Judenrat - Jewish councils tasked with the administration of communes, established on the occupied Polish territories in accordance with the directive of R. Heydrich dated 21 IX 1939 as well as the disposition of Governor-General H. Frank dated 18 XI 1939. They did not possess a uniform structure; some of them controlled individual Jewish communities while the authority of others extended to entire regional groups thereof. During the German occupation, they remained the primary executive authorities tasked with carrying out German orders; to some extent they also controlled the life of the Jewish communities, especially after the establishment of the ghettos. Their members – including, in particular, their chairmen (the elders, Judenälteste) – were appointed by the German authorities (the Kreis- or Stadthauptmann) and reported to them directly. The most important task of these councils included the implementation of the forced labour programme, ensuring food supply to the population, providing social assistance to displaced persons and the poor, collecting the contributions imposed by the German authorities, organising the process of relocation to the ghettos and maintaining order therein. In 1942, they had to perform another task which would prove to be the most difficult of all – meeting the quotas for deportation to extermination camps. The task of rounding up people for deportation was to be performed by the Jewish police which formally reported to the Judenräte. The role of the Judenräte during the occupation remains controversial even today; the majority view is that most of their members played a negative role as their attitude towards the Nazis was that of servility, especially in the final months of the ghettos. Some of the Judenräte, especially during the period shortly after the ghettos were established, attempted to represent the interests of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the German authorities – an approach for which many members of the Judenräte ultimately paid with their lives. However, an unambiguous assessment of the Judenräte with respect to the entire period of existence thereof appears to be an impossible task.
A form of administration for Jewish communities in the ghettos that was introduced by the Nazis in 1939. In practice, the power of the Judenrats was limited to carrying out the occupiers' orders. Germans usually appointed prewar community leaders to head the Judenrats. They chose the remaining members of the councils, whom the occupiers then confirmed. The German administration oversaw the Judenrats; in larger cities, special offices were created. In Warsaw, for example, there was the Office of the Commissar of the Jewish Quarter, which was subordinate to the governor of the Warsaw district. In Lodz and in some other cities, similar offices, called the Gettoverwaltung [German, "ghetto board"], were subordinate to the mayors. The Judenrats also received orders directly from the SS and the Gestapo.
The basic decisions regulating ghetto life were made by the German authorities, and the Judenrats' jurisdiction was limited to executive and administrative matters. These included keeping a record of the residents; managing food, coal and other supplies; taxes; education; religious life; and funerals. In addition, they were responsible for social and health services. Moreover, the Judenrats were required to supply workers, organize contingents of people for labor camps, collect and submit contributions, and requisition valuables, furniture, and furs, for example. Later, they were forced to cooperate with the Nazis in organizing deportations to the death camps.
The "order service" (Ordnungsdienst) was in part subordinate to the Judenrats. These were the police units within the ghetto, but lacking the right to possess and use weapons. They were used during requisitions and round-ups, and to escort those being resettled, as well as during deportation actions. Most of the Judenrat boards tried to maneuver between the need to meet the Germans' demands and defend the Jews imprisoned in the ghettos, in the belief that further compromises would enable them to save at least some of the population.
The attitudes of specific members of the Judenrats varied. The chairman of the Warsaw Judenrat, A. Czerniakow, maintained contacts with the underground, organized aid, and supported civil resistance. He was nevertheless opposed to the idea of an armed uprising, and when faced with preparing deportations to the death camps, he committed suicide. C. Rumkowski, who headed the Lodz Judenrat, organized deportations almost until the very end in an attempt to protect selected groups from being sent away. Some Judenrat members used their positions to enrich themselves, or to protect their own families.
Trunk I., Judenrat. The Jewish Councils in Eastem Europe Under Nazi Occupation, New York 1972.
Andrzej Żbikowski i Gabriela Zalewska
Quoted after: Tomaszewski J., Żbikowski A., Żydzi w Polsce. Dzieje i kultura. Leksykon. [Jews in Poland – Their History and Culture. A Lexicon.], , Warsaw 2001.