Cheryl Levi
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What the Kapo Trials tell us about moral gray zones

It was true during WWII and it's true today: While justice seeks black and white, most of life functions in gray zones
Jewish police detain a former Kapo who was recognized in the street at the Zeilsheim displaced persons’ camp in Germany 1945-1948 (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Alice Lev)
Jewish police detain a former Kapo who was recognized in the street at the Zeilsheim displaced persons’ camp in Germany 1945-1948 (US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Alice Lev)

Every Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), television programs in Israel focus exclusively on the Holocaust, its victims, and survivors. So, when I sat down yesterday after the siren, I was not surprised to find Channel 12, an Israeli news channel, interviewing Yeshayahu Foyer, a Holocaust survivor from Galicia, Poland. Yeshayahu is currently in his 90s, wears thick black-rimmed glasses, and has a magnificent smile. When World War Two broke out he was just 7 years old. His mother sent him to live with non-Jews in an attempt to rescue him. After some time she came to visit him to see how he was doing, but out of anger, he refused to speak to her. It was the last time he saw her. He still lives with that guilt today.

His mother was sent to a ghetto, and eventually so was he. He escaped the ghetto and lived with partisans for two years in the forest, where he was sent on missions to kill Nazis. He was eventually caught and brought to a villa where the Nazis tortured him so he would tell them where the partisans were. Yeshayahu got a machine gun and managed to escape into the woods where he met up with his partisan friends. He spent the rest of the war in the forest.

Yeshayahu explained that he never talked about his experiences during World War Two until his 70s. When asked why he began to tell his story, he explained that he had seen some kapos (Jewish Nazi collaborators) living comfortable lives in small towns in Israel, and it shouldn’t be that way.

Kapos were Jewish prisoners of concentration camps who were assigned to supervise the Jewish slave labor force. Unfortunately, many of them served their position with gusto and cruelty. The debate over whether they should be perceived as victims or perpetrators is one that still goes on today. (An article in Time magazine discusses this debate.)

When the Allies came to liberate the camps in 1945, they found survivors who sought revenge against the Germans and the kapos as well. They beat up the kapos and even lynched them. After World War Two, kapos were viewed as no better than Nazis and just as responsible for the hell the Jews endured.

During the Mandate period, there were many clashes among Jews in public areas over this issue. The heads of the Yishuv were asked to step in, deliberate, and issue punishments. They refused because they did not believe that any punishment they could issue would be severe enough for the kapos.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Ministry of Justice demanded a solution to this problem and they drafted a bill called “The Nazis and the Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law,” which was passed by the Knesset in 1950. This law was responsible for what became known as the “Kapo Trials.” They would go on for 22 years.

The Kapo Trials went through four phases that represented four very different perspectives on how to view these Nazi policemen.

In the first phase (1950-1952), the collaborators were viewed as no better than Nazis. The only provisions made for them came in the punishments they received. They were usually imprisoned for 5-6 years, with the important exception of Yehezkel Jungster who was sentenced to death.

In order to prevent further death penalty rulings, the court went through a second phase where the collaborators were not viewed as Nazis any longer. Nazis committed crimes against humanity and war crimes, but the kapos did not. During this phase, Jungster’s death penalty was overturned, and slowly people began to wonder if kapos should be prosecuted at all.

In the third phase (1951-1962) the legal system decided that what the kapos did was wrong, but they did it with good intentions. It was only the kapos who aligned themselves with the Nazis who were prosecuted during this phase.

Finally, in phase four (1963-1972) after the Eichman trial, kapos began to be viewed as victims.

Whether or not kapos should be viewed as victims is still up for debate. The four very distinct phases of the Kapo Trials reflect the contentiousness of the issue. Primo Levi, the Italian Holocaust survivor who later became a writer, addressed this issue. He called it the “gray zone,” arguing that “The condition of the offended does not exclude culpability, which is often objectively serious, but I know of no human tribunal to which one could delegate the judgment.” While it’s true that kapos went through their own oppression, it does not free them of their guilt from the savagery they perpetrated on innocent Holocaust victims. But, he explains, humans, even other Holocaust victims, cannot judge them. It is not black and white; It is all just too gray.

Similar to the time of the Holocaust, there are many “gray zones” today. For example, Israel is being accused of punishing the Palestinian people, while trying to fight against Hamas. Hamas is using the Palestinians as human shields, and Israel has no other choice but to eliminate this terrorist movement that has vowed to destroy it. War is clearly not black and white.

Additionally, how should Israel handle the hostage situation? The families want the war to end so they can get their family members back. But will that plan even succeed? Maybe war is the only language Hamas understands.

And what has caused this moral ambiguity in the minds of American college students? How can they be supporting a terrorist group and calling for the destruction of the only democracy in the Middle East? They seem to be turning against the very definition of morality while claiming to be arguing for it.

While justice seeks black and white, most of life functions in gray zones. We are all just trying to make our way through the fog. The four vastly different phases of the Kapo Trials are a testament to the ethical ambiguity in which we are all mired.

About the Author
Cheryl Levi is a writer and a high school English teacher who lives with her family in Bet Shemesh, Israel. She has a master's degree in medieval Jewish philosophy and has written numerous articles about faith crisis in Judaism. Her book, Reasonable Doubts, was published in 2010.