October 12, 1940, is the day the German occupiers of Warsaw informed the city’s Jews they were to be confined to a ghetto. Slightly less than a month later, on November 16, the Warsaw Ghetto was sealed off. At its peak, the small enclave was home to some 400,000 people.
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On the eve of World War II, the Jews of Warsaw had numbered about 375,000, around 30 percent of the overall population of 1.25 million. That number rose to 450,000 after the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, as refugees poured into the city.
By September 29, German forces had entered the capital. Within a week, the occupation forces ordered the establishment of a Judenrat – a Jewish governing council – which was given responsibility for overseeing almost every aspect of life in the ghetto, including food and policing, but with none of the resources or power to carry out its work effectively.
An engineer and city politician named Adam Czerniakow was appointed to the thankless task of Judenrat chairman, a position he filled until his suicide on July 23, 1942, shortly after the Germans arrested some 265,000 ghetto Jews for deportation to Treblinka.
Work on creating the ghetto had begun in March 1940, when Warsaw’s historical Jewish neighborhood was declared an “epidemic quarantine district,” with signs posted discouraging nonresidents from entering. That month, the Judenrat was ordered to begin building a three-meter-high wall around the designated area, topped with barbed wire.
With typically sadistic timing, October 12 wasn't only the day the Nazis informed Czerniakow of the plan to confine the Jews to the prison they themselves had been forced to construct. It was also Yom Kippur. Until October 31, he was told, relocation was “voluntary”; after that, all Jews would be obligated to relocate.
The population transfer required some 113,000 non-Jews to vacate their homes in the area of the ghetto, which covered an estimated 1.3 square miles, 2.4 percent of the area of Warsaw. On average, the density of Jewish residents was more than seven people per room.
The quarter was divided into two smaller sections – the Large Ghetto and the Small Ghetto – which were divided by Chlodna Street, one of Warsaw’s principal east-west arteries.
By the time of the first large German expulsion of Jews from the ghetto, in the summer of 1942, some 88,000 residents had died of disease and malnutrition. During the Aktion, another 300,000 were either deported or killed.
That left an estimated 60,000 Jews in the ghetto. When the Nazis came for them, however, in January 1943, they encountered resistance and came away with only 5,000 deportees. The occupiers returned in April to complete the liquidation of the ghetto; their battle with the remnant of Jewish residents is what we know as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
When the shooting stopped, on May 16, 1943, the Germans, according to their records, had killed or deported 56,065 Jews. They then razed the ghetto to the ground.