Recently much has been written about the argument made in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1977), that if the community had remained leaderless, many more Jews would have survived in the face of the Nazi persecution and genocide. As for the leadership of German Jewry, she called the role of the “Jewish leaders… undoubtedly the darkest chapter in the whole dark story.” Beate Meyer’s prodigious work of scholarship takes Arendt’s (and also Raul Hilberg’s) argument to task. In her indispensable study of the Nazi-appointed Reich Association of Jews in Germany (RV, the representative leadership of the organized Jewish community, which the Nazis recognized as the official spokesman for German Jewry), Meyer argues that it was possible for a small number of Jews to flee Germany to neighboring countries until the outbreak of war in 1939. These options, she notes, evaporated in the autumn of 1941 when the Nazis started mass deportations to the death camps.
Meyer’s book discusses the circumstances and events that forced RV leaders to walk a fine line between their accountability to the Jewish community and collaboration with the Nazis. Her study of key personalities of the RV reveals that many of them had the opportunity to leave Nazi Germany before 1939 but felt a responsibility to stay and help their fellow Jews. Initially, their duties focused primarily on emigration inasmuch as the Nazis were determined to rid the Reich of its Jews. As in the case of the Jewish councils in Nazi-occupied Europe, the demands of the Reich Main Security Office and the Gestapo on the Jewish leadership changed. In late 1941, the Nazis closed the door on Jewish emigration and shifted to deportations, first to the Lublin “reservation,” and then the aborted Madagascar Plan. When these plans failed, the Nazis turned to deporting German Jews to camps such as Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. As the Nazis pursued the “Final Solution,” they required that the RV provide the names of those to be deported — names often supplied to the RV by the Nazis themselves.
Meyer’s study deals with the tasks of these men, which included not only “full” Jews, but those in mixed marriages, half-Jews, and other people designated as Jews under the Nuremberg Laws. The book also includes mini-biographies of the RV leadership as well as the fate of those who survived the Shoah, leaving the reader to acknowledge that judgment on the RV leadership cannot be reduced to broad and often inaccurate generalizations.