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Warsaw Ghetto: Background & Overview

JUDENRAT (Ger. for "Jewish Council"), a body heading a Jewish community, appointed by the German occupying authorities during World War II, which was responsible for the enforcement of Nazi orders affecting the Jews and for the administration of the affairs of the Jewish community. From its inception, Judenrat leaders faced an impossible dilemma. To the Germans, the Judenrat represented Jewish needs, and they were essentially uninterested in fulfilling or responding to Jewish needs, but the Judenrat was also an instrumentality for maintaining control of the ghetto and thus freeing German personnel for other activities. To the Jews, the function of the Judenrat was to provide for their needs, much like municipal officials, in conditions that were not conducive to fulfilling their needs. The power of the Judenrat was severely limited, fully derivative from their German masters, although it did not necessarily appear so to the Jews within the ghettos of Eastern Europe.

The Nazi leadership came to the conclusion that the existence of comprehensive councils representing all the Jewish factions of a city or state would make the execution of their anti-Jewish policies easier. Such bodies were in existence in Germany, Vienna, and Prague, but they were called by various names other than Judenrat and differed in their varying degrees of dependence on Nazi factors (principally the Gestapo). With the German occupation of Poland in September 1939, the decision to set up bodies under this name was endorsed by the central authorities, and *Heydrich sent this decision to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen in a secret letter dated Sept. 21, 1939, which included the following paragraph: "In each Jewish community a council of Jewish elders is to be set up which, as far as possible, is to be composed of the remaining influential personalities and rabbis. The council is to be composed of (up to) 24 male Jews (depending upon the size of the Jewish community). It is to be made fully responsible (in the literal sense of the word) for the exact and punctual implementation of all instructions released or yet to be released."

Since Heydrich used the term Judenrat, this body came to be known as such, and in many places the head of the council was called Judenaeltester. According to Heydrich's document, the Judenrat was to be responsible for the transportation of Jews from small towns to large concentrations (ghettos) and their settlement there, and for arranging the entrance to and departure from the ghettos. In the course of time the functions of the Judenrat expanded in two directions. After the establishment of the ghettos they were responsible for everything that happened within them. All the institutions that had been in existence beforehand were given new tasks, and additional institutions, as they became appropriate, were created. The Judenrat quickly became the dominant body and controlled the police, court of law, fire brigade, and employment agency, and departments for economic affairs, food supplies, housing, health, social work, statistics, sanitation, burial, education, and religion. The large working staff necessary for these activities was artificially increased on the assumption that a person working for the Judenrat would not be sent to a forced labor camp or elsewhere. In 1942, as resettlement to the East, what we now know as deportation to death camps, began, it was assumed that those working for the Judenrat would be exempt. In addition, the Germans placed upon the Judenrat other duties, principally the supplying of a work force, choosing people for the work camps, and, later in 1942, choosing those to be sent to camps that were in reality death camps. It seemed at first that the Judenrat had wide authority in this extremely difficult task, but it very quickly became apparent that the Germans did not always pay attention to the decisions of the Judenrat, and at the most the Judenrat had only the opportunity to postpone the dispatch to the death camps.

Fully fledged Judenraete were not set up in all occupied areas. The Germans refrained from appointing Judenraete in France, Belgium, and Greece, apparently because they had no intention of annexing these states to Germany. Under German pressure, however, bodies representing the Jews were created there. According to Heydrich's instructions, men of standing in Jewish public affairs, most of whom were active in Jewish political parties and in religious and charitable institutions, were appointed to the Judenrat. Often many appointees were chosen arbitrarily by local officials or because they knew German. When the German-Soviet war broke out (1941), Jews were largely opposed to joining the Judenrat in the occupied cities, though many saw in it a possibility of saving Jews. The German administrators almost always coordinated the council's authority in the hands of theJudenaeltester, and the measure of cooperation given by the other members of the Judenrat to its decisions and activities were contingent upon the character and position of theJudenaeltester. Since he was the direct and often only line to the Germans, he seemed to many in the ghettos to be a ruler with great influence on the Germans, while in reality he had to accept and enforce every German decree without objection. Efforts were made to delay, block, argue, plead, postpone, and alleviate the harshness of the decrees. Sometimes these met with modest temporary success; most often the result was failure.

In every ghetto the defining moments that tested the courage and character of Judenrat leaders came when they were asked to provide lists of those to be deported. A decision had to be made. In some ghettos such as Kovno and Vilna rabbis were consulted, seeing guidance from tradition for an unprecedented situation. In Vilna, Judenrat chairman Jacob Gens proceeded with the deportation, hoping that the loss of some would protect the majority. In Lodz, Chaim Mordechai *Rumkowski felt it his duty to "preserve the Jews who remained …The part that can be saved is much larger than the part that must be given away." He confronted his critics: "You may judge me as you wish." In Sosnowiec, Moshe Merin also complied. When faced with the deportation of the children of Warsaw, Judenrat chairman Adam *Czerniakow closed the ninth book of his diary with a tragic confession of failure: "The SS wants me to kill children with my own hands." This he could not do. He swallowed a cyanide pill and the order for deportation appeared without his signature. Some saw his suicide as an act of personal integrity and public responsibility. Emanuel *Ringelblum was far more harsh: "Suicide of Czerniakow, too late, a sign of weakness – should have called for resistance – a weak man."

Other Judenrat leaders would not deliver their people. Dr. Joseph Parnas, the first Judenrat leader in Lvov, refused to deliver several thousand Jews. He was shot. Leaders of the Judenrat in Bilgoraj were also shot. On October 14, 1941, the entire Judenrat of Bereza Karuska committed suicide. The leader of the Jewish Council at Nieswiez Magalif marched to his death rather than turn Jews over. He said: "Brothers, I know that you had no trust in me. You thought I was going to betray you. In this last minute, I am with you – I and my family. We are the first ones to go to our death."

The membership of the Judenrat changed frequently. Many were incarcerated and sent to death camps even before the final liquidation of the ghettos, or were killed. This even happened to the Judenaeltesten who for some reason would cease to please the German authorities or when, as a matter of principle, they would not carry out German orders, knowing full well that it would cost them their lives. About 40 members of Judenraete committed suicide when they saw that they could do nothing to prevent the transportation of Jews to the death camps. Others felt that, by executing the orders of the Nazis and sending some people to the camps, they would be able to save others until the Nazis were overcome by the Allies. In the end, however, the fate of the Judenrat was the same as that of the Jewish population at large. The majority of them were deported to death camps, and of the Judenaeltesten in Eastern Europe (Poland, the Soviet interior, and the Baltic countries) practically none remained alive. Only in rare circumstances (Holland or Greece, for instance) did the Judenaeltesten receive special treatment.

From its establishment a sharp controversy about the role of the Judenrat spread among Jews. The contemporary assessment in diaries, and most especially among the leadership of the resistance, was often most harsh. Even men of unquestioned integrity, who were trusted by their communities, were shattered by their responsibility. In Kovno, the leader of the Judenrat, Dr. Elchanan Elkes, wrote dispassionately of his situation.

We are trying to steer our battered ship in furious seas, when waves of decrees and decisions threaten to drown it every day. Through my influence I succeeded at times in easing the verdict and scattering some of the dark clouds that hung over our heads. I bore my duties with head high and upright countenance. Never did I ask for pity; never did I doubt our rights … The Germans killed, slaughtered and murdered us in complete equanimity … I saw them when they sent thousands of people – men, women, children, infants to their death – while enjoying their breakfast, and while mocking our martyrs … There is a desert inside me. My soul is scorched. I am naked and empty.

At the end of World War II a negative view of the Judenrat and its members prevailed among members of the underground and the survivors from the camps. In Israel, the Judenrat was viewed as the exemplar of Diaspora weakness, often with scorn. Over time, research has tended to show that the intentions of members of the Judenrat were often guided by a sense of communal responsibility, and that they did not really have the means to foil the methods of the Nazis, who had not only a strong army but also enjoyed the active support of many non-Jews in the local population. These were reinforced by the findings during the *Eichmann trial, and specific research conducted for the trial shed more light on the subject.

[Jozeph Michman (Melkman) /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

Holocaust Historiography's View

The *historiography of the *Holocaust has produced two extreme views regarding the role of the Judenraete ("Jewish Councils"). One view sees them as an instrument of collaboration in the Nazi policy of extermination. Hannah *Arendt made that very argument in her work Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. She charged that, had the Jewish people remained leaderless, they could never have been killed in such massive numbers, the German task would have been far more difficult. The other view regards them as a continuation of the Jewish communal structure of the pre-World War II period which contributed greatly to the continued existence and functioning of Jewish communal life during the Holocaust.

Both of these views stem from inadequate information and a lack of sufficient perspective immediately after the Holocaust. In recent years, however, considerable research has uncovered much new material which enables a more objective view to be taken of the Judenraete. Isaiah Trunk's work on the Judenrat presented a far more complete view of the complexity of their role, the diversity of their composition, their fate, and their decisions. Raul *Hilberg, who had been improperly identified with Arendt's view, introduced theWarsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow with a long and distinguished essay on the Judenrat.

It is now possible to distinguish between the various stages of the Judenrat activities corresponding to the changes which took place in the policy of the Nazis, and, in addition, one can now investigate the differences arising from changes in personnel during the various stages of the Judenraete and their composition.

It is, of course, true that the Judenrat organizations were imposed on Jewish communities as their only central representative bodies, and that the Nazis saw in them an instrument for the realization of their policies, from persecution to total annihilation. But the Jewish leaders could not know that, at least not at the outset. Nevertheless, it now appears that the Jews were not only a passive suffering element in this process, but developed their own initiative. As a result, two aims were in direct conflict with one another – the German and the Jewish.

*Heydrich insisted that important and influential personalities be included in the Judenraete, in order to exploit their influence among the Jews on the one hand, and to discredit them in the eyes of the Jewish populace on the other hand, thus neutralizing a potentially active opposition, The Jewish communities on their part tried to include veteran and devoted leaders in the councils, in order to utilize them for the welfare of the community. This was not an easy task in Poland since many Jewish leaders fled eastward toward the Soviet Union in the face of the advancing Germany armies. There were, indeed, instances of communal workers who were reluctant to join the Judenraete. However, those who joined, whether as a result of Nazi pressure or because of the desire of the community, were most conscious of the experience which the Jews had accumulated during different periods of Diaspora history, when a similar organic framework had been enforced and had lent itself to further the interests of the community. Consequently, during the early period of the Judenraete there was some significant continuity of personnel between the Judenraete and the prewar communal institutions.

An analysis of the composition of 128 Judenraete in the Generalgouvernement (German-occupied Poland) showed that more than 80% of the personnel held similar positions of responsibility and authority in the kehillah, city councils, and other organizations.

The Judenraete developed a wide range of communal activities in which they applied the dual principle of fulfilling the demands of the Nazis (forced labor and financial levies) as well as the needs of the community (health, education, supervision of communal kitchens, aid to refugees and the poor). A sticking point in many ghettos was the relationship of established Jewish leadership to emerging Jewish leadership, whether it be youth groups or the resistance, self-help groups or even those who fought for memory and documentation.

During the early period of their establishment, the Judenraete regarded obedience to the Nazi demands as a means of ensuring the continued survival of their communities, even when they were faced with the tragic contradictions of this situation. Supplying the Nazis with a labor force, which often provided vital supplies to the Germans and enriched local German supervisors, should have strengthened the position of the Jews and prevented attacks on them. However, this labor force strengthened the German war potential at a time when the fate of the Jews depended upon its weakening. Rational policy considerations would have suggested that the ghettos be sustained, but Judenrat leaders did not comprehend the depth of the Nazi commitment to the "Final Solution." During the first period, the Judenraete employed every tactic and subterfuge in order to alleviate the burdens of the community: bribery, protectionism, and exploitation of conflicts between the various German authorities. It should be taken into consideration, however, that the political, social, and psychological conditions which would have made rebellions possible did not exist for the Jewish communities. The members of the Judenraete did not, and could not, know that Nazi policy was destined to reach the stage of mass extermination. Among other factors which militated against a large-scale anti-Nazi resistance movement in the Jewish communities during the early period of German occupation were: the hostile attitude of the surrounding non-Jewish population, which prevented any possibility of effective dispersion or concealment; the collective punishments inflicted by the Nazis; their threats against any budding opposition; and finally, the belief that, as the war progressed, the tide would turn and this would lead to a collapse of the German war machine.

These factors led to the strategy combining the demands of the Germans with provision for the internal needs of the community.

It would be wrong and misleading to describe the relationship between the Judenraete and the Nazis as "collaboration" in any meaningful sense of the term, as "collaboration" implies a degree of partnership, even if an unequal one; its basis is a voluntary agreement between the two parties. This was certainly not the case with the Judenraete and the Nazis – whose relationship was that of a murderer and his victims. The Judenraete were a passive object of pressure in the realm of German policies, and their initiative was used to strengthen the standing of the community within the official framework of Nazi authority and to promote illegal activity.

As soon as the Nazi policy of mass extermination was embarked upon, the Judenraete were no longer able to strike a balance between the demands of the Nazis and the interests of the community. It was at this point that a split occurred in the reactions of the Judenraete. An investigation reveals that 80% of the early Judenraete did not succumb to Nazi pressures. Some refused to carry out the economic decrees, others warned the Jews against imminent aktions, and many refused to hand Jews over for expulsion. The Nazis eliminated those who failed to implement their policies and replaced them with more acquiescing individuals who had a much weaker sense of communal responsibility.

During the later stage, in 89 communities in the Generalgouvernement area, only 40 were headed by individuals who had been associated with communal activity before World War II. The others had no such association with Jewish community life, and it is of interest to note that 23 of them were refugees, some from Germany, Austria, or Czechoslovakia. Even during this latter period, examples of self-sacrifice in the interests of the community were not lacking. However, the number of those who succumbed to Nazi pressure – putting their own personal interest before that of the community – exceeded the number of those who did not. Some of the members of the Judenraete came to the conclusion that, if the Nazis were indeed intent upon the total extermination of the Jews, it might still be possible to save a remnant by acquiescing in, and reconciling oneself to, the destruction of the rest. There was also a policy of deliberate misrepresentation and deceit on the part of the Germans, so as to prevent opposition on the part of their victims, by deluding them into the belief that they were not all being sent to their death. In addition, the members of the Judenrat, even when they had no more doubt as to the fate awaiting those transported, nevertheless harbored another hope – that the course of the war was running in favor of the Allies, and that the approaching victory would result in the liberation of at least that remnant of the Jews which had succeeded in remaining alive.

In conclusion, one can distinguish four lines of Judenrat conduct vis-à-vis the Nazis:

1. Limited cooperation – even in the economic and material spheres.

2. A willingness to acquiesce in Nazi demands when it was merely a question of expropriating Jewish property and of other material pressures, but a total opposition to the handing over of Jews.

3. Reluctantly agreeing to the deportation to near certain death of one part of the Jewish population in the hope that the other part might, as a result, be saved.

4. Complete submission to Nazi demands in order to safeguard the narrow interests of those concerned.

The majority of members of the Judenraete who belonged to the veteran leadership of the community chose to act according to the first two of these lines of conduct. The last two were pursued by relatively few Judenrat leaders and were characteristic of the final stages, when the leaders were men with no communal background or past association with thekehillah. However, it is impossible to indulge in generalizations when judging the actions of the members of the Judenraete. The fact that the framework was forcibly imposed upon the community did not necessarily transform those involved into willing tools of the Nazis. The behavior of each Judenrat must be examined separately and in relation to the different periods of their activity.

In the final analysis, the Judenraete had no influence on the frightful outcome of the Holocaust; the Nazi extermination machine was alone responsible for the tragedy, and the Jews in the occupied territories, most especially Poland, were far too powerless to prevent it.

[Aharon Weiss /

Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]


P. Friedman, in: Yad Vashem Studies, 2 (1958), 95–112; N. Eck, ibid., 6 (1961), 395–430; J. Trunk, ibid., 7 (1968), 147–64; 189–92; R. Hilberg, Destruction of the European Jews (1961) (1985) (2004); Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), 104–10; J. Robinson, And the Crooked Shall be Made Straight (1965), 142–87; G. Hausner, Justice in Jerusalem (1966), index; P. Friedman, in: L. Blau et al. Essays on Jewish Life and Thought (1959), 199–230; J. Trunk, in: Dappim le-Ḥeker ha-Sho'ah ve-ha-Meri, 2 (1969), 119–36; idem, in: Ha-Amidah ha-Yehudit bi-Tekufat ha-Sho'ah (1970), 160–80; idem, Nittuk o Reẓifut be-Va'adei ha-Kehillot ba-Tekufah ha-Naẓit (pub. by: Ha-Ḥug li-Ydi'at Am Yisrael ba-Tefuẓot be-Veit Nesi ha-Medinah, 1 no. 3, 1966); Z.A. Bar-On, Ha-Hanhagah: Derakheha ve-Aḥrayutah (1970), 180–92. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: I. Trunk, Judenrat, The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under the Nazi Occupation (1972); Y. Bauer, Hashlakhot Meḥkar ha-Shoah al Toda'atenu ha-Historit (1973); A. Weiss, in: Yalkut Moreshet, 15 (1973); R. Hilberg, S. Staron, and J. Kermisz, The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow (1979).



Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.