Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
Under the Nazi regime, ghettos became the home for many Jews. Keeping the Jews in one place, the Nazis were ensuring the location of all Jews in the area and, in the process, helped to increase their chances of death. Ghettos once were a place for life but became a place of death under Nazi rule.
Ghettos were created during the Renaissance (1480-1520)period as a way to keep Jews and non-Jews safe. Periodically, anti-Semitic passions would sweep through communities fueled by rumors and superstition. Jews were rumored to be the source of the Black Plague and other unexplainable circumstances. As the rumors spread, terror would sweep the land and result in the attacks and even murder of Jews. Jews became the scapegoats throughout Europe. The ghettos were usually enclosed with high walls and gates that locked at sunset and were unlocked again at sunrise. This ensured that any criminal or immoral acts that were committed from sunset to sunrise were not committed by any Jew and the attacks on Jews could be decreased. This kept the Jew from being falsely accused and the non-Jew from being harmed by the alleged actions of the Jew. In this sense, it could be argued that the ghettos created by the Catholic Church were meant to help the Jew survive.
By creating ghettos, the Nazis were able to keep the Jews separate from the “Aryan”, or pure, race as Hitler viewed Germans to be. Ghettos were typically walled-off sections of a city or town that were packed beyond capacity by the Nazis. If walls were not built around them, boundary lines were set with death being the penalty for anyone leaving the ghetto without proper permission. Keeping the Jews inside ghettos made finding anyone that was a Jew much easier as they would be all in one location; otherwise, SS agents would be wasting time interrogating and hunting all Jews. Pulling them out of the general population kept the rest of the community from being polluted by those considered beneath them.
These ghettos became small Jewish cities where the struggle to survive became the main objective of all who lived there. As many as 400,000 Jews were crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto; this was larger than many cities at that time in terms of population. The downside was that the area was only large enough for little more than half of that population. This led to many ghetto residents being homeless and even dying from exposure to the elements. To call a doorstep or space under stairs home was not uncommon by those placed in the ghettos.
Jewish ghettos were not the original intention of the Nazis as they began the road to the Final Solution. There was too much fear among party leaders that having ghettos would only encourage the alleged illegal activities of the Jews and give them a place to hide from authorities. They feared ghettos becoming breeding grounds for criminals. Ghettos eventually became the temporary solution for the Nazis until a more permanent solution could be obtained in the concentration camps. Keeping them separate was an intense desire of Nazis as well as ridding the earth of all that were deemed inferior by them. Those that lived within ghettos and outside them were eventually ordered to wear the yellow star to distinguish themselves from all non-Jews. This would make identification of the Jew much easier.
Ghettos were not created by the Nazis so that Jews could prosper and live in harmony. That would contradict everything the party stood for and all the promises that Hitler gave those that followed him. The ultimate goal of Nazi leaders was always the death of the Jewish race. Ghettos were to be created at a “bare subsistence level.” There were no medical resources, food, or other needs provided to any that lived inside a ghetto. The death of any Jew would be delightful to the Nazi party. Ghettos could help them achieve this end. The ghettos were the precursor to the concentration camps.
Concentrations camps were the last destination the Nazis had planned for the Jew to have on this earth. The plan was to have all Jews die in these camps through hunger, weakness, overwork, gas, or fire. If they happened to meet their end in the crowded and disease vulnerable ghettos, the better it was for the Nazi government. Pulling Jews into “corrals”, as the ghettos began to resemble, was the easy way to lead them to the slaughter.
The ghettos were not a place to live and prosper. Multiple families could occupy one home. This alone was dangerous to one’s health and could lead to disaster as in a fire. The amount of food available was only a small fraction of what was needed for each person to survive; many starved in the ghettos. Yet, the Jews tried to make the ghettos a place to live. They tried to make a life out of their circumstances by trying to work, celebrate, and even create families. Plays and education was continued the best that could be done under the squalid conditions.
When it came time to round up Jews, having the ghettos made it easier on the Nazis. Jews were located in one place and were easy targets. Moving from the ghettos to the concentration camps was moving from one misery to another. Death could be found in either location which suited the Nazi just fine.
Schleunes, Karl A. The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy Toward German Jews 1933-1939. Chicago:University of Illinois, 1990.
Supple, Carrie. From Prejudice to Genocide: Learning About the Holocaust. Straffordshire:Trentham, 2009.