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Jewish Councils

Jewish Councils were a new type of Jewish communal organization that the Nazis instituted in the wake of their assault on Poland and beyond. In occupied Poland, and later in the occupied western territories of the Soviet Union, Nazis crammed the Jewish population into hundreds of ghettos across eastern Europe. This population included both people already living in those occupied places, and Jews who had been deported from territories annexed by the Reich, in order to "Aryanize" them. In retrospect, it might seem that ghettoization was a necessary and logical step in the Nazi plan to annihilate Europe's Jews; once masses of Jews were concentrated in ghettos, it would be easier to deport them to the killing centers that the Germans built in occupied Poland. However, Holocaust scholarship has revealed that the emergence of ghettos in eastern Europe was a much more complicated, uneven, and chaotic process that unfolded before the Germans made the decision to murder all European Jews, and was in many cases an ad hoc decision made by local German administrators in the field.1

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As soon as the Germans occupied areas in eastern Europe with Jewish populations, they appointed Jewish Councils, or Judenräte (singular, Judenrat), administrative bodies headed by "elders," in the Nazi parlance, which were responsible for implementing Nazi orders and policies. Jewish leaders had very little choice in accepting or refusing to participate in this new development. Germans routinely shot Jewish men (they were overwhelmingly men) who refused, and sometimes even shot the entire leadership of a traditional Jewish communal organization in order to establish a reign of terror before appointing a Judenrat.

As ghettos differed in their size and outlook, so did their Jewish Councils and their heads. Most ghettos were segregated from the rest of a city or town by a physical barrier, usually a wall or barbed wire. Some ghettos, however, consisted merely of several streets or neighborhoods in which Jews were made to live and in which they were allowed to move around; no barbed wire or wall separated them from the "non-Jewish" space. Similarly, Jewish Councils ranged from formal bureaucracies employing thousands of people in the large ghettos such as Warsaw or Łódź, to more informal groups of Jews with access to the German overlords who ran Jewish affairs in smaller ghettos. Some heads of Judenräte were iron-fisted autocrats such as Chaim Rumkowski in Łódź, while others, like Adam Czerniaków in Warsaw, constantly had to fight for the "legitimacy" of the Judenrat with alternative social organizations and movements in the ghetto.

While the German appointment of Judenräte in ghettos might give us an illusion that these bodies were Jewish "governments" in a functioning Jewish political and social community, the reality was very different. The main, and probably the only, task of the Councils was to follow German orders, which ranged from securing a necessary number of Jews for forced labor on a regular basis, to rounding up required numbers of Jews for deportation. Beyond making sure that their criminal requests were followed—sometimes they included private abuse by local Nazi officials who exploited ghetto Jews for their own profit—the Germans did not care about the internal structure or life of the ghettos, and the Judenräte usually had a certain amount of autonomy in running the affairs of the ghetto. However, the space for maneuvering was exceedingly small, and governing largely meant managing the many forms of scarcity to which the Jews were condemned—from food and living space to culture and hope. Through the extreme measures that accompanied occupation, the Germans eroded Jewish society, and made Jewish life in eastern Europe increasingly unsustainable and absurd. The little precarious power that Jewish Councils had over Jewish life in the ghetto was incommensurable to the power over life and death that the Nazi overlords held, and which they could employ unpredictably and with tragic consequences.

Nevertheless, many larger ghettos saw the emergence of complex "institutions" and "departments" within the Judenrat, from ghetto police units to offices that dealt with food provision, housing, labor, legal disputes, and other areas of life in the ghetto. In most cases these institutions were stripped of any real power, and existed in a suspended time and space that mimicked "normal life" while in reality being an extreme, unsustainable, and life-threatening situation. Despite this, they operated on bureaucratic principles and produced substantial numbers of documents that were archived and, in some instances, preserved even after most Jews were murdered. Unlike diaries or letters, which allow us deep insight into one particular individual's world, bureaucratic documents work as traces of a much larger institutional structure, and should be evaluated for their similarities and differences to other documents from the same institution and the purposes for which they were produced. This does not mean that they are more transparent or "accurate" than a diary; even bureaucratic documents are decidedly subjective in that they are always written by an individual, for a specific purpose, oftentimes to report or make an announcement, but also to silence or marginalize. It is with this in mind that we should approach these sources.

Even before the end of the war, many Jews questioned the moral stance of Judenrat members and some ghetto institutions, primarily the ghetto Jewish police. There are heated arguments even today about whether Jewish leaders and ghetto policemen assisted the Germans in genocide in order to possibly save themselves, in effect criminally sacrificing "ordinary" Jews.2


See Dan Michman, The Emergence of Jewish Ghettos During the Holocaust, trans. Lenn J. Schramm (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).


These debates were reflected in a number of honor trials after the war, described in Laura Jockusch and Gabriel Finder, eds., Jewish Honor Courts: Revenge, Retribution, and Reconciliation in Europe and Israel after the Holocaust (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2015). For an extensive background on Jewish Councils, see Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat: the Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation (New York: Macmillan, 1972).

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