The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Judenrate and the Final Solution

Adolph Eichmann began his emigration plans using the Judenrate and Dr.Lowenherz in Vienna, the Nazis used the Jewish leaders in most European cities and the ghettos of the Eastern Occupied Territories and Poland to provide a census of their Jewish populations. These Judenrate were also required to provide lists of names -- Jews to be transported to the death camps -- and to provide Jewish police to enforce the collection of their people. It would not have been possible for the Nazis to have killed so many Jews in such a short time without the co-operation of the Junderate. This is an awkward historical truth, as revealed by historians such as Raul Hilberg and Hanna Arendt.16 As historian Raul Hilberg states:
"As time passed by, the Jewish councils became increasingly impotent in their efforts to cope with the welfare efforts of their task, but they made themselves felt all the more in their implementation of Nazi decrees. With the growth of the destructive function of the Judenrate, many Jewish leaders felt an almost irresistible urge to look like their German masters. In March 1940 a Nazi observer in Krackow was struck by the contrast between the poverty and filth in the Jewish quarter and the business like luxury of the Jewish community headquarters, which was filled with beautiful charts, comfortable leather chairs, and heavy carpets. In Warsaw the Jewish oligarchy took to wearing boots. In the Lodz ghetto "dictator" Rumkowski printed postage stamps bearing his likeness and made speeches which contained expressions such as "my children," "my factories," and "my Jews." 17

It would appear that the desire to live often overruled all moral considerations. This observation can be made not only of the Jewish individuals who were leaders but of the Jewish population as a whole, and indeed, of the German population also. Many people lived with fear and persecution during the war; under these circumstances morality did not offer a safe refuge.

Arendt also points out that many of Eichmann's Judenrate "experts" in emigration, including Dr. Paul Eppstein and Rabbi Leo Baeck from Berlin and Rabbi Benjamin Murmelstein from Vienna, later became Jewish Elders in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. This was a camp for privileged, old or infirm Jews, and Jews with money who could buy their way in. Both Rabbi Murmelstein and Rabbi Baeck survived the war at Theresienstadt.18 Although there were still thousands of Theresienstadt internees forwarded to the gas chambers, Jews with influence sometimes survived.

Historian Gerald Reitlinger notes that 109 members of Berlin's Jewish council were deported to Theresienstadt, along with Rabbi Baeck, who was known to Eichmann's people as the fuhrer of the Berlin Jews, (according to historian Raul Hilberg). In fact, Rabbi Baeck survived to meet a surprised Eichmann, who had worked with him in Berlin. Historian Gerald Reitlinger quotes Eichmann as saying to Rabbi Baeck: "I understand now, a man who gets himself entered as dead, lives longer." 19 At Theresienstadt and in the ghettos, the Jewish councils put together official transport lists, which included the age, sex, profession and country of origin of Jews to be sent to death. This matter later became somewhat embarrassing at Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem, in 1961. According to Baron Philip von Freudigen of Budapest, a past member of the Budapest Judenrate who testified at Eichmann's trial, if the Jews had not followed the advice of their Jewish councils, about half of the Jews who were exterminated during the war could have saved themselves. In Holland alone, for example, 103,000 Jews -- collected by the Jewish councils -- were deported by train to the death camps. Only 519 returned.20

It is not the case that there were no risks for the Judenrate; most of them were transported to Auschwitz as the ghettos were emptied but, again, the question of their moral position is controversial. Some of these elders were accused of profiting from their positions, and in some cases of turning into despots. For example, Mordechai Haim Rumkowski, in the Lodz ghetto, was criticized as a despot for striking Jews and for calling himself a king. Rumkowski ran the ghetto as a personal fiefdom until he was transported to Auschwitz in 1944.21

Romania and Hungary

Romania was described even by Hitler as a country that outdid Germany in the severity of its dealings with the Jewish population. Romanian concentration camps were run by the Romanians, not the SS, which led Eichmann to demand at the German foreign office in April 1942 that they stop these unorganized and premature Romanian efforts "to get rid of the Jews." 22

Marshal Ion Antonescu, the leader of Romania, was the first in Europe to deprive all Jews of their nationality and to initiate large scale massacres. He was responsible for the Odessa massacre -- in which 26,000 Jews were killed in three days -- in retaliation for a bomb that killed 220 Romanian and German army personnel in Odessa on October 22, 1942.23

Antonescu also pre-empted Germany in his attempts to sell the Jews -- a year before Himmler's "blood for trucks" proposals to the Red Cross. 24It can be argued, therefore, from the history of anti-semitism in Romania, that the ideology of Nazism was not the major cause of the breakdown of moral standards in the rest of Europe. The fact that Romania, acted independently of Germany against the Jews reinforces the thesis that such a moral breakdown can occur anywhere -- given the right circumstances.

In Hungary, Europe's most rapid and extensive deportation of Jews by train to the concentration camps occurred. Eichmann directed this process with help from the gestapo, but here again, the Hungarian gendarmerie and the Jewish councils assembled the lists of Jews for transportation. 26In 46 days, approximately 250 to 300,000 Hungarian Jews were gassed in the summer of 1944, immediately upon their arrival at Auschwitz in Poland. Dr. Rudolph Kastner, the former associate vice president of the Zionist Association of Hungary, survived the war after he had co-operated with Eichmann in organizing the deportations in Hungary. Kastner was murdered in Jerusalem in 1957. Hilberg also quotes Eichmann as stating in his memoirs that Kastner:

"...agreed to keep the Jews from resisting deportation -- even keep order in the camps -- if I would close my eyes and let a few thousand young Jews emigrate illegally to Palestine. It was a good bargain." 26
The Judenrate in Hungary was not the only problem that those attempting to rescue the Jewish people had to face. Hilberg notes that the Allies were sent a proposal by the Jewish leaders of Bratislava that they bomb specific railway junctions on the Kosice -Presove-Silina-Bouhumin line, which would severely disrupt the German transports to Auschwitz, but the Jewish leaders never received a reply.27 There is also the distasteful story of Joel Brand, a leader of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Hungary. In 1944 Brand was offered a deal by Eichmann: 1,000,000 Jews for Goods. Brand was immediately sent to Istanbul by the Jewish leaders in Hungary where he tried to contact the Allies through the Jewish Agency. Brand was put on a train to Allepo but British agents intercepted him. He was interrogated for several days but no counter offer was made to the Germans, even though Moshe Shertok, Chief of the political department of the Jewish Agency, flew to London after being present at the interrogation. Again the Allies made no move to help the Jews.

It is difficult to understand why this opportunity was not pursued. A moral decision in London did not have to be made under the threat of the gestapo. So why did the allies not offer to bomb the rail lines or help Brand instead of taking him prisoner?28 Historian David Wyman, in his review of how feasible bombing Auschwitz would have been for the Allies, suggests that they had the capability. On Sunday August 27, 1944, 127 US Flying Fortresses dropped over 1,336 500-lb bombs on the Buna and synthetic fuel plants in Auschwitz, less than five miles from the gas chambers. And as Wyman also notes, Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg had escaped from Auschwitz in April 1944 and made their way to the Allies. Their detailed report on the location and conditions of all parts of the Auschwitz camp had reached London by June 15, 1944.29

© 1999 Martin Rose, No reproduction of this document is allowed without the author's permission

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