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Eichmann’s Jews

Doron Rabionvici is an eclectic figure, an Israeli-born novelist who lives in Vienna; he did his Ph.D. thesis in history on the collaboration of Austrian Jews with the Nazis during WWII. In a recent lecture at the Burg Theatre in Vienna, Rabinovici brilliantly evokes the nostalgia of Viennese and European Jews who return to Austria in search of never-existent and yet glorious past, a time in which people of many languages and nationalities met daily at a crossroads of cultures and tongues. His fascination with the past is evident as well in Instanzen der Ohnmacht (roughly Administration of the Powerless), his Ph.D. thesis that was published in 2000. Now twelve years later this thesis has been translated with the much more inflammatory title: Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938–1945. The title, and the book, refer of course to Hannah Arendt’s insistence upon holding the Jewish leaders of Europe accountable for their collaboration with the Nazis.

I haven’t read Rabinovici’s book, but Christopher Browning has a fascinating review in the latest NYRB. Here is Browning’s description of the opening:

The book begins with a telling prologue in which we encounter two Jews, Wilhelm Reisz and Oscar Reich, who were tried and convicted after the war for zealous collaboration. The former, sentenced to fifteen years, immediately hanged himself; the latter was executed. Both men, under real and imminent threat of death, had survived by making themselves useful to the Nazis and doing terrible things to other Jews. But in comparison their Nazi superiors—those with real decision-making power and not subject to lethal coercion—received much lighter sentences. The courts in question, Rabinovici notes, simply could not grasp how “victims” became “involved in the crime under coercion” and “threat of death,” and thus found their behavior more “reprehensible and disgraceful” than that of the Nazis who were the ones truly responsible.

Despite the provocative reference to Eichmann in the title of his book, Rabinovici is concerned to largely defend Jewish officials who collaborated during the war. He writes:  “The study of the attitudes of Jewish victims under the destructive regime is always in danger of turning into a complacently moralizing reproach, shifting the blame for the crimes to the victims.” He insists that “a clear distinction must always be made between perpetrators and victims, between the power of authority…and the powerless.” His book is, it seems, an effort to bring factual nuance to bear on the question of Jewish collaboration; he seeks to defend and exculpate Jewish leaders from what is often, wrongly, considered to be the single-minded force of Arendt’s  condemnation.

Browning rightly sets Rabinovici’s book in the context of Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial. Above all Browning focuses on what Arendt calls the darkest chapter of the Holocaust, the “role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people.” For Browning,

Perhaps the single most infamous sentence in her provocative book, she wrote: “The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and plenty of misery but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million people.

Arendt’s account is often subjected to oversimplification. Peter Gordon has called Arendt’s speculation “absurd” and “wildly irresponsible.” Deborah Lipstadt has recently argued that Arendt wrongly describes Jewish leaders without distinction. And yet Arendt does make distinctions, praising  “Adam Czerniakow, chairman of the Warsaw Jewish Council, who was not a rabbi but an unbeliever, a Polish-speaking Jewish engineer, but who must still have remembered the rabbinical saying: ‘Let them kill you, but don’t cross the line.” Too frequently forgotten is the fact that Arendt’s claim is not that all Jewish leaders collaborated, but that those who did so in such a way as to help themselves and their family and friends, and those who thought that they had the right or the duty to select other Jews to be killed in the hope of some greater good, crossed a line that must not be crossed. One can argue that Arendt’s tone is too strident. One can disagree with Arendt’s moral belief that it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong; and surely she made factual mistakes. But it is hard to sustain the argument that she summarily blames all Jews or Jewish leaders. Instead, she calls for honest judgment in each particular instance.

Browning is a voice of reason amidst the extremists who alternatively condemn and defend Arendt’s moral judgment of Jewish collaborationists. He insists upon the “historical and moral complexities of the response of Jewish leaders and functionaries.”  And he points to necessary accounts by two, Primo Levi and Lawrence Langer. Levi warned against “the “simplification” of reducing the “network of human relations” in the camps to “two blocs of victims and perpetrators.”  He writes that “An infernal system such as National Socialism … degrades [its enemies], it makes them resemble itself.” And Langer gives us the “indispensable notion” of ““choiceless choices” to capture another infernal aspect of Nazi rule, in which the absolute asymmetry of power meant that the Germans could insidiously and consciously design situations in which Jewish leaders never had the choice between good and bad or even lesser and greater evil, but only between catastrophically disastrous alternatives.”

Rabionvici’s book starts in 1938 when the Nazis enter Vienna and a young Adolf Eichmann

restructured the Jewish community organization (Israelitische Kultusgemeinde or IKG) to facilitate expelling the Jews of Austria. Jewish authorities who could have left but stayed to serve their community were transformed from elected representatives into Nazi appointees and charged with accelerating Jewish expulsion, especially through finding ways to fund those Jews without the means to emigrate, while the Austrian Jews were simultaneously being systematically plundered and impoverished.

The book follows Eichmann’s efforts but focuses on those Jewish leaders who served him. Rabionvici describes how the Nazis ordered Jewish “marshals” to help “in rounding up recalcitrant Jews, bringing them to the collection points, and guarding against any escape.” As Browning summarizes,

Initially, Josef Löwenherz, the head of the IKG, refused to submit to this Nazi demand in November 1941, but the Nazis then recruited their own thugs to conduct the roundups in the most brutal manner, and Löwenherz relented so that “decent” people could be assigned to the task. As the continued exemption of the so-called “lifters” (Ausheber) depended upon total compliance and fulfillment of their assigned quotas, not surprisingly those being deported did not think their actions “decent.”Löwenharz, as much as he may have sought to help others, also helped himself as both he and his deputy, Benjamin Murmelstein, survived the war in Vienna.

For Browning, the need in any book on Jewish leadership during the Holocaust is to “navigate the treacherous waters between the Scylla of blanket condemnation and the Charybdis of apologia.” He lauds Rabionvici’s  effort to understand the complexities of the situation. And yet Rabionvici fails, Browning writes, because he “veers ever closer to apologia as his arguments take on an increasingly exculpatory tone on the one hand or are simply bizarre and contradictory on the other.”

Browning’s essay is essential reading. It should also make you want to read Rabionvici’s book. As I sit on the beach in Westport, Ma, I am ordering my copy today. The book and the essay are, together, your weekend reads.


Posted on 3 August 2012 | 10:02 am

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