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  • The Gray Zone
  • Patrick Henry

The Question of Jewish complicity during the Holocaust remains nuanced and troubling even if recent research has altered some earlier entrenched assumptions regarding its nature and extent. Hannah Arendt, for example, who saw the complicity of the Jewish Councils in the ghettos as part of the general "moral collapse" of the time, remarked famously that:

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 really been 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 a half and six million people.1

Thirty-eight years later, however, in Rethinking the Holocaust, Yehuda Bauer points out that not only were the Jewish Councils "in many of the Polish and Lithuanian ghettos . . . not asked for and did not deliver lists of Jews," but also "many of the Soviet territories had no Judenräte and the destruction was even more efficient there than in Poland." Finally, as Bauer also reports, in many smaller places, the Judenräte refused to cooperate in any way whatsoever.2

The Judenräte or Jewish Councils were Nazi-established executive committees throughout Occupied Europe at once fully responsible for the implementation of Nazi directives and in charge of the administration, labor, finances, cultural and health services, food supply, and policing of the Jewish community or ghetto. These councils were set up to force the Jews to do the work of the Nazis and to keep the Jews at odds with one another as the implementation of Nazi directives progressively and [End Page 150] inevitably undercut the councils' ability to provide for the basic physical needs of the Jewish community. How these councils acted under the pressure of deportation orders differed from ghetto to ghetto. For his part, although he speaks mainly about complicity in the camps, Primo Levi identifies a "gray zone" in the ghettos and the camps where some of the "privileged oppressed" became oppressors themselves, thereby blurring any simple all-encompassing distinction between victim and executioner.3


In her "Postscript" to Eichmann in Jerusalem, Arendt notes that in Israel in 1963 "the Jewish Establishment" was "bitterly divided on this issue" of the Jewish Councils.4 As the accounts of contemporaries attest, this division was already apparent in the Warsaw Ghetto more than twenty years earlier. There, Adam Czerniaków, a highly cultured 60 year-old Polish speaking Jewish engineer, neither a rabbi nor a believer, was the head of the 24 member Warsaw Jewish Council. He had many staunch supporters but others, particularly those involved in resistance movements, distrusted him and accused him of collaboration with the Nazis. In July 1942, he swallowed cyanide rather than sign the order to round up and deport all Jews, including children, from the ghetto.

Emmanuel Ringelblum, whose extraordinary journal records events in Warsaw chronologically and meticulously from January 1940 to December 1942, notes that some considered Czerniaków "a martyr . . . honestly fulfilling his duty . . . an idol . . . [whose] word is command." Ringelblum himself, however, deemed him "incompetent" and "weak": "The suicide of Czerniaków—too late, a sign of weakness—should have called for resistance—a weak man."5 Janusz Korczak, on the other hand, who ran an orphanage in the ghetto for 200 children, was far more sympathetic toward Czerniaków, one of his close friends who also had a passionate interest in children's welfare. Korczak, whose diary, unlike Ringelblum's, is inward and abstract, does not speak openly about the Jewish Council. But Korczak was horrified by the death of children in the ghetto. Like Czerniaków, Korczak carried cyanide, but he chose not to take it. Unwilling to abandon his orphans and convinced of their individual dignity, he wanted to prepare them for their inevitable demise. To this end, just three weeks before they were all deported, Korczak had the children perform Tagore's The Post Office in the hope that they might thereby welcome death and not be afraid of it.6 Korczak's...


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