Jewish police in the Warsaw Ghetto (From the German Federal Achives)
In the movie Hannah Arendt, one of the points she made that was most bitterly criticized was that there were Jews who were complicit in aiding the Holocaust. She said that maybe if there was less organization and more chaos, more Jewish lives could have been saved. Arendt wrote that: “To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.” Many Jews were furious with her, and accused her of betraying her people. Did she?
When Jews were forced into ghettos, the Nazis gave internal control of the ghettos to a Jewish councils, or Judenrat. Then they would slowly force the Judenrat to organize lists of names and assets, turn over certain numbers of people for transport, and otherwise aid in helping to keep the residents of the ghetto in line. Often they were led by rabbis and other prominent members of the community. In some cases, members of the Judenrat would be sincerely trying to help minimize the damage to their people, but in other cases, they engaged in extortion, favoritism, and actively helping the Nazis. Jewish “police” in the ghettos could be crueler than the Nazis, according to some accounts. But in the end, most ghettos were liquidated and the Judenrats right along them.
Questions: Is it right to blame the Judenrats for complying with the Nazis? Yes and no.
Why no? First, it is not fair to blame people for decisions they make when they have a gun held to their heads. It would be normal for the members of the Judenrat to try to use their position to try to outplay or at least slow down the destruction of their communities. Perhaps they could at least buy time. They didn’t know that behind every door was Death.
Second, The Nazis lied to them, and people tend to believe what others tell them. In the normal business of life, people say what they mean. It is sociopaths and psychopaths who say only what benefits themselves.
Third, Some may have felt they were doing the right thing. Indeed, in the Polish Ghetto uprising, a number of the uprising’s leaders came from the Judenrat.
Fourth, they had limited information. Part of it was because they were somewhat cut off from the world. Furthermore, they were, like all of us, cut off from the future. They couldn’t know what would happen for sure.
Fifth, they were hungry, sick, weak, fighting for scarce resources, and worse yet, so were their families. They had to deal with conflicting loyalties.
Sixth, Jews had been treated as subhuman since the early 1930s. This vicious treatment could undermine their self-respect.
Why Yes? Every time they turned over names, they were condemning their fellow Jews to some kind of horrible future.
Any Jew who acted cruelly to, stole from, or used his or her position to gain an advantage for himself in any way is guilty of his individual act. But there will always be people like that in any group. Add stress, fear, hunger, danger, and the constant message that you are a subhuman, and the foundations of human dignity will be worn away for many.
The real question is: Is it anti-Semitic to say that some Jews cooperated with Nazis? No. Because it’s a fact. Is it anti-Semitic to say that some Jews actively betrayed other Jews? No. Because under the circumstances, in a sociopathic system, that kind of self-serving behavior is normal. What’s a miracle is when it DOESN’T happen, when most people are still decent.
What’s NOT normal is what the Nazis did. Germany had been a relatively open and tolerant society where Jews had lived with freedom and opportunity for many years. The Nazis turned the dial of history backwards and became primitive beasts with modern technology. They were not banal—they were monstrous. And that’s what’s so hard to understand. The villainy of one person does not obligate his victim to become an angel. So the actions of the Judenrats do not indict the Jewish people. The shame ultimately belongs to Nazi Germany.
Writing Prompt: Do you disagree? Do you think it is ant-Semitic to accuse Jews of aiding the Nazis?