The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross | AGO
“Overexposed and Underexposed: The Many Faces of the Lodz Ghetto
Doris L. Bergen and Sylwia Szymańska-Smolkin
Overexposed and Underexposed was written for this site by Doris Bergen, the Chancellor Rose and Ray Wolfe Professor of Holocaust Studies in the Department of History at the University of Toronto and Sylwia Szymańska-Smolkin who is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History and Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. Read their full biographies here.
What were ghettos in the Holocaust?
During World War II, Nazi Germans forced Jews into designated areas of cities and towns known as “ghettos.” There were more than 1,000 ghettos. All of them were sites of death, yet also of Jewish life. Ghettos are a well-known part of the Holocaust, although much about them is poorly understood.
Characteristics of ghettos
In ghettos, people of all ages and genders lived together, often as families. Concentration and labour camps, by contrast, separated prisoners by sex and excluded the youngest and oldest members of the population. Ghettos had an element of self-administration – Jewish Councils – that the Germans used to carry out their commands. Compared to prisons and camps, German presence in the ghettos was limited. The Germans typically used local police, who worked under German supervision, to guard the ghetto from the outside. For instance Polish police were posted around the Warsaw Ghetto, and Lithuanian police guarded the Kovno Ghetto. Internal matters were left to Jewish police, who officially worked under the supervision of the Jewish Council but were subordinate to the non-Jewish police and often subjected to direct German pressure.
Ghettos varied enormously. The Germans set up ghettos in some territories but not others. In western Poland, they began to establish ghettos in 1939, just months after the defeat of Poland. But in parts of eastern Poland and Ukraine, they did not create ghettos; instead they shot most Jews there in the months after they invaded in 1941. Ghettos were not used in western Europe (France, the Netherlands, Belgium), nor were there ghettos in Germany itself, although starting in 1938, Jews were confined to certain buildings, the “Jew houses.”
Some ghettos were large, in effect cities within cities. Others encompassed only one or two buildings and a handful of people. Some lasted for years, whereas others were short-lived. In Hungary, the Germans worked with local officials to set up ghettos in 1944 that existed only for a few weeks, until transports of Jews – to labour battalions, to camps and to Auschwitz-Birkenau for killing – could be arranged. Ghettos also varied in how tightly they were sealed. In some, walls, fences and guards blocked contact between Jews and the outside world. In others, Jewish workers passed in and out to workplaces outside the ghetto. The Germans only set up ghettos for Jews, although Roma were sometimes held in these same ghettos.”