The ghettos in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe were established at
the beginning of World War II, after the conquest of Poland in 1939,
and the occupation of Soviet-annexed territories in June 1941. The
first ghetto in occupied Poland, was set up in the autumn of 1939.
The Lodz ghetto, which at the time of its isolation from the outside
world had 165,000 inhabitants, was formed in the spring of 1940.
The Warsaw ghetto, the largest, which at its peak period contained
450,000 Jews, was sealed in October 1940.
The ghettos during the Nazi period were not intended as a permanent
framework, but simply as a stage in preparation for a future general
solution to the "Jewish Problem." The Nazis gave several pretexts
for the establishment of ghettos. For example, they wished to prevent
the dissemination of diseases supposedly prevalent among Jews, or
to suppress alleged black-market activities by Jews. While the Nazi
authorities definitely aimed at establishing an impenetrable barrier
between Jews and non-Jews, their main objectives were the creation
of extremely harsh living conditions, isolation from the outside
world, and the internment of Jews in vast prisons under conditions
of total helplessness. These goals would in turn lead to the breakdown
of their physical, mental, and social structure, destroying their
resistance as a community.
Ghetto administration or Jewish Council (Judenrat) was set up in
accordance with a general decree by the Nazis, who did not conceal
their intentions. They wanted a Jewish representation that would
carry out German orders and commands to the letter and would be
responsible to the Nazi authorities for the implementation of those
Most ghettos were closed off from the outside world by barbed wire
or wooden fences. The Warsaw ghetto was isolated by a wall 9.8 feet
high, covered with fragments of glass and barbed wire. The Lodz
ghetto was guarded by German sentries, and the gates of the Warsaw
ghetto were patrolled by groups of German, Polish, and Jewish policemen.
The primary and most disturbing problem however, that faced the
Jews in the ghetto was food and provisions. Almost all sources of
Jewish income had been seized or prohibited. Moreover, the Germans
had separated the Jews from the general economy, and forbade them
to engage in most professions. Jewish property was confiscated,
and Jewish-owned shops and factories expropriated. Jews were forbidden
to hold private stocks of merchandise or cash, and periodically
the Nazis raided Jewish homes and stole whatever they wanted. The
Germans instituted forced labor for the Jews, but the Jews received
either no payment at all or a sum that did not even suffice to buy
a oaf of bread.
However, the Jews did not succumb without resisting. The Nazis demanded
that Jews hand over their money and movable possessions, but the
Jews did not comply. The Nazis forbade the Jews to engage in trade
or work as artisans, but the Jews labored in secret and manufactured
goods clandestinely. The Nazis prohibited communal prayer, but the
Jews gathered despite the prohibition and held services on weekdays
and festivals. The Nazis forbade the Jews to open schools, but the
Jews organized clandestine kindergartens and schools for all age
groups. Despite the miserable conditions, many Jews forced themselves
to go on and offered hope to many.