Ghettos were specially selected areas where Jews were forced to live; where they were segregated, controlled, and dehumanised.
Nazi Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 and as a result, the UK and France declared war. The initial fighting in Poland lasted only a few weeks, as Poland’s old-fashioned army was quickly defeated by the modern, advanced German forces.
The Nazi aim to force Jewish emigration from Germany had to be reassessed after the invasion of Poland and outbreak of war. The millions of Jews living in Nazi-occupied areas were instead concentrated into ghettos. In spring 1940 the Nazis established ghettos in the larger towns and cities across Poland. The establishment of ghettos was a provisional measure to control and segregate Jews while the Nazi leadership in Berlin deliberated upon options to realise their goal of removing the Jewish population.
The largest ghetto was Warsaw, where 400,000 Jews were crowded into 1.3 square miles of the city. Other ghettos included those in the cities of Łódź, Kraków, Białystok, Lvov (L'viv), Lublin, Vilna (Vilnius), Częstochowa, and Minsk. Many thousands of western European Jews were also deported to ghettos in the east.
Some ghettos had walls built around them; others were marked out by barbed wire. They were nearly always in the poorest areas of town and desperately cramped with poor sanitation. As time went on, food restrictions were introduced and terrible conditions led to hundreds of thousands dying from disease or malnutrition. Men, women and children were forced to leave their homes taking only the possessions they could carry and move into overcrowded houses and rooms. Leaving the ghetto was strictly prohibited. Conditions in the ghettos were appalling, where families were crowded together without adequate supplies of food or water. Many people died from starvation, disease and casual executions carried out by the Nazis.
All Jewish inhabitants of the ghettos were forced to wear a Star of David, making them instantly recognisable to the Nazi authorities. Many Jews were used as forced labour in factories and businesses outside of the ghetto. Daily life in the ghettos was administered by Nazi-appointed Judenraete (Jewish Council). Ghetto police carried out the orders of the Nazis, assisting with deportations, punishment and oppression.
After the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 the Nazis stepped up their persecution through murder on an industrial scale. By December 1941 over 1.5 million Jews had been killed by beatings, starvation or mass shootings. Camps were established as soon as the Nazis came to power and those who were considered to be opponents of the regime were imprisoned and treated with great brutality.
The Wannsee Conference (20/01/1942), attended by high ranking Nazi officials, planned the mass-deportation of European Jews to extermination camps in German-occupied Poland, where they would then be murdered. This ‘Final Solution’ aimed to exterminate all Jews in Europe. Deportation on this scale required organisation on an industrial scale. It required liaison with the Nazi-allied regimes and occupying authorities across the continent, and needed coordination across many Government departments – including the Ministry of Transportation to arrange train schedules and routes, and the police to direct and manage the deportations. The efficient coordination of these deportations showed how ‘normal’ persecution had become.
It is generally accepted that the Nazis attempted to disguise their intent, referring to the removal of Jews from ghettos to extermination camps as ‘resettlement in the East’. Jews would be rounded up from the ghettos and made to prepare for their ‘resettlement’ taking with them a few of their most valuable possessions if they were able.
Freight and passenger trains were used for the deportations – into which the deportees were sealed with little or no room to sit or lay down. No food or water was provided for those on the trains, which were intensely hot during the summer and freezing cold during the winter. Aside from a bucket, there were no sanitary facilities, adding to the indignity faced by those being deported. Journeys often lasted several days, sometimes they took a few weeks. Many of those packed onto these trains died during the journey to the camps through starvation or overcrowding.
Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest Nazi extermination camp, where transports such as these arrived on a daily basis from virtually every Nazi-occupied country in Europe.