Fateful Communities: Jewish Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe, 1940-1945

Jan 24, 2013

Panel Discussion at the GHI | Panelists: Omer Bartov (Brown University), Hartmut Berghoff (GHI), Martin Dean (USHMM), Geoffrey Megargee (USHMM), Paul Shapiro (USHMM), and Sybille Steinbacher (University of Vienna)

In recent years, several encyclopedic works have been published that attempt to take stock of the current understanding of the Holocaust. The publication of the second volume of the USHMM's Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Ghettos in German Occupied Eastern Europe (Bloomington, 2012), provided a welcome occasion to talk about the opportunities and challenges of such efforts and to discuss their relevance for scholarship on the Holocaust in the twenty-first century.

After brief introduction by Hartmut Berghoff (GHI), the encyclopedia's editor-in-chief, Geoffrey Megargee (USHMM) offered an overview of the Museum's Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos project. He explained that the project's goals are: first, to provide as much basic information as possible about each site; second, to provide insights into the structure of the camps and ghettos systems; third, to provide the basis for further research; and finally, to memorialize the sites where so many millions of people suffered and died. The USHMM recently published the second volume, which deals with approximately 1,150 ghettos in German-occupied eastern Europe. Five more volumes will follow in the series; each of them will address a particular group of camps, according to their purpose or subordination. In total, the project intends to document over 41,000 sites.

Sybille Steinbacher (University of Vienna) analyzed the ghetto's function in the Holocaust. She examined why ghettos in Eastern Europe were established and how their purpose changed, and explained the connection between ghettoization and mass extermination in the context of the radicalization of German anti-Jewish policy. Ghettos emerged in 1939/40 in Poland after the collapse of large-scale plans for the deportation of the Jews. From the occupiers' perspective, they served as a way of mastering the problems that had emerged with the abandonment of resettlement plans. Ghettos were set up for different reasons and in different contexts, and their administration did not follow a uniform pattern. Diversity was, in fact, one of their characteristic features. Until the German invasion of the Soviet Union, mass murder campaigns remained an exception. But at the latest from the fall of 1941 onward, ghettoization was directly tied to systematic mass murder, and ghetto clearances quickly became a daily event.

Martin Dean (USHMM), the volume editor of Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe gave a short presentation on regional patterns of ghettoization. In his introductory remarks he outlined briefly the definition of a ghetto, as established during work on the Encyclopedia, noting in particular that it included the concept of open (unfenced) ghettos, and that this definition has been largely accepted by the German government in its more recent compensation efforts (implementation of the ghetto pensions law). Dean went on to outline the regional pattern of ghettoization in two of the nineteen German administrative regions covered by this volume of the Encyclopedia: Distrikt Warschau and Regierungsbezirk Zichenau. In the Warsaw region more than 20 short-lived ghettos were established by the end of 1940 in the area to the west of Warsaw, only for these all to be liquidated within the first three months of 1941, as these Jews were all forced into the Warsaw ghetto. To the east of Warsaw ghettoization continued more slowly to the end of 1941, with the last ghetto being liquidated in the fall of 1942. In Regierungsbezirk Zichenau there were several deportations from the ghettos in late 1940 and the first half of 1941, mainly into other ghettos in the Generalgouvernement. Here, unexpectedly the ghetto liquidations in late 1942 saw all the Jews deported to Auschwitz. These examples, he argued, demonstrate that both the chronology and the means of implementation, both of ghetto establishment and liquidation, varied considerably from region to region, even for areas that bordered each other; and that Jewish responses were also impacted by these varying trajectories. Using the detailed data collected by the Encyclopedia on 1,142 ghetto sites, including the nineteen regional maps, it has become possible to recognize these regional patterns of how the Holocaust was implemented much more clearly.

Omer Bartov (Brown University) spoke on his recent research on the Galician town of Buczacz, located now in Western Ukraine, a multiethnic community in which Poles, Jews, and Ukrainians lived together for four centuries. His account of the murder of the town's Jewish population during the Nazi occupation in 1941-44 stressed that much of the killing occurred publicly, in view of the entire population of the town and with the collaboration of numerous local Ukrainians. He also noted, however, that of the few survivors, about 100 out of 10,000, most were helped by local Poles and Ukrainians. Bartov's main conclusion was that when one examines genocide on the local level one realizes that the simplistic categories of perpetrators, victims, and bystanders tend to blur. Most importantly, no one can simply stand by; there are only degrees of engagement ranging from total collaboration to outright resistance, at times by the very same individual.

The event was extremely well attended, and the presentations were followed by a lively and wide-ranging discussion with the audience.

Please RSVP (acceptance only) by Jan. 17. Tel: 202.387.3355 - Fax: 202.387.6437 -  E-mail