»Criminality« and »law« in the ghettos established in eastern Europe by Nazi Germany—a seeming paradox, considering how the Nazi regime subjected the European Jews to arbitrary rule under circumstances that defied any notion of justice before sending them to be murdered in the concentration camps. And yet, specific legal norms did develop in the ghettos. The so-called Jewish councils (Judenräte) established after the German occupation were forced to play a key role in implementing measures that met the Nazis’ demands: collecting valuables, organizing the work force, and ultimately facilitating mass murder.
The councils developed new definitions of criminal behavior and law and attempted to enforce them with the help of the Jewish police and the ghetto courts and prisons. All of these definitions centered on behavior considered a threat to the ghetto community, involving crimes as diverse as smuggling, »illegal production of candies«, counterfeiting ration cards, sexual abuse, and murder perpetrated against other ghetto inhabitants.
Svenja Bethke examines how Jewish authorities in the ghettos in Warsaw, Lodz, and Vilna made great efforts to utilize legal instruments to protect the community and maintain an internal moral code. Her analysis demonstrates the tragic nature of their futile attempts to adapt to the horrific circumstances they were forced to impose on ghetto inhabitants. As this reconstruction reveals, life in the ghetto community was much more complex than notions of victims struggling collectively to survive might suggest.