3 MIN READ | Social Psychology

Maxwell Guttman, LCSW

Survival Instincts We Can Learn from the Judenrat

Cite This
Maxwell Guttman, LCSW, (2022, May 31). Survival Instincts We Can Learn from the Judenrat. Psychreg on Social Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/survival-instincts-judenrat/
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Judenrat were local offices operated by high-ranking Jewish community members under the Nazi Office for Jewish Affairs. One of the first scenes of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List begins with Oskar Schinder seeking out a well-off Jewish man at work in the local Judenrat working to de-escalate and answer the questions of frantic Jews losing their rights by the hour. 

The Judenrat has an unmistakable hand in the execution and carrying out of the final solution. Yet, these folks are also bound up in the Jewish instinct for survival.

Before the end of the war, the Ghetto’s evacuation is history that pits the survival of the Jewish people with the collaboration of Nazi oppression and genocide.

These Jewish officials appointed the iconic Jewish Ghetto Police or Jüdische Ghetto-Police, seen in many Holocaust film depictions carrying dead bodies and assisting Nazis with the selection process. 

Inside the Ghetto

The Judenrat organised the auxiliary police force within the Jewish ghettos of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. The Judenrat appointed members of the police force. As the war raged on, conditions in the ghettos worsened. Before the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto was a rich history of collaboration, resistance, crime, and the instinctual survival of the Jewish people.

Conditions in the Ghetto, similar to many other substandard, or sub-livable environments humans have traversed and withstood over time, only worsened as the war and Germany’s situation in the war turned against the Reich.

The war was moving in the wrong direction. Nazis would now justify limiting and reducing the calories of Jewish residents in the Ghetto to the basic human requirements to maintain metabolic processes.

Disease, rape, medical experimentation, and the confinement of an entire population fated to be locked away and isolated from the world were only the beginning of the nightmares shared by the Jews and survivors of the past trauma.

The Ghetto was home to millions of Jews during the war. These tiny sections of carved-out city blocks in Eastern Europe were the most impoverished urban centres. Grossly overcrowded and usually poorly built and maintained on an architectural level, it birthed disease and other unwelcome pests and early death for the residents.

Survival instinct

What would you do to survive in a reality that has condemned you to death?

Psychologists and psychiatrists have studied the psychology of survival for almost a century now. The 1930s and 40’s point toward the inexhaustible and transcendental drive of oppressed people to survive in unlivable conditions.

The ghetto signals that the Jewish are survivors, but the final evacuation of Jews and the ultimate liquidation of the Ghetto is a carte balance example of how people will be complicit in inhuman systems and governments if only to change and disrupt them. Despite the oppression of these systems on populations, living another day offers hope and the possibility of survival.

How far would you go to be complicit with evil? Even if they mistreated you? Is it worth it?

‘I was just following orders.’ The Nuremberg defence – just following orders; due Obedience, or by the German phrase Befehl ist Befehl (order is an order). This plea justified Nazi crimes against humanity. ‘Just following orders’ implies that the criminal was participating in a crime instead of conceiving it.

Following orders also suggests a level of distance from the offence. With this formula, the offending person becomes absolved from transgression. Somehow this proximity deflates the enormity of the crime and makes it less terrible. In cases like this, rhetoric creates an illusion; the illusion complicates the relationship between the criminal and the crime.

I was following orders

‘I was following orders,’ or when people use rhetoric to obfuscate and distort language must be investigated like a Nuremberg. Throughout history, people have used terms like ‘smokescreen’ and other words to describe similar uses of words.

Frankly, to do so carves out the meaning from within, making it impossible to identify or mark anything in discrete terms. In doing so, criminals like the Nazis, politicians, and other people who use words to cover up and distort the truth continue to get away with crimes and their responsibility in critical public matters.

In terms of answering to their community, the former members of the Judenrat, and Jewish police, had to face the larger Jewish community after the war. The question that so many Jewish ghetto police dealt with later on after Germany surrendered was how could you have helped the Nazis?

Only years later would the public and those who weren’t in the war understand that to accept an appointment to the Judenrat meant the possibility of living another day and, ultimately, to one day shift and disrupt the Nazi death machine.

Despite the system, the idea is no different from changing from within and working with the system. Harnessing a deeper understanding of Jewish history and the shared pressure of all populations subjugated and marginalised by evil regimes will shed more light on the human instinct for survival.


Maxwell Guttman, LCSW teaches social work at Fordham University. He is also a mental health correspondent for Psychreg.

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