If a Ghetto Is Liquidated and No One Lives to Remember It, Can It Be Memorialized?

The new online Hebrew version of a special encyclopedia tries to tell the story of the 1,200 Jewish ghettos during the Holocaust.

In the mid-1920s, around 1,400 Jews lived in the city of Dzhankoy in the Crimea. Three Jewish schools operated in the town. There was also a Jewish hospital, established with money from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

In late October 1941 during World War II, the Germans occupied the city. A month and a half later hundreds of Jews who had remained in the area were herded into a ghetto. This was no ordinary ghetto. The Germans confined Jews from the Dzhankoy area in the loft of a large dairy in the center of town.

There were other reasons the ghetto was unusual. Jews lived there along with Soviet prisoners of war and local residents who had been accused of aiding and abetting Jews. Conditions were onerous; the people suffered from malnutrition and were forced to do slave labor in the city. The Jews were abused by other prisoners in the attic, though the man in charge of the Soviet POWs secretly gave them food. In January 1942 the ghetto was liquidated the people were shot.

In the 70 years since, not many people have heard of the Dzhankoy ghetto. The town’s Jewish community was just one of many wiped out; nobody knows where the victims were buried. Similarly, few people know about the 10,000 Jews who escaped from the Minsk ghetto, or about the revolt at the Glebokie ghetto, the nurses’ strike at the Lodz ghetto, or the suicide plan forged by Jews at the Grabow ghetto.

As part of International Holocaust Remembrance Day today, Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research is unveiling its online Encyclopedia of the Ghettos. The encyclopedia, six years in the making, provides the first Hebrew account of 1,200 ghettos during the Holocaust.

The vast majority were small ghettos whose names are little known. Prof. Dan Michman, head of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, says the encyclopedia changes our understanding of the concept of a ghetto. “The Nazi ghetto should not be seen as one uniform phenomenon,” he wrote when discussing the new encyclopedia. “The word ghetto, which originated in the early modern period, changed in the period when it was used by the heads of anti-Jewish states” during the Holocaust.

We know what happened in the large ghettos because sufficient materials and survivor testimony remain. This applies to the Warsaw, Lodz, Bialystok and Vilna ghettos. But according to Michman, “these were a small minority among the ghettos that were established between 1940 and 1944 in Poland, the Soviet Union, Romania and Hungary and in Thessaloniki.” One example was the ghetto established in Grabow in February 1941.

Warning letter

Documentation about the ghettos was collected by Dr. Lea Prais and Shlomit Shulhani, from Yad Vashem. “We don’t have enough information because nobody there survived,” says Prais.

One piece of evidence about the ghettos is a letter from the town’s rabbi, Ya’akov Silman, to the Jewish leaders of Lodz in January 1942. Writing in Yiddish, the rabbi warned about the fate awaiting Jews; he urged the leaders to take action. He had recently learned about the extermination from Jews who had fled the slaughter pits at the nearby Chelmno death camp.

Another piece of testimony about Grabow was written by a young man in the Hashomer Hatzair Zionist movement. At the end of his report, the man devoted a paragraph to Grabow; he noted that before the Jews were expelled, they had to pay a head tax to cover the cost of their transport to the extermination camp. He mentioned that people had dug pits and stored away gasoline to commit suicide rather than be killed by the Germans.

Another document, written in German, discusses the worries of the Germans, who were disturbed when the Jews in the area started burning their property. Jews were hanged in some ghettos in the region to deter them from acts of resistance. Photos of such events appear in the online encyclopedia.

The documents and testimony were collected by a special Yad Vashem team, which worked with many sources. “We searched for primary documents in archives, we reviewed communal pinkas notebooks, we turned to historians who are experts in a particular area,” says Shulhani.

Few documents from the USSR

The main difficulty was finding information about ghettos in the Soviet Union. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the ghettos only existed for a short time before the people were sent to be murdered. So there are very few survivors who could tell what happened. Second, there are still archives throughout East Europe that are not accessible to researchers. Information about these ghettos could be held in these archives. Third, according to Shulhani, there was no tradition in the Soviet ghettos of storing written testimony, as there was in Poland.

“In contrast to ghettos in Poland, where there is a relative wealth of diaries and documentation, no such phenomenon occurred in the ghettos of the USSR, where there were Jews who experienced the Stalinist purges,” Shulhani says. “There was no tradition of writing in these ghettos. The few people who wrote after the war burned their diaries and letters.”

The online encyclopedia is the product of research done with the support of the Claims Conference ? the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. Parts of the work were published a few years ago in the English version of the encyclopedia, edited by Prof. Guy Miron. The Hebrew edition is an updated version.

Yad Vashem is releasing the Hebrew encyclopedia online; an English version will also be released in print.

“This is a genuine leap to a new level,” says Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev. “The use of the Internet is designed to make more accessible this huge bank of information, one that provides a fascinating portrait of the lives and deaths of Jews during the Holocaust.”

Shalev hopes the Encyclopedia of the Ghettos will be an important resource for Holocaust researchers, while attracting general readers, including young people.

As Prais puts it, “This is the last living testimony from small communities, one that we are bringing back from oblivion.”