The Judenrat

By Jacob Shaw

The Judenrat, or Jewish councils, were the civilian authorities set up into the ghettos that were under the control of the Generalgouverement which was the administration unit set by the Nazi’s in Poland.[1] According to the order given by Hans Frank, the governor-general of the Generalgouvernement, the Judenrat for each district was to be elected by the respected members of the Jewish community which was a luxury that was not afforded to many of those under Nazi control.[2] The role of the Judenrat was to be a representats for individual Jews as well as the Jewish community as a whole, and they were the only ones that would have communication with the authorities. The Judenrat of some ghettos tried to deal with the conflicts within the community in the same manner as they had in the past, but only to an extent as the Germans orders could not be evaded entirely. They were given a demanding range of tasks to take care of within the community in the beginning, and later on, once the ghettos were firmly established, the Judenrat became responsible for the normal responsibilities of the municipal governments such as housing, employment, and sanitation.  On the other hand, in a situation where Jews had lost almost all traces to legal rights, the Judenrat was also an outlet for individuals to be heard. However, the Germans had total control of the Judenrat when it came to all major decisions. The chairmen who tried to oppose or fight against the German policies would be removed from office and replaced with another member of the Jewish community who would go along with all of the decrees given. One such example would be when Marek Biberstein, the chairmen of Krakow Judenrat, tried to bribe the German authorities after being tasked with the resettling of more Jews within his district.[3] He was removed from office and sent to a labor camp and later died in a concentration camp. Often times, the decrees were intended to inflict harm on the Jewish population which made it a very difficult situation for the chairmen. Many chairmen believed that there power could be used to help change the Germans belief that the Jews were a dispensable work force. Others thought that there new found role could be used to alleviate the situation and later on save some of the Jews from the “Final Solution,” which they had some control over, by coming to an understanding with the German authorities. The Judenrat was in charge of creating the Jewish Police within their ghettos which was something they were not accustomed to. These Police forces would later play a large role in the deportations of many Jews to the concentrations and death camps which has been an area of much controversy. Many times the Judenrat tried to save lives, while at the same time deciding who lived and who died. The thinking behind this selection process was that the sacrificing of some would help the rest of the population to be saved[4]. A task such as this seemed to be of impossible nature, but compared to being persecuted themselves and allowing the entire community to be destroyed it seems to be the only option. They preserved as much as they could of the Jewish traditions, but in the end the Nazi’s had complete control. Essentially, the Judenrat was simply a smokescreen for the Nazi decrees.

[1] Czeslew, Madajczyk, “General gouvernement,” ed. Israel Gutman. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 549-550.

[2] Israel Gutman, “The Jews in Poland,” ed. Israel Gutman, The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 1151-1176.

[3] Trunk, I. Judenrat: The Jewish Council I Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation. New York, 1972.

[4] Israel Gutman, “The Jews in Poland,” ed. Israel Gutman, The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (New York: Macmillan, 1990), 1151-1176.


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