The Warsaw Ghetto

In September 1939 the Germans took control of Poland and Warsaw after a three week siege. There was no love lost between the Germans and the Poles and it soon became clear that the Nazis, considering themselves a 'Master Race', valued Polish life at next to nothing. As was later demonstrated, on an unprecedented scale, this was one step up from the value they put on Jewish life.

As early as November 1939 in Warsaw the first decrees intended to denigrate the Jewish people were issued by the Nazis - the most notable of which was that all Jews over the age of twelve years were forced to identify themselves by wearing a Star of David on their sleeve. These first measures were just the start of a long process however, and with more edicts issued every month it wasn't long before the Jews were reduced to the status of slaves and chattel. They were forbidden to work in either key industries or government institutions, to bake bread, to earn more than 500 zloty a month, to travel by train or trolley-bus, to leave the city limits without special permits, to possess gold or jewellery, plus all Jewish shops and enterprises had also to be marked with the Star of David. In addition to these official oppressions, Jews were summarily humiliated, beaten or even executed for little or spurious reason. In short they lived their lives in a state of constant fear.

Plans for a Jewish ghetto had in fact existed since the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, but in October 1940 they finally began to take form. A small district South West of the Old Town, in the centre of the city, was chosen and 113,000 Poles were evacuated to make way for Warsaw's 400,000 Jews. Thirty percent of the city's population were now living in an area that constituted less than three square miles, or 2.4 % of the capital. In November that area was closed off by a formidable wall, topped with barbed wire.

Life in the ghetto started off tough and quickly got worse. At first some semblance of normal life presided: cafes were still open, newspapers published (newspapers from 'the outside' were forbidden), school lessons took place and people strived to continual a normal existence as best as they could. Those who had managed to hold on to any of their wealth in particular were able to live in a small degree of comfort. Smuggling food into the ghetto was common, either by bribing guards at the gates, or carrying it in via underground canals - whilst poorer people would send their children over to the 'Aryan side' to steal what they could. The official food ration of around 200 calories a day per person was less than 10 percent of the ration for Germans (and about 25% of the ration for Poles).

As more and more Jews were brought in from the neighbouring towns and villages, conditions became yet more cramped. Money for bribes was drying out (and was only ever the privilege of a few) and the poor people of the ghetto, skeletal and wretched, began starving en masse. In addition to death by starvation a typhoid epic, caused by the poor sanitary conditions, broke out; meaning that by April 1941 the mortality rate in the ghetto was a staggering six thousand people per month. Funeral carts would come and collect the bodies every morning, between 4-5am; mostly the corpses were dumped naked on the streets - the families were forced to strip their relatives in order to sell the clothes.

Whilst the Jews in the ghetto were dying, they weren't dying quickly enough as far as Berlin was concerned. Hitler's original plans to ship all European Jews to Africa were proved impractical, and so it was that the chilling 'Final Solution' was decided upon, early in 1942. Between July and September of that year 300,000 ghetto Jews were transported to the Treblinka Extermination Camp, in the Nazis first mass deportation effort. At first few believed, including the Jews themselves, that the rumours of these death camps were real - preferring to believe that they being sent to hard labour camps. Eventually the evidence that was fed back (by escapees from the camps and by various secret agents and journalists) became irrefutable. The 60,000 remaining occupants of the ghetto had no choice but to confront the awful truth.

When the Nazis prepared to organise a second deportation to Treblinka in 1943 the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began.

* Several survivors of the ghetto are still alive today. And out of respect to all the internees of the ghetto, we kindly ask that reviewers write only essential comments. Thank you.

This article on the Warsaw Ghetto is meant to be an informative introduction to Warsaw's history for travellers, and is not meant to be used for academic research. Please do not use it for any academic papers, but instead refer to published academic works and textbooks.*

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