views updated Jun 08 2018


In the second half of the twentieth century the word ghetto in American culture was used to describe overpopulation and poverty in urban settings. Sections of cities, usually housing recent immigrants of African American or Latino origin, came to be referred to by this term. It communicated a kind of substandard living that could usually be ascribed to persistent discrimination against such communities, but also toward immigrants in general. In some instances, a sense of belonging and self-identification emerged from these negative connotations.

A sense of belonging evolved from the racial homogeneity and experience of shared persecution within the confines of the ghetto. African American or Latino ghettos do not always contain dilapidated buildings or deteriorating housing projects, but may signify home, places with an authentic racial identity or "soul" that yields a desire and yearning for life and the overpowering drive to rise above the immediate physical surroundings. This powerful image has been aptly captured in popular culture, especially literature. In the early twentieth century there were descriptions of a "negro ghetto" in Langston Hughes' plays and in his poem "The Heart of Harlem" (1945). In the latter Hughes captures the essence of this term:

The buildings in Harlem are brick and stone
And the streets are long and wide
But Harlem's much more than these alone
Harlem is what's inside.

This theme was echoed in the later work of other African American authors such as Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Ralph Ellison, and Lorraine Hansberry. What links these writers is their reference to the mean streets of the ghetto, where life was hard but, despite poverty, crime, and rampant drug activity, dreams could be born that would transport people to a better way of life.

The derivation of the word ghetto is important. The Oxford English Dictionary, in seeking to trace its etymology, admits to a lack of clarity. There is tacit acceptance among scholars, however, that the word derives from the Italian verb gettare (to pour or to cast), a reference to the foundry existing in the city-state of Venice in the early 1500s. Nearly a hundred years later in Thomas Coryat's Coryat's Crudities (1611), the word first appeared in written form in the English language: "a place where the whole fraternity of the Jews dwelleth together, which is called the Ghetto."

From this passage it can be extrapolated that the early history of the word refers to a distinct section of a city, usually separated from the rest of the city by walls or gates. The people who lived within that walled section of the city were Jews. The connotation of negativity and discrimination followed the word from that point onward.

Origin of the Concept

The Jews who lived in Venice were mostly traders and moneylenders by profession. The presence of Jewish moneylenders played an important role in overcoming the religious prohibition, among both Christians and Jews, on collecting interest for loans made to members of one's own faith. As pointed out by Benjamin Ravid in 1992,

The Jewish moneylenders not only helped to solve the socioeconomic problems of an increasingly urbanized society, but also made it less necessary for Christians to violate church law by lending money at interest to fellow Christians. Consequently the Venetian government periodically renewed charters allowing Jews to engage in money lending down to the end of the Republic in 1797.

The beliefs of the Jewish minorities in Venice across Italy and throughout Europe stood in stark opposition to the growing Christian Renaissance of the time. As a result, the incumbent powers in Venice and the city's population targeted the Jewish community. Laws were passed, notably Calimani 1, that required Jews to be grouped together to prevent free movement, especially at night. Another regulation, Calimani 2, required the Jewish population to wear a star-shaped yellow badge and yellow beret to differentiate them from the Christian majority. This public identification not only enabled the authorities to easily identify Jews, but it also attracted taunts and social cruelties. This discrimination was compounded by strict migration laws that prevented the Jewish population from growing through immigration.

The combination of social factors at play during that historical period and the creation of specific laws aimed at the Jewish community introduced the word ghetto into the lexicon. Discriminated against in mainstream society, Jewish traders and moneylenders were forced to remain together. The strict regulations requiring them to live in a specific area of the city implied that they had to live within a section that could be easily monitored. The area near the foundry in Venice was ideal for such purposes. Persistent discrimination coupled with the passage of further laws identified this group to the authorities and the rest of the city's residents, making them subject to abuse. This provided additional motivation for Jews to live inside their own territory, where they were less likely to be subjected to derision.

Accounts of the time suggest that the ghetto itself did not necessarily signify a deterioration in living standards and status. Rather, for many Jews it represented the middle ground between unconditional acceptance and complete expulsion and exclusion. Residing within the ghetto allowed them to pursue their way of life and trade without interference. The ghetto appears to have been a place where Jewish culture and identify thrived.

Shades of Meaning

The word ghetto encompasses several strands of meaning that need to be identified and differentiated. At least three different connotations exist: (1) voluntary Jewish quarters; (2) quarters assigned to the Jews, either for their convenience or protection, or as an inducement for them to settle in a particular area; and (3) an area that was compulsorily Jewish and where no Christians were allowed to live.

These distinctions largely resulted from clerical pressures, social circumstances, and especially the edicts of the Nazi regime. Also important to understanding the meaning of the term is an examination of the environs in which the ghetto typically existed and the reaction of Jews when confronted with compulsory or optional living quarters.

There is little doubt that in the late medieval period many Jews, like modern immigrant groups of the twenty-first century, chose freely to live in close proximity to each other. This desire was often driven by the very practical needs of living a shared religious and social life that was significantly different from that of the rest of the population. This tendency was apparently reinforced in the eleventh and twelfth centuries when secular authorities in Germanic lands as well as reconquista Spain offered their Jewish populations specific quarters. It is important to note that the Jewish quarters at this stage were not compulsory nor were they used as a means of segregation. Rather, they were provided as an incentive for Jewish traders to conduct their trades within cities.

During this era there was regular contact between Jews and their Christian neighbors, despite the occasional recalcitrance of the Catholic Church, which frowned on such relations. This was captured in the stipulation adopted by the Third Lateran Council in 1179 discouraging Catholics from living among Jews. It was primarily this decree that led many European cities, including Venice, to pass legislation segregating Jews. As a result, Jewish quarters commonly were populated exclusively by Jews, with non-Jews, mainly Catholics, often prevented by law and emerging custom from living in these areas.

Developments in Venice

In Venice itself, Jews were allowed to settle anywhere within the city, with no concerted group settlement except for a brief period between 1382 and 1397. It was also common for Jews to settle on the mainland across the lagoon from Venice in Padua and Mestre, with the city of Venice allowing them to seek refuge there in the event of war. Within this context Jews fled to Venice from neighboring regions during the War of the League of Cambrai in 1509. When Venice successfully defended itself, acquiring the surrounding mainland territories, the refugees were ordered to return home. However, exceptions were made for Jews when city authorities realized the benefits of permitting this population to remain in Venice.

The principal reason for this decision was the potential revenue that might be collected from wealthy Jewish traders in a time of state penury caused by the expense of the recent war. The Jewish community's continued presence in the city would also assure the close proximity of moneylenders for the poor, whose numbers had risen sharply after the war. It was these circumstances that are reflected in the city charter of 1513, allowing Jews to live in the city and guaranteeing their freedom to continue moneylending activities there.

Role of the Church

The enlightened attitude of the Venetian government stood in sharp contrast to the views of civil society and the Church. The clergy regularly preached and incited hatred against the Jews, notably at Easter time when there were often calls for their expulsion from the city. The delicate balance between polity and the Church was overcome by a move on the part of the Venetian government in 1516 that sought to placate such sentiments and can be directly attributed to the growing use of the term ghetto. In a document passed by the Venetian Senate on March 29, the city government agreed to the Jews' continued presence in the city as money-lenders, but indicated that they could not dwell anywhere in the city and have freedom of movement day and night. Instead, the legislation stipulated that all Jews would be required to live on an island referred to as ghetto nuovo (the new ghetto). To guarantee that Jews lived within this area and remained confined within it at night, gates were erected at two locations. These gates were to be locked at sunset and only reopened the next morning at sunrise. Jews caught outside the gates during the hours between sunset and sunrise could be fined prohibitive amounts.

For the legislation to take effect, the Christians who lived within the area designated as the ghetto nuovo were required to vacate their homes. Landlords of properties within the newly formed ghetto were also allowed to charge their new Jewish tenants rents that were one-third higher than those paid by their former Christian tenants, with the increments exempt from any form of taxation.

Evolution of the Venetian Ghetto

The concept of ghetto that is understood in the contemporary world, although it reflects many aspects of current reality, may be traced back to the actions of the Venetian Senate in 1516. Many Jews initially resisted the stipulation that required them to leave their abodes and move to the newly gated area. In addition, while many of the Jews lived in close proximity to each other, they strongly objected to the idea of being segregated in the manner proposed by the Senate. However, because the Venetian government was adamant about its policy but did make some concessions in terms of the area's administration, the community gradually accepted the stricture. It was clearly preferable to being cast out of the city altogether and forced to trade from the mainland.

Records also reveal 1541 to be a significant date in distinguishing the Venetian ghetto from the radical concept of ghetto that the Nazis advanced nearly four hundred years later. That year a group of Levantine Jewish merchants visited the city and then approached the authorities, complaining that the existing ghetto was not large enough for them to both reside in and use for the storage of their merchandise. The Venetian government investigated the complaint and found it to be valid. Recognizing the value of the Jewish community in attracting trade to the city, it ordered that the ghetto be extended by appropriating a neighboring area that contained twenty dwellings. This amalgamation was accomplished by building a wall and a footbridge between the ghetto vecchio (old ghetto) and the ghetto nuovo. Thus unlike the Nazis, Venetian authorities did engage in a dialogue with the Jewish community and instigated measures to increase their comfort.

The Concept Spreads

The ghetto and the phenomenon of segregating Jewish populations were not confined to Venice alone. With the driving force being the pressure exerted by the Church on the regulation of the Jewish community and its interactions with Christians, the practice of restricting Jews to specific areas within cities became widespread. This trend was consolidated by the papal bull that Pope Paul IV issued shortly after his selection as pontiff in 1555. Cum Nimis Absurdum required all Jews, in papal states, to live on a single street and, if necessary, adjacent streets, with the area clearly separated from the living space of Christians and with a single entrance and exit. Thus, Jews in Rome were required to move into a designated quarter as a result of this edict, and subsequent reference to the area as a ghetto is contained in Pope Pius IV's papal bull of 1562, entitled Dudum a Felicis.

This trend was repeated across Italy, with similar activities reported in Tuscany and Florence (1571) and Sienna (1572). In each case the area that the Jews were required to live in was referred to as a ghetto. The word also entered the lexicon of the Jewish community; it appears in Hebrew documents of the Jews of Padua. From 1582 onward this community engaged in similar discussions with the authorities, which resulted in the creation of a ghetto there in 1601 after Padua had gained its independence from Venice.

In Venice the use of the term rose steadily after the extension of the Jewish quarter in 1541. A second negotiation for additional space occurred in 1633 and it resulted in the designation of a third ghetto area called ghetto nuovissimo, also physically linked to the two earlier ghettos. However, this third ghetto area was not located on the site of the previous foundry. Thus, while the former two ghettos owed their names to the existence of foundries on the land prior to their redesignation as segregated places for Jews, the new ghetto had never been a foundry. It was simply referred to as a "ghetto" since it was the newest enclosed quarter for Jews. Thus, as pointed out by Ravid in 1992, "the term ghetto had come full circle in its city of origin: from an original specific usage as a foundry in Venice, to a generic usage in other cities designating a compulsory segregated, walled-in Jewish quarter with no relation to a foundry, and then to that generic usage also in Venice."

Although the first official ghetto evolved in Venice and can be directly linked to the Senate ruling of 1516, it would be incorrect to suggest that it represented the first segregation of Jews. Prior to that date, there had been quarters in cities that were populated primarily by Jews. An example is the Jewish quarter in Frankfurt established in 1462, predating the Venetian ghetto by more than fifty years. Thus, although the first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516, it was such only in a purely technical, linguistic sense. In a wider context, one that recognizes what a ghetto signifies, the concept of a compulsory, exclusive, enclosed Jewish quarter is arguably older than 1516 and may be traced to the Church's Third Lateran Council.

References in Literature

In terms of English literature, although William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1596) specifically refers to a Jewish moneylender who almost certainly would have lived in the ghetto, no mention is made of the word. The play does, however, portray the prejudice that existed toward Jews in the sentiments expressed against Shylock, the moneylender, but it is inaccurate in that no reference is made to the fact that Jews were required at that time to wear yellow stars and berets.

The first reference in the English language to ghetto, as mentioned earlier, appeared in the travelogue written by Thomas Coryat in 1611, Coryat's Crudities. The book details the author's travels, including a visit to Venice, and the word ghetto is used to describe the dwelling place for the "whole fraternity of the Jews."

While ghettos persisted for the next two centuries, the phenomenon was only sporadically represented in popular culture and writing. In 1870 some scholarship suggested that Western Europe's last ghetto, in Rome, had been abolished. Despite such a claim, it is clear that the practice remained widespread, in Russia and elsewhere around the world. The term ghetto also began to appear with greater frequency in the literature. It appeared in the work of literary critic Edward Dowden in his analysis of Percy Bysshe Shelley's poetry in the late nineteenth century. In two biographical studies of the same period, Children of the Ghetto and Dreamers of the Ghetto (1898), Israel Zangwill explores the idea of life in the ghetto.

With the steady rise in discrimination against Jews all over Europe as well as in the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, it became common for many cities to designate Jewish quarters that were often referred to as ghettos. The word came to refer to any area that was densely populated with Jews, even when those places had no strictures that barred Jews from living in the rest of the city among the rest of the population. Eventually, the word lost its Jewish emphasis and simply referred to any densely populated area where a minority group lived. Most often, as in modern-day usage of the word, the rationale for the homogeneity was socioeconomic and cultural rather than legal, thus marking a significant departure from the term's original use in Venice when the law required that Jews be segregated into a ghetto.

The development of the word has resulted in a number of related phrases such as "out of the ghetto" and "ghetto mentality." These suggest that the ghetto is a place from which emancipation is necessary. Although it could be argued that the Jews confined to ghettos sought emancipation of this kind, the factors from which individuals living in modern-day ghettos seek a release are primarily socioeconomic rather than legal. Thus, getting out of the ghetto is a reference to acquiring enough wealth and influence not to have to live within its crowded confines. Similarly, ghetto mentality refers to the feeling of being under pressure or in a state of siege and reacting in a manner that is not otherwise considered rational.

Nonetheless, in the literature and other contexts the word ghetto has been mostly used in its classical Counter-Reformation sense, to refer to compulsory segregation in urban settings.

World War II

The crucial step in the evolution of the concept of ghetto to its modern-day meaning occurred during World War II, when the Nazis forced Jews into overcrowded and squalid quarters. Unlike earlier ghettos, Jews were simply grouped together in one specific place as a temporary haven on the planned road to total annihilation. With Adolf Hitler's rise to power in the 1930s, the idea of the ghetto reignited with a fury, exhibiting the worst manifestations of forcing a population to live within strict confines. The substandard living conditions introduced in the Nazi ghettos established and reinforced the concept of an archetypical ghetto as a place of severe hardship and misery. Nazi ideology with its theory of a superior Aryan race placed the minority Jewish population under direct threat, and ghettos became the means by which this population was segregated and then targeted for the fullest expression of Nazi aggression. German expansion eastward reestablished ghettos all over Europe. It is estimated that the Third Reich's conquests resulted in the creation of over three hundred ghettos in Poland, the Soviet Union, the Baltic States, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Hungary.

The ghettos of World War II were extremely different from those of the Renaissance period. Although motivated by the same idea of segregation, the Nazi ghettos had a much more sinister purpose: the containment of a population that was soon to be exterminated. Nazi ghettos were demarcated from the rest of the urban landscape by the use of crude wooden fences, high brick walls, and, often, barbed wire.

Life in the Ghetto

Life inside the ghetto has varied tremendously at different points in history and in reaction to the pressures exerted on the community within its confines. In early Venetian times and in the aftermath of the papal bulls, ghettos became a place where Jews could maintain their own affairs and escape the discrimination they suffered in mainstream society. It was also a place where Jewish sociocultural and religious activity thrived, and a feeling of relative security might be experienced. In this era the ghetto had not yet become synonymous with overcrowding and dense overpopulation. As discussed above, when space was at a premium in the Venetian ghetto, Jewish leaders simply renegotiated with the Senate and secured additional areas to enlarge the original ghetto. There are also several accounts by authors and artists of the time, notably Leon Modena, Simone Luzzatto, and Sara Copia Sullam, that depict a society rich in culture and art within the Venetian ghetto.

What is clear is that life inside the ghetto in Venice was in sharp contrast to life in the Nazi ghettos throughout Europe, where existence was directly influenced by outside pressures. A significant factor in the level of Jewish self-expression and creativity during this period was not so much the circumstance that required Jews to live in the ghetto, but rather, "the nature of the outside environment and whether it offered an attractive supplement to traditional Jewish genres of intellectual activity" (Ravid, 1992). Thus, the conditions the Nazi regime imposed on Jews were reflected in the immense overcrowding and suffering of a people forced to live within the confines of a ghetto. In these circumstances daily life was extremely hard, often resulting in despair, as it was compounded by the knowledge that the ghetto was merely an interim stop on the road to annihilation by a regime that was intent on eradicating Jewish identity.

Thus, the meaning of the term ghetto has changed considerably over time. Although its connotations have always been negative, because of the underlying rationale of segregation, these were not necessarily present to the same degree when the word was first coined in Venice of the sixteenth century. The most negative connotation of the word clearly derives from the actions of the Nazis during World War II.

The Ghetto Uprising in Warsaw

Another aspect of the use of the word ghetto can be attributed to a specific incident that occurred during World War II, the ghetto uprising in Warsaw. It captured the public imagination worldwide as a struggle against immense odds. At the outbreak of World War II there were three million Jews in Poland, with as many as four hundred thousand living in Warsaw. The Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, and by November of the following year they had established the Warsaw ghetto. It was surrounded by an eleven-mile wall, roughly ten to twenty feet high, topped with broken glass and barbed wire. With its original residents displaced elsewhere, some 140,000 Polish Jews were forced into this concentrated area. German soldiers were posted at the ghetto's exits; only those Jews working in war-related industries were allowed to leave and return. Jews from other parts of Poland were gradually moved in, and some estimate that at one time there were as many as half a million people living in the Warsaw ghetto. Nearly 63,000 Jews are estimated to have died from starvation, the cold, and disease during the life of this ghetto.

Conditions within the ghetto regularly resulted in death, and this, coupled with the news in July 1942 that a death camp existed in Treblinka some forty miles away, fueled actions of resistance. By early 1943 the residents of the ghetto began to fight back against their captors. Using a handful of pistols, grenades, and captured weapons, the fighters took on the might of their tormentors, perhaps strengthened by the fatalistic attitude that death in combat was preferable to their meek acceptance of the fate that awaited them at Treblinka and other concentration camps. Drawing the Nazis into a guerilla-style battle, the Jewish fighters achieved some success in skirmishes that mostly took place in narrow alleys and dark apartment passages. The period of resistance lasted a total of eighty-seven days.

The fighting reached a climax on April 19 when columns of approaching German troops, with tanks and armored vehicles, met with fierce resistance. They lost two hundred soldiers—either killed or wounded—and were forced to retreat. By April 23 the fighters issued a public appeal:

Poles, citizens, soldiers of freedom. . . we the slaves of the ghetto convey our heartfelt greetings to you. Every doorstep in the ghetto has become a stronghold and shall remain a fortress until the end. It is our fight for freedom, as well as yours; for our human dignity and national honor as well as yours. . . .

However, the resistance began to crumble as food and ammunition ran out. The Nazis squeezed the ghetto, setting fire to buildings and reducing most of it to rubble as they sought out every last perpetrator of resistance against their occupying forces. By May the Nazis has regained complete control of the ghetto. Nevertheless, the fierce struggle against impossible odds inspired many other struggles, and in a sense, the feeling of shared fraternity that accompanies the use of the word ghetto in modern parlance may be attributed, in part, to it.

SEE ALSO Catholic Church; Germany; Holocaust; Inquisition; Resistance


Ainsztein, Reuben (1979). The Warsaw Ghetto Revolt. New York: Holocaust Library.

"Ancient Ghetto of Venice." Available from

Grynberg, Michal (2002). Words to Outlive Us: Voices from the Warsaw Ghetto, trans. Philip Boehm. New York: Metropolitan Books.

"Jewish Virtual Library." Available from

Ravid, Benjamin C. I. (1992). "From Geographical Reality to Historiographical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word Ghetto." In Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, ed. David B. Ruderman. New York: New York University Press.

Stoop, Jürgen (1979). The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More! tran. Sybil Milton. New York: Pantheon Books.

University of Bordeaux website. Available from

Uris, Leon (1961). Mila 18. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday.

Joshua Castellino


views updated May 23 2018





Social scientists have long studied the effects of economic, political, and social inequality on lives, attitudes, and behavior. Central issues in this research include how and why societies tend to treat certain groups negatively, how such groups respond to such conditions, and whether and how society should address the historic and contemporary social problems that result. The history of ghettos provides an exemplar of the effects and implications of differential treatment of minority groups in society.

The term ghetto has been historically used to describe legally sanctioned segregated areas occupied by ethnic minorities. Although some writers contend that the first ghettos were created to segregate Jews during the Roman Empire between the first and fourth century CE, the term is most commonly used to describe segregated Jewish sections in Italy, Germany, and Portugal in the 1200s. The translation of the term ghetto originally referred to the Venice Ghetto in the 1300s and areas of town that were originally iron foundries or gettos before being converted to secluded Jewish sections. The term is also translated gated to characterize residentially isolated neighborhoods that existed in Venice and parts of northern Italy until as late as the 1600s. Other derivatives of the term refer to a small neighborhood (Italian, borghetto ) or a bill of divorce (Hebrew, get ). As suggested by these translations, it was illegal for non-Jews to live in ghettos and Jews were prohibited from leaving. To impose these sanctions, the gates of this section of the town were locked at night.

Roman ghettos were created in the mid-1500s via a decree by Pope Paul IV (14761559) and lasted until the Papal States were overthrown by Italy in 1870. Roman ghettos were used to separate Jews from Christians, but also enabled the Jewish community to maintain its religious and cultural practices and avoid assimilation. Other Jewish ghettos were located in Prague, Frankfurt, and Mainz. Although legal restrictions were no longer imposed in Europe during the 1800s, many ghettos continued to exist based on cultural or religious dictates. Most European ghettos were destroyed in the nineteenth century following the French Revolution. However, the rise of Adolf Hitler (18891945) in Nazi Germany in the twentieth century saw the return of Jewish ghettos in eastern European cities. Other international ghettos include the predominately black area of Soweto in Johannesburg, South Africa; KwaMashu in Durban, South Africa; and ghettos in the United States in South Central Los Angeles, sections of Chicago, and rust-belt cities such as Flint, Michigan.


Ghettos in the United States are generally defined as poor inner-city areas where a disproportionate percentage of ethnic minorities reside. Although African Americans are generally associated with ghettos, Hispanics and whites also live in them. Ghetto neighborhoods are also defined as census tracts where 40 percent or more of residents, regardless of their race or ethnicity, are poor. The latter definition is widely used for comparative purposes in quantitative urban sociological research. Although ghetto residents tend to be ethnic minorities, it is important to note that neighborhoods where a large number of ethnic minorities reside are not necessarily ghettos. For example, prior to deindustrialization, many African Americans were segregated in northern communities such as Chicagos Bronzeville. Although the area was predominately African American, it was also the place of residence for relatively affluent African American families and businesses. Furthermore, economically stable ethnic enclaves such as Chinatowns and Germantowns exist in many cities across the United States.

The distinguishing factor that generally constitutes a ghetto is the prevalence of poverty. Ghettos are also often distinguished from other racially or ethnically homogeneous communities (for example, a predominately white or black suburban area) because of the inability of many residents to relocate from ghettoseven if they desire to do so. Poverty among many U.S. ghetto residents makes it difficult to out-migrate. The involuntary nature of ghetto areas often reflects constrained residential choices less evident in non-ghetto locales. Thus, as compared to historic ghettos that were formed due to direct or indirect racial or ethnic coercion and isolation, contemporary U.S. ghettos generally reflect class-based formation and the resulting isolation.

U.S. ghettos developed as a result of dramatic postindustrial economic, political, and social changes. Several urban migrations during the early and mid-twentieth century resulted in the exodus of many African Americans to such northern states as Illinois, New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania in search of employment and to escape segregation and discrimination in the rural South. During the same period, persons of Hispanic descent migrated from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Central and South America to New York, Miami, and Chicago for similar reasons. Cities provided industrious, less-educated persons with manufacturing jobs to earn a family wage.

After World War II (19391945), globalization and deindustrialization resulted in significant international and national economic restructuring. The United States responded to increased international economic competition by spurring technological advances and relocating industrial enterprises abroad and to the suburbs to increase profits. Increased efficiency and fewer manufacturing positions unduly affected residents in northern citiesespecially ethnic minorities. From about 1967 to 1987, cities such as New York, Chicago, and Detroit lost more than 50 percent of their manufacturing jobs. By the late 1900s, many persons who had been gainfully employed in northern industrial cites became unemployed or underemployed or were forced to work in service occupations for substantially lower wages and reduced benefits.

The dramatic decline in manufacturing jobs affected a disproportionate percentage of African Americans and Hispanics. The out-migration of manufacturing firms coupled with an exodus of middle-class families and other businesses from cities to suburbs and abroad left many inner cities economically devastated. Economic restructuring coupled with the effects of poorly underserviced infrastructures, inadequate housing to accommodate a growing urban populace, group conflict and competition over limited jobs and space, the inability for many residents to compete for new technology-based jobs, and tensions between the public and private sectors led to the formation and growth of U.S. ghettos. Furthermore, housing discrimination in the form of redlining by lending institutions, discriminatory practices by realtors, and the development of large housing projects resulted in densely populated urban locales of primarily poor ethnic minorities. Economic challenges were exacerbated by the effects of historic and contemporary classism, segregation, and racism. The cumulative effects of these systemic forces contributed to the existence and prevalence of concentrated urban poverty in many U.S. ghettos.


Ghettos were historically developed to physically isolate a group with clearly identifiable physical features and cultural markers. Contemporary U.S. ghettos have had similar effects on many African American and Hispanic residents. Whether the result of legal sanctions or due to societal norms and values, physical isolation in ghettos usually results in social, political, and economic isolation. Such separation also directly or indirectly conveys superior status and privilege on majority group members and, by default, inferior status and privilege on the segregated group.

Although the Venice Ghetto was actually a relatively wealthy section of town where moneylenders and merchants resided, overall, conditions in ghettos were and continue to be negative. Jews could maintain their cultural and religious practices, but a segregated existence meant political and social isolation from the larger society. Because Jews could not purchase land outside the ghetto, population increases resulted in overcrowded conditions and infrastructure problems characterized by narrow streets and tall houses. Jews were allowed to organize and maintain their own political system within the ghetto. However, they often needed official passes to travel outside the ghetto walls.

The Warsaw Ghetto of Nazi Germany housed almost 400,000 Jews and was the largest and possibly most notorious ghetto. These ghettos were walled off, and Jews were shot if they attempted to escape. Other horrific conditions included extreme overcrowding, limited food supplies rationed by the Nazis, poor sanitation, starvation, and disease. Jews who survived these circumstances were forced to contend with the ever-present threat of death or deportation to concentration camps. In 1942 systematic efforts were implemented to deport Jews from ghettos around Europe to eastern ghettos or to concentration camps such as Treblinka in Poland. Historians suggest that various direct and indirect ghetto uprisings broke out, but the majority of residents in the ghettos of Nazi Germany were killed.

Contemporary ghettos are generally characterized by neighborhood and household poverty, social isolation, segregation, discrimination, overcrowding, increased crime, neighborhood disinvestment, and political disempowerment. Ghetto residents are more likely to live in substandard housing, frequent understaffed hospitals and healthcare providers, and have limited access to gainful employment. Businesses such as grocery stores, banks, retailers, and other institutions needed to complete the daily round are also limited and often overpriced or underserviced as compared to their suburban counterparts. Children who reside in ghetto areas tend to attend ill-equipped schools and must often learn at an early age to negotiate potentially crime-ridden neighborhoods. Research also suggests that the life chances of many ghetto residents are constrained largely because their place of residence isolates them from important resources needed to locate gainful employment, establish informational networks, and interact consistently in the larger society. Political disenfranchisement in ghettos is usually a result of isolation by predominately white state-run governments from predominately ethnic minority residents in ghetto spaces. Although studies show that most ghetto residents subscribe to mainstream values and goals, limited opportunities and resources often constrain their chances to realize them.

Urban renewal efforts are underway in many innercity ghettoswith varied results. In some instances, renewal has resulted in refurbished neighborhoods, increased tax bases, and strengthened infrastructures. Supporters of urban renewal efforts point to the in-migration of young professionals as an important factor in revitalizing ghettos. However, detractors suggest that gentrification benefits persons who in-migrate and are able to use their greater discretionary income to take advantage of depressed housing markets at the expense of existing, poor ethnic minorities who are often forced out of their homes because they cannot afford to live in the newly renovated, higher-taxed neighborhoods.

Research is inconclusive regarding exactly how to characterize experiences in contemporary ghettos. The prevailing economic, political, and social disenfranchisement does not suggest a positive portrait of life. However, studies attest to the adaptive, resilient nature of many residents that belie the harsh reality of their experiences. A comprehensive discourse on the effects and implications of ghetto life and needed interventions should consider the challenges associated with ghetto living, the strengths of persons who live in ghettos, and the role the larger society should play to improve ghetto conditions.

SEE ALSO Cities; Neighborhoods; Shtetl


Barnes, Sandra L. 2002. Achievement or Ascription Ideology? An Analysis of Attitudes about Future Success for Residents in Poor Urban Neighborhoods. Sociological Focus 35 (2): 207225.

Barnes, Sandra L. 2005. The Cost of Being Poor: A Comparative Study of Life in Poor Urban Neighborhoods in Gary, Indiana. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Billingsley, Andrew. 1992. Climbing Jacobs Ladder: The Enduring Legacy of African-American Families. New York: Touchstone.

Chadwick, Owen. 1998. A History of the Popes, 18301914. New York: Oxford University Press.

Einwohner, Rachel. 2003. Opportunity, Honor, and Action in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. American Journal of Sociology 3: 650675.

Massey, Douglas S., and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, William Julius. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Knopf.

Sandra L. Barnes


views updated May 08 2018


GHETTO , urban section serving as compulsory residential quarter for Jews. Generally surrounded by a wall shutting it off from the rest of the city, except for one or more gates, the ghetto remained bolted at night. The origin of this term has been the subject of much speculation. It was probably first used to describe a quarter of Venice situated near a foundry (getto, or ghetto) and which in 1516 was enclosed by walls and gates and declared to be the only part of the city to be open to Jewish settlement. Subsequently the term was extended to all Jewish quarters of the same type. Other theories are that the word derives from the Hebrew get indicating divorce or separation; from the Greek γέιτων (neighbor); from the German geheckter [Ort], or fenced place; or from the Italian borghetto (a small section of the town). All can be excluded, except for get which was sometimes used in Rome to mean a separate section of the city. In any case the institution antedates the word, which is commonly used in several ways. It has come to indicate not only the legally established, coercive ghetto, but also the voluntary gathering of Jews in a secluded quarter, a process known in the Diaspora time before compulsion was exercised. By analogy the word is currently used to describe similar homogeneous quarters of non-Jewish groups, such as immigrant quarters, Black quarters in American cities, native quarters in South African cities, etc.

For historical survey see *Jewish Quarter.

In Muslim Countries

In Muslim countries the Jewish quarter (Arab. ḥāra) in its beginnings never had the character of a ghetto. It was always built on a voluntary basis, and it remained so in later times in the vast Ottoman Empire. Istanbul (Constantinople) was the classic example of a capital in which the Jewish quarters were scattered all over the city. In Shīʿite countries (Persia, Yemen) and in orthodox North Africa (Malikite rite) all non-Muslims were forced to live in separate quarters – for religious reasons (ritual uncleanness). Embassies from Christian countries had to look for their (even temporary) dwellings among the Jews. Christian travelers and pilgrims to the Holy Land always remark that in case there was no Christian hospice in a town, they had to look for hospitality among the Jews. After the regulations compelling the Jews to dwell in separate quarters had been repealed (in the 19th and 20th centuries), and they could freely move out, the majority voluntarily remained in their old quarters. Only after the establishment of the new independent states in North Africa did most of the Jews abandon their old dwellings.

See *Jewish Quarter, in Muslim Countries.

Holocaust Period

the crystallization of german policy

While ghettos were traditionally permanent places of Jewish residence, in Poland, under the Nazis, the ghettos were viewed as a transitional measure. "I shall determine at which time and with what means the ghetto, and thereby the city of Lodz, will be cleansed of Jews," boasted Hans Biebow, the Nazi official who ran the Lodz ghetto. "In the end … we must burn out this bubonic plague."

A secret memo issued on September 21, 1939, by Reinhard *Heydrich, the chief of the Security Police, to the chiefs of all task forces operating in the conquered Polish territory, established the basic outlines of German policy in the territories.

Heydrich distinguishes between the ultimate goal (Endziel), which would require some time to implement, and the intermediate goals, which must be carried out in the short term. He said: Some goals cannot yet be implemented for technical reasons and some for economic reasons. Room was left for innovation.

He wrote: "The instructions and directives below must serve also for the purpose of urging chiefs of the Einsatzgruppen to give practical consideration to the problems involved."

His language was specific: the Endziel, the final goal, must be distinguished from the language that is later to be used, the endlossen, or final solution, a polite euphemism for the murder of Jewish men, women, and children. The ultimate goal was unarticulated.

The first intermediate goal was concentration. Jews were to be moved from the countryside into the larger cities. Certain areas were to become Judenrein, free of Jews, and smaller communities were to be merged into the larger ones.

Heydrich ordered local leaders to establish a Council of Jewish Elders, 24 men to be appointed from the local leaders and rabbis that are to be made fully responsible, "in the literal sense of the word," to implement future decrees. A census must be taken and leaders are to be personally responsible for the evacuation of Jews from the countryside. It was unnecessary to indicate what personal responsibility implied; clearly, the lives of individual *Judenrat members were at risk.

Due priority was given to the needs of the army and to minimize economic dislocation, not of the Jews, but of industries essential to German economic interest. Businesses and farms were to be turned over to the locals, preferably Germans, and, if essential and no Germans were available, even to Poles.

The Einsatzgruppen were to issue reports, a census of people, an inventory of resources, industries, and personnel.

It is within this framework that the Jewish Councils were established and that the work of securing the occupied territory began. A second decree dated two months later and signed by Hans *Frank, the head of the General Government, further specified the role of the Jewish Council, which was to have a chairman and a deputy.

"The Jewish Council is obliged to receive through its chairman and his deputy the order of the German official agencies. Its responsibility will be to see that the orders are carried out completely and accurately." Jews were ordered to obey the orders of the Jewish Councils.

In retrospect, but only in retrospect, it can be seen that the ghetto was a holding pen, intended to concentrate Jews and hold them captive until such time as an infrastructure was created that could solve the Jewish problem.

The ghetto originally had two goals. The Germans created a situation in which hard labor, malnutrition, overcrowding, and substandard sanitary conditions contributed to the death of a large number of Jews. One in ten died in Warsaw in 1941, before the deportations, before shots were fired. This policy was at odds with the other use of the ghetto as a source of cheap labor that could be of benefit to the Reich and also to individual commanders. In the end, and often only in the end, even the availability of cheap labor gave way to the "Final Solution."

The lifespan of some ghettos was extended because they provided a large reservoir of cheap labor; but while this consideration might forestall the murder process, it did not prevent it. Thus the commander of Galicia, for example, sent out an order in the fall of 1942 to decrease the number of ghettos from 1,000 to 55, and in July 1943 Himmler decided to transfer the surviving inhabitants of ghettos throughout Ostland to concentration camps. The last ghetto on Polish soil (*Lodz), which had been in existence since April 1940, was liquidated in August 1944.

Special ghettos were established for Jews deported from Romania to Transnistria and resettled in cities or towns and in neighborhoods or on streets that had been occupied by Jews who had been murdered shortly before by the German army. One exception was the ghetto at *Theresienstadt, which was established at the end of 1941 to house Jews from Bohemia and Moravia and later Jews from Germany and other Western countries were deported there as well. The Germans intended Theresienstadt to be a showcase to the world of their mass treatment of the Jews and thus to mask the crime of the "Final Solution." Still Theresienstadt was actually a ghetto – a holding pen for captive Jews – a concentration camp where conditions of imprisonment prevailed, and a transit camp: of the 144,000 Jews sent to Theresienstadt, 88,000 were shipped from there to Auschwitz, while 33,000 died in the ghetto. Of the 15,000 children sent to Theresienstadt, fewer than 100 survived.

There were several crucial differences between ghettoization in Poland and ghettoization in former Soviet territories. In Poland, ghettoization began shortly after the onset of war, before mass killings and before the murderous intentions of the Germans were clear to all. In former Soviet territories, ghettoization occurred only after the Einsatzgruppen murders; Jews were certain that German rule would be murderous even if the nature of German intensions was unclear. Some ghettos were situated near forests which could facilitate escape and a chance, however remote, of survival.

the jewish reaction to the establishment of the ghettos

In Poland, the Jews, who were unaware of the Nazis' intentions, resigned themselves to the establishment of ghettos and hoped that living together in mutual cooperation under self-rule would make it easier for them to overcome the period of repression until their country would be liberated from the Nazi yoke. They gave a name to their strategy of survivor, iberleben, to live beyond, beyond German rule until liberation. If within the ghetto, they presumed they would somehow be safer, as they would no longer interact with non-Jews in quite the same way and be freed of daily humiliations and dangers. Based on past experience and also on rational calculations or economic self-interest, it seemed to them that by imprisoning Jews in ghettos, the Nazis had arrived at the final manifestation of their anti-Jewish policy. If the Jews would carry out their orders and prove that they were beneficial to the Nazis by their work, they would be allowed to organize their community life as they wished. In addition, the Jews had practically no opportunity to offer armed opposition that would prevent the Germans from carrying out their plans. The constant changes in the composition of the population (effected by transfers and roundups) and in living quarters made it more difficult to express opposition; the hermetic imprisonment from the outside world prevented the acquisition of arms; and conditions in the ghetto (malnutrition, concern for one's family, etc.) weakened the strength of the opposition. On the other hand, the Germans had the manpower and technical equipment to repress any uprising with ease, and the non-Jewish population collaborated with them, or at best remained apathetic. Any uprising in the ghettos, even if it could be pulled off, was thus doomed to military failure. Any attempt at resistance was risky as the German practice of collective responsibility and disproportionate punishment left the remaining ghetto population at risk. Thus uprisings, when they occurred, were usually last stands undertaken when all hope for collective survival was lost and when the only question was what could be done in the face of impending death.

typology of the ghettos

In most cases, the ghetto was located in one of the poor neighborhoods of a city that had previously housed a crowded Jewish population. Moving large numbers of widely dispersed people into ghettos was a chaotic and unnerving process. In Lodz, where an area already housing 62,000 Jews was designated as the ghetto, an additional 100,000 Jews were crowded into the quarter from other sections of the city. Bus lines had to be rerouted. To avoid the disruption of the city's main transportation lines, two streets were walled off so trolleys could pass through. Polish passengers rode through the center of the Lodz ghetto on streets that Jews could only cross by way of crowded wooden bridges overhead.

In Warsaw, the decree establishing the ghetto was announced on October 12, 1940 – Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. Moving schedules were posted on billboards. Whole neighborhoods were evacuated. While Jews were forced out of Polish residential neighborhoods, Poles were also evicted from the area that would become the ghetto. During the last two weeks of October 1940, according to German figures, 113,000 Poles (Christians) and 140,000 Jews had to be relocated, bringing with them whatever belongings they could pile on a wagon. All abandoned property was confiscated. In every Polish city, the ghettos were overcrowded. Jews were transferred from the other neighborhoods in the city, and in many cases from nearby villages, to housing there, while the non-Jewish inhabitants of the neighborhood were forced to move to another area. These transfers caused great overcrowding from the outset. In Lodz, for example, the average was six people to a room; in Vilna there were even eight to a room during one period. Whenever the overcrowding lessened because of the deporting of Jews to extermination camps, the area of the ghetto was reduced significantly.

At first there were two types of ghettos: open ones, which were marked only by signs as areas of Jewish habitation; and closed ones, which were surrounded by fences, or in some cases even by walls (as in *Warsaw). This difference, however, lost all significance during the period of deportations before an open ghetto was destroyed, or what the Germans called liquidated. In advance all access roads were blocked by the German police, whereas in closed ghettos shifts of German police or their aides constantly guarded the fences and walls. A more significant distinction was the fact that the Germans regarded the closed ghettos as large concentration camps, and therefore most of them were liquidated later than the open ghettos. In contrast to these ghettos, which were all in Polish and Russian territory, the ghettos in Transnistria were not predestined for liquidation. Neither was the ghetto in Theresienstadt. Transnistria even succeeded in maintaining contact with the outside world and received assistance from committees in Romania. Theresienstadt was, in fact, cut off from the world (except for the transports that came in and went out), but the standard of living was higher there than in Eastern European ghettos.

jewish administration

For every ghetto, the German authorities appointed a Judenrat, which was usually composed of Jewish leaders acceptable to the community. The Judenrat was not a democratic body, and its power was centered in one person, not always the chairman, who was responsible for its cooperation in matters relating to the ghetto. The leader of the Judenrat was subordinate to the German authorities, who delegated to him much authority with regard to the Jews but treated him disrespectfully and often cruelly. Many Jews appointed to the Judenrat believed that they were placed in their position in order to serve the Jewish people in its time of great need. They faced two masters. To the Germans they represented Jewish needs and to the Jews they represented German authority. The Germans were uninterested in meeting Jewish needs and German authority was eventually lethal for the Jews.

Ghetto life was one of squalor, hunger, disease, and despair. Rooms and apartments were overcrowded, with 10 or 15 people typically living in space previously occupied by four. Daily calorie allotments seldom exceeded 1,100. Without smugglers who brought in food, starvation would have been rampant. The smugglers' motto: "Eat and drink for tomorrow we die," was only too apt.

There were serious public health problems. Epidemic diseases were a threat, typhus the most dreaded. Dead bodies were often left on the street until the burial society came. Beggars were everywhere. Perhaps most unbearable was the uncertainty of life. Ghetto residents never knew what tomorrow would bring.

In the ghetto, life went on. Families adjusted to new realities, living in constant fear of humiliation, labor conscription, and deportation. Survival was a daily challenge, a struggle for the bare necessities of food, warmth, sanitation, shelter, and clothing. Clandestine schools educated the young. Religious services were held even when they were outlawed. Cultural life continued with theater and music, poetry and art offering a temporary respite from squalor.

From the beginning, the Jewish leadership was faced with the impossible task of organizing ghetto life under emergency conditions and under the ceaseless pressure of threats of cruel punishment. Jewish institutions, to the extent that they existed, continued to function, either openly, such as the institutions that fulfilled religious needs, or in secret, such as the various political parties. The major function of the leadership, however, was the provision of sustenance and health and welfare services (including hospitals) and sanitation, and this had to be accomplished without adequate means. Raul *Hilberg likened their task to a small isolated municipal government living in hostile territory. The authority of leaders always derived from the Germans. To provide these services, they taxed those who still had some resources and worked those who had none. They practiced the time-honored traditions of their people honed by centuries of exile and persecution. Decrees were evaded or circumvented. They tried to outwit the enemy and alleviate the awful conditions of the ghetto, at least temporarily. Some behaved admirably; others became infatuated with their power and imposed it on the powerless, captive population.

Despite what was often their best effort, in the course of time these institutions collapsed in most ghettos. It was even more difficult to establish those services which had not existed within the Jewish community before the Holocaust, such as police, prisons, and courts. The authority vested in these institutions was broad within the narrow autonomous framework that existed in the ghettos, and in many instances they were, of course, not properly utilized under conditions of the life-and-death struggle imposed on the inhabitants of the ghetto.

liquidation of the ghettos

The lifespan of the Polish ghettos was brief; formed in 1940, most were destroyed beginning in 1942 shortly after the *Wannsee Conference. The destruction of the ghettos was conducted as part of the policy of the "Final Solution," for which purpose the Germans prepared special death camps, what they called extermination camps. When it was decided to liquidate a ghetto, they would call on the Jews to present themselves voluntarily to be transferred to labor camps (sometimes with false promises of improved living conditions), but if deception proved unsuccessful, they would round up the residents and bring them by force to assembly areas, from where they would be transported, usually by train, to their destination. Ghetto leaders faced the ultimate decision. For a time they could save some but only at the sacrifice of others. *Rumkowski in Lodz saved the able-bodied and shipped the children to Chelmno, reasoning that the best chance of survival was if the ghetto was transformed into a work camp, productive for the Wehrmacht. "Survival by work" was his motto. In Warsaw, *Czerniakow tried to save the children; when he could not, he killed himself rather than participate in their deportation. Jewish police were employed to send Jews to the trains. In some ghettos – but not many – the leadership chose suicide rather than cooperation. The great majority of the ghetto inhabitants were killed immediately upon their arrival in the camps; a minority, the young and the able-bodied, women without children, were employed in forced labor and were killed after a short time by one of the regular means of extermination. Only a very small number remained alive, sometimes after having been shunted from camp to camp.

See also *Holocaust. For more information on specific ghettos see *Kovno, *Lodz, *Lublin, *Theresienstadt, and *Warsaw.

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]


G. Reitlinger, Final Solution (19682), index; R. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews (20033), index; P. Friedman, in: jsos, 16 (1954), 61–88 (incl. bibl.). add. bibliography: E. Sterling, Life in the Ghettos during the Holocaust (2005); I. Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw 1939–1943 (1982); A. Tory, Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary (1990); L. Dobroszycki, The Chronicles of the Lodz Ghetto 1941–44 (1984); I Trunk, Judenrat (1972).


views updated May 14 2018



The word ghetto originally denoted the traditional Jewish quarter of medieval Christian cities; the term evidently originated in a quarter of this kind that existed in Venice. From the early Middle Ages, Jews tended to live on separate streets or in separate neighborhoods, but they did so voluntarily to maintain their distinct way of life. The first ghettos imposed on Jews appeared in Spain and Portugal in the late fourteenth century.

From the end of the eighteenth century on, and especially after the political changes that the French Revolution brought about, the ghettos that had been established for Jews in Europe began to disappear. The ghetto of Rome was the last to be formally abolished—in 1883, after papal rule ended in Rome (it was thenceforth confined to the Vatican).

Although this type of ghetto existed mainly in Central and Western Europe, separate Jewish quarters also came into being in cities across the Muslim world. In the United States, during the struggle for equal rights by the African American population in the 1950s and 1960s, the term ghetto was widely used to denote the impoverished neighborhoods noted for rampant distress, crime, and violence that these citizens inhabited in major American cities. A diverse alternative culture, noted for its music and art and its sweeping social protest, evolved in the vicinity of the African American ghetto. To this day, the term ghetto is used for a neighborhood inhabited by an ethnic minority that is socially marginalized and suffers from inferior living conditions and fewer opportunities when compared to those of the established population.


The ghettos established by the Nazis for European Jews during World War II were totally different in structure and goals from those described above. The establishment of these ghettos, beginning in Poland shortly after the onset of the German occupation of that country in 1939, was a phase in the overall development of an anti-Jewish policy that aimed to find a comprehensive solution to the "problem" of the Jewish presence in Europe. The Nazi ghetto was not intended to be a permanent solution, a place where Jews would be strictly isolated from the surrounding society. Instead, it was something like a quarantine camp or at times a giant prison, where harsh and restrictive living conditions were imposed. The ghetto provided various German authorities with a reserve of available labor for various purposes and gave them an opportunity, unconstrained by laws and regulations, to oppress the Jewish inhabitants and dispossess them of money, valuables, and other goods according to Nazi officials' needs and caprices.

The first German directive regarding the concentration of Jews in separate urban quarters appeared in the Schnellbrief (quick brief) that the head of the Security Police, Reinhard Heydrich, sent to the commanders of the SS and the police special units (Einsatzgruppen) that followed the Wehrmacht into Poland in September 1939. According to the directive, within three or four weeks the Jews in the Polish areas were to be concentrated in special areas of the large cities so that they would be easier to control and eventually deport. Small Jewish communities were to be eradicated and their inhabitants removed to more central towns, preferably close to railroads. Several weeks later, Hans Frank, the governor-general of the General Government, issued a similar directive. Neither of these documents, however, speaks specifically about the establishment of a ghetto, that is, a closed and isolated area where the Jews would be concentrated under strict supervision.

In 1939–1940, it was the declared policy of Nazi Germany to resolve the Jewish issue in territorial ways. This goal, however, quickly proved unrealistic and unworkable. The absence of clear guidelines about what to do with the Jews, coupled with the abandonment of the total deportation policy, convinced the local authorities that they should deal on their own with the presence of Jews within their purviews. Consequently, the Nazi ghettos were established at different times and differed in their ways of life, in the type of official German control, and in the extent of freedom of movement allowed.

The first large ghetto, located in Lodz, was sealed on 1 May 1940, with 162,000 Jews packed into it. The Lodz model was closely studied and adopted by those who established ghettos in other Polish cities. The assumption behind the founding of the Lodz ghetto was that the Jews' continued presence in the city would be short-lived. Therefore, the Germans' main concern was how to exploit fully the Jews' property as the ghetto was being established. As it became increasingly evident that the Jews would not quickly disappear from Lodz, however, an economic structure was built in the ghetto, including a variety of workshops that exploited Jewish labor and funneled the profits into the pockets of the German ghetto administrators, merchants, and others.

The Warsaw ghetto was sealed in November 1940. It was the largest of all the ghettos, its population peaking at around 440,000 in mid-1941. The governor of Warsaw District, Ludwig Fischer, claimed that in the opinion of the German medical service in Warsaw, the Jews were spreading dangerous illnesses and therefore had to be isolated from the surrounding population. Allegations of Jewish involvement in the black market and in the corruption of the morals and culture of Polish society provided additional rationales for a sealed ghetto. The establishment of the ghetto also amounted to an admission by the local German authorities that they would not be able to deport the Jews of Warsaw rapidly. Since the plans for the ghetto did not include mechanisms that would keep the inhabitants fed and gainfully employed, however, the Warsaw ghetto became a focal point of distress, hunger, and severe epidemics. The situation did begin to improve slightly in mid-1941, when the Germans in charge of the ghetto decided to make the ghetto economically viable, to create jobs so that the Jews could support themselves and to increase food supplies. In March 1941, ghettos were established in Lublin and in Kraków, the seat of the governor-general and the administrative capital of the German occupation in Poland. The Kraków ghetto was established during a deportation action that had begun in the spring of 1940 with the aim of banishing some 50,000 Jews, leaving only 5,000 workers in high-demand trades. By economic necessity, however, the ghetto eventually held 18,000. In April 1941, ghettos were established in several other important cities in Poland: Kielce, Radom, and Częstochowa. By the spring and summer of 1942, when the deportations to the death camps began in Poland, hundreds of ghettos had been established across the country, including some in the Jewish communities of small towns.

The Germans' goal in establishing the ghettos remains unclear and various authorities who dealt with the Jewish question in Poland interpreted it in different ways. Obviously, the Nazis were not concerned about the high mortality rate that ghettoization and the living conditions in some of the ghettos caused among the imprisoned Jews. In 1941–1942, more than 112,000 Jews in the two most important ghettos in Poland, those of Warsaw and Lodz—20 percent of the Jewish population living there at the time—died of starvation and illness. In 1941 the deaths of thousands of Jews in the ghettos, especially in Warsaw, forced the leaders of the General Government to choose between allowing the starvation and slow extermination of the Jews to continue or transforming the ghettos to serve the Germans' economic interests. In mid-1941, those who favored the economic rationale won the day. Thus, German policy toward the ghettos in general favored economic considerations as long as a comprehensive territorial solution involving the deportation of the Jews had not been formulated.

Ironically, the Jewish labor force in the ghettos became more necessary than ever in early 1942, after the Final Solution was set in motion. As the war in the east expanded, the German war industry required more and more workers. Hundreds of thousands of Poles were sent to Germany as laborers, as were Soviet prisoners of war, who had survived a winter of catastrophic mortality in German prisoner of war camps. Demand for Jewish workers in the ghettos escalated so rapidly that in June 1942 Ludwig Fischer issued a directive to the effect that every effort must be made not to leave Jews idle. The fundamental goal of employing the ghettoized Jews changed at this time. The instrumental purpose—enabling the Jews to support themselves and absolving the German authorities of this concern—gave way to the needs of companies that urgently required a handy supply of labor. The decision about the Jews' ultimate fate, however, had already been made in Berlin and economic considerations were not central in its adoption. By then, local leaders no longer played a role in making decisions about the Jews.

The last phase in the establishment of ghettos began in 1941 in the newly occupied Soviet territories. Ghettos were established in various towns in Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, and Ukraine. The formation of ghettos in cities in these areas—Vilna (Vilnius), Kovno (Kaunas), Riga, Minsk, Lwów (Lvov/Lviv), and so on—coincided with the mass murder of the Jewish populations there, beginning in the summer of 1941. Often the ghettos served as a mechanism for the selection of some Jews for immediate murder and others for continued survival based on their ability to contribute their labor to the cause of the war. Thus, the ghettos in the occupied Soviet areas were already part of the Final Solution that had been decided upon and that had begun to be implemented in autumn 1941. In some towns, fewer than 20 percent of the pre-Occupation Jewish populations were left in the ghettos. Some of these ghettos resembled huge labor camps in every respect.

Although almost all the ghettos were located in Eastern Europe, the Germans did establish several ghettos for specific purposes elsewhere. The most notable of them was that in Theresienstadt, northwestern Czechoslovakia, to which in 1941–1945 some 140,000 Jews were deported from Germany, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, and Western European countries. Responsibility for this ghetto belonged to the SS Security Police (the RSHA), which transferred its guarding requirements to the Czech police. Theresienstadt had been established to concentrate selected groups of Jews—the elderly, the famous, or those who had special status in Germany and Western Europe. In this manner, the Nazis intended to disprove rumors about the fate of German Jews who were being deported to the east. The first groups of Jews from Prague reached this ghetto in November 1941, but by January 1942 extermination transports were already setting out from Theresienstadt to Riga, Latvia. Most Jews who were concentrated in Theresienstadt were sent in 1942–1944 to be killed at the Auschwitz and Treblinka death camps in Poland; by late 1944, only 11,000 remained there.

Another ghetto in Central Europe was that of Budapest, established in late November 1944. After approximately 70,000 Jews were led out of this city on a death march toward the Austrian border, members of the Hungarian Nazi Party, the Arrow Cross, which had seized power in Hungary, set up a ghetto in Budapest, where most remaining Jews were concentrated. In December 1944–January 1945, the Hungarian Fascists removed about 20,000 Jews from the ghetto and murdered them along the banks of the Danube.


The Germans left the Jews to their own devices in many respects. Even before the ghettos were established, Jewish councils—Judenräte—were set up in Polish towns. Their function, in addition to obeying the Germans' directives, was to oversee the Jews' lives. This created an impression of Jewish autonomy that was illusory, since the powers of the Judenräte were never entrusted to any Jewish leaders who had been active in the prewar Eastern European Jewish communities.

The Judenräte were composed of public figures who had remained in the Jewish communities after the Occupation began. Once ghettoization had occurred, the Judenräte had to cope with dire problems that they could rarely solve. They dealt with the allocation of apartments and other dwellings in the ghetto, the removal of waste, the distribution of food, the welfare and relief of the indigent and refugees, education, the operation of clinics and hospitals, and burial of the dead. In many ghettos, a Jewish police force was established to maintain public order, control the entrances to the ghetto, and escort groups of workers who set out from the ghetto to workplaces in town. In certain ghettos, the Germans even allowed the Judenräte to manage an independent branch of the postal service.

The Judenräte in the major ghettos, however, invested most of their effort toward creating an economic infrastructure that would provide the inhabitants with jobs. In ghettos such as those of Lodz, Białystok, and Vilnius, a systematic network of workplaces—ghetto workshops and employers outside the ghetto who hired Jewish workers—was built in cooperation with the Judenräte. Ghettos that had such systems were usually more orderly and stable than the others. Although chronic shortages of food, clothing, and other essentials persisted, mass mortality was not in evidence as in the Warsaw ghetto. Many Jews believed that a productive, well-kept, and functioning ghetto was the only instrument that might persuade the Germans to leave them unharmed and might increase their prospects of survival.

Community and cultural life continued in almost all ghettos that had been established in Eastern Europe. Even in small ghettos, Jews maintained their educational, cultural, and religious institutions as best they could, at the initiative of the Judenräte or of public activists and intellectuals. In Warsaw, Lodz, Vilnius, Kaunas, and other towns, drama groups put on Jewish and non-Jewish plays for the ghetto public. Public libraries collected thousands of books from Jewish libraries that had been shut down, including some that the Nazis had torched at the beginning of the Occupation.

Activists in Jewish youth movements were very important and had an impact on the lives of young people in the ghettos. In ghettos in the major cities—Warsaw, Lodz, Kraków, Vilnius, Kaunas, Białystok—these activists were the most dynamic group, secretly maintaining informal education and cultural and welfare endeavors. They organized social activity groups for children and young people, evening literary events, theater troupes, and choirs. The youth movements and underground activists of the former Jewish political parties also published dozens of underground newspapers in the Warsaw ghetto, which were disseminated to other ghettos in occupied Poland. In this way, the underground activists managed to break through the isolation that the Germans had imposed on the Jews in ghettoizing them. They also formed the core that established the resistance organizations in the ghettos in 1941–1942.

In early spring 1942, the Germans began to evacuate the ghettos in Poland as part of a comprehensive extermination scheme known as Operation Reinhardt. The operation started in Lublin District and culminated in the deportation of 350,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka for extermination in summer 1942. On 19 July 1942, Heinrich Himmler issued a directive for the final annihilation of the Jews in the General Government by the end of 1942, with the exception of selected groups that would be left behind for labor in several major cities. In another directive, on 21 July 1943, Himmler ordered the deportation of these remaining Jews to concentration camps in the Baltic countries and parts of Byelorussia. The last ghetto to be liquidated was that of Lodz, where the remaining Jews, some 70,000 in number, were sent in August 1944 to the Auschwitz death camp.

See alsoHolocaust; Warsaw Ghetto.


Primary Sources

The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941–1944. Edited by Lucjan Dobroszycki. Translated by Richard Lourie, Joachim Neugroschel et al. New Haven, Conn., 1984.

Czerniaków, Adam. The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniaków: Prelude to Doom. Edited by Raul Hilberg, Stanislaw Staron, and Josef Kermisz. Translated by Stanislaw Staron and the staff of Yad Vashem. New York, 1979.

Kahane, David. Lvov Ghetto Diary. Translated by Jerzy Michalowicz. Amherst, Mass., 1990.

Kruk, Herman. The Last Days of the Jerusalem of Lithuania: Chronicles from the Vilna Ghetto and the Camps, 1939–1944. Edited by Benjamin Harshav. Translated by Barbara Harshav. New Haven, Conn., 2002.

Ringelblum, Emanuel. Ksòvim fun Geto. 2 vols. Tel Aviv, 1985.

Secondary Sources

Berkley, George E. Hitler's Gift: The Story of Theresienstadt. Boston, 1993.

Browning, Christopher R. "Nazi Ghettoization Policy in Poland, 1939–1941." In his The Path to Genocide. Essays on Launching the Final Solution, 28–56 . Cambridge, U.K., 1992.

Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw, 1939–1943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Translated by Ina Friedman. Bloomington, Ind., 1982.

Daniel Blatman


views updated Jun 27 2018


The name of a district in sixteenth-century Venice where Jews were required to live, ghetto came to be the name for any segregated Jewish quarter. The name was applied (1) to compulsorily segregated Jewish residential districts in Europe between 1516 and 1870; (2) to urban areas of first settlement of Jewish immigrants and their distinctive culture after about 1880; and (3) from 1940 to 1944, to rigidly segregated districts in German-occupied European cities where the occupiers imprisoned Jews before methodically murdering them.

As a striking historical example of recurring policies of marginalization and demonization, ghetto was also applied to phenomena of Western history unconnected with Jews. In the nineteenth century, the term came to refer to (1) urban concentrations of distinctive businesses, classes, and ethnic groups. In the twentieth century in the United States, the term was applied to ethnic neighborhoods, particularly to (2) black neighborhoods in northern cities. Other urban areas have been called "the hippie ghetto," "Pakistani ghettos in the (English) midlands," and "the golden ghetto." Before the Enlightenment, mention of the ghetto was meant to arouse revulsion at the inhabitants; afterward, its mention could also be meant to evoke indignation at the infliction of shame and suffering.

Jewish Urban Quarters before the Ghetto

Diaspora Jews in late antiquity and the European Middle Ages lived together voluntarily, for security and communal convenience, in urban neighborhoods that were called Judengasse, in German-speaking countries; giudecca, Judaica, juiverie, carrière, or judería in Romance-speaking countries; and, in Muslim countries, equivalents of Harat-al-Yahud, "the Jewish quarter." Besides these voluntary Jewish enclaves, in which non-Jews also lived, medieval governments occasionally attracted Jews to settle in undeveloped regions by reserving special areas for them. These voluntary Jewish districts were usually walled and gated.

A different form of restricted residence that affected millions of Jews was the Russian Pale of Settlement, covering four hundred thousand square miles between the Baltic and Black seas, defined in 1791 and abolished after the 1917 revolution. Between 1772 and 1795, Russia, which had no Jews, annexed Polish territory with a large Jewish population. It restricted Jewish residence to some of the annexed territory, which Czar Nicholas I (reigned 18351855) gave the name "Pale of Settlement." In the course of the nineteenth century, Jews, who were a minority in these territories, were expelled from villages and compelled to live in towns and cities, and were limited to certain occupations. These regulations, which by 1897 applied to nearly five million Jews, became onerous at a time when restrictions on other population groups were relaxed. Pauperization, legal restrictions, and hostility in the pale provoked mass Jewish emigration, which flowed to the ghettos in other countries.

Establishment of Ghettos

To control heresy, the Roman Catholic Church tried at times to separate Jews from Christians. Separation became a widespread policy from 1300 to 1600, when England, France, Spain, and Portugal expelled Jews, and many German and Italian cities enacted strict controls on those who were allowed to remain. Venice first permitted Jews to residence in 1513 and in 1516 required them to settle in the ghetto nuovo, the "new foundry" district, which it encouraged Christians to leave. The city later allowed Jewish settlement in other districts, the ghetto vecchio and the nuovissimo ghetto.

In 1555, as part of Counter-Reformation policy, Pope Paul IV (reigned 15551559) restricted Jewish residence in papal territories to segregated quarters, which by 1562 were called "ghettos." Through the eighteenth century they were established in western and central Europe. "Ghetto" conventionally evoked a forbidding image of impoverished Jews who lived locked behind walls from dusk to dawn in crowded, narrow streets, under their own authorities. During the French revolutionary wars, Napoleon Bonaparte (17691821) abolished ghettos and granted citizenship to Jews; this became permanent during the nineteenth century. The last ghetto, in Rome, was abolished in 1870.

Ghetto as Metaphor for Slum

The image of the ghetto was applied to a variety of situations. The Oxford English Dictionary records ghetto as referring in 1887 to a neighborhood of book dealers. In 1903, Jack London compared the ghetto to the misery of slums inflicted on workersonly a small percentage of them Jewsby the unrestrained operation of laissez-faire economics:

At one time the nations of Europe confined the undesirable Jews in city ghettos. But today the dominant economic class, by less arbitrary but nonetheless rigorous methods, has confined the undesirable yet necessary workers into ghettos of remarkable meanness and vastness. East London is such a ghetto, where the rich and the powerful do not dwell, and the traveler cometh not, and where two million workers swarm, procreate, and die.

The areas of first settlement by the mass immigration of Russian and Polish Jews to the United States, between 1880 and 1924, were called ghettos. Some earlier settlers considered these immigrantslike those from Italy, Poland, Scandinavia, and Asiathreats to American morality, hygiene, economics, and race. The immigrant "ghetto slums" lasted for a generation or two, until most inhabitants moved away or became invisible by learning English and adopting the manners and clothing of the country.

Black Ghettos

Large numbers of black Americans in search of economic and social opportunities also arrived in northern cities in waves of internal migration during World War I, World War II, and the 1950s. They often first settled in immigrant neighborhoods, and the terms ghetto and slum came to refer to visible poor black neighborhoods that did not disappear through assimilation. Sociologist Kenneth Clark wrote:

America has contributed to the concept of the ghetto the restriction of persons to a special area and the limiting of their freedom of choice on the basis of skin color. The dark ghetto's invisible walls have been erected by the white society, by those who have power, both to confine those who have no power and to perpetuate their powerlessness. The objective dimensions of the American urban ghettoes are overcrowded and deteriorated housing, high infant mortality, crime, and disease. The subjective dimensions are resentment, hostility, despair, apathy, self-depreciation, and its ironic companion, compensatory grandiose behavior.

Many social scientists later discarded the ghetto metaphor because it carried misleading expectations that the underclass in the inner city would also disappear automatically.

Nazi Ghettos

Between 1939 and 1944, Nazi racial ideology was put into operation in German-occupied Europe. The occupiers separated Jews from other subject peoples and imprisoned them in more than one thousand ghettos, which the Germans did not consistently give that name. The Germans ruled through governing councils that they selected. The occupiers allowed disease to spread widely and imposed both substarvation rations and the death penalty for smuggling food.

Hans Frank, chief of the Generalgouvernement of Poland, summarized the policy in August 1942 when he stated that if the Jews did not die of starvation, other measures would need to be taken. The Germans liquidated all the ghettos, and sent the survivors to extermination camps. Under these conditions, the Jews' attempts to preserve normal communal life and to demonstrate their productivity qualify as resistance, but the desperate armed uprising by the last inhabitants of the ghetto in Warsaw, in April and May 1943, added an unprecedented association to the term ghetto.

See also Anti-Semitism ; Ethnicity and Race ; Genocide ; Resistance ; Segregation .


Clark, Kenneth B. Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. New York, Evanston, Ill., and London: Harper and Row, 1965.

"Ghettos." In The Holocaust Encyclopedia, edited by Walter Laqueur, 259265. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews of Warsaw, 19391943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

London, Jack. The People of the Abyss. London and Sterling, Va.: Pluto Press, 2001. Originally published in 1903.

Ravid, Benjamin C. I. "From Geographical Realia to Historio-graphical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word Ghetto." In Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, edited by David B. Ruderman, 373385. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Slutsky, Yehuda. "Pale of Settlement." In Encyclopedia Judaica, columns 2428. Jerusalem: Encyclopedia Judaica, 1971.

Ward, David. Poverty, Ethnicity, and the American City, 18401925: Changing Conceptions of the Slum and the Ghetto. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Wirth, Louis. The Ghetto. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1998. Originally published in 1928.

Arthur M. Lesley


views updated Jun 11 2018


GHETTO. From their earliest days in the Diaspora, Jews chose voluntarily to live close together, reflecting a practice commonly adopted by groups dwelling in foreign lands. Their quarters, often referred to as the Jewish quarter or street, initially were almost never compulsory, and they continued to have contacts on all levels with their Christian neighbors. However, the Catholic church looked askance at such relationships, and in 1179 the Third Lateran Council stipulated that Christians should not dwell together with Jews. This vague policy statement had to be translated into legislation by the secular authorities, and only infrequently in the Middle Ages were laws enacted confining Jews to compulsory, segregated, and enclosed quarters. The few such Jewish quarters then established, such as that of Frankfurt, were never called ghettos, since that term originated in Venice and became associated with the Jews only in the sixteenth century.


In 1516, as a compromise between allowing Jews to live anywhere they wished in Venice and expelling them, the Venetian government required them to dwell on the island known as the Ghetto Nuovo (the New Ghetto), which was walled up with only two gates that were locked from sunset to sunrise. Then, when in 1541 visiting Ottoman Jewish merchants complained that they did not have enough room in the ghetto, the government ordered twenty dwellings located across a small canal walled up, joined by a footbridge to the Ghetto Nuovo, and assigned to them. This area was already known as the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto), thereby strengthening the association between Jews and the word "ghetto."

Clearly, the word "ghetto" is of Venetian rather than of Jewish origin, as sometimes conjectured. The Ghetto Vecchio had been the original site of the municipal copper foundry, called "ghetto" from the Italian verb gettare, 'to pour or to cast', while the island across from it, on which waste products had been dumped, became known as il terreno del ghetto, 'the terrain of the ghetto', and eventually the Ghetto Nuovo.

Although compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarters had existed in a few places prior to 1516, since the term "ghetto" had never been applied to them before 1516, the oft-encountered statement that the first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516 is correct in a technical linguistic sense but very misleading in a wider context, while to apply the term "ghetto" to an area prior to 1516 would be anachronistic. The most precise formulation is that the compulsory segregated and enclosed Jewish quarter received the designation "ghetto" as a result of developments in Venice in 1516.


The word "ghetto" did not long remain confined to the city of Venice. In 1555, Pope Paul IV issued his restrictive bull, Cum Nimis Absurdum. Its first paragraph provided that the Jews of the Papal States were to live together on a single street, or should it not suffice, then on as many adjacent ones as necessary, with only one entrance and exit. Accordingly, the Jews of Rome were moved into a new compulsory, segregated, enclosed quarter, which apparently was first called a ghetto seven years later. Influenced by the papal example, local Italian authorities established special compulsory quarters for the Jews in most places in which they were allowed to reside. Following the Venetian nomenclature, these new residential areas were called "ghetto" in the legislation that established them.

In later years, the Venetian origin of the word "ghetto" in connection with the foundry came to be forgotten, as it was used exclusively in its secondary meaning as referring to compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarters and then in a looser sense to refer to any area densely populated by Jews, even if they had freedom of residence and lived in the same districts as Christians.

Although the segregated, compulsory, and enclosed ghettos were abolished under the influence of the ideals of the French Revolution and European liberalism (as in Venice, 1797; Frankfurt, 1811; and Rome, where the gates and walls were removed in 1848 although the Jews were basically confined to that area until the city became a part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1870), the word "ghetto" lived on as the general designation for areas densely inhabited by members of minority groups, almost always for socioeconomic reasons rather than for legal ones, as had been the case with the initial Jewish ghetto.


It must be noted that the varied uses of the word "ghetto" have created a blurring of the Jewish historical experience, especially when employed loosely in phrases such as "the age of the ghetto," "out of the ghetto," and "ghetto mentality." Actually, the word can be used in its original sense of a compulsory, segregated, and enclosed Jewish quarter only in connection with the Jewish experience in Italy and a few places in the Germanic lands, and not at all with that in Poland-Russia. If it is to be used in its original sense in connection with Eastern Europe, then it must be asserted that the age of the ghetto arrived there only after the Nazi invasions of World War II. However, there was a basic difference: unlike ghettos of earlier days, which were designed to provide Jews with clearly defined permanent space in Christian society, twentieth-century ghettos constituted merely temporary stages on the planned road to total liquidation.

Finally, to a great extent because of the negative connotations of the word "ghetto," the nature of Jewish life in the ghetto is often misunderstood. The establishment of ghettos did not lead to the breaking off of Jewish contacts with the outside world on any level. Additionally, from the internal Jewish perspective many evaluations of the ghetto's alleged impact upon the life of the Jews and their mentality require substantial revision. In general, the decisive element determining the nature of Jewish life was not so much whether or not Jews were required to live in a ghetto, but rather the nature of the surrounding environment and whether it constituted an attractive stimulus to Jewish thought and offered a desirable supplement to traditional Jewish genres of intellectual activity. In all places, Jewish life must be examined in the context of the external environment, and developments, especially those subjectively evaluated as undesirable, should not be attributed solely to the alleged impact of the ghetto.

See also Jews and Judaism ; Jews, Attitudes toward ; Jews, Expulsion of (Spain; Portugal) ; Venice .


Bonfil, Robert. Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy. Translated by Anthony Oldcorn. Berkeley, 1994.

Calabi, Donatella. "Les quartiers Juifs en Italie entre 15e et 17e siècle. Quelques hypotheses de travail." Annales 52 (1997) 4: 777797.

Ravid, Benjamin. "From Geographic Realia to Historiographical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word Ghetto. " In Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy, edited by David Ruderman, pp. 373385. New York, 1992.

Benjamin C. I. Ravid


views updated May 17 2018


After World War II (19391945), millions of African Americans sought to escape poverty in the rural south by moving to northern cities where they hoped to find better paying jobs. But, they encountered housing discrimination that forced them into racially separate neighborhoods known as ghettos. Ghetto populations soared during the 1950s, when the black population of major cities grew quickly. During that timeframe Detroit's black population increased from 16 percent to 29 percent, while Chicago's grew from 14 percent to 23 percent. Boston's increased from five to 10 percent, and the District of Columbia's rose from 35 to 55 percent. At one time during this period, more than 2,200 African Americans moved to Chicago each week. This rapid population shift severely strained housing and urban services and created a set of circumstances that made ghettos, which had first appeared in the early decades of the 1900s during the Great Migration, an entrenched feature of almost every major city in the United States.

One of the most significant factors in the creation of ghettos was the mass movement to the suburbs of middle-class whites. At the same time, expansion of highway construction and the growth of the automobile industry enabled companies to move away from cities to areas where they could operate more cheaply. Thus, just as millions of blacks were moving to cities, jobs there were disappearing, as were tax revenues that could support decent services such as schools and sanitation. Housing in ghettos deteriorated badly, and high unemployment and limited social services combined to create blighted areas where crime rates soared. Yet blacks found it extremely difficult to escape from these areas because they were consistently denied the opportunity to purchase homes in white neighborhoods. Even after passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing units, most African American families in urban areas had no choice but to live in ghetto neighborhoods. By the late 1960s ghetto residents were extremely frustrated by the slow pace of change as advocated by civil rights leaders. In 1965, the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts erupted in violence as thousands of African American residents burned stores and looted the area. The riots, which lasted from August 11 to August 16, caused 34 deaths and injured more than 1,000. Devastating riots also broke out in Detroit. These riots traumatized the nation and brought significant public attention to ghetto conditions. Though ghettos were beset by poverty and other problems, however, they also fostered racial pride and provided an important base for black businesses.

See also: Discrimination, Suburbs


views updated May 18 2018


Italians first used the word ghetto in the 1500s. At the time, it referred to the enclosed areas of Italian cities where Jews were permitted to live. However, the segregation of Jews in European societies has a much longer history than the word. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews in Europe had chosen to live in their own communities, although they had many social contacts with their Christian neighbors. In 1179 the Catholic Church announced that Jews and Christians should not live together. However, few cities passed laws to enforce the church's policy, so the announcement had little effect.

The word ghetto had its origins in Venice over 300 years later. Although Venice permitted individual Jews to reside in the city, Venetians disliked having Jews live wherever they wished. In 1516 the city's Senate required all Jews to move to a part of the city called Ghetto Nuovo (the New Ghetto). There they lived in a walled community that was locked from sunset to sunrise. The Venetian government later increased the size of the Jewish community by adding Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto), an area near Ghetto Nuovo that had previously been a foundry, a place for pouring and casting metals. Both places took their names from the Italian verb gettare, which means "to pour or to cast."

Separate, enclosed quarters for Jews became common in Italy during the Catholic Counter-Reformation*, a period when the Catholic Church became hostile toward Jews. In 1555 Pope Paul IV required Jews in the Papal States* to reside together in an enclosed quarter with only one entrance and one exit. Cities such as Florence, Siena, Padua, and Mantua followed this example, passing laws to force Jews into segregated districts. The laws used the Venetian term ghetto to describe these places. Soon, ghetto came to mean any segregated Jewish area. In later years, the meaning of the word became still broader. It referred to any area populated by many Jews, even if they chose to live there voluntarily. Today, the term ghetto often refers to any minority community.

Although many European Jews lived in ghettos, they maintained contacts on all levels with the outside world. The nature of the society surrounding the ghetto had a far stronger effect on Jewish life in Renaissance Europe than the fact that Jews lived apart from their neighbors.

(See alsoAnti-Semitism; Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation; Jews. )

* Counter-Reformation

actions taken by the Roman Catholic Church after 1540 to oppose Protestantism

* Papal States

lands in central Italy under the authority of the pope


views updated May 17 2018


Originally a district in Venice reserved for Jewish inhabitants of the city, and a name applied to any neighborhood that, either by law or custom, holds a majority of any single national, ethnic, or religious group. There were Jewish inhabitants of Venice early in its history, with most earning their livings from certain trades permitted to them: moneylending, tailoring, and medicine. After Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, however, the arrival of several thousand foreign Jews prompted the Venetian Republic to take action restricting their movements in the city. One law allowed them to live in the city for no more than fifteen days every year. In 1516 Venice designated the ghetto as the restricted area where Jews could live. The city also had designated areas of residence for other groups, including German merchants, who were limited to a single building known as the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, and the Turks, in the Fondaco dei Turchi.

The Venetian ghetto was linked to the rest of the city by two small bridges that were patrolled after sundown in order to prevent any of the inhabitants from mingling with Gentiles (non-Jews) in the rest of the city. As the Jewish population increased, and the neighborhood grew dangerously overcrowded, the ghetto was expanded into neighboring quarters. The ghetto came to an end with the Republic of Venice, which was overthrown in 1797 by the armies of Napoléon Bonaparte. The neighborhood has remained a center of the Jewish religion and culture up to the present day.

The idea of a ghetto for Jewish residents spread to other cities in Italy and Europe. In Rome, Pope Paul IV established a small Jewish ghetto of four city blocks in 1555. As in Venice, the neighborhood was surrounded by a wall and not allowed to expand even as its population grew. The pope enforced the requirement that Jews live there by a papal bull (decree), Cum Nimis Absurdum. The ghetto of Rome was opened in 1870 and its walls torn down in 1888.

See Also: Jews; Venice


views updated May 23 2018


An enclave within a city or on its outskirts to which the Jews were confined by law. During the Middle Ages most Jews in any city lived by themselves in a special quarter (known in English as Jewry, in German as Judengasse ), to which no legal restrictions were attached. But beginning with the counter reformation of the 16th century and lasting well into the 19th century, the ghetto in the strict sense, in which all the Jews of a city were compelled to live and in which no Christian could reside, was a well-established institution throughout southern and central Europe. Rome, Prague, and Frankfurt am Main were some of the cities that had important ghettoes.

Usually located in the worst section of a town, a ghetto often suffered serious epidemics, and its surrounding walls severely limited the living room of its inhabitants. Egress was prohibited after sunset, and its gates were closed on Sundays. Yet religious activities flourished under the stimulus of segregated adversity. Self-contained economically and culturally, the ghetto was largely autonomous, having its own councils and its own courts, in both the secular and the rabbinical spheres.

The derivation of the term is uncertain. It is generally derived from the Italian word getto (with a soft "g"), meaning foundry, since the term was first used of the ghetto of Venice (founded in 1516), which was near the city's foundry; yet in the Venetian dialect the word would be zetto. Less likely are the derivations from Italian borghetto (little suburb) or the Hebrew get (with a hard "g" bill of divorce).

Bibliography: l. wirth, The Ghetto (Chicago 1928; pa.1956). g. kisch, The Jews in Medieval Germany (Chicago 1949). h. lehmann and r. po-chia hsia, In and Out of the Ghetto: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, England 1995). a. lewin, A Cup of Tears: A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto (Oxford 1988). d. a. sierakowiak, ed., k. turowski, kamil, tr. The Diary of Dawid Sierakowiak: Five Notebooks from the Lódz Ghetto (Oxford 1996). a. toaff, The Ghetto of Rome in the 16th Century: Ethnical and Social Conflicts (Ramat-Gan, Israel 1984). y. zuckerman, A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Berkeley 1993).

[r. krinsky]