Life in the Ghetto
It is widely known what went on between the Jews and the Germans during World War II. Millions upon millions of Jews were killed because of Hitler’s hatred, Hitler’s tyranny, and Hitler’s fury. While many people today still cringe at the thought of life in concentration camps, many are not aware of the harsh reality that existed in the Jewish ghettos.
The word “ghetto” is not only the scariest place in America but also a word used to refer to a Jewish community. These ghettos or communities were the holding areas of many, many Jews who were forced to perform slave labor for the Germans during the war instead of going to concentration camps. In Germany, during the early stages of the war, more and more occupations were closed to Jews, and the free professions were totally banned to them. However, during the drafting of a general law designed to totally displace the Jews from their positions in the economy, it became evident to the Germans that the problem could not be solved without simultaneously clearing the way for increased emigration. If the Germans dispossessed them, they would no longer be a burden on the German economy. In June of 1938, a man named Martin Bormann, acting on behalf of the fuhrer’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, sent German party activists a secret directive about “the removal of Jews from the economy.” In a Nazi meeting held on October 14, 1938, a man named Herman Goring, who was second in power only to Chancellor Adolf Hitler, declared that “Aryanization (making the world one Aryan race) was the state’s, and only the state’s concern,” adding that he was not prepared to allocate foreign currency to dispose of the Jews. He also added the remark that “if the need arises we will have to establish ghettos in the big cities,” and so it seems the stage was set as this was the first time mention was made of the plan to set up Jewish work brigades.
Originally, the ghettos were not supposed to be permanent institutions, but used as temporary concentration camps until it was possible to find the ultimate solution to the problem of disposing of al the Jews. The first known instance of establishment of a ghetto was in December of 1939 in a town called Leczyca in Poland when the Germans attempted to segregate the Jewish population from the Poles. A prominent example of the way in which large communities were depopulated was the fate of Kalisz, one of the oldest Jewish communities in Poland with a population of twenty thousand at the outbreak of the war. Both Germans and Poles joined in the brutal attacks against the Jews. The Jews had no chance. Many Jews fled, some seven thousand reaching Warsaw. The healthy men remaining in Kalisz were sent to work in the camp, while the ailing were slaughtered in a nearby forest. By October of 1940, only a few hundred Jews were left in the city.
The first ghetto to be established in a systematic fashion was the Lodz ghetto. Governor of the Kalisz-Lodz District, Friedrich Ubelhor, had planned the idea for a ghetto in Lodz since December 10, 1939. Ubelhor proposed two things. The first was to close off most of the Jewish population in the northern part of the city, where most of the Jews lived, and to transfer the Jews from other parts of the Lodz area to this area. The second was to select those fit to labor and concentrate them in another ghetto, actually a labor camp, where they would be organized into labor battalions. The first step in setting up Ubelhor’s labor camp was to first fix the borders of the ghetto and work out the problems of transport through the streets .The Germans and Poles also had to find new homes to be resettled in. Other factors that played a part were sealing and guarding the ghetto, provisions for medical care, sewage, refuse removal, burials, and fuel necessary for heating. The basis for establishing the ghetto in Lodz focused primarily on three spheres: (1) the deportation of as many Jews as possible, with preference given to the wealthy, the educated, and community leadership, if they had not managed to flee by then; (2) the confiscation of property on as broad a scale as possible; and (3) terrifying the Jews by harassment, depriving the population of food, and abducting people for labor.
Once the ghetto was completed and all the Jews had been confined, a Jewish body for self-administration headed by the elder of the Jews (Judenalteste) and a large community administration was to be established within the ghetto immediately. The Council of Elders (Altestenrat) would be responsible for creating individual departments to deal with nutrition, health, finances, security, living quarters, and registration. Foods and other supplies were to be provided only in exchange for merchandise such as textiles and other goods. The Germans figured that this way they could succeed in dispossessing the Jews of their valuable assets they had hidden. The apartments belonging to Jews who were unfit for labor and who were to be disposed of by sending them to the ghetto could be confiscated and used at German will.
In most ghettos that were established, including Lodz, the distinction between Jews who were fit or unfit for labor was not observed. Instead, the majority of Jews were interned in ghettos and the laborers were brought to places of work outside. Ubelhor stated, “The establishment of the ghetto is naturally only an interim measure. When and how the ghetto and city of Lodz will be purged of Jews is something I reserve for my exclusive decision. In any case, however, the final aim will be to burn this fraternity and pestilence to the end.”
It was at first planned that the Lodz ghetto would be liquidated by October 1, 1940. By then the ghetto did have the appearance of a detention camp or a concentration camp, and existed primarily for the good of filtering out all the goods and valuable owned by the Jews. In the middle of January of 1941, the German authorities began the large-scale confiscation of property and held a thorough discussion on how to expropriate the real estate of the Jews and whom to appoint as trustees. Jewish warehouses were especially appealing to the German officials. Textiles, metals, kitchen wares, household goods, and electrical appliances were most of the goods that the Germans sought after. Jewish stores were also robbed of their stock such as food, drugs, and cosmetics.
The movement of Jews into ghettos in Lodz took place on February 8, 1940. Chaos went on for weeks as transfer of Jews wore on. As a rule the Jews were given no more then a few minutes to gather a few belongings, while the rest of their property was abandoned to the looting Germans and Poles. On April 30, 1940, the Lodz ghetto was closed off to the rest of the world.
The Elder of the Jews, Mordekhai Chaim Rumkowski was charged with the duties such as commercial and economic activities and assuring the steady supply of food, duties that were usually handled by the municipality or, in a free society, by the citizenry itself. Rumkowski served the Germans on penalty of death, meaning the Germans were no afraid to have a new Judenalteste run the ghetto if there needed to be one. To help him carry out his duties, Rumkowski was equipped with a police force made up of Jews who were likewise residents of the ghetto. This force was called the Order Service.
The Germans knew perfectly well that Rumkowski could not possibly handle these jobs. The formula the Germans had devised was meant to ensure the maximum loss of population during the ghetto’s existence. Forced to work without pay, the Jews would presumably self-destruct and disappear on their own. The conditions the Germans inflicted to assure the Jews demise were intolerable living and sanitary conditions, financial ruin, hunger, hard labor, epidemics, terror, and internal social disintegration. All of these factors were to be achieved by way of the Jewish police. The ghetto’s function was basically no different from a labor camp: both were designed to exploit the Jews and to destroy them “naturally.” Josef Goebbels called the ghettos “death caskets.”
The basic strategy of “natural death” to all Jews was put to work in all ghettos established in Poland from 1940 to 1942. Not all ghettos were established as fast as Lodz. It took a year to completely establish a ghetto in Warsaw. The Gestapo and SS tried to establish a ghetto in Warsaw as soon as the city had fell into German hands. On November 16, 1940, the Warsaw ghetto was closed up for fear of spreading the typhus epidemic through the city. The closed ghetto covered 2.4 percent of the city’s area and had 30 percent of the city’s population crowded between the walls. The walls were 11 miles long, and the wall around the ghetto was ten feet high. It was estimated on January 1, 1941, that there was somewhere between 300,000 to 400,000 Jews living in the Warsaw ghetto.
Jews in every ghetto felt the wrath of collective punishment. Collective punishment was a system the Germans used to punish the Jews by death. This approach made the entire community, or a certain portion, pay the price for the act of an individual. The Warsaw Jewish community immediately saw the effects of collective punishment. On November 13, 1939, two Polish policemen entered a building at 9 Nalewki Street to arrest a man they sought as a criminal. A scuffle broke out during the arrest and one of the policemen was shot and killed by the suspect. In retaliation, the Germans arrested all 53 men that lived in the building, including some that were just visiting. Adam Czerniakow, who was head of the Jewish Council in Warsaw, tried to negotiate the men’s release through the SS. Czerniakow was told to pay a ransom of 300,000 zlotys ($36,145 U.S. dollars). It was Czerniakow’s understanding that the people would be released after he paid the ransom. He raised the money and paid in installments. When he paid the last installment, he found that all 53 men had been executed. The German paper Krakauer Zeitung reported that a “Jewish gang” killed the police officer and the inhabitants of the building had interfered in the search, which is why 53 men were killed.
The “Jewish gang” incident represents the times for Jews: No justice, no chance. Ghetto life was a nightmare. Ghettos were almost the same as concentration camps, except for the lack of gas chambers. Jews fought, starved, and died trying to survive. It’s funny how one man’s ideas can totally obliterate a genuine race of humans.