Appointed by the Germans during World War II, a Judenrat (pl., Judenräte) was a Jewish council; an Ältestenrat (pl., Ältestenräte) was a council of elders. The activities of the Judenräte mark one of the most controversial issues of Jewish life during the Holocaust: some regard the councils as institutions that weakened the internal strength of the Jewish communities, while others claim that Judenräte helped the Jewish public carry on its struggle for survival.
Members of the administrative staff of the Judenrat of the Kielce ghetto, Poland, 1942. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy Rafal Imbro)
Judenräte were first envisioned in a memorandum of 21 September 1939, issued by SS security chief Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich’s so-called express letter stated: “In each Jewish community [in occupied Poland], a Jewish Ältestenrat should be established, made up, to the maximum extent possible, of author-itative public figures and rabbis. The Ältestenrat will include up to 24 Jewish men (according to the size of the Jewish community). It will be fully responsible . . . for the precise and timely execution of all instructions already issued or issued in the future.” Subsequently Hans Frank, head of the Generalgouvernement (the rump Polish territory created by the Nazi regime), modified Heydrich’s directive, prescribing that in towns with fewer than 10,000 Jews the Judenräte should consist of 12 members only.
Judenräte were in fact established in Jewish communities throughout occupied Poland, and following the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 they were also set up in occupied Soviet territory as well. In other occupied or German-allied states, official Jewish representative bodies were generally organized not on a local but on a countrywide basis.
The process by which Judenräte were elected was neither standard nor uniform. Normally, a representative of the German occupation authorities would summon an authoritative Jewish public figure and order this person to establish a council. There were incidents in which well-known public figures refused to join, but on the whole there was continuity between Judenrat members and the prewar Jewish communal leadership.
Mosheh Merin (right), the head of the Judenrat in the Sosnowiec ghetto, with Khayim Mordkhe Rumkowski, head of the Judenrat in the Łódź ghetto, during Merin’s visit to Łódź, ca. 1942. Photograph by Maliniak. (YIVO)
The Germans treated the members of the Judenräte as hostages personally responsible for carrying out the decrees issued by the authorities. As far as the Nazis were concerned, the local Judenrat was the exclusive representative of the Jewish population. Indeed, a Jewish council generally functioned as the sole mediator between the Jews and the occupiers; representatives of the German authorities did not negotiate with individuals but only with the Judenrat (and ordinarily only with its head). In this way, the leaders of the Judenräte frequently became the agents for carrying out the occupiers’ decrees. Judenräte were routinely ordered to recruit manpower for forced labor, to evict Jews and transfer their apartments to the Germans, to organize substantial ransom payments, to confiscate Jewish property, and to conduct censuses of the Jewish population. Often the Germans removed Judenrat leaders who would not obey instructions or who tried to interfere with the fulfillment of edicts. In the place of dismissed members, the Germans usually appointed leaders whom they believed would be more compliant.
In most cases, prior to the beginning of systematic mass killing in 1941–1942, Judenrat leaders attempted to minimize the severity of the German decrees and to delay their implementation. To do so they employed tried-and-true methods, including lobbying, bribery, and exploitation of personal connections. There were even cases when a Judenrat attempted to take advantage of disputes between different branches of the German administration for their communities’ benefit. Judenrat leaders, including those who had risen to power owing to their personal ambition or pursuit of authority, pressed on with efforts to counter the demands of the Germans even after the establishment of the ghettos and throughout the occupation. Some regarded fulfillment of the Germans’ demands as a way to make their communities appear valuable to German officials, believing that in this way the community would suffer less. By obliging the authorities and carrying out instructions they had been given, these Judenrat leaders hoped to prevent collective punishment and play for time until Germany was defeated. In pursuing this strategy they often had to make painful decisions that contradicted generally accepted norms of public behavior and Jewish religious law.
Painting by M. Schwarz depicting Khayim Mordkhe Rumkowski hovering over the Łódź ghetto, 1942. (Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw)
Most Jews regarded the Judenrat as a necessity, as it provided essential public services at a time of deprivation and dwindling resources. In addition to matters of religion, burial, education, and welfare, which had been the traditional concerns of Jewish communities, the Judenräte had to deal with tasks that had historically been performed by state or municipal authorities, including food supply, employment, housing, public health, sanitation, and even police work and prison administration.
From early 1942, when Germans began deporting Polish Jews to killing centers, the situation of Judenrat leaders became morally unbearable. There were incidents where Judenräte were forced to prepare lists of deportees, while the Jewish ghetto police, which by this time usually operated directly under German command, was forced to assist in the actual evictions. In these cases, Judenräte were forced to make fateful life-and-death decisions regarding their own people—a tragic dilemma the likes of which no representative body of the Jewish public had ever faced. Some tried to stave off deportation by placing their ghettos’ industrial capacity in the German service—a strategy known as “salvation [or rescue] through work.”
In some cases, Judenrat heads assumed the role of reluctant collaborators in deportation, thinking that by sacrificing a part of the ghetto population they might be able to save the rest. Among them were those who understood that their positions and actions generated severe dissent and criticism, and they often stated that after liberation they would be prepared to face the judgment of history and to account publicly for their actions. However, none of the major leaders of Judenräte in Poland survived. Some chose to take their own lives; others were murdered by the Germans even before (or during) the final annihilation.
A clear distinction should be made between Judenräte in the ghettos of major cities, which established bureaucracies that often employed hundreds of people, and those of smaller communities or provincial towns where ghettos were never established. The larger Judenräte and their leaders developed long-range strategies and concepts, whereas those in smaller communities addressed mainly day-to-day, short-term problems. Among the largest ghettos were those in Warsaw (led initially by Adam Czerniaków), Łódź (Khayim Rumkowski), Białystok (Efrayim Barash), Vilna (Jakub Gens), and Kovno (Elkhonen Elkes). The temptation to engage in informing and cooperating with the various branches of the German administration was greater in the Judenräte of the larger ghettos. Here there were criminals and informants who operated as individuals or in groups, mainly among the Jewish policemen who, under the auspices of their German masters, often attempted to dominate the Judenrat. In the smaller communities, on the other hand, the Judenrat usually operated as part of an extended family under siege.
Yitsḥak Zuckerman delivering a speech at a memorial ceremony on the ruins of the former headquarters of the Warsaw ghetto Jewish council (Judenrat), 1947. Standing next to Zuckerman is Adolf Berman. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leah Lahav)
The Judenräte had neither the knowledge nor the tools required to distinguish between local edicts and decisions made by higher echelons in Berlin. This lack of knowledge interfered with their ability to understand and properly interpret the development of the Nazi policy toward Jews and to evaluate current events. In the face of the tragic dilemmas with which they were forced to cope, the Judenrat leaders clung to those local Germans whom they considered to be “good.” These Germans dispensed promises and illusions, which, as far as the Judenräte were concerned, provided the anchor for the salvation of the Jewish community, or at least a chance for partial salvation. In the end, though, no Judenrat leader was able to save a substantial number from his community.
Various attempts have been made to evaluate the history and activities of the Judenräte. Some scholars have questioned whether the Judenrat leaders actually did their best to change the reality for Jews during the Holocaust and whether they had any chance of succeeding. Yet in the final analysis the outcome of the Holocaust was determined by the extermination mechanism of Nazi Germany in Berlin for ideological reasons, and no Jewish leader could have changed that outcome.
In German-allied countries with independent native leaderships, on the other hand, Jewish leaderships sometimes had slightly more room to maneuver. In Slovakia, the Ústredňa Židov (Jewish Central Organization; UZ) was established by the occupation authorities on 26 September 1940. It was charged with managing the lives of Jews in Slovakia after all the prewar Jewish organizations had been abolished. A starosta (elder) headed the organization, which was based in the Slovak capital, Bratislava.
The UZ employed well-known Jewish public figures who extended help to the needy, created jobs, and organized centers for professional training. However, it also included informers and collaborators who gave the organization a bad reputation. The most prominent collaborator was Karl Hochberg, whose department facilitated the deportation of Slovak Jewry in 1942. Finally, the UZ included a clandestine body, known as Pracovná Skupina (the Working Group), whose members initiated help and rescue activities and established links with similar elements outside of Slovakia.
Under pressure from the German legation in Bucharest, the Romanian government established Centrala Evreilor (Center for the Jews; CV), in the style of the Judenräte in Poland, in 1942. To lead the CV the authorities appointed persons who had not previously been prominent in Jewish civic life, and the organization never gained recognition on the part of the Jewish public. At the same time, an underground “Jewish Council,” under the leadership of Wilhelm Filderman and other noted Jewish figures, recorded some impressive accomplishments in preventing the deportation of Romanian Jews.
In Hungary, local authorities established Zsido Tanacs (Council of the Jews; ZT) in Budapest in March 1944, following the German invasion of the country. Samu Stern, one of the leaders of the Neolog movement in Hungarian Jewry and president of the Jewish community of Pest, was appointed as head. The ZT was a central Judenrat that fulfilled various administrative and economic decrees that the Germans imposed on the Jews of Hungary. Some students of the history of the Hungarian Jewry during the Holocaust period charge that the members of this Judenrat knew about the fate of the Jews in various European countries but failed to warn the Jews of Hungary.
Israel Gutman, “Ha-Yudenrat ke-hanhagah,” in Manhig ve-hanhagah, ed. Irad Malkin and Zeev Tsahor (Jerusalem, 1992); Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat (New York, 1972); Aaron Weiss, “Berurim be-she’elat ma‘amadah ve-‘emdoteha shel ha-hanhagah ha-yehudit be-Polin ha-kevushah,” Yad va-shem 12 (1978): 243–266.
RG 116, Territorial Collection: Holland, , 1940-1944, 1946-1955; RG 116, Territorial Collection: Czechoslovakia, , 1938-1945, post-1945; RG 210, Union Generale des Israelites de France (UGIF), Records, 1940-1944; RG 223, Abraham Sutzkever–Szmerke Kaczerginski, Collection, 1806-1945; RG 225, Hersch Wasser, Collection, 1939-1946; RG 241, Nachman Zonabend, Collection, 1939-1944 (finding aid); RG 483, Isaiah Trunk, Papers, 1940-1980; RG 557, Einsatzgruppen, Records, 1941-1942; RG 697, Isaiah Kuperstein, Papers, 1940-1974; RG 718, Karl Löwenthal, Papers, 1939-1945.
Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann