ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at or download the 70 Voices app available for most smartphones and tablets.

I’m joined this week by two people: both are historians, authors and Holocaust educators. In London is my colleague Martin Winstone from the Holocaust Educational Trust, who researched 70 Voices, and joining us on the line from Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem is Jeremy Leigh. Martin and Jeremy, welcome. This week we have focussed on life in the ghettos. Jeremy, could you start by explaining, what are ghettos?

JEREMY LEIGH: Sure. Ghettos predate the Holocaust period and, actually, the term comes from a much earlier period of history, from the late Middle Ages. They’re Italian in origin and the most common assumption is that the word comes probably from Venice, and it means a foundry but it refers to something that existed on one of the islands in Venice where Jews were confined during the early sixteenth century. So the idea of isolating Jews from the rest of the host society was, at the time, a result of other types of persecution, quite different to the ones which we seen during the nineteenth century. All of those ghettos were abolished, really through the nineteenth century as the Jews were emancipated in most of the different countries of Europe. But the idea sticks around.

Therefore, the idea of creating a Jewish section of a town or a cluster of small towns brought together to have Jews in one location – that was, the idea of the ghetto – the word sticks around [into the Nazi period]. Usually, these were in quite poor areas. The idea of creating them was initiated in the end of 1939 but they weren’t really established until a bit later on. But the idea was the Jews need to be separated: the key thing is separation and this was an innovation – this had not previously existed in the other areas where the Nazis were in control.

AM: Very interesting. Martin, you’ve done a lot of research into why the Nazis created ghettos, haven’t you?

MARTIN WINSTONE: Absolutely. I think particularly in the context of Poland, as Jeremy says, it’s really in 1939 that the idea of ghettos first begins to appear. And it’s actually quite an interesting area in terms of current historical thinking where, as so often with the Holocaust, what we once thought has turned out not to be entirely true. There was always a sense that the Nazis were following, maybe, some sort of conscious plan, of which ghettos formed a part. Actually, now we’re tending to find that ghettoisation was much more haphazard and that ghettos were not necessarily created by the SS, as was often once thought, but largely actually by civilian local Nazi officials which I think tells us something quite important about the Holocaust: that it isn’t simply the people we think of as the obvious perpetrators – the SS, the police, and so on – but also ordinary civil servants, and often also people like public health officials. In occupied Poland, for example, doctors were very active in pushing for ghettos, partly because they believed that somehow Jews posed a risk to public health: there was a belief that Jews were genetically prone to certain infectious diseases, such as typhus, and therefore they needed to be isolated. So what we actually see is, rather than the rolling out of a masterplan, instead ghettos being created at different times.

It’s also worth saying that they were only in certain countries. As Jeremy mentioned, prior to 1939, the Nazis had not created ghettos in Germany or Austria or the Czech territories. Even thereafter, it’s only really in Poland, later on the occupied Soviet Union, and much later on occupied Hungary, and – with a couple of exceptions elsewhere – that’s pretty much it. And ghettos were created at different times: even in Poland, most ghettos were only created in 1941 or even 1942 once the Holocaust was underway. So I think that stresses that, as I say, the Holocaust is something where lots of individual local officials were contributing to this process of persecution, and they’re doing so because of the ingrained antisemitism which characterises Nazism, seeing Jews as a threat to security or, as I say, as a public health threat. Also, as time goes on, ghettos become a means of concentrating Jews prior to their deportation, which initially was not intended to be to the extermination camps. Actually, there were these plans, which previous weeks have looked at, to deport Jews to remote locations either in Poland or in Africa. So, ghettos were created for a number of different reasons, but underpinning them, I think, is this sense obviously of antisemitism, of seeing Jews as somehow malignant and a force that therefore has to be contained.

AM: And listeners who are also following along with the 70 Voices project online or on the app will have read some really compelling sources this week documenting the conditions in the ghettos. Jeremy, can you talk a little bit about what life was like in ghettos?

JL: In a way, obviously, we rely a lot for our understanding on a number of sources, but the most important ones are clearly the diaries or the written documents and obviously, as much as possible, the testimony of people who survived. And they reveal all sorts of things. It’s almost an interesting thing to step out for one moment and ask what does one imagine it would look like?

First of all, there’s the question of time: initially, when people are uprooted from the area of the city that they were previously living in and move into a new area, irrespective of whether the conditions were good or bad, there’s this sense of rupture and dislocation. So, psychologically, I think from the very beginning, people struggled to try and work out exactly where they really were, even though physically they may find themselves living in a house or a building, that they can at least have imagined something like that.

Obviously, the key characteristics are enormous overcrowding – you take a population you squeeze it into a very small area. Jews represented about a third of the city of Warsaw but were squeezed into an area much, much smaller than that. I use Warsaw as the example because it was the largest of all the ghettos in Europe. And here we’re talking about a population of over 350,000, at the very beginning, and in some cases we have examples, also in Poland, where a group were moved from one area all the way to another area. So we have Jews from Berlin arriving in the ghetto in Łódź in Poland, which only adds to the greater sense of anxiety that there’s less room for everybody. But I think, beyond that, the most common characteristics, in terms of hardship, are poverty of resources, and food, and health questions: enormous problems, clearly, of a confined population living closely together – once there are diseases, these spread very, very quickly and that refers a little bit maybe to what Martin spoke about before. But I think, over and above all, is this sense of tremendous privation, that people are struggling between the world of normality and abnormality. One of the questions that I think maybe historians come to ask is, obviously this looks like an abnormal situation where people are living and they’re trying to make it as normal as possible, but did the norms of everyday society continue? Did people try to establish all the patterns of life they would normally have? And one of the things that seems most remarkable is that we find educational projects, we find religious institutions, we find cultural institutions continuing to exist in these impossible situations.

Maybe one last thing to say, which is that – to return to what I said earlier – the fact is the situation in, say, 1940, in some cases 1941, is obviously going to be very different as the effects of the Holocaust come to bite further. So, I think two things are worth saying. As the calorie allocation, or the amount of food that could be brought in to bulk up the amount of calories that a person needs to live, as that got less and less and harder and harder, people’s situation gets more desperate and so we certainly find testimony where people say, more than anything else, that the only thing they could really think about was food, and that became all-consuming. And that, of course, is relevant when we think about other areas of how people lived in ghettos: the only thing that could motivate them to do anything was the question of eating.

And the other thing that I wanted to say is: as the privation increased, starvation increased, and desperation increased, then there’s this other psychological aspect, which was, once the deportations began, then people are beginning to realise that the end is coming. One could say that the condition at the very beginning, psychologically, was that people were hoping against hope that this was going to be somehow as bad as it was going to get. And by the end, of course, they’re realising that actually that’s not true, that deportation – being moved out of these ghettos to somewhere else – this is actually just a way station to something further down the line. And, of course, what comes into that then is an element of denial, where people almost – because the physical situation was so awful in the ghettos themselves – may have been more willing to get on the trains to take them to their deaths. But, on the other hand, there’s this kind of nagging sense, articulated by some people, that this was not the end of the line, that there was something worse further down the line.

AM: Thinking about the ways in which Jews responded to ghetto life, one of the sources in this week’s 70 Voices instalments was a poem by someone who’s work you introduced me to, Mordechai Gebirtig. Jeremy, who was Mordechai Gebirtig?

JL: Gebirtig was a political activist but fundamentally he was a folk singer. He was a sort of folk artist. Politically, he was a member of the Bund, which was a Jewish revolutionary party in Poland, or in eastern Europe. He lived in Kraków, and he was a very popular character amongst mainly working class, but not exclusively, Jews in Kraków and the area around. And he was well known. What’s interesting about him – and he’s writing, by the way, in Yiddish, the language, the lingua franca, of most of the Jews of Poland and most of the Jews of eastern Europe, in fact – is that for him, he has a whole body of work, of songs and poems that he wrote before he was taken into the ghetto. And therefore when he’s in the ghetto, he continues to be creative. And in a way one imagines how the Muse, how inspiration, happens in such a radically changed environment. So, therefore, his poem, you can hear this yearning or longing for another world, a world which he remembers and obviously hopes will be recreated, although I think by the end of the poem you get the sense that he can see that the end is coming. So Gebirtig, I suppose, was a man of the people, he was an artist, and he was somebody who was also a sort of an interpreter: he interpreted the events back to the community that he felt he was connected to.

AM: Excellent; thank you. I want to move on to another element of the history of ghettos that’s possibly lesser known by people who aren’t necessarily historians, who don’t engage with this all the time, and that’s the role of Jewish Councils. Martin, what was the role of Jewish Councils in the ghettos?

MW: I think it’s worth saying to start that Jewish Councils for the most part actually predated ghettos. Even in Germany in the 1930s, the Nazis had tried to encourage the development of single institutions through which, not the Jews could be represented, but through which the Jews could be communicated with. And after the invasion of Poland in 1939, very, very quickly – again, initially at a local level – individual SS officers or civilian officials ordered in particular towns and cities the creation of councils. Then, from late 1939, across Nazi-occupied Poland these councils were created. So, how they were created and who sat on them varied but, essentially, they were there, first and foremost, to transmit whatever instructions or orders there might be – and there were plenty of those – from the Nazis to Jewish communities. Also, at the same time, there was an element – Jeremy mentioned continuity earlier – there was an element of continuity here in the sense that, in eastern Europe, in many towns and cities you’d had community councils [before the war] which represented the Jewish community, and the Jewish Councils in a way were a continuation of this system and, initially at least, were often welcomed by communities: there was a feeling that somehow there was a voice to represent them to the occupier.

However, as time went on, and as the burdens which were placed on the councils increased – in terms of things like, the Nazis would demand that they find sufficient numbers of people to carry out forced labour, for example, or the councils were responsible for distributing the rations to Jewish communities, which, as Jeremy mentioned earlier, were wholly inadequate – so, increasingly they became in many places, though not everywhere, subject to criticism. They were often particularly accused of collaboration and also there were often allegations, particularly perhaps in Warsaw, of corruption. So, for example, there are many testimonies from Warsaw about forced labour recruitment where, if a big enough bribe was paid, then someone would be exempted. And that relates to another issue about ghetto life, which is, in some ghettos – particularly larger ghettos such as Warsaw – one tended to find social divisions emerging. Although we tend to think of the widespread poverty in ghettos which Jeremy mentioned, at the same time the food crisis which existed in ghettos led to smuggling. I think one of the most powerful sources this week is the poem ‘The Little Smuggler’ which highlights a very widespread phenomenon in the Warsaw Ghetto, of children smuggling essential food into the ghetto. But, at the same time, there were also much bigger scale smuggling operations going on, often in league with corrupt German policemen, also Jewish policemen as each ghetto had its own Jewish police force, and so the people who had the money and perhaps, to an extent, the status within ghettos were often exempted from the obligations placed on the community as a whole.

So the councils became, as I say, subject to quite stinging criticism from many ghetto diarists, for example. At the same time, though, we have to recognise that these were individuals – some of whom, many of whom, had been active in public life before the Second World War – individuals who sometimes were forced to take on these positions, in other cases felt that it was their duty. For example, Adam Czerniaków, the head of the Jewish Council in the Warsaw Ghetto, had the opportunity to flee in 1939, as did many of his erstwhile colleagues, but he chose to stay, to see this as his duty, in some way to try to protect the community. So, although the councils often were characterised by corruption – and, in the nature of ghetto life, it could hardly probably be otherwise because everybody was seeking to survive in the appalling conditions which they faced – for the most part these were people trying to do their best. And a phrase, which I think we’ll return to in later weeks, which is often used to describe the choices facing Jewish leaders during the Holocaust, is ‘choiceless choices’: the idea that whatever one did, there was never going to be a perfect solution. And so I think the Jewish Councils for the most part did try to protect their communities. In particular, in many ghettos they organised extensive welfare activities to assist the population and also often, although they were there to transmit Nazi orders, also to some extent [they were] subverting them through, for example, the creation of illegal schools, which existed in quite a number of ghettos. Some ghetto schools were eventually permitted but in the majority they were not, but nonetheless members of the councils were engaged in promoting these activities. And also, in some ghettos such as, for example, Kaunas – the final reading of the week is from an official of the Kaunas Ghetto Council, Avraham Tory – the Jewish Council leadership there was actively involved in helping the Jewish resistance movement that existed in the ghetto.

JL: If I may add just one brief point, because I want to pick up on something that Martin said right at the very beginning, which is you asked the question who really were the councils and I think there’s almost a question we could all ask which is whether these were leaders who were created by the moment, by the crisis which confronted them, or whether these were people who in some way were, I don’t know if it’s an appropriate thing to say, were really essential leader-type people. There were people who were public-spirited, there were people who understood the values of not just a self-interested type of leadership but rather genuinely tried to do something for their community, for their people. And I think that the early research on Jewish Councils was very focussed on the end, where council leaders were being asked to draw up lists of people to be deported and in the question of who would be deported the sense was that somehow the Jewish Council leaders were letting the side down or were collaborating. And the early research seems to suggest that actually enormous numbers of people don’t comply with that; they find other strategies – they either kill themselves, they run away, they allow themselves to be arrested or deported themselves. And then, of course, the Nazis have to find somebody else. And really, just to cut to the end of that kind of research, what it suggests was that many Jewish Council leaders were the kind of people who were motivated by a sense of public-spiritedness and a value of trying to care for others: they were the kind of people who would normally be leader-type figures. And it’s really by the end, where the Nazis are having to do the job themselves, because they can’t find anyone else to do it, or it’s people who are just doing it out of a sense of self-interest. I think, more than that, to really understand that even within that, there were elements of continuity, of the human spirit maybe trying to survive in very desperate times.

AM: And Jeremy, I can remember being in Vilnius on a Teacher Study Visit with you and talking about this very issue of ‘choiceless choices’, and this brings us right up to date that, as a Holocaust education charity, we’re encouraging teachers to think about the really complex moral issues that are at the heart of the history of the Holocaust. And I suppose that’s really what this 70 Voices project is all about, encouraging other people out there, other listeners and other readers on our website, to engage with these types of stories as well. So I think that’s a good and very thought-provoking point on which to end this episode of the 70 Voices podcast. So thank you both, Martin and Jeremy, for contributing this week and we will speak again.


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