Communities attempted to 'purge fugitive collaborators'

Post-Holocaust Jewish ‘honor courts’ channeled some survivors’ desire for revenge

Online event describes how after WWII, Jewish communities put hundreds of survivors on trial for alleged ‘moral transgressions’ during the genocide to stave off vigilante justice

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Jewish police detaining a former kapo who was recognized by former concentration camp inmates in the Zeilsheim Displaced Persons camp, Germany, ca. 1945. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Alice Lev)
Jewish police detaining a former kapo who was recognized by former concentration camp inmates in the Zeilsheim Displaced Persons camp, Germany, ca. 1945. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Alice Lev)

In the wake of World War II, many Holocaust survivors in Europe and Israel grappled with a desire for revenge. Some turned to improvised “honor courts” for relief.

Created within reconstituted Jewish communities and displaced persons (DP) camps, the tribunals had no jurisdiction outside of the Jewish community.

Active until 1950, the informal judiciaries handed out punishments ranging from bans on holding public office to banishment from the community.

“The courts tried survivors who were accused of having acted immorally toward other Jews and allegedly having helped the Nazis in their genocide,” said historian Laura Jockusch, who spoke about honor courts during a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum virtual event on October 26.

Estimates on the number of alleged “collaborators” put on trial vary, but the Jewish community in Poland alone opened 175 files and prosecuted 25 Jews as collaborators.

In German DP camps, where thousands of survivors lived, American authorities allowed honor courts and commissions for “liberated Jews” to “purge fugitive collaborators from the ranks of the Jewish community,” said Jockusch.

Historians estimate up to 200 people were tried in DP camp-based proceedings.

“There was a widespread perception among Holocaust survivors that communal leaders and Jews forced to work for the Nazis in ghettos and camps had acted to the detriment of their fellow Jews,” said Jockusch, who co-edited “Jewish Honor Courts: Revenge, Retribution, and Reconciliation in Europe and Israel after the Holocaust,” published in 2015.

Sixteen of nineteen defendants on trial for war crimes committed during the war at Dora-Mittelbau. The group included four kapos. September 17, 1947, Dachau, Germany (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park)

According to Jockusch, there were three groups of people brought before the courts. Most common were former kapos who had overseen fellow Jews in concentration camps, along with former members of Jewish police forces set up in the ghettos.

“[These people] allegedly enjoyed positions of privilege and had the power to save Jews but failed to do so,” said Jockusch, a professor of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University.

Less common than kapos or police officers, former Judenrat (Jewish Council) members were sometimes called before tribunals for their role in implementing German orders in the ghettos.

Specific offenses included physical and verbal abuse, theft, and “causing distress” through the use of derogatory language, said Jockusch.

A kapo at the Salaspils concentration camp in Latvia, wearing a yellow badge and a Lagerpolizist (camp police officer) armband (YIVO)

The courts followed common legal practices, including the innocence of defendants until proven guilty and allowing witnesses for both sides.

Far from being “kangaroo” courts, the tribunals demanded a thorough investigation before handing down punishment.

A principle upheld by most honor courts was that survivors who served as kapos or ghetto police members, for example, were not automatically guilty.

“It was how they carried [the role] out,” said Jockusch, who believes the term collaborator should not apply to Jewish victims of the Nazis.

“Even Jews who betrayed hiding places of other Jews did not identify with the Nazi project of building a world without Jews,” said Jockusch.

The honor courts allowed some suspects to “clear their names,” while others were prosecuted and punished for “moral transgressions” during the war years, said Jockusch.

“Some actions of the prisoners were in fact a choice,” said Jockusch, referring to Jewish functionaries who abused their power to the detriment of fellow Jews.

‘More about morality than the law’

In photographs taken inside honor courts during the 1950s, the convenings appear decidedly informal. In one image, five elected tribunal members and a recording secretary sit around a table underneath an image of Theodore Herzl, whose daughter died in a Nazi concentration camp.

Post-Holocaust Jewish ‘honor court’ proceedings (YIVO)

The benign appearance of the improvised proceedings concealed emotions boiling beneath the surface in many Jewish communities. For some survivors, said Jockusch, pursuing justice was part of remembering family members murdered by the Nazis.

In both Israel and Europe, communal leaders feared “vigilante justice,” or survivors taking matters into their own hands. The courts were a way for people to express their anger and seek justice without resorting to violence.

“During the war, the Jewish underground in Eastern Europe had assassinated several Judenrat functionaries, ghetto policemen, and informers, while concentration camp inmates had occasionally killed brutal former kapos stripped by the Germans of their authority,” wrote Gabriel N. Finder, who co-edited “Jewish Honor Courts” with Jockusch.

A German and a Jewish police member at an entrance to the Lodz Ghetto. (public domain)

“After liberation, there were survivors who wanted to settle scores with Jewish collaborators still alive,” wrote Finder.

During the 1950s in Israel, dozens of survivors encountered their former kapos in buses, restaurants, and other public settings.

These chance meetings aroused extreme feelings in some of the survivors, said Jockusch.

“The honor courts show the anger some survivors felt toward other survivors,” said Jockusch. “This anger had real potential for violence,” she said, adding the courts allowed survivors to “mitigate feelings of revenge” through a public process.

In the Warsaw Ghetto of occupied Poland during World War II, Nazi authorities appointed a Jewish police force to maintain order and carry out their orders. (public domain)

Punishments handed down by honor courts included cutting social benefits, loss of communal voting rights, and a ban on holding communal office.

The most severe punishment, said Jockusch, was “being banished from the community.”

In American-operated DP camps, Jewish honor courts and related commissions were not allowed to impose fines or imprisonment. Some of the courts went against this ban, said Jockusch, demonstrating a demand for harsher punishments among survivors.

In Jockusch’s assessment, the honor courts provide “a window into how the remnants of European Jews after the war confronted not only the genocide itself, but the painful realization that the Nazi perpetrator had turned the victims against each other,” she said.

The Lodz Jewish Council in Nazi-occupied Poland. (Public domain)

“Nazi perpetrators manipulated their victims into collaboration and forced them to become complicit in their own community’s destruction,” said Jockusch.

By the time honor courts shut down in Europe and Israel, more people had an understanding that “Jews in so-called privileged positions were ultimately powerless,” said Jockusch.

“These cases were more about morality than about the law,” said Jockusch, who said the proceedings helped people “interrogate and work through this difficult past.”

The Krakow Jewish Council during Germany’s occupation of Poland (public domain)

Critically, the honor courts helped assure Jews they “had not lost [their] moral integrity and [their] social values,” in contradiction to Nazi claims of Jewish immorality, said Jockusch.

“The courts provided a space for processing and working through trauma and they also established norms for the future,” said Jockusch.

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