The Jewish Councils
In his Schnellbrief of 21 September 1939, Reinhard Heydrich ordered the establishment of Jewish Councils of Elders (“Ältestenräte”) or Jewish Councils (“Judenräte”) as a central organ to disseminate and fulfil German orders and organize Jewish life. [Document A01] They were supposed to have up to 24 members, depending on the size of the respective Jewish community. In many cases the pre-war leaders of the communities had fled eastwards and German officials appointed the chairmen of the new Councils. Some Councils were already established under military administration, but General Governor Hans Frank issued a central decree by the end of November 1939. About 400 Jewish Councils were established in occupied Poland, representing Jewish communities of various sizes (from 500 to almost 500.000). A variety of chairmen represented these Councils and there were also huge differences concerning their way of dealing with the situation. The attitude the average Jewish population exhibited towards their officials also differed, ranging from respect to hatred and contempt.
The idea of having a Jewish institution organizing life and being responsible for the implementation of the anti-Jewish measures was not new. A similar model had already been used in the cases of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde in Vienna and the Reichsvereinigung in Germany. In Vienna, Eichmann and his colleagues had successfully applied this system. It made everything much easier for the German administration if Jewish officials were responsible. They were the targets for all Jewish anger; there were even ghettos where Jews hardly ever saw any Germans but thought of the Jewish leadership as the persons responsible for their misery.
In the larger ghettos such as Lodz, Warsaw, Krakow or Lwów, a large and sophisticated Jewish administration was created. These Councils organized the food supply, work, medical care, culture, education and more aspects of life in the ghettos. To maintain order and to fight smuggling there was also a Jewish police, the so called Order Service (Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst). Most of the time, the Jewish administration´s situation was desperate: with only few resources at their disposal, they tried to take care of the ghetto population. At the same time they had to engage in their permanent struggle with the German authorities, whom they were responsible to and who had to approve almost everything the Jewish Councils wanted to organise. Many of the chairmen saw work for the German economy as the only way of saving the Jewish population; the "Judenräte" thus created factories and workshops in the ghettos. Well known examples for this strategy are Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz or Ephraim Barasz in Bialystok [see chapter d) Work].
Whereas in occupied Poland there was a period until the end of 1941 in which life could be organized without the permanent threat of deportations, ghettos in the occupied Soviet territories from the very beginning had to deal with the problem of maintaining life in the ghettos in the face of mass murder.
Many conflicts between these officials and the “normal” Jewish population arose. In order to prevent further exasperating the situation, many Jewish functionaries advocated that cooperation was necessary. Rumkowski, for instance, even argued that he had to choose those marked for deportation himself together with his administration, in order to limit the losses – the transports went to the Kulmhof (Chelmno) extermination camp, where the victims were killed upon arrival.
The capabilities of the Judenräte to exert influence were extremely limited, as some more well-known examples can demonstrate. Upon his nomination to head the Jewish Council by the Polish major of Warsaw, the engineer Adam Czerniakow had still written in his diary: “A historic role in a besieged city. I will try to live up to it.” Yet circumstances after the Germans entered the city never permitted him to live up to this role. Until the summer of 1942 he tried to organise life in the largest ghetto set up by the Nazis. When they called on him to organise the deportation of the Jews of Warsaw to the Treblinka extermination camp on 22 July 1942, he took his own life. However, this did not change the fact that the population was sent to their deaths.
In Krakow, the capital of the General Government, which was formed in October 1939, the first head of the Judenrat was Marek Bieberstein. He was a respected personality, tried to intervene in favour of the Jewish population, which resulted in his arrest in the summer of 1940. The Stadthauptmann of Krakow selected his successor, the lawyer Artur Rosenzweig, in autumn 1940. As he was not sufficiently cooperative during the deportations to the Belzec extermination camp, he was himself deported and murdered in June 1942. His successor Dawid Gutter obviously implemented German orders satisfactorily. According to the investigations of Aharon Weiss, this corresponds to a typical pattern: He distinguishes first, second and third Judenräte. The latter are almost universally rated negatively by the survivors. Yehuda Bauer emphasises “the irresolvable dilemmas these Judenräte were faced with”. Lawrence Langer calls it the “choiceless choice”. Ultimately they had to fail as survival was not intended within the system they were forced to act in. It was thus almost never possible to act “correctly”.
The Jewish Councils were not the only official body trying to organise life under German occupation. Already during the beginning of the German occupation various attempts at organising social aid began. Existing and newly formed organisations sprang into active. The most important social aid institution in occupied Poland was Jewish Self-Help (German: Jüdische Soziale Selbsthilfe / JSS, Polish: Żydowska Samopomoc Społeczna / ŻSS) with its main office in Krakow. Unlike the Judenräte, the foundation of this institution occurred due to Jewish initiatives. Many ghetto inhabitants viewed Self-Help as the organisation which cared about the poorest of the poor; in their view, this was less true of the Jewish Councils.
Shortly after the start of the war, the existing Jewish aid organisations had joined up in a coordinating commission. This commission was in turn included in Warsaw's Committee of Social Self-Help for the Capital (Stołeczny Komitet Samopomocy Społecznej). Since February 1940, the commission in charge of Jewish social aid called itself Jewish Self-Help and in May, the German authorities officially recognised the organisation. Together with a Polish and a Ukrainian Committee, the JSS was subordinate to the Main Aid Committee for the Occupied Polish Areas (Haupthilfsausschuss für die besetzten polnischen Gebiete). In July 1940, all Jewish aid organisations were forcibly dissolved and subordinated to the control of the JSS. Jewish Self-Help was subordinate to the Home Affairs Department (Hauptabteilung Innere Verwaltung) of the Government General and was subject to regular reporting.
In the county towns there were county committees of the JSS, while branches providing local social aid were set up in most larger localities. They set up communal kitchens and hospitals, engaged in aid for children and the elderly as well as supporting those in particular need with financial aid. One of the central duties was usually support for refugees who were often bereft of any property or contacts. They required clothing and food as well as housing.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint) was the most important supporter of the JSS, aiding it both financially and with food shipments; the declaration of war against the USA in December 1941 reduced this assistance considerably. In Warsaw the importance of the Joint was enormous, as the aid organisation not only handed out financial support payments, but also ran its own kitchens and refugee houses. Additionally, the German administration assigned a fixed 18 percent of the payments given to the Haupthilfsausschuss of the entire Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian population to the JSS. The JSS president, Michael Weichert, reported that the JSS had a budget of one million Zloty per month at its disposal. Additionally various foreign aid organisations such as the International Red Cross sent aid shipments.
Many Jewish aid institutions from the pre-war period were also active within the ghettos; they were increasingly incorporated either into the Jewish Councils or the JSS.
During the summer of 1942 the occupier formally dissolved the JSS; attempts at continuing its activities led to the establishment of the Jüdische Unterstützungsstelle (JUS) on 16 October 1942; however, the JUS was dissolved as well in December 1942. The house committees were peculiar to the Warsaw ghetto: They dealt with the supply of individual blocks of houses. For a time, there were more than 2000 such committees; in January 1942, there were 1108 house committees in which thousands of people volunteered. Partially, these committees were financed with lotteries, theatre or other performances, which were delivered in the courtyards after the curfew came into effect. Additionally, the inhabitants of a house were supposed to support the local committee with payments and goods, such as food and clothing. Many members of Social Self-Help in Warsaw were also members of the Underground Archive „Oyneg Shabes“ [see also About the Sources].