On November 18, 1939, the German governor-general of newly conquered Poland, Hans Frank, ordered all Jewish communities under occupation to organize Judenraete (“Jewish councils”) to act as middlemen between themselves and the occupying forces. The idea of Jewish self-rule, and of mediators representing individual communities vis-à-vis the local nobility or central government, goes back to Medieval times, which is also where the term “Judenraete” has its origins.
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In theory, a Judenrat, whose size depended on the overall size of the ghetto it served, was democratically elected by the community members it represented. But the Germans reserved the right to approve the councils’ composition, and they saw to it that their leaders would be figures of recognized authority within the communities.
Inevitably, the Judenraete became one of the most controversial Jewish institutions to emerge from the Holocaust: Wishing to ameliorate the suffering of their people, even playing for time in the desperate hope that the Germans would be defeated, in practice, the council representatives were forced to carry out the Nazis’ dirty work for them. Initially, this meant setting up the ghettos where Jews were forced to move in every town or village in Poland, the Soviet Union, and parts of Western Europe that were conquered by the Third Reich. Later, it included distributing the meager rations provided for ghetto residents, gathering fines levied by the occupiers, supplying teams of forced laborers on demand, or eventually choosing candidates for deportation.
There were inevitably those who used their relatively privileged positions for the material benefit of their families and colleagues. But even the most well-intended of Judenrat officials were dependent on the occupiers for information (and everything else), and their powers did not extend beyond what served the purposes of the Germans at any given time. More than that, the councils also were responsible for organizing internal police forces to carry out the enforcement work imposed on the communities. Resisting or refusing the orders of the occupiers was generally not an option.
At the same time, the Jewish councils organized welfare and educational services within the ghettos – schools, hospitals, orphanages, old-age homes – with the minimal resources at their disposal. They also provided the more mundane services of a local government, such as transportation or fuel distribution. When resistance organizations began to come into existence, their relationships with the councils varied from one community to another. In some cities, the Judenrat heads saw armed underground activity as risking the safety of the entire community, which led to violent clashes between the two groups of Jews. In such places as Kovno and Minsk, on the other hand, the council cooperated and even participated with the resistance. Attitudes toward resistance often softened as it became clearer that a community faced imminent deportation or destruction.
A study by historian Isaiah Trunk concluded that 80 percent of Judenrat members in Eastern Europe died either before or during the deportations; 12 percent survived the Holocaust.