Beginning in 1939, Jews throughout German-controlled Poland were forced to move into ghettos—specific areas of cities and towns that were separated from the rest of the population. Jews had to leave behind their homes and most of their possessions when they moved to ghettos; while families were generally able to stay together, space was crowded, with multiple families sharing one apartment. In Warsaw, Jewish resident Chaim Kaplan wrote in his diary, “We have entered into a new life, and it is impossible to imagine the panic that has arisen in the Jewish Quarter. Suddenly we see ourselves penned in on all sides. We are segregated and separated from the world and the fullness thereof, driven out of the society of the human race.”1
The ghettos created by the Nazis were not the first in Europe: the term ghetto actually originated in Venice, Italy, where Jewish homes and businesses were confined to a designated part of the city beginning in 1516. Over the next 200 years, rulers in Rome, Prague, Frankfurt, and other cities also established ghettos, though by the late 1800s Jews were no longer legally required to live in them. But as the German army conquered territory in Poland and farther east in the early years of World War II, the Germans created ghettos throughout this area; historians estimate that during the war there were more than 1,100 Jewish ghettos. The map below shows the location of these ghettos throughout Europe.
They were not all alike: some ghettos were tiny, less than the size of a city block, while others, such as the Łódź ghetto, were vast areas almost like small cities themselves. Some ghettos, like Warsaw’s, were sealed off from the outside world by walls, barbed wire, and guards. Others were more open, and Jewish residents were able leave the ghetto to work, most often as forced laborers for the Nazis or companies that supported the Third Reich. Some ghettos existed only for brief periods of just a few weeks, as places where Jews could be contained before deportation or murder; other ghettos were active for years.
Anxiety about deportation to concentration camps and the struggle to find enough food were part of daily life in most ghettos. In the Łódź ghetto, located in a part of Poland that had been incorporated into the German Reich, residents were particularly isolated from the surrounding population and had to exist on the small rations provided by the Germans.2 Smuggling of food and medicine—a lifeline for other ghettos—was nearly impossible in Łódź. In early 1942, a young girl living in the Łódź ghetto kept a diary of her experiences. Her name remains unknown, but her diary entries evoke the fear and suffering of life in the ghetto:
There is no justice in the world, not to mention in the ghetto. Right now they are deporting people on welfare. People are in a state of panic. And this hunger. A struggle against death from starvation. Life is terrible, living conditions are abominable, and there is no food . . .
Wednesday March 11, 1942
This ration is much worse than the previous one. Terrible hunger is awaiting us again. I got the vegetable ration right away. There is only vinegar and ice in the beets. There is no food, we are going to starve to death. All my teeth ache and I am very hungry. My left leg is frostbitten. I ate almost all the honey. What have I done? I’m so selfish. What are they going to put on their bread now, what will they say? Mom, I’m unworthy of you. You work so hard. Besides working in the workshop, she also moonlights for a woman who sells clothes in the street. My mom looks awful, like a shadow. She works very hard . . .
Today I had a fight with my father. I swore at him, even cursed him. It happened because yesterday I weighed twenty decagrams of zacierki [egg noodles] and then sneaked a spoonful. When my father came back, he immediately noticed that some zacierki were missing. My father started yelling at me and he was right. But since the chairman [Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Jewish Council of Łódź] gave out these zacierki to be cooked, why can’t I have some? I became very upset and cursed my father. What have I done? I regret it so much, but it can’t be undone. My father is not going to forgive me. How will I ever look him in the eyes? He stood by the window and cried like a baby. Not even a stranger insulted him before. The whole family witnessed this incident. I went to bed as soon as possible, without dinner. I thought I would die of hunger, because we have our meal only in the evening. I fell asleep and woke at twelve. My mom was still working at the sewing machine. I couldn’t stand the hunger, so I got up and took a piece of meal. We would be a happy family, if I didn’t fight with everybody. All the fights are started by me. I must be manipulated by some evil force. I would like to be different, but I don’t have a strong enough will. There is nobody I can talk to. Why isn’t there anybody who would guide me, why can’t anyone teach me? I hate my sister. She is a stranger to me. God, show me what is right. Today there was a ration of eight kilograms of briquettes for those who don’t get provisions in the kitchen.
Saturday March 14, 1942
. . . O freedom! Will I have to stay behind this barbed wire forever? Will that sign be on the big board forever, [Entering Jewish residential area forbidden]? Will there always be a booth with a German guard who has a rifle on his shoulder? Has it always been like this? Will it stay like this? Oh, no! But who is going to live through it? I miss freedom. Especially on a warm sunny day. O sun! It’s you who make me yearn for freedom. My heart is bleeding and my eyes are full of tears. Someone reading this in the future may sneer at me, say I’m an idiot. But my hand is writing this involuntarily. I would like to stand there for days and feast my eyes on this sight. I came home at seven o’clock, had dinner, and went to bed at nine.3
- 1 : Chaim Aron Kaplan and Abraham Isaac Katsh, Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 225.
- 2 : Alexandra Zapruder, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 227.
- 3 Alexandra Zapruder, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 230–40. Reproduced by permission of Alexandra Zapruder.
- 4 Facing History and Ourselves, A Guide to the MTV Film "I'm Still Here: Real Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust,” online PDF, 6.