The first steps towards the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto were taken by the Germans already in the autumn of 1939.
On 20 December, Adam Czerniaków, the chairman of the local Judenrat, wrote thus in his diary: “Rumours about Praga (the ghetto)”. In January 1940, Waldemar Schön, a pre-war collaborator of, among others, Hans Frank, arrived in Warsaw. The authorities of the General Government had appointed him plenipotentiary for resettlement, tasked specifically with the creation of a ghetto in the city. Schön initially planned to move the Jewish community to the other bank of the Wisła River and locate the ghetto in Praga (mentioned above), however for various reasons – including economic and logistic – his concept was not implemented. Instead, attention was turned to the northern district, which was inhabited in the main by Jews. In March, the decision was taken to erect walls around the area which the Germans called the “Seuchensperrgebiet” (“epidemic-threatened area”). Construction work – conducted at the expense of the Jewish Community – began in April 1940. The entire process lasted more than two months. The part of Warsaw intended for the Jews was marked out in the so-called northern district. Since 1940, the city, nearly one third of whose pre-war inhabitants were Jews, had been divided by a 16-kilometre wall. Until 16 November 1940, that is, when the gates of the ghetto were finally closed, the borders of the district changed, and some fragments – previously selected for inclusion – outside its limits. In such situations, existing fragments of the wall were simply demolished.
The ghettoes set up by the Germans in occupied Poland are commonly associated with the walls that purportedly surrounded them; in fact, however, the so-called Jewish districts were only rarely encompassed by structures of this type. And while walls were, obviously, erected in Warsaw, Kraków and Nowy Sącz, ghettoes were more usually isolated by means of barbed wire, fences, or only tacitly established borders.
By the end of 1940, the Warsaw Ghetto – an area of approximately four square kilometres – housed some 395,000 Jews, and while before the war many of them had lived in Warsaw, others had been resettled to the city following the outbreak of hostilities, among others from territories and townships incorporated into the Third Reich. In the following months, due to the forcible resettlement of successive groups of Jews to the ghetto, the number of its inhabitants increased. The population density was almost 129,000 people per square kilometre. It is estimated that in the peak period – in March 1941 – the ghetto had nearly 460,000 residents. Enclosed within its walls were people of different social standing, education and professions, displaying various degrees of religiousness, and, naturally, of both genders and varying ages. They were connected by their racial origin, duly determined by the Germans, and the order to live within the sealed off area.
The huge overpopulation caused sanitary conditions to deteriorate rapidly; soon, they were no more than an insult to human dignity, while hunger and epidemics of infectious diseases quickly made their presence felt. From November 1940 to July 1942, approximately 100,000 inhabitants of the ghetto died of starvation and disease. The scale of poverty was so immense that the naked bodies of the dead were often left in the streets so as to avoid incurring burial expenses.
During the so-called Grossaktion (22 July – 21 September 1942), approximately 260,000 Jews were deported to the extermination camp in Treblinka, some 10,000 were murdered on the spot, and nearly 11,000 were transported to labour camps, mainly in the Lublin district.Following these events, there were no more than 35,000 or so Jews left residing legally in the ghetto, while those who were unregistered could have numbered between 20,000 and 30,000. Thus, the total number of inhabitants exceeded 50,000. The area of the ghetto was significantly reduced.