Ghetto - n; a part of a city, especially a slum area, inhabited by a minority or minorities. From the Italian borghetto, borough (Oxford English Dictionary)
The word 'ghetto' originates from the Italian 'borghetto' - the name of the area of Venice that the Government forced the city's Jews to live in the 16th Century. In Venice, it was like any other part of the city, but inhabited entirely by Jews. In World War II, the ghettos were squalid, diseased slums where people died of starvation and sickness.
The first ghetto of Nazi Germany was established in Piotrkow Trybulnaski, Poland, in 1939, using it to separate the Jews from the Gentiles. As the Holocaust progressed, more and more ghettos were created, in Poland, in Holland, in Germany, in every country occupied by the Nazis. The largest was in Warsaw, the Polish capital, where, over the course of two years (from 1940 to 1942, when deportation from the ghetto to camps began), an estimated 100,000 Jews died.
The ghettos were worse than the camps in terms of nutrition - the Jews living in the ghettos were given rations of 164 calories a day, compared to 2,614 for Germans and the 2,000 a healthy man needs a day. The lack of food was so great that Jews were willing to kill each other in the ghettos for scraps of stale bread, perhaps some grains. Many were driven to breaking the law and smuggling in food through non-Jews on the outside, or through Resistance members.
Typhus was common in the ghettos. The cramped conditions - hundreds of Jews would be living in one street, thousands in each ghetto - meant that the disease spread quickly, and, of course, there was no medication or help incoming. If you caught the disease, you died. Nazi officers and the Jewish police would often beat anyone they found. Being caught smuggling food meant a bullet in your back; not smuggling food meant starvation. Here, Eva Galler, a Polish Jew who survived the Lubaczow ghetto and the Belzec concentration camp, recounts the starvation and disease that was common in the ghettos:
'It was cold. In one corner there was a little iron stove but no fuel. We were not given enough to eat. The children looked through the garbage for food. There was not enough water to drink. There was one well in the backyard, but it would not produce enough water for everybody. To be sure to get water you had to get up in the middle of the night. Once I had a little water to wash myself, and my sister later washed herself in the same water. Some people started to eat grass. They would swell up and die. Because of the unsanitary conditions people got lice and typhus. My brother Pinchas got night blindness from lack of vitamins. Every day a lot of people died. It was a terrible situation. People were depressed. There was nothing to do. They waited and hoped and prayed.'
- Eva Galler, Holocaust Survivor
Channa Morgensztern was 44 when she was forced into the ghetto at Minsk Mazowiecki, just east of Warsaw. Her eldest son managed to escape to the USSR, but her other four children lived with her in the ghetto. A few notes she kept during life in the ghetto, from 1940, reveal the extent of the suffering:
'The Nazis have forced all the Jews in Minsk Mazowiecki to relocate to one small area in the town. Many of the houses here have been destroyed by shelling and more than 5,000 of us are living in the few houses that remain standing. Typhus, carried by lice, has started to spread throughout the ghetto, and very little medicine is available.'
- Channa Morgensztern, Holocaust Survivor
The ghettos were present in almost every occupied town and city - everywhere the Nazis occupied, they forced Jews into the ghettos to keep them away from the 'white' race. The Jews were made to work, doing jobs that the Nazis needed doing but that Aryans 'didn't deserve' to have to do. Particularly during winter, life was hard in the ghettos, and the cold temperatures and snow of January/February only served to deplete food and duel supplies, and put the Jews to work in the cold, shovelling snow and so on. For footage of the Lodz ghetto, in Poland, during the winter of 1940, visit:
Jews working in the Lodz ghetto, Poland, to be paid in food
A child holding his sister on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto
A young girl holds her dead brother in the Warsaw ghetto