A Fatal Bal­anc­ing Act: The Dilem­ma of the Reich Asso­ci­a­tion of Jews in Ger­many, 1939 – 1945

Beate Mey­er
  • Review
By – July 16, 2014

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.

Relat­ed Content

Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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