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Letters to Sala

Letters to Sala

The Judenrat

Members of the Bendsburg [Bedzin] Jewish Council and hospital staff, ca. 1940–43
Members of the Bendsburg [Bedzin] Jewish Council and hospital
staff, ca. 1940–43
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of
Bernard & Amalie Reichmann Robinson

If the Nazis had required you to be part of the Judenrat, the Jewish civilian government, what would you have done? This question sparks controversial and complicated discussions among people trying to understand the German Third Reich and the Holocaust. Some survivors and historians have clear opinions about those who served in the Judenrat. Others find it difficult to judge another person facing impossible choices, in unfathomable circumstances.

The Judenrat was an important extension of Hitler’s government and was charged with solving the problems that arose in the occupied community. The Judenrat operated post offices, hospitals, soup kitchens, day care centers, and vocational schools. They also collected taxes and paid salaries for certain types of work.

In Sosnowitz, Judenrat head Moshe Merin promoted the principle of “rescue through work,” arguing that the Nazis would be less likely to deport Jews who were productive. He sacrificed those who could not work to save the lives of those who could. Merin supplied the Nazis with a census identifying the work eligibility of every Jew. Using this list, Nazis deported able-bodied Jews to labor camps. The same list also facilitated selection of the weak, the elderly, and children for death camps.

Merin’s work with Organization Schmelt enabled many Jews to obtain work identification papers. Few in his large constituency were homeless; soup kitchens fed up to 7,000 people a day; and there were no ghettos in Merin’s cities until March 1943. Merin, like other Judenrat heads, made a fortune from taxes levied on Jews and from confiscated property. The money he received from Schmelt was intended for the families of slave laborers but often went into his own pocket.

Like Merin in Sosnowitz, many Judenrat leaders operated under the assumption that they and their towns could escape virulent antisemitism through cooperation with the Nazis. Were they trying to save themselves first? Did they think they could outlast the evil? Were they justified in sacrificing some Jews to protect the larger group?

By summer 1943, Merin and the Judenrat had been sent to Auschwitz. Ironically, many Jews whom he sent to labor camps, such as Sala, survived.