What is a Ghetto?

A segment of the wall that enclosed the Jewish ghetto during World War II in Warsaw, Poland.
A segment of the wall that enclosed the Jewish ghetto during World War II in Warsaw, Poland.

A ghetto is part of a city that has been established for a minority group of people with particular economic, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. The confinement may be voluntarily of involuntary. The term “ghetto” was originally used to describe parts of a city in Venice where Jewish people were legally restricted to live. The earliest ghetto based on this description was found around 1280 in ancient Morocco, where Jews were confined in settlements known as millahs with the Muslim-based government placing restrictions on house-size and movements of Jewish residents.

Definition and Origin

The concept of putting Jews into segregated settlements soon spread throughout Europe in the 14th century and 15th centuries. In 14th century, the city of Venice had its Jewish residents confined in an area which housed a former iron foundry. It is from this settlement that the term originated, as the Venetian term for “foundry” is “getto.” However, other historians believe that word is derived from the Yiddish term “get” which is loosely translates to “deed of separation” or “bill of divorce.”

European Jewish Ghettos

In the 13th century, Pope Pius V made a decree directing European states to establish ghettos to confine Jews. Soon afterwards, ghettos sprung up in Germany, Spain, Italy, and Portugal in line with the papal directive. The Jews residing in the ghettos were not permitted to purchase land and soon the ghettos became overcrowded with narrow streets. In some cities, anti-Semitism was so profound that the Jewish residents were required to have passes while travelling outside the confines of the ghettos. In the 17th century, all key cities in Europe had established a ghetto, with the exception of Pisa and Livorno. The confinement of Jews into ghettos was later abolished all over the continent (except Russia) in the 19th century in line with the ideals of the French Revolution.

World War II Ghettos

In the early 20th century, Adolf Hitler rose to become the leader of the Nazi party, whose ideologies encouraged explicit anti-Semitism. These ideologies soon became implemented as state policies during the World War II with the confinement of Jews in ghettos all over Poland and Germany. Living conditions in these ghettos were deplorable, with most lacking basic amenities such as food. Leaving these Nazi ghettos was forbidden and captured escapees being executed. Some examples of such Nazi ghettos include the Warsaw Ghetto, which was the largest of its kind during World War II and had a peak population of 450,000 people. The ghettos were finally transformed into concentration camps by the Nazis.

Characteristics of a Ghetto

Ghettos found in most cities all over the world share several common features which set them apart from other neighborhoods. One common characteristic seen in ghettos is a lack of necessary infrastructure and poor planning. Due to years of segregation, authorities turn a blind eye to ghettos, making minimal investments in the provision of facilities such as basic sanitation infrastructure. Another characteristic seen in ghettos is the general economic hardship experienced by residents. Due to lack of basic facilities, houses in ghettos tend to attract economically impoverished people who see ghettos as their only choice for habitation. Another characteristic shared by ghettos is the lack of security attributed to the poverty in the settlements and compounded by the lack of security personnel deployed by respective governments.


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