“It is not about eradicating the epidemic, but about exterminating the Jews”. The wall around the Warsaw Ghetto

We hereby provide an article by Dr Martyna Grądzka-Rejak, the head of the Science and Research Department of WGM, published in the Mówią wieki monthly to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the closure of the Warsaw Ghetto borders.

Ghettos created by the Nazis on the occupied Polish territory are generally associated with the wall surrounding their borders. During the occupation such a construction was a rarity. The walls were certainly built in Warsaw, Cracow and Nowy Sacz. Seuchensperrgebiet, an area endangered by the typhus epidemic – this is how German propaganda called the part of Warsaw dedicated to Jews – . It was marked in the so-called northern quarter of the capital. In 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto was surrounded by a sixteen-kilometer long wall, separating it from the rest of the city.

After the end of the September campaign, the Nazis began to create administration and legislation on the occupied Polish territories. In October 1939, the General Government was formed from a part of these territories, some areas were incorporated into the Third Reich, and some eastern territories were occupied by the Soviet Union. Legislation introduced by the German occupier in the General Government changed the situation of the Jewish population. The new regulations concerned both property and general economic issues, forced labor, freedom of movement, as well as the obligation for Jewish population to wear a Star of David and mark their plants and stores with it. However, this was only the beginning of the actions against the Jewish community. With time the Nazis began to physically separate the Jews from the other inhabitants of towns, cities and villages. The first ghetto in occupied Poland was established in October 1939 in Piotrków Trybunalski. The separation of the Jewish quarters was justified, among other things, by the alleged necessity of separating the Jews from the rest of the inhabitants for hygienic reasons: they were said to be carriers of lice, spotted typhus and other diseases. Many times the area of ghettos was marked with a board with the Polish and German inscription Typhus-endangered area.

Warsaw Ghetto

In the text of the secret telegraph sent by the Head of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) Reinhard Heydrich to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen on September 21, 1939, apart from a fragment about the necessity of creating Elderly Councils (Judenrats), there appeared, among other things, a note about plans to resettle Jews from Gdańsk, Pomerania and Upper Silesia, i.e. the lands which were incorporated by the Germans into the Third Reich several weeks later. According to the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler’s order of October 30, 1939, the Jews were to be transferred to the General Government by February of the following year, but resettlement continued until the autumn. Between November 1939 and October 1940, around 90 thousand of displaced Jews from the so-called incorporated territories, mostly the inhabitants of the Reichsgau Wartheland (mainly from Łódź) and Zichenau district, were moved to Warsaw (it is worth remembering that in 1939 Jews constituted almost one third of the city’s population,  i.e. around 360 thousand). The influx of such a large group of people led to the deterioration of the city’s already difficult housing conditions.

As early as in the fall of 1939, the Nazis planned to create a residential quarter for Jews in Warsaw, justified by sanitary reasons. On November 4, 1939, during an extraordinary meeting of the SS-Standartenführer Judenrat in Warsaw, Dr. Rudolf Baatz presented an alleged order for separation of such an area by Gen. Karl-Ulrich von Neumann-Neurode, military commander of the city. By the time of its execution, 24 hostages were detained. The decision to create the ghetto was postponed. However, the news spread quickly among the Jewish community, causing a stir.

In the winter of 1939 and 1940, there were rumors about new dates of ghetto establishment and potential locations. One of the possible locations was Praga – a quarter on the right bank of the river; Czerniaków mentioned it in his journal. Already then, fences and barriers appeared on some streets. Some of them in the future were to be the borders of a separated Jew quarter. In mid-January 1940, Waldemar Schön, to whom the authorities of the General Government entrusted the task of creating a ghetto in the city, arrived in Warsaw. A few days later the Resettlement Department was established in the Office of the District Head, where the organisational framework of the ghetto had been prepared. Schön was in charge of it. One of the first plans was to create a ghetto in Praga – the Vistula River would be a natural border separating the Jewish community from the rest of the city (such a solution was adopted almost a year later in Cracow, the capital city of the General Government). However, the project presented by Schön was criticised by the City Council. It was feared that moving such a large group of people engaged in trade and crafts to the right bank of the Vistula would negatively affect the economic life of the city.

And the walls grew

In March 1940, the Germans formed Seuchensperrgebiet, an area endangered by the typhus epidemic, in the northern quarter of Warsaw. Soon, the separation of the designated area from the rest of the city began. As early as March 18, 1940, Czerniaków wrote in his journal: there is a demand that the Municipality wires the ghetto , knocks in stakes, etc. and guards it afterwards. It was decided to separate the ghetto from the rest of the city with a brick wall. This idea was pushed through by two officials from the Health Department – the head of the Health Chamber Oberführer SA Dr. Jost Walbaum and Dr. Kaminski from the Warsaw district. Moreover, between March 22 and 29, anti-Semitic riots took place in Warsaw, later called the Easter pogrom, during which, among others, Jews were attacked and their apartments and stores were plundered. According to the historian Tomasz Szarota, these actions were probably inspired by the Germans to justify the necessity for creating a ghetto.

On March 27th, the Warsaw Judenrat was officially ordered to erect a wall around the territory of  Seuchensperrgebiet. Three days later Czerniaków wrote: “we started digging holes for the walls at 7 a.m. this morning”. At the same time, members of the Council held talks with the German authorities about various technical problems (e.g. the fear of damaging the tramway traction) and financial difficulties related to erecting the wall. The building material came from demolished houses destroyed in September 1939. The construction company Schmidt and Münstermann supervised the erection of the wall and later its maintenance. Two years later, on behalf of the Waffen SS Central Construction Board, they carried out construction work at the Treblinka extermination camp.

When the construction of the wall began, it was not yet fully clear when and even if the ghetto would be created. In his memoirs, Ludwik Landau captured the feelings and fears that these actions aroused among the Jewish inhabitants of Warsaw: “the Jewish population of Warsaw looks with fear at the walls rising around its quarter. […]  In Warsaw, these walls are commonly referred to as a ghetto announcement; rumors of dividing the city into parts to facilitate police supervision seem more likely”. Bogdan Wojdowski, in his book Chleb rzucony umarłym [Bread for the Departed], described the area separated by the wall: “one day, in the eyes of people from this and that side, bricklayers started to build a wall on Żelazna and Sienna, and Wielka, and through Bagno, and Próżna, and Grzybów, and Graniczna, and the Żelazna Brama Square to Hale [Mirowskie] , thus  closing the southern quarter. And that was the small ghetto. A the wall stretched further through Chłodna to Ptasia, Przechodnia to Długa, Mylna to Przejazd, Świętojerska to Ciasna, Koźla to Przebieg, through Pokorna, Stawki, Dzika and Okopy, closing the northern quarter.  That is where the large ghetto was”. Wojdowski wrote about the surprise caused by the wall construction. It was also said that neither fencing off the Jew quarter nor creating a ghetto was a surprise, e.g. Stefan Szpigielman said that this threat, like the sword of Damocles, had been poising over the head of Warsaw Jews since November 1939.

The construction works were completed in the first half of June 1940. On June 7th, Kurt Schrempf and Erwin Supinger from the Technical Department carried out the inspection of the wall, and a few days later the construction was accepted. In some places, the wall was reinforced with barbed wire or covered with a layer of glass fragments. The structure was not continuous, in some places the ghetto borders were formed by walls of already existing buildings or fire walls, wooden hoardings, and even fragments of fences or barbed wire entanglements. In July 1940, “Gazeta Żydowska” published an anecdote about the height of the wall: a sarcastic and bitterly smiling batlan of beth midrash gave this novelty a peculiar joke : “You know why the walls are 2.5 meters high?”. [actually 3 m] And he answers to himself: “Because a flea can only reach 2.40 meters….”. The erection of the wall forced, among other things, a change in the direction of traffic, as well as the relocation of existing workshops, stores or retail outlets.

The Aryan side and the Jewish side

On October 12th, 1940, an order of the head of the Warsaw district, Ludwig Fischer, “about the creation of the Jewish Housing Quarter” was announced through squawk boxes. Mass population transfers began. Jews moved to the ghetto, Poles left the buildings that were to stay in the quarter. The streets and sidewalks were literally flooded with luggage trolleys, carts, and even baby carriages, on which some of the belongings were transported. People tried to sell some of their possessions or store them on the so-called Aryan side. A month later, on November 16th, the gates of the Warsaw Ghetto were closed. From then on, any attempt to leave or enter without a pass was punishable (from beating through jail to even death penalty later on). In the border buildings, mainly in the lower parts, the windows and doors from the so-called Aryan side were bricked up.

On November 29th, 1940, “Gazeta Żydowska” published an article about the issue of entering and leaving the ghetto. The author of the text indicated that it is possible [to enter or leave] only in 22 special points, where the movement is controlled. These points were located, among others, at the exit of Twarda Street near Złota Street, on Żelazna Street near Grzybowska Street, in Leszno near Żelazna Street, in Nalewki at the level of Krasiński Garden and on Chłodna Street near Żelazna Street. Those places were guarded by the posts of the Jewish Order Service inside the ghetto, the Polish Police of the General Government (the so-called blue police) on the other side and German policemen (Schupo) on the outside of the borders. The Warsaw Jews were cut off from the rest of the city, closed and isolated. In a way, they “disappeared” from its space.

The closure of the ghetto gates was accompanied by a propaganda campaign, which aimed to show that it is not only necessary, but also the only rational solution to protect the remaining residents of Warsaw. One of its elements was a propaganda film from 1941 titled Życie ludzkie w niebezpieczeństwie [Human life in danger] shot by the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto, which listed, among other things, what kind of danger contacts with Jews may carry. In this way, attempts were made to prove that the most appropriate course of action was precisely isolation in closed ghettos. Bacteriologist and immunologist Ludwik Hirszfeld referred to this issue in his memoirs: “The feeling of imprisonment is intensified by the fact that every now and then a passer-by meets a wall or barbed wire. In this way, the authorities wanted to isolate the carriers of dangerous germs. People calling themselves doctors of medicine justified this thesis. Science has long since eliminated medieval quarantines not only because it was cruel but also pointless. Pointless? It is not about eradicating the epidemic, but about exterminating the Jews.”

Bezczelne żydowskie okno [brazen jewish window]

The accounts of the ghetto inhabitants, both written down on an ongoing basis and after the end of the war, often referred to the first moments of the ghetto’s functioning. “We went to sleep in the Jewish quarter, and the next morning we woke up in the closed Jewish ghetto – a ghetto in the whole sense of the word” Chaim Kapłan noted in his diary. For the Jewish residents of Warsaw, the creation of the ghetto, and especially the necessity to move there with their loved ones, was a shock. Moving out of their previous apartments, they could only take some of their belongings, the ghetto was so overcrowded and the available premises were so small that many of the equipment would not fit in. According to the data from the census of April 1940, there were more than 395 thousand of Jews living on 307 ha. The population density was therefore almost 129 thousand people per square kilometre. With time, the ghetto population grew. People of different social position, education, profession, degree of religiousness, gender or age ended up behind the walls. What united them was the racial origin defined by the Germans, as well as the order to live behind the walls.

Confined space of apartments and streets in the ghetto, difficult sanitary conditions, the neighborhood surrounded with a wall and many other factors contributed to the feeling of isolation and alienation of its inhabitants. The eminent musician Władysław Szpilman wrote about it in his diary: “However, the streets of the ghetto and only they ended up with walls. It happened to me many times that, having rushed ahead, I came across such a wall unexpectedly. He stood across my path, although I felt like going on.”.Halina Aszkenazy-Engelhard, a teenage ghetto inhabitant, drew attention to the overwhelming sense of imprisonment: “As I walked by the still growing ghetto walls and watched the birds flying over them, I envied them and dreamt of turning into one, crossing those terrible walls and running away so far, so far away that there were no Germans, no typhus, no horrible starving ghetto faces.”.

The ghetto poet Władysław Szlengel, describing in one of his poems the cut-off and isolation behind the walls, pointed to the border houses, from which one could get a glimpse of what was happening outside the quarter:

Mam okno na tamtą stronę [I have a window to that side],
bezczelne żydowskie okno [brazen Jewish window]
na piękny park Krasińskiego [to the beautiful Krasiński Park],
gdzie liście jesienne mokną…[where autumn leaves get wet…]
Pod wieczór szaroliliowy [In a grey evening]
składają gałęzie pokłon [the branches bow]
i patrzą się drzewa aryjskie [and Aryan trees look]
w to moje żydowskie okno [into my jewish window] […].

But even in these houses the residents were forbidden to open or even approach the windows to look at life on the so called Aryan side.

The ghetto ceased to exist

Separation of the ghetto from the rest of the city by a wall also had an impact on the functioning of the remaining residents of Warsaw. Chaim Kapłan wrote: “Warsaw resembled Noah’s ark in a way. These walls have partitioned the busiest streets at that time. For example, on the corner of Nowolipek and Nalewki, a wall was erected; an inhabitant of the house at Nowolipki 2 Street now has to go around for about half an hour (it used to be only a matter of a few steps), namely through Nowolipki, Zamenhofa, Gęsia to Nalewki Street to get to the house on Nalewki 5 Street. It is the same with Rymarska and Leszno and other streets”. Contrary to the intentions of the Germans, the borders of the Warsaw Ghetto turned out to be impermanent. Between November 1940 and May 1943, their course was changed many times as the ghetto area was systematically shrinking. In May 1943, SS-Gruppenführer Jürgen Stroop reported that the Jewish residential quarter ceased to exist. However, the surrounding wall was still there. With time, some parts were disassembled, and the fragments were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising. After the war, most of the surviving walls of the Warsaw Ghetto were dismantled, often using bricks as a building material. There are 11 fragments left, the most famous at Złota 62, Sienna 55 and Waliców 11 Streets. It is worth mentioning that for some time, until December 1941, the borders of the ghetto were also marked by the wall of the Jewish cemetery, which still exist today, on Okopowa Street. In 2008, boards and concrete slabs appeared in the urban space to remind us of the borders of the Warsaw Ghetto and its murdered.

Dr Martyna Grądzka-Rejak