The Ghettos of PolandT
he Polish Jews came under German rule after the Nazi invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, and during 1940 most of them were being assembled in ghettos. The one in Warsaw was the largest of these and reached almost half a million residents. For the Jews, the situation in the ghettos was frequently terrible: hunger, disease and forced labour claimed many victims. Added to this, beginning in the summer of 1942, constant deportations to the extermination camps began to empty out the ghettos. From 1942-1943 around 2 million Polish Jews were murdered by gassing.
Initially, the Nazis viewed the ghettos as a temporary measure. It was by no means the intention that they exist in the long run. The local German occupation authorities merely wanted to make sure that they could easily move the Jews - ‘when the time came’. Besides this, the intention of this policy was to isolate the Jews from the rest of the Polish population and make them give up their businesses, apartments, etc. As in Germany, the Jews were to disappear from public life.
As a result of the massive number of ghettos being established, almost all of the Polish Jews lived in some form of ghetto by the end of 1941 - 500,000 in the ghetto of Warsaw alone.
In the wake of the German attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, the Nazi regime’s Jewish policy was strongly radicalised. From different sides within the Nazi state- and security institutions, concrete plans surfaced about killing all eastern European Jews that were unable to work, as they were seen as an economic and ideological burden.
At the same time, the first deportations of German Jews to the east were initiated. In order to make room for them in the overcrowded Polish ghettos, it was deemed “necessary” to have the weakest Jews (those unable to work) murdered.
The untenable situation in the ghettos was another important reason why the Nazis began the systematic mass murder. There were constantly problems with the food supply to the ghettos and with frequent epidemics .
Simultaneously, the Nazis tried to develop a method for quickly and effectively killing many people. In the course of 1941 such a method was discovered: gassing. The first mass killings with the use of gas were carried out in the newly founded extermination camp Chelmno in December of 1941, whereto Jews unable to work were sent from the ghetto in Lodz.
In the beginning of 1942, the liquidation of the Polish ghettos was begun, and the Jews were sent to extermination camps, where they were gassed to death. In three extermination camps in Poland, whose only purpose was to exterminate the Polish Jews, almost 2 million Jews were gassed to death in the course of 1942-1943. The operation to exterminate the Polish Jews was called ‘Operation Reinhard’, named after the head of the Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich, who was assassinated in June 1942.
In Warsaw, the first transport of Jews left the ghetto on 22 July 1942. Officially, the Jews were to be ‘transported to work outside the ghetto’, but in reality among 5,000 people were driven directly to their death in Treblinka. In the course of the following two months around 350,000 Jews from Warsaw were murdered in this way.
As a result of the Operation Reinhard, only about 300,000 Jews were alive in the General Government by the end of 1942. The rest had perished, either of hunger, illness, forced labour, or by gassing in the extermination camps.
The first large ghetto, the one in Lodz, was also the last to be liquidated. In the summer of 1944 the last remaining residents, approximately 80,000, were deported to Auschwitz.
There are very few examples of armed Jewish resistance in the ghettos. Among the explanations to this is the fact that very few really believed that the Nazis had their minds set on murdering all Jews. Another explanation is that the Jews at this point had an almost 2,000-year-old history of compliance with the authorities. Finally, an important point is the fear of retaliation: to wage armed resistance against the Germans not only meant bringing yourself in danger, but also your family, friends, and the whole community.
One of the only exemptions to this rule of passivity is the great uprising in the Warsaw ghetto in the spring of 1943. At that time, approximately 300,000 of the ghettos’ residents had been systematically exterminated in Treblinka, and the ghetto had only 70,000 residents left. Starting in October 1942, armed resistance groups were established. In January 1943, they carried out their first act of armed resistance against the Germans.
This happened because the Nazi authorities had ordered another 6,500 people to be deported from the ghetto. As a result of the ghetto fighters’ action, Heinrich Himmler gave orders to liquidate the ghetto completely. Following this, the Jews started to systematically attack the Germans, and it took more than a month of fighting between Jewish resistance groups and German Waffen-SS soldiers before the Jewish uprising was crushed.
The murder of Soviet JewsT
he German attack on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, known as ‘Operation Barbarossa’, meant the beginning of a new kind of war. It was a ‘total war’ without rules, where the purpose was to break the Soviet Union with all means available. All traditional norms for “proper” warfare were thus set aside as being completely superficial. Just a few days after the invasion, special units from the SS, the Einsatzgruppen, began to murder Jewish men. In the course of August and September 1941, the mass murder was expanded to include Jewish women and children.
From this point onwards, a systematic attempt was carried out to exterminate all Jews under German rule. This often happened under the cover of warfare against partisans, gangs or the like. It is estimated that between 1 and 2 million Soviet Jews perished as a result of the Nazi mass killings, although the figures are very uncertain because of lack of proper data.
The Germans’ experiences with Blietzkrieg against for instance France seemed to suggest that the Red Army would be run over by the German armoured divisions within a few weeks. Consequently, plans were developed at an early stage to prepare for the take-over of the newly conquered territories, including the question of what to do with the civilian population.
The establishing of the Einsatzgruppen
einrich Himmler ordered several branches of the SS to participate in the coming mass murder in the Soviet Union. The Security Police, headed by Reinhard Heydrich, was the most important of these organisations. Heydrich gave orders to establish four special units, the so-called Einsatzgruppen, consisting of men from different branches of the SS. These special units were established in the spring of 1941 and were each given a special area of operation.
The number of Soviet Holocaust victimsB
ecause of the often very inconsistent and unreliable source material it is difficult to give a precise estimate of the number of Jewish victims of the Nazi persecution in the Soviet Union. The simplest thing would of course be to establish how many Jews that lived in the area before the war, and how many after. The difference between the two numbers – disregarding emigration – would then equal the number of victims. Unfortunately, such an undertaking is impossible. The size of the Jewish population in the Soviet Union, before as well as after the war, is unknown.
• The Romanian-occupied parts of the Soviet Union (the districts of Bessarabia, Bukowina and Transnistria): a total of approximately 240-245,000 Jews perished.
• The Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania): A total of approximately 210,000 Jews perished.
By far the largest massacres took place in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine and it is estimated that approximately 2 million Jews were killed in all of the German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union.