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The period during the Jewish holocaust (1941-1945) can be described as one of the saddest in the history of man kind. During that period, Jews in several parts of Europe were isolated, tortured and killed on orders of the Nazi regime. This paper seeks to use primary written accounts and photos to analyze life at the Kovno, Warsaw and Lodz Ghettos, which existed during this period.
Kovno is the Russian name for the Lithuanian capital of Kaunas. The city had about 45,000 Jews. Prior to the establishment of the Ghetto, the Russia’s Red army had been defeated by Lithuanians followed by the arrival of the German troops2. The initial captures and shooting of Jews were carried out by the ‘Lithuanian partisans’ who had been hired by the Gestapo. This group of Lithuanians were against communism and inclined towards Germany. The Lithuanian and the Jewish community were divided because the Lithuanians felt that the Jews had supported the Red Army 2.
Due to the continued capturing and shooting of the Jews at the forts, Rabbi Shapiro felt that the Jews should be separated from the Lithuanians to live into the Ghetto and thus a seven member council was appointed to lead the Jews 2. Dr Elchanan Elkes was appointed the leader of the Council; in some of the pictures used for this anaylsis, Jews can be seen entering or transferring their belongings into the Kovno Ghetto.
After settling in the Ghetto, the Jews were ordered by Nazi to wear the Star of David on their chests; this can be ascertained by group of children in one of the pictures analysed can be seen with the Star of David on their garments. Five thousand Jews who were able to work were issued with the Jordan card, Jordan was the superintendent of Jewish affairs in Kovno 2. The ghetto had a Jewish police force of about 300 officers who were unarmed and were used in the everyday running of affairs in the ghetto.
A week after the Jews had been sent into Ghetto, a German Commandant named Kolovski was appointed to lead the Ghetto. The Jews in the Kovno ghetto were thereafter subjected to poor living conditions. They were crowded in houses with inadequate food and without other basic necessities. The ghetto was fenced using a barbed wire and was always monitored by the German and Lithuanian Guards. The hardship conditions led the Jewish community into smuggling supplies into the ghetto 2.
The Jews who fell into the category of skilled artisans were subjected to forced labour in various places of work outside the ghetto. The Jewish council also created some workshops for the less skilled, children and the elderly inside the Ghetto. The ghetto had also some underground schooling that took place without the knowledge of the German authorities.
The Jewish were subjected to inhuman killings in what was referred to as the ‘actions’. The so called actions were characterized by the rounding up of thousands of Jews, and taking them to the fort where they were shot to death.
The first of action happened when the German commandant who was incensed shootings at his residence ordered the rounding up of members of one block, took them to the forts and shot them. Only those with the Jordan card survived in that block. The ghetto had two parts separated by a wooden bridge, in another action all inhabitants of the smaller ghetto were killed either by shooting or burning to death; this included a hospital with all the patients and staff. In another action that is described as the ‘great action’, residents numbering to 12000 were rounded up and driven to the forts where they were killed 2.
Towards the end, the ghetto was transformed into a concentration camp. Children and the elderly people were transferred to other places where they were probably killed. Those who hid in the bunkers were found driven to the forts and killed, thanks to the betrayal by the threatened Jewish police.
Out of the 45,000 individuals who had been admitted at the ghetto when it was established, only about 500 of them survived following the recapture of Kovno by soviet forces 2.
The Warsaw Ghetto
The ghetto in Warsaw was established in 1940 by the German Authorities. All the Jews in Warsaw and the neighbouring areas were then rounded up and driven into the ghetto. The Warsaw ghetto occupied a relatively small area (4sq km) and housed more than 400,000 Jews 2.
Just like several other ghettos in Poland and elsewhere, the Warsaw Ghetto was administered by a Judenrat, which can be described as a council of Jews. In the Warsaw Ghetto the Judenrat collaborated with Germans to commit atrocities on fellow Jews 2.
Life in the Warsaw Ghetto was very difficult; the Jews there lived in the poorest of conditions. Some photos analysed show children dying in the streets due to starvation. Up to 100,000 inhabitants of the Ghetto are thought to have died from starvation and diseases such as typhoid 3. The Jews in the Warsaw ghetto engaged in illegal smuggling of food and other products into the ghetto for their survival.
Despite all the problems, life in the Warsaw ghetto was characterised by a rich culture complete with a functioning secret education system1.
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Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto by the Nazi forces begun in July 1942 whereby thousands of Jews would be assembled at the Umschlagplatz (assembling point) and then loaded into train carriages that transported them to Treblinka 2. Any resistance to deportation was dealt with ruthlessly; in one of the photos, hundreds of Jews are seen marching to a freight train to be transported to the Treblinka death camp.
As described in the documents, it’s important to note that the Jewish police, more than their polish or German counterparts manning the Warsaw Ghetto, were very instrumental in ensuring that the Jews got onto the train carriages to be transported to the Treblinka camp. They often solicited for bribes, sexual favours and other forms of exploitation to protect one from being transported to the Treblinka. Later, after around 300,000 people had been deported, the remaining residents learned that all the deported residents had actually been executed2. The remaining residents loathed the Jewish policemen for taking part in the deportations. The Jewish police were later marginalized both in the Ghetto and outside where they were mobbed by poles for betraying their kinsmen.
On learning that they have been foolish all along by easily accepting to be deported, the remaining residents at the Warsaw ghetto decided to put up a resistance 3. The resistance which occurred as a surprise to the authorities had some gains but was defeated with the arrival of thousands of German troops. The ghetto was burned down, most of the residents shot and others transported to the death camps; one photo shows German troops burning buildings while two others show arrested Jews being assembled for transportation to the death camps 2.
The Lodz ghetto was established in 1940 by Nazi with an initial population of 164, 000 Jews. The ghetto was disconnected from the outside world by German security forces that guarded it behind perimeter walls reinforced with barbed wire 2. The Jewish council at the Lodz ghetto was headed by Rumkowski. Unlike other council leaders in other Ghettos, Rumkowski exercised a lot of power and was instrumental in ensuring that the Ghetto survived much longer compared to others through hard work; one picture shows him riding on a horse carriage in the ghetto 1.
The Lodz Ghetto had a tighter security and no smuggling was undertaken as compared to other Ghettos. The Jews depended on the Germans for food and other needs. Starvation was rife in the ghetto and together with other ailments, its thought to have caused the deaths of up to 40,000 people 3.
Rumkowski served under Hans Biebov who was the Nazi officer in charge of the Lodz Ghetto. Under the stewardship of Rumkowski, the Lodz ghetto was transformed into an industrial complex producing many types of products for Germans; one picture shows Jewish workers wearing yellow stars and busy working in a garment factory.
Similar to other ghettos, the Lodz ghetto was overcrowded by the incoming Jews from other areas.
The first deportation was carried out in 1941, and this was overseen by Rumkowski who selected criminals and other unwanted elements for the deportation1. Several other people we deported in the coming months. Rumkowski was made to believe that the deported Jews were going to work on farms, but later it became clear to him and other members of the ghetto that the deported were often killed. Thus he often stressed that the Jews at the Ghetto should work harder to enhance their survival. Twenty thousand children were later deported to the death camps in one of the most controversial deportations ever handled by Rumkowski; One of the pictures analyzed shows children lined up to board a truck during the deportation, another pictures shows the children being driven on wagons to assembly points 2. The deportation of the children ended the schooling activities in the ghetto.
The Ghetto survived through to 1944 due to its economic importance to the Germans. However, it was later liquidated when the German forces got wary of the advancing Soviet forces. Rumkowski and his family were among the last groups to be deported to Auschwitz for execution. Nine hundred people who were left behind to clean the ghetto managed to survive after they were rescued by the Soviet forces 3.
As seen from the above analysis, all the three ghettos had this in common. Poor living conditions, indiscriminate killings and torture from authorities. The Warsaw ghetto was the largest and the least organized and its inhabitants were liquidated faster than the others. The Jews in the Lodz ghetto were virtually separated from outside world as they worked in the ghetto and were confined using stringent security measures. A smuggling economy thrived in both the Warsaw and the Kovno ghettos. The Jewish police in the Warsaw ghetto have been described as having played a major role in the demise of their kinsmen. A common trend that is seen in all the ghettos is that they were meant to be temporary holding areas before executing the Jewish population.
- Adelson, A & R Lapides, Inside a Community under Siege, Penguin Books, New York and London, 1989.
- Berenbaum, M, Witness to the Holocaust: An Illustrated Documentary History of the Holocaust in the Words of its Victims, Perpetrators, and Bystanders, HarperCollins, New York.
- Niewyk, D, Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1998.