Capos, Kapos and Nazi Murder Revisited
How do Holocaust victims, and how should we, relate to Capos?
Yesterday I received feedback to an article I wrote last year about Capos in my hometown, Sydney, Australia. As I have promised a number of times in the past, I am always happy to present my readers' comments on this site.
The following is what I received. I'll let the writer speak for herself and will give my perspective as an epilogue.
Dear Mr. Kuchar,
I happened upon your essay about Kapos, and how they joined the Nazis in betraying Jews during World War II, and it brought to mind an interesting story I was once told by a Jewish girl I worked with long ago (around 1994 or 1995).
No one else we worked with knew she was Jewish, so all of her stories were told only to me.
All four of her grandparents were still living at the time, and all of them had numbers tattooed on their arms. I don't have space to explain the differences in the two couples, so I will just say one was very traditional, and the other was not. This story concerns the grandparents who were not traditional. Once, in the 80s, they went to Chicago for a medical conference, as her grandpa is/was a doctor. Her grandma went shopping with some of the other wives, none of whom were Jewish. She was in a department store, and she heard someone speaking Yiddish. She was deported from France, and never learned Yiddish very well, but she recognized it from the camps.
She turned to see who was speaking Yiddish, and found herself facing a female kapo who she had known in one of the camps (she was in several, but I don't know which ones, other than that she was never in an actual "death" camp, though the distinction hardly matters, considering what happened in the work camps). She was so stunned she dropped the expensive item she was holding and it broke on the floor. The former kapo noticed the noise, and turned and looked at her, and seemed to recognize her immediately, too, because she panicked and dropped the items she was holding for purchase and ran. My friend's grandma ran after her and caught up with her on the street. Her grandma didn't know what she was going to say, only that she wanted to confront the woman. As she faced her, the other woman spoke first, and the first thing she did was beg forgiveness for what she'd done. My friend's grandma was so surprised that she started talking to the woman and asking her why she'd done those things.
The woman told her story, and it was, in its own way, as sad as any other story from that era. She was young, and her husband already had pneumonia when they got on the transport train -- he died before they reached their destination. Her two children, one an infant, were taken from her by force. Someone told her that her best chance of survival was to make herself useful, so when she was offered the chance to be a kapo, she took it. She was deeply ashamed of what she'd done to keep her life. When the Allies were approaching the camp, and the Germans were trying to move everyone out, she hid a bunch of women somewhere in an effort to save them. The Germans had no use for the kapos then, and they shot them and dumped them in a mass grave they didn't even cover up. She was shot and left for dead, but pulled herself out of the grave and was found there several days later when the camp was liberated. She ended up in the US because she had relatives here.
She carried a great burden of guilt for what she'd done. After hearing her story, my friend's grandmother asked the woman for her contact information. The woman gave it to her, and they parted ways. The story bothered my friend's grandma, and she finally spoke to her Rabbi about it. He asked her what she wanted to do, and she told him she wanted to write to the woman and forgive her, but only for the things she'd done to her -- it was not her place to forgive her for what she'd done to others. She wrote to the woman, and didn't hear from her for a long time. When she finally did, it was not a letter from the woman, but instead a letter from one of her friends, telling her the woman had died in her sleep from no apparent cause -- she had been healthy. My friend's grandma believed the woman died because she finally was able to talk to one of the people she harmed, and felt it was then okay to die.
Make of it what you will.
Certainly an interesting story which leads us in a number of different directions, opening up diverse questions.
One of the unfortunate aspects of our morality today is that often the victim becomes the criminal and the criminal becomes the victim. We see this more and more for example in rape attacks. The victim, by the way she dresses, provoked the violent reaction by the rapist. Wearing such provocative clothing, what can you expect of a red blooded male, left alone, even for only a few minutes, with a woman? His father used to beat his mother nightly in a drunken rage. Having seen this throughout his entire childhood, what other reaction could you expect from him when confronted with such a situation?
In many countries they now seem only to recognise there is a problem when the rape becomes serial, when the crime is repeated. Only then are the acts recognised as having criminal intent. And even then the rapists "background" will be taken into account. How well it is possible to check this information is questionable.
Once someone "chose" to become a Capo, there was no turning back. You could no longer return to being a rank and file camp slave labourer. How hard did a potential Capo think through the consequences of his promotion?
I don't believe anyone became a Capo without understanding the circumstances of their new profession. It may not yet have been obvious to the Capo that his services would be, literally, terminated in an average of two months time. But everyone has a built-in survival belief that he will be "the fortunate one" who manages to survive until the end.
My first problem with this story is that there is no basis on which to believe the Capo's two "angelic" stories, the first relating to her becoming a Capo in response to a determination to survive following the untimely death of her ailing husband on the transport and the subsequent murders of her children. The second, the narrative of hiding of "a bunch of women somewhere in an effort to save them".
The first is feasible, the second, from what I have been told by survivors, quite unlikely. In the rush to get out of the camp the nazis may not have had sufficient time to cover over the murdered capos in their mass grave, but they certainly allowed themselves sufficient time to shoot them all, our heroine included. That she would have had enough time before the roundup to hide "a bunch of women", borders on fantasy.
Unfortunately as the post-Holocaust generation became more and more [re]established, they have tended to, certainly not forget, but to blur some of the events. Our correspondent's "grandmother", fifty years later, seems to have accepted the Capo's stories, evidenced by the fact that she was prepared, after the original shock of coming face-to-face with satan's assistant, to forgive.
In a rather romantic reaction, our perfectly healthy Capo now "felt it was then okay to die", the heavy load burdening her being for the same fifty years now lessened, the pressure valve finally released. [I realise I am quoting directly from my correspondent whose account, unfortunately, is only third hand.]
I have noticed a softening in the last embers of the survivor generation, at least of those in the West with whom I have the most familiarity. These dwindling survivors are today in their eighties and nineties and also are searching for some closure. Enough hatred between Jews. They too are aware that Jewish anti-Semitism has today taken a new turn. Jews often lead the modern anti-semitic battle -- anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism. And they again feel the pain.
We, the second and third generations, are unable to fully grasp the day-to-day events in the concentration camps, the pain of the treachery. We are unable to provide answers, even for ourselves. It is hard for us. Our broad education and our western openness, our relationship with our parents, still here and already departed to their just reward, all have an effect on our relationship to the Holocaust.
But I think we must be extremely careful when it comes to Jews siding with our enemies. As I have written in the past, Jewish anti-Semitism is deplorably an ancient concept. The Capos chose to be Capos. They did it to save their own lives. They did what they were told ( -- or else). They lacked morals and scruples. Whatever they may now claim postwar, and by far most did not survive, being disposed of when no longer needed, their previous morality stands upright witness to their character and to their trustworthiness.
There was once a play about which I heard from a friend. I did not see it, nor intend to even if it comes to a theatre near my home. The story is about a Kapo. From my friend's description of the play, I assume the dramatist is attempting to present the Kapo's "dilemma". The play ends with the Kapo's words, "In Auschwitz there were only two types of Jews: those who were killed and those who survived" -- read, you had to do whatever you could in order to survive -- there was no room in this hell for virtue or morality. This dehumanised purgatory lacked anything that could be deemed good. Humans were debased to their lowest level, the mere struggle to survive.
I pray, very hard, that God never tests me with such a dilemma. And if He does, I beseech Him now for the strength to not lift a finger against a Jew, whatever the consequences of this action may be to my body.
Even though I may walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, because You too are here, with me.
Menachem Kuchar, 26th July, 2010
15th Av, 5770
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