The Yad Vashem Ency­clo­pe­dia of the Ghet­tos Dur­ing the Holocaust

Guy Miren, ed.
  • Review
By – September 13, 2011
Per­haps it was inevitable that with the Holo­caust now being acknowl­edged as the cen­tral his­tor­i­cal event of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the two major Holo­caust research insti­tutes in the world, Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um, would pub­lish in the same year com­pre­hen­sive ency­clo­pe­dias devot­ed to the sys­tem of Nazi con­cen­tra­tion camps and ghet­tos.

The Unit­ed States Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Muse­um Ency­clo­pe­dia of the Camps and Ghet­tos, 1933 – 1945, Vol­ume I is the first of sev­en vol­umes devot­ed to the 20,000 camps and ghet­tos that the Nazis and their allies oper­at­ed from Nor­way to North Africa and from France to Rus­sia.” Two hun­dred con­trib­u­tors, most­ly Ger­man and Aus­tri­an schol­ars, were recruit­ed by the senior edi­tors to cov­er three groups of camps: the ear­ly camps that the Nazis estab­lished in the first year of Hitler’s rule,” the major SS con­cen­tra­tion camps with their con­stel­la­tion of sub-camps (e.g., Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, Mau­thausen), and spe­cial camps cre­at­ed for Pol­ish and Ger­man chil­dren and ado­les­cents, many of whom were active oppo­nents of the regime. This work will be of par­tic­u­lar use to spe­cial­ists in the fields of Ger­man and Aus­tri­an his­to­ry, Euro­pean labor his­to­ry, and the his­to­ry of World War II. While Jew­ish pris­on­ers were assigned to each of the three spe­cial groups of camps, Jew­ish suf­fer­ing and resis­tance are not the focus of this vol­ume. Rather, this work seeks to address a num­ber of fun­da­men­tal ques­tions that have long remained unan­swered: How many camps and ghet­tos exist­ed? Who ran them? Who were their vic­tims? How long were var­i­ous camps in oper­a­tion and for what spe­cif­ic pur­pos­es?” 

What will be of par­tic­u­lar inter­est to schol­ars are the com­pre­hen­sive bib­li­ogra­phies and foot­notes that accom­pa­ny each of the 1,000 camps includ­ed in this work.

Unlike the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum’s ency­clo­pe­dia, Yad Vashem’s Ency­clo­pe­dia of the Ghet­tos Dur­ing the Holo­caust is an attempt to map out the 1,100 ghet­tos in which Jews were incar­cer­at­ed “ most­ly in East­ern Europe.” This work tells us about life in the Ghet­to and the var­i­ous sur­vival strate­gies employed by the Jew­ish inhab­i­tants.” As Pro­fes­sors Yehu­da Bauer and Israel Gut­man point out in their intro­duc­tion, this work seeks to pro­vide not only a detailed account of the Nazi ter­ror machine but also, per­haps even more impor­tant­ly, a mon­u­ment to the strength of the Jew­ish reac­tion. 

Arranged alpha­bet­i­cal­ly, the 1,140 ghet­tos described in this work draw upon Yad Vashem’s vast resources, includ­ing a dis­tin­guished mul­ti-lin­gual staff, exten­sive mem­oirs and tes­ti­monies, rare pho­tos from Yad Vashem’s art col­lec­tion, and Yizkor buch­er. While indi­vid­ual entries lack a spe­cif­ic bib­li­og­ra­phy, the edi­tors have includ­ed a DVD con­tain­ing footage record­ed in the loca­tions where ghet­tos exist­ed. Unlike Vol­ume 1 of the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Museum’s new series, the Yad Vashem work is clear­ly designed to assist schol­ars work­ing in the fields of Holo­caust Stud­ies and Jew­ish his­to­ry. The con­trib­u­tors rely heav­i­ly on Yid­dish and Hebrew lan­guage sources. What sets off the Yad Vashem Ency­clo­pe­dia from oth­er sim­i­lar works is its com­pre­hen­sive­ness. In addi­tion to the basic facts about each ghet­to, e ach ghet­to entry includes ghet­to struc­ture, insti­tu­tion­al life, Jew­ish lead­er­ship, killing oper­a­tions, under­ground resis­tance, and the num­ber of sur­vivors at lib­er­a­tion. 

The last work under review is not an ency­clo­pe­dia but rather an invalu­able guide to the archives of the War­saw Ghet­to. Antony Polon­sky, Bran­deis pro­fes­sor and edi­tor- in-chief of the dis­tin­guished jour­nal Polin, has described the Oyneg Shabes Archives [as] per­haps the most impor­tant col­lec­tion of mate­r­i­al com­piled by Jews dur­ing the Holo­caust.” Orga­nized and led by Dr. Emanuel Ringel­blum, the pre­war head of YIVO’s his­tor­i­cal divi­sion in Poland, the Oyneg Shabes resis­tance group met for the first time inside the War­saw Ghet­to in Novem­ber 1940

For three years, the zam­lers (col­lec­tors) — rab­bis, Marx­ists, promi­nent lead­ers, and obscure vol­un­teers — sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly doc­u­ment­ed the entire social his­to­ry of the War­saw Ghet­to. Fac­ing like­ly depor­ta­tion, a tiny group of zam­lers at Ringelblum’s direc­tion buried the first cache of doc­u­ments on August 2 – 3, 1942 in ten large met­al milk cans. A sec­ond cache was buried in Feb­ru­ary, 1943. A third cache, per­haps the most impor­tant, has nev­er been recov­ered in spite of repeat­ed search­es since the end of the war. 

This new cat­a­logue and guide to the Ringel­blum Archives is devot­ed to the 35,000 pages of doc­u­ments that were recov­ered in Sep­tem­ber, 1946 and Decem­ber, 1950, which were orig­i­nal­ly cat­a­logued by the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw. Pro­fes­sor Robert Moses Shapiro, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at Brook­lyn Col­lege (CUNY), spear­head­ed the trans­la­tion of the ear­li­er Pol­ish cat­a­logue, devel­oped from 1955 to 1990, into Eng­lish. Sim­ply stat­ed, this is an impor­tant work that should be of great assis­tance to schol­ars.

Addi­tion­al books fea­tured in this review:

Carl J. Rheins was the exec­u­tive direc­tor emer­i­tus of the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Mod­ern Euro­pean His­to­ry from the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Stony Brook and taught cours­es on the Holo­caust at sev­er­al major universities.

Discussion Questions