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The Holocaust and the Lesson of Moshe Meryn

The theme by Yad Vashem of this year’s Holocaust Remembrance Day is the deportation of the Jews during the Holocaust. [1]

Pity that neither Moshe Meryn nor his colleagues will be mentioned. Meryn’s story would have explained better than anything else the German success in exterminating the Jews of Europe.

Eighty years ago, Meryn was the leading Judenrat president in Poland. As head of the Central Office of the Jewish Council of Elders, he ran some 45 ghettos in Upper Silesia and worked with the SS and Gestapo to reward his friends and punish his Jewish rivals and enemies. This child-like man insisted that his subjects call him “Der Leiter,” or the leader. By this time, the Germans were beginning to empty the scores of ghettos in the country and Meryn could decide who would be sent to such death camps as Auschwitz, Chelmno and Treblinka.

How Meryn became head of the largest ghetto administration marks the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Before World War II, Meryn was regarded as a ne’er-do-well. Born in 1905 to a prominent family, he spent most of his adulthood as a gambler, drinker, womanizer and Zionist apparatchik, abandoning one movement for another that seemed more promising. He started with Poalei Zion, skipped to the General Zionists, and then to the Revisionists. [2]

The German occupation of Sosnowiec turned Meryn into the most sought-after Jewish quisling in Poland. With the flight of Jewish community leaders, he declared himself president and agreed to fulfill all German demands. The first order was for the Judenrat to take a census of the Jews, including their professions. The Germans imposed a tax and began a starvation policy, exacerbated by Meryn’s guards, who kept half the bread rations for themselves.

Meryn, aided by other Zionist apparatchiks, including David Lewartoski, a representative of Mizrachi, and Josek Kozoch, head of Poalei Zion, amassed a staff of 1,200 people. The Germans deemed Meryn an “Oberjude,” or “top Jew,” granted travel and other privileges given to very few members of the people Hitler was sworn to destroy. In April 1941, Meryn toured the Warsaw Ghetto, where according to chronicler Emanuel Ringelblum, he was “treated like a king.”

A key part of Meryn’s job was to raise money from Western Jewish organizations in accordance with German policy that the cost of the Final Solution must be borne by the victims . The biggest was the American Joint Distribution Committee, which for the first year of the war sent aid to the ghettos. Meryn urged JDC to finance a range of fictitious projects, including vocational training and winter relief for the poor.

“It is our duty to provide for the poor Jewish population for the coming winter,” Meryn told JDC in a letter dated Sept. 28, 1940. “In order to be able to make the necessary supplies in time, significant funds are indispensable. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to raise these among our Jewish population ourselves.” [3]

The Jewish Agency began wooing Meryn within months of his appointment. In the spring of 1940, the agency tried to arrange a visa for Meryn to travel to Switzerland. The agency wanted Meryn’s cooperation to open an office in Sosnowiec — ostensibly to facilitate immigration to Palestine but actually to establish a formal presence in occupied Poland. Similar offices were already operating in other parts of the Reich, including Austria and Germany. Through Sosnowiec, the agency could expand contact with other Judenrats in Poland and keep track of Jewish assets, which Zionist leaders believed they could obtain after Germany’s defeat. [4]

In the beginning of 1941, Meryn established a youth department in the Judenrat with leaders of Hanoar Hatzair. The new department was managed by Poalei Zion. Hashomer Hatzair, Hanoar Hatzair and Dror also sent representatives to the Judenrat. They included Kozoch’s brother, Bulek, as well as Motek Birman, Josef Brezeski, Fanja Czarna, Guta Czarni, Moritz Rajcher, Ignac Rajner and Wolf Smietana. The representatives ensured that Zionist groups would be exempt from the worst of Nazi oppression. Fanja Czarna, a fluent German speaker, was appointed Meryn’s chief secretary. [5]

Soon, Meryn’s main assignment was to supply the Germans with Jews — whether for slave labor or execution. He and his men solicited bribes of 15,000 zlotys, or 7,500 Reichsmarks, from Jews who sought to escape deportation. Some of the young women were offered to sell their bodies instead. Meryn was given a kickback for the labor he supplied to German factories in Poland.

Finding Jews willing to round up their co-religionists was not easy. Bella Jakubowicz Tovey recalled that Meryn offered her father a job with the police. Her father, a religious Jew, refused, and Meryn, who had worked for him before the war, became agitated.

“‘It’s your God that’s doing it,'” Tovey quoted Meryn as saying. “‘He’s not lifting a finger. The only thing you can do is help yourself. He’s not going to help you.’ And my father said, ‘I am not going to be His angel of death.'” [6]

By 1942, Hitler had decided to destroy the ghettos. In May, Meryn, amid opposition within the Judenrat, volunteered to fulfill the first major deportation quota, which numbered some 15,000 Jews. Meryn insisted that they were being taken to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, where the young would work under humane conditions and the elderly cared for in special facilities. The actual destination was Auschwitz.

Meryn learned to be a salesman for his German masters. He would arrive at a targeted ghetto, assemble the Jews and order them to register for the transports. The Judenrat chief, sometimes with the help of his brother Chaim, advised the Jews to wear their best clothes for the trip. Some 70,000 people quietly boarded the trains for Auschwitz and Treblinka. Their last act was to surrender anything of value, whether gold, fur or cash.

Gerda Weissman Klein witnessed Meryn at work. In her memoirs, she recalled him arriving at the railway station of Bielitz where the Jews awaited their fate.

“The king of the Jews, as he was called, had arrived,” Klein, who said he was saved by Meryn, wrote. “He pulled a bottle of schnapps from his pocket, drank first and then handed it to the SS men around him. Yes, he was all right with them. He was their kind.” [7]

Eventually, Meryn turned into the enemy of the Jews. The Zionist-dominated underground sentenced him to death, but Meryn’s 500-member police force, which closely monitored the opposition, ensured his protection. As the deportations increased, he defended his actions and warned that direct German intervention would be worse.

“I stand in a cage before a hungry and angry tiger,” Meryn said. “I stuff his mouth with meat, the flesh of my brothers and sisters, to keep him in his cage, lest he break loose and tear us all to bits.” [8]

By June 1943, Meryn had outlived his usefulness to the Third Reich. Most of his administration had been destroyed, the great majority of Jews sent to death camps. He sought a passport through the Jewish Agency in Geneva, which years earlier deemed him useful. When the Germans found out, he and his staff were summoned and deported to Auschwitz. Days later, he was shot and killed. His loyal secretary, Czarna, was executed as well.

“In practice, he wanted to save only himself,” David Fischer, who was in Sosnowiec, recalled. “He organized revels with the Gestapo. They promised that he would certainly survive the war.” [9]

In July, the last transport emptied the ghetto in Sosnowiec. Two months later, Meryn’s ex-wife Mania and their daughter Halina were captured and sent to Auschwitz. They survived and in 1947 resettled in the United States.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote a book about the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who had worked closely with the Judenrat, including Meryn, throughout World War II. Arendt, a prominent author and philosopher who escaped Europe during the first year of the war, asserted that without Jewish collaboration, the Germans, fighting on two fronts, could never have killed more than six million Jews in less than six years.

“To a Jew, this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story,” Arendt wrote.[10]

Notes:

  1.  Yad Vashem website. https://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/remembrance-day/index.asp
  2. “The Judenrat in Zaglebie” Pinchas Orbach. https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/zaglembia/zag329.html
  3. JDC Archives, New York. Z/Cz/13224/40
  4. Judenrat Files, from the Alfred Schwartbaum Collection. Ghetto Fighters House Archives
  5. “The Judenrat in Zaglebie” Pinchas Orbach.
  6. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/oral-history/bella-jakubowicz-tovey-describes-conditions-in-bergen-belsen]

  7. “One Survivor Remembers” Gerda Weissman Klein. Amazon, 2005
  8. “The Judenrat in Zaglebie” Pinchas Orbach.
  9. Dawid Fischer in “Holocaust Testimonies.” http://polishjews.org/shoahtts/010.htm
  10. “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” Hannah Arendt. Pages 117-118. Viking Press, 1963
About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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