After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, more than two million Polish Jews came under German control. Several million more came under Nazi rule following the German invasion of Russia in June 1941. Jews were forced to reside in marked-off sections of towns and cities the Nazis called 'ghettos'. Altogether, the Germans created at least 1,000 ghettos in occupied territories. The largest was in Warsaw, the Polish capital, where almost half a million Jews were confined.
The oldest, most dilapidated sections of cities were normally chosen for the ghettos. Many were enclosed by barbed wire fences or walls, with entrances guarded by local and German police and SS members. During curfew hours, residents were forced to stay inside their homes. Between October and December 1941, thousands of German and Austrian Jews were transported to ghettos in eastern Europe.
Life in the ghettos was difficult, overcrowded and unsanitary; contagious diseases spread rapidly. Residents were deliberately starved and allowed to purchase only limited food supplies. During the long winters, fuel was scarce, and people lacked adequate clothing. Weakened by hunger and exposure to the cold, many became victims of disease; tens of thousands died in the ghettos.
A ghetto prisoner, Professor Ludwik Hirszfeld, wrote in his diary:
All Jews must wear the armband with its Star of David. The children are the only exceptions, and this makes it easier for them to smuggle food in... Horrifying sights are to be seen every day... One sees people dying, lying with arms and legs outstretched, in the middle of the road. Their legs are bloated, often frost-bitten, and their faces distorted with pain...