The Warsaw Ghetto

The Warsaw Ghetto was established on 15 October 1940. It was the largest ghetto established by the Nazis. As elsewhere, a Judenrat (Jewish council), was instated to administer to the needs of the occupants and implement the directives of the Nazi leadership. The Chairman was Adam Czerniakow.  

Imprisoned by brick walls which they built under often-brutal guard, the Jews of Warsaw were isolated from the outside world, including from the non-Jewish Polish population and other ghettos across Poland. Within the ghetto walls life was a struggle for survival. Many starved to death or succumbed to disease. Those with money sought to buy food and rudimentary medical supplies on the black market, and sometimes to pay bribes for a temporary reprieve from forced labour or deportation. Smuggling, while illegal and punishable by execution, thrived, as in many cases survival was contingent upon it. Money and food had the power to postpone death, if only for a short time.

In spite of their grim living conditions and ghetto restrictions, cultural activity among the inhabitants thrived. Artists, musicians and intellectuals found some solace in creativity, and regarded it as a duty to their people to record their tragedy. The ghetto had underground libraries, an underground archive called Oneg Shabbat. Books, learning, writing, music, and theatre offered some escape from the bitter reality.

Invariably, the crowded ghetto succumbed to epidemics, starvation, executions and mass deportations. In 1942 deportation to the Treblinka death camp commenced. When Czerniakow received the order for the first deportation, he refused to comply. Rather than draw up the lists of people to be selected for deportation, he chose instead to commit suicide on 23 July 1942.

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Photo: Yad Vashem Photo Archives

Recommended Reading
Corni, G. Hitler’s Ghetto. Voices from a Beleaguered Society, 1939 – 1945. London: Arnold Publisher
Engelking, B. & Leociak, J. (2001). The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Gutman, I. (1982). The Jews of Warsaw 1939-1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Indiana University Press.
Hilberg, R., Staron, J., & Kermisz, J. (Eds.). (1982). The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow. New York: Scarbough Books.
Michman, D. The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos during the Holocaust (2014) New York: Cambridge University 2011.
Schwarberg, G. ed. (2001) In the Ghetto of Warsaw: Photographs by Heinrish Jost. Göttingen: Steidl.
Tec, N. (2003). Resilience and Courage. New Haven: Yale University Press.