On 2 October 1940, Ludwig Fischer, Governor of the Warsaw District in the occupied General Government of Poland, signed the order to officially create a Jewish district (ghetto) in Warsaw. It was to become the largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied Europe.
All Jewish people in Warsaw had to relocate to the area of the ghetto by 15 November 1940. The ghetto was sealed on that date. In total 113,000 gentile Poles were forced to resettle to the ‘Aryan side’ and were replaced by 138,000 Jews from other districts of the capital.
The ghetto reached its highest number of inhabitants in April 1941. Within its wall lived 395,000 Varsovians (residents of Warsaw) of Jewish descent, 50,000 of people resettled from the western part of the Warsaw district, 3,000 from its eastern part as well as 4,000 Jews from Germany (all resettled in early months of 1941). Altogether there were around 460,000 inhabitants. 85,000 of them children up to the age of 14.
The living conditions in the ghetto were very difficult. Density of population was extreme, there were 146,000 people per square kilometre which meant 8 to 10 people per room on average. Jews from other districts of Warsaw as well as those from other cities were allowed to bring only the absolute minimum with them – usually personal belongings and bedclothes. That meant instant poverty and great social disadvantage in comparison with original inhabitants of the ghetto’s pre-war district. But in general only a very small percentage of the ghetto population had any kind of regular employment or any other source of income. Street trading became a necessity for many and anything could be a subject of exchange.
The German administration deliberately limited food supplies to the absolute minimum which caused near starvation amongst the population from the very beginning of the ghetto’s existence. Smuggling food, mainly by children, from the ‘Aryan side’ was the only option of providing the ghetto with supplies. Malnutrition, overpopulation and lack of medical care brought another deadly factor to the daily life of the ghetto’s residents – typhus.
The results were truly horrific – between October 1940 and July 1942 around 92,000 of Jewish residents of the ghetto died of starvation, diseases and cold which accounted for nearly 20% of the entire population. The dreadful conditions in the ghetto forced many Jews to escape. The German response was predictable:
“Jews who leave the quarter reserved for them without permission are liable to the death penalty. The same penalty awaits any person who knowingly gives shelter to such Jews.” Taken from an official German announcement – probably on display on both sides of the ghetto wall.
These astonishing photographs below were taken by photographer Willy Georgin the summer of 1941. He was issued a pass by one of his officers and instructed to enter the enclosed ghetto and take photos of what he saw there. Accroding to Studiolum, Georg shot four rolls of films and began to shoot a fifth one when the German military police stopped him. They confiscated the film in his camera, but fortunately they did not check his pockets before escorting him out of the ghetto. Georg developed the four rolls in Warsaw and preserved the photos in the next fifty years together with his other war pictures. In the late 1980s he met Rafael Scharf from London, a researcher of Polish-Jewish studies, to whom he gave these photos and who published them in 1993 in the book In the Warsaw Ghetto: Summer 1941.