The Jewish Councils, called Judenräte established by the Germans everywhere immediately after they occupied a country, constituted a satanic invention. Indeed they served to use the Jews as instruments for their own annihilation, as we shall see.
The Judenräte (plural of Judenrat) originated in 1939 in Poland, after that country succumbed to Hitler's Blitzkrieg.
On September 21st of that year, Heydrich Reinhard, chief of the SS Security Service, and assistant to Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS ( Storm Troopers, Hitler's Elite Army) sent the following instructions to the Corps commanders of his "Einsatzgruppen" ( mobile troops):
In each community a council of Jewish elders is to be set up. It is to be composed, as far as possible, of the remaining influential persons and rabbis. Depending on the size of the community, they should number up to twenty-four male members. This council is to be made fully responsible (in a literal sense of the word) for the exact and punctual implementation of all instructions released or yet to be released by us.
In keeping with these instructions, Judenräte were established throughout Hungary. It was enjoined to their members that they were to cooperate with the SS in order to avoid trouble for themselves as well as for their coreligionists. Thus, the members of these Jewish councils were put into a very special position, one which burdened them with tremendous responsibilities and aroused painful conflicts in their souls. The conflict imposed on them, namely whom to sacrifice first by designating him for deportation could be compared to the plight of a mother who would be asked which of her two sons she wished to save by sacrificing the other son. (A hypothesis which refers to an actual fact repeated during the Nazi era).
The reassurance given to the members of the Jewish Council to the effect that their fellow Jews would be spared any harm provided they obeyed the orders was a trick aimed at lulling the intended victims into security so that they may be deported to the extermination camps without giving any trouble to the authorities. Imagine the situation; hundreds of thousands of people living in terror, knowing that they are at the mercy of their worst enemies, fearing the worst. The enemies in question tell the leaders of these people that they have nothing to fear provided they obey their orders. The Jews, who had every reason to be pessimistic, are overjoyed; so it won't be as bad as they had feared, it will be possible to survive, to live with the new masters! They cling to this thin thread of hope, they will go out of their way to show their cooperation ... No trouble, no resistance is to be expected on their part whatever the demands of the Germans, whatever the measures taken by them may be.
How this deceit of the Jewish population through the intermediary of the Jewish Councils was carried out was demonstrated to me when the Judenrat was constituted in my native city of Kolozsvár. The report was spread in the ghetto that soon all inmates would be transported to camps in the "Motherland" (Hungary, as that country was called after World War I). There conditions would be better, all could be required to do only light labor.
Had the real facts, the real plans of the Nazis been known, many would have tried to escape to Rumania. Extreme desperation might even have prompted some to try armed resistance. All this was averted, thanks to the use of the Jewish Council. After all, prominent Jews, respected by the community, were telling their fellow Jews that no great harm would come to them, that by following orders they might even be spared the dangers and hardships of the wars
The members of the Jewish Council of Kolozsvár were to transmit orders communicated to them in such short intervals that it had hardly any time to assure their immediate execution. All places of worship and other buildings to be used by the German military were to be evacuated. All welfare funds collected by the Jewish organizations were to be handed over to the occupying power. All Jewish schools were to be closed. Jewish labor had to be made available upon immediate demand. These were the initial orders. Others followed shortly thereafter. Eventually all Jews were departed even faster than the Germans had originally planned, thanks to the overzealous efforts of their Hungarian accomplices, namely Undersecretaries Endre and Baky, the members of the Council along with the others.
Philip Freudiger, a former member of the Jewish Council in Budapest, escaped with his family to Rumania. I met him in Bucharest and he related to me the facts concerning the formation and operation of the Jewish Council in Budapest. On March 19, 1944, two German SS officers appeared at the offices of the Jewish community and requested an immediate meeting with officers of both Jewish congregations, the orthodox and modern sections. The meeting was hurriedly arranged. Freudiger was present at that meeting. It was attended by a certain Obersturmführer Krumey and Hauptsturmführer Wysliceni, and they were accompanied by two other SS officers. Obersturmführer Krumey occupied the president's seat. Next to him was seated Wysliceni and one of the SS officers; the second officer was standing behind them with his gun pointed towards the officers of the congregations.
Following the identification of the Jewish participants, the presiding SS officer informed the representatives of the congregations that as of that moment all Jewish affairs would be administered by the SS and the SD (the German security force). Furthermore, Krummy informed the Jewish representatives that they would be individually and collectively responsible for the strict implementation of all instructions handed to them, and also that it would be their responsibility to maintain calm and order among the Jewish population. If they cooperated with the German authorities, no serious harm would occur to their coreligionists. A second meeting was ordered for the next day, to be attended by all the leaders of Jewish cultural institutions of the communities.
The cooperation on the German side was of a peculiar nature. On the twentieth and twenty-first of this month of March, 1944, a group of Jews were taken from their homes and transported to the Jewish theological seminary by the SS. There they were kept under constant surveillance. The names of the people arrested had been selected from a rather lengthy list. Who had supplied the SS with that list was never discovered. The men taken into custody ranged from physicians and businessmen to wealthy individuals, but also others who could by no means be considered as prominent men. They were to be hostages of the Germans for the strict, immediate and complete execution of their demands.
Freudiger then told me what happened further. Like in our own city of Kolozsvár the Germans strangled Jewish life by shutting off all Jewish institutions. They did so without attracting any attention, proceeding against each institution one by one. They closed down now a school, now a temple; then again ordered the evacuation of a hospital, a seminary. All Jewish property was confiscated. In this respect there seemed to be a rivalry between Germans and Hungarians. As we have related in a previous chapter, the Hungarian government also ordered the confiscation of all Jewish assets and incomes from whatever source they might have came. In addition, the German secret police was constantly on the alert, ready to arrest Jews at random. As a result the pulse of daily life came to a quick stop in the Jewish community. Synagogues were no longer visited since worshipers were arrested on the spot and deported to the concentration camp of Kistarcsa. Jews did not dare to communicate with each other. They remained hidden in their apartments, living in complete solitude. Their telephones were cut off by decree of the government. They did not dare to show themselves on the streets. In fact, Eichmann made it his favorite sport to arrest Jews and deport them for the sole purpose of striking terror into Jewish hearts.
In Hungary the liquidation of the Jewish population proceeded faster than elsewhere in Europe. We have already told the reason for this. Undersecretary Endre, in charge of Jewish Affairs, was racing against time. He realized that the Germans had lost the war and knew that public opinion would soon turn against the occupants. He wished to finish with the Jewish question before the Allies had finished with the Germans and their Hungarian accomplices. It seems now, from a historical perspective, that the fate of more than eight hundred thousand Hungarian Jews had been decided because of a sort of personal vendetta of one rabid anti-Semite. This could happen, as we have pointed out, because of the inertia and the indifference of the outside world. As to the Hungarian Judenräte, no other Jewish organization anywhere was exposed to so much criticism after the war. This went so far as to accusing them of cooperation with the Nazis in the systematic extermination of the Jewish population of Hungary. A number of books have been published that are concerned with the tragedy of Hungarian Jewry. The best known of them are Reitlinger's The Final Solution, and Raoul Hilberg's The Destruction of European Jews." Both treat the question of the responsibility of the Hungarian Judenräte in a one-sided way, presenting only the charges against the latter without taking into account the extenuating circumstances in their defense. The reason for this is that at the time of the publication of these books, the authors could rely only on source materials that were based on data either unproven or insufficiently proved. After World Wax II the archives that could have established the truth about the events were not yet open to historians. Now, however, Dr. Randolph L. Braham, professor at the City University of New York, jointly with the World Federation of Hungarian Jews, is making serious efforts to write objective history with reference to the role of the Hungarian Jewish Councils and to the tragedy of Hungarian Jews in general. Recently the third volume of Hungarian Jewish Studies was published under the editorship of Professor Braham. It presents for the first time the statements made by members of the councils, along with a description of the circumstances under which they operated. The publication of the statements of the former members of the councils and that of the charges leveled against them will have to be weighed against each other. The fact seems to emerge from the reading of this third volume of Jewish studies that the council members undoubtedly committed many mistakes, and that their judgment had not always been the best. This does not mean that they were guilty of collaboration with the Nazis. One also has to take into account the fact that the deportation of the Jews of Hungary was accomplished in great haste and that no one, not even people close to the occupants or to the circles of the Hungarian government knew exactly what was planned from one day to the other.
Dr. Rudolf Kastner, about whose role in the negotiations with Eichmann we have already spoken, summarized the activities of the judenräte in Hungary as follows, "The process by which the members of the Councils became gradually more and more submissive to the Nazis can be ascribed to the systematic and deceptive methods employed by the Nazis. Step by step they were made tractable. In the beginning relatively unimportant things were asked of them; replaceable things of material value like possessions, money and apartments. Later, however, the personal freedom of the human being was demanded. Finally, the Nazis asked for life itself. This gradualism in demands, coupled with ever increasing terror, was an ingenious and effective physiological device."
Though the plan of extermination of the Jews was the same throughout Europe, the methods employed to this end varied. The relying on the Judenrat as a convenient intermediary for the organization of the deportations was general, but then again the scope of their operations, the time allotted to them, the means at their disposal to help their coreligionists were different. In Western Europe the Judenrat was in charge of the administration of the ghettos. In Poland, at the beginning of the occupation of that country by the Nazis, the Jewish Council had a certain latitude to help the inmates of the ghettos.
The survivors of the Wlodowa Ghetto in Poland revealed the following facts. The Jewish Council selected from the ghetto people to be transported to an unspecified location for work. As these people never came back, the suspicion that they were murdered arose soon.
Rabbi Leiner, the well-known rabbi of Radzyn, had a talk with the members of the Jewish Council and said to them, "Why don't you tell the people the truth? If they knew it, some may decide to resist: some may attempt to run away to a nearby forest; no matter what chances they might take, they would know what is awaiting them."
However, the members of the Jewish Council were under terrible pressure by the Gestapo to keep silent as to the ultimate destination of the people they sent away. Thereupon, Rabbi Leiner himself went among the people and told them the truth. This caused great agitation and unrest among the inhabitants of the ghetto. The SS became aware of the fact that the rabbi was arousing the people. They decided to make an example of his punishment.
One day in June, 1942, the SS called together the people of the ghetto and led them to the marketplace in the city. There, in front of all those assembled, young and old, Rabbi Leiner was hanged. His last words were the beginning of the ancient Jewish prayer, "Shema Yisroel Adonoy Eloyhenoo Adonoy Echod," "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is Our God, the Lord is One:" The public at the feet of the gallows had to attend the convulsions and final agony of the holy man, after which they were returned to the ghetto. A few of them succeeded subsequently in fleeing to Warsaw and some joined partisan groups. Of course, the immense majority of the ghetto people were annihilated, including the members of the Jewish Council.
In retrospect, one is disinclined to condemn the council members in the ghettos of Hungary or elsewhere for not being sincere with their fellow Jews. They lived under superhuman pressure. Whatever they did, someone would have to be sacrificed. The conflicts and dramas in the souls of these men were extraordinarily intense. It is understandable that most of them thought that by obeying the Germans, their own lives would be spared. Who would have the greatness to rise above such a thought in their situation? Also, one must take into account that by disobeying the Germans they risked entailing horrible retaliation against the very same people they tried to protect. The example of Rabbi Leiner is conclusive in this respect. It is known that they were torn apart by contradictory forces, incapable of standing the mental torture. They were suffering great mental anguish which caused a number of the members of the various Jewish Councils to commit suicide.
The concept and organization of the Judenräte were, as we have pointed out in the beginning of this chapter, a diabolical invention, worthy of the German Nazis.