Although a handful of ghettos had been created in Poland in late 1939 at the initiative of local Nazi officials, it was only after the failure of plans for a Jewish ‘reservation’ in Poland or Africa that large numbers were ordered. The Warsaw Ghetto, shown in this photograph, was created in the autumn of 1940 and was by far the largest in Nazi-occupied Europe: at its peak, in the summer of 1941, it held more than 435,000 people. Emanuel Ringelblum, a Jewish historian, recorded the following entry in his diary just four days after the ghetto was sealed.

19 November 1940
The Saturday the Ghetto was introduced was terrible. People in the street didn’t know it was to be a closed Ghetto, so it came like a thunderbolt. There was an immediate shortage of bread and other produce. There’s been a real orgy of high prices ever since. There are long queues in front of every food store, and everything is being bought up. Many items have suddenly disappeared from the shops… Because of the closing of the Ghetto and the feverish buying up of everything, all the Jewish streets are full of people milling about. It’s simply impossible to pass through… One of the sad developments of the resettlement has been the large number of beggars that have turned up (Jews from the suburbs).

Ghettos were intended to be a temporary measure, places to hold Jews whilst the Nazis decided where they would eventually be deported to. However, the living conditions in most ghettos were so appalling that they became death traps in themselves. For example, more than 70,000 people died in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 and the first half of 1942. 

Photo: a group of destitute boys on a curb in the Warsaw Ghetto, 1941; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Guenther Schwarberg

Diary extract: Emanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto. The Journal of Emmanuel Ringelblum, ed. Jacob Sloan (Schocken, 1974)