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Jewish Ghettos During the Holocaust

Highlighting: “The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos During the Holocaust” by Dan Michman. Cambridge University Press, Reprint edition. 2014. 200 pages. ISBN 978-1107437128

In this study, Dan Michman, head of the International Institute of Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem, discusses some the most basic questions about the ghettos established by the Nazis. The ghettos, which numbered over a thousand, were a key component of Jewish life during the Nazi era. Many ghettos existed outside of Poland, and even in Poland many were established during and after 1941, and not in 1939 or 1940.

A predominant view is that the Jews were deported to the ghettos as part of a systematic German strategy, and that in areas where the Nazis did not establish ghettos, they initiated efforts to segregate Jews even without walls and fences. Michman asks what precipitated the notion of establishing ghettos. Was it a result of a logical and deliberate policy, as is generally assumed, or was it a response to local pressures, without any prior forethought or preparation? Who advocated for ghettos and who resisted them? Where did the idea originate? How many ghettos were there? Were the Judenräte (the Jewish Councils) fundamentally linked to the ghettos?

Many of these questions were never asked because it became an accepted fact that ghettos were an inherent part of the Nazis’ anti-Jewish agenda. Michman exposes the fallacy of this belief. He asserts the main Nazi authorities never articulated a “clear and unequivocal definition of what a ghetto was or should be from their point of view.” He could not find one document to explain the source of the concept of a ghetto, “its essence,” and how to implement and administer it. German bureaucrats charged with establishing ghettos provided differing justifications and reasons, which demonstrate that the officials themselves were uncertain about either the genesis of the idea or its exact purposes.

Instead of focusing on the administrative and organizational perspective of the ghetto phenomenon as Raul Hilberg and Christopher Browning have done, Michman examines it from a cultural, linguistic and semantic approach. In his capacity as then chief historian of the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research, when he and his staff were working on “The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust” (2009), they realized the Nazi bureaucracy had never specifically defined what a “ghetto” meant. They decided to devise their own definition: “Any concentration of Jews by compulsion in a clearly defined section of an existing settlement (city, town, or village) in areas controlled by Germany or its allies, for more than one month.”

The definition included “various patterns of residential concentration—neighborhoods, streets, groups of buildings (but not single buildings) such as the Judenhaäuser [Jewish houses] in Germany or barracks—and did not require the existence of Jewish administration, although this element often existed.” Though “The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust” includes an abridged form of his thesis, this book offers a far more extensive analysis and a fully annotated version.

Among a number of Michman’s significant conclusions is that the fear of the dangerous Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews) led to the first Nazi ghettos being established in 1939 and 1940. The Ostjuden were regarded as the “strength and vitality of ‘the Jews’—Jews in both the biological sense (‘Jewry’) and the spiritual sense (‘Judaism’).” Thus, the psychological fear, and not the bureaucratic fear, of the cultural stereotype of the Eastern European Jew as the “source of Jewish power” and the “fear of crowded Jewish Neighborhoods of Eastern Europe,” is what led to Jews being segregated into highly congested Jewish neighborhoods and being forced to live under intolerable conditions.

This fear of the “ominous masses of Ostjuden perceived as a threat to the Germans and to human existence in general,” explains why the Germans generally placed the ghettos in disadvantaged and poor urban settings, a practice the Romanians and Hungarians then followed, even when segregating Jews in these areas created significant difficulties for the cities to operate. Overcrowded ghettos also became fertile ground for epidemics, increasing the number of Jews who died of disease and malnutrition even before the Final Solution began.


Dr. Alex Grobman is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).

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