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.
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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.
Amsterdam Jews attempt to meet with members of the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council during the German occupation of the Netherlands (public domain)
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.