A question that gets asked a lot is, “Why is it that Team Blue’s turn toward anti-semitism has not significantly driven Jews out of the party?” It’s a reasonable question, and I gave a partial answer some time ago in a Jewsday Tuesday, a desire among the upper and upper middle classes to demonstrate their virtue as a way of expiating their feelings of guilt over their good fortunes, all encouraged by actual Jewish traditions of charity and “healing the world.” There’s also the concept (very flawed) of the “self-hating Jew”; this is a particularly ridiculous term for a real phenomenon, given that the people who are described this way generally think quite highly of themselves, they just dislike OTHER Jews. But it goes a bit beyond all that, I think. Since people love drawing historic parallels, I’ll do the same by reminding us of the Judenrat.
The Judenrat came about during the ghettoization of Europe under the Germans. The basic concept was a group of Jews selecting themselves as intermediaries between the Germans and the ghetto residents. The Judenrat would essentially act as a local government to make sure that the ghetto residents behaved themselves and didn’t piss off the Germans too much by acting up, or Yahweh forbid, rebelling. By this means, they hoped to curry favor with the Germans by helping to enforce German law and restrictions within their community. This sort of structure had a long tradition in European Jewish areas for much of the period of Christian rule; it was not an innovation of WWII, although its formalization (if not its authority) was dictated by the Germans.
Whence, then, derived their authority? The Judenrat were mostly populated by rabbis and other prominent citizens (upper class and upper middle class- sound familiar?), who felt that “go along to get along” was the best policy- of course, the fact that they had their social positions (and fortunes) at stake had no bearing on their decision to bow down to the Powers That Be. Perish that thought. The basic concept was the rationalization of cooperating with one’s enemies for some sense of reward.
It might be monetary, it might be survival with other people being killed, it might be a sense of moral self-satisfaction. Hey, if others suffer but you prosper or at least escape the fate befalling your community, what’s wrong with that?
The historian Hannah Arendt caused great consternation by observing:
Wherever Jews lived, there were recognized Jewish leaders, and this leadership, almost without exception, cooperated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis. The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had been really unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and half and six million people.
Unintentional libertarianism, but nonetheless, her point was sound.
Here’s excerpts from meetings of the Judenrat of Bialystock (source: Yad Vashem):
More than eight months have already passed since the fence made a special “kingdom” for us, the Jewish ghetto. In this “kingdom” the Judenrat carries out the duties of a “government,” and we, the Jewish police, must carry out the difficult task of keeping order and maintaining quiet in the ghetto. I asked Engineer Barash several times to arrange talks with the population of the ghetto. The thing is this: the regulations of the authorities are not being properly observed. Perhaps I am at fault myself, I am too soft and moderate, and our people do not take into account that we are Jews. The evening curfew is not observed punctually: one must go to bed at 9 o’clock, one is not allowed to be in the street. Not keeping the regulations may cause somebody to be shot; and Jews often take a walk after the curfew hour. The yellow badge is not worn properly, one forgets it in front, and the next forgets it at the back. The same happens about the black-out. There have been cases of whole houses lit up like for a celebration. There has already been a tragic case in the ghetto: a woman was shot in her home when the room was badly blacked out. The Jews are a stiff-necked people. Street-trading never stops, especially on Kupiecka Street, and all our efforts do not help. That shows the need for a firm hand. There are telephone calls from the 4th [Police] Station outside the ghetto that Jewish children have been caught without yellow badges and without papers and that can cause a tragedy on some occasion. Parading up and down the street with children in colored baby carriages could also cause much annoyance. Let the mothers stop doing it.
Groups of Jews gather around the gates of the ghetto and don’t go away even when the Germans chase them off, and the Jews might even be shot. Cleanliness is not satisfactory either. Thousands are spent on cleaning, and it is dirty again by the next morning; people don’t take care, they don’t want to know that that is a danger. And again, thousands of Jews go to work, work in the sweat of their brows, and at the same time many others avoid work in various ways. The house committees are obliged to hand over such cases so that the members of the Jewish Police need not catch passers-by in the street and start fighting with Jews. That brings no credit either to the population or to the Jewish Police. If things go on like this for much longer, there is likely to be a catastrophe, for anyone who wants to live must work!
I am full of admiration for the close harmony that reigns between the members of the Judenrat. Differences of opinion simply do not happen. All our decisions and actions are unanimous.The Judenrat did not start out as what it is today: It developed in time as it worked, thanks to the efforts of its first members who created everything that we now have. As I said, we were not chosen by anybody. The respected Eng. Barash convinced us to accept the great and difficult duties because he understood the needs of the hour. Now it has become a government, so to say, with all the offices, departments, ministers. The official chairman, Dr. Rosenman, walks around by himself to find workers for the Germans. He has gone through a great deal. His most important contribution was to have appointed the respected Eng. Barash, because the Rabbi did not have the strength to do everything that was needed. I do not wish to praise the individual, what matters to me is the job, the achievement. The respected Eng. Barash is the prime minister in our “government,” as well as the minister of the interior, minister of industry, because in the ghetto everything must be concentrated in one hand. Industry, for instance, is connect with the Wehrmacht, so it becomes a matter of foreign policy. Sometimes we are surprised how he gets it all done, how it all works out. It seems like Divine intervention, particularly in the past few weeks. Everything gets done in the best possible way. The other responsibilities, it seems to me, are carried out by the other members, but it is the spirit, the direction, which is the most important thing….
What is our direction? In matters concerning the community we try always to reach agreement, compromise, so that everybody may be satisfied. From now on we shall have to stand by the letter of the law! Let him who is fearful and fainthearted return to his house! We shall have to cling to this principle if we wish to stay alive. And the ghetto must remain a productive element as well.
By contrast, here is a transcript from a meeting of the resistance fighters of the Bialystock ghetto (source: Yad Vashem):
It’s a good thing that at least the mood is good. Unfortunately, the meeting won’t be very cheerful. This meeting may be historic, if you like, tragic if you like, but certainly sad. That you people sitting here are the last halutzim in Poland; around us are the dead. You know what happened in Warsaw, not one survived, and it was the same in Bendin and in Czestochowa,and probably everywhere else. We are the last. It is not a particularly pleasant feeling to be the last: it involves a special responsibility. We must decide today what to do tomorrow. There is no sense in sitting together in a warm atmosphere of memories! Nor in waiting together, collectively, for death. Then what shall we do?
We can do two things: decide that when the first Jew is taken away from Bialystok now, we start our counter-Aktion. That nobody will go to the factories from tomorrow, that none of us is allowed to hide when the Aktion starts.
Everybody will be mobilized for the job. We can see to it that not one German leaves the ghetto, that not one factory remains whole. It is not impossible that after we have completed our task, someone may by chance still be alive.
But we will fight to the last, till we fall.
…Here in Bialystok we are fated to live out the last act of this blood-stained tragedy. What can we do and what should we do? The way I see it the situation really is that the great majority in the ghetto and of our group are sentenced to die. Our fate is sealed. We have never looked on the forest as a place in which to hide, we have looked on it as a base for battle and vengeance. But the tens of young people who are going into the forests now do not seek a battlefield there, most of them will lead beggars’ lives there and most likely will find a beggar’s death. In our present situation our fate will be the same, beggars all.
Only one thing remains for us: to organize collective resistance in the ghetto, at any cost, to let the ghetto be our Masada, to write a proud chapter on Jewish Bialystok and on our Movement.
I know which group (((I))) would be in.
And here is a speech from the head of the Vilna Judenrat given to the ghetto residents about arming themselves and the necessity of common-sense gun control (source: Yad Vashem):
A few days ago I went to the Gestapo and spoke to the Commander of the SD there about the revolvers. I may tell you that he is not at all stupid. He said to me: “From an economic point of view the ghetto is very valuable, but if you are going to take foolish risks and if there is any question of security, then I will wipe you out. And even if you get 30, 40 or 50 revolvers, you will not be able to save yourselves and will only bring on your misfortune faster.”
Why did I call you together? Because today another Jew has been arrested for buying a revolver. I don’t yet know how this case will end. The last case ended fortunately for the ghetto. But I can tell you that if it happens again we shall be very severely punished. Perhaps they will take away those people over 60, or children… Now consider whether that is worthwhile!!! There can be only one answer for those who think soundly and maturely: It is not worthwhile!!!
As long as the ghetto remains a ghetto those of us who have the responsibility will do everything we can so that nothing shall happen to the ghetto. Nowadays a Jew’s whole family is responsible for him. If that is not enough, then I will make the whole room responsible for him, and if even that is not enough – the apartment and even the building.
You will have to watch each other, and if there are any hot-heads then it is your duty to report it to the Police. That is not informing. It would be informing if you were to keep silent and the people were to suffer.
This really sounds eerily familiar.
Lest I imply that the Judenrat were irredeemably and universally evil, allow me to briefly mention Dov Lopatyn, the head of the Judenrat of the Lakva Ghetto in Belarus. The Germans informed the Judenrat that the people of the ghetto were to be murdered, but that if the Judenrat cooperated, they would be spared. Lopatyn refused, and immediately set into motion a plan for resistance. When the Germans entered the ghetto, the Jewish leaders set the Judenrat headquarters on fire as a signal. The ghetto resistance ambushed the Germans, and fought them with every weapon at their disposal and no hope of survival. Indeed, the majority of ghetto inhabitants were killed, but at least they managed to inflict some casualties. Over a thousand ghetto inhabitants escaped during the battle. Most escapees were also found and killed, but Lopatyn joined the Communist resistance and over the next couple of years, managed to take out some measure of vengeance against the Germans before being killed in battle. Some people are capable of learning.
Some are not.