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This Month in Holocaust History – Alfred Lerner Fellows – October 2020

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This Month in Holocaust History - October

A meeting of the Warsaw ghetto Jewish council. Sitting behind table, 2nd to 4th from left: industrialist Abraham Gepner; chairman Adam Czerniakow; and lawyer Gustav Wielikowski. Warsaw, Poland, between 1939 and 1942. (Photo courtesy of USHMM.)

Warsaw Judenrat Established

The Judenrat (Jewish council) of Warsaw was established on October 4, 1939, less than a month after German forces entered the city. The occupying Nazis forced Jewish community leaders to nominate candidates for the body itself, and the Germans appointed the leader of the pre-war Jewish Community Council, Adam Czerniakow, head of the 24-member Judenrat. In June 1940, months before the creation of the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, the Judenrat was restricted to acting only upon the orders of the German authorities.

The creation of the Warsaw ghetto began in September 1940, when a quarantine area of 240,000 Jews was created. When this area was sealed in November 1940, the Judenrat’s census showed a population of 378,979 Jews in the Warsaw ghetto. Located in the southern part of the ghetto, the Jewish council was responsible for trying to meet the social welfare needs of the suffering ghetto inhabitants. The Judenrat served as legislature, taxing body, and work detail distributor. The Judenrat was forced to execute and enforce the Gestapo’s orders, including choosing who would make up the work quotas and punishment details. Because the Judenrat was the ghetto’s primary source of information, it was also purposefully misinformed by the Gestapo in many instances, in order to manipulate the population.

Through its relationship with the Gestapo and the power it was given, the Warsaw ghetto Judenrat became viewed as an instrument of oppression. The Judenrat was a major employer in the ghetto and a number of its employees, such as janitors, postmen, and those in the housing office, required bribes in order to act on behalf of ghetto inhabitants. Only some of the council members were viewed as honest; many were seen by the ghetto population as corrupt.

Judenrat Chairman Adam Czerniakow struggled extensively with his role in implementing Nazi orders. On July 22, 1942, the Germans posted a notice of a general deportation from the ghetto, regardless of sex or age. Rather than help the Germans round up Warsaw ghetto Jews for the “Great Aktion,” as it was called, Czerniakow committed suicide on July 23, 1942. By October 3, 1942, 310,000 Warsaw Jews were sent to Treblinka where they were gassed upon arrival.

The attitudes and actions of the leaders of the Judenrate (plural of Judenrat) in different ghettos varied widely. In many histories, Czerniakow is often compared to his contemporary Chaim Rumkowsky, the head of the Lodz ghetto. These men are viewed as widely variant examples of the choices made under forced complicity. The Judenrate are important to remember in teaching the Holocaust, as is Adam Czerniakow, because the forced complicity of some Jews in the Final Solution and the difficulty of the Juderat’s role make it clear that the situation involved more choices and more ethical dilemmas than a standard “perpetrator/victim” dichotomy makes clear.

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