Warsaw Ghetto: Definition & Facts

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
While the Warsaw Ghetto is remembered for its inhuman conditions and horrendous loss of human life, it also stands as a symbol for human survival and resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.

What Was the Warsaw Ghetto?

The Nazi Germany invasion of Poland in 1939 and the subsequent control of Polish territory brought large numbers of Jews and Romany, also known as gypsies, under German control. Along with other occupied territory, the Nazis created a ghetto system in cities throughout Europe. A ghetto is usually an area where minorities, including, but not limited to social, economic, linguistic or religious minorities, live or are forced to live. In this case, the ghetto was created in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, and reserved for Jews and Romany.

Warsaw Ghetto
Warsaw Ghetto

Physical Size and Conditions of the Warsaw Ghetto

To give you an idea of how many people were rounded up and placed inside the Warsaw Ghetto, imagine the population of Minneapolis being forced into New York City's Central Park. Before the war, Warsaw's roughly one million population was about 1/3 Jewish. Over 400,000 people, including Jewish residents of nearby towns, were systematically summoned and interned in a 1.3 square mile area of central Warsaw. The area was enclosed by a 10-foot wall covered with barbed wire. While the borders of the ghetto moved throughout the internment period, the administration of the ghetto, overseen by a Jewish council under the control of the German military, remained the same.

Nearly anyone attempting to leave the ghetto was shot on sight. Nearly anyone caught attempting to assist anyone in the ghetto was also executed or imprisoned. Conditions inside the ghetto were appalling. Disease, exposure to brutal winter conditions and starvation decimated the population. By mid-1942, over 80,000-100,000 had died.

Resistance and The Spirit to Survive

Faced with constant starvation, the ghetto population, which included a large part of the Warsaw middle class and skilled workforce, as Jews were traditionally not allowed to own farmland in pre-Nazi Poland, created small industry. Small children as young as three would ferry these products, including watches, tailoring and other skilled labor. They would then return with bartered food and and sometimes raw materials for laborers inside the ghetto.

This limited industry kept some alive but it was common to find frozen bodies and abandoned, ignored human remains throughout the ghetto. By late 1942, SS soldiers, the Schutzstaffel, or the upper echelon, of the Nazi system, along with German and Polish police had deported over 250,000 remaining ghetto internees to Treblinka, a Nazi extermination camp in northeast Poland. The population of the Warsaw Ghetto was now down to around 60,000.

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