Jewish Studies Ghettos in the Holocaust
by
Martin Dean
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 June 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0208

Introduction

The surprising aspect of Nazi ghettoization is that there was no centralized German policy and no clear agreement on what comprised a ghetto. Most decisions about ghettoization were taken at the regional or local level. The most workable definition of a ghetto is that it was a place where Jews were concentrated, consisting generally of entire family units, as opposed to forced labor camps for Jews that contained Jews selected for labor. In fact, not all ghettos were fenced, as some towns had open ghettos marked only by signs or just an occasional police patrol. Others had quite porous barbed-wire fences, whereas the larger ghettos, such as those in Łódź and Warsaw, were defined by their high walls that were very difficult to cross. A great wealth of information on ghettos can be found in the respective memorial (Yizkor) books, only a small sample of which can be mentioned here. Other key information can be found in memoirs, chronicles, and diaries. By contrast, relatively few monographs have been devoted specifically to ghettos, and even fewer to the general topic of ghettos. However, much useful information, including additional references, can be found in the more detailed encyclopedias devoted to the topic. Several regional overviews of the Holocaust also provide an excellent analysis of the role played by ghettos in the Nazi plans for the destruction of the Jews. In terms of geographical organization, three main subdivisions have been used below. The General Government and territories incorporated into the Reich form one large region that covers most of modern-day Poland as well as the western fringes of what is now Ukraine and Belarus. Here the majority of the Jews were deported by rail from ghettos to extermination centers. In Nazi-occupied territory of the Soviet Union (as of 1940, including the Baltic States), Jews were mostly marched out of the ghettos to be shot in nearby forests and ravines. Finally, the ghettos under Hungarian and Romanian administration are treated as a third regional group, as here the chronology of ghettoization and the ultimate fate of the Jews varied somewhat from the other two areas.

General Overviews

Only a few scholars have attempted to provide a general overview of the role played by ghettos within the Holocaust. Trunk 1996, a study of the Jewish Councils, remains one of the seminal works on the topic, even though its main subject was not specifically the ghettos but rather the Jewish Councils, which in most places operated within the framework of a ghetto. Corni 2003 provides another rare attempt to make detailed comparisons across ghettos in the search for patterns. Dean 2010 uses a comprehensive approach to examine chronological patterns in the establishment and liquidation of ghettos by region. Michman 2011, by contrast, looks for the ideological origins of ghettoization in the writings of Nazi policymakers and ideologues. This approach can be compared with the early understanding of ghettos to be found in Friedman 1980, which is written by both a notable historian and a Holocaust survivor.

Reference Works

These reference works offer the most comprehensive guide to the ghettos, especially in the absence of monographs or other studies for many smaller ones. Dean and Megargee 2012 is the most detailed and scholarly with thousands of references and a review of available sources for each ghetto. Pilichowski 1979 is now dated, but it is notable also for useful references. Miron 2009, by contrast does not include references, although much of it is likely based on the information in Dombrovska, et al. 1976–2005, which was published in Hebrew. For the Hungarian ghettos established in 1944, Braham 2013 is the best source. For Romanian ghettos, mainly in “Transnistria,” reference should be made to Dubyk 2000, Kruglov 2005 (both of which cover Ukraine), and also White and Megargee 2018. Spector and Wigoder 2001 provides information on almost all Jewish communities, but it does not necessarily mention all of the ghettos. Mogilanski 1985 is now outdated, but it has detailed information on some smaller ghettos in English.

  • Braham, Randolph L., ed. The Geographical Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in Hungary. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.

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    This monumental work about the fate of the Jewish communities in Hungary includes much information about the role played by ghettoization in the concentration and destruction of Hungarian Jews in 1944.

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  • Dean, Martin, and Geoffrey Megargee, eds. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945. Vol. 2, Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.

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    This reference work describes all of the ghettos that existed under German occupation and includes also regional overviews and maps. Each entry includes a description of available sources for the ghetto. The volume can be downloaded for free online.

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  • Dombrovska, D., Abraham Wein, and Aharon Vais, eds. Pinkas ha-Kehillot: Polin. 8 vols. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1976–2005.

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    This encyclopedic work in Hebrew, which describes the histories of fifteen hundred Jewish communities, contains a great deal of information on the ghettos that existed in many of these places.

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  • Dubyk, Maryna H., ed. Handbuch der Lager: Gefängnisse und Ghettos auf dem besetzten Territorium der Ukraine, 1941–1944. Kiev: Derz︠h︡avnyĭ komitet arkhiviv Ukraïny; Ukraïnsʹkyĭ nat︠s︡ionalʹnyĭ fond “Vzai︠e︡morozuminni︠a︡ i prymyrenni︠a︡” pry kabineti ministriv Ukraïny, 2000.

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    List of ghettos and forced labor camps for Jews in Ukraine with some archival sources. The list is not comprehensive and some of the ghettos were, in fact, forced labor camps.

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  • Kruglov, Alexander. The Losses Suffered by Ukrainian Jews in 1941–1944. Kharkiv, Ukraine: Tarbut Laam, 2005.

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    This encyclopedic work describes the fate of Ukrainian Jewish communities throughout Ukraine, giving the dates and numbers for mass shooting operations. It also mentions the existence of many ghettos, including in Transnistria.

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  • Miron, Guy, ed. The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust. 2 vols. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2009.

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    Reference work without footnotes covering some Romanian and Hungarian ghettos as well as many of those established under German occupation.

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  • Mogilanski, Roman. The Ghetto Anthology: A Comprehensive Chronicle of the Extermination of Jewry in Nazi Death Camps and Ghettos in Poland. Los Angeles: American Congress of Jews from Poland and Survivors of Concentration Camps, 1985.

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    Outdated listing of ghettos and camps, including some descriptive analysis.

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  • Pilichowski, Czesław, ed. Obozy hitlerowskie na ziemiach polskich, 1939– 1945: Informator encyklopedyczny. Warsaw: Główna Komisja, 1979.

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    This Polish inventory of camps and ghettos is largely reliable, providing source references for most of the information presented.

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  • Spector, Shmuel, and Geoffrey Wigoder, eds. The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life before and during the Holocaust. 3 vols. New York: New York University Press, 2001.

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    This encyclopedia covers most Jewish communities in Europe and mentions ghettoization briefly for many locations.

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  • White, Joseph, and Geoffrey Megargee, eds. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945. Vol. 3, Camps and Ghettos under European Regimes Aligned with Nazi Germany. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018.

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    Unfortunately, not comprehensive for the Hungarian ghettos, but providing a wealth of information for Transnistria also.

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Collected Studies

Most of these essay collections emerged from academic conferences. In Germany research on ghettos flourished after 2000 as a result of the “Ghetto Pensions Law,” which required expert witness statements from historians in hundreds of cases. The collections in Hansen, et al. 2013 as well as Hensel and Lehnstaedt 2013, emerged in this context. Browning 2005 is the product of a workshop meeting that included several leading experts. Dieckmann and Quinkert 2009 is a special edition of a journal that focuses on “everyday life” in the ghetto. Sterling 2005 covers a variety of topics related to the ghettos, including contributions from notable authors.

Studies on Aspects of Jewish Life in the Ghettos

Only a few monographs have focused on specific aspects of ghetto life. Bethke 2015 examines the fields of law and criminality; Gruenbaum 2004 looks at children in Terezín/Theresienstadt; while Dutlinger 2001 is one of several studies focused on art, music, and education in that ghetto.

Jewish Resistance in the Ghettos

Although Jewish Resistance is an important topic, only a few authors focus on resistance inside the ghettos. Cholawski 1980 provides a personal account of one ghetto uprising. Levin 1979 examines leadership in the smaller ghettos, which led to several notable uprisings.

  • Cholawski, Shalom. Soldiers from the Ghetto. San Diego, CA: A S Barnes, 1980.

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    This is a personal account of the uprising in the Nieswiez/Niasvizh ghetto and life with the partisans thereafter.

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  • Levin, Dov. “The Fighting Leadership of the Judenräte in the Small Communities of Poland.” In Patterns of Jewish Leadership in Nazi Europe, 1933–1945. Proceedings of the Third Yad Vashem International Historical Conference, Jerusalem, April 4–7, 1977. Edited by Yisrael Gutman and Cynthia J. Haft, 133–147. Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1979.

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    This article examines the question of resistance in the smaller ghettos.

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Published Primary Sources

The primary sources on ghettos that have been published have been organized into five separate subsections to reflect the different types of sources that are available. The headings for Documentary Collections, Diaries, and Chronicles and Other Documents Written under Occupation reflect mainly accounts prepared contemporaneously to the events. In addition, there are extensive collections of Postwar Testimonies and Memoirs as well as many Select Memorial Books (Yizkor Books) concerning ghettos, such that only a small selection of these retrospective accounts can be included.

Documentary Collections

Two notable collections include the efforts of Soviet Jews to document the Holocaust published in Ehrenburg and Grossman 2002, and then also the Ringelblum Archive, for which Shapiro and Epstein 2009 has a complete inventory in English.

Diaries

Holocaust history includes two types of diaries: some original diaries have survived, but others had to be reconstructed from memory as the original manuscript was lost. For Warsaw, Czerniaków 1979 gives the perspective of the head of the Warsaw Jewish Council who ultimately committed suicide; Kaplan 1999 records events in Warsaw with the careful eye of a teacher. For Łódź, Sierakowiak 1996 documents the progressively worsening conditions, whereas Rosenfeld 2002 also covers events in the Brzeziny ghetto before the author’s transfer to Łódz. For Lviv, we have the diary of a prominent rabbi who survived (Kahane 1990), while the detailed narrative of Tory 1990 is the classic account of events in the Kovno ghetto. For the small ghetto of Lokacze in Volhynia, Diment 1992 provides a detailed account of events. For the Daugavpils ghetto, the author of Iwens 1990 has reconstructed his diary to give us a valuable chronological record. Laskier 2007 gives us a view of the Bedzin ghetto from the perspective of a teenage girl.

Chronicles and Other Documents Written under Occupation

Chronicles were kept in several larger ghettos to maintain a kind of collective or official history. Of the two versions of the Łódź Ghetto Chronicle, Dobroszycki 1984 provides a detailed overview, whereas Feuchert, et al. 2007 is more comprehensive and carefully annotated. From the Baltic States, Schalkowsky 2014 is written by members of the Jewish ghetto police for posterity, while Kruk 2002 contains useful information about the diverse fates of many different groups of Jews from ghettos in German-occupied Lithuania.

Postwar Testimonies and Memoirs

Only a handful of the many published memoirs of Holocaust survivors can be included here. Notable memoirs of individual survivors include the recollections of a young woman from Warsaw who was active in the armed resistance movement (Meed 1979), and those of a survivor of the smaller ghetto in Sieradz (Hersh 2001). Written by a doctor, Berk 1992 gives a firsthand account of conditions in a ghetto in Belarus. Among the many accounts by survivors from Theresienstadt, Elias 1988 is detailed and moving. Maor 1993 provides a visual impression of Jewish life in the Włocławek ghetto. Three collections of testimonies have been included, as these provide us with multiple perspectives on life in the ghettos. Grynberg 2002 is a valuable collection of firsthand accounts regarding the largest ghetto in Warsaw. Schoenfeld 1985 provides us rare glances into the situation in the Lwów/Lviv ghetto; whereas Zabarko 2005 includes several testimonies regarding smaller ghettos in central Ukraine that are not well known due to their short duration.

Select Memorial Books (Yizkor Books)

More than six hundred memorial books were produced by groups of survivors from particular towns after the war. Most were published in Yiddish and/or Hebrew and include accounts by Jewish survivors of life in the ghetto and an attempt to chronicle the main events. Many have since been published in English or translations made available at Jewishgen. Only a small sample is included here. Druck 1950 is an early Yizkor book from eastern Galicia, while Alpert 1989 is a more comprehensive narrative on the Slonim ghetto from accounts in the Yizkor book. Chapin and Weinstock 2000 is a more modern version of the genre, publishing testimonies for several towns in Podolia (pre-1939 Soviet territory) to make up for the absence of Yizkor books for this region before the fall of communism in 1989. Rajak and Rajak 1994 is a particularly detailed account of a ghetto in northern Belarus. For Poland, Giladi 1991 includes essays by historians for the town of Piotrków, which was the location of the first Nazi ghetto. Bisberg-Youkelson and Youkelson 2000 contains several useful testimonies on Strzegowo, while Lipson 1963 for the ghetto in Radom notes also the transition from ghetto to camp in the city. Singer 1958 is an example of an original Yiddish Yizkor book for Częstochowa; and Tsurnamal 1968 provides details on one of the regional ghettos in the Warthegau.

Regional Studies of Ghettoization

Regional studies have provided the main framework for historical analysis of the ghettos. Although most focus on the Holocaust more broadly, these studies are invaluable for examining patterns and causation with regard to ghettoization and the role played by ghettos in the course of the destruction. We have divided Eastern Europe into three main areas for the purpose of analyzing ghettos.

Regional Studies for the General Government and Incorporated Territories

Browning 1992 provides the main framework for understanding Nazi ghettoization policy in occupied Poland, but his focus is mainly on the larger ghettos. Alberti 2006 gives us an excellent overview for the Warthegau, where the Łódź ghetto played a central role. Grynberg 1984 records the successive waves of expulsions and deportations of Jews from the Zichenau (Ciechanów) region. Pohl 1997 and Sandkühler 1996 provide two rival but extensive analyses of the role played by ghettos in the Holocaust in Eastern Galicia. Młynarczyk 2007 and Silberklang 2013 provide regional overviews for the Radom and Lublin Districts respectively. Leociak and Libionka 2007 examine the Warsaw District, but no comparable overview is available for ghettos in the Kraków District.

Regional Studies of the German-Occupied Eastern Territories (Including the Baltic States)

Regional studies further east are based generally on more modern national boundaries, as opposed to those imposed by the Nazis during the war. Al’tmann 2008 gives an overview for the territories of the former Soviet Union, discussing the numbers and chronological development in most regions. For Latvia, Barkahan 2008 and, for Lithuania, Dieckmann 2011 provide recent syntheses, which demonstrate that there were, in fact, more ghettos than had previously been estimated. Cholawsky 1998 covers western Belarus and examines especially the survival strategies of Jews in the smaller ghettos. Bauer 2009 spans both Belarus and Ukraine and examines a select few shtetl and their ghettos in order to understand the local dynamics within Jewish communities. Spector 1990 provides a fairly comprehensive account for Volhynia, while Doubson 2000 summarizes what is known about ghettos on the occupied territory of the Russian Federation. Finally Tauber 2015 focuses on ghetto labor, examining also the network of camps and ghettos whose fates were linked to the main ghetto in Vilna.

Regional Studies of Areas Controlled by States Aligned with Nazi Germany

Only a few works deal with the social dynamics of the ghettos established in Hungary, Transcarpathia, and Transnistria. Yet these three critical studies are each to be highly recommended. The author of Cole 2011 uses a wide variety of mainly local sources to examine the social aspects of ghettoization. Ofer 2004 gives us a classic study of living conditions in the variegated ghettos under Romanian authority in Transnistria. A study on Transcarpathia, Segal 2016 includes only a short section on the ghettos, but it also focuses on the social dynamics between ethnic groups as well as the recollections of survivors.

Monographs Dealing with Specific Ghettos

Monographs dealing with specific ghettos are divided into four subsections. First, those concerned with large ghettos have been divided geographically along the same lines as the Regional Studies. In fact, most monographs covering ghettos are focused on the few large ghettos that existed in each region. Finally, a selection of Monographs on Smaller Ghettos is offered that includes some of the most significant contributions of this nature.

Monographs on Large Ghettos in the General Government and the Incorporated Territories

Most of the large ghettos have been the subject of monographs and detailed studies that recount the history of the ghetto and the efforts made by Jews to survive and resist. Some notable volumes are cited that contribute also to our more general understanding of the ghettos. Bender 2008 addresses directly the strategy of “survival through labor” in an analysis of the Białystok ghetto. Fatal-Knaani 2001 analyzes the parallel efforts of the Jews in Grodno to preserve their community. For Warsaw, Engelking and Leociak present a massive study of Jewish social life in the ghetto; and Gutman 1982 focuses mainly on the topic of armed resistance. Hembera 2016 analyzes the largest ghetto in the Kraków District in the city of Tarnów; whereas Löw and Roth 2011 examines the nature of social life in the neighboring Kraków ghetto. Hájková 2020 takes a critical look at social relations inside one of the larger ghettos. For Łódź, Horwitz 2008 looks at the ghetto from the perspective of town planning; and Löw 2006 examines also the question of how Jews portrayed themselves in these desperate times.

Monographs on Large Ghettos in the German-Occupied Eastern Territories (Including the Baltic States)

The literature is more limited for the large ghettos in the Nazi-occupied parts of the Soviet Union, but a number of valuable studies are available. For Riga, Angrick and Klein 2006 records the history of both the ghetto and the ensuing Kaiserwald concentration camp mainly from the perspective of German policies. Arad 1982 tells the painful story of Jewish resistance in Vilna; and Guzenberg 1996 includes short articles and documents that focus also on the labor detachments from the ghetto. For Epstein 2008 it is the cooperation between the Communist and Jewish resistance in Minsk that is central to the ability of many Jews to escape from the ghetto and survive; Smolar 1989 tells this story from the perspective of a participant writing while the Soviet Union was still in existence; and Cholawsky 1986 examines the fate of German Jews in Minsk. Fatal-Knaani 2001 uses extensive surviving documentation from the Pinsk ghetto to analyze the population structure and its economic activity. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 1997 presents a striking visual impression of the Kovno ghetto, seen through the eye of a hidden camera. Finally, Guzenberg and Sedova 2002 documents the Siauliai Ghetto with name lists and short essays.

Monographs on Large Ghettos in Hungarian- and Romanian-Controlled Territory

Two notable scholarly works on ghettos run by the states aligned with Nazi Germany stress also some of the unique elements of these ghettos. Cole 2003 shows how ghettoization in Budapest literally tested the boundaries of what comprised a ghetto, as it did not consist of a consolidated Jewish residential district as in most German-run ghettos. Shapiro 2015 examines living conditions and ghetto administration in the Kishinev ghetto.

Monographs on Smaller Ghettos

Relatively few smaller ghettos have been the subject of scholarly monographs, but the few listed here demonstrate that such microstudies can be rewarding. The author of Bartov 2018 draws on a broad swath of documentation to unravel the complex interethnic relations in Buczacz during World War II, including the history of the ghetto. Czubaszek 2008 looks at the ghetto in Łukow, including numerous key documents. Guzenberg 2009 examines several small ghettos on the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, including name lists and other materials. Kopówka 2001 examines a smaller ghetto in the Warsaw District.

Websites on Ghettos

Unfortunately only a few major websites include articles on ghettos and the coverage remains fairly sparse with the focus on the larger ghettos. The Holocaust Encyclopedia of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum includes a useful examination of Jewish resistance in the smaller ghettos together with some maps. The Yad Vashem site has links to articles on a few larger ghettos. Facing History and Ourselves includes good maps and links to testimonies and other resources. The Wiener Holocaust Library has a few key documents on ghettos embedded into the website.

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