Photo Credit: Yad Vashem
The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust

The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust Editor-in-Chief: Guy Miron; Co-editor: Shlomit Shulhani (Jerusalem, 2009) 2 volumes of 500 pgs. each + DVD, Hard Cover $138.00.

One cannot exaggerate the importance of these two volumes to those interested in the Shoah. For the first time, we have an extensive list of the ghettos where Jews were imprisoned in mostly in eastern Europe as well as in western Soviet Union, Romania, Theresienstadt, Salonika, and Hungary during World War II. Establishing a ghetto in the Netherlands had been discussed yet plans never materialized. There were more than 1,100 ghettos according to the research conducted for this encyclopedia, established between 1940-1944.

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The entries include: each ghetto’s geographical location and coordinates, the name during the war; the larger ghettos contain information on pre-World War II; Soviet and Nazi occupation; ghetto institutions, actions to murder Jews in the ghetto; the Jewish underground and other forms of resistance; and the number of those who survived at liberation.

The first ghettos were established in the fall of 1939 in German-occupied Poland. Other ghettos soon followed and continued to develop even as late as 1943. Until the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazis expected the ghettos to warehouse Jews, who had fled their home or had been forcibly expelled.

Although the ghettos were not far in terms of distance from each other, the Judenräte (Jewish Councils), that administered the ghettos had different policies, levels of unity and strategies they thought that would enable them to play for time until they would be liberated. The distinctive nature of life in each of the ghettos, and the Jews response to being imprisoned and abused differed though each ghetto was governed by the same rules and regulations decreed by their Nazi oppressors.

The function of the ghettos drastically changed after June 1941, when the Nazis invaded Russia. In the occupied areas of the Soviet Union, ghettos were often established after most of the Jews had been murdered. All the ghettos were eventually demolished with the Lodz Ghetto in Poland being liquidated in the summer of 1944. In Hungary, the Budapest ghetto operated until the start of 1945.

Historians Yehuda Bauer and Israel Gutman point out that the Nazis appear to have had no strategic plan on how their merciless system of brutality, starvation and terror committed against the Jews might unfold until the Jews could be transferred to the Nisko Reservation in 1939 in the Lublin District of the General Governorate of occupied Poland; to Madagascar beginning in 1940 to the far regions of Artic Russia.

As historian Dan Michman explains, there is no single document that clarifies how the concept of establishing the ghettos evolved, the characteristics of each one, the process involved in creating a ghetto and how they should be administered. This indicates the Germans themselves did not have a clear strategy or reasoning for establishing them. In his essay, Michman provides an in-depth analysis of the word ghetto in the early modern era and its emergence as a cultural notion int modern times. He notes that although the Nazi regime, and particularly Adolph Hitler, established the antisemitic agenda from the beginning of 1933, there were no specific guidelines on how this goal would be implemented. This ambiguity provided the Nazi bureaucrats, at every level, “a wide field of maneuver achieve” to achieve their objective.

Michman describes how “the ghetto provided Jews with a chance to live. Consequently, despite harsh conditions, for the Jews the ghetto was a place where they could survive, a refuge, however fleeting from the relentless massacres that took place outside.”

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.