Ghettos: an overview

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With some 400,000 inhabitants the Warsaw ghetto was the largest of the Nazi ghettos.
© 2011 Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

The first ‘ghetto’ was established in Venice in 1516. The word ‘ghetto’ comes from the Italian ‘getto nuovo’ or ‘new foundry’, the area in which the Jews were confined. It became common practice in the countries of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries to confine Jews to a specific area of a town. Ghetto is the name that the Nazis used when they concentrated Jews in separate areas of the various cities they conquered.

Within a few days of the German army invading Poland, on 1 September 1939, it had succeeded in taking over a large part of Western Poland. The Eastern half of the country was invaded by the Soviet Union as part of a pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

From the beginning the treatment of the Jews at the hands of the German army was appalling and many atrocities occurred.

By 21 September 1939, an order had been issued that Jews were to be concentrated in separate areas within cities (ghettos). This 'short-term' measure to contain and control Jews son developed into a long-term policy towards the Jews.

This section will explain how ghettos were set up and managed. The ghetto fact files will then demonstrate life within specific ghettos using experiences of those who lived in them.