Warsaw Ghetto border sealed 80 years ago today, imprisoning 460,000 Jews behind walls that they had to pay for and build themselves
Eighty years ago today the Germans sealed the borders of the Warsaw Ghetto, eventually imprisoning 460,000 Jews behind walls that they had to pay for and build themselves.
By closing, separating and hermetically shutting off the ‘Residential Area for Jews’, as the Germans euphemistically called the ghetto, they created the largest closed Jewish district in occupied Europe.
The sixteen-kilometre wall was an ever-tightening noose around the Jewish district and a further stage in the Germans’ plan to exterminate all Jews in occupied Poland.
Around 400,000 Jews were initially imprisoned in the ghetto in November 1940. By April 1941, when Jews from other towns arrived, the number swelled to 450,000.
People dying of hunger and diseases, among others two typhus epidemics. Until July 1942 92 thousand people died in the Warsaw Ghetto.
At its peak, around 460,000 Jews were crammed into the giant prison in the middle of the city with 110,000 people per square kilometre, and seven inhabitants per room.
Over 100,000 Jews died of sickness and starvation in the ghetto. In 1942, 265,000 were sent to Treblinka to be murdered in the gas chamber.
Creating and finally closing the ghetto was a long process that started almost as soon as the Germans occupied the city. It took place at the same time as numerous restrictions were imposed on the everyday lives of Jews in the city.
In October 1939, the occupation authorities blocked their bank accounts. They could only pay out up to 250 zloty a week and have no more than 2 thousand zloty at home in cash. In the same month, Jews aged 14-60 were forced to work.
Further restrictions were introduced from month to month, which increasingly isolated the Jewish population from the Polish one.
In November the first barbed-wire fences and boards with inscriptions in German and Polish appeared: "Typhus-risk area. Only through-passage is allowed".
From December 1, 1939 all Jews over 12 years old were obliged to wear white bands with a blue Star of David on their right arm.
In February 1940, different food rations were introduced for Jews, Poles and Germans. Jews could buy food only in Jewish stores. As time passed, their allocations were reduced to starvations levels. By August 1940, the weekly bread ration per Jew was 750 g. The Poles had twice as much.
From March, they were forbidden to enter restaurants and cafes, and from July they were banned from public parks and from sitting on any benches in the city.
From September Jews were not allowed to use trams. A yellow tram with a Star of David and an inscription was placed on the streets of the town: ‘Only For Jews’.
The first attempt to create a ghetto in Warsaw took place in November 1939. The plan was to divide the city centre into three parts.
The first one was a place where all the Jews were to concentrate. The second one was an area temporarily allowed for the Jews already living there but subjected to gradual removal of Jews.
The third one was a forbidden area for Jews, from which the Jewish population was to move out immediately.
All Jews were to be concentrated in the Jewish quarter within three days. However, the plan was chaotic and did not have the approval of the SS. After negotiations headed by Judenrat leader Adam Czerniaków, the plan was abandoned.
The Germans did not give up on their plans to isolate the Jews. In mid-November, the German authorities started to place barbed-wire fences and plaques with the words "Plague, soldiers not allowed to enter the Jewish quarter”.
These measures were not deemed adequate though. In January 1940, Warsaw district chief Ludwig Fischer set up the Resettlement Department, where work on the organisation of the Warsaw Ghetto was concentrated.
On March 8, 1940, it decreed that the Jewish district was an Seuchensperrgebiet, or an ‘epidemic area’.
On Good Friday, March 22, 1940, riots took place in Warsaw. Angry mobs inspired by the Germans rampaged destroying and robbing Jewish-owned stores.
The rioting was a pretext for the Germans to order the Judenrat to build a wall around the ‘typhus-prone area’. It was supposed to protect the local people from further attacks by hooligans.
The Jews had to build the wall at its own cost. The construction was not easy and posed many technical problems involving the water supply and electricity networks.
In April, the Judenrat took out a loan of 160 thousand zlotys to build the wall. Work finished at the beginning of June and warning signs were set up on the perimeter with the words ‘epidemic-danger zone’.
Not all fragments of the Warsaw Ghetto wall were constructed from scratch; already existing walls, separating courtyards or walls of buildings, were often used.
What started next was a period of peregrination in which hundreds of thousands of people, Poles and Jews, were forced to move out of their homes.
On August 7, 1940, the Germans ordered all Jews to leave immediately what would become the German district. Jews already living in the Polish district could stay temporarily, while Jews coming to Warsaw could only live behind the walls in the Jewish district. Poles had to leave the Jewish district.
The evictions and removals began. Jews were brutally thrown out of their apartments, rickshaws and carts with belongings appeared on the streets.
On October 2, 1940, Ludwig Fischer signed the order that officially established the Warsaw Ghetto. A list of streets constituting its borders was included in an annex.
In this intermediate period, there was huge uncertainty over which streets and buildings would finally be in the ghetto. The final list was changed many times.
It took a long time to draw the borders of the ghetto. The German project was amended by the Judenrat. The final map was approved on October 19. A 16 km long irregular loop surrounded the 307-hectare area which is now North Śródmieście, Muranów, Nowe Miasto and Powązki.
The torture of constant changes to the ghetto borders did not end when it was finally closed, but accompanied the inhabitants until the very end. Some families were forced to move several times.
On October 12, vehicles drove through the city ordering the immediate expulsion of 113,000 Poles from the Jewish area and the forced movement of 138,000 Jews from other parts of the city to the ghetto.
They could only take with them hand luggage and bed linen.
The Germans set the end of this gigantic move as October 31. The deadline proved to be unrealistic and Fischer extended it until November 15th.
When the ghetto was finally sealed shut on November 16, 1940 it came as a shock to the people inside.
Ghetto historian Emanuel Ringelblum wrote in his chronicle, “The day on which the ghetto was established, Saturday November 16th, was terrible. The people did not know yet that the ghetto would be closed, so [this news] fell like a thunderstorm. At all the street junctions there were German, Polish and Jewish policemen who controlled who was allowed to pass.”
Leaving the ghetto without special passes was forbidden. However, Poles could freely cross the ghetto borders at one of the twenty-two gates until November 26th.
On July 22, 1942, Grossaktion Warschau began, which was part of Operation Reinhardt to exterminate all the Jews in occupied Poland.
The operation was carried out by the SS, as well as auxiliary units of Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Latvians.
An important role was played by the Jewish Order Service, whose members were hated in the ghetto. Eventually most of the Jewish policemen shared the fate of the remaining inhabitants of the ghetto.
Starting on July 22, 1942, every day for two months Jews were transported from the railroad ramps on Stawki street to the Treblinka gas chambers.
The ghetto was reduced to its original size and it became a forced labour camp for the 60,000 remaining Jews.
During the deportations, about 265,000 Jews were transported to Treblinka, over 11,000 to unspecified labour camps, and over 10,000 died or were shot in the ghetto. Over 100,000 had died during the previous two years. Around 8,000 Jews fled to the Aryan side.
When, on April 19, 1943, the Germans began the final liquidation of the ghetto, the Jewish fighters from the Jewish Combat Organisation and the Jewish Fighting Union put up armed resistance.
For almost a month the insurgents fought the Germans, who systematically moved through the ghetto burning and destroying each building and flushing civilians out of bunkers and shelters.
On May 8, the Germans discovered and surrounded a huge shelter at 18 Miła street with hundreds of civilians and around 100 Jewish fighters were located. The civilians agreed to German demands that they come out, but most of the insurgents together with the commander Mordechaj Anielewicz committed suicide.
On May 16, 1943, General Juergen Stroop, who led German efforts to quell the uprising, announced its successful completion and issued an order to blow up the Great Synagogue on Tłomackie street as a sign of victory.
The Germans then set to work razing the Warsaw Ghetto to the ground. From April 20 to May 16, 1943, over 56,000 Jews were found hiding in bunkers.
About 13,000 were killed in the ghetto either as a result of fighting, in fires or by being executed by the Germans. The remaining 36,000 were sent to other camps, mainly to Auschwitz and Majdanek.
After the end of World War II, the freestanding walls of the Jewish district, which survived the Ghetto Uprising and the Warsaw Uprising, were largely demolished.
A few fragments of the walls running between buildings have been preserved, as well as the walls of the pre-war buildings that marked the border of the ghetto.
The three best known parts of the Warsaw Ghetto wall are in the former small ghetto at 55 Sienna, 62 Złota and 11 Waliców streets.