“We have entered into a new life, and it is impossible to imagine the panic that has arisen in the Jewish Quarter. Suddenly we see ourselves penned in on all sides. We are segregated and separated from the world and the fullness thereof, driven out of the society of the human race.”
Chaim Aharon Kaplan, Scroll of Agony (1999) p. 225
On September 21, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) in the SS, sent the Schnellbrief, a directive that laid out the procedures and treatment towards the Jews in the areas of occupied Poland. It declared that Jews living in towns and villages would be transferred to join larger populations of Jews in the bigger cities, and that Jewish councils, known as “Judenräte”, should be established, whose purpose was to carry out the orders of the German authorities. The Schnellbrief also set the Aryanization of Jewish factories as a goal, taking into consideration the needs of the German military and the economic importance of the factories. The Jews were generally housed in the poorest neighborhoods, and these areas were eventually turned into sealed ghettos, in which the majority of Polish Jewry was incarcerated. A large, hermetically sealed ghetto was established in Lodz in the spring of 1940, and in the autumn of 1940, the largest of the ghettos was established in Warsaw, where nearly half a million Jews were interned.
After the initial mass killings in the Soviet areas occupied by the Germans beginning in June 1941, ghettos were established in these regions as well, even though the Germans intended to leave the Jews in these ghettos for a short time only before murdering them. The largest of these ghettos was established in Minsk, Belorussia, which held approximately 100,000 Jews. The Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944. In May they began deporting Hungarian Jewry to Auschwitz, and in November decreed the establishment of a ghetto in Budapest in which approximately 70,000 Jews from the city were imprisoned. In all, the Germans established more than 1,000 ghettos in Eastern Europe and a few ghettos in central and Southern Europe.
The German authorities attained several goals by establishing the ghettos: they gathered large numbers of Jews together under conditions of severe congestion and close supervision, deprived them of their property, exploited their labor, isolated them from the rest of the world, made them vulnerable and unprepared at crucial moments, and incited the local population against the Jews, whom they resented anyway.