Jason Iplixian 


The Councils came to life as a result of the interplay of three
factors: the Jews themselves, the German authorities,
and, in some areas, the indigenous authorities." 
--Isaiah Trunk


The Germans established Jewish Councils [of Elders], or Judenrat, as they were called, through letters and decrees--the first having come in the form of a circular letter {<--Pop-up #1} by Heydrich, the chief of the Security Police, concerning the "Jewish Question in the Occupied Zone." The letter was meant for the eyes of the chiefs of all task forces operating in the conquered Polish territories. The letter described the original views of how the councils were to be set up, their organization, function, and duties. The governor general, Hans Frank, devised the decree of 28 November 1939 concerning the establishment of Judenrat.

Yet, neither Heydrich's circular letter, nor Frank's decree specified who the Jewish Councils were to take orders from, so Frank issued the first of two executive orders in which he stated that the Councils were to take orders from the office of the chief of the civil administration. However, those matters concerning forced-labor were to remain under the jurisdiction of the Higher SS and Police Leader. At the meeting of the Government General in Cracow, the commander of the Security Police and the Security Services, Bruno Streckenbach, suggested that the SD [Sicherheitsdienstes] take over the supervision of the Jews, since it was concerned with the Jewish problem. For this reason, the Jewish Councils of Elders were instituted. The Higher SS Police Leader, Wilhelm Kruger issued two executive orders of his own, which specified the duties of the Councils: to register all native and newly-arrived Jews who were suitable for forced-labor, and to submit weekly reports to the local mayor [Trunk 1-6].


No Jew wanted to be a member of the Jewish Councils. The Judenrat were instruments with which the Germans held control over the Jews, and since the councils were run by Jews, the members felt as if they were betraying their fellow ghetto-ites. The Vilna Judenrat was established with extreme difficulty, as those who were selected as members by the Rabbi Simeon Rosowski refused the position. Thus, the decision was made at the meeting in the prayer house, that if someone was elected, they were obligated to accept [Trunk 19].

Even though no one wished to be a member of the Councils, being a member had certain advantages, privileges: for instance, they were free form forced-labor duty, and for a certain time, protected against deportation [Trunk 53]. Also, Council members were free to leave the ghetto, unlike the others [Trunk 60].

Of course, being a member did have its downsides to it. "Judenrat leaders were subjected to beatings, direct intimidation, and threats to their families: some were simply shot" [Marrus 116]. Nazis reprised Council members if they did not complete certain tasks on time or correctly. Nazi reprisals were rather harsh too. Sixteen people were arrested on 12 September 1941, five of which were Council members, sent to Lukiszki jail, and later killed in Ponary [Trunk 365].


For a detailed anecdote of how the Germans told Chaim Mayer Gordon, the town sexton, to set up a Jewish Council, click here.


The Jewish Councils in some of the larger ghettoes exercised power over the smaller ones around them. Jacob Gens, the chief of the Vilna ghetto, had some control over the ghettoes in Ozmiana, Swieciany, Soly, and Michaliszki [Trunk 40]. The Councils had limited powers under the strict rule of the Germans, which included distributing supplies, maintaining a standard of sanitation, and to preserve peace and order in the ghettoes [Trunk 43] The sole purpose of the Judenrat was to execute Nazi orders regarding the Jewish population. Otherwise, the Councils set up their own activities, after having them approved by German authorities, which in a way helped fuel the idea the Nazis preached, that the ghettoes would always exist, and also, helped cover up the final solution--extermination in the concentration camps [Trunk 44].

The duties imposed on the Councils can be categorized in three: [1] those tasks imposed by the authorities, such as conducting the census in the ghettoes, supplying forced-labor, and registering candidates for work-camps or deportation; [2] those routine tasks in social welfare, medical care, and in the economic and cultural fields; and [3] tasks such as the management of the ghetto dwellings, industry, police, health and judicial services [Trunk 44].

The Councils set up special departments within to better carry out the orders of the Germans concerning forced labor, collection of taxes, delivery of materials and merchandise, forced-labor workers, transfers and evacuations [Trunk 45]. Later on, the Councils became responsible for the creation of police forces within the ghetto, and for the management of real-estate in which to organize food distribution [Trunk 46].
One of the first and most important departments to be derived from the Councils were the resettlement departments, or commissions, renamed tenants' departments. Seasonal commissions were devised to take care of necessities in celebrating such events as Passover [Trunk 49]. With all departments, in total, the Vilna ghetto Council administration employed about 1050 people in January 1942, and 1550 by September of that year. "Each of the five members of the Council was responsible for the work of several departments, subdepartments and institutions" [Trunk 54]. The nomination of Jacob Gens as ghetto chief in July 1942 destroyed the previous form of collective leadership [Trunk 54].

"Welfare assistance in the Vilna Ghetto was provided by the department of welfare of the Judenrat, the Public Relief Committee, the Union of Writers and Artists, and the Teacher's Union" [Trunk 126]. Those forced laborers in the forest area turf camps around Vilna received assistance from the department of public welfare of the Vilna Ghetto [Trunk 129]. 

The statistical department in Vilna's Council of Elders conducted demographic and economic statistical research, while also producing reports concerning its activities. This department received material from all other Judenrat commissions , and thus compiled statistical reports based on the information given to it on a monthly, quarterly, and semi-annual basis [Trunk 174-175]. A judicial department, or 'panel' made up part of the Vilna Council also, and consisted of 38 lawyers, bar applicants, and law students who gave legal advice and provided the inmates of the ghetto with representation in the court. Just as in other ghettoes, Vilna's courts introduced their own rules of procedure, with a Criminal Statute consisting of 141 paragraphs. The courts also issued sentences of imprisonment on probation, cash fines, or admonitions [Trunk 184]. 

On the third day in the Vilna Ghetto, a group of teachers decided to open a school for which the Jewish Council had to designate a few buildings within the ghetto. Education was a larger priority for the Council of the second ghetto of Vilna than the first, which was established on July 4, 1941, with an original membership of ten. On the 24th of July though, the Council received an order to increase the size of the Judenrat by 24, but by August, they were forced to return to their original membership number [Trunk 321]. In 1943, the Vilna Ghetto administration was forced to reduce its personnel size once more, to put more people in the industry field [Trunk 367]. In September of that same year, after being one of the most long-lived ghettoes, Vilna was liquidated [Trunk 413].
Several ghetto-ites tried to escape their confinement, but fearing the worst for the entire ghetto if the Germans were to find out, the Judenrat was strictly against escapees, and tried to catch them before Germans could find out. Thus, the Council had the Jews in Vilna spying on each other, and most of all, spying on prospective escapees [Trunk 460]. For a more detailed anecdote of such an account, click here


"On Sunday, September 7, 1941, the day after the ghettoization began, a separate Judenrat was established in each of the two ghettos" [Arad 123]. A. Fried was the one who assembled the new Judenrat for Ghetto No.1 from mostly those who had participated in the former Judenrat. The Judenrat for Ghetto No. 2 was appointed by SD and Security Police in Vilna. While the Council of Ghetto No.1 had as its members public figures, party activists, and members of the intelligentsia, Ghetto No. 2's membership was that of ordinary people. Due to their inadequate leadership, the Council members of Ghetto No.2 invited public figures and members of the intelligentsia in order to run the Council for them [Arad 124]. 

Five departments made up the Judenrat of Ghetto No.1: those of General, Food, Health , Housing and Labor. "The General department coordinated all activities relating to the procedural work of the Judenrat, served as liaison between the various departments, and handled all matters in extraneous spheres of action" [Arad 128]. The Judenrat in Ghetto No.2 consisted of these five departments: Food, Health, Housing, Labor Bureau, and Education [Arad 128]. 

Works Cited

Arad, Yitzhak.  Ghetto in Flames. The Struggle and Destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust.  New York City: Holocaust Library, 1982.

Marrus, Michael R.  The Holocaust in History.  New York City: The Penguin       Group, 1987.

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

Works Consulted

Cohen, Israel.  Vilna.  Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1943.

Kowalski, Isaac.  The Story of a Jewish United Partisan Organization. Secret Press in Nazi Europe.  New York City: Shengold Publishers, Inc., 1969.

Schoenburg, Nancy and Stuart Schoenburg.  Lithuanian Jewish Communities.  New York City: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991.