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In the Cauldron

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Bundesarchiv, Bild 152-65-15A
Josef Löwenherz, head of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde (IKG), Vienna’s Jewish community organization, with SS officers at the IKG offices, March 18, 1938

How to assess—historically and morally—the actions of Jewish leaders and other functionaries who negotiated with or were appointed by the Nazis during the Holocaust has been one of the most contentious and enduring controversies of Holocaust historiography. The embittered and accusatory early testimonies of many survivors, the honor courts of the immediate postwar period in which Jewish collaborators were tried and censured, and the libel trial and assassination in Israel of Rudolph Kasztner—who negotiated with the Nazis to rescue Jews in Hungary—constituted only the first chapters of the fierce debate over this sensitive and painful topic.

The heat of the debate peaked in the early 1960s with Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann, first in a series of articles in The New Yorker and then in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt criticized Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion for hijacking the trial for the purposes of national and international politics at the expense of individual justice, and insofar as the trial had been designed for didactic purposes she particularly lamented its failure to educate the wider public about the “darkest chapter” of the Holocaust, namely the “role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people.” In perhaps the single most infamous sentence in her provocative book, she wrote: “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,” and she then endorsed the calculation that “about half of them could have saved themselves if they had not followed the instructions of the Jewish Councils.”1

As a target of vituperation, Arendt was immediately paired with Raul Hilberg, whose initially little-known The Destruction of the European Jews had been published in 1961. In a book focused on the Nazi “machinery of destruction,” Hilberg had argued that it was nevertheless “essential to analyze the role of the Jews in their own destruction.” Through centuries of exclusion and persecution, diaspora Jews had learned the survival value of what Hilberg called the “alleviation-compliance response,” which proved not only ineffective but insidiously self-destructive when faced with the unprecedented Nazi assault, for which no past experience could prepare them.2 In the heat of the moment, one key difference between Arendt and Hilberg was entirely ignored. For Arendt, the behavior of the Jewish leaders, who allegedly “enjoyed” the “enormous power” with which the Nazis temporarily vested them, constituted a colossal moral failure. For Hilberg, it was a systemic and perceptual failure of a leadership that sought to save its people but, “caught in the straitjacket of their own history,” could not understand and adjust to the incomprehensible assault quickly enough.

If polemics dominated the 1960s, careful scholarship eventually gained the upper hand. The example for this had already been set by Philip Friedman, the survivor and pioneering Holocaust historian of the 1950s, with his brilliant articles on the “messianic complex” of the two most notorious Jewish leaders, Moshe Merin of East Upper Silesia and Chaim Rumkowski of Łódź—flawed men who under the extremity of the situation lost their bearings and came to believe that they alone (if unquestioningly obeyed) could ensure saving a remnant of their people. Both presided with an iron hand over the destruction of their communities and then perished in Auschwitz. But they were exceptions at one extreme end of a broad spectrum of Jewish response, as extensively documented by Isaiah Trunk in his classic work Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation (1972), whose primary conclusion was that there could be no empirically grounded, sweeping accusations and generalizations like those that had dominated the 1960s polemics.

The translation and publication of a number of pivotal documents then gave both students and the general public access to key primary sources. The first of these was the English edition of The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow (1979), edited and introduced by Hilberg and his colleague Stanislaw Staron. Czerniakow was a poignant figure who struggled in impossible circumstances until he took his own life rather than obey the German demand to deport Jewish children—a fate that made it increasingly impossible to place the debate over Jewish leadership in an accusatory rather than tragic frame.

Hilberg’s second edition of The Destruction of the European Jews (1985), with much softened language, also sought to capture the tragic paradox of the Jewish Councils; they “were assisting the Germans with their good qualities as well as their bad, and the very best accomplishments of the Jewish bureaucracy were ultimately appropriated by the Germans for the all-consuming destruction process.”3 Two sources on the Łódź ghetto, Lucjan Dobroszycki’s magisterial edition of The Chronicle of the Łódź Ghetto, 1941–1944 (1984) and the anthology of Alan Adelson and Robert Lapides, Łódź Ghetto: Inside a Community under Siege (1989), composed of a vast selection of relevant documents and diary excerpts, illuminated not only the fateful self-delusion and megalomania of Rumkowski (the contrast of his heart-breaking and horrific speech saying “fathers and mothers, give me your children” with Czerniakow’s suicide in the face of similar German demands is both stark and inescapable), but also the impossible circumstances in which all ghetto internees—including both critical diarists and eloquent chroniclers on Rumkowski’s payroll—struggled for survival.

A vocabulary essential to grasp both the historical and moral complexities of the response of Jewish leaders and functionaries was provided by two nonhistorians: the incomparable Primo Levi and the insightful literary scholar Lawrence Langer. In The Drowned and the Saved, Levi warned against the “simplification” of reducing the “network of human relations” in the camps to “two blocs of victims and perpetrators.” In discussing Rumskowski, Levi explicitly placed the ghettos alongside the camps in this regard. “An infernal system such as National Socialism” does not sanctify its enemies, he argued; “on the contrary, it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself” through creating a “gray zone” inhabited by “the hybrid-class of prisoner-functionary” where “the two camps of masters and servants both diverge and converge” and “ambiguity” reigns. The “gray zone” is part of the system that sustains “regimes based on terror and obsequiousness.”4 Alongside Levi’s “gray zone,” Lawrence Langer introduced the indispensable notion of “choiceless choices” to capture another infernal aspect of Nazi rule, in which the absolute asymmetry of power meant that the Germans could insidiously and consciously design situations in which Jewish leaders never had the choice between good and bad or even lesser and greater evil, but only between catastrophically disastrous alternatives.

With the collapse of communism and the opening of the East European archives, the focus of Holocaust research moved eastward, to regions where the murder of the Jews has been characterized as the “Holocaust by bullets,” and where the actions by Jewish leadership in ghetto administration and deportation were much less central in implementing the Final Solution. The Nazis had no need to script a role for Jewish leadership at places like Babi Yar. Insofar as Hannah Arendt remained a subject of controversy, it involved continuing debates over the perpetrators (especially if and in what way they were “banal” or “ordinary”) on the one hand and the Eichmann trial (and her analysis of both defendant and trial) on the other, not Jewish leaders.

With the appearance of Doron Rabinovici’s Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938–1945, however, we are confronted with an intentionally provocative title that—in view both of Arendt’s association with Eichmann and her accusations against Jewish leadership—inevitably implies revisiting the 1960s debate. The question is whether the book is as accusatory as the provocative title, Eichmann’s Jews, seems at first sight. Or, as in the case of Bryan Rigg’s book on Germans of partial Jewish ancestry serving in the Wehrmacht but misleadingly entitled Hitler’s Jewish Soldiers, are we dealing with a title whose main purpose is to grab the browser’s attention rather than summarize the book’s argument? In fact Rabinovici’s book is a defense of rather than an accusation against the Vienna Jewish community leaders. As the original German title, Instanzen der Ohnmacht, or “authorities without power,” was far more appropriate for the book’s content, one must suspect that crass commercial calculations of the English-language publisher led to a misleading title that serves neither author nor reader well.

The book begins with a telling prologue in which we encounter two Jews, Wilhelm Reisz and Oscar Reich, who were tried and convicted after the war for zealous collaboration. The former, sentenced to fifteen years, immediately hanged himself; the latter was executed. Both men, under real and imminent threat of death, had survived by making themselves useful to the Nazis and doing terrible things to other Jews. But in comparison their Nazi superiors—those with real decision-making power and not subject to lethal coercion—received much lighter sentences. The courts in question, Rabinovici notes, simply could not grasp how “victims” became “involved in the crime under coercion” and “threat of death,” and thus found their behavior more “reprehensible and disgraceful” than that of the Nazis who were the ones truly responsible.

Rabinovici in effect forewarns the reader not to repeat the same mistake: “The study of the attitudes of Jewish victims under the destructive regime is always in danger of turning into a complacently moralizing reproach, shifting the blame for the crimes to the victims.” The behavior of “those Jewish officials and assistants whose relations with the perpetrators were held against them” should not be “simply condemned universally.” Rather the “reasons” and “motives” behind their behavior should be studied on an individual basis. Above all, he insists, “a clear distinction must always be made between perpetrators and victims, between the power of authority…and the powerless.”

The argument of the first half of the book is fairly straightforward. In March 1938 the Nazis descended upon Vienna and, spearheaded by the thirty-two-year-old Adolf Eichmann, restructured the Jewish community organization (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde or IKG) to facilitate expelling the Jews of Austria. Jewish authorities who could have left but stayed to serve their community were transformed from elected representatives into Nazi appointees and charged with accelerating Jewish expulsion, especially through finding ways to fund those Jews without the means to emigrate, while the Austrian Jews were simultaneously being systematically plundered and impoverished. It was the primary task of the IKG to square the circle of competing Nazi policies, to keep all Jewish property but rid themselves of all Jews. By July 1939, some 104,000 of Austria’s 180,000 Jews had left the country, though 55,000 of them went to other European countries where they would fall once again under Nazi control after the outbreak of war.

In one regard the outbreak of the war was not a complete caesura, since Jewish emigration from the Third Reich—however increasingly constricted the possible avenues of departure—was permitted until the fall of 1941. Thus an additional 24,000 Austrian Jews left the country. However, alongside facilitating Jewish emigration, the IKG became simultaneously entrapped in an ominous new development, namely deporting Jews to Poland. Two transports of Viennese Jews were sent to a short-lived, experimental “Jewish reservation” at Nisko in the Lublin district in the fall of 1939, and five transports to various small Polish towns in February and March 1941. In both cases the deportees were plunged into terrible living conditions but not yet immediate extermination.

  1. 1

    Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (Viking, 1964), pp. 117, 125. 

  2. 2

    Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Quadrangle, 1961), especially pp. 14–17, 662–669. 

  3. 3

    Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, (Holmes and Meier, 1985) p. 1038. 

  4. 4

    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (Summit, 1988), pp. 36–69. 

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