When President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel called J Street members “far worse than kapos,” David Friedman was tapping into a rich tradition of Jews denigrating other Jews as Nazi lackeys.
Kapos were insidiously deployed to pit prisoners against each other in their roles as highly visible functionaries who helped the SS keep order in Nazi camps. They generally wielded tremendous power over fellow inmates, some of whom survived the war to later denounce former kapos.
When Friedman called J Street supporters “far worse than kapos,” he invoked the left-wing group’s support of the two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Friedman views two-state activists as not only putting Israel’s existence at risk, but doing so voluntarily, as opposed to kapos who were coerced into service by the Nazis.
According to Friedman, J Street supporters are “smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse,” Friedman wrote in a June op-ed on the far-right Israel National News website.
Packed into the future ambassador’s kapo allegation are post-Shoah notions of shame, loyalty and honor. Whether deployed by Hannah Arendt 60 years ago, or applied to J Street activists this summer by Friedman, kapos are one of the Holocaust’s most enduring — and sensitive — symbols.
‘He seemed to break in two’
“The kapos were beating us again, I no longer felt the pain,” wrote Elie Wiesel in his memoir “Night,” in which a kapo named Idek figured prominently.
“I happened to cross [Idek’s] path,” wrote Wiesel. “He threw himself on me like a wild beast, beating me in the chest, on my head, throwing me to the ground and picking me up again, crushing me with ever more violent blows, until I was covered in blood.”
On another occasion, Idek beat Wiesel’s father with an iron bar, nearly killing him.
“At first, my father simply doubled over under the blows, but then he seemed to break in two like an old tree struck by lightning,” wrote Wiesel, who resented his father’s display of weakness in front of the all-powerful kapo.
“Why couldn’t he have avoided Idek’s wrath? That was what life in a concentration camp had made of me,” wrote Wiesel.
According to author Michael Bazyler, “a frequent charge is that the Jewish kapos behaved ‘worse than the Germans’ — and this statement reflects in large part the bitterness and shame felt by the authors of such statements toward their Jewish brethren. It also reflects the reality of camp life under a system where much of ‘the dirty work’ would be done by prisoners,” wrote Bazyler in Holocaust, Genocide, and the Law: A Quest for Justice in a Post-Holocaust World.
Restoring ‘Jewish honor’
Seventy years after the kapo system’s demise, the topic is still verboten in some quarters.
“One does not have to be a J Street member or even a fan to think that comparing them to ‘kapos’ is grotesque and marginalizing, and should be… disqualifying for any administration post — much less one deeply symbolic for America’s Jewish population,” wrote David Schraub in Haaretz.
Records from kapo trials remain sealed in Israel until 70 years after each trial, and David Friedman’s use of the slur led some critics, including Schraub, to claim Friedman violated the recently passed Anti-Semitism Awareness Act.
Long after former Jewish kapos could be identified on the streets of Israel or Europe, the subject of how these men and women were dealt with remained taboo. “Jewish Honor Courts,” published last year by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, is the first book to probe how postwar Jewish communities enacted justice on kapos and other collaborators, both in Israel and Europe.
Unfortunately for researchers, the content of Israel’s “collaborator” trials was also sealed for 70 years, meaning that most trial records from the 1960s have yet to be released. It is known, however, that about 40 trials were heard by 1964, and that 15 defendants received mild sentences. Held under Israel’s 1950 law against former Nazis and Nazi collaborators, the trials received scant attention until 1961, when key Shoah logistics master Adolf Eichmann of the SS was kidnapped and tried in Jerusalem.
But before there was Eichmann, there was 26-year-old Else Tarnek (or Trank), a former “block commando” in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Tarnek’s 1951 trial saw Israeli prosecutors seeking the death penalty against her. Israeli judges had something else in mind when they sentenced the former 18-year-old kapo.
“We must take the circumstances under consideration,” wrote one of the judges. “The defendant was placed in charge, against her will, of a block of 1,000 persecuted women. …It was not proven to us that the defendant identified in any of her acts with the Germans,” said the court, which sentenced Tarnek to a stint in prison but released her on the same day, determining she had suffered enough during two years of legal proceedings.
Israel’s state-sponsored collaborator trials, as well as informal Jewish honor courts set up in Europe, were more about empowering broken survivors than enacting legal penalties. These were not rabbinical or national courts, but outlets for survivors to prevent Jewish collaborators from returning to positions of communal influence. For some survivors, denouncing former collaborators was a matter of honor.
“In the early years after the Holocaust, Jews sought to rebuild their lives by excluding those with dirty hands and by preventing them from assuming leadership roles in the community and representing it to others,” wrote Laura Jockusch and Gabriel N. Finder, editors of “Jewish Honor Courts.”
The courts were also a cathartic setting for survivors whose accounts were generally not sought out after the war. In a community setting among fellow victims, survivors could reassert their autonomy and work through trauma.
“With the establishment of honor courts, Jews who encountered their former tormentors on the street found themselves, for the first time, in the presence of a body that would listen to them, irrespective of their social or political standing,” wrote Katarzyna Person in the essay, “Jews Accusing Jews.”
“The fact that those who sought justice did not shy away from putting their names on their letters, even when they referred to those in positions of power, indicates they viewed the courts as just bodies, truly representative of the Jewish community, rather than fearing that courts were ruled by those in the position of privilege,” wrote Person.
‘Far worse than kapos’
Philosopher Hannah Arendt memorably lambasted Jews in positions of power during the Holocaust in her 1963 book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Her most controversial assertion was that members of the Nazi-imposed Judenrat Jewish councils were responsible for hastening the genocide unleashed by Germany.
In Arendt’s assessment, Adolf Eichmann was non-ideological and “banal,” whereas the Jewish councils played an irreplaceable role in murdering their charges. Arendt viewed some Judenrat leaders as the Shoah’s ultimate kapos: Jewish men (and a few women) who selected others in the ghetto for death, even deploying Jewish policemen to round up their victims.
For her opinion on the role played by Jewish councils, Arendt was accused of victim-blaming by angry critics, prompting her to (partly) walk back her initial assessment in the years ahead.
‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn’
Survivor Viktor Frankl, like Arendt, was fascinated by Jewish self-agency during the Holocaust. In his 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl noted acts of altruism among all kinds of prisoners, including kapos.
“Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn,” wrote Frankl, remembered for helping patients find meaning in their suffering after the war.
It is possible David Friedman’s “kapo” remarks might soon be overshadowed by other “undiplomatic” behavior on the future ambassador’s part. In the meantime, for some US Jews, Friedman’s assaults on J Street and the two-state solution are not only welcome, but just what the Donald ordered.
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