The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest of the ghettos organized by the Nazis in Poland. A tiny section of the city, an area of 3.5 square miles, imprisoned a half-million Jews. The ghetto covered merely two percent of the city's area but contained 30 percent of its population.
Unimaginable overcrowding intensified the suffering. Ten percent died from starvation and epidemics during the first year of the ghetto's existence. With the fall of Poland, the Nazis subjected the Jews of Warsaw to a series of repressive measures, including identifying armbands, property confiscations, and forced-labor requisitions.
The Nazis created the ghetto by concentrating Warsaw's Jews in the northern part of the city, the most heavily Jewish-populated district. The announced purpose was to isolate the Jews in order to keep them from spreading typhus. In fact, ghettoization actually spread the disease.
In October 1940 the Nazi governor of Warsaw ordered the remaining 160,000 Jews of the city transferred to the ghetto. An endless stream of bewildered people moved slowly through jammed streets, pushing carts and wheelbarrows and carrying small bundles in a desperate search for shelter. Some found a tiny space in overcrowded rooms. Others took refuge in courtyards, under stairways, or in cellars of bombed-out houses. Each building housed an average of 400 people; rooms held an average of six to seven people.
The barbed wire and wooden fences hastily put up by the Germans gave way to an 11-foot-high brick wall topped with broken glass. It completely enclosed the area and covered 11 miles. About 20 gates allowed limited access to the outside world. These were heavily guarded and locked at night. In November 1940 the gates were permanently sealed, permitting no contact with the outside.
No longer allowed to leave the ghetto even to work, the Jews somehow had to find subsistence. Workers jostled for the few available jobs. Those without work sold jewels and clothing for food. The Nazis provided only minimal food supplies, rationing them in exchange for the output of forced-labor battalions and the products produced by ghetto craftsmen. Daily food allocations, distributed through the Judenrat, equaled roughly 200 calories per person. The Nazis permitted no fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, or milk inside the ghetto. Even safe drinking water was scarce. Dozens of soup kitchens helped the neediest. Many subsisted on boiled potato skins and water.
Beggars with skeletal bodies roamed the streets. During the winter, when sewage pipes froze, human excrement was dumped into streets. Without food, heat, or medical supplies, dozens of ghetto residents died daily. Old people and children, too weak to move, simply laid down in the streets and died. Corpses were covered beneath newspaper. Orphaned, naked toddlers sat amidst refuse in gutters, wailing pitifully. All told, about 500,000 residents of Warsaw lost their lives during the Nazi occupation.