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Abraham Asscher & David Cohen

As Lucy Dawidowicz has pointed out, the terms “collaboration” or “cooperation” are really a misrepresentation when applied to Jewish leaders, whether in western or eastern Europe. Unlike the true collaborators such as Quisling, Laval and Vlasov, none of the Jewish leaders shared “common goals and aspirations with the Germans.” Whatever their other failings and misdeeds may have been, “no Jew… ever awaited German victory. No Jew ever hoped for a New Order in Europe.” The leaders of the Judenräte, or their equivalent, were forced by a ruthless and merciless enemy to comply with commands and decrees which they surely considered abhorrent. The terrible choice with which they were then faced was `which of these dreadful alternatives will cause the least misery and loss of life? And if we refuse to accept any of the options, what will the consequences be?' We know that the vanity and ambition of certain leaders played their part, and of course it was irrelevant which alternative was chosen; ultimately, all were condemned. But it took a Chaim Kaplan to have the foresight to recognize this. The actions of Abraham Asscher and David Cohen in the Netherlands, illustrate that the nature of the dilemma facing Jewish leadership under Nazi dominion and in many cases their responses, were the same, irrespective of geographical location.

Born in 1880, Abraham Asscher was the proprietor of the most important diamond firm in Amsterdam, The Royal Asscher Diamond Company, founded in the 19th century. In 1907, the brothers Abraham and Joseph Asscher received a request from the British monarch, Edward VII, to cut the enormous Cullinan diamond. The two parts of this jewel, known as Cullinan 1 and 2, are now set in a crown and sceptre which are part of the British Crown Jewels, to be seen in the Tower of London. As an indication of the standing of Asscher's business, shortly after the occupation of the Netherlands by Germany in May 1940, Hermann Göring visited Asscher's diamond factory and purchased diamonds to the value of 1.4 million guldens.

Abraham Asscher was a member of the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce, and one of the leaders of the Liberal party, which he represented on the provincial council of North-Holland from 1917 to 1940. He was active in many Jewish institutions, but had no interest in Zionism. In 1932 he was elected chairman of the standing committee of the Union of Ashkenazic Communities and chairman of the Amsterdam Jewish Community Council. He thus became the outstanding personality of Dutch Jewry and one of its chief spokesmen. Asscher formed the Comité voor Bijzondere Joodse Belangen (Committee for Special Jewish Affairs) in reaction to events in Germany following Hitler's seizure of power, remaining head of the organisation until it was dissolved in March 1941.

In 1938 the borders of the Netherlands were closed to Jewish refugees. It was only after Reichskristallnacht that the ban was lifted for a short period and 7,000 refugees were admitted to Holland. The German Jewish refugees were housed in a camp at Westerbork, built by the government, but financed by the Dutch Jewish Community. The Dutch government had justified the immigration restrictions on the grounds that they would prevent the rise of anti-Semitism in Holland. It has been suggested that the readiness of the Jewish “aristocracy” to become involved in the financing and organisation of the refugee problem was a reflection of the Jewish leadership's attitude toward their position within Dutch society. They wished to assist the fleeing German Jews, whilst at the same time displaying their loyalty as good Dutchmen by placing the interests of the Netherlands first. At a protest meeting in November 1938 in the wake of Kristallnacht, Asscher thanked the government both

“for the way in which it has demonstrated its recognition of the seriousness of the situation [in Germany] and also for the great amount of work which has been done by a number of its prominent members and civil servants… Indeed we mention with praise the fact that the Dutch government has been the first to express publicly the need to help those unfortunates, the first to find other countries to help. We are well aware of the many difficulties the government encounters in its sincere desire to help solve this problem. It is absolutely certain that the Dutch government is not able to realise what really was necessary for the German Jews: safety and hope for the future of all.”

The Jewish press expressed indignation at what was tantamount to Asscher expressing his appreciation of a government that had turned back refugees at the Dutch-German border. The Centraal Blad voor Israelieten (Central Journal for Israelites) protested in December 1939:

“When we consider the charity work of the Amsterdam committee, only the malicious or ignorant will not praise its diligence, its love of mankind and the understanding with which our unfortunate brothers are being helped within the limits of what is possible, especially since a support department was organized under excellent leadership. The cultural needs of the refugees are also taken into account, and in addition there are fortunately emigrants who pick up this work themselves instead of leaving it all up to their Dutch brothers. However, however... The Jewish heart is good for 'Rachmones' (compassion); the Jewish head is not exactly fit for politics. As soon as notable people with only average talents feel they must also act as spokesmen in politics, we see the same pattern everywhere. One requests nothing, by God, not even the application of existing laws: that might cause 'Risjes' (anti-Semitism). One requests in a submissive fashion and trembles at a frown on the forehead of a minister. One fights only there where other Jews attempt to at last normalize the legal situation of the refugees, which succeeded for instance in Belgium and even in belligerent England: then one fights - against these Jews. Yes, one gives thanks openly for the creation of camps, where Jews are kept imprisoned, instead of keeping silent when one cannot but accept these camps.”

David Cohen was born in 1882 in Deventer and became a professor of ancient history, first in Leyden and then in Amsterdam. Highly literate and orally gifted, he was active in Jewish affairs from an early age, joining the Zionist movement in 1904 where he became an important member. He was a sponsor and organizer of the Zionist Students Union and the Jewish Youth Federation. During the First World War, Cohen actively assisted Jewish refugees, particularly from Germany, and became the secretary of the Committee for Refugees. Described as “a Jewish philanthropist par excellence”, he was a member of the Jewish Council firstly in The Hague then in Amsterdam, and in 1934 was elected to the standing committee of the Union of Ashkenazic Communities. The Comité voor Bijzondere Joodse Belangen was formed on his initiative, and Cohen became the executive chairman of its subcommittee on refugees.

Following the German occupation of the Netherlands, Cohen was among the sponsors of the Joodse Coördinatiecommissie (Jewish Coordinating Committee) set up in December 1940 to represent all of the various Jewish communities, which until then had not established a central comprehensive organization. The Joodse Coördinatiecommissie was chaired by Lodewijk Ernst Visser, a distinguished jurist who had long been active in Jewish affairs. He had been a member of the Comité voor Bijzondere Joodse Belangen since 1933 and had been appointed Chief Justice of the Dutch Supreme Court in 1939. Following the German invasion in May 1940, in common with all Jews in government service he had been dismissed from his position.

Asscher and Cohen were completely different personalities, but both belonged to a liberal Jewish oligarchy whose mentality and perspectives contrasted starkly with those of the Jewish proletariat working in the diamond factories. When the economic tide turned against them, these workers were without jobs and had to earn their living by selling fruit, pickles or second-hand clothing in the streets. Both Asscher and Cohen were capable in political affairs and spoke German fluently, but neither had much in common with their much poorer co-religionists, who made up half of the Jewish population of Amsterdam. The Jewish working class were generally not very religious, had sympathy for the Social Democrats and were the first to join trade unions (especially the Algemene Nederlandse Diamantbewerkers Bond and HandWerkers Vriendenkring). Yet they were proud of “Bram” Asscher as one of their own, the “old people” i.e. the Jews. In that same sense they also respected and felt some sympathy for the mainly conservative rabbis, men who had studied, and therefore deserved to be respected and honoured. Asscher did not feel any empathy with the workers' organisations at all, but was quite generous in charity matters. He regarded himself as a “grand seigneur”. Asscher was a self made man of the world, Cohen an intellectual. When it was necessary to speak to the masses, Asscher did the talking. Cohen took responsibility for more cerebral affairs.

On 12 February 1941, in the wake of the riots caused by Dutch Nazis in Amsterdam, the German authorities ordered Asscher and Cohen to form a Joodse Raad (Jewish Council), initially for Amsterdam only, with the two men serving as joint chairmen. At the first meeting of the Council held at 127-129 Tolstraat (The Royal Asscher Diamond Company's premises) on the following day, Dr Isaac Kisch expressed his concern at the formation of the Joodse Raad and spoke of the risks involved for the Jewish community. The minutes of that first meeting stated:

“… A changing of views concerning the nature of such a Committee takes place; it is agreed upon, that it will mainly have an executive and transmitting function, but that it cannot be responsible for the orders it will have to transmit, and—on the other hand—that it will not proceed so far as to accept orders which are not honourable for the Jews.”

Asscher and Cohen were of the opinion that since Germany now controlled the Netherlands, compliance with Nazi orders was essential, and that only by negotiation with the German authorities could some concessions be obtained. When Dutch workers went on strike in February 1941, Asscher broadcast an appeal to the Jews of Amsterdam to remain calm. Asscher was not extensively involved in the day-to-day activities of the Joodse Raad, but he chaired all of its plenary sessions. Despite the fact that he did not hide his contempt for the Nazi regime, the Sipo granted Asscher certain favours, such as sparing many of his relatives and friends from deportation. By nature a tempestuous and courageous man, Asscher wished to protest against the Nazi persecution of the Jews, but Cohen, in effect responsible for the conduct of daily affairs, always managed to persuade him not to resign his position and to continue cooperating with the German authorities. Because these two, friends in private, felt it as their natural duty to accept the order to form the Joodse Raad and act as chairmen, many Jews at first believed their fate was in the best possible hands, so that going into hiding, let alone acts of resistance, never occurred to the great majority. If that concept was tenable at the time of the formation of the Council, subsequent events proved it to be a mirage.

The Joodse Raad came under severe criticism from Visser and from the Dutch government-in-exile for its policy of cooperation with the Germans. Visser was vehemently opposed to such cooperation, stating that the concessions made by the Joodse Raad were completely unjustified, and could only lead to a deterioration in the situation. He strongly believed that the Dutch administration had a constitutional obligation to protect all Dutch citizens, including Jews. When, following the events of February 1941, he learned that 389 young Jews had been deported to Buchenwald, where fifty of them died within three months (the remainder were then sent to Mauthausen – of an estimated total of 1,750 Dutch Jews eventually sent to that camp, there was a single survivor), Visser protested in the strongest terms to various Dutch government departments. Cohen wrote that in every epoch there were two kinds of people who paved the way for the future; the strong-minded revolutionaries and those who made the best of things. The latter, being realists, might admire the former, but the admiration was never reciprocated. In return, Visser questioned whether the price being asked was not too high. Was it to be paid, no matter what?

In the Joodse Raad itself there was opposition to Cohen's policies, but he was always successful in overcoming this resistance and obtaining majority support for his position in the Coordinating Committee. The prestige of the Council was also enhanced when a permit was obtained to continue the publication of a weekly newspaper Het Joodsch Weekblad (The Jewish Weekly), which had been founded in August 1940 by Jacques de Leon, a Revisionist Zionist. The German Beauftragter (representative) for Amsterdam, Böhmcker, did not prohibit the publication of this newspaper as he did other Jewish means of communication, and it seems the Germans even insisted that De Leon should have a position on the editorial staff. However, De Leon undertook no further work for the Weekblad, thereby generating his reputation as a possible collaborator. By having the Joodse Raad publish this newspaper, the Germans took a very important step towards the further isolation of the Jews. No one but the Jewish population read the Weekblad, so that it was possible to keep the details of the anti-Jewish measures out of the regular newspapers, thus preventing any potential reaction from the non-Jewish population. Het Joodsch Weekblad became the vehicle by which German decrees and regulations were transmitted to the Jewish population.

In summer 1941, the Joodse Raad was ordered to prepare lists of unemployed Jews. In effect this passed onto the Council the responsibility for selecting those who were to be sent to labour camps, a role that caused great resentment among the Jewish population. In October 1941, the Joodse Raad's authority was extended to all of the Netherlands and the Joodse Coördinatiecommissie was disbanded. The gradual process of identification, registration and annihilation continued with the introduction of the “yellow star” on 3 May 1942, an action in which the Joodse Raad actively participated. On 26 June, the Council were informed of the intended deportation of Jews to unknown destinations in eastern Europe. For this purpose, German and Dutch police utilised lists prepared from the Council's card index. When in July 1942, the letter “J” was added to the identity cards of Jews, Visser refused to accept a card so stamped. He was completely opposed to Jews wearing the “yellow star” and later protested against the forcible evacuation of Jews from various areas of the Netherlands. Visser continued to promote a policy of non-cooperation, until he was warned that if he persevered in doing so, he would be sent to a concentration camp. 3 days after receiving a letter to this effect, Visser suffered a heart attack and died.

Some are of the opinion that Asscher and Cohen did all that they could to save Jews from deportation to Poland. Others believe that the Joodse Raad showed little concern for those who had been deported, somewhat more for those that remained, and most of all for its own fate. So intent were they of not falling foul of the occupiers that they implored Jews to comply with German instructions regarding deportation and not go into hiding. The Council's aim was to preserve “the best” for the purpose of rebuilding the post-war community. One of those not considered among “the best” was Jacques de Leon, the original editor of Het Joodsch Weekblad. De Leon was one of the first to be placed on a deportation list by the Council. He was sent to Westerbork on 20 July 1942 and put on a transport to Auschwitz, where he perished one week later. No German initiative was taken to remove him from the deportation list. Jacob Presser was of the opinion that by complaining about De Leon to Böhmcker, Asscher had been involved in De Leon's transportation to Westerbork. Not surprisingly, Cohen later denied this at his post-war hearing.

The Joodse Raad did make some efforts to help those who were about to be deported and attempted to negotiate the release of some deportees, often on the grounds that they were members of the Council's staff. This strategy worked for a time, but in May 1943, the Joodse Raad leaders were ordered to provide a list of 7,000 of the Council's employees for deportation. In a single day, a list of candidates was prepared, and instructions to the victims on how and where to report were issued over Cohen's signature. Jacob Presser commented:

“Even in May 1943, when the Jewish Council was ordered to select 7,000 people for deportation, the cup was not yet full, and the Council tried to preserve `the best.' The best meant the intelligentsia and the well-to-do… for the salvation of this dwindling group they sacrificed an ever larger group of lesser people and those who were not `the best'. The orange sellers for the sake of the caste of the rich and the scholars, for the sake of those like the chairmen themselves.”

The Joodse Raad continued to function until 29 September 1943, when most of the remaining Jews, including Asscher and Cohen (moving “like stars” among the inmates), were taken to Westerbork; the majority of the Jews, including Asscher, were deported from there to Bergen Belsen. Cohen was transported to Theresienstadt. Unlike most of their compatriots, Asscher and Cohen were not murdered, and returned to the Netherlands, where Jewish survivors and the post-war Dutch government raised serious accusations against them. After investigation, the legal proceedings were discontinued. Sam de Wolff, the well known Dutch Marxist and Zionist, wrote an article in the newspaper De Vlam – “The Torch”, expressing his opinion regarding the two chairmen:

“In the Netherlands, after the war years, there have been few Jews who have spoken more critically in public of Asscher and Cohen's tactics than myself. However, to bring both men before the Dutch judicial system, branding them as war criminals and have them answer for their actions and behaviour during the horror of the Nazi occupation is, as far as I am concerned, an injustice… No other Jewish organization was allowed by the Nazis during the war years; hence it was out of necessity that the Joodse Raad, with all its ugly facets, was forced upon the Jewish community. A civil court judge cannot and may not sit in judgment over the question of whether or not one can speak of a special Jewish guilt. Only the Jewish people may do so. As reprehensible as the involvement of the members of the Joodse Raad was, and that of Asscher and Cohen in particular, it is doubtful whether the Jewish community, after all these years, still demands punishment for their involvement. Regardless of the failure of the Joodse Raad to have been of help or even of assistance to the doomed Jews in Holland, willing collaborators they were not.”

In 1947 despite Cohen's passionate defence of his policy, a Jewish Council of Honour, acting on behalf of the Jewish community found both Asscher and Cohen guilty on five counts: (1) establishing the Joodse Raad; (2) publishing Het Joodsch Weekblad; (3) giving instructions concerning deportations to eastern Europe; (4) participating in the distribution of the “yellow star” badges; and (5) the selecting of 7,000 persons for deportation in May 1943. Both were barred from participating in any form of Jewish communal activity. Hans Knoop observed that the tragedy of Asscher and Cohen was that they had adapted and adjusted, rather than reacted and resisted. They had been philanthropists before the war, and they had conducted the activities of the Council as if they had no greater responsibility than to continue to be philanthropists. But more than this was needed by a community destined for annihilation.

Asscher did not recognize the tribunal's competence and broke off all ties with the Jewish community. In 1950 Cohen's sentence was annulled. He returned to his university post, but did not become active in Jewish public life. In 1955 he published his autobiography Zwervend en Dolend (Fugitive and Vagabond) and died in 1967. Asscher died in 1950 and was buried in a non-Jewish cemetery. Knoop observed:

“They issued the deportation notices and urged Jews in Het Joodsch Weekblad to obey these summons to the letter. But they found another task to do – or did they consider it to be their primary one? – to ensure that those who left for Auschwitz travelled with at least one extra pair of socks. Cohen declared after the war that `thanks to our efforts no Jew suffered from hunger in occupied Holland.' That was the case. But thanks to Asscher and Cohen the deportation of the Jews in the Netherlands achieved a greater measure of perfection and efficiency than anywhere else in occupied Europe.”

Overall, 107,000 Dutch Jews had been deported, of whom approximately 102,000 had perished. Probably another 2,000 had been killed, committed suicide or died of privation in Holland itself. The death toll represented almost 75% of the pre-war Jewish population, the highest proportion of Jewish fatalities for all of Nazi-occupied western Europe.

(My thanks to Martin van Liempt for his invaluable assistance in preparing this text.)

Sources and Further Reference:

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, Bantam Books, New York, 1979

Wyman David S. ed. - Dwork Deborah and van Pelt Robert-Jan. The World Reacts to the Holocaust, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1996

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003

Knoop, Hans. De Joodsche Raad: Het drama van Abraham Asscher en David Cohen, Elsevier, Amsterdam and Brussels, 1983

Moore, Bob. Victims and Survivors : The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands 1940-1945, Hodder Arnold, London, 1997

Presser, Jacob. Ashes in the Wind: The Destruction of Dutch Jewry, Wayne State University Press, Detroit,1988


Adam Czerniakow

At 10 a.m. on 22 July 1942, a group of SS officers entered the office of Adam Czerniakow, chairman of the Warsaw Judenrat. The German party included SturmbannführerHermann Höfle, Chief of Staff to Odilo Globocnik at Aktion Reinhard headquarters in Lublin, and Untersturmführer Karl-Georg Brandt and his assistant Oberscharführer Karl Gerhardt Mende, responsible for Jewish affairs in department IVB of the Warsaw Gestapo. Czerniakow was informed that all of the Jews of Warsaw, irrespective of sex and age (with certain exceptions), were to be deported to the East. By 4 p.m. that day, a contingent of 6,000 people had to be provided. That would be the future minimum daily quota. For the time being Czerniakow's wife, Felicja, had not been arrested, said Höfle. But if the deportation was impeded in any way, she would be the first to be shot as a hostage. The author Jonas Turkow claimed that when the “resettlement” was announced, Czerniakow called an extraordinary meeting of prominent public figures and stated that if the Jews did not deliver the requisite quota of people, the Germans would take over the handling of the Aktion with potentially disastrous consequences. He requested that a number of workers from the Jewish Social Welfare (JSS) and the Judenrat be assigned to assist at the Umschlagplatz.

Czerniakow appealed to the Germans for exemptions from the deportation, particularly for orphans. He received no assurances of such an exemption. The following day the Germans increased the daily quota of deportees to 7,000. When he asked the number of days per week on which the operation would be carried out, Czerniakow was informed that it would be seven days a week. Höfle's deputy, Hauptsturmführer Hermann Worthoff, ordered Czerniakow to provide 10,000 deportees, including children, for the transport leaving on 24 July. Czerniakow realised that if he could not be the guardian of the children, the future of the community, then all was lost. He confided a final entry to his diary: “It is three o'clock. So far 4,000 are ready to go. The orders are that there must be 9,000 by four o'clock…” He wrote two further letters, one of which was to his wife, saying: “They demand from me to kill the children of my nation with my own hands. There is nothing left for me but to die.” The second was addressed to the Judenrat, in which he wrote: “They demanded (of me) to prepare transports of children. I cannot take it any longer, I cannot allow (the) death of innocent children; this is why I decided to do away with myself. This is not cowardice or escape. I am powerless, my heart is splitting from sorrow and compassion and I cannot bear this any longer. My deed will show the truth to all and maybe it will encourage (the) right actions. I am aware that I am leaving you with a difficult legacy”. That evening, alone in his office, Czerniakow requested a glass of water and swallowed one of the twenty four cyanide pills (one for each member of the Judenrat) that he had kept in his desk.

Mary Berg wrote about his suicide in her diary, amongst the earliest historical records to emerge from the Warsaw ghetto:

24 July 1942:
The head of the Community, Adam Czerniakow, has committed suicide. He did it last night, 23 July. He could no longer bear his terrible burden. According to the news we receive here, he took this tragic step when the Germans ordered him to increase the contingent of people to be deported. He saw no other way out, except leaving this terrible world.”

In common with many other members of the Judenräte, particularly the chairmen, Czerniakow was by no means universally popular. Individuals such as Emanuel Ringelblum and Itzhak Katznelson regarded him with disdain as a man out of touch with the Jewish masses. Stefan Ernest, who was employed for a time in the Employment Office of the Judenrat, considered him incapable of meaningful resistance, a view shared by many young people. Some believed he was a pawn of the Germans, others that he was too indecisive. Stanislaw Adler, a member of the Judenrat, wrote : “Adam Czerniakow was an experienced social and community worker and a model of the well read, hard working, good willed man, but he was simply unable to make a decision.” Another ghetto resident, Marek Stok, noted that most people considered Czerniakow honest but weak-willed. Apolinary Hartglas, a former member of the Polish parliament who had escaped from Poland to Palestine in 1940, described Czerniakow an ambitious man who had sought German approval as Chairman of the Judenrat. This claim appears to overstate Czerniakow's motives; he did not exploit the arrival of the invaders in order to make himself the leader of the Jewish community. But it is true that he was not averse to occupying the position, and was by no means reluctant to accept the appointment. Czerniakow was a vain man; he liked official parties, parades, pompous speeches, official openings, the cutting of ribbons. The ceremonial aspect of being in power - he was the only inhabitant of the Ghetto allowed to have a motor vehicle - gave him a good deal of satisfaction. Until approximately September 1941, he held a dual title, being named as both Chairman of the Jewish Council and President of the Council of the Elders of the Jewish religious community in Warsaw (Obmann des Judenrates und Präsident des Ältestenrates der jüdischen Kultusgemeinde in Warschau.) From mid-May 1941, his position was deemed to correspond to that of the mayor of Polish Warsaw. In time, Czerniakow came to realise that being chairman of the Judenrat was no sinecure, but rather a heavy burden that would ultimately claim his life. He could hardly have been said to occupy his position for material gain. He worked a seven-day week almost all year round and drew no salary as chairman. He commented to his diary that he owned nothing except his furniture and clothes. And he was arrested and physically assaulted by the occupiers more than once.

Many of the leading members of the various political parties and of the Jewish community had left Warsaw in the first month of the war, while it was still possible to do so. Czerniakow also had this opportunity, but he refused to leave, and was critical of those that had. Despite his other strictures, it should be noted that Ernest also commented: “Czerniakow was undoubtedly a man of the best will, the finest intentions, the highest devotion… He was clearly willing to sacrifice his life for the sake of the community… Wounds inflicted on his person did not hurt him, but he was truly tormented by the suffering of the ghetto as a whole. He was a pure symbol of his oppressed people.” Jan Mawult (Stanislaw Gombinski), a lawyer who directed a department of the Jewish police force, wrote:

“… Even if he wasn't entirely immune to gestures of servility, he was by no means excessive in this regard… And though he was occasionally criticized for this, he played the role of tribal chief far less than certain others… Everyone who came into contact with him, whether personally or on official business, saw that he was frank and direct, without the slightest sign of bluster… His acceptance of a Byzantine atmosphere was not an indication of his private personality; rather it stemmed from his need, being a man in public office, to put up with this or that despite his inner preferences.

Maybe this is where he was wrong; maybe this was his mistake. In his effort to avoid any despotic tendencies, he erred in the opposite direction: he was not decisive enough. He followed no political line; his only mission was to survive… If `politics' is defined as the art of ruling, he (was) not a politician and (had) no aspirations to be one. He (tried) with all his might to help as many people as possible.”

Even Czerniakow's suicide aroused conflicting opinions. Mawult believed that “when he saw the end was near, he decided to end it himself, not a minute too soon or a minute too late.” Ernest considered that Czerniakow's death could be regarded by some as an act of protest, that perhaps he wanted to teach the ghetto to assert its right to choose its own death. As Chaim Kaplan put it:

“He followed the Talmudic law: if someone comes to kill me, using might and power, and turns a deaf ear to all my pleas, he can do to me whatever his heart desires, since he has the power, and strength always prevails. But to give my consent, to sign my own death warrant – this no power on earth can force me to do, not even the brutal force of the foul-souled Nazi.”

The poet Yitzhak Katznelson considered that Czerniakow's death was “ a sign of his desire to free himself of guilt feelings, to expiate a sin that weighed on his conscience.” Ernest, however, was more critical:

“But in this [his suicide] the President committed a major error, possibly even an act of cowardice. Perhaps at the very last moment he lost the courage, the strength, the nerve… Believe me, in our circumstances nothing was easier than choosing to die; deciding to survive was harder by far. Czerniakow should have lived and led the rebellion… He should at least have told people what was in store for them before he took his leave… Because Czerniakow now knew the whole truth. In the end, though, people went to their death leaderless, submissive and ignorant of the fate awaiting them… [He] was simply unable to grasp the need for a course of action that required bloodshed… But Czerniakow was not a man of active resistance.”

For Marek Edelman, Czerniakow's final letter should have read: “Jews! We are taken away to meet death. Defend yourselves!” Edelman and Antek Cukierman, both members of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), considered this to be the most serious accusation: that of possessing and hiding knowledge concerning the future fate of the Jews. Edelman wrote:

“(Czerniakow) knew beyond any doubt that the supposed “deportation to the East” actually meant the death of hundreds and thousands of people in gas chambers, and he refused to assume responsibility for it. Being unable to counteract events he decided to quit altogether. At the time, however, we thought that he had no right to act as he did. We thought that since he was the only person in the ghetto whose voice carried a great deal of authority, it had been his duty to inform the entire population of the real state of affairs, and also to dissolve all public institutions, particularly the Jewish police, which had been established by the Jewish Council and was legally subordinate to it.”

Perhaps the most generous and sympathetic tribute to Czerniakow was that paid by Chaim Kaplan in his diary entry of 26 July 1942:

“He did not have a good life, but he had a beautiful death… There are those who earn immortality in a single hour. The President, Adam Czerniakow, earned his immortality in a single instant.”

Adam Czerniakow was born in Warsaw in 1880 to a middle class family. He obtained a diploma in chemical engineering at the Warsaw Polytechnic, and a second at the Industrial Department of the Dresden Polytechnic. In addition, he attended the Trade School in Warsaw, and spoke several languages. He completed his chemical engineering studies in 1908, subsequently teaching at the Jewish vocational school in Warsaw, as well as serving in other positions in Poland. In 1909, he was imprisoned by the Tsarist authorities for his participation in the Polish independence movement. Czerniakow was an assimilationist who considered himself to be both a Jew and a Pole, and was concerned about the problem of integrating the two peoples. He once said:

“Whoever thinks that the problem of two peoples living together in one country is easy to digest, assimilate both elements and create from them a conglomeration comprising a valuable alloy—is wrong.” But easy or not, assimilation remained a lifelong goal. Czerniakow was a cultured man, an introverted book lover and poet, described by a Zionist leader as “a gifted man, lacking any political or public ideals, but a decent man.”

He was a co-organizer of the Central Union of Jewish Craftsmen. Between 1927 and 1934 he was a member of the Warsaw Municipal Council and was also a senator from the Non-Partisan Block for Cooperation with the Government during the years 1931-1939. He was the author of many scholarly studies, one of which received an award in 1919, as well as texts on the sugar industry, bakeries and many other subjects in the field of industrial and practical chemistry. Shortly before the First World War he had become involved in Jewish public life. As a member of the executive council, for many inter-war years Czerniakow was an advisor to the Jewish Community in Warsaw, although he was not considered to possess leadership material, since he was not a member of any political party and lacked fluency in Yiddish. By 1939 and the outbreak of war, Czerniakow occupied the position of deputy chairman of the Jewish Religious Community (Kehillah; Zydowska Gmina Wyznaniowa). In the absence of Maurycy Mayzel, chairman of the Council, who had been appointed by the Polish government, and who had fled from Warsaw at the beginning of the conflict, Stefan Starzynski, the mayor of the city, appointed Czerniakow “head of the Jewish religious community in Warsaw”. Czerniakow began to keep a diary from the very first week of the war, an almost daily habit he maintained until the afternoon of the last day of his life. It was to the diary that he poured out the frustrations of his daily struggle to keep the largest Jewish community in Europe alive. In 1939, when other Jewish leaders had left Poland, he had been offered a visa to Palestine. He refused it, choosing instead to remain in Warsaw, serving the Jewish population to the best of his abilities in the most difficult of circumstances.

According to the reports of Apolinary Hartglas, Sipo-SD (Security Police) men raided the headquarters of the Jewish Community on 4 October 1939, and upon asking who the chairman was, were informed by the caretaker that the position was occupied by Czerniakow. Szmul Zygielbojm recorded how the Warsaw Judenrat was created by Hauptsturmführer Rudolf Batz and Czerniakow appointed its chairman:

“… The Gestapo ordered the deputy chairman, Adam Czerniakow, to appear at its office (Szucha Boulevard). For two days he was abused and then ordered to deliver the names of rich Jews, as well as other information about the activities of Jewish organizations and individuals active in community affairs. He also had to listen to anti-Semitic speeches and Nazi propaganda oratory before he was informed that he had been nominated chairman (`Obmann') of the Jewish community. He also received an order to present a list of 24 Jews to be nominated members of the Jewish Council and as many names of persons to serve as deputies…”

Hartglas commented: “It was not the duty of this Council to manage the affairs of the Community, but – as was set out in the document appointing the members – to carry out Gestapo orders. It was thus not a body representing the Jews, but one carrying out Gestapo [orders] with regard to Jews. This Supreme Council [did] not represent the community and [could not] supply the needs of the Jews… In general the Council was not permitted to do anything. Every time it began some action, the Gestapo came and interfered.”

Much of the subsequent criticism of the Judenrat was the product of the population's impotent rage and frustration in the face of intolerable circumstances, a position deliberately cultivated by the Germans. By utilising the Judenrat as the conduit through which they controlled the ghetto, the regime deflected much of the blame for the appalling conditions of ghetto life onto the supposed representatives of the Jews themselves. With the establishment of the ghetto, the responsibilities of the Judenrat had also expanded enormously, so that at one point it employed 6,000 individuals, compared to the 530 of the pre-war Jewish Religious Community. By July 1942 there were 95,000 working Jews, including those employed by the Judenrat, out of a total population nearly four times as large.

There was no doubting Czerniakow's personal courage and his dignified behaviour. On 24 November 1939, the Gestapo demanded that the Judenrat hand over 17 hostages. When Czerniakow instead offered himself as the sole hostage, the demand was withdrawn. In an attempt to ameliorate the unbearable conditions of everyday life, in January 1940 Czerniakow negotiated an agreement with the Sipo-SD, whereby the Judenrat would supply and pay for a regular labour workforce numbering 8,000-9,000 people, rather than continue with the existing system of random roundups. The workforce was mostly made up of refugees and the impoverished, for whom the pittance paid was their sole source of income.

Chaim Kaplan noted in his diary entry for 17 September 1940 that a rumour was circulating to the effect that Czerniakow had committed suicide because of the seventeen edicts about to be imposed on the Jewish community. The rumour proved false, but in describing Czerniakow's character, Kaplan was hardly flattering: “… He is a mediocre man whose education and intelligence combine to make him something of a nincompoop; it is only through the misfortune of his people that he has risen to such eminence.” But later Kaplan revised his earlier judgement. He was scathing in his criticism of the Judenrat, but not of its chairman. In April 1941 he wrote: “The Judenrat…is an abomination in the eyes of the Warsaw Community… According to rumour, the President is a decent man. But (with some exceptions) the people around him are the dregs of humanity… Everything is done in the name of the President. But in truth, everything is done without his knowledge and even without his consent, and perhaps also against his decisions and wishes…”

On 20 September 1940, Czerniakow was ordered to establish a Jewish Order Police (Ordnungsdienst), to be responsible for the policing of the proposed ghetto. The Ordnungsdienst peaked at a membership of 2,000-3,000, with a leadership consisting of people with police experience under the command of Josef Andrzej Szerynski (Szynkman), a convert to Christianity who had been chosen by Czerniakow and not by the Germans. The role the Ordnungsdienst were to play was to prove a source of constant complaint by the ghetto population and of unending concern to Czerniakow.

In March 1940, the Germans began to refer to the Jewish residential district as “A Plague-Infected Area” (Seuchensperrgebiet). The Judenrat was ordered to erect a wall around the “infected area.” By early June, twenty sections of the wall had already been built. On 1 July, Czerniakow was informed by Mende “That the war would be over in a month and that we would all leave for Madagascar.” All work ceased at this time on two planned ghettos on the outskirts of Warsaw (at Kolo-Wola and Grochow). The concept of a ghetto had first been mooted in November 1939, but the idea took a year to reach fruition. Czerniakow had hoped for an “open” ghetto, but at a conference held on 12 September, Hans Frank, Governor of the Generalgouvernement, announced that the 500,000 Jews of Warsaw posed a threat to the rest of the population on health grounds, and that they could no longer be permitted to “roam around.” On 12 October, Yom Kippur, a German decree formally announced the establishment of the ghetto. On 18 October, Czerniakow recorded in his diary: “Today our own and city officials from the housing exchange are touring the ghetto. Bargaining for specific streets… I abhor this haggling, anyway I do not take part in it.” The ghetto was sealed on 16 November 1940.

Within the ghetto, Czerniakow organized fund raising drives and created playgrounds for children, as well as organizing raids on premises containing black market goods which were confiscated and then distributed to children either in orphanages or living homeless on the streets. He had estimated in December 1941 that there were about 10,000 inhabitants in the ghetto with capital, 250,000 who could support themselves, and 150,000 who were destitute. Those at the bottom of this pyramid of misery were naturally the most vulnerable. As early as 8 May 1941, Czerniakow had written: “Children starving to death.” He would make weekly rounds of various German functionaries, describing his problems and sometimes requesting that they pass on his petitions to their superiors, pleading and appealing for their support, but only rarely arguing with them. Czerniakow had asked to be relieved of the chairmanship of the Judenrat in January 1940, but was advised to withdraw his request “for his own good.” In November 1940, he was arrested by the Gestapo after a refugee from Germany named Sacksenhausen, who had been employed as a clerk in the Judenrat before being dismissed by the Chairman , lodged a false complaint with the Germans. Fortunately, after a few hours detention Czerniakow was released, unharmed apart from the beating he had received at the time of his arrest. Czerniakow's everyday humiliations should not be minimised. The first head of the Transferstelle (the German administered economic office that acted as the intermediary between the ghetto and the outside world), Alexander Palfinger, refused to talk to Jews. Heinz Auerswald, Kommissar (Commissioner) of the ghetto, complained to Czerniakow that Judenrat officials stood too close when they spoke to him. There were even some German officials who not only refused to converse with Jews as a matter of principle, but ordered that the windows of the Transferstelle be kept open because of the stench the Jews made.

In December 1940, Czerniakow complained to the District Governor, Ludwig Fischer, about the lack of provisions for ghetto inmates; in the previous month each person in the ghetto had received little more than half of the bread ration allocated to “Aryans”, nor had the ghetto been allocated any sugar, potatoes, flour, noodles, meat, marmalade, eggs or coal at all. Czerniakow warned that “ the great majority of the Jewish population, which has no steady income and no assets, will not be able to satisfy even the most rudimentary necessities of life and will be condemned to death by starvation.” His plea fell on deaf ears. However, by May 1941 there appeared to be a change in the German attitude toward the ghetto. On 21 May, Czerniakow met with Fischer, and was told that there was a possibility that food rations would be increased and orders placed for the workers in the ghetto. But first the corpses lying in the street had to be quickly cleared away because of the bad impression they created. Now it seemed that the ghetto was to become productive, rather than the source of death through starvation it had been since inception. Unfortunately, the apparent change in policy was a chimera. In the following days the mortality rate in the ghetto climbed to 1.5% per month.

In the summer of 1941, Czerniakow received an order to set up a Jewish prison. The death penalty for leaving the ghetto was announced on 6 November 1941. The first executions were carried out two weeks later. Through Czerniakow's intervention, Auerswald agreed to work for the release of a number of those sentenced to death, with some success. In return a ransom of 1,500 fur coats was paid. Rather than immediate execution, the condemned were sent to the Treblinka penal camp, where they either died or became among the first victims of the adjacent death camp when that became operational a few months later. For a loyal Nazi, it would appear that Auerswald's relations with Czerniakow were unusually cordial. Auerswald even released Czerniakow from the obligation to wear an armband, and allowed the Judenrat Chairman to address him in a surprisingly frank manner. But Auerswald ultimately proved to be as deceitful and dishonest as his colleagues. If Czerniakow believed he had found a sympathetic ear, he was sadly deluded.

Although Czerniakow maintained contact with the Jewish underground, he considered it a threat to the survival of the community; he was opposed to plans for armed resistance. Thus the underground remained critical of Czerniakow personally, and of the Judenrat in general. Notwithstanding their differences, Mordechai Tenenbaum, a leading member of the underground, considered that there were only three honest people among the leaders of the Judenrat, one of whom was Czerniakow, whose primary concern was to keep the Germans out of ghetto affairs and to organize internal Jewish matters with the maximum of autonomy, insofar as either of those objectives was possible.

Czerniakow's diary entry for 27 October 1941 referred to “alarming rumours about the fate of the Jews next spring.” It was around this time that Karl Bischoff, then head of the Transferstelle, told him that the ghetto was only a temporary solution – without specifying what its successor might be. On hearing that Auerswald had been summoned to Berlin on 19 January 1942, Czerniakow's concern increased: “I cannot shake off the fearful suspicion that the Jews of Warsaw may be threatened by mass resettlement.” Although Auerswald did not attend, the Wannsee Conference took place the next day. David Wdowinski, a political and underground leader in Warsaw related how he broke the news of the Lublin deportation to Czerniakow in April 1942: “… Czerniakow… considered the report an exaggeration. He also said that General Governor Frank had given assurances that three ghettos will remain [intact] – Warsaw, Radom, and Krakow.” On 29 April, Czerniakow was told to provide statistics of the ghetto population as well as ten maps of the ghetto itself. In his diary he wondered: “Is a decision in the offing?” By 3 May he was beginning to think that perhaps all unproductive elements in the ghetto were to be deported. His diary note of 18 May read: “… Persistent rumours about deportations. It appears that they are not without foundation.” In July, the rumours and suspicions had become more tangible. On 18 July Czerniakow informed the Judenrat and the Jewish police that he had received assurances that the Germans had no plans to “resettle” the population. However, eye-witnesses reported that at that very moment a train made up of a large number of goods wagons was being assembled in the railway sidings at the northernmost point of the ghetto. On 20 July, as panic swept through the ghetto, Czerniakow enquired of the Gestapo if there was any truth in the speculations, but was fobbed off with a series of lies. In a conversation with Czerniakow the same day, Auerswald similarly pretended to be completely ignorant of impending events. Two days later Höfle and his cohorts arrived in Czerniakow's office with their horrifying orders. Over the next seven weeks, a total of 265,000 Jews were transported to Treblinka and death.

Czerniakow's diary is an invaluable source of material concerning the events that took place in Warsaw during the period from the earliest days of the war to the commencement of the deportations. The diary disappeared for many years, and it was thought that it had vanished forever. However, Czerniakow's widow, Dr. Felicja Czerniakow, had saved it. With the help of friends, she managed to leave the ghetto after her husband's death, and hid for ten months in the home of Dr. Grabowska, and then with Professor Apolinary Rudnicki, the director of the First Lyceum of the Union of Polish Secondary School Teachers. A Warsaw ghetto survivor, Rosalia Pietkiewicz, purchased the diary from an unknown source in 1959. The diary became available in Canada in 1964, and was purchased by the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem. It consisted of eight notebooks, containing a total of 1,009 pages. The notebook covering the period 14 December 1940 – 22 April 1941 (number 5 of 9) has never been recovered; the surviving diary entries have been published in a number of languages.

It is impossible to arrive at any judgement of Czerniakow and his actions without attempting to recreate what was known during his lifetime and to imagine oneself in his position. It is also necessary to consider his alternatives without utilising the benefit of hindsight. Of necessity, his evaluation of the situation was based solely on the available evidence. Aktion Reinhard had not yet begun and despite his apprehensions, Czerniakow was unable to appreciate the true magnitude of what was approaching. How could he? Only now are we aware how it was to end. Whatever his other failings may have been (and like all humans he lacked perfection), when he realized that every Jew was condemned to die, he took the only ethical and honourable choice open to him and decided not to be their executioner.

Sources and Further Reference:

Arad Yitzhak, Gutman Israel and Margaliot Abraham, eds. Documents On The Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1999

Browning, Christopher R. The Origins of the Final Solution, William Heinemann, London, 2004

Czerniakow, Adam, Hilberg, Raul (Ed.), Staron, Stanislaw (Ed.), Kermisz, Josef (Ed.). The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow : Prelude to Doom, Ivan R Dee Inc., Chicago,1999

Gilbert Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, William Collins Sons & Co. Limited, London, 1986

Grynberg, Michal, ed., Words to Outlive Us - Eyewitness Accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto, Granta Books, London, 2003

Gutman, Yisrael. The Jews Of Warsaw 1939-1943, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990

Gutman, Israel. Resistance – The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston & New York, 1994

Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators Victims Bystanders, Harper Collins, New York, 1993

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003

Kaplan, Chaim A. Scroll of Agony – The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan – Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1999

Lanzmann, Claude. Shoah – The Complete Text of the Acclaimed Holocaust Film, Da Capo Press, New York, 1995

Trunk, Isaiah. Judenrat - The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation, The Macmillan Company - New York 1972.


Elchanan Elkes

It would not be unreasonable to suggest that the Judenräte in general, and their chairmen in particular, enjoyed, in the main, neither the confidence nor the respect of the communities they supposedly represented. There were, of course, exceptions. Not all Judenrat chairmen had a messianic complex, were akin to collaborators, or had been corrupted in other ways. Among the most distinguished of these principled leaders was Dr Elchanan Elkes, chairman of the Ältestenrat, the Council of Elders, in the Kovno (today, Kaunas) ghetto in Lithuania, a man whose memory is revered for the dignity with which he led his community in its hour of greatest need.

Elchanan Elkes, the son of a rabbi, was born in 1879 in the western Lithuanian village of Kalvarija, at that time a province of Czarist Russia. In part self-educated, he also received an extensive traditional Jewish education. Whilst still young he was sent to school in Kovno, before completing his medical studies in Königsberg (today Kaliningrad), then located in the German province of East Prussia, and which today is a city within the Russian Federation. He received his medical degree in neurology and other specialties in 1903. For seven years he practiced as a doctor in the village of Berezino in Byelorussia. In 1912 he married Miriam Albin, who bore him two children, a son, Joel, and a daughter, Sara. During the First World War, Elkes served as a physician in the Russian Army and was awarded a number of decorations. From 1923, he was head of the department of internal medicine in the Bikkur Holim Jewish hospital in Kovno, as well as practicing privately. Reputedly one of the best doctors in Lithuania, his patients included the country's prime minister as well as many diplomats, although he also gave freely of his services to the poor. Ironically, in view of what was to come, for eighteen years he had served as physician to the German embassy in Kovno, as well as being the personal physician to the German ambassador to Lithuania.

Elkes was an active Zionist with connections to the Hehalutz youth movement, and was also closely involved in Jewish cultural activities. When Kovno fell under Soviet rule in 1940, he used his contact as physician to the principal Soviet representative in the country to obtain exit visas for thousands of stranded Polish Jewish refugees, who had fled from Poland before the invading German army and sought refuge in Lithuania.

On 24 June 1941, two days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, `Operation Barbarossa', was launched, Kovno fell to the Nazis. The killing of Jews began almost immediately. Over the next weeks, thousands were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen and their Lithuanian henchmen at the Jewish cemetery and at the forts that surrounded the city. As it had become apparent that Lithuania was to be occupied by the Germans, foreign diplomatic sources offered Elkes safe conduct to other countries, but he declined to leave Kovno. On 10 July, a decree was promulgated by the mayor and military commander of the city, both Lithuanians, declaring that a ghetto was to be established in the suburb of Slobodka, a district also known as Vilijampolé. The ghetto area was divided into two sections: the “small ghetto” and the “large ghetto”, on either side of the main thoroughfare, over which a small bridge was later constructed. Nearly 30,000 Jews were ordered to move into the ghetto by 15 August. The Jewish Committee, originally formed to rationalize the transfer of the Jewish population to the hideously overcrowded and dilapidated ghetto, was now ordered to transform itself into an Ältestenrat and to elect a leader. This was a role both difficult and dangerous for the person elected. It was clear that whoever took up the position should be a person who, despite being regarded as merely another Jew in German eyes, was both authoritative and distinguished, a man who might even elicit a modicum of respect on behalf of the persecutors. He would have to be clever, courageous, highly moral, and of strong character, the kind of individual who would defend the interests of the community he represented in the face of merciless killers. Such a man was not to be easily found. The leaders of the community therefore met on 5 August to elect an Oberjude (Chief Jew), a chairman; nobody would accept the position, including Elkes, whose nomination had been enthusiastically greeted by those present. Elkes protested that he had no experience of public administration, and was not qualified to occupy such a vital post. An impassioned appeal was made to him by Rabbi Yakov Moshe Shmukler:

“The Jewish community of Kovno stands on the brink of destruction. Our daughters are being raped, and our sons executed. Fellow Jews! The German oppressor demands that we appoint an Oberjude, but what we need is a faithful community leader. In this historic hour, the most appropriate candidate among us is Dr Elkes. Therefore we appeal to you, Dr Elkes: In the eyes of the German criminals you will fill the position of Oberjude, but to us you will be community leader… And now we beg you: Assume, without fear, the position as our leader, for those who perform a holy mission shall meet no evil thanks to the prayers of many. Amen.”

Each person present approached Elkes, pleading with him to take on the burden of leadership and promising their support. With extreme reluctance, and despite his failing health, Elkes agreed to become chairman, one of the few Judenrat leaders to be elected by his peers, rather than appointed by the Nazis. “If this be the situation, and you think that it is my duty to accept the post, then I shall do so,” he said. It was to be the final meeting of the Jewish community in Kovno.

One of Elkes' first acts as chairman was to institute the creation of an archive. Over the next three years, a wealth of material was secretly accumulated, including artist's illustrations, photographs, minutes of meetings, diaries, poems, historical records of the entire ghetto as well as individual departments, and much more. A great deal of the archive was destroyed with the liquidation of the ghetto, but what remains provides an extraordinary record of the gradual extinction of a vital Jewish spiritual and cultural centre.

In common with other Jewish councils in Nazi occupied Europe, the Ältestenrat was placed in an impossible position. On the one hand was the insatiable German demands for a steady stream of labour; on the other was the desperate need to somehow keep the community alive in the face of critical shortages. Housing, sanitation, health, but above all food and fuel were a constant concern. Food rations for the ghetto were half that of the Lithuanian population; only the provision of council organised soup kitchens enabled many to survive.

On 15 September 1941, SA Hauptsturmführer Fritz Jordan, a sadistic thug and the supposed “expert” on Jewish affairs in the German civil administration (Stadtkommissariat), provided 5,000 certificates (Scheine) to be issued to skilled workers. Nobody completely understood the significance of this move, but it was clear that it would be advantageous to possess one of these certificates. There was chaos in the ghetto as the Ältestenrat debated whether or not to issue them. They consulted Rabbi Ephraim Oshry for a Halachic ruling. After due consideration, the rabbi concluded: “… It appears that taking and distributing the permits is also a matter of rescue and it is not appropriate to rule in this case according to the law for an individual, and therefore the Ältestenrat is required to accept the permits and to distribute them.” The Scheine were duly issued, and although they saved lives in some subsequent Aktionen, they proved of little value at the “Grosse Aktion” in Kovno the following month.

By German command, all inmates of the ghetto, without exception, were ordered to assemble at Demokratu Square on 28 October. Fearing the worst, Elkes attempted to persuade SS Hauptscharführer Helmut Rauca, in charge of Jewish affairs at the Kovno Gestapo, to reveal the purpose behind this order, hinting that all wars must end one day, and who could be certain of the identity of the victors? Previous Aktionen had been disastrous for the ghetto. If Rauca would respond to Elkes' questions honestly, the Jews would know how to repay him. Rauca ignored the offer. There was nothing sinister about the order, he lied. Intense debate ensued among the members of the Ältestenrat. There were rumours that large pits had been dug at Fort IX. Should the council publish the decree or not? A decision could not be reached, and so the council approached Rabbi Abraham Duber Kahana-Shapiro, the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania, for another Halachic ruling. After a sleepless night and hours spent poring over his books, the rabbi arrived at an answer: If the entire community was at risk, but part of it could be saved by a certain action, the leaders of the community should undertake that action and save as many lives as possible. The decree was duly issued in the name of the Ältestenrat, although the wording of the notice clearly indicated that the council had published it by order of the Gestapo.

On the appointed day, Rauca directed a major selection at Demokratu Square, as a result of which some 10,000 men, women, and children were first transferred to the small ghetto, and from there were marched to Fort IX and shot. Throughout the entire agonizing selection, Elkes stood by Rauca's side, attempting to intercede on behalf of individuals and even entire families. From 6 a.m. that morning until darkness fell, Elkes remained standing, refusing to either sit or to eat. “Terrible things are happening here,” he said, “I must remain standing on guard in case I can be of some assistance.” When at last the dreadful selection was completed and he made his way back to his home, Elkes murmured: “It wasn't worthwhile living for more than sixty years in order to witness a day like this! Who can bear all this when you are being appealed to with heartrending cries and there is nothing much you can do? I can't bear it any longer!”

In a desperate attempt to save at least some of the condemned, Elkes persuaded Rauca to allow those who had been selected in error to be removed from the small ghetto. Rauca magnanimously agreed, but limited the number to be rescued to 100. Elkes was admitted to the small ghetto, where he was besieged by people begging him to save their lives. The Lithuanian guards driving the victims toward Fort IX ordered Elkes to leave, threatening that they would take him together with the condemned if he did not. He insisted upon exercising his right to remove 100 men and women, as agreed by Rauca, at which point the guards physically assaulted him. One of them hit Elkes in the head with his rifle butt, causing the doctor to fall to the ground, unconscious and bleeding. Other ghetto inmates carried him into the large ghetto, where he slowly recovered. In trying to save who he could, Elkes had almost lost his own life. It was an action typical of the man – dignified, courageous, and with complete disregard for his own safety; nor was it to be the only occasion upon which he was beaten by the Nazis and their helpers.

In August 1942, the Ältestenrat was reduced to just four members. Elkes remained chairman, as he was to be throughout the ghetto's existence. “The fewer the number of council members, the more duties,” he said. “We must be prepared for greater sacrifices.” Personally, he was willing to use every available means to save the lives of the members of his community. Avraham Tory recorded that in the Kovno ghetto, no Jew was ever handed over at the request of the Gestapo. Such a thing was unheard of. Ephraim G., a survivor of the ghetto, recounted a confrontation between Elkes and Willy Koslovski, a member of the Gestapo, on 26 September 1941, shortly after Elkes had taken office. Koslovski, who lived opposite the ghetto, claimed that shots had been fired at his residence the night before. He demanded that 500 Jews be surrendered to him to be shot. Elkes replied that among Jews it was forbidden to deliver people for execution. Even if the entire community were threatened, they should all choose death rather than deliver even one of their congregation. If Elkes would not deliver 500 people, Koslovski threatened, he would take more than that number. Elkes replied: “It may cost [the lives of] all 45,000 Jews in the ghetto, but I shall not deliver any Jews to you to be shot.” 30 minutes later the Germans cordoned off a section of the ghetto. 1,608 Jews were rounded up and shot at Fort IV in the so-called “Koslovski Aktion.”

Elkes stature became such that even the Germans began to treat him respectfully. In June 1943, he was granted an audience with SS Standartenführer Karl Jäger, formerly commander of Einsatzkommando 3 of Einsatzgruppe A, and by then head of the Sicherheitspolizei and SD for Lithuania, a man whose infamous report of 9 February 1942 had boasted of killing 138,272 people, more than 98% of whom were Jews and 34,464 of whom were children. Accompanying Elkes at the meeting was Hauptscharführer Schtitz, who had inherited Rauca's position at the Gestapo. Astonishingly, Elkes was asked to be seated, whilst Schtitz remained standing throughout the audience. Elkes enquired about the fate of the ghetto in the light of the rumours that were circulating. Jäger made suitably soothing noises; there was no plan to harm the ghetto. “If the ghetto sky is clouded once more, I would like to ask your permission, sir, to see you again,” Elkes requested. “Please do. I will see you willingly,” Jäger replied.

Elkes moved on to another subject. Two Jewish doctors who had escaped from a work party eighteen moths earlier had been arrested by the Gestapo, together with the Lithuanians who had given them shelter. Elkes pleaded for their lives. Without even allowing Elkes to complete his appeal, Jäger agreed to the men's release. When Elkes thanked him, Jäger responded: “There is nothing to be thankful for. I do it willingly.” It is doubtful if many other Jewish leaders were treated as courteously by the SS.

Jäger was not the only person in a position of authority to deal with Elkes almost as an equal. Gustav Hermann, who was in charge of the German labour office in the ghetto, and who was that rarity, a Nazi who treated Jews humanely, informed Elkes at a meeting on 30 July 1943 that able-bodied Jews were to be removed from the ghetto and sent to labour camps. Only the elderly, the children, and the sick would remain. Elkes asked of their fate. “Their future is bleak,” Hermann replied. “Before long they will be exterminated as expendables.” Hermann swore Elkes to secrecy. In imparting such information to a Jew he was putting his life at risk. Elkes thanked Hermann and asked him to do everything in his power to avert the disaster. In the event the liquidation of the ghetto was delayed for nearly twelve months, but the incident provides evidence of the kind of confidence in his honesty and discretion that Elkes was able to arouse in others, often in surprising circumstances. Despite the Nazi prohibition on medical treatment of an “Aryan” by a Jew, when he felt unwell, Schtitz consulted Elkes in the latter's professional capacity. At the conclusion of the examination Schtitz shook hands with the doctor and thanked him for his treatment.

Elkes' own health had been poor when he undertook the responsibility of chairman. His duties did nothing to improve it. In January 1942, the Germans announced that Jews from Vienna were to be deported to Kovno. The arrival of the deportees train was awaited all night long in bitter cold. Elkes was among those waiting and caught a severe chill; later he was to suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, taking more than a year to recover.

It is only fair to record that not all regarded Elkes as the ideal leader of the Jewish community. Whilst acknowledging Elkes' fundamental decency, Lazar Goldstein-Golden, a survivor of the ghetto, commented that because of his exemplary character, Elkes was in fact the wrong man to “have been in a position of leadership in such a terribly cruel and critical time.” Which, of course, begs the question – who would have been the “right” man? Elkes' failing, if he can be said to have one, was to believe that even amongst the savage murderers of the SS, a spark of morality and compassion glowed. Many would regard an abiding faith in the goodness of man to be a virtue rather than a weakness. In truth, like other Judenrate leaders, Elkes was helpless in the face of such fanatical persecution. Nor is there any reason to suppose that any other leadership would have achieved greater success in rescuing the doomed victims.

In autumn 1943, the ghetto was officially converted into a concentration camp and renamed KZ Kauen. Over the next months the ghetto population was gradually reduced, mainly by means of transfer to labour camps. On 27 March 1944 the Ältestenrat was dissolved. Only Elkes remained as Oberjude, by then merely a title. He had been a constant supporter of the underground, supplying funds for the purchase of weapons, organizing facilities for the production of grenades and explosives, and providing assistance to Jews who wished to train in the use of arms, or to escape to fight with the partisans. But when the end came there was no dramatic resistance, as there had been in Warsaw, Bialystok and some other ghettos.

On 8 July 1944, as the Soviets approached, the ghetto was liquidated. Elkes confronted SS Obersturmführer Wilhelm Göcke, in charge of the operation, once again attempting to save lives just as he had done nearly three years earlier with Rauca, and on countless occasions since. “I am old, I have no fear of death; you can kill me on the spot,” Elkes said. “However, I have this to say to you. You listen to the radio, and we listen to the radio. You and I know that Germany has lost the war… Don't supply trains for our evacuation. Postpone it until the Russians arrive. We are an ancient people with long memories and remember decency in times of peril. Whatever your answer, we will not forget.” His appeal fell on deaf ears. About 2,000 Jews died in the course of the ghetto clearance; another 4,000 were transported to concentration camps in Germany, among them Elkes, who was sent via Stettin to Landsberg, one of the Kaufering complex of Dachau sub-camps. Although very ill himself, he was still dedicated to healing and was placed in charge of the Lazarett, the camp “hospital”. He died there on 17 October 1944 after a hunger strike, having refused to participate in “selections” in the camp, a man of principle and integrity to the end.

Elkes' wife, Miriam, was separated from him at the time of deportation. She survived incarceration in Stutthof to live in Israel, where she died in 1965. They had had the foresight to send their children, Joel and Sara, to complete their education in Great Britain in 1938. On 11 November 1943, Elkes had written his last testament, a letter to his son and daughter. He entrusted the precious document, the only testament of a Judenrat leader that has survived, to Avraham Tory, who escaped from the ghetto in March 1944. The letter remains a fitting tribute to this remarkable, high-minded man:

“… Whether we all perish, or whether a few of us are to survive, is in God's hands… We are left, a few out of many. Out of the 35,000 Jews of Kovno, approximately 17,000 remain; out of a quarter of a million Jews in Lithuania (including the Vilna district), only 25,000 live, plus 5,000… who… were deported to hard labour in Latvia… The last massacre, when 10,000 victims were killed at one time, took place on 28 October 1941… With my own ears I heard the awe-inspiring and terrible symphony, the weeping and screaming of 10,000 people, old and young – a scream that tore at the heart of heaven. No ear had heard such cries through the ages and generations.

… I doubt, my beloved children, whether I will ever be able to see you again, to hug you and press you to my heart. Before I leave this world and you, my dear ones, I wish to tell you once again how dear you are to us, and how deeply our souls yearn for you… Remember, both of you, what Amalek has done to us. Remember and never forget it all your days; and pass this memory as a sacred testament to future generations… The soil of Lithuania is soaked with our blood, killed at the hands of the Lithuanians themselves.

… My strength is ebbing. There is a desert inside me. My soul is scorched. I am naked and empty. There are no words in my mouth… And now, for a moment, I close my eyes and see you both standing before me. I embrace and kiss you both; and I say to you again that, until my last breath, I remain your loving father.”

More than 60 years after his death, the names of Elchanan Elkes and his wife Miriam live on. They are commemorated by The Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust Studies at the University of Leicester in Great Britain, who sponsor an annual Elchanan and Miriam Elkes Memorial Lecture, given by an outstanding scholar of the Holocaust. Founded by Sara Elkes, The Elchanan and Miriam Elkes Association for Inter Community Understanding plays an important role in inter-faith relationships, working to bring people of different cultures together.

In his final letter to them, Dr Elkes had advised his children: “Let truth be always before you and under your feet. Truth will guide you and show you the path of life.” They are words for all to heed and to live by - as he had done.

Sources and Further Reference:

Arad Yitzhak, Gutman Israel and Margaliot Abraham, eds. Documents on The Holocaust, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1999

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, Bantam Books, New York, 1979

Elkes, Joel. Dr. Elkhanan Elkes of the Kovno Ghetto: A Son's Holocaust Memoir, Paraclete Press, Massachusetts, 1999

Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, Collins, London 1986.

Gutman, Israel, ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, 1990

Niewyk, Donald L. ed. Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1998

Oshry, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry. The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry, The Judaica Press, New York, 1995

Tory, Avraham. Surviving the Holocaust – The Kovno Ghetto Diary, Pimlico, London,1991

Trunk, Isaiah. Judenrat - The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1972

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Hidden History of the Kovno Ghetto, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, 1997

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