After the Nazi conquest of Eastern Europe and the western parts of the Soviet Union, ghettos became the new reality of Jewish life in many areas of those territories. In an uneven pattern that varied greatly over time and across regions, the Germans and their collaborators designated special "Jewish districts" in cities and towns to which they then confined Jews. Often these comprised territory that had traditionally been a Jewish neighborhood, to which Jews living in other parts of the town or city were forcibly moved.1 Many ghettos were walled or fenced off from the surrounding areas and were guarded heavily, so that their Jewish population could not leave them and mix freely with non-Jews on the outside. Other ghettos, however, were open, without physical barriers, and consisted rather of designated "Jewish" streets or blocks in which the majority of the Jewish population lived, while restricted in its interactions with the outside world. Ghettos were prevalent as a means to segregate and control the Jewish population in Eastern Europe and in the occupied areas of Poland and some parts of the occupied Soviet Union. In Nazi Germany itself and in Western Europe under the Nazi occupation, segregation took different forms that only very rarely resembled those prevailing in Eastern European ghettos.2
Life in ghettos was overseen by German-appointed Jewish Councils, or Judenräte, Jewish bodies designed to organize life in the ghettos and implement German policies. The historical role of Jewish Councils is complex and was hotly debated even before the Holocaust was over. Many Jewish survivors have blamed the Councils for what they saw as collaboration with the Germans, especially in cases in which Jewish ghetto police would round up and deliver Jews in the ghetto for deportation to the killing centers. In the German-occupied parts of the Soviet Union starting in the second half of 1941, ghettoization tied in closely with mass murder, especially of those Jews deemed unfit to work. But in Poland, from the period when ghettos were established in 1940 until early 1942, life in ghettos provided a semblance of continuity and normalcy, despite the difficulties and humiliation that came with living in one. Many Jews from the small towns and villages of the Polish countryside flocked into large ghettos such as Warsaw or Łódź, preferring perhaps the presence of community even given the humiliation of persecution (in this time period) to the uncertainty and insecurity of living "in the open." This began to change in 1942 with the onset of Operation Reinhard in occupied Poland and the onset of mass deportations to the killing centers.
From the very beginning, however, some Jews concluded that the persecution at the hands of the Nazis, including ghettoization, presented a new phenomenon, even in light of the long history of anti-Jewish prejudice and violence in Europe. Emanuel Ringelblum, a historian of Polish Jewish history, founded a secret society in the Warsaw ghetto, called Oyneg Shabes, whose task was to collect materials that would document Jewish life under German occupation. Among other texts and physical objects—from tram tickets and restaurant menus to testimonies of Jewish refugees from other parts of Poland making their way into the ghetto—Ringelblum's archive contains essays and diaries he encouraged his associates to write. Because many of the materials in the Oyneg Shabes archive survived and have been recovered, we can read these invaluable documents, such as the diary of Jechiel Górny, one of Ringelblum's associates.