Children in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1941.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 1011-134-0778-38
Photo: Albert Cusian Federal Archives, Germany

The term ‘ghetto’ has its origin in Venice in the 16th century. The initial purpose was to physically separate Jewish and Christian populations. Ghettos were also established in Frankfurt, Rome, Prague and other key cities in the 16th and 17th centuries.

During World War II the Nazi-instituted ghettos were places in which Jews were held as prisoners under duress, usually in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions and with severe shortages of food, water and medicines. Any signs of protest or resistance were ruthlessly crushed by the Nazis. Jews were sealed off from the rest of the population by wooden fences, barbed wire and in the case of the Warsaw Ghetto, brick walls. Over 1,000 ghettos were established by the Germans in German-occupied Poland and in the Soviet Union.

The Germans regarded the establishment of ghettos as temporary measures, in order to allow the higher echelon of the Nazi leadership in Berlin to decide upon a course of action by which to fulfil their objective of eliminating the Jewish population from Europe. Consequently, they served as transit stations on the road to extermination. The duration of ghettoisation varied considerably from a few months to several years, with the implementation of the Final Solution, the Germans began systematically to destroy the ghettos. The Germans and their henchmen either shot ghetto inmates in mass graves, located in nearby woods, or deported them to one of six death camps – Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek and Sobibor.

The largest ghetto in Poland was the Warsaw Ghetto, where approximately 450,000 Jews were incarcerated. Other major ghettos were established in the Polish cities of Łodz, Krakow, Lublin, Bialystok, Lvov, and Theresienstadt (Terezin) — a garrison town in the north of the former Czechoslovakia and Vilna, a town in Lithuania. After the ghettos were sealed, any Jew caught outside the ghetto walls was liable to be shot. The same penalty applied to non-Jews harbouring or assisting Jews outside the ghetto.


Theresienstadt (Terezin)


Warsaw Ghetto

Bedzin Poland 27,000
Bialystok Poland 35,000 to 50,000
Budapest Hungary 70,000
Chernovsty Romania 50,000
Krakow Poland 19,000
Grodno Poland 25,000
Kovno/Kaunas Lithuania 40,000
Lida Byelorussia 9,000
Liepaja Latvia 7,400
Lodz Poland 205,000
Lublin Poland 34,000
Lvov Poland (now Ukraine) 110,000
Minsk Byelorussia 100,000
Mir Byelorussia 2,500
Novogrudok Byelorussia 6,000
Radom Poland 30,000
Riga Latvia 43,000
Salonika Greece 56,000
Shanghai* China 10,000
Ternopol Ukraine 12,500
Theresienstadt Czechoslovakia 90,000
Vitebsk Byelorussia 16,000
Vilna Lithuania 41,000
Warsaw Poland 400,000 to 500,000

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