For many decades following World War II, the Jewish Councils appointed by Europe’s Nazi occupiers have been blamed for allegedly collaborating in the Holocaust.
However, in a newly published transnational and comparative study, Dutch historian Laurien Vastenhout demonstrates that Jewish Councils had virtually no ability to alter Germany’s plans to murder every Jew in Europe.
In her book, “Between Community and Collaboration: ‘Jewish Councils’ in Western Europe under Nazi Occupation,” Vastenhout takes a socio-historical approach to examine councils and their leadership in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.
“I have tried to understand the nature of these organizations in the larger context of National-Socialist rule,” Vastenhout told The Times of Israel. “I show what factors affected the function of the Jewish Councils and the position and choices of their leaders,” she said.
Throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, Jewish Councils were created to serve as liaisons between German authorities and Jewish communities. Council members served at the Nazis’ pleasure, and there were instances of members being executed for not following orders.
Previous studies have largely focused on specific Jewish Councils or the actions of individual leaders. However, said Vastenhout, the councils should be examined alongside each other for deeper context and understanding.
For example, wrote the professor at the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies (NIOD) in the Netherlands, the Dutch Jewish Council was initially given autonomy only in Amsterdam — as opposed to autonomy over Jews in all of the Netherlands — because the top German occupation leaders had previously established city-based “Judenräte” in occupied Poland.
Eventually, however, it became clear that this model did not function properly because Jews in the Netherlands were not concentrated in local ghettos as was generally the case in Poland. As a result, the control of the Dutch Council was officially extended to the national level in October 1941, said Vastenhout.
Anti-Jewish policies were constantly adapted and improved
“It is clear that German officials used the knowledge and experience they had gained in one location to further develop the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ in other geographic locations. Anti-Jewish policies were constantly adapted and improved,” said Vastenhout.
Comparative perspectives also reveal how local conditions shaped German policy as well as the positions and choices of Jewish leaders, said Vastenhout.
In Belgium, the Association of Jews in Belgium (AJB) — which served as the Jewish Council in that country — was led by men who had almost no experience running communal affairs. By way of contrast, the Dutch Jewish Council was led by two men who were widely known communal leaders before the war.
“This affected the position of these leaders, their self-confidence, and the choices they made,” said Vastenhout. “Existing historiography has never really paid attention to this because the conditions in Belgium were hardly ever compared with those in other countries.”
According to Yad Vashem, Belgium’s AJB was, “from the beginning, not liked, trusted, or respected by Belgian Jewry.”
In early 2022, Dutch Railways (NS) funded an investigation led by Vastenhout into the wartime activities of NS employees during the German occupation.
The investigation was part of the railway company’s efforts to “investigate the role of NS in the Holocaust” and “take responsibility for [the company’s] actions during the Second World War.”
According to Vastenhout, “the political-ideological sympathies within the company have not previously been systematically investigated.”
As alluded to by the title of her book, Vastenhout is most interested in how the Jewish Councils managed to serve the community and — simultaneously — take orders from German authorities.
“Most Jewish leaders under Nazi rule were first and foremost interested in alleviating the suffering of their communities,” wrote Vastenhout. “In doing so, they faced a dilemma: they could only provide social assistance if they cooperated with the Germans.”
Across Europe, council leaders generally saw themselves as helping to mitigate German orders, as opposed to collaborating.
“Jewish leaders had to perform a balancing act, assisting their communities while giving in to German demands, simultaneously trying to minimize their level of cooperation,” said Vastenhout. During her research, she also probed the extent to which Jewish Councils were able — or willing — to support and actively engage in resistance efforts.
The character of Jewish Councils was especially tainted after the war, explained Vastenhout, “when Jewish courts of honor and state courts across Europe formally assessed [the councils’] cooperation with the German occupying authorities,” she wrote.
In Israel and Europe, Holocaust survivors started to identify former kapos and — less often — former Jewish Council members. “Honor Court” proceedings attempted to hold “collaborators” accountable, but also helped “reinforce the disapproval” most Jews already had of wartime Jewish leadership, said Vastenhout.
“It is important to make a distinction between the perpetrators and the victims,” said Vastenhout. “The Jewish leaders were under severe pressure, and forced to respond to new regulations on an ad-hoc basis. They could not fully see the impact of the decisions they made, and were constantly threatened with severe retaliations in case they did not.”
When Hannah Arendt notoriously criticized the Jewish Councils for helping to facilitate the Holocaust, she established a debate framework that has yet to be replaced.
“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,” wrote Arendt in “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” her 1963 book on the Jewish state’s capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann.
“The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had been really 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 half and six million people,” wrote Arendt.
According to Vastenhout, scholars including Arendt and Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, “blamed Jewish leaders for their role in the destruction of European Jewry and seemed to attribute more agency to these leaders than they had had in reality.”
This “moral” approach to studying the councils has dominated scholarship for decades, said Vastenhout, wherein the “actions and decisions” of Jewish Councils have been “disproportionately scrutinized and evaluated,” she said.
“I think we should take a much broader, and more contextualized, approach that explains why the Councils functioned the way they did and what the intentions of rivaling German institutions were during the course of the war,” said Vastenhout.
The retrospective vitriol directed at Jewish Councils has been particularly strong in the Netherlands, where up to 75% of the Jewish community — or 102,000 Jews — were murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Sobibor, and other sites.
The proportion of Jews murdered in the Netherlands far exceeded that of France and Belgium, where 25% and 40% of the Jewish communities were murdered.
“The question whether or not the Dutch Jewish Council has been instrumental to the deportation and destruction of the Jews, and whether its leaders can (or should) be held accountable in this regard, has been central to many studies,” wrote Vastenhout.
The proportion of Jews murdered in the Netherlands far exceeded that of France and Belgium, where 25% and 40% of the Jewish communities were murdered
Among the allegations made against the Dutch Jewish Council was that its members provided German authorities with deportation lists and hiding addresses, including the hiding place of Anne Frank.
In actuality, the Nazis possessed the names and addresses of Dutch Jews before the Jewish Council was installed, said Vastenhout. Furthermore, there is nothing the council could have done to halt the mass arrests and deportations that began in the summer of 1942, said the historian.
As demonstrated by Vastenhout, council leaders in Western Europe had almost no ability to change — much less comprehend — the processes unfolding around them. The councils certainly did not play an “instrumental” role in the destruction of European Jewry, as some historians have claimed.
“Above all, this new important study shows that it is essential to look beyond the level of individual Council leaders and their choices,” said Vastenhout, whose next book will be on the activities of Dutch National Railways during World War II.
“Instead, we should understand the larger contexts in which they were forced to cooperate as these were decisive in determining what room for maneuver the Jewish leaders had. This allows us to move away from the moral perspective that is often still inherent to our understanding of these institutions,” said Vastenhout.
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