Preliminary and Methodological Problems of the Research on the Jewish Catastrophe in the Nazi Period
No in-depth study has been carried out into the activities and self-government of ghetto life. In addition there is a need to understand to what extent Nazi policy depended on Jewish “representation” for its machinations. The Judenrat had a different morphology in different places. The source of this Nazi initiative is unknown. In many places Jewish autonomy was welcomed and not envisaged as a means to a cruel end. The Nazis usually only appointed the head of the Judenrat and he chose his co-members. In some areas the Judenrat served only the local communities, whereas in others it was centralized in the capitol for the whole country. Sporadic gatherings were held for the Judenrat heads. Sometimes, Jewish experts were sent to advise new Judenräte. The Judenräte were composed of representatives from various parties who thought they would be able to negotiate with the Germans. The Communists did not join at all. Furthermore, the Germans sought Judenrat leaders who would cooperate with them. If not, they were deported to death camps. There was often open opposition to the policies of the Judenrat. Members of the liberal professions and the middle class were declassed. Some ghettoes were taken over by criminals — blackmailers, smugglers, etc. Judenrat members faced many moral problems, which led some to suicide and others to dictatorship. What were the powers of the Judenrat? Originally, within the ghetto, they were autonomous and in the big cities employed thousands, besides the militia, who were to some extent protected from deportation.
Resistance and revolt were manifested in the countries occupied by the Nazis. The Jews were at a fundamental disadvantage, as they did not enjoy the support of the locals or of the governments-in-exile. The Jews were fighting for their survival, whereas the non-Jews aimed at regaining political freedom. Therefore, time was of the essence for the Jews. For them “heroism” often denoted spiritual courage (Kiddush Hashem) and not physical strength. Thus, resistance may be unarmed or armed. For religious Jews true belief in the Creator was the reason for their acquiescence in being driven like cattle to the slaughter. Gandhi and his followers in India practiced passive resistance, too. Non-religious spiritual resistance is epitomized by Janusz Korczak, who led his children to death. Would he have done better to heroically resist? Many Jews practiced economic resistance, for example, those employed in armament production who sabotaged machinery. Unarmed underground resistance includes publication of newspapers in the ghettoes, supply of forged documents, illegal frontier crossings, etc. Much material still needs to be sifted through and the veracity of its content confirmed. The political structure of the underground and the parties involved are, as yet, still veiled. Armed resistance at its best is collective and organized. Here, too, much material is available for scrutiny. Jewish and non-Jewish undergrounds sometimes combined to save Jewish deportees from transports. Soviet partisans fought according to techniques best suited for their purposes. Jewish partisans were not welcomed into their ranks. Self-restraint, under certain circumstances, saved many Jewish lives, e.g., in Theriesenstadt and Budapest.