Avihu Ronen, Hadas Agmon, Asaf Danziger

“Collaborator or Would-Be Rescuer? The Barenblat Trial and the Image of a Judenrat Member in 1960s Israel”

Several trials conducted in Israel questioned the role of the Jewish leadership in the Holocaust and raised the problematic image of the Judenrat among the survivors. In the Barenblat trial (1963), the state prosecuted Hirsh Barenblat who had been the head of the Jewish militia in Będzin (Poland). Due to Barenblat’s high position and the attempt to impose comprehensive culpability on all Judenrat members, his trial became an important milestone in the development of Holocaust memory as it pertained to the Jewish leadership of the time. In Barenblat, the principle question raised throughout was the essence of the Judenrat and its members, and this may have been the only attempt to respond to it. This question split the survivors of Będzin: some witnessed against Barenblat and some witnessed for the defense. Although many of the witnesses condemned the Judenrat as an institute there was no consensus among them regarding the role of Barenblat. The rulings of both courts largely reflected the witnesses’ vacillations. The District Court convicted Barenblat and sentenced him to five years in prison. The Supreme Court exonerated him. Both instances believed that the rest of the job should be left to historians.

However, the absence of a resolution in the Barenblat trial symbolized the beginning of a process of change in the perception of the role of Jewish leadership and the Judenrat in the Holocaust — a perception that is neither accusatory nor apologetic and, instead, is mindful of the paradoxical complexity that envelops these institutions and individuals.