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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


The Invention of a Place, the History of an Idea

Mitchell Duneier

Farrar, Straus and Giroux





While W.E.B. Du Bois was studying philosophy at the University of Berlin in the final decade of the nineteenth century, he believed—as do many Americans even today—that racial troubles in the United States were both the most serious in the world and utterly unique.1 As he later recalled, “Race problems at the time were to me purely problems of color, and principally of slavery in the United States and near-slavery in Africa.” Much to his surprise, a fellow student, a Pole from Kraków, scoffed at the narrowness of his view: “You know nothing, really nothing, about real race problems.”

Du Bois therefore decided to tour Europe in 1893, to observe social conditions for himself in various countries. From Germany he traveled to Switzerland and Italy, stopping in Venice and Vienna, then making his way from Budapest to a small town in Galicia (currently part of Ukraine). Here a taxi driver asked him whether he would be willing to stop unter die Juden. A bit confused by the question, Du Bois agreed, and thus they drove to a small Jewish hotel. There he saw for the first time large numbers of Jews living in a wholly Jewish quarter, as though the early modern ghetto had disappeared in name only. Du Bois continued on to Kraków. Although the idea of a “Jewish problem” gradually grew in his mind, he could not learn much from either Polish students or their professors, all of whom seemed oblivious to it.

Upon returning to Germany, he began to sense the problem everywhere, but as in Poland, it was rarely discussed. Several minor incidents, however, drew his attention. One time, while visiting a German town with one of his classmates, Du Bois noticed that people were acting strangely toward the two of them. He assumed this was due to his being black until his friend quietly told him, “They think I may be a Jew. It’s not you they object to, it’s me.” Du Bois was shocked. He hadn’t realized that his friend’s dark hair roused suspicions that he was Jewish.

Du Bois returned to the United States bent on investigating the problem of race. His first great work, The Philadelphia Negro (1899)—the book that established his reputation and helped pioneer what was arguably “the first scientific school of American sociology”2—was a study of the black sections of the Seventh Ward of that city. In it he never referred to the “ghetto,” a term that was used by those who knew it to refer to early modern dense Jewish neighborhoods. Nearly twenty years later, in 1917, on the heels of a summer race riot in East St. Louis, Illinois, Du Bois drew a link between blacks and Jews: “Russia has abolished the ghetto—shall we restore it?”3 Yet it was only decades later that Du Bois fully grasped the magnitude of the Jewish problem. After World War II, in 1949, Du Bois made a consequential trip to Poland, this time visiting the zone that during the war had been called the Warsaw ghetto. For this great intellectual of race, who had witnessed race riots in Atlanta and the marching of the Ku Klux Klan through the South, to see total annihilation in the name of racial purity was a transformative experience.

*   *   *

By the time that Adolf Hitler consolidated his power in 1933, the concept of Jewish segregation already had a long and complicated history. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Jews in France and England and the German lands (there was no unified “Germany” until 1870) still lived in semi-voluntary Jewish quarters for reasons of safety as well as communal activity and self-help. They created these neighborhoods near synagogues, and often in the center of towns and near the cathedral, as in Paris. Yet though the synagogue lay at the center of their social existence, the quarters in which Jews lived were hardly cut off from the surrounding city.4 Medieval Jews had substantial freedom to come and go as they pleased. They were aware of doings in other communities spread throughout the area we call Western and Central Europe. They traveled and had regular contact with Jewish travelers. Some also read local and vernacular literature, and the elite knew Latin and even canon law, the law of the Church.5

Nonetheless, Jewish life became increasingly difficult. The First Crusade of 1096 brought great slaughter in the Rhineland, and lay rulers were often exploitative. Thanks too to the Church’s growing fears for the purity of the individual Christian, restrictions increased. “Excessive contact” with Jews on the social level—such as sharing a common table or sexual relations—was considered polluting. The severity of Jewish existence under increasingly restrictive rulers and an increasingly hostile populace did not mean Jewish culture was moribund. Jewish life, especially religious and intellectual life, knew periods of true flowering. Moreover, Jewish quarters were almost never obligatory or enclosed until the fifteenth century. The first notable case of obligatory segregation was in Frankfurt am Main. In Barcelona, Jews were also enclosed toward the end of the fifteenth century.

These enclosures were deemed insufficient, however, by those who worried that contact with Jews could lead Christians religiously astray. In 1492, in the now-united Spanish Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, the joint monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella decreed the expulsion of all Jews who had not yet converted to Christianity. They noted in their decree that enclosed urban quarters had not prevented contact between Jews and Christians, and that the kingdoms’ remaining Jews could entice converts back to Judaism—therefore expulsion was the only way to remedy the situation. By that time, Jews had already been expelled from England (in 1290) and from France (in stages between 1306 and 1394). Jews in the German lands suffered great massacres during the fourteenth century, and by the fifteenth were scattered in many small towns. A closed quarter was an impracticality.

Meanwhile, the rulers of Poland welcomed Jewish migrants to help build up the country, despite the objections of the Church. The Jewish population also grew in Italy—mainly due to the entrance of those expelled from north of the Alps into the Italian center and north. For these Jews, the closed residential pattern would be instituted beginning with Venice in 1516.6

Although some Jews resided in the city of Venice in the fifteenth century, they possessed no legal status and could not engage in moneylending, which was forbidden. The situation changed in 1509, as Jews living on the adjacent Venetian mainland were among the many refugees who fled across the lagoon to the city of Venice in the face of the invading armies of the League of Cambrai. Although the Venetian government ordered the refugees to go back home after it retook the captured areas, many Jews remained in the city. Eventually, in 1513, the government granted two wealthy Jews, originally from the mainland settlement of Mestre, a five-year charter permitting them to engage in moneylending in the city itself. Presumably the city leaders realized that they could provide the hard-pressed treasury with annual payments while also assisting the needy native poor, whose numbers had been swelled by the war. Some Jews were also authorized to sell strazzaria—literally, rags, but, by extension, secondhand clothing and other used items.

Many Venetians, and especially members of the clergy, who prided themselves on having “a most Catholic city,” were greatly bothered by the phenomenon of newly arrived Jews living throughout Venice. Consequently, in 1516, the Senate passed legislation requiring all Jews residing throughout the city, as well as any who were to come in the future, to reside together on the island in Cannaregio, which was already known as the Ghetto Nuovo (the New Ghetto) because of its association with the municipal copper foundry previously located across the canal in the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto). (Il ghetto or getto is derived from gettare, which means “the pouring or casting of metal.”) To prevent Jews from going around the city at night, gates were erected on the side of the Ghetto Nuovo facing the Ghetto Vecchio, where a small wooden footbridge crossed the canal, and also at its other end. Christian guards were to open these two gates at sunrise when the Marangona bell sounded, and close them at sunset—though the closing hour was slightly extended to one hour after dark in summer and two in winter; only Jewish doctors, and later merchants, were routinely allowed outside after curfew. Permission to remain outside the gates was occasionally granted upon special request to other individuals, but almost never—with the exception primarily of a few doctors—was a Jew authorized to stay outside all night.

The Venice ghetto created a completely Jewish space within a much larger Christian polity. The space had little regulation from the outside—the Jews could both govern it and call it their own. It allowed for a certain flourishing. Although the Jews tried to avoid moving to the ghetto, which severely restricted their physical freedom, the institution represented a compromise that legitimized but carefully controlled their presence in the city.

However, the establishment of the ghetto did not ensure the continued residence of the Jews in Venice, for that privilege was based on the five-year charter of 1513. After its expiration, the Senate debated its renewal, with sharp differences of opinion as to what to do with the Jews. Ultimately, socioeconomic raison d’état triumphed over traditional religious hostility, and the charter of the Jewish moneylenders was renewed eventually after 1548 for regular five-year periods. Jews thus remained in the city behind ghetto walls and subject to numerous restrictions until the end of the Venetian Republic centuries later.

*   *   *

Within a relatively short time, “ghetto” came to define the enclosed Jewish residential areas in Venice, Rome, and elsewhere. “Isolation in space,” writes Richard Sennett, “now became part of the problem defining what it meant to ‘be Jewish.’”7 One informative source on this period is the largely forgotten book The Ghetto and the Jews of Rome, written by Ferdinand Gregorovius, a nineteenth-century medieval historian and Polish-born German resident of Italy. His book traces Roman Jews back seventeen centuries to the reign of the emperor Titus, who had conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and brought Jewish prisoners to Rome as slaves. Although Titus despised the Jews, he granted them the right to practice their religion, which they did, on and off, until Christianity became the official state religion in the late fourth century. As Gregorovius put it, to “ancient Roman contempt there was now added the new hatred for the enemies of Christ.”8

For Jews, things did indeed take a turn for the worse under the Church. Gregorovius describes the various forms of humiliation that they suffered even before being forced to move into the ghetto in the sixteenth century. Pope Paul II (1464–71), for example, began making Jews run Carnival races, which continued as an annual event until 1668. Although Carnival fell in the winter, the team of eight or twelve young Jewish racers were stripped down to their loincloths and force-fed beforehand “so as to make the race more difficult for them and at the same time more amusing for the spectators.”9

At papal inaugurations and coronations, Jews were required to stand by the side of the road and wait for the procession. Once it reached them, they handed the newly elected pope the scroll of the Law. After reading several words, he would customarily proclaim, “We confirm the Law, but condemn the Jewish people and their interpretation.” “Thereupon,” Gregorovius writes, “he rode on, and the Jews returned to their homes, either crushed to despair or quickened with hope, according as they fearsomely read the expression in the eyes of the pope.”10

Such belittlement undergirded and justified the new age of ghettos that would follow. In 1555, Paul IV issued the infamous bull “Cum nimis absurdum,” which, among other things, stated that “all Jews should live solely in one and the same place, or if that is not possible, in two or three or as many as are necessary, which are to be contiguous and separated completely from the dwellings of Christians.”11 After centuries of identifying themselves as Romans and enjoying relative freedom of movement, the city’s Jews were forcibly relocated from the neighborhood of Trastevere to a small strip of land on the other side of the Tiber, where they were packed into a few dark and narrow streets that were regularly inundated by the flooding river. Two and eventually three gates were built into the ghetto walls, which stretched from the Ponte Fabricio to the Portico d’Ottavia, an ancient structure that had come to be used as a fish market. The walls that once offered Romans protection now became an instrument of imprisonment.

What prompted Paul IV to segregate the Jews in this way? To some extent his decision can be attributed to the chronic and habitual anti-Judaism prevalent across Europe. The official aim of the edict was to press Jews into conversion so that they could be saved from eternal damnation. In his book on the Roman ghetto in the sixteenth century, Kenneth Stow shows that the measure made it clear to Jews that as long as they stuck to their ways and remained different (in faith), they would not be permitted to participate in society at large. The Roman ghetto thus placed its residents in a kind of “social and spatial limbo.” Not many Jews converted, so the measure primarily created a mechanism that differentiated “us,” those outside the ghetto, from “them,” the Jews.12

For Jews whose families had lived freely in Rome for as long as anyone could remember, and whose ancestors had arrived before the spread of Christianity, this was a shattering blow. Stow shows that they had always considered themselves integral residents of Rome. Legally, they were citizens, with nearly full rights, though some rights were granted exclusively to Christians, such as permission to hold high office. On a more basic level, the Jews were anything but aliens or foreigners: they shared language and food with others; they spoke and wrote Italian and generally behaved in the manner of other Roman residents.

Stow shows that at first Jews could hardly have imagined that their residential separation would last for centuries. Only after the ghetto was enlarged in 1589 did they begin to grasp that this was their long-term fate and begin referring to the enclosed area as nostro ghet—“our ghetto”—punning on the word get, Hebrew for “bill of divorce.” And about the divorce, they were correct.13

The decree also came in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which had shattered Western Europe’s religious unity and placed the pope on the defensive. The Roman ghetto was established as the papacy was anxiously presenting its city as the “New Jerusalem.” As the exclusive and divinely sanctioned capital of Christianity, Rome replaced the Jewish metropolis of the Old Testament and served as a preview of the Heavenly Jerusalem and/or Paradise. As pope after pope constructed magnificent churches and ornate fountains and piazzas, and poured money into the construction of the huge, marble-bedecked Basilica of St. Peter’s, the enclosure of the city’s approximately three thousand to four thousand Jews in a tiny, squalid strip along the Tiber made the city’s new constructions that much more spectacular. Indeed, the Jewish residential zone, not far from key ancient ruins such as the Theater of Marcellus, as well as newly constructed churches, was highly visible to tourists and pilgrims. Bereft of new construction, the ghetto offered visual proof of the difference between old and new, Jews and Christians, damned and saved. Its existence enabled ecclesiastical officials to point out the immediate and stark contrast between the physical environment of those who embraced the “true” faith and those who rejected it. The squalor of the ghetto was viewed not as the direct consequence of discrimination and forced overpopulation, but as the natural state and deserved fate of those who had betrayed Christ. If “the perfect symmetry, proportion, and classical order of the new St. Peter’s projected an image of Catholic unity, godliness and power,” Irina Oryshkevich explains, “… then the patched quality of the [ghetto] … denoted its users’ … moral crookedness and spiritual myopia.”14

Although the ghetto removed Jews physically from the rest of the city, daily contact with the outside world continued in Rome, just as it had in Venice. During the day, when the gates were open, Christians were free to enter the ghetto, while Jews could leave to work outside.15 By the third decade of the ghetto’s existence, however, Jews began to experience a strong sense of spatial separation.16 Some may, in fact, have come to perceive the ghetto as a holy precinct, its barriers recalling the walls of ancient Jerusalem, the Holy City. All the same, culturally speaking, the Jews never stopped being Romans, speaking Italian—if a noticeably Judeo-Romanesco variant—on a daily basis, and writing it in a more formal mode. Moreover, many continued to be knowledgeable, if not always up-to-date, regarding general Italian culture.17

The ghetto was always a mixed bag. Separation, while creating disadvantages for the Jews, also created conditions in which their institutional life could continue and even blossom. For Gregorovius, the fascinating thing about the Jews in Rome was that they had survived at all while the great civilization of ancient Rome, which had conquered Jerusalem, had fallen fourteen hundred years earlier.18

After centuries of separation, a prime problem for Jewish ghetto residents was that the restrictions imposed on them undercut their livelihoods. By the decree of “Cum nimis absurdum,” they were no longer permitted to deal in new merchandise. The fifty or so Jewish banks (really small-scale pawnbroking shops) in Rome were eventually dissolved by papal order. These measures impoverished banking families, who, deprived of funds, sometimes converted to Catholicism. Of the approximately thirty-six hundred Jews who remained in the Roman ghetto by 1843, some nineteen hundred eked out a living by selling or repairing old clothes.19

Although there were other ghettos, the Venetian and Roman ghettos are the best-known early examples of compulsory and segregated Jewish quarters established by administrative order from above rather than by social practices that led to voluntary separation. Yet since the ghetto gates were open during the day and Jews could leave while Christians could enter, complete separation was not possible. Jews and Christians in Rome had frequent contact on many levels, despite the enclosing walls. Since ghettoization was based on religion, converts were required to leave and not always permitted to maintain social linkages with those left behind. Although the ghettos were home to many poor, they also contained a fair number of wealthy families. Even in Rome it took several generations behind walls for Jews to become truly indigent. In all of these ghettos, the Jewish community possessed internal autonomy and maintained a wide range of religious, educational, and social institutions, and family life continued much as it had before.

The pernicious circular logic of the ghetto is evident. Isolation from mainstream society, as well as the decrepitude caused by overcrowding, produced notorious conditions, behaviors, and traits that could gradually be invoked to rationalize further negative attitudes and more extreme isolation. The consequences of ghettoization provided an apparent justification for the original condition.

*   *   *

Jews across Europe continued to live in predominantly Jewish quarters, some semi-voluntary, others mandatory, throughout the early modern era. Napoleon was the first to attempt to demolish the ghettos of Italy and free the Jews. Leading his armies through Europe, he spread the idea of liberty and equality as promoted by the French Revolution. In 1797, for example, his troops marched to the ghetto of Ancona on the Adriatic Sea, tore down its gates, and liberated the Jews. Meanwhile in Padua, his troops posted a declaration that read, “First, the Hebrews are at liberty to live in any street they please. Second, the barbarous and senseless name of Ghetto, which designates the street on which they have been inhabiting hitherto, shall be substituted by that of Via della Libertà.”20 The emperor then set his sights on larger targets and soon set free the Jews of Rome and Venice.

Most ghettos in Western Europe fell slowly, but fall they did. Despite Napoleon’s efforts, one of the slowest to disappear was Rome’s, for the papacy used its power to resist the integration of Jews. Napoleon occupied the city again during his second campaign in 1808–14, but after the French retreat in 1814, Pope Pius VII immediately sent the Jews back into forced segregation in the same dank and overcrowded quarter that they had occupied for centuries.

When Gregorovius visited the ghetto in 1840, about half of its Jews were surviving at mere subsistence levels. Whenever the Tiber inundated the neighborhood, its residents sought refuge on the upper floors of already-overcrowded tenements. “Each year Israel in Rome has to undergo a new Deluge,” Gregorovius commented, “and like Noah’s Ark the ghetto is tossed on the waves with man and beast.”21

Seven years later street protests organized by two thousand Roman citizens in solidarity with the Jews forced Pope Pius IX to remove the ghetto’s gates. Yet even after these were taken down to the cheers of the Roman population on April 17, 1848, the ghetto remained. The Vatican required that Jews continue to live there, albeit without gates, for another two decades. Not until September 20, 1870, when Italian troops entered Rome to complete the unification of Italy, was the ghetto finally abolished and its residents granted full equality. Thus, the city’s Jews, among the first in the world to be ghettoized, became the last Jews in Western Europe to win the rights of citizenship in their own country.

This was the era of Jewish emancipation. According to Jewish scholars, rabbis, and laymen, a new era was at hand; Jewish predictions about the future were almost universally optimistic.22 The most widely expressed reservation was that integration was too slow. But a prominent dissenter was the Columbia University historian Salo Baron. He argued that the Jews had actually flourished in their separation:

Social exclusion from the Gentile world was hardly a calamity. Indeed, to most Jews it was welcome, and the ghetto found warm champions in every age. There the Jews might live in comparative peace, interrupted less by pogroms than were peasants by wars, engaged in finance and trade at least as profitable as most urban occupations, free to worship, and subject to the Inquisition only in extreme situations (as after the enforced baptisms in Spain and Portugal). They had no political rights, of course, but except for nobles and clergy no one did.23

Baron’s revisionism was too rosy, but it was true that Jewish traditions were maintained in the ghetto. Some contemporary historians, too, have stressed that the ghetto encouraged Jews to turn inward, concentrating in fruitful ways on their own culture.

By the early twentieth century, the word “ghetto” had acquired an additional new definition. Whereas in the early modern period “ghetto” connoted a place of enforced residence, it now referred to a high-density neighborhood inhabited predominantly but voluntarily by Jews in European cities such as Warsaw, Prague, Vienna, Frankfurt, and Cologne. Such ghettos also existed in urban areas of the United States, such as the Lower East Side of New York or the West Side of Chicago, which attracted poor Eastern European Jews. America’s long-established German Jews typically lived elsewhere and felt embarrassed by this recent influx of immigrants. All of them, however, as well as Christians, now largely understood the ghetto as an arrangement not much different from ethnic neighborhoods such as Little Italies, Polonias, or Chinatowns.

Things were not pretty in these communities, as Mike Gold’s autobiographical novel Jews Without Money (1930)—an international bestseller in a dozen languages—vividly illustrates. No book was more important in bringing the ghetto to the attention of a vast reading public. For Gold, writing about the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the term was synonymous with “slum”: a dirty, violent place, full of desperation and poverty, where children stole from pushcarts, threw cats off rooftops, organized gangs against other children from rival blocks, and looked out the window as gamblers shot at each other. There were so many prostitutes that Gold felt compelled to offer a socioeconomic explanation for their presence: “Being a prostitute was easier than being in a sweatshop.” If the prostitutes were not making noise, then it was the neighbors, whose every word and movement could be heard through windows or walls. Many families also opened their home to a distant relative or villager straight off the boat who was “sponging” off them. Everyone shared their arguments, lice, and cockroaches.

The Lower East Side ghetto had come about without any legal mandate. Nonetheless, it exacerbated social distance and isolated its residents from the wider society, as Gold’s recollection of a sightseeing bus rolling through the neighborhood so graphically reveals: “A gang of kids chased it, and pelted rocks, garbage, dead cats and stale vegetables at the frightened sightseers. ‘Liars, Liars,’ the kids yelled, ‘go back up-town!’ … What right had these stuck up foreigners to come and look at us? What right had that man with the megaphone to tell them lies about us? Kids always pelted these buses.”24 As Gold explained to his reader, although not without some exaggeration, “I have told in my book a tale of Jewish poverty in one ghetto, that of New York. The same story can be told of a hundred other ghettos scattered over all the world. For centuries the Jew has lived in this universal ghetto.”25

*   *   *

Enter the Nazis. Contemporary historians, who disagree on many things, now widely agree that the Nazi ghettos were not an inherent part of a premeditated plan for liquidating Jews.26 No document with instructions on how the Nazi ghettos would be built or run has ever been found, much less a document stating that they should be staging areas for genocide.27 Yet this consensus should not overshadow the fact that Hitler used the word “ghetto” and articulated what he meant even in his early days in power. Already in 1935, for example, he stated privately to members of the Nazi Party, including his assistant Fritz Wiedemann, whose notes later became public, that Jews would be placed “into a ghetto, enclosed in a territory where they can behave as becomes their nature, while the German people look on as one looks at wild animals.”28

When discussing ghettos with his Nazi ministers early in his reign, Hitler referred to ghettos as zoolike places in which to display Jews; yet when addressing polite society outside his circle, he preferred to liken them to the Jewish ghettos instituted by the Catholic Church long before. Fewer than six months after he became chancellor, he held a meeting in his Berlin office with Bishop Wilhelm Berning, a delegate from the Conference of Catholic Bishops. Two separate records of this encounter confirm that Hitler presented his case in this light to prominent Church officials from the outset. The first consists of a note composed by an unknown witness and dated to 1933, now in the files of the embassy of the Holy See: “In his statements Hitler spoke with the highest regard for the Catholic Church. He then brought up the Jewish question. In justification of his hostility to the Jews he referred to the Catholic Church, which had likewise always regarded the Jews as undesirables and which on account of the moral dangers involved had forbidden the Christians to work for Jews. For these reasons the Church had banished the Jews into the ghetto.”29

In the second report, now in the files of the episcopal archives in Rottenberg, Dr. Joseph Negwer, the canon of Breslau, cited Hitler’s precise words: “I have been attacked because of my handling of the Jewish question. The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc. because it recognized the Jews for what they were. In the epoch of liberalism the danger was no longer recognized. I am moving back toward the time in which a fifteen-hundred-year-long tradition was implemented.”30 Negwer also pointed out that Hitler had requested that the general public be informed only of the meeting’s occurrence but not of the issues discussed.

Boldly stating that the Nazis were drawing on centuries of Catholic practice, Hitler, in his opportunistic borrowing, framed his ghetto as a long-established standard operating procedure. The records of this meeting contain no reply from Berning.31 Was the bishop left speechless because he knew that for centuries Catholics had in fact segregated Jews in ghettos? Did he remain silent because nobody in 1933, perhaps not even Hitler, knew that the Nazis would actually implement a full-scale ghettoization policy? Could Berning simply not have guessed that the Nazi ghetto logic would so fundamentally deviate from the ghetto logic invented by the Church centuries earlier?

*   *   *

How Nazis actually thought about the ghetto is evident from a major meeting of the regime’s top party and government leaders that convened on November 12, 1938. One of the first times the issue came up was in a discussion of the Aryanization of the German economy. Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the security service, began by reminding his colleagues that though Jews had been eliminated from the German economy, they still needed to be kicked out of Germany.32 Getting other countries to accept them was difficult. A very general eight-to-ten-year plan to deport as many as ten thousand Jews annually still left a massive number of unemployed Jews interfering with the everyday life of the country. Assuming that they would continue to mix with the general population, Heydrich was against the idea of establishing ghettos. Instead, he proposed that Jews be forced to wear an insignia to make it easier for the police to keep an eye on them. This led to a strong objection from Field Marshal Hermann Göring, who thought the insignia was being proposed as a way of avoiding ghettos. To which Heydrich replied:

I’d like to make my position clear right away. From the point of view of the police, I don’t think a ghetto in the form of completely segregated districts where only Jews would live, can be put up. We could not control a ghetto where the Jews congregate amidst the whole Jewish people. It would remain the permanent hideout for criminals and also for epidemics and the like. We don’t want to let the Jew live in the same house with the German population; but today the German population, their blocks or houses, force the Jew to behave himself. The control of the Jew through the watchful eye of the whole population is better than having him by the thousands in a district where I cannot properly establish a control over his daily life through uniformed agents.33

A lengthy discussion ensued with no basic agreement until Walther Funk, the minister of economics, made a crucial point: “The Jews will have to move quite close together. What are three million? Everyone will have to stand up for the next fellow. The individual alone will starve.”34 Jews lived spread across different communities in cities and towns throughout Germany. Essentially, Funk’s argument was that they would consolidate regardless of where they were: ghettos would arise whether or not the Nazis created them.

Hermann Göring dismissed the potential difficulty of maintaining order in the ghetto. But he could not solve the problem of how to prevent epidemics from spreading from the ghetto’s borders to the population at large. Nor could he deal with another major issue: ghettos on German soil would make it virtually impossible to keep Jews out of the Aryan economy. If Jews owned stores in the ghetto, then German wholesalers would rely on their orders. If instead Germans operated those stores, then they would be dependent on Jewish consumers. If no stores were in the ghetto, Jews would have to venture into German zones for daily shopping. A ghetto in German cities thus seemed irreconcilable with the goal of eliminating all economic interdependence between Jews and Germans.

To resolve this dilemma, Heydrich suggested to Göring that Germans no longer provide the Jew with basic necessities. Göring regarded this as unacceptable; “You cannot let him starve,” he noted.

Despite their discussions, the high-ranking members of the Nazi Party failed to agree on a concrete plan to build ghettos in German cities. They settled for what was perhaps the next-best thing: a dramatic social marginalization of Jews in German society. The idea was to isolate and demoralize Jews by preventing them from entering the daily routine of German life until a better solution could be found.35 Among the options was deporting them to Madagascar, a French territory off the southeastern coast of Africa—a particularly appropriate solution, it seemed to the Nazis, as Napoleon had initiated the Jewish problem by emancipating Jews nearly a century and a half before.36

In the meantime, Jews were segregated in special “Jew houses” located alongside the Christian population. They were forbidden to enter German theaters, share train cars, or bathe with Germans on beaches and resorts from the fear that touch pollutes. They were also prohibited from purchasing fruit or candy when entering shops: “The Reich Minister for Food and Agriculture has sent a telex on 2 December 1939 forbidding the sale of Chocolate products (chocolate bars, chocolates, and other cocoa products) and cakes of all kinds to Jews with immediate effect. You are requested to instruct the local authorities to inform the retailers of this at once.”37

Jews’ movements around the city were similarly curtailed. They were not allowed to have driver’s licenses or own cars. They were barred from governmental districts, public squares, and hospitals. Their children were banned from German schools.

This early meeting makes clear that the main purpose of the Nazi ghetto was not simply segregation, but economic exclusion and control—not as easy to achieve on German soil as some had hoped. Yet less than a year after the Nazis’ meeting, the ghetto became a reality—not on German soil, but in Nazi-controlled Poland, and later Czechoslovakia, Greece, Hungary, Romania, Latvia, and Lithuania.

A few weeks after Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Heydrich sent an order to the chiefs of the Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary squads) in Poland telling them that “the first prerequisite for the final aim [is] the concentration of the Jews from the countryside into the larger cities.”38 At a conference in Berlin that same day he explained that this concentration would occur through ghettos, which offered a better way of controlling and eventually deporting this population.39 What followed in the creation of the Nazi ghettos was an extraordinary exercise of state power.

*   *   *

Hitler’s claim that he was reviving the ghetto of the Middle Ages was completely misleading. The Nazi ghetto was something entirely new.

First, the Nazi ghetto illustrated that it was now possible to control a segregated population with absolute efficiency. These ghettos’ walls or other boundaries were put in place virtually overnight rather than over several years, as had been the case in Rome or the Frankfurt Judengasse. Such speed was possible thanks to a crucial new technology, barbed wire, which had been invented in the 1860s. Inexpensive and effective, it had first been used by cattlemen in the American West as well as by the British in the Boer Wars and World War I to contain civilian enemies and prisoners of war.40 It also enabled Nazis to create ghettos at a moment’s notice, as evident in a memo by a German official: “[The Lodz ghetto] will be established suddenly on a day to be chosen by me, i.e. at a certain time the boundaries of the ghetto … will be blocked off by barbed wire, barricades and other barriers.”41

The upper echelons of the Nazi regime were thus able to translate their ideas into action with greater speed and efficiency than had ever before been possible.42 They possessed means of communication and transport that quickly enabled them to trap and hold a massive number of victims within their web.

Second, this efficiency made it possible for the Nazi ghettos to introduce as complete a segregation as the world had ever seen. While the earlier ghettos had allowed relatively easy passage of people and merchandise during the daytime, many of the Nazi ghettos fenced in their inhabitants day and night. Only those who obtained the rare exit permit were allowed to pass through the gates; others who tried to do so were shot. An officer of the Lodz security police in 1941, for example, reported, “I saw a woman climbing onto the ghetto fence, stick her head through it and attempt to steal a turnip from a passing lorry; I used my firearm. The Jewess was killed with two shots.”43 A child might be small enough to sneak out unnoticed to steal bread, but even that was unusual. According to another report from Lodz, Jews remained determined to survive and escape; thirty of them who had tried to flee had been shot in one month.44 Even in ghettos where Jews were not hermetically sealed and worked elsewhere, they were usually escorted to their jobs in columns.

Barbed wire also enabled the Nazis to make good on Hitler’s earlier wish to display Jews as wild animals. A report, dated May 1942, to the Polish government in exile records, “Every day large coaches come to the ghetto; they take soldiers through as though it were a zoo.… Often soldiers strike out at passers-by with long whips.… They set up genre pictures (old Jew above the corpse of a young girl).”45

Third, in earlier centuries religion had justified the segregation of Jews. A defining component of Nazi ghetto logic was, by contrast, race. In Mein Kampf, Hitler manipulated German folklore to emphasize the idea of an “Aryan” race, whose purity required protection from “lesser” races, most notably Slavs and Jews.46 On September 15, 1935, Berlin enacted the Nuremberg Laws, according to which anyone who had three or four Jewish grandparents was considered fully Jewish.47 The deciding factor was thus strictly racial, based on religious identity two generations removed; for the current generation, actual religious practice or even baptism had no bearing.

Consistent with the focus on race, it was not the German Jew who was thought to pose the greatest threat to Germany’s national and racial character, but the Ostjude, a name coined after World War I by the Jewish journalist Nathan Birnbaum for the Eastern European Jews, whom he found repugnant.48 It was this racial type that drove the Nazis to create ghettos as a defensive measure.49 Although the Nazis saw German Jews as racially inferior to Aryans, the even more dangerous and repulsive character of the Ostjuden made it defensible, even correct and necessary, to segregate them. This argument prevailed only after the Nazis came into physical contact with this “peril” after the conquest of Poland.50 “Their appearance is the best visual education that our people could receive on the Jewish question,” claimed one soldier, while another insisted that only after he and a group of his peers had visited the Jewish quarter in Kraków did they realize the importance and necessity of the racial laws of their führer.51

Fourth, as in the earlier enforced ghetto, so too in the Nazi ghetto, problems fed on each other in a vicious cycle. This time the results were qualitatively different. Both qualified German physicians and ideological Nazis claimed that the Jews were carriers of disease who required quarantine.52 A large poster outside the Warsaw ghetto depicted a man with a louse nestled in his beard and a caption that read, “Jews are crawling with the typhus.”53 In this way the Nazis created the impression that the people relegated to the ghetto had contracted typhus before their arrival there, rather than acknowledging that they had fallen ill because of extreme overcrowding. The purported probability that they would spread the illness was an important reason to have them ghettoized.

Nazi ghettos did not begin as holding pens for subsequent extermination; rather, they were built in anticipation of the Jews’ expulsion. The ghettos emerged gradually, with Jews being used initially as slave labor. Only after Jews became superfluous and grotesque due to ill health did the function of ghettos change. Those who initially administered the Nazi ghettos were deeply divided between “productionists” and “attritionists.”54 While the former saw the ghettos as a component of the defense economy, the latter wanted to see the Jews dead. In the beginning, the productionists prevailed. Even in 1941, when the economy of the Warsaw ghetto was described as a “field of ruins,” some German officials still argued that the solution lay in integrating the Jews into economic life in Poland as fully as possible. But this argument circulated only for a while. Once the Jews had spent a few years in the ghettos, they became too emaciated, sick, and lethargic to work. Their pathetic condition reinforced the belief that they were subhuman. As Christopher Browning concluded in his authoritative account, “the untenable circumstances within the ghettos and the problems that they posed to frustrated German administrators caused many to long for the day when the Jews would finally disappear.”55 As conditions in the ghetto posed greater and greater problems, the productionists became utterly worn out and were relieved to be alleviated of their burden.56

Fifth, the Nazi ghettos were sites of continuous violence and brutality. Residents were forced to watch their fellow citizens die in mass executions, or to participate themselves in stoning fellow Jewish rule-breakers who were later buried in mass graves. To remain alive, to engage in self-preservation, was the only imperative. The ghettos were not places where Jews could live anything approximating a rounded life. Conditions were so at odds with the world’s image of a Jewish ghetto that the Nazis were compelled to manufacture a flourishing ghetto at Terezín when the International Red Cross visited in June 1944. Later, this very ghetto would become the basis of a famous propaganda film, one in which few of the apparently happy ghetto dwellers would survive beyond the war.

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When Hitler likened his plans for the Jews to Catholic tradition, he expected that the comparison would be taken literally. Five years later, The New York Times printed the following statement from a periodical directed by Field Marshal Hermann Göring: “In the Middle Ages … Jews in all cities were put into ghettos because it was clear that only complete separation made it possible [for officials] to keep watch on their machinations.… A similar development must be brought about again.”57

Despite their statements to the contrary, Hitler and Göring were nonetheless transmitters of an entirely new ghetto logic. Even their own scholars in the ersatz sociologically oriented fields known as Anti-Jewish Studies and Jewish Studies did not adhere to Hitler’s initial claim to the Church. In 1941, a leading Nazi intellectual, Peter-Heinz Seraphim, a sociologist and historian of Eastern European Jewry, wrote:

Aside from the communal organization of the Jews yet another institution has contributed to the preservation of the unity of the Jews and hence to the strengthening of the Jewry regarding ethnic and economic aspects, the Jewish ghetto.… Sometimes it is pointed out that this solution [the isolation of the Jews from the non-Jews] is indicated by history … [but] the ghetto of the Middle Ages was in essence a voluntary community of dwelling in addition to which it by no means excluded business contacts between Jews and non-Jews.58

Seraphim was writing not to urge the continuation of this kind of relatively open “ghetto.” Rather, in his opinion “the ghetto of today, if it makes sense, should be different from the Medieval ghetto, without contact or possibility of contact with non-Jews.” The early ghetto, in other words, had been insufficient to do its real job: total segregation.

However harsh and strictly regulated, no previous Jewish quarter, ghetto or otherwise, had ever been established with the express purpose of destroying its inhabitants through violence and brutality. The Nazi ghetto, furthermore, marked the first time in history when a series of oppressive features were brought together in their purest form. Physical space had been organized through the power of the state in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Frankfurt, Venice, and Rome, for example, but conversion had always been an option. The Nazis’ anti-Semitism transformed the ghetto into a means to accomplish economic enslavement, impoverishment, violence, fear, isolation, and overcrowding in the name of racial purity—all with no escape through conversion, and with unprecedented efficiency.

Given the many differences between the earlier European ghettos and those of the Nazis, it is surprising that the same word gained traction for both. It is even more notable that this occurred with so little questioning outside the Reich. After the war, this was attributed to a lack of historical knowledge, and later to the work of historians,59 but well-educated journalists and even social scientists also played an important role in legitmating the new usage. In a front-page story dated November 12, 1938, The New York Times reported that “the ghetto of the Middle Ages was to be reestablished in the modern Nazi Reich.”60 Of course, it might be argued that the reporters of the time had no basis for imagining a ghetto any worse than those of the Middle Ages. But their commentary helped elide the distinctive Nazi twist of using race as a basis for classification, as well as the difference between a ghetto where people can flourish under conditions of relatively tolerant regulation and one where they are doomed to perish.

The first generation of American Holocaust researchers also applied the word “ghetto” to each of these radically different institutions, though not all did so indiscriminately. For example, the pioneering Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg insisted that Nazism was itself a continuation of a medieval tradition, the ghetto being just one of many medieval institutions that were brought back to subjugate Jews. But even Hilberg emphasized the fundamental difference: “To the Jews the ghetto was a way of life; to the Germans it was an administrative measure.”61 Many others, however, failed to draw the distinction at all. To wit, Oxford’s Martin Gilbert, in his bestselling and widely cited The Holocaust, states that the Nazis created a ghetto “such as had not existed in Europe since the Middle Ages.”62

The field of sociology also played its part. Louis Wirth, the distinguished University of Chicago professor who first introduced the concept of the ghetto to modern sociology in 1928, tried desperately to affirm the generalizable quality of the idea by arguing for the continuity between Nazi ghettos and those that had come before. In his 1947 entry on “ghetto” in the World Book Encyclopedia, he stated, “The compulsory ghetto died out as a result of the intellectual and social movements of the Renaissance and the industrial revolution.… But the ghettos were revived by the Nazis in Germany and by the Fascists in Italy after 1933. In many parts of Europe under Nazi control, ghettos were reintroduced and remained until the end of World War II.”63

Completely false. However avidly the Catholic Church may have sought to convert Jews, demanding that they be kept in an inferior condition to stress the inferiority of their religion, it basically respected their right to live and observe their own laws. Failing to acknowledge that the Nazi ghetto was an extreme type unlike any other ghetto in history elides the difference between it and the earlier communities, in which Jewish life was able to survive and even sometimes flourish. It also implies that the Nazi ghetto, too, was an epoch unto itself. In fact, whereas the early modern ghetto was established as a permanent institution, the Nazi ghetto lasted but a few years and was simply a link in the larger chain of execution that resulted in the death of 6 million Jews.

The difference between the ghetto as a site of compulsory residence and regulation and the ghetto as a site of slave labor, torture, disease, and death is obviously profound. As Salo Baron would testify at the war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann, “Many people, even those who were not Nazis, repeatedly said that the Nazis were actually restoring the conditions which prevailed in the Middle Ages.… But [they] brought the world new elements which had no precedent but which were distinct from the whole history of anti-Semitism of two thousand years and more.”64 Many years later, Christopher Browning would write about the Holocaust in general that it “required the invention of a new terminology to denote modes of behavior for which no exact analogy appeared to exist in the earlier historical record.”65

In failing to contrast places such as Warsaw under the Nazis with the famous ghettos of the early modern era, social scientists missed a golden opportunity to develop a way of thinking about the ghetto that does more than highlight the amount and consequences of segregation. They missed a chance to give due recognition to the variations in both human flourishing and social control that are found wherever people are restricted in space. Just as certain moments in the history of the black ghetto have produced environments where inhabitants have grown personally, developed strong ties of solidarity, and produced a rich cultural life, recently it has been recognized that now there is far less flourishing and more extreme forms of intrusive social control than ever before.66 Calling Venice and Warsaw by the same name without drawing strong distinctions between them paints over these kinds of crucial differences rather than elucidating them and helping us to understand them.

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Today, it is largely forgotten that the Nazi ghetto, not the sixteenth-century ghetto upheld by the Church, was “in the air” when the term came into widespread use to describe black neighborhoods in the 1940s. For many blacks after World War II, the Nazi ghetto provided a powerful metaphor for their own experience. Although in reality the Nazi ghetto was just as different from Harlem and the South Side of Chicago as it was from sixteenth-century Rome and Venice, it nevertheless proved a crucial reference.

“I have seen something of human upheaval in this world,” Du Bois said in speaking of the Warsaw ghetto after the war: “The scream and shots of a race riot in Atlanta; the marching of the Ku Klux Klan; the threat of courts and police; the neglect and destruction of human habitation; but nothing in my wildest imagination was equal to what I saw in Warsaw in 1949. I would have said before seeing it that it was impossible for a civilized nation with deep religious convictions and outstanding religious institutions; with literature and art; to treat fellow human beings as Warsaw had been treated.… Then, one afternoon, I was taken out to the former ghetto. I knew all too little of its story.… Here there was not much to see. There was complete and total waste, and a monument. And the monument brought back again the problem of race and religion, which so long had been my own particular and separate problem.”67


Copyright © 2016 by Mitchell Duneier