Background: Ghettos and deportations

The Nazis set up Jewish ghettos all across the occupied countries. This allowed them to isolate the Jews from the general population, thereby restricting the rights of the Jews while giving themselves greater control. The ghettos were usually established in the most run-down areas of a city, and were surrounded by barbed wire or walls, and protected by guards. The largest ghettos were in Poland.

The ghettos were overcrowded and unhygienic. There were severe food shortages, which in many cases led to mass starvation. Jews were forced to wear Yellow Stars or badges so that they could be easily identified. The Nazis set up Jewish councils within the ghettos, which were called Judenrat. They appointed Jewish council officials to execute Nazi orders within the ghettos. Refusal to carry out Nazi orders was often punishable by death. To a large extent, the Jewish councils helped to alleviate the suffering of the Jews, setting up soup kitchens, orphanages and hospitals. They established nutrition, health and housing departments. Essentially however, the council officials were puppets to the Nazis. They were required to round up fellow Jews for deportation to slave labour and death camps. In Topic 2, Fela Bernstein and Ruth Foster talk about the acts of Jewish policemen, who were controversial figures in the ghetto.

Approximately 1.5 million children died during the Holocaust. They were often the most vulnerable of all the Nazi's victims - in Topic 2, Ruth Foster describes the Nazi murder of an infant. Many children, however, were able to develop unique survival tools, using fantasy, creativity and play. Listen to survivor Edith Birkin describing how children sang songs, made up plays and played games in the ghetto.

Children had to adapt to many role changes at this time. They assumed adult responsibilities in the ghettos, they smuggled food, contributed to family finances, cared for younger siblings after the deportation of parents and even participated in underground activities. Thanks to their smuggling activities, the ghetto Jews were saved from total starvation as rations supplied by the authorities were not enough to cover normal requirements.


Railways were a crucial tool for the Nazi killing machine. Many Polish extermination camps were deliberately positioned next to major railway lines. Once ghettos were liquidated, inhabitants were transported by train to camps in German-occupied Europe.

The survivors speaking in Topic describe the terrible journey to the death camps. People of all ages were crowded into train carriages and cattle wagons. They had to endure long, cramped journeys with no sanitation, food or water. Due to the immense weight of the people crowded into these carriages, the speed of travel was slowed to around 30mph, thus prolonging the ordeal. In summer the heat and stench were suffocating, whilst in the winter people froze. Thousands of people died on these journeys.