A Conversation With Dan Michman

Yad Vashem’s chief historian and one of the principal contributors to its new encyclopedia on Holocaust ghettos.

David Green
David B. Green
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
David Green
David B. Green

Last month marked the publication of the new two-volume “Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust” ‏(Guy Miron, editor in chief, and Shlomit Shulhani, co-editor; published by Yad Vashem and distributed by NYU Press, 1067 pages, $199‏).

Though not a book that even a Shoah scholar would be likely to read through from start to finish, the encyclopedia offers a new and comprehensive look at a subject that has until now been largely misunderstood, according to Prof. Dan Michman, the chief historian of Yad Vashem and the author of a fascinating introduction to the book. For those of us who may have thought that the Nazis established ghettos mainly in the big cities and that they were an integral part of a well-thought out “final solution,” Michman’s foreword will come as a surprise. For one, the encyclopedia includes entries on more than 1,100 cities, towns and villages where the occupying Germans forced the Jews to live in concentrated areas. And, despite the widespread existence of the phenomenon across occupied Eastern Europe, Michman states that a policy of “ghettoization” was never decided on conclusively in Berlin, and that implementation varied from town to town.

Some 50 scholars, writers, editors and photo researchers were involved in the preparation of “The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos,” which has been in the works for the past seven years. In addition to the articles, it includes hundreds of images photographed by both victims and perpetrators, many of them startling in defying our preconceptions of what a ghetto was. Haaretz spoke with Prof. Michman, who is also professor of modern Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, by phone.


What was the genesis of the encyclopedia?

About a decade ago we decided, at the research institute of Yad Vashem, to take on a number of big projects, studies of the “infrastructure” of the Holocaust that a single researcher wouldn’t be able to do on his own. These were part of a much wider attempt to understand the vast logistics of the murder of the Jews, and the persecutions that preceded that.

One of those projects, begun in 2003, involved mapping out all the ghettos. There are two others still in the works. One is a project mapping all of the Eastern European killing sites – looking at who participated on the German side, who their Jewish victims were and where they were from, as well as the role played by locals. The other is to map the entire network of railroads employed by the Germans in deportations to the death camps.

In what way might the encyclopedia change our understanding of the Holocaust?

Many people have a certain conception of the Shoah. They assume that it proceeded in preplanned stages, and that during one of them, the ghettos were established. This understanding is based on their knowledge of the big ghettos − Warsaw, Lodz, Vilna and the like.

Until a few years ago, no one knew how many ghettos there were. I myself would have said that there were 500, maybe 600. But it turns out there were more than 1,000, many of them in small neglected places. You can page through the encyclopedia and learn about places that had maybe 1,000 or 2,000 Jews, or even fewer, living in a ghetto.
Another example: In mid-May, we had a launch for the book in New York. Prof. Omer Bartov [of Brown University], who is now working on a book on Buczacz, where S.Y. Agnon as well as Bartov’s own family were from, spoke about what he has learned. In his talk he emphasized that from our encyclopedia you can understand the way people lived in the many remote and little towns, and thus you get an entirely different view of what ghetto life was about. He said his studies have shown that, for instance, people who served on the Judenrat [the Jewish council during the German occupation] in Buczacz later made up the core of the resistance. So the dichotomy we sometimes make between “collaborators” and “resistance” isn’t necessarily accurate. The encyclopedia is therefore not just a summary of existing knowledge, but it will serve as an impetus for new insights.

In the introduction, you describe how the Germans gradually came to adopt the idea of confining Jews in ghettos, and even how their understanding of the concept evolved.

That’s right. We are looking at the subject from below, seeing how the Shoah was carried out. This has been the trend in research during the past 15 years in general, looking at the persecutions at the grassroots level, rather than from the point of view of Berlin, for example. How in reality was this large undertaking, the thing we call the Shoah, or the “final solution,” accomplished − this is the big question, and much more needs to be done before we have an answer.

Because of the work on the ghettos encyclopedia, in which we see when they were established and where, I tried to ask how the phenomenon grew and who was behind it. And also about the semantic and cultural meanings of the term: What was a “ghetto,” why was the word needed? Generally in Holocaust research, there’s an emphasis on the bureaucracy of the Nazi operation, execution and organization, but not very much on the conceptual aspect. But I wondered, why did they adopt the word “ghetto” – a word, after all, with history?

What did you learn from your research?

In the modern world, when medieval-type ghettos no longer existed, the word had two meanings. One was metaphorical and referred to a situation of segregation, usually of Jewish populations, on the cultural and social levels. This is the way the word was used in the West. But there was also a second meaning, referring to densely populated and impoverished physical neighborhoods, which were generally Jewish. Israel Zangwill, for example, the British Jewish writer and journalist, wrote the book “Children of the Ghetto,” about Jews in London, in Petticoat Lane, at the end of the 19th century. Louis Wirth, in the United States in the 19th century, also wrote about the Jewish ghetto of Chicago, and from there the word spread to be used − by sociologists and in common speech − regarding other populations.

In interwar Poland, the Jews, used the same concept − of a physical neighborhood characterized by crowding and poverty − to refer to Jewish neighborhoods in Polish cities. This appears in the Polish Jewish press and other writings in the 1920s and ‘30s, where they discussed how to get Jews out of the ghetto, to develop and modernize Jewish life. When you read the documents of the Nazi bureaucrats who dealt with the Jews during the first years of the Nazi regime, the secret reports of the Gestapo and the SD ‏(the security service of the SS‏), they used the word, quoting what the German Jews said about themselves. In those years, there weren’t ghettos in Germany. That is, Jews used the term metaphorically, and this meaning was taken over by the regime’s bureaucrats. Two days after Kristallnacht, on November 12, 1938, however, security chief Reinhard Heydrich used the word ghetto in a different way, relating to the possibility that ghettos would emerge as a result of internal migration of Jews in Germany, from the countryside to the big cities. He fiercely opposed the emergence of such ghettos, which he said would be impossible to control and would be breeding grounds for crime, etc.
I came to the conclusion that Heydrich’s literal understanding of the term came from a German scholar named Peter-Heinz Seraphim. Dr. ‏(later Prof.‏) Seraphim read what the Jews of Poland wrote about themselves. In a 1938, nearly 800-page book called “The Jews in the Eastern European Space,” Seraphim emphasized the fact that Jews were concentrated in the big urban centers, in crowded neighborhoods − ghettos − which serve as the place where the Jewish nature was formed, and where the threat emerged from.

Seraphim used restrained, ostensibly academic terminology, but he integrated his objective findings into an anti-Semitic conception, one in which he himself believed, which posited that the essence − and the power − of the Jews was in “the ghetto.”
True, the Germans wanted to eliminate all the world’s Jews, but a special power was ascribed to the Ostjuden ‏(Eastern European Jews‏). They were seen as the core of the Jews and of their power. Even academics accepted this idea. The relentless spring of their power poured out of Eastern Europe − this was an idea you found in writings in the 1880s and 1890s, that they emerged from the East to conquer the world’s markets and banks, for example.

So how did the ghetto, in its Holocaust understanding, come into use?

In September 1939, with the invasion of Poland, the Germans encountered already existing ghettos, filled with despicable Ostjuden; these were depicted in horrible terms. There is much writing from Germans − Goebbels, simple soldiers and officers − who encounterd the Jews dressed in black, and it was disgusting to them, something to be contained. The new ghetto gradually emerged, resulting from a reaction by the Germans to their physical encounter with Polish Jewry. They had a real fear of the Eastern Jew, and the reaction was to drive those Jews who had left the ghetto back into it, and contain them there; this was applied to middle-size and big cities. There was never a central order or instruction to put all the Jews in ghettos, but they emerged gradually, being copied from one place to another. The first ghetto was in Piotrkow-Trybunalski, but the ghetto that made an impact on all the others was the Lodz ghetto, established in April 1940: It was run so well by both the German commander and the Jewish “elders” that people came to see it as a model.

Have projects like this encyclopedia been done in other countries? Specifically, do German scholars show an interest in the mechanics of the Holocaust?

Definitely. In Germany, for example, they produced a big series, nine volumes long, that deals with all the concentration camps, because there as well, the deeper comprehension of that entire world isn’t yet fully understood. And at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, they’re also working on a project, of which one volume has come out, on “Camps and Ghettos” − about all the places where the Germans separated all the other [persecuted] groups from the rest of the population. It’s very important, but it has a different concept from ours. We think that ghettos should not be put in the same category as camps. Ghettos were meant to separate Jews specifically in cities, they were much less structured, they are to be found solely in Eastern Europe, and in spite of the fact that there were so many ghettos, they did not encompass all Jews. There’s also another large project in Germany, 16 volumes documenting the anti-Jewish policies from the beginning to the end. It’s a project that will go on for more than 10 years, intended to document the progression of policies against the Jews, with documentation from Nazis, Jews and bystanders alike. Documentation and commentary and notes on every document. I have the first volume here, 811 pages on the years 1933-37 in Germany.

Workers cleaning the shelves of the Yad Vashem archive.Credit: Reuters



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

NOW: 40% OFF
Already signed up? LOG IN


מריאן ס' מריאן אומנות

The Artist Who Survived Auschwitz Thought Israel Was 'Worse Than the Concentration Camp'

הקלטות מעוז

Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Far-right MK's Plan to Turn Israel Into Theocracy

איתמר בן גביר

Why I’m Turning My Back on My Jewish Identity

Travelers looking at the Departures board at Ben Gurion Airport. The number of olim who later become yordim is unknown.

Down and Out: Why These New Immigrants Ended Up Leaving Israel

Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco as Mia and Lucia in "The White Lotus."

The Reality Behind ‘The White Lotus’ Sex Work Fantasy

The Mossad hit team in Dubai. Exposed by dozens of security cameras

This ‘Dystopian’ Cyber Firm Could Have Saved Mossad Assassins From Exposure