16 November 1940 – the establishment of the Warsaw ghetto by the Germans

We share a column by Hanna Węgrzynek, PhD, the deputy director for Research and Exhibition Programming of WGM, published in Plus Minus – the weekend issue of Rzeczpospolita – on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the closure of the Warsaw Ghetto.

In his diary from 30 March 1940, Adam Czerniaków, head of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Council established by the Germans in early October 1939), wrote the following: “Rumours about a ghetto have been spreading since the early morning… I delivered …a letter explaining why it is impossible to set up walls (compromising the water supply systems, the electrical grid, cables, etc.)“. What seemed unthinkable in the spring of 1940, became reality merely a few months later. In mid-November, a wall-encircled ghetto was established in the very heart of Warsaw. The Germans officially called it the Jüdische Wohnbezirk (the Jewish residential quarter). In no way did this term – with a quite neutral meaning – foreshadow the horrors that would soon be taking place there.

Stigmatisation and alienation

The ghetto was closed on 16 November 1940. It covered an area of about 4 km2, which was less than 3% of the city’s area at the time. It was surrounded by a 3-metre-high wall that had its top covered with broken glass, as well as barbed-wire entanglements in some places. By the end of 1940, about 395,000 Jews, both ones who lived in Warsaw before the war, as well as ones who were forcibly resettled from other territories – including those incorporated into the Third Reich, were locked up in the ghetto. The ghetto had 22 guarded gates, which were only open at designated hours. A curfew was in effect throughout the whole city. A special permit was required to both enter and leave the ghetto. Anyone who attempted to cross its boundaries illegally was at risk of high penalties, including death.

The creation of the ghetto was preceded by several months of preparations – both organisational and propaganda-related ones. The Germans took steps to isolate the Jewish population by introducing and consistently expanding racist legislation from the earliest days of the occupation. Since December 1939, all Jews in the General Government were ordered to wear an armband with the Star of David – a Jewish religious and national symbol – on their right forearm. Windows of stores owned by Jews were to be marked in a similar way. Soon the Jews were forbidden to use many public institutions, such as libraries, rail transport, as well as “Aryan” restaurants and cafes. They were also forbidden to enter parks and the most prestigious city areas, such as Aleje Ujazdowskie and the Plac Saski, the latter having been renamed as Adolf Hitler Platz. Additionally, restrictions on the exercise of certain professions were imposed, including legal and medical ones. These actions served to stigmatise and alienate the Jews from Polish society and stimulated mutual antagonism.

Typhus-infected zone

Before World War II, nearly 370,000 Jews lived in Warsaw – almost 30% of all its inhabitants.  The first plans to establish a ghetto emerged as early as November 1939. However, their implementation took place in the spring of the next year; at that time, the Germans announced that Warsaw would be divided into three parts: German, Polish and Jewish. Initially, they intended to resettle the Jews to the city outskirts, e.g. the Praga, Koło and Grochów districts. Yet, since moving such a large number of people posed significant organisational problems, they decided to establish a ghetto in areas with the highest concentration of Jewish people. As a result, the ghetto covered a large part of the city centre. In March 1940, the area was marked with boards warning about an epidemic.

Damage caused during the city’s defence in the course of the September Campaign, problems with burying bodies and animal carcasses, difficulties of the initial period of occupation – including loss of employment and other income sources, as well as the harsh winter, contributed to the deterioration of the city’s sanitary conditions. The growing impoverishment of the population, which led to a deterioration in people’s physical condition, was evident as well. There was a shortage of food and fuel. This resulted in an increase in the number of people suffering from various diseases and the appearance of typhus, which, according to Ludwik Hirszfeld, is “an inseparable companion of war and famine“, as early as autumn 1939.

The German authorities decided to capitalise on the fear of an epidemic. A rumour was spread about the city area inhabited primarily by Jews being the source of the typhus outbreak. A consistent propaganda message was being created – since Jews spread diseases, they must be isolated. The atmosphere in the city must have been tense due to the concerns about the future and uncertainty of what the next day would bring. During the Holy Week at the end of March 1940, anti-Jewish riots broke out in the city. Their participants included groups of teenagers, mainly Polish ones. The Germans gained another propaganda argument – this time they acted as the protectors of the Jewish population, isolating it in a separate part of the city to ensure its safety.

In the spring of 1940, a typhus infection zone was designated in Warsaw. At the same time, the Germans ordered the Judenrat to wall off the area at its own expense. The zone’s northern boundary was the Stawki and Błońska streets, western one the Okopowa and Towarowa streets, southern one the Chmielna street and eastern one the Marszałkowska street; it also included part of the Old and New Town areas – all the way to Brzozowa and Rybaki streets. The area designated was densely built-up with multi-storey, 19th-century tenement houses with water wells in their yards. As such, a large portion of the border wall had to be built along the gable walls of the existing buildings and fences separating individual properties. The construction of walls across streets situated on edges of the area to be separated, such as Sienna, Świętokrzyska, Piwna and Kapitulna, soon commenced. By the end of June, 20 sections were built. Nonetheless, some of them had to be demolished shortly afterwards, e.g. in the Old Town. Both the Judenrat and the City Council appealed to the German authorities to alter the borders of the ghetto, citing the need to adapt them to the city’s transportation needs. Similar efforts, although mostly informal, were also made by Poles, including owners of properties that were to be included in the ghetto.

Such efforts often proved successful. The ghetto area was significantly reduced, and its borders became irregular instead of running straight along the streets. The final decision about the area to be included in the ghetto was published by the Germans in the “Nowy Kurier Warszawski” newspaper on 14 and 15 October 1940, and then officially published in the “Dziennik Obwieszczeń Miasta Warszawy” (The city of Warsaw newsletter). Several earlier, on 2 October, Dr Ludwig Fischer, governor of the Warsaw District of the General Government, issued an order to establish a Jewish quarter in Warsaw. At the same time, he also set the boundaries of the German district.

Divided by a wall

A great migration of people began. Approximately 113,000 Poles had to leave the area that was to become the ghetto while 138,000 Jews living in different parts of the town had to move in. The people obliged to move had to find suitable accommodation themselves, even though it was the city accommodation office that was supposed to handle this task. The first people subject to resettlement were the ones who had to vacate buildings that were to be inhabited by Germans. Accommodation difficulties steadily increased.  Displaced people from various areas incorporated into the Third Reich were coming to Warsaw as well.

Yet, not all Poles and Jews complied with the German regulations. The difficulties of finding an apartment and moving, as well as the uncertainty of the new situation, caused many people to remain where they lived. Polish-Jewish marriages were in a particularly difficult situation, as the Nazi legislation effectively forced them to part. Some Poles did not move out of the ghetto at all or went to live there with their families.

The establishment of the ghetto affected both the functioning of the city and the lives of its inhabitants. It caused communication difficulties, especially when travelling to and from Wola, where the largest industrial plants – some of which were still operating – were located. Many Poles lost their jobs at various companies and institutions that were located in areas included in the ghetto. Friends and acquaintances were separated by a wall. No one knew what terrifying crimes the near future would bring. The closing of the ghetto began one of the most tragic chapters in the history of Warsaw – the Holocaust of a third of its inhabitants.

Hanna Węgrzynek, PhD – a historian and a deputy director for research and exhibition programming at the Warsaw Ghetto Museum.

Photo: Map of Warsaw, November 1949