Bit­ter Reck­on­ing: Israel Tries Holo­caust Sur­vivors as Nazi Collaborators

Dan Porat

January 1, 2013

Begin­ning in 1950, the state of Israel pros­e­cut­ed and jailed dozens of Holo­caust sur­vivors who had served as camp kapos or ghet­to police under the Nazis. At last comes the first full account of the kapo tri­als, based on records new­ly declas­si­fied after forty years.

In Decem­ber 1945, a Pol­ish-born com­muter on a Tel Aviv bus rec­og­nized a fel­low rid­er as the for­mer head of a town coun­cil the Nazis had estab­lished to man­age the Jews. When he denounced the man as a col­lab­o­ra­tor, the rid­er leapt off the bus, pur­sued by pas­sen­gers intent on beat­ing him to death. Five years lat­er, to address ongo­ing ten­sions with­in Holo­caust sur­vivor com­mu­ni­ties, the State of Israel insti­tut­ed the crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion of Jews who had served as ghet­to admin­is­tra­tors or kapos in con­cen­tra­tion camps.

Dan Porat brings to light more than three dozen lit­tle-known tri­als, held over the fol­low­ing two decades, of sur­vivors charged with Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tion. Scour­ing police inves­ti­ga­tion files and tri­al records, he found accounts of Jew­ish police­men and camp func­tionar­ies who harassed, beat, robbed, and even mur­dered their brethren. But as the tri­als exposed the trag­ic expe­ri­ences of the kapos, over time the courts and the pub­lic shift­ed from see­ing them as evil col­lab­o­ra­tors to vic­tims them­selves, and the fer­vor to pros­e­cute them abated.

Porat shows how these tri­als changed Israel’s under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust and explores how the sup­pres­sion of the tri­al records―long clas­si­fied by the state―affected his­to­ry and mem­o­ry. Sen­si­tive to the dev­as­tat­ing options con­fronting those who chose to col­lab­o­rate, yet rig­or­ous in its analy­sis, Bit­ter Reck­on­ing invites us to rethink our ideas of com­plic­i­ty and jus­tice and to con­sid­er what it means to be a vic­tim in extra­or­di­nary circumstances.

Discussion Questions

Dan Porat’s book opens a new hori­zon for Eng­lish read­ers by doc­u­ment­ing how some Jews did Nazis’ work, by act­ing as Kapos” in the Nazi camps. The author gen­tly points out that not all sur­vivors were heroes,” as they tend to be depict­ed, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the U.S. He per­sua­sive­ly ana­lyzes the legal and eth­i­cal issues raised by the tri­als, which, he argues, chan­neled social unrest in the Dis­placed Per­sons camps and in Israel into legal insti­tu­tions. Based on deep research into Israeli sources, this book may open the way to a new wave of lit­er­a­ture (in Eng­lish) deal­ing with how some peo­ple sur­vived by using what those who were not in Europe at that time would say was col­lab­o­ra­tion” and/​or uneth­i­cal, immoral behav­ior. Porat makes the read­er keen­ly aware that hav­ing been a vic­tim does not place a per­son in a moral­ly supe­ri­or posi­tion, and hav­ing been a kapo does not define a per­son as cru­el,” though he dra­mat­i­cal­ly recounts cas­es where the accused was unco­erced and unnec­es­sar­i­ly cruel.