Jewish Leadership in Occupied Poland - Postures and Attitudes - The Third International Historical Conference, Yad Vashem Publications 1975-1977
Following the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the Jewish communal structure disintegrated. When Warsaw fell towards the end of the month, the Jewish Civil Committee was constituted. Furthermore in many places, such as Lublin and Cracow, Jewish house committees (councils) formed. Jewish leaders offered to cooperate with the Polish authorities, but their efforts were spurned. Wehrmacht actions were no less brutal than those of the SS. In Vilna many Jewish leaders fled. Some returned and became leaders in the resistance. The Germans set up Judenräte, whose first duties included the concentrating of Jews in the big cities. The Judenräte were to be elected by the community and would be responsible for carrying out German orders and representing the various Jewish political and public bodies. The final authority was always the Germans. The Jews were compelled to live in ghettos. Degradation, impoverishment, and starvation of Jews were the order of the day. Jews were sent to labor camps and afterwards to mass extermination. Simultaneously, the Jews in Galicia under Soviet Rule (1939–1941) also suffered from mass arrests, particularly of the leaders. However, religious life remained relatively untouched. With the retreat of the Red Army and the occupation by the Germans, a reign of terror was instituted. Some Jewish community organizations, i.e., the Judenräte, were able to function on a limited level. Each Judenrat received different instructions from the local German commanders and reacted accordingly. In certain places Jewish leaders and bodies refused to cooperate with the Judenräte. Most Jews believed that Hitler would lose the war and their aim was to survive until then. Initially, most of the Judenräte chairs managed to defend the interests of their communities. Later most yielded to German pressure. Did they make sufficient efforts for their communities? Indeed, could anything be done against the machinery of Nazi extermination?