JUDENRAT IN PRUZANY
To further their dealings with Jewish communities throughout occupied Eastern Europe, the Germans ordered the establishment of Councils of Jews ('Judenrat'). LUCY DAWIDOWICZ, who researched the subject thoroughly, recounts in "The War Against the Jews" that HANS FRANK, the governor-general of German-occupied Poland, issued a decree establishing Councils of Jews as early as November 28, 1939. Jewish communities numbering 10,000 were required to choose a Judenrat comprising 12 members; larger communities were to pick a 24-member council. In practice, the S.S. sanctioned councils of varying sizes. In many places, the Judenrat was chosen from the already decimated ranks of public figures; but not every community had sufficient personages of a high caliber.
Everywhere, the German decree gave rise to painful soul-searching. The Germans made it plain that the Judenrat would be required to obey their instructions, but most Jews, leaders and rank and file alike, held that while abiding by the new regulations, the body should function as a community council. Many were convinced that the perilous times called for a liaison to represent the Jewish community's interests vis-a-vis the authorities, and intercede with them on its behalf; in the absence of such a body, Jews feared a harsher fate under direct German control or, worse yet, under the domination of Poles, Ukrainians or citizens of the Baltic states. On the other hand, forebodings were expressed that the Judenrat would enjoy no autonomy whatsoever, serving merely as a cog in the repressive apparatus created by the Germans. It was widely feared that the Judenrat members would be rendered dispirited and impotent by the calculated regimen of terror the Germans introduced immediately upon their arrival.
Of those who consented to serve as Judenrat members, most did so hesitantly and after considerable soul-searching. As a rule, they were motivated by a sense of duty and responsibility towards the Jewish population. Under German pressure, each community reached decisions on the establishment of a Judenrat, and its composition, in great haste. With communications and transport totally disrupted, there was no way of consulting persons outside the community. On political or ideological grounds, and a reluctance to tarnish themselves by contact with the Germans, most party leaders, right, left or Bund, declined to join the Judenrat.
However, as the authorities chose a Judenrat to their own taste wherever the local community was slow in so doing, the balance was tipped in other communities, inducing them to establish a council of elected delegates. The Germans saddled the "Councils of Jews" with heart rending tasks. One was to submit lists of candidates for deportation. In September 1941, the Germans directed the Bialystok Judenrat to deport 4,500 "non-productive" Jews to the Pruzany ghetto. EPHRAIM BARASH, head of the Bialystok Judenrat, had the lists drawn up in accordance with the uniform classification imposed everywhere by the Germans: criminals, prostitutes, welfare recipients, and the unemployed. Those initially brought to our ghetto consequently included numerous anti-social elements who were gravely detrimental to its social fabric.
Another task imposed upon the Judenrat was recruitment of forced labor to serve the Germans. In many places, forced labor affected the poor more than the rich, for persons of means could buy themselves out by paying a forfeit to the Judenrat. The Judenrat utilized the money to fund community welfare projects. Being required to finance a broad range of welfare projects, as well as shielding their community from particularly harsh measures by the Germans, the Judenrat subjected community members to a variety of taxes: there were income, residential and burial taxes; taxes on ration cards, on hospitalization and sanitation; from time to time, special taxes were levied from the wealthy, especially when the Judenrat was required to raise large sums to meet German extortion. Like forced labor, taxation sparked confrontations, some community members refusing to pay the taxes the Judenrat demanded of them.
Another source of revenue was industry. Bialystok, with its 40,000 Jews, maintained over twenty factories and workshops manufacturing a variety of finished products for the German army. In Lodz, with over 160,000 Jews, as many as 117 factories served the Germans. In 1941, production in the Lodz ghetto grossed over 16 million marks, most of the sum deriving from forced labor (at starvation wages) and the rest, payment for commodities (at the lowest imaginable prices, fixed arbitrarily by the Germans).
In many places, the Judenrat was detested by the local community. Some dubbed the Judenrat 'Judenverrat' (betrayal of the Jews). A ghetto diarist recorded sardonically: "The German leech was followed by the Judenrat leech." Another wrote: "The Judenrat lives a life of depravity, and dies a death depraved seven times over".
Since 1945, controversy has raged about the Judenrat issue: in their loyal service to the Germans. Did the councils effectively betray their own people, or did they endeavor to ride the blows, winning time for their communities and aiding them as far as was feasible under the constraints of the Holocaust? I do not claim to be a historian; certainly I am no fit arbiter to pass judgment on others, particularly on a matter of such gravity. However, the experience of Pruzany shows that we would probably have been far worse off without the Judenrat.
In Pruzany, the Germans did not wait for the formation of a Judenrat. The S.S. lost no time in imposing a regimen of terror, designed to break the citizens' spirits and produce unthinking compliance with German commands. One day, they arrested several dozen townsfolk, executing them on the town's outskirts. Only now did the Germans order the Jewish inhabitants to choose a council to represent them vis-a-vis the authorities. Initially numbering five persons, the council elicited German permission to co-opt additional persons, membership ultimately rising to twenty-four. Those appointed initially ensured that the later additions represented every group and class in the community. We in Pruzany were fortunate in having a Judenrat composed of persons who were acceptable to the general public and who did their best for the common good.
Up to January 27, 1943, the head of the Pruzhany Judenrat was YITZCHAK YANOWICZ (on February 2, 1943, he was put to death in the gas chambers and cremated, along with his wife VALJA and their young son MORDECHAI). His deputy was attorney ZE'EV SCHREIBMAN. His chief aide was ELIEZER SCHEIN, who came from Lodz. SCHEIN worked day and night directing the council's internal affairs. ZAVEL SEGAL was the liaison with the authorities an office which, exposing its bearer to extensive contact with the Germans, carried many risks. Food distribution was the responsibility of SHLOMO YUDEWICZ. The Judenrat's members also included ABRAHAM BRESKI, a fervent Zionist and editor of the Zionist "Pruzaner Sztyme". Residing close by, ABRAHAM was of my parents' age and on friendly terms with them. He and I maintained that friendship in Israel, till his demise.
The Judenrat was kept busy. At the very outset, the Jewish population was given twenty-four hours to hand over half a million rubles, two kilograms of gold, ten kilograms of silver, all furs and 100 pairs of boots. Each passing day brought demands for other items in varying amounts: pillows, blankets, mattresses, beds and furniture. After a time, a decree denied Jews the use of the sidewalks, requiring, them to walk in the street. They were likewise forbidden to live on Dr. Pacevicz Street and May 3 Street, or in the adjoining alleys; all Jews resident in that quarter were forced to move. Finally on September 25, 1941, the Jews were ordered to huddle into the ghetto, which included Dombrowska and Kobrinska streets as far as the bridge, Brzeska Street to Scherschewska Street, and all the intervening alleys. The quarter was fenced off with barbed wire, with the main gate located in the street between the Yudkovski house and the line of stores.
The Judenrat was required to comply with the demands and orders issued virtually daily by the German military commander. Anxious to alleviate conditions in the ghetto and ease contacts with the authorities, the council shouldered a range of organizational and economic tasks.
Reflecting every sector of the community, it functioned in an atmosphere of cooperation, mutual trust and dedication to the public good. The council effectively controlled every sphere of ghetto life. Its members were put to the test when numerous Jews from other towns were brought to the ghetto, making it necessary to find them accommodation in the already prevalent overcrowding.
Important lessons had been learned from the Soviet period. No private businesses were permitted in the ghetto, all commodities and apartments being placed at public disposal. The economy was collective in the fullest sense. In this manner, numerous difficulties were overcome. There was no profiteering in foodstuffs. All artisans were employed in workshops belonging to the council, which also received the pay of those employed by the Germans outside the ghetto.
Some 6000 Jews were brought to the Pruzany ghetto, 4,000 from Bialystok, 2,000 from the townships of Sherschev. Seltz, Hainowka, Bialovez and elsewhere. The Germans supplied the ghetto with food in very frugal amounts. 200 grams of bread per head per day and a few potatoes: there were almost no deliveries of meat. Nevertheless, although virtually doubled by the transports hauled in from the surrounding areas, the ghetto population did not go hungry. In its quest for food supplies. the Judenrat resorted to various means, including bribes to S.S. men, ensuring that the needy all received food from the shops, the bakery and the storehouses. Most of the time the Council stores offered bread and potatoes in unlimited quantities and at low prices: bread at 2 marks a kilogram and potatoes at 3 marks a 'pud' (one 'pud' = about 16 kilograms).
The Council also took steps to provide accommodation for all of the ghetto's inhabitants. This task grew harder with each passing day, as the ghetto was progressively reduced in size. The Germans would notify the Judenrat: "Such-and-such a street is to be cleared and removed from the ghetto confines." Council members had to relocate the residents of the street to be evacuated to the ghetto's remaining streets. It was necessary to decide where to billet the displaced families. Initially, the Jews were housed in the homes of Christians who had been moved from the ghetto to other parts of the town. Later, the Judenrat set about reducing the living space allotted to ghetto dwellers: families occupying two rooms or more were cut down to a single room, to make space for other families. Our home, which remained within the bounds of the ghetto right up to its final evacuation, housed families displaced from other streets. The problem was exacerbated when the Germans deported Jews into the ghetto from other communities.
Anxious not to be caught unprepared and risk irritating the Germans by a failure to meet their demands on schedule, the Council operated a special workshop preparing reserves of various items for storage in ghetto warehouses, ready to meet any demand.
The Council supplied labor to factories owned by Germans or by Christians working for them. For example, 200 persons were sent to pave a highway, their livelihood being provided by the ghetto. On top of the beatings they suffered, Jews got half the pay given to Christians employed in the same jobs. My father found work as a Judenrat employee. My mother knitted articles of clothing for the Germans. I became a servant to a German family whose head was brought into the area to act as bank manager. My job ensured me sufficient food, and I could also pilfer a little food and cigarettes to take home. For the first time in my life, I was required to fight for survival; the ghetto taught me the basic rules of that contest.