Walls are peculiar creations of human beings. We often associate them with privacy and personal autonomy. Historically, they have protected cities and, sometimes, countries from outside threats, real or imagined. Yet they have also served to control subject populations. The Berlin Wall is perhaps the best-known example of the latter. Erected in 1961, it made a mockery of the German Democratic Republic’s pretensions to be a “people’s democracy” or “workers’ state” by denying—with concrete, barbed wire, and armed guards—East Berliners access to the more democratic West Berlin.
Despite the brutality with which the Ulbricht and Honecker governments policed the Berlin Wall for 28 years, their records of cruelty pale beside that of the Nazi dictatorship. No state has so brazenly constructed walls and barriers to restrict the free movement of people—itself a hallmark of modern freedom—as the Hitler dictatorship. Under the Third Reich’s rule, walls separated Jews from non-Jews in cities and towns, large and small, across Eastern Europe. Attracted to some of the worst aspects of European history, the Nazis reinstituted ghettos (the term itself is derived from the Jewish Quarter in Venice), walled enclaves isolating Jews from their Christian neighbors widely seen in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries as the continent was torn apart by religious conflict. The era of Jewish emancipation in Europe that followed the French Revolution seemingly had abolished this vile practice. Hitler desperately attempted to revive it as his armies subjugated much of Europe in the first few years of World War II.
Originally designed to segregate, confine, and exploit Jewish inhabitants, ghettoization later facilitated genocide as the Nazis systematically emptied these ghettos and deported their residents to extermination camps. In 1942–44, the ghettos and the SS-run camps became links in a gigantic chain of mass deportation and mass annihilation engulfing millions of Jewish lives in the Baltic States, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Hungary.
After Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin destroyed the short-lived Second Polish Republic (1918–1939) and partitioned Poland, the Nazis enacted a range of extreme antisemitic measures against Poland’s Jewish population, culminating in the establishment of ghettos. The largest of them, decreed on October 12, 1940, was in the former capital city of Warsaw.
When the German invasion of Poland started on September 1, 1939, 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland. About 380,000 of them resided in Warsaw, comprising roughly 30 percent of the city’s population of 1.3 million. It was the largest urban Jewish community in Europe, and New York City was the only city to have a larger Jewish population than Warsaw. Once Berlin and Moscow had agreed on the borders of their respective Polish territories, a total of between 1.7 million and 2 million Jews fell under Nazi control. Warsaw was the seat of one of four administrative districts making up what the Germans called the General Government, an occupied area founded in October 1939 and headed by the notorious Nazi jurist and, at one time, Hitler’s personal lawyer, Hans Frank (later tried, convicted, and executed at Nuremberg).
Frank, based in the historic city of Krakow and aspiring to rule the General Government as his own fiefdom, exhibited the most rancorous hatred towards Polish Jews and non-Jewish Poles. The latter he regarded as subhumans and worthy only of lives of perpetual subjection to Nazi wishes. Of Jews, he stated in December 1941, “I ask nothing of the Jews except that they should disappear.” While his attitudes echoed typical National Socialist views, Frank did not enjoy harmonious relations with the rest of the Nazi power structure, particularly Heinrich Himmler’s SS. Frank’s administration and SS officials, particularly Higher SS and Police Leader Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, repeatedly clashed over control of the Jewish populace in the General Government until the SS prevailed in the late spring and early summer of 1942.
Even before the announcement of the formation of the Warsaw Ghetto, Frank and his subordinates had unleashed an onslaught of antisemitic legislation against Jews in the city and elsewhere. In October 1939, Governor Frank demanded the formation of a Jewish Council that would mediate between the Jewish community and Frank’s office, a system replicated in urban settings with a significant Jewish presence. Adam Czerniakow, an engineer and member of the old Jewish Community Council, took over as chairman of the 24-member Jewish Council. He would have no choice but to oversee compliance with a host of oppressive actions inaugurated by the General Government.
Beginning in December 1939, Jews were compelled to register their property. White armbands, displaying a blue Star of David, had to be worn (Jewish establishments already had to show the Star of David). Frank waged war against Judaism next, closing synagogues in January 1940 and outlawing group prayers in private homes. The General Government purged Jews from all manner of occupations, and Germans often confiscated Jewish homes. Schools closed, driving educational activities underground. Jewish males between the ages of 14 and 60 were subject to conscription for forced labor, unless they could supply documentation of their employment (Frank would later collide with the SS over whether Jewish skilled laborers were exempt from deportations to the extermination camps). Public humiliation did not stop with these reprehensible acts. Jews could not use public transport and were even barred from walking on certain streets.
This wave of extreme discrimination still left Jews in Warsaw and other towns and cities living alongside their Polish neighbors. Nazi leaders envisioned a provisional solution: pushing Jews into ghettos and sealing them off. Long term, what would be done with them remained uncertain. Construction of the wall for the Warsaw Ghetto in the west-central part of the city commenced in April 1940. Czerniakow and the Jewish Council had to pay for the labor. More than 90,000 Jews were brought to Warsaw from other sections of occupied Poland.
To magnify the humiliation, the edict proclaiming the Warsaw Ghetto’s existence was issued on October 12, 1940, on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Jews in the city had two weeks to relocate within its confines. On November 15, 1940, Nazi authorities shut off the Ghetto from the rest of the world.
Eventually, the area southeast of Chłodna Street was called the “Small Ghetto,” and that north of it became known as the “Large Ghetto.” First a gate, then a footbridge connected the sectors two where Chłodna Street met Żelazna Street. The Warsaw Ghetto would become the largest ghetto in Nazi-dominated Europe but also a symbol of Jewish resistance to Nazism.
Once completed, the Ghetto’s wall stood 10 feet tall. Barbed wire capped it. By April 1941, almost 450,000 Jews were incarcerated—and there is no more appropriate word—behind the enclosure. Passage in and out was carefully restricted. Leaving the Ghetto without permission was punishable by death, as was aiding anyone trying to escape it.
To use the everyday word “overcrowding” in this context is offensive. The Ghetto’s inhabitants dwelled in an urban space covering a mere 1.3 miles. In this tiny, ultra-camped place, inhuman calculations informed Nazi food policy. Eventually, rations shrank to about 180 calories worth of food a day per person. If historian Samuel Kassow warns against conflating conditions in the different ghettos—some were less onerous than others—he also reminds us of how terrible they were in Warsaw.
Things were easier for people already living in that part of the city when the wall was finished. For new arrivals, the process of settlement was demoralizing. With its offices on Grzybowska Street, the Jewish Council, conducting its affairs in Polish, had to manage this nightmare. Czerniakow and his colleagues, along with the Jewish police (officially the Jewish Order Service) who walked the Ghetto’s streets, bore responsibility and, consequently, the hatred of many of those condemned to do their best stay alive within the Ghetto’s walls. Corruption became endemic and further tainted the Council’s reputation.
This exercise in depravity quickly metamorphosed into mass death. Prior to the first trains leaving Warsaw with Jews bound for immediate death in the Treblinka extermination camp in June 1942, some 100,000 inhabitants had already perished, mainly from disease and starvation. Typhus alone killed thousands. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, from August 1941 forward, about 5,000 a month died in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Just as with their Polish former neighbors residing outside, Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto devised means to resist. Emanuel Ringelblum, a Marxist-Zionist historian of Poland’s Jews, sought, through his Oneg Shabbath (Joy of the Sabbath) project, to secretly chronicle, with assistance from a team of researchers, daily life under Nazi occupation. Others worked to hide loved ones, friends, and comrades, and, on occasion, to get them out of the Ghetto. Some Jews, coming from a variety of different prewar organizations, prepared for armed struggle against their Nazi enemies, culminating with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April and May 1943, the largest and most consequential Jewish revolt against the Nazis of World War II. They did so as the Hitler regime shifted in 1941–42 from ghettoization to mass physical extermination and initiated a new and blood-soaked chapter in the history of barbarism.
Jason Dawsey, PhD
Jason Dawsey, PhD, is a Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.