amused themselves by conducting tours of the ghetto for German soldiers on leave, taking them into the Warsaw ghetto to show the Jews lying dead in the streets. But some soldiers did not find this amusing -- in fact, they were so disturbed by what they saw that the Nazis canceled these "tours" in 1942.
Control of the ghettos was put in the hands of Jewish "councils" or Judenrate (often made up of individuals handpicked by the Germans). They were told to obey German orders or be replaced. To enforce their decisions, the Nazis also set up Jewish "police forces." They tried to find Jews who would be a part of these forces willingly, even recruiting Jewish criminals. The Nazis gave these police forces uniforms, armed them with whips and clubs, and allowed them to terrorize other Jews. Many of these "policemen" were all too ready to comply, reasoning that the Nazis would spare them in the end. But in the end the policemen were sent to their deaths along with all the other Jews.
Finding Jews who were eager to cooperate was a favorite Nazi trick for controlling the ghetto. In one ghetto in particular they managed to find such a person among the top Jewish leadership. This was Chaim Rumkowski, head of the Lodz Judenrat. The Nazis saw in him a man who loved power, and so they gave him almost complete power. He was the ruler of the nearly 160,000 Jews in the Lodz ghetto, and he behaved as if he were their king.
Rumkowski often appeared in public surrounded by his admirers, wearing a white cape and hat. He raised taxes for the ghetto, coined money, and even had postage stamps printed with his picture on them. He reserved the right to arrest or pardon his "subjects." He told everyone that what he wanted was "peace in the ghetto," and that he hoped to save the lives of the Jews of Lodz. In 1944, when the last trainload of Jews was transported out of the Lodz ghetto, the Nazis stuffed Rumkowski aboard. They had no more use for him: he was just another Jew. But Rumkowski had served them well -- there was never an uprising or rebellion in Lodz.
In general, the Judenrate took their responsibilities seriously, struggling to watch over the sanitation and health of the people in the ghetto, running its clinics and hospitals. They were also charged with assigning people to work forces -- both inside the ghetto and in factories outside the ghetto walls.
Everyone wanted to work, for those who did not were soon rounded up by the Germans and sent away to concentration camps. People often tried to bribe members of the Judenrat to assign them work, and the members of some Judenrate soon discovered that assigning the "right" people to work could make them rich. In fact, bribery became a part of Jewish life in the ghetto.
Smugglers, for example, grew wealthy and powerful through bribery. They bribed SS men to ensure that shipments could be sent out of the ghetto and other shipments brought in. So small industries grew up in the ghetto which produced things to be sold outside. There was even one insurance company set up to insure shipments being made by smugglers. In Warsaw one smuggler became so wealthy that he gave parties for writers and artists and even ran his own ambulance service.
Children often became smugglers to help their families survive. Sometimes they slipped past the guards at the gates, at times through small openings in the ghetto walls, and at times through the sewers that connected the ghetto with the Polish city outside. Once out of the ghetto, the children begged and stole food and firewood to be taken back inside. Many families depended on their children to be clever smugglers.
Threats and Deception
In effect, the Nazis controlled the ghettos by a kind of blackmail. They said that if a certain command was not followed, or a certain number of Jews not turned over to them, thousands would be killed. In this way they slowly emptied the ghettos. They threatened the Judenrat to force them to cooperate. If the Judenrat refused to turn over a certain number of Jews to be shipped out of the ghetto, then, the Nazis said, the whole ghetto would be wiped out.
Deception also played a large part in the Nazi strategy. For example, in Kovno in 1941 the Germans told the Judenrat that five hundred young scholars were needed outside the ghetto for a special task. They claimed that these scholars would be spared any hard labor. So the Judenrat drew up a list -- young people even volunteered for this special duty. Five hundred Jewish scholars were taken away -- never to be seen again.
Using the strategy of deception, the Nazis would say that those who had been taken from the ghettos were being "transported" to work in the east. Sometimes postcards came from those who had been transported; there would be one postcard saying they were well -- and never another. There was never a return address.
The Jews began to realize that something unpleasant was happening to these people. They heard rumors that those transported were being sent to concentration camps and starved, or to death camps where they were gassed. But most of the Jews in the ghettos found these rumors too incredible to believe. What the Nazis were saying seemed more logical -- that the Jews who were taken from the ghettos were being sent to hard labor camps.
In itself, that seemed harsh enough; and many Jews resisted when the Nazis came to transport them. Families struggled to stay together. Jews hid when they heard that the Nazis were entering the ghetto to conduct one of their regular "roundups." In response, the Nazis increased pressure on the Judenrate. Any resistance, they said, would mean death for all.
Why Did the Jews Not Rebel?
In the Nazi ghettos, death came quickly for thousands. Death by disease, death by exposure to the cold Polish winters, death by starvation. People suffered and died, but they did not often revolt. In his diary (July 1942) the famous Polish historian, Emmanuel Ringelblum, tried to understand why this was so.
Why are they silent? Why do complete families die, father, mother, and children without a single protest? Why haven't we carried out the threats we made a year ago, the rebellions, the pillages, the threats that aroused the house committees and moved them to collect stores of food? [Emmanuel Ringeiblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto]
Time and again Ringelblum asked this question of people he met on the street and friends he spoke with in his home. Finally, he pieced together some answers.
First, there was the fear of reprisals. The Jews knew that the Nazis' answer to violence would be violence. If any Jews rebelled, the Nazis would simply kill other Jews by the thousands. So, many submitted, hoping to save others from dying needlessly.
There were also those who did not wish to fight because they had found ways of "getting along" in the ghetto. Some worked with smugglers or became smugglers themselves. People who were permitted to work wanted to go on working. Others had taken to peddling in the street, selling whatever they could for whatever profit they could make. The people who were "getting along" believed that fighting would only make things harder.
Many simple country people had been transported to the ghettos from the shtetls and small towns. For these people the city was bewildering, and its closed-in life was unbearable; they had lost the will to live. Many of them had no homes; they slept and begged in the streets. Ringelblum reported:
Recently I talked with one of these refugees, who had been starving for a long time. All he thinks about is food, particularly bread: wherever he goes, whatever he does, he dreams of bread; he stops in front of every bakery, in front of every window ... nothing interests him any more. [Emmanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto]
Thoughts of rebellion had no meaning for people whose every waking moment was consumed by the search for food.
The Jewish police acted as another barrier against revolt. They were the only Jews allowed to carry weapons and they were more interested in retaining power over other Jews than in fighting the Nazis. They would not fight, and fear of them kept many another ghetto Jew from fighting.
The Struggle for Humanity
The Nazis were able to control the ghetto physically. Yet within the ghetto walls the Jews created a way of life based on Jewish values. They tried to feed their spirits, even as their bodies starved. Like Ringelblum, many continued to study and write. Reading became more popular than ever before, and the few books in the ghetto were shared among all, read again and again. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoi was a favorite book, for in it the tyrant Napoleon met his downfall. Unlike the Jews of western Europe who had been set free from the ghettos by Napoleon, the Jews of eastern Europe had no love for the French conqueror. Reading of Napoleon’s fall, the Jews dreamed of a time when Hitler, too, would be defeated.
Schooling in the ghetto had been forbidden by German decree, but teachers continued to teach. They conducted classes for children and adults. Jews prepared for their hoped-for future by studying English. Diplomas were granted, and being a good student remained a mark of pride.
Jewish actors formed theater groups -- amateur and professional -- to entertain the ghetto. Those Jews who could afford it went to the coffee houses at night to sip schnapps ("liquor") or watered-down coffee. Those who could not afford cafes gathered to tell jokes and stories. Though death was everywhere, young people still found the courage to marry and even to have children.
To Cooperate or Not to Cooperate
In many ghettos Jewish leaders refused to cooperate with the Nazis in deciding who would live and who would die. Dr. Adam Czerniakow of Warsaw finally drew the line at sending children to their deaths. Both Czerniakow and Dr. Rotfeld of Lvov, heads of their ghetto Judenrat, committed suicide rather than decide the fate of their people for the Nazis.
In Kovno, the Judenrat called on the chief rabbi to ask what should be done according to Jewish law. The chief rabbi knew what Jewish law would normally say: not even a single Jew should be given to the enemy no matter how many lives were being threatened. But he saw, too, the people’s terror; and so he ruled differently. Since this was a unique situation, the rabbi said, and the Jews were really all being held as hostages, the Judenrat should cooperate with the Nazis as long as they thought that by doing so some Jewish lives might be saved. But rabbis in other communities refused to allow any cooperation.
What seemed such a pressing problem at the time, proved of little importance in the end. Whether the Judenrat cooperated or not, the Nazis rounded up Jews and transported them to the concentration camps and death camps. All the threats and all the deceptions were only being used to keep the Jews as peaceable and manageable as possible. From the outset, Nazi policy had been to send the Jews to their deaths.
In Czechoslovakia the Germans set up a special ghetto at Theresienstadt (also called Terezin). Conditions there were better than in most of the ghettos and camps. To this "privileged" ghetto they sent well-known Jews, decorated war veterans, children, and the aged. Of course, Jews who were transported out of this ghetto were sent to their deaths, but the Nazis kept life at Theresienstadt bearable for a very good reason: like all criminals, they wanted to hide the truth of what they were doing from the rest of the world.
When the International Red Cross came to inspect German ghettos or concentration camps, they were taken only to Theresienstadt. Nothing terrible seemed to be happening there. And that is what the Red Cross reported. For a very long time, as far as the outside world was concerned, Jews in ghettos and concentration camps were not being mistreated. But the truth was decidedly otherwise.