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Ghettos 1939–1945: New Research and Perspectives on Definition, Daily life, and Survival Browse

Paul A. Shapiro—Ghettoization and Ghetto Life as a Subject of Scholarly Inquiry


I extend a welcome on behalf of the Museum's Director, Sara Bloomfield; the Academic Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, represented in today's program, by the way, by Professor Browning; the survivor volunteers at this Museum who spent part of their lives in ghettos across Europe and who enrich the Museum by telling us about their experiences; as well as on behalf of my colleagues in the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. We appreciate the effort that all of you have made to be here today.

Today's symposium is part of a series through which our Center seeks to focus attention on research areas where important work has been done, but where it is clear that much more remains to be done. Our hope is to inform and also to inspire new scholars to delve into the sensitive, difficult, seemingly unfathomable, but dramatically relevant questions that are raised by so many aspects of Holocaust study. If you're interested in future symposia offered by the Center or our other programs, you'll find information about the Center on the table outside the theater today and on the Museum's website at

In the ghettos of the Middle Ages, earlier scholars tell us, contact with the outside world was carefully regulated. This is a quote: "The gates of the ghetto were closed at night, from the outside in those localities, where the object was to confine the Jews, and from the inside where the gate served chiefly as protection against attack. Seclusion from the outer world," says the Jewish encyclopedia, "developed a life apart within the ghetto. And a close sense of community among the members was in a certain way a power for good, fostering not only religious life, but especially morality. Social life was also developed along peculiarly Jewish lines. A highly developed hierarchy of officials ran ghetto government, courts, police, and religious institutions. Some major ghettos, established in Medieval times, lasted until the European Revolutions of 1848."

Now what can we say about the ghettos that reappeared in Europe between 1939 and 1945? Clearly, these were closed from the outside. But did Jews perceive themselves as better protected on the inside? For how long and based on what assumptions, what information, or what lack of information? What were the aims and policies of the perpetrators? How monolithic was the process of ghettoization, deportation, and destruction that we have come to accept from the experiences of the biggest ghettos of Lodz and Warsaw? How different were the ghettos of east and western Europe? And what about Transnistria? Can "ghetto" be defined with clarity or consistency in Nazi-dominated Europe? What was the nature of the life apart that developed within ghetto confines? How can we characterize civil and religious institutions, economic structure, family life, cultural creation? For whom did the Jewish Councils, the Judenraete, work-for the perpetrators, for the Jews, for themselves? How did the people subjected to ghettoization understand what was happening to them, through observation and logic, through a religious prism, on the basis of political ideology, whether Jewish or secular, by psychological adaptation to preserve sanity? What were the responses to an unknown future? What was done to preserve the dignity of life under Nazi onslaught by the strong, the weak, Jewish officials, and resisters? These are the questions that today's speakers have debated during their deliberations this week at our Museum.

One of our panelists said to me yesterday, when I asked about the group's conclusions, "There are so many questions and so few conclusions we can be sure of. Looking at ghettos from inside out, gives very different answers than looking from the outside in." And how do we encompass the diversity of experience? It is clear that we are just at the beginning of this research. Our generalizations must all be reassessed.

We will hear today from ten scholars who are working hard to broaden our perspectives and increase our understanding of ghettos in Europe during the Holocaust. Their search for answers is a scholarly act of remembrance of all those who survived the ghettos and especially those who did not survive, in fulfillment of this Museum's memorial mission. I'm very pleased that some of these scholars have done their research in the archives and other research collections of this Museum.

This morning's papers will deal with questions of definition, administration, and resistance. This afternoon's papers will address daily life, culture, and religion in the ghettos, "offering insights" to quote the paper of one of our panelists, "insights into individuals' ongoing attempts, to make sense of and accommodate themselves to a world of constantly shrinking prospects." The final paper will highlight opportunities for new research in recently released archives from the former Soviet Union.

Today's symposium has been made possible by a grant from the Tamkin Foundation. Our special thanks go to that foundation for their ongoing support of the Center's programs. Two members of the staff of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Geoffrey Megargee, who is directing a major research and publication project on camps, ghettos, and other sites where perpetrators were perpetrators and victims were victims; and Peggy Obrecht, the staff director of the Committee on Church Relations and the Holocaust of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, have kindly agreed to chair today's panels. I want to extend our thanks to them in advance.

I'd also like to thank the many people whose work has resulted in the intellectual journey we are about to begin: the staff of the Center's University Programs division for organizing the symposium; many scholars on various staffs throughout the Museum who contributed useful ideas and suggestions; and a host of other Museum staff including many members of the Visitor Services staff for making logistical arrangements for our meeting today. Most particularly, of course, I want to extend thanks to the scholars who will speak, many of them for coming a long distance to be here, and to all of them for the work they have put into the preparation of excellent papers.

Before I turn this over to our scholars, let me make just a few comments about procedure. There will be time for questions and comments at the end of each panel session. If you'd like to ask a question or make a comment, please come to the microphone at the front of the auditorium. Identify yourself and your institutional affiliation and please keep your comments and questions as brief as possible. I've asked the panel moderators to seek to accommodate everyone who would like to ask a question. So, if you have asked a question and others are waiting to ask, please yield the microphone to the next speaker. If you'd like your question to be addressed by a certain speaker, identify the person to whom you are addressing the question. When we break for lunch, please take all of your belongings with you; it's a security procedure that I'm sure you can all understand. With that, I am very pleased to turn the podium over to Dr. Geoffrey Megargee and the first panel.

From the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies symposium, Ghettos 1939–1945: New Research and Perspectives on Definition, Daily Life, and Survival