Managing the ghettos

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The SS were responsible for the setting up and effective administration of each ghetto. But in a refinement of cruelty they made the Jews themselves carry out the day-to-day running of the ghetto.

The Nazis ordered that Jewish councils should govern Jewish communities in Nazi-occupied Europe. The councils were made up of influential people and rabbis from the Jewish communities and were usually elected by the local population.

The council was responsible for implementing the Nazis policies regarding the Jews. These tasks included transferring Jews from their homes to ghettos, maintaining order within the ghetto and issuing food rations.

Council members were in a very difficult position: if they carried out the orders of the Nazis to the letter, then they would also be responsible for the suffering of the Jews. Sometimes the councils tried to reduce the effect of the Nazis’ measures by obtaining and distributing illegal supplies of food. To alleviate suffering within the ghetto they often established charitable organisations such as orphanages, hospitals, surgeries and mutual aid societies.

The councils were responsible for providing workers for forced labour. Some councils sought to demonstrate to the Nazis that the ghetto inhabitants were essential to the Nazis and that they should be kept alive. They did this by setting up workshops producing goods that were needed for the German war effort. This policy was named ‘rescue by labour’.

When the Nazis began to murder Jews during the 'Final Solution', the councils had to supply the names of those to be deported. If they refused to cooperate the SS would enter the ghetto and indiscriminately take a greater number. All the inmates of the ghetto were in a hell not of their making. Decisions taken at this time were often very difficult ones. Some heads of the Jewish councils committed suicide rather than send people to their deaths.