After the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, they began segregating Jews in ghettos, usually in the most run-down area of a city.
By mid-1941, nearly all Jews in occupied Poland had been forced into these overcrowded districts. In the Warsaw ghetto, by far the largest, 490,000 Jews and a few hundred Roma and Sinti (Gypsies) struggled to survive despite extreme hardship.
In larger centres, ghettos were shut in by walls, fences or barbed wire. No one could leave or enter without a special permit. Each community was ordered to set up a Judenrat (Jewish Council), which would be responsible for enforcing German orders.
Jews received little food and the ghettos were overcrowded. Diseases such as typhus and tuberculosis were rife. Conditions worsened when Jews from small towns and other countries were squeezed in. It is estimated that 500,000 Jews died in the ghettos of disease and starvation. Many also perished in nearby slave labour camps, where conditions were even worse.
The Soviet-occupied zone of Poland fell into German hands following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Killing squads called Einsatzgruppen rounded up and shot Jewish men, women and children, as well as communist officials and others considered racially or ideologically dangerous. Surviving Jews were forced into ghettos.
In March 1942 the Nazis began deporting ghetto inhabitants as part of Operation ‘Reinhard’, the plan to systematically murder Jews in the part of German-occupied Poland not fully incorporated into the Reich, known as the General Government. From 1942 to 1944, the ghettos were liquidated and their Jewish inhabitants either shot or transported to extermination camps.