Menachem's Writings

Capos, Kapos and Nazi Murder Inc.
Could the Germans have done it on their own?

I have heard from survivors that the Germans, may their memory rot, could not have done it on their own. Had they not found willing partners in the countries they conquered, they could not have done to the Jews what they did — cold-bloodedly murder of so many of our nation.

The Lithuanians started savagely murdering the Jews before the arrival of Hitler's emissaries. From all reports, they compete for honours with the Ukrainians as the most savage and brutal of concentration camp guards. And the Poles, themselves persecuted by the Germans, even managed a pogrom or two in 1945, aimed at returning Polish Jews. Ukrainians actively volunteered for the S.S., and after a special course, joined their full ranks, wearing the same infamous black uniform. I have been told by first hand sources that these foreigners were more brutal than native Germans.

All said and done, perhaps the worst collaboration of all, the evilest of humanity, were Jews who worked and collaborated with the regime. These were the so-called Capos, the court Jews. Unfortunately this cooperation did not represent a phenomenon new to Jewish history. Take just as one example, Pablo Christiani, a thirteenth century orthodox Spanish Jew who became a catholic of the dominican order. He comes to us down the road of history as the christian who debated Rabbi Moshe ben Naḥman, the Ramban, Nachmanides, in the famous Disputation of Barcelona. After losing the debate, Christiani subsequently convinced the Pope to censor the Talmud, and later, the King of France to force all Jews in the dominion to wear identifying badges. This eventually led to the explosion of Jews from French dominions. A true slime if ever there was one. Sadly not unique in Jewish history.

A midrash relates an occurrence during the first visit by the sons of Ya'akov to their (then unknown to them) brother, Yosef, viceroy of Egypt. Yosef plays a game with them, testing them. He tells them they should return home, but leave brother Shimon behind. Now Shimon was the wild son of the family, the wilder ḥayeh. He knew how to fight when necessary, a fight to the end. "And who's going to arrest me", he yells. Yosef summons the seventy strongmen of Egypt. Shimon stomps on the ground so hard that the palace walls shake and sway. Seventy strongmen crash to the ground, spitting out their teeth as they fall. In response Yosef gestures to eight year old Menashe, his son, translator and personal assistant. Menashe simply walks up to Uncle Simeon, punching him so hard that now his teeth fall out, collapsing him into a useless heap of humanity on the floor. The sons of Ya'akov can only express their disbelief with the words, "this is a strike from our father's house — מכת בית אבא". The intended lesson of this allegory is clear — only a fellow Jew, and not a gentile from even all of the world's seventy nations, can do the serious damage to the Jewish people that a fellow Jew can do!

I want to write about the Kapos amongst us — those who survived the Holocaust, those who still live with us, even to this day.

First I want a simple definition of the term Kapo. I have spoken to many survivors and heard many of their histories. I was surprised, however, to not find too much of use on the Web. Some spell it with a 'K' and some spell it with 'C', but a Capo is a Kapo.

Disappointingly, many of the definitions and references I did locate on the Web are somewhat sanitised.
Here are some. I decided not to give sources, and I mix up different details. (If you're reading this, you have the same access to the Web that I do.) [Note all square brackets here contain my comments and all bolds and italics are mine.]

A position of authority in concentration and death camps occupied by an inmate. Capos carried out the instructions of their immediate S.S. supervisors. They were most frequently [sic] selected from among inmates incarcerated for their criminal activities [and not just for being Jews?]. As their own, frequently limited, albeit life-saving, privileges, depended on the whim of their SS supervisors, they more often than not treated other [Jewish] inmates with extreme harshness and brutality.

A bit softer
The capos were Jews who worked inside the death camps. Their tasks included transporting victims of gassing to the ovens, cleaning the gas chambers of human excrement and blood, removal of gold from the teeth of the victims, shaving the heads of those going to the gas chambers. [In my opinion, quite sanitised. As you will see from the below description from Treblinka, not everyone who had a job in the camps should be a considered a collaborator — let's leave our term for the real bastards. I don't believe slave labour is collaboration.]

Another attempt
Inside the concentration camps there were Jewish police [sic], prisoners known as "kapos." In return for special privileges, these kapos [brutally] forced other Jews to obey Nazi orders, just as the Jewish police, judenrat, had done in the ghettos. In the concentration camps, however, there were also German [and often Polish and Ukrainian] guards always present, ready and willing to beat or shoot anyone who did not obey orders.

In Treblinka, for example
In Treblinka, 700 to 1,000 Jewish prisoners were kept for various "service jobs" in the two parts of the camp. These Jews were divided into two groups: the first was facetiously called the "court Jews" (Hofjuden) and the second was called the "square Jews" (Platzjudend). Most of the "court Jews" were skilled workers or were employed in workshops or in building the camp. Compared to the other inmates, their situation was relatively good. [The situation of slave labourers, both in the camps and at other locations, is separate story. My mother was both a camp inmate and later a slave.]

The "Jews of the square" were also divided into a number of groups: one group was employed on the railway arrivals platform. Their job was to remove from the cattle cars the bodies of those who died en route, to confiscate luggage and packages and to clean the cars. Other groups were positioned in the square where the Jews were ordered to undress. Their job was to sort and arrange the clothing and belongings and to ready them for shipment to Germany. In addition, there were the so-called "gold Jews", who sorted gold and other valuables. A group of "barbers" sheared the women's hair before they were sent to the gas chambers. From time to time additional groups of workers were formed for various jobs, including camouflaging the camp fences with branches brought from the nearby forest, construction, paving roads in the camp, and the like. Among the Jewish prisoners there was also a group of women. [Were these tasks collaboration?]

The Jews kept in the extermination area worked mainly at removing the dead bodies from the gas chambers and transferring them to the pits. When it was later decided to set fire to the bodies [sanitised to cremate], they piled the dead bodies onto discarded old rails, set aside for that purpose. Another group of working Jews was called the "dentists". They extracted gold teeth from the bodies that had been removed from the gas chambers before they were brought to the pits. There were others who worked in services in the extermination area — the kitchen, laundry and the like. The Germans prevented any contact between the Jews in the two parts of the camp. At times Jews were shifted from the first camp to the second, but never back from there. To head the group of Jews, the Germans appointed a camp elder, or, as he was sometimes called, the "head Capo" (Oberkapo). Each of the two parts of the camp had its own camp elder, and the Germans also appointed a Jewish Capo for each work group. To keep a check on what the Jewish prisoners were thinking and doing, the SS found informers among them, but the prisoners quickly learned to recognise these Kapos and to take precautionary measures.

The relatively small size of the camp and the manner in which it was constructed, including the system of barbed-wire fences and the guard towers, which provided an unobstructed view of the camp area, plus the size of the German and Ukrainian staff and its activity in all parts of the camp, enabled maximum control and surveillance of goings-on in the camp and of the movement of Jewish prisoners. The only places where the Jews were not under constant observation were the workshops in the daytime and the barracks at night. But the Germans paid frequent visits there, too, and the presence of informers facilitated surveillance of what was going on inside. [In other camps there were capos in all the barracks.]

The gas chambers resembled baths. A group of young and strong Jews, a few dozen, occasionally even a hundred, was usually selected during the unloading of a transport. Most of them were taken to Camp II. They were forced to drag the corpses from the gas chambers and to carry them to the open ditches. Several prisoners were employed in collecting the victims' clothes and belongings, carrying them to the sorting point. Others had to remove from the train those who had died during the transport and to take those unable to walk, directly to the ditches in Camp II. These Jews were organised into work teams with their own Capos. They did this work for a few days or weeks. Each day some of them were killed and replaced by new arrivals. [Being a Kapo did not ensure survival!]

"After the Jews left the undressing hut I had to direct them to the gas chamber. I believe that I eased the way there for the Jews because they must have been convinced by my [Yiddish] words or gestures [because I was a fellow Jew] that they really were going to be bathed."

Recently these people (I use the word loosely) have been characterised also as victims. "There was no right and wrong in the Camps ... there were just survivors and there were those who did not survive."

However most Jews, in fact almost all, were able to maintain their dignity, their morality and their humanity throughout this blackest period of history.

It has become fashionable in recent times to use this horrendous title to describe the wicked of our generation. While many of these, Jewish leaders among them, deserve the highest level of denigration possible, to also refer to them victims, in my opinion, demeans the slaughtered Holocaust victims, our brethren, whose (often brutal) death was hastened — and worse — by the concentration camp kapos.

Some of these abhorrent people lived in Sydney, my hometown, when I was growing up. And as could be expected, each had a different story. They would say, "Leave me alone — if I hadn't done it, another Jew would have — so what? So what if it happened to be me. It would have been done anyway." Needless to say, they did not have too many friends ... surprisingly most had spouses ... some even had children.

In general people did leave them alone. Literally. There were people in our town who actually witnessed some of their handiwork. One, to give him some credit, did not deny his role in the extermination. But most attempted to conceal their rôle.

Surely every Kapo spends his life in fear of revenge ... and I would venture, rightly so. A surviving Kapo would want to stay away from a large Jewish community, and stay away from one where eliminating him is easy. Israel is definitely out of the question on both accounts — though some did come here, I assume as they had no other choice — or they were really stupid. Too many Jews. Everywhere. Eventually someone who knew her, who remembers her firsthand, would meet her, see her, follow him home. Must stay away from Jews of European origin. A friend who grew up in Israel in the fifties remembers, a number of times, someone suddenly yelling out in a bus, animatedly pointing to another passenger, yelling, "Kapo, Capo!!!! Here is a Capo!"

And too many weapons in Israel — easy access. Maybe a superior officer at the next regular compulsory military reserve duty, perhaps the son or grandson of someone whom our Kapo speeded to his death. King David did it to Uriah the Hittite, so perhaps our officer may arrange a little work accident or an assignment to some suicidal front line action.

Back to my hometown ... Ideally a kapo would live in a small Jewish community, preferably in a big city, with good law and order enforcement. And relatively few survivors around. Lowers the probability of recognition. As soon as our man or woman can afford it (remember most of our survivors arrived to the New World close to penniless), he acquires a gun license ... and of course, a firearm. Legally if possible, though perhaps an illegal weapon at first, just to keep under her bed, in case of an unwanted nocturnal visitor.

And don't hang around the synagogue ... too many former European Jews, equals survivors, there, or again, more precisely, people who may recognise you. Get involved in the local, non-European Jewish establishment — maybe the Jewish Board of Deputies. Very English. No greeners. Make believe you are coming to meetings in order to provide protection for local Jews, gun at the ready in your holster. In reality you are there to keep your ear close to the ground, always looking over your shoulder.

How long do you need to fear retribution? Forever. Until the day you die, however you meet your demise. The older you get, the slower you are on the trigger, the easier you become to dispose of.

You could live a lie, develop a cover identity. Sure, those who know who you are, they know. But if you have communal standing, maybe you can cast aside these lunatics, "they lost some marbles in the war, mistaken identity". Surely can't be true. Me?

"I was a war hero."
"The Israeli army calls me for advice."
"The Jewish community consults with me on security issues."
"I am a respected member of society."

There's a guy in my hometown who fits the mould, to a T.

And whenever I see him, whenever his name is mentioned in my presence, I shudder. I always have to wonder ... did this despicable excuse for humanity assist my grandfather, my uncle, my four year old cousin, or perhaps carry my eighteen month old sister ... into a gas chamber!

Menachem Kuchar, 2nd April, 2009    
8th Nisan, 5769


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