Why did the Jewish Council cooperate with the Nazis? Everything looked better than Mauthausen

The events of May 1943 are undoubtedly one of the most dramatic in the history of the Jewish Council – and thus also in the Netherlands in World War II. They were crucial to the image that arose after the war of this organization that played an important role in the displacement of the Jews. And department head Sal Brockman, who went into hiding soon after, was unable to write about it in his diary only six months later. “I kept putting it off,” he said at the time, “because the thoughts of the past weeks, and especially the last days, were and still are filled with a bleak tragedy.”

On Friday, May 21, 1943, the German occupiers told Jewish Council President Abraham Asher and David Cohen that they had to select half of their staff, about seven thousand people, to be moved the following Tuesday. If they do not, as SS-Sturmbannführer Willy Lages warned, actions “that Jews in Holland never dreamed of” would follow. Ascher and Cohen object, but they agree.

All heads of the Jewish council must select some of their staff. Of course they don’t feel like it, some provide the names of employees who are already deported or in hiding. As a result, Cohen has to go through the card boxes himself at night from Sunday to Monday with a few staff, to supplement the rolls.

There will be Miriam Levy, secretary of the Jewish Council. Later she tells us about that night: “The mood became more and more charged, until one moment one of the gentlemen (a former theater director and producer) burst into tears and shouted that he cursed it more. At this point we all vomited and one of us went to the professional to tell him that it was impossible for us to do this crazy executioner job. Professor, this is Cohen, the professor of ancient history.

On Tuesday morning, the office of the New Keizersgracht Jewish Council is a besieged fortress: people called for fairness come, policemen on horseback try to maintain order. Despite that, it’s all about the battles inside. Only 500 Jews reported on the transportation, after which the occupiers decided to make a raid. The next day, 3,300 people were arrested and taken to Westerbork. Another 5,500 Jews were deported in a second round on 20 June.

Pieces of Judaism

Why did the Jewish Council cooperate with a regime that persecuted and eventually killed the Jews? This is the central question in Policies of the Lesser Evil Written by historian Bart van der Bom. It is the most in-depth study of the Jewish Council ever written. His conclusion is rather bold: anyone who studies history closely must understand the choices made by the leaders of the Jewish Council.

Thus van der Bom goes against the prevailing image of the Jewish Council, which he himself described as a “black legend”. This is the story of a “Jewish council that purposely sent people into the gas chamber to stay out of it themselves.” Ascher and Cohen, the two presidents of the council, survived the war. She does.

at Kingdom of the Netherlands in World War II Loe de Jong had already stated that the leaders of the Jewish Council should have ceased their activities when the deportations began in the summer of 1942. “The fact that they nevertheless continued their work meant only in their fear, in their suffering, the enemy. (The Predator) threw parts of Judaism on I hope that other pieces will reap, in the latter case, the piece one belongs in. The negative image of the Jewish Council has also been propagated by opinion-makers (Jews) of various generations, from Jacques Presser to Isha Major to Leon de Winter.

Professor Dr. Cohen on Olympialin during the deportation of Jews. Posted in Storm SS. Photo Image Bank WW2 – NIOD

In academia, the image of the Jewish Council has been accurate in recent decades. But in the collective memory, the council still equates to betrayal. Bart van der Boom refers in this regard to films (In the shadow of victorySuskind) and publications in daily and weekly newspapers. In 2020, Rabbi Lodi van de Kamp put Reformatorich Dagblad He also stated that he was against the memorial in Amsterdam and Weisperstraat, because the victims would be honored there along with the perpetrators – such as the staff of the Jewish Council.

Bart van der Bom tells a different story, and he does so mainly by reconstructing in great detail what the Jewish Council did, when, and what were the considerations of its participants. Hence, he makes a valuable contribution to the history of the Netherlands during World War II. Van der Bom relies largely on the minutes of the Jewish Council himself, which he supplements, wherever possible, with letters and fragments of diaries.

A state within a state

The initiative to form the Jewish Council came from the German occupier. “Wherever the Germans took power, they forced the Jews to continue to deal with them,” van der Bom wrote. This also happened, for example, in Belgium, France and Poland. After riots in the ghetto and around Rembrandt Square in Amsterdam in February 1941, Hans Boecker shouted, Buftragti For the city of Amsterdam, two rabbis and diamond dealer Abraham Asher asked them to form a commission. The rabbis considered themselves religious leaders rather than administrators and dropped out of school. Asher then asked Professor David Cohen to join him in taking charge of what was initially called the Representation Committee for the Jews of Amsterdam. By means of the participation option, the board has been expanded with more than a dozen fellow members. The usual suspects, Van der Boom calls them. “Most of the members were wealthy, highly educated and experienced in the world of Jewish organizations.”

As Jews in the Netherlands were increasingly isolated from other Dutch people by occupying forces, the Jewish Council grew into a “state within a state”. Van der Bom wrote: “The Jewish Council ran a parallel society, including schools, hospitals, taxes, poor relief, concerts, lectures, and its weekly newspaper.”

Although there is no mention in the story of the Jewish council Mastermind From the German side, the occupier’s strategy looks very accurate. First of all, there is the danger of death: during 1941, hundreds of Jewish men were sent to Mauthausen, a concentration camp established in 1938 in the Austrian village of the same name on the Danube. Obituaries of this camp are numerous. By the end of 1941, it was clear: no one had survived Mauthausen. This is how the idea came about: those who cooperate are “only” turned on.

When deportations to Auschwitz began, obituaries are sent from there as well. But such reports are rare, reinforcing the illusion that the death rate is not abnormally high. Messages are also sent from the hospital. So there seems to be a reassuring idea. This creates an image that life in the camps can be difficult, but it can go on. A detail that shows the Nazis’ adept pranksters: When Cohen asked the SS-Hauptsturmführer Aus der Fünten in September 1942 if he could visit Auschwitz, to see with his own eyes where the people end up, the German isn’t laughing out loud. Yes, as Aus der Fünten says, it is possible. of course not.

Lying on transportation

At each step, the Jewish Council and its leaders consider the consequences. They really hesitate. But they have repeatedly come to the conclusion that cooperation is the “lesser of two evils.” Better than having Jews violently pulled off the streets during raids. Better than having to carry them around without a good backpack to put their stuff in. Better than having to leave without judgment. Everything to prevent worse. It led to absurd scenes, you think as a reader who knows what awaited Jews in extermination camps, such as The Hague in February 1943, where the Jewish Council of the Security Police drew up a detailed plan to “evacuate” Jews from hospitals and nursing homes. She added that only 50 people can be transported while lying down.

Crucial to this story is the answer to the question of what the Jews of Holland, especially the leaders of the Jewish Council, know about the fate that awaits them at Sobibor and Auschwitz. After the war, there were at least seven “whistleblowers” who claimed “that they, or people they knew, had informed the Jewish Council of the fate of the deportees”. The reaction of the leaders of the Jewish Council was questionable, if the letters reached them at all. Van der Boom shows an understanding of this, which is perfectly reasonable if you let all the details sink in. He writes: “While there were rumors of gas chambers and mass executions, it was inconceivable that a modern country with a desperate shortage of labor could run trains full of innocents across Europe and put them into a death machine on their arrival.”

Amsterdam, Bolderog. May 25, 1943. 500 Jews responded to the German appeal (“invitation”) and were told to leave for Westerbork. Of the 7,000 Jews who had to report to Polderweg that day for deportation to Westerbork, only 500 showed up that day, much to the Germans’ dismay. Foto Beeldbank WW2 – NIOD

Compared to the irrationality of the Nazis—while they were losing the war, they devoted scarce resources to the mass murder of civilians—the irrationality of the Jewish Council is not incomprehensible, says van der Bom. In the past, since 1942, when the deportations began, the Jewish Council had to call on the Jews to go into hiding en masse. But it didn’t make sense at the time. Whoever hid and was betrayed, Mauthausen waited. As Cohen said after the war: “We knew Mauthausen almost certainly meant death, we didn’t know this about Auschwitz.”


Historians who study the motives of war criminals are often accused of “compromise.” Van der Boom might get that now, too. He wrote in the preface that his book “is not a defense of the Jewish council.” But if you wish, you can read it.

Van der Bom stressed several times a widespread misunderstanding that the Jewish Council was involved in drawing up the deportation lists. He must have researched it well. However, it is a bit of a stress here: even if the Jewish Council had not drawn up the lists itself, it was still involved in the selection at a number of crucial moments. First of all, thousands of Jewish council employees were given spearWhich exempted them (for the time being) from deportation. And during the dramatic days of May 1943 described at the beginning of this review, there was also a pick. Nepotism played a role in this, as did “ideology”: the idea that people important to Judaism should be avoided as much as possible. You can find all kinds of things now. A great advantage of this book is that it lists many facts, so that everyone can form a well-researched opinion.

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