Menachem's Writings

More on Capos
A moral dilemma

Since writing about the participation of capos in the mass murder and extermination of European Jewry, I received many responses from readers, both directly and via my Facebooeye-witness. I have already shared some of these with you, but the latest comments I received started me thinking anew about the role of the detested capo and the effects of the experience on the survivors.

A correspondent from Wisconsin writes:

As the result of a recent bout of self-pity, I began re-reading Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. As I confronted more and more the existence of capos as described by Dr. Frankl, I began to imagine what would happen after liberation to such people, wondering if they would have been recognised and somehow brought to justice, whether in the courtroom or in the street. I looked to the internet for information and luckily encountered your essay on just that subject. I thank you for the time and energy it took to write and publish the essay on line, and for bringing clarity to your readers. It is my hope that many of these villains were brought to justice and made to suffer for their role as Hitler's many willing executioners.

Bless you ... I wish you love.

What was the sin of the capo? I think the term "willing executioners" applies more to the Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians and others, many of whom were just waiting for the opportunity the Germans were now giving them to vent their ancient Jew hatred. According to many eyewitnesses, the savagery and bloodlust of many of these nationals even exceeded that of the Nazis themselves, be it as "volunteer" guards and executioners in the murder camps or as cruel cogs within the puppet regimes they readily established in their countries.

Back to the capos, flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood, our people, our D.N.A, our very own. Was their treachery a case of siding with the enemy during a time of war? or was it just aiding and abetting in most heinous crimes? They were certainly willing and they allowed themselves to become an integral part of the extermination machine.

Collaboration may be the best word. The dictionary provides two definitions, both applicable to our friends.

1. The act of working together; united labour.
2. The act of willingly cooperating with an enemy, especially an enemy nation occupying one's own country.

Yes, they worked together with, complementing, the Nazis. Their cooperation was certainly willing, of their own volition.

The French stand out as a nation that knew how to seriously deal with collaborators. Renowned photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, graphically illustrated their reaction, eye-witness photographs of actions against their own collaborators, immediately following Liberation.

Certainly the Nazis were capable of carrying out the final solution without the aid of willing collaborators. However these despicables greatly eased the task. Accompanied to a gas chamber disguised as a shower by a landsman, a fellow Jew from your district or town, speaking your dialect of Yiddish or Hungarian, certainly abetted the German ruse.

Should we hold these capos directly guilty of murder? or murder by association? They are certainly guilty of raising their hand against a fellow Jew, watching his blood flow freely on the ground like a dead dog. The latter, in and of itself, is a severe Tora prohibition.

Why did they allow themselves to become involved in this way, these people whom we imagine as being fine upstanding citizens of their Jewish and secular communities before the rise of the atrocities? Was their partnership in Satan's dastardly work a result of a misguided belief that only their collaboration could save them? save their families, their close friends? Or was it because, below their veneer of prewar normality, they were always cruel individuals, seeking the glow of limelight at the expense of their fellows?

I pasted the above comment from Wisconsin onto my Facebook Wall. Interestingly, I received the following piece of information from one of my friends. I was struck by a-bolt of lightening on a dark night. This piece was so powerful that I requested clarification to be sure I correctly understood my correspondent. The situation described therein was difficult to digest.

When my mother was in Auschwitz, she knew one of the capos there. This lady [sic] was from her hometown in Hungary. After the war this lady and my mother lived in the same Jewish community, together with others from their hometown, others who had also been in Auschwitz with this capo.

I can hardly imagine how difficult it must have been for my [late] mother. As far as I know she did not discuss it with her friends, all of who also knew this woman and her family [in Hungary before the Holocaust]. The ex-capo was part of the [new] community. I don't think my Mom ever spoke about it to her or to anyone else. It must have 'bothered' her a lot though. It's almost as if they had some unspoken agreement to never talk about it because it would have been so hurtful to this woman. I don't know if they all chose to repress the memory or that because this woman was part of their old chevra that survived the holocaust, they did not want to hurt her [new] family? I guess it's one of those things that I'll never know now.

A camp inmate somehow found out that his son was slated for transportation (read murdered) following the next morning's pre-dawn inspection. Somehow, amidst all the surrounding murder and horror, this Jew had managed to retain, in addition to his own humanity, an article of value. He knew that with this valuable item he could bribe one of the capos into sending another in his son's place. The German guards didn't care specifically who was sent. The count had to be correct — German efficiency — numbers must add up — only the bottom line matters. Otherwise payment would be extracted from the capos.

take your son, your only son, Yitzḥak, whom you love ... and offer him there where I tell you for a burnt offering

Our inmate was morally troubled. By sending someone in place of his son, he was sending another to certain death, a fellow Jew, though unknown to him, another human being, another of God's beloved creatures.

Behold the fire and the wood. But where is the lamb for a burnt-offering?

He was so troubled that he sought advice, solicited guidance. Amongst the interned in their barracks was an old rabbi, renown for his knowledge and wisdom. The man stated that he would do whatever rabbi advised. Was he permitted to pay to have his son replaced by someone else, someone whose immediate death would now be assured, in order to save his own, thus ensuring his son's survival for at least another day? There was, of course, no guarantee that any of them, not the father nor the son nor the rabbi, would live another week, let alone another day. But in those dark days, any survival was of immediate concern — each new day was another just that, an additional day of life, but another day in progression to what? to where?

Though listening intently to the man's dilemma, the wise old sage declined to respond. When pushed by his interlocutor, our rabbi responded that he was unable to provide a complete answer on so important a question. His learned tomes were not at hand, there no colleagues with whom to discuss the pros and cons of such a life and death issue. The lack of peer review, coupled with his current psychological state, may cause him to err in his judgement.

But our questioner persisted. He must have an answer, now. You are a rabbi and it is your duty to teach me the halakha, to inform me how Jewish law expects me to act in this situation. No-one here here matches your depth of learning and understanding.

Bloodshot eyes, tears trickling down his cheeks, the ancient rabbi responds, "Your son's blood is no redder than any other's blood, than the blood of whoever would have to take his place".

And Avraham arose, early in the morning ...

A few short hours later, before the frigid sun managed to crack through the horizon, our noble man, visibly trembling, kisses his son on the forehead as the capos take him away. The sun rises, bringing with it a new day.

Avraham returned to his young men, and they rose up, and went together to Beer-sheba

The classic, oft asked dilemma, where was Yitzḥak?

The ancient sage too is discernibly shaking. Was he the sole witness? Where was the living God on this day?

And Yitzḥak came from coming to the well of the living one that sees me — Be'er-lahai-roi

Is it possible that there is a statute of limitations for the capos' crimes? I believe there can never be. Just as the perpetrators of mass murder must be hunted while breath flows into their lungs, so too their willing assistants must suffer the consequences of their misdeeds.

But what of lesser misdemeanours? What about acts which may be considered illegal or immoral outside the deathly stench of the murder camps, but certainly are not collaboration? I am not attempting to draw a moral equivalence. I myself am grappling with what is considered permissible and moral in these situations.

Let us assume, as an example of this type behaviour, that an inmate has the opportunity to receive an extra meal. Everyone is on all starvation diets — watered down soup, stale bread, a raw potato. Increasing caloric intake directly effects survival. People are daily dying of disease. Most non-inflicted deaths are directly the product of inadequate diet.

But taking this extra meal usually means someone else missed out what may be that person's entire portion that day. Again, the Germans were only interested in the bottom line, equal rations for each individual. One hundred mouths, one hundred potatoes.

Was consuming this extra meal indecent? immoral? perhaps just improper? Or as I don't know whose meal I have eaten, it is allowed? Who knows, tomorrow he may get to my meal before I do!

Am I, the post-holocaust philosopher, with twenty-twenty historic hindsight, riding on my high moral horse in even attempting to judge these people? Do we have the right to judge? Am I out of place to even discuss these questions?

After all, isn't survival the natural instinct? But survival at what cost and what cost to whom? Was it possible to survive without helping yourself to something, anything that was to be found? It must be said that many did not lose their ability to think morally in these inhumane conditions to ensure their survival.

I don't believe it is possible for me, outside the realm of blatant evil, and from this distance in time and place, to judge anyone. And I believe that I, as a what has come to called second generation survivor, am far more sensitive to the plight of survivors than many. We, the second generation, understand our parents' experiences better than anyone else, though often more by osmosis than through direct discussions with them. It wasn't blatant and it wasn't obvious to outsiders, but every day there was another hint, another piece of the hidden puzzle revealed. But does this experience give us the right to judge anyone?

What was the long term effect of this behaviour, this necessary scheming to survive, on the survivors themselves? I think that this was part of the cruel game the Nazis played against the hapless Jews. They purposely put people into situations where they had to make these decisions, not as a test but as a taunt. It was part of their policy of dehumanisation, lowering us to the level of beasts of prey who fight over a piece of carrion.

Two who take hold of lost a coat: one says it is all mine, and the other also states it is all mine

Following the murders and atrocities, many survivors returned home to find no family, and thus no support network on which to fall back. As most survivors left Europe for the New World, this lack became more acute. They settled in unfamiliar countries — new languages, strange cultures — and they had only themselves on whom to count.

Their survival skills needed to be honed to a new survival setting. Did their previous experience in the battle to survive come to the fore in the new locations? Could they use techniques they developed in a past they could not obliterate?

Had morality shifted, allowing them to do things that they would not have done had it not been for their concentration camp stay?

In the paradox known as the dispensation of Rav Huna, the forbidden becomes permitted. How? You know something is not allowed and you avoid it. Just one time you fail to overcome your evil inclination and you transgress. Just once. However it is now more difficult for you to subjugate your inclination the next time you are tempted in a subsequent situation. Your resistance is weakened. On a third occasion, this reticence has been further reduced. And so on each further occurrence, until eventually, even in not so similar an incidence, your natural resistance has disappeared.

I don't apologise for asking so many questions and providing so few answers. I hope I have stimulated your thinking and that I have penned some ideas that may not have yet crossed your mind. My prayer is that we are able to differentiate between the survival necessities of the camps and life beyond.

Menachem Kuchar, 17th March, 2011    
28th Sh'vat, 5782


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