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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2013
Number 79
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Authorities Without Power: The Jewish Council of Vienna During the Holocaust

A review essay by Alison J. Rose

Eichmann’s Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938-1945 by Doron Rabinovici. Polity: 2011.

How did a city known as the cosmopolitan center of the diverse and multinational Habsburg monarchy and for its large, vibrant and culturally rich Jewish population become the model for the extermination of the Jews of Europe? What roles did the Jewish “authorities” in Vienna play in the destruction of their communities? These are two of the many questions raised by Doron Rabinovici’s new study of the “Judenrat” or Jewish Council of Vienna. Rabinovici, who grew up in post-Holocaust Vienna, has written this book to come to terms with a subject that has haunted him and many others: the Jewish councils’ roles in the Holocaust and how they have been interpreted and often condemned for their supposed collaboration with the Nazi officials. He contributes new perspectives on this much-debated and sensitive topic by focusing specifically on the Jewish organizations of Holocaust Vienna. The focus on Vienna serves two purposes: first, the role of Jewish councils in Austria and Germany has been ignored so that this fills a gap in scholarship, and second, and more importantly, the function of the Jewish organizations in Vienna became the model for the rest of Europe. Therefore understanding the situation in Vienna is crucial to fully appreciate the issues of Jewish councils across Europe and their actions during the Holocaust.

Rabinovici’s book sheds light on the ethical dilemmas that tormented the Jewish councils. While Jewish council members were initially judged harshly and often looked upon as collaborators who facilitated the Nazis in murdering the Jews, more recently there has been a growing awareness that these individuals were victims who had no control over the deportations or the fate of their communities. Rabinovici further supports this viewpoint, emphasizing that the Jewish council members reacted as individuals and should not be judged as a whole. No matter what course of action or strategy they adopted, the outcome was the same because in reality they had no power. Rabinovici delicately handles these issues, which many have shied away from. According to some, this topic is taboo: we dare not discuss these questions; we are not entitled to because we cannot possibly understand what it was like, imagine what was known and not known, and therefore have no right to judge. Rabinovici recognizes this and states in his preface, “words alone are inadequate to do justice to the subject” (vii).

In order to avoid the tendency of moralizing and blaming the victims, Rabinovici approaches the topic from the vantage point of the “motives behind the accusations, reproaches, and denunciations” (11). He begins with the question of post Holocaust justice (or lack thereof), pointing out that Jews who “collaborated” with the Nazis were often given much more severe punishments by post war courts than the actual Nazi perpetrators. It should be understood that whatever their roles, the Jewish functionaries were victims, not be confused with perpetrators. Their responses to their roles as victims varied, but most were motivated by trying to use their positions to save any lives possible, and most turned down opportunities to get out and save themselves in order to serve their communities.

Beginning with an account of the 1945 trial of Wilhelm Reisz, one of the Jewish officials, Rabinovici shows that there was an imbalance in the judgments. Reisz was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, including three months’ hard labor by the Austrian People’s Court, five years more that Johann Rixinger, a Gestapo clerk for Jewish affairs, and significantly longer that most Austrian Gestapo officials. Reisz hanged himself in his prison cell the day after sentencing. The harsh sentencing failed to take into account that Reisz himself was a victim living under the constant fear of death. The verdict and sentencing of Reisz reflect a general attitude towards Jewish community officials, that they were motivated by selfish interests and that they identified with the Nazi perpetrators, when in fact they often believed they were acting in the best interest of their communities and that cooperation with the Nazis afforded them the best chance of saving Jewish lives. While at first glance these beliefs seem misguided and in retrospect might appear na?ve, it must be remembered that they lacked power and knowledge of the Nazis’ ultimate goal of annihilation. Jewish officials made painful choices that they believed might help to save Jews. Again it must be remembered that each individual Jewish official, regardless of his or her actions and strategies, was first and foremost a victim, a tool of the Nazis.

Why were the Jewish administrators treated so harshly by the courts, looked down upon by Jewish survivors and universally condemned after the Holocaust? Rabinovici addresses this question as well, noting a failure to take account of each official’s reasons for their actions. Blaming the Jews for their own destruction also served to relieve the responsibility and guilt of the perpetrators and bystanders.

The book, Eichmann’s Jews, also highlights the particularly brutal nature of the Holocaust in Vienna and provides detailed evidence to illustrate how Vienna became a blueprint for the organized deportation of Jews later applied in other communities. The book provides details on the relationships between Jewish communal workers and Nazis (Eichmann figures prominently here but others emerge as well). An opening chapter (2) provides some background on the history of anti-Semitism in Vienna, as well as the strategies of the Jewish community in response to anti-Semitism, but more could be done to develop this and explain why the Austrian population so enthusiastically welcomed the Nazis and went beyond the demands of the Nazis in their persecution of the Jews. Rabinovici provides powerful descriptions of the overzealous reaction of the Viennese. For example, he writes, “Never again was the invading army to be greeted with such unflagging enthusiasm as it crossed a border” (26). And more to the point, “The uncontrolled terror of Viennese anti-Semitism, which had already started the night before the German army entered Austria, was not in keeping with the pseudo-legal and official veneer that the new authorities wished to give their Jewish policy. The victims were at the mercy of their persecutors’ bestiality” (27). The Viennese public went beyond the Nazi demands and the Nazis “had to appeal to the people to moderate their enthusiasm” (28). In his conclusion, Rabinovici returns to this theme, pointing out that the hostile nature of the non-Jewish population in Vienna made it impossible for any resistance or uprising to occur (201) but more could be said by way of explaining the Austrians’ fervent and eager embracing of Nazi racism. If anyone could be described as Hitler’s willing executioners, it seems it would be the Viennese.

Subsequent chapters provide a chronological overview of the familiar stages of the Holocaust — persecution, the November Pogrom, expropriation, deportation and annihilation — but through the lens of the Viennese Jewish administration and their activities, knowledge and relationships with Nazis. While the Nazis misled and deceived them every step of the way, Jewish functionaries understood that the situation was dire; still they acted in ways they imagined might save lives and relieve some of the Jews’ suffering. This often put them at odds with Zionists leaders and Jewish underground fighters. Rabinovici shows that like other strategies, the approach of working and cooperating with Nazis was adopted in order to save lives. Jewish officials were individuals and some perhaps acted more commendably than others. Some were heroic, courageous, and dedicated, risking their own lives for their people, while others might have been fighting primarily for their own survival, but all were victims.

Chapter 11 presents the key argument of the book by providing detailed accounts of individual members of the Viennese Kultusgemeinde and reflecting back on the earlier historical overview to analyze survival strategies (143). In doing so, it highlights the activities of some relatively unknown individuals such as Benjamin Murmelstein, Josef Löwenherz, and FranziLöw, who represent three different patterns of response adopted by Jews in administrative roles during the Holocaust.

Of all the Jewish functionaries, Rabbi Murmelstein is known as the most willing to cooperate with the Nazis and the least sympathetic. Born in Lemberg in 1905, he came to Vienna after the First World War. In the 1930s he served as community rabbi at a synagogue in the Brigittenau district. From this position he spoke out publicly against antisemitism. In 1938, after the Nazi takeover of Austria, Murmelstein began his work in the emigration department of the Vienna Kultusgemeindeon the invitation of Löwenherz. In this capacity, he compiled statistics on emigration and appealed for foreign aid. He also wrote summaries and delivered lectures on Judaism and Jewish history for Eichmann, which Eichmann used to give the impression that he was an expert on Jewish affairs. With his authoritarian and cold personality and perceived lack of sympathy for his fellow victims, he created a bad impression. Although he saved many lives, “his demeanor and his imperiousness brought him into discredit” (76). He was despised after the war and accused of having facilitated the deportations, although as Rabinovici strongly asserts, “no Jewish functionary in Vienna, including Benjamin Murmelstein, was himself responsible for the deportation of a single Jew” (168).

Josef Löwenherz, the head of the Kultusgemeinde and later the elder of the Jewish council of Vienna, has been judged somewhat more favorably. Still, questions are raised about why he did not inform the Viennese Jews of their impending doom. In truth, Löwenherz was repeatedly deceived and humiliated by Eichmann, but he hoped that by cooperating with the Gestapo he would be able to use his influence to help the Jews. For example, when he was ordered by Eichmann to create an office for Jewish emigration, he thought it would enable him to provide assistance and support for emigrating Jews when, in reality, the Office for Jewish Emigration would force Jews to emigrate and in the process robbed them of everything they owned. On several occasions, Löwenherz attempted to persuade Eichmann to discontinue deportations or tried to find out the fate of deported Jews. He dealt with his situation based on his individual personality and background as a lawyer and official, by trying “to establish the truth through official channels” (153). He showed courage by confronting Nazi officials about deportations and reports of mass killing. Such confrontations could have led to his own arrest and deportation.

Franzi Löw, a welfare worker for the Kultusgemeinde defied the Nazi authorities in order to help needy Jews. She risked her life by performing illegal activities on behalf of children in her care, provided food and linen to Jewish prisoners, and sent packages to Jews in concentration camps. When the children in her care were being deported in 1942, she intervened to save those with one non-Jewish parent by obtaining proof of Aryan ancestry. In some cases she was able to save children with fake baptism certificates or by naming a non-Jewish man as the father when paternity was not known. She also helped Jews who were in hiding in Vienna by bringing them ration cards, food stamps, medicine and money with the assistance of some non-Jews. “Franzi Löw, the only Jewish welfare officer in the Council of Elders, ran all over Vienna with her Jewish star hidden, carrying forged documents and ration cards and hauling a heavy rucksack full of food, all of the time exposing herself to the suspicious glances of Gestapo officials and SS men” (139). Despite her heroic acts of resistance, after the war Paul Steiner accused Löw of responsibility for the murders of his wife and daughter at Auschwitz. Although not brought to trial, the accusation led her to resign from her position at the Kultusgemeinde. “Her achievements were never publicly acknowledged by the Jewish community” (186).

These three cases drive home some of the central message of Rabinovici’s book: that the Jews were doomed no matter what they did. They were authorities without power. While one might conclude that therefore it matters not what they did or how they acted, Rabinovici also insists that the Jewish council members should be looked at as individuals and not universally condemned. Does this mean that some acted better and others worse? Why study the actions taken by Jewish officials at all if it does not matter how they behaved in the end? What lessons are to be learned?

In many respects, Rabinovici’s book is a rebuttal to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she portrayed the Jewish councils as complicit in the murder of the Jews and Eichmann as a soulless bureaucrat. On both counts, Rabinovici demonstrates otherwise. Based on historical documents, Rabinovici shows that Eichmann carried out his work with enthusiasm and conviction. “Historically speaking, Arendt had chosen the wrong person for her tempting comments about the ‘banality of evil’” (195). About the Jewish leadership, Arendt argued that without their cooperation, the Nazis would have been unable to carry out the murders so efficiently and the number of deaths would have been much less. In making these claims, Arendt and others attribute power to the Jews that in reality they lacked. In fact Rabinovici rejects the term “Jewish leadership” because it suggests that they had some real authority (although he still uses the term at times).

Along these lines, the discussion of Jewish councils and their behavior should take into account that the Nazi crimes defied logic. They went beyond the imagination of the Jewish officials who assumed the Nazis would keep the victims alive as long as they could be exploited for their labor. Arendt, in fact, said mass murder went beyond her own imagination in 1942. She attributes Eichmann’s actions to a lack of imagination, but does not make the connection that if the crime was unimaginable, then it was natural that Jewish functionaries acted on the belief that they would be able to spare Jewish lives through cooperation with the Nazis. They simply couldn’t have imagined that the Nazis would commit mass murder when it contradicted their own interests. In implicating the Jewish councils, Arendt contradicts her own analysis of totalitarian regimes.

This discussion gives rise to some basic questions about authoritarian regimes. Were the crimes of the Nazis really unimaginable? Were they unprecedented or are there other instances of regimes committing heinous crimes that violate their own self-interests? In the case of the Nazis, there was a conflict of beliefs and interests. Some Nazi leaders, for example, Heinrich Himmler, prioritized interests in the end and tried to negotiate deals to exchange Jewish lives for war supplies. Others such as Eichmann, Goebbels, and Hitler, were true believers to the end.

Related to this is the question of whether or not the Holocaust can be compared with other examples of mass murder. The insistence on uniqueness, which rejects efforts to examine the Holocaust in the context of other crimes against humanity, precludes us from opportunities to enhance understanding of the common psychological mechanisms underlying the actions and beliefs of both victims and perpetrators. In other words, there would be much to gain by pursuing the issues raised in Rabinovici’s study of the Jewish councils of Vienna as they relate to other cases of genocide and mass murder.


Alison J. Rose is an adjunct assistant professor of gender and women's studies at the University of Rhode Island and a contributing editor.

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