Warsaw Ghetto - Guest Article

The Warsaw Ghetto Design and Spatiality as part of the process of the 'Final Solution.'

Simon Byrne

When the Germans came to the block of flats where I lived and started taking the Jewish families out, we realised what was going on. We knew about the ghetto, it wasn't far from where I lived. We noticed them walking out of the ghetto every day for work, guarded by the Germans. People couldn't walk near the Jewish column, but we tried to throw some parcels of food to them. I felt sorry for them.

Looking from my flat I could see the entrance into the ghetto and one day I recognised some Jewish people who used to live in our block, others noticed them as well, and everyone went downstairs and tried to talk to them. They looked very bad, very thin. We all tried to give them some food.

Daniella Hausman, a young Polish woman living in Warsaw

The situation in the Warsaw Ghetto was truly horrendous- food, water and sanitary conditions were non-existent. You couldn't wash, people were hungry and very susceptible to disease because of their weakened condition. It's amazing what happens to people when they are deprived of their basic needs. For my brother and me there was no school and the only entertainment was taking a walk. It was unbelievable the number of dead people you saw in the streets.

Jerry Koenig, a Jewish child living in the Warsaw Ghetto. 

Historical inquiry is more than simply studying the passage of events - their causes and effects. This perhaps could not be more so the case than in Holocaust history; that it was not an 'event' as such but a series of complex inter-related experience, perpetration and spatiality. With the important continuing interest that the public has for discovering more about the Holocaust, particularly in more recent years where it has become the subject of much reflective history, it is incumbent upon historical academy to broaden its field of enquiry - using as many tools as there are at our disposal. It would be irresponsible to delineate imaginary lines between academic disciplines when they provide such a wealth of use. Social  and political sciences, literature, philosophy, and- indeed - geography.

This could not be more true than in relation to the ghettoization. That the ghettos constructed by the Nazi regime were widespread across occupied Europe is no revelation to even the most casual observers but it is important to first make the point that the ghettos, as much as they were the venue of events, were - at base level - places. Places are where human experience is felt, where human actions are realised. And differing places and spatiality hold differing stories. Take an individual from one place and put them in another and their experience might be different. This is, however, not to prematurely rush to the conclusion that the ghetto was only a place and not the site of unbridled cruelty and, ultimately, destruction.

To this end and by way of introduction, one would do well to recall Lukacs' thought that, the 'essence of history... (lies within) those structural forms which are the focal point for man's interaction with the environment at any given moment' which determines 'the objective nature of both his inner and outer life.'

This piece is intended as an examination of the largest of the ghettos, Warsaw, and the interaction between it as a space and to what degree this space played a role in the process of the 'Final Solution' (By way of a post-script, the author has a certain discomfort with regard to the term 'Final Solution' as it presupposes a 'Jewish Problem' to which there must be a solution. Yet as the term so commonly referred to in the study of the Holocaust and by the Third Reich, it will be utilised but in quotation marks). Taking in key issues such as the design of the ghetto itself, territorially and food, it is intended as the beginnings of a discussion on ghetto design and its role in history.

Constructing the ghetto  

Following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, (that which precipitated the Second World War), Poland was crudely divided into three. The eastern area was occupied by the Soviet Union; the west by the Nazi regime and the central area became an 'occupied zone.' It was in this area where there was a significant Jewish population - far greater than in Germany. From this, a policy of intentionally concentrating the Jewish population into separate areas was developed. Whilst the first ghetto was established in Piotrkow relatively quickly - a mere two months after occupying Poland - the setting up of a ghetto in Warsaw, home to the largest concentration of Jews in Europe, took considerably longer. In terms of the establishment of this ghetto, the first question posed is, 'Why?' which is not as simple to answer as it may first appear. It raises questions of motivation on the part of the regime and, as its corollary, justification. Indeed the matter goes to the heart of considering how important the design of the ghetto and what the ghetto actually did.

The question of motivation is a critical starting point in a landscape study of the Warsaw ghetto and is informed, arguably, not only by the ghettos beginnings but by own its own agency - the results of its own design. The ghetto builds its own unique history. In this sense, while the primary testimony referred to in this piece is immensely useful in gaining insight into the experiences resulting from living in the Warsaw ghetto, the actual and changing geography of the ghetto is of great importance as well as the textual accounts.

Image 1

Fig 1. A Map of the city centre of Warsaw with the eventual space of the ghetto shaded

The figure above is the first of a number of maps to be included in this work in order to chart not only the physical space but also the changes the space underwent through the lifetime of the ghetto. Including maps in a spatial study of the ghetto , is according to Friedman (whose work will be referenced throughout this piece) ..... 'of utmost importance in the study of the trends and objectives of Nazi ghetto planning.'

 Turning to the motivation behind the formation of the Warsaw ghetto, there has been continued debate which has informed the trajectory of studies in this area. The generally accepted view is that the justification given by the ghetto designers was that it was set up with a view to stemming the rise of epidemics in the city. Browning appears to support the view that the ghetto in Warsaw was motivated by, 'limiting the spread of Jewish epidemic.' Yet how the Nazis justified creating an isolated, claustrophobic space in which to condemn Jews, not only of Warsaw, but from across Poland, has been severely tested by historical research. Indeed, one only need to turn to the pronouncement from one of Goebbels' colleague over the Berlin airwaves even prior to the establishment of the first ghetto at Piotrkow, 'That people (the Jews) must be isolated completely, otherwise all of Europe will be poisoned.'

Friedman considers the justification given to be a tool of the German propaganda machine. Of note is that, to take Browning's view wholesale is to belie an element of ignoring the anti-Semitism which formed the foundations of Nazi policy in Eastern Europe. A central stated aim of the Nazi government was the annihilation of the Jews - a reality that cannot be ignored when engaging in a study of the Warsaw ghetto. It is in moving away from the binary internationalist / functionalist debate where it is difficult to disagree with Cole's suggestion that a stress upon the spatiality of ghettoization can be helpful.

Ghetto Space

The first evidence of something happening so far as the Jews were concerned started slowly. At first we didn't know it was the ghetto area, it wasn't referred to as such. Then things started to change and they started to build walls on the periphery of the ghetto.

Andrew Bukowski, a Polish child living in Warsaw.

The design and implementation of the ghetto in Warsaw took a considerable amount of time - in contrast to the first in Piotrkow - and there were a number of abandoned plans. The City Captain of Warsaw, Ludwig Leist, decreed in August 1940, that all Jewish arrivals to Warsaw or those ordinarily resident Jews who wished to move would be permitted to live only in a designated space - a space that would be separate from the rest of the city. Such walls were to be built by the city's Jews themselves.

It is at this point which can be viewed as the beginnings of the ghetto, yet by no means the end for the ghetto space and its physicality was the subject of considerable improvisation through the period of its existence. By way of illustration, for example, is the fact that the other approximately 140,000 of the city's Jews were not required to relocate to the ghetto area.

The initial design itself could be termed calculated improvisation. At the start of developing its plans, it would seem the original plan was, in order to prevent economic damage to the occupied city, to forcibly move the considerable Jewish population to the outskirts of the city. Yet as one can observe from Fig. 1 above, the ghetto was constructed in the historic city centre, where there was already a high concentration of Jews. It is also perhaps worthy of mention that, were it in the case that the construction of the ghetto was for the prevention of epidemic, the authorities would surely not countenance the mass movement of those carrying, or at risk of carrying disease. This is of course, however, conjecture but provides a further element of considering actual spatiality rather than the words of 'official' Nazi policy. 

Image 2

Fig 2. The boundary walls of the Warsaw Ghetto upon sealing

When considering the boundary walls of the ghetto there are initial matters to observe - one of which is not immediately apparent from the two maps already presented. The space the ghetto occupied consisted of 4.6% of the city's area to house 30% of the city's population. The logic of such a concentration of the populous points immediately to extraordinarily crowded conditions, to the extent that each room housed approximately fourteen people. The incredibly narrow residential streets, as seen in the maps, are also unlikely to have provided respite from overcrowded housing and allow those living there the ability to exercise 'free space' for there was , 'A sea of thousands of heads flooding the entire street from end to end.

As such, the provision of hygiene maintenance was significantly restricted which resulted, unsurprisingly, in the quite devastating spread of disease. It is difficult, for the author in any event, to accept that having such a large populous living in a tiny space would not foreseeably result in the rapid increase of severe illness - a point perhaps lost on Browning.

Such a result was, in fact quick. In October 1941, less than a year after the sealing of the ghetto, 3,438 people were recorded as having died from typhus in an epidemic which had started months earlier, while Cole suggests the number could far exceed the recording of it. The rapid spread of disease formed a fluid sub-geography of the ghetto, borne out by the shifting of sick places. Mary Berg identifies, within days, the spread of typhus from Nalewski - in the north of the ghetto - to Grzybowska - towards the south. Subsequently, the most severely hit area was Karmelicka Street (near the green space towards the North East - all identifiable on Figure 2. The space became not simply a place where Jews were confined, but a place of death - the ultimate goal of Nazi policy across occupied Europe.

The physical boundary itself, the most crude method of separation, raises the question of 'Jewish Presence' - this was a place for the Jews. They were to be excluded from the non-Jewish population who were to live in a place of 'Jewish Absence' and brings the historian back round to the matter of motivation that this place of 'presence' was itself en-route to a place of 'absence' through destruction. The wall had control at its very core and not only represented the political drive to separate but was a very real and impenetrable line that separated the Jews from the human being.

A striking feature of this separation of the Jews from the human, as it has been put, is borne out in the very physicality of the ghetto boundary's location. If one is to briefly peruse Fig.2, one will notice the exclusion of green space from the ghetto with the dark exception of the Jewish Cemetery reinforcing the idea of the ghetto being a place of death. The small un-named, green space to the North West of the ghetto is Krasinskich Park which had reportedly been promised to be included in the walls of the ghetto - something never realised, for the population longing for some sense of humanity in an inhuman space. The design of the ghetto was to be drab, lacking in colour, lacking in human interaction with nature. Having a relationship with nature is an essential part of what it is to be human - to interact with your surroundings and environment is what makes history. The contrast of a negative space within the ghetto and life outside is striking. In this sense, the design can be described as de-humanising to its core.

..... there is no sign of spring in the ghetto. Here the rays of the sun are swallowed up by the heavy grey pavement. On a few window sills, long scrawny onion stalks, more yellow than green, are sprouting. Where are my lovely spring days of former years, the gay walks in the park, the narcissus lilac, and magnolia that used to fill my room.

So wrote Mary Berg in May 1941. She got her wish, to a degree. A garden was constructed by the Jewish Council - who were given overall responsibility for the administration of the ghetto - on waste ground which was accessible for a fee. This was a fee Mary could afford yet, not so for those who 'attempted to illustrate for their toddlers the meaning of a broad expanse, wide-open skies, and a forest.' For most, nature had to be imagined for, in the ghetto, there was almost nothing natural.

Physicality and Food

The specific question of food takes the historian to the very heart of the design of the ghetto in relation to the advancement of the 'Final Solution.' The stated aim of the 'project' was the destruction of the Jews and, with the reference to 'Jewish Presence' and 'Jewish Absence' as part of the ghettoization process, places the question of territoriality as one of the key features of the Holocaust. This territoriality in the case of Warsaw (but applied more widely to ghettoization in general) was exercising, to the maximum possible degree, power through spatial control.

Reference has been made to the seemingly impermeable nature of the basic feature of Warsaw's ghettoization - the boundary wall and its role as a control measure. The wall was intended as a means by which to control not only the movement of people in and out of the ghetto but the entry of produce essential to the continuation of life - crucially food. In the sealing of the ghetto, the administration sought complete control of the physical space which meant also the population within it. In the mind of one ghetto inmate, the ghetto walls had the aim (and possibly by extension, their own agency) of 'mass murder, committed by means of mass hunger.' The ghetto space itself and the conditions with it, were designed to serve the Nazis as laboratories for testing the methods of slow destruction of whole groups of human beings.

Apfelbaum's assertion above, that the aim was mass murder through starvation is, therefore two-fold. A ration of, what Cole describes as punitive (presumably by virtue of there being no justifiable interpretation of scarcity on the part of the Nazis) between 200 and 300 calories was imposed. Not only did the Jews live in an unimaginably closed and overcrowded space, they received nowhere near enough food for basic subsistence in that space by which to formulate means of getting more was closed off to all in the ghetto.


Image 3

The seemingly 'impenetrable' wall

  The ghetto's inhabitants were starving to death and dying in the streets in vast numbers. When describing a man with barely enough money for bread, Mary Berg suggests, 'all he can do now is lie down in the snow and wait for death.' It was becoming apparent that life was getting continually worse. If one attempted to survive on the rations alone, the entire population would die very quickly. Unless a remedy was found, most would perish. In this sense, it becomes evident, if only viewed through the prism of design and spatiality, that the ghetto architects saw this space as a step towards the 'Final Solution' and the destruction of the Jews - starvation along with disease being the vehicle.

A number would turn to 'scrounging.' - changing their space from one of claustrophobia to one of humiliation but attempted survival. Yet a further attempt at survival was one which radically altered the physicality of the ghetto - that of smuggling. The German authorities were seemingly at pains to reinforce the idea that the separation of the ghetto by way of a nine-feet wall, significant barbed wire topping it off with police surveillance was finite.

Yet by virtue of the continual redesigning of the ghetto, by implication the Nazis were aware of the fact that the walls were not, in fact, impenetrable. In fact, movement in and out of the ghetto, ostensibly for the purpose of bringing food and supplies over, was widespread. Without this, many, many would starve to death. The architects of the ghetto had, by inadvertent design, created the blueprint for attempts to break extreme spatial control.

Kaplan describes that, prior to November 1941, the centre of smuggling had been Kosla Street as, 'its walls constituted a boundary.' Yet, in another example of improvisation on the part of the authorities, when it became apparent supplies were getting through and the Jews being fed, iron bars were constructed closing off access - regaining control of the space. Intriguingly, Kaplan notes it as being when, 'the Nazis became aware of their oversight.' Even in such a confined physical space, the administration struggled to wield even the simplest of control mechanisms - spotting a hole in the wall.

Far from being the only access point, those living in the ghetto made full creative use of the eleven miles of wall surrounding what was, by now, Jewish Warsaw. A former post office was connected to the Finance Ministry (Kaplan refers to this also in his diary) which was termed by Emmanuel Ringelblum as, 'the immortal hole' for, after the hole would be filled in by the administration, it would be open again by the end of the day - and so the smuggling continued. The space was manipulated, not just by the regime, but also those under its control also - ghetto inmates used space wherever they could.

Cellars, windows, rooftops. If it was possible to move supplies under, over, or through these spaces - it was attempted and, in countless cases, successful. For Max Glauben it was, at points, as easy as walking over metal grating and .. 'climbing over that fence and going inside of the apartment where the bakery was located.' The success of such operations, however, precipitated yet further improvisational design measures.

As part of the wider context of the Holocaust unfolding across Europe, it may be fair to describe the ghetto space as almost transitory. Indeed, the maps throughout this piece show that the boundaries did, in fact change and there is the suggestion that the police had such difficulties controlling the boundaries that the wall had to be 'pulled down, built again.' The wall was relocated to the middle of streets so as to prevent unauthorised entrance points being made and, by extension, shrinking the space of the ghetto. Again a form of calculated improvisation on the part of the administration - it was necessary on the part of the authorities to maintain tight control on the space and the access to it. Having failed to put a stop to the smuggling, the death penalty was instituted from November 1941. Many, including children, were shot while attempting to smuggle food into the ghetto. Where design had, to a degree, failed in attempting to maintain control, the gun could be relied upon. Indeed, the author does not consider it incorrect to suggest this belies the real intention of the ghetto - but one of many methods in the process of the 'Final Solution' albeit in a unique space.

Image 4

Fig. 4 Warsaw Ghetto 1942. As one can observe, the ghetto has shrunk and has a noticeably more uniform boundary due to continued reconstruction

This does not mean, however, that these actions brought a halt to food smuggling. In Warsaw, the alternative was starvation and, according to Abraham Lewin, there were sections of the ghetto wall with semi-permanent entry points right up until the middle of June 1942. As the only means of survival, smuggling food into the ghetto continued for the duration of the ghetto's existence.

The considerable difficulty for ghetto inmates once food had reached the confines of the area was the matter of cost - food was undoubtedly the biggest expense for all given it had become an inflated black market. Significantly, much smuggling took place through the city gates themselves (represented on the maps by ..) and, as such, was the subject of much bribery on the part of the smugglers. This question of simple economics meant for both a shared and divided space. The social stratification of the ghetto was stark and reflected in the spatiality of the place. Consider, for example, the privileged status of Mary Berg who could afford to visit the garden constructed on waste land and others' ability to participate in the smuggling black market economy. The better off of the ghetto inmates participated in a wide range of cultural activities not accessible to the destitute - for they were located in the more privileged parts around Sienna Street. There were those who could afford to eat who experienced, quite literally, countless dying people on their doorsteps. 'Dammed be those of us who have enough to eat and drink and forget about these children,' commented Czerniakow.  

There is, however, a certain paradox to the question of food and smuggling. In efforts to bring food into a ghetto with an inherent class division, the vast smuggling operation had the effect of, not only compounding this but, the establishment of another layer of ghetto society - that of the comparatively 'well- to- do' smuggler. The inflated prices of the black market saw an increasing divide in a space where, whilst solidarity ran through it, self-preservation became the primary concern - a way to survive.

Destroying Space

The wider-politic of the Nazi regime was the ultimate arbiter of Warsaw. Whether the Jews of Warsaw were to be continually starved into submission was a point of considerable consternation for the authorities of the ghetto but ultimately, the decision was not theirs. From 1942, ghettos across Europe began to be destroyed upon order from the very centre of the Nazi regime. The transportation of over a quarter of million Jews from the ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka puts into perspective the wider question of motivation - a central aim of the regime was the destruction of the Jews and Warsaw was but one constituent part. By 1943, the aim was to completely crush the ghetto which, although met with courageous resistance, was ultimately successful.

The ghetto was an inherently contradictory space - a space where people lived and died. The continued smuggling presented the possibility of eating, but also brought with it the opportunity to resist the Nazi regime's attempt at territorial finality. The wall was a source of hope in the context of food (that most basic of human needs) for the inmates of the ghetto despite its obvious intention to suppress (and ultimately kill) an entire people. It was a source of intense consternation for the authorities and a degree of opportunity for those living there. It was a place where death awaited yet where life did still go on.

The ghetto space and its design presents a series of contradictions which perhaps provide an opportunity for further exploration on a physical level. The ghetto design and boundaries changed so frequently (being shown in numerous contemporaneous accounts) that it would be useful for historians to engage in a project of forensically examining the streets which were both inside and outside the boundaries; at what points which streets, landmarks, shops were either subsumed or withdrawn from the boundary. Given the amount of textual information available, it is perhaps possible to map the changing face of the ghetto over weeks, months and years as a physical representation of ghetto spatiality. It is a project worthy of consideration.  



Hilberg, R, Staron S, & Kermisz, J, (eds), The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow (New York; Stein and Day, 1979).

Kaplan, C, Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1965).

Korczak, J, Ghetto Diary (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).

Polonsky, A, A Cup of Tears: A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto by Abraham Lewin (London: Fontana, 1990).

Shneiderman, S, (ed) The Diary of Mary Berg: Growing Up in the Warsaw Ghetto (Oxford: Oneworld, 2006)


Amery J. Radical Humanism: Selected Essays (translated by S.Rosenfeld) (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

Arad, Y, Gutman, Y, Margaliot, (eds), Documents on the Holocaust, Selected Sources on the Destruction of the Jews of Germany and Austria, Poland and the Soviet Union (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981).

Bertell, R, No Immediate Danger. Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth (London: 1988).

Browning, C, Genocide and Public Health: German Doctors and Polish Jews, 1939 -1941(Holocaust Genocide Studies , 3, 1988).

Browning, C, Nazi Ghettoization Policy in Poland: 1931 -41 (Central European History, 19, 1986)

Cole, T, Holocaust City (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Cole, T, Holocaust Landscapes (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Engelking, B, & Leociak, J, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

Friedman, P, The Jewish Ghetto's of the Nazi Era (Jewish Social Studies 11, 1954).

Gutman, Y, The Jews of Warsaw 1939-43: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

Kaplan, M, Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany (New York: OUP, 1998).

Lukacs, G, History and Class Consciousness (Merlin, 1973).

Michman, D, The Emergence of Jewish Ghetto's During the Holocaust (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

Paulson, G, Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw 1940-5 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).

Robinson, J, & Friedman, P, (eds), Guide to Jewish History under the Nazi Impact (Jerusalem: Yad Vashen, 1960)

Segal, S, The New Order in Poland (New York: 1942).

Sterling, E (ed), Life in the Ghettos During the Holocaust (New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005).


Interview with Daniella Hausman (IWMSA 18488).

Interview with Jerry Koenig (IWMSA 22577)

Interview with Andrew Bukowski (IWMSA 16595)

Simon Byrne & Holocaust Historical Society 2017