A Holocaust-era ‘Kapo’ leader armband, worn by a Jewish inmate tasked with administrative functions. (Public domain)
Article/book #: 311433
Title: The Nazi collaborator who served ice cream in Tel Aviv
By: Ofer Aderet
Published in: Ha’aretz
Date of issue: Saturday, 19 December 2015
People/entities mentioned in this item:
- Mordechai Goldstein
- Reya Hanes
- Yaakov Honigman
- Yechezkel Ingster
- Itamar Levin
- Moshe Pochich
- Elsa Trank
The Nazi Collaborator Who Served Ice Cream in Tel Aviv
Dozens of Jews were arrested in Israel in the 1950s and faced charges of collaborating with the Nazis during the war. A new book details their extraordinary trials.
Ofer Aderet Dec 20, 2015 12:26 PM
The historical episode in which Jews were put on trial in Israel for aiding the Nazis – the subject of a new book by Holocaust scholar Itamar Levin, called Kapo on Allenby – took place in the 1950s, between… (The rest of the text is accessible via subscription)
On David Friedman, the ‘kapo’ smear, and Jewish honor
As Trump’s pick for ambassador has demonstrated, some 60 years after the Jewish ‚collaborator’ trials in Israel, the term still packs a venomous punch
When Friedman called J Street supporters “far worse than kapos,” he invoked the left-wing group’s support of the two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. Friedman views two-state activists as not only putting Israel’s existence at risk, but doing so voluntarily, as opposed to kapos who were coerced into service by the Nazis.
According to Friedman, J Street supporters are “smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas — it’s hard to imagine anyone worse,” Friedman wrote in a June op-ed on the far-right Israel National News website.
Packed into the future ambassador’s kapo allegation are post-Shoah notions of shame, loyalty and honor. Whether deployed by Hannah Arendt 60 years ago, or applied to J Street activists this summer by Friedman, kapos are one of the Holocaust’s most enduring — and sensitive — symbols.
‘He seemed to break in two’
“The kapos were beating us again, I no longer felt the pain,” wrote Elie Wiesel in his memoir “Night,” in which a kapo named Idek figured prominently.
“I happened to cross [Idek’s] path,” wrote Wiesel. “He threw himself on me like a wild beast, beating me in the chest, on my head, throwing me to the ground and picking me up again, crushing me with ever more violent blows, until I was covered in blood.”
On another occasion, Idek beat Wiesel’s father with an iron bar, nearly killing him.
“At first, my father simply doubled over under the blows, but then he seemed to break in two like an old tree struck by lightning,” wrote Wiesel, who resented his father’s display of weakness in front of the all-powerful kapo.
“Why couldn’t he have avoided Idek’s wrath? That was what life in a concentration camp had made of me,” wrote Wiesel.
According to author Michael Bazyler, “a frequent charge is that the Jewish kapos behaved ‘worse than the Germans’ — and this statement reflects in large part the bitterness and shame felt by the authors of such statements toward their Jewish brethren. It also reflects the reality of camp life under a system where much of ‘the dirty work’ would be done by prisoners,” wrote Bazyler in Holocaust, Genocide, and the Law: A Quest for Justice in a Post-Holocaust World.
Restoring ‘Jewish honor’
Seventy years after the kapo system’s demise, the topic is still verboten in some quarters.
“One does not have to be a J Street member or even a fan to think that comparing them to ‘kapos’ is grotesque and marginalizing, and should be… disqualifying for any administration post — much less one deeply symbolic for America’s Jewish population,” wrote David Schraub in Haaretz.
Records from kapo trials remain sealed in Israel until 70 years after each trial, and David Friedman’s use of the slur led some critics, including Schraub, to claim Friedman violated the recently passed Anti-Semitism Awareness Act.
Long after former Jewish kapos could be identified on the streets of Israel or Europe, the subject of how these men and women were dealt with remained taboo. “Jewish Honor Courts,” published last year by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, is the first book to probe how postwar Jewish communities enacted justice on kapos and other collaborators, both in Israel and Europe.
Unfortunately for researchers, the content of Israel’s “collaborator” trials was also sealed for 70 years, meaning that most trial records from the 1960s have yet to be released. It is known, however, that about 40 trials were heard by 1964, and that 15 defendants received mild sentences. Held under Israel’s 1950 law against former Nazis and Nazi collaborators, the trials received scant attention until 1961, when key Shoah logistics master Adolf Eichmann of the SS was kidnapped and tried in Jerusalem.
But before there was Eichmann, there was 26-year-old Else Tarnek (or Trank), a former “block commando” in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Tarnek’s 1951 trial saw Israeli prosecutors seeking the death penalty against her. Israeli judges had something else in mind when they sentenced the former 18-year-old kapo.
“We must take the circumstances under consideration,” wrote one of the judges. “The defendant was placed in charge, against her will, of a block of 1,000 persecuted women. …It was not proven to us that the defendant identified in any of her acts with the Germans,” said the court, which sentenced Tarnek to a stint in prison but released her on the same day, determining she had suffered enough during two years of legal proceedings.
Israel’s state-sponsored collaborator trials, as well as informal Jewish honor courts set up in Europe, were more about empowering broken survivors than enacting legal penalties. These were not rabbinical or national courts, but outlets for survivors to prevent Jewish collaborators from returning to positions of communal influence. For some survivors, denouncing former collaborators was a matter of honor.
“In the early years after the Holocaust, Jews sought to rebuild their lives by excluding those with dirty hands and by preventing them from assuming leadership roles in the community and representing it to others,” wrote Laura Jockusch and Gabriel N. Finder, editors of “Jewish Honor Courts.”
The courts were also a cathartic setting for survivors whose accounts were generally not sought out after the war. In a community setting among fellow victims, survivors could reassert their autonomy and work through trauma.
“With the establishment of honor courts, Jews who encountered their former tormentors on the street found themselves, for the first time, in the presence of a body that would listen to them, irrespective of their social or political standing,” wrote Katarzyna Person in the essay, “Jews Accusing Jews.”
“The fact that those who sought justice did not shy away from putting their names on their letters, even when they referred to those in positions of power, indicates they viewed the courts as just bodies, truly representative of the Jewish community, rather than fearing that courts were ruled by those in the position of privilege,” wrote Person.
‘Far worse than kapos’
Philosopher Hannah Arendt memorably lambasted Jews in positions of power during the Holocaust in her 1963 book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Her most controversial assertion was that members of the Nazi-imposed Judenrat Jewish councils were responsible for hastening the genocide unleashed by Germany.
In Arendt’s assessment, Adolf Eichmann was non-ideological and “banal,” whereas the Jewish councils played an irreplaceable role in murdering their charges. Arendt viewed some Judenrat leaders as the Shoah’s ultimate kapos: Jewish men (and a few women) who selected others in the ghetto for death, even deploying Jewish policemen to round up their victims.
For her opinion on the role played by Jewish councils, Arendt was accused of victim-blaming by angry critics, prompting her to (partly) walk back her initial assessment in the years ahead.
‘Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn’
Survivor Viktor Frankl, like Arendt, was fascinated by Jewish self-agency during the Holocaust. In his 1946 book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl noted acts of altruism among all kinds of prisoners, including kapos.
“Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn,” wrote Frankl, remembered for helping patients find meaning in their suffering after the war.
It is possible David Friedman’s “kapo” remarks might soon be overshadowed by other “undiplomatic” behavior on the future ambassador’s part. In the meantime, for some US Jews, Friedman’s assaults on J Street and the two-state solution are not only welcome, but just what the Donald ordered.
Kapo on Allenby
Levin found the indictments that led to trials in the Israel State Archives – these documents had been handwritten by judges in the 1950s. Levin complemented his research by studying the newspapers that covered the trials, where he uncovered headlines like “Defense Ministry official accused of being kapo” and “Woman brought to maternity ward recognized by nurse as kapo from Vilna ghetto.” (“Kapo” referred to Jews who worked inside the death camps and ghettos on behalf of the Nazis.) The testimonies of those accused of being kapos are hard to read, even so many years on. Murder, beatings, humiliations, and severe and arbitrary abuse are some of the accusations that appear among these files and court transcripts.
In August 1951, Moshe Pochich – who was vice commander of the Jewish police in the Ostrovitz ghetto in Poland and ran the labor camp that was built outside the city – became the first Jew to stand trial in Israel for being a Nazi collaborator. One of the charges listed in the indictment against him was war crimes, based on the fact that he systematically beat many ghetto residents and labor camp workers, and handed many on to the Nazi regime. He was also charged with crimes against humanity, for “cruelly abusing camp prisoners and beating them indiscriminately.”
Pochich, who had subsequently helped Holocaust survivors in the camps in Germany and then worked for the government in Israel, was attacked with his wife outside the courthouse. “It’s a disgrace that you walk freely in Israel,” someone shouted at his wife.
Prosecution witnesses said he had prowled the ghetto like a “predator.” They described how he handed over a child to the Gestapo, revealed the hiding place of a father and daughter to the Nazis, as well as the hiding place of another woman who was later murdered. A witness also told of how Pochich buried another Jew alive.
The judges, however, acquitted him of all charges, and wrote about the legal difficulty in hearing such cases. They did not accept the claims on either side: not the prosecution’s claim that he was a power-hungry, cruel man; nor the defense’s claim that he was an innocent man who would turn the other cheek and was incapable of harming anyone.
Troubling testimonies of Jews’ behavior during the Holocaust came during the trial of Elsa Trank, who, as the elder of her block in Birkenau, was responsible for maintaining order. She was tried for crimes against humanity. She was arrested after another survivor recognized her selling ice cream in a bakery on Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Binyamin Street. When asked her name, she provided it and admitted that she was responsible for block 7 in Birkenau. At the trial, witnesses testified that she would “threaten to send us to become smoke.” Others described her violence against other prisoners: “Her relations to other women were as bad as bad can be. She beat all of the women, particularly the elderly and weak – the ones who could not defend themselves,” claimed one witness.
The indictment against her stated that Trank abused female prisoners by waking them up three hours before inspection and forcing them to kneel while waiting for inspection. Those who fainted in the meantime were not permitted water. Under questioning, Trank said she was a prisoner like everyone else, and was forced to obey the Germans’ orders. Her sentencing also described her situation as complex, stating that “she herself was also persecuted, like the others.” At the end of her trial, Trank – who was only 26 at the time of her trial – was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment.
Another suspect to stand trial was Reya Hanes, who was a kapo in Birkenau. One survivor testified at her trial that Hanes ordered her to bring over some bread, but she couldn’t do it because she was too weak. “The defendant said that if I was sick, then there was the crematorium,” the witness recalled. The defendant also allegedly hit her for dropping a loaf of bread. “The defendant beat me for this. A horrible beating, with all her strength, on my entire body,” the witness stated.
Yaakov Honigman, who served as a kapo at three different labor camps, was said to have abused prisoners “in a terrible, horrible, unforgivable manner.” The indictment against him was the most comprehensive of its kind to be issued against a Jewish collaborator. It included 25 separate charges – unparalleled in all other cases except Eichmann’s – and included murder, beatings and abuse. The testimonies, as expected, were particularly harsh. Yaakov Neufeld, a witness, stated that Honigman’s “job was basically to kill Jews. He was the worst person, and the writer has not yet been born who can describe his actions. I spent that entire time in Germany and met many Nazis, but none of them scared me as much as Honigman did.”
Honigman wielded a leather-encased iron club, which he used to beat prisoners waiting in line for soup. “He would severely beat people for the slightest thing, and would stop only when his hands were covered in blood,” said one witness.
Honigman was 33 when he stood trial. “There was never a case in which a Jew was beaten and killed by another Jew,” he said, denying the allegation against him. He did, however, admit that he beat prisoners, but said he only did so if they got into a fight. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, which was slightly reduced on appeal.
Mordechai Goldstein was a police officer in the ghetto and labor camp at Ostrovitz. He was accused of many crimes, including “turning persecuted individuals over to a hostile regime.” This charge was based on how he would close the doors and windows with nails, while he himself escaped, while the Nazis were preparing a shipment of prisoners to Auschwitz. Goldstein, who owned a box factory in Lodz and was a former yeshiva student, said in his defense that his wife and daughter were killed by the Nazis, and that he “didn’t beat people without reason.” He was sentenced to a month in prison.
Yehezkel Ingster was the only Jew to be sentenced to death for crimes committed during the Holocaust.
Ingster was responsible for a block at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Germany. He was convicted of murder, abuse and causing the death of prisoners. “He served as the monster for the camp administrators. I saw him beat prisoners every day by hand, whip and club, and anything else he could get his hands on,” said one survivor during the trial. A prosecution witness spoke about “the worst hell imaginable” with regard to Ingster’s actions. He was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death. However, the Supreme Court accepted his appeal and commuted his sentence to jail time. He was ultimately pardoned, but died a few days after his release.
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MONDAY, APRIL 18, 2016
Kapo on Alenby the story of the Jewish Kapos in WW2
The Yated this past week had excerpts of a new book called „Kapo on Alenby” written by Holocaust Scholar Itamar Levin. The excerpts discussed the Jewish Traitors during WW2. But for some reason the Yated refused to name the collaborators, even though the book clearly did.
Holocaust scholar Itamar Levin in his new book, “Kapo On Allenby” details the indictment, prosecution, and conviction of Jews living in post World War II Israel for their crimes as ‘Kapo”. The German translation of “Kapo” is a prisoner functionary in a Nazi prison camp who was assigned by the SS to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks in the camp. The system was designed to turn victim against victim. Many “Kapos” were recruited from violent criminal gangs and were known for their brutality towards other prisoners.
After the war, in 1945, Gran was charged in Poland by Adolf Berman Jonas Turkow with collaboration with the Germans during World War II.
In August of 1950, the State of Israel had a small population and limited territory, but, above all, it was frightened. The Arabs were a tangible threat to the handful of Jews living in the country, and the fear of pogroms was ubiquitous. The state itself was still healing from deep wounds; the smoke of the crematoria of Auschwitz had yet to fully dissipate. The inhabitants of the fledgling state included tens of thousands of refugees from Europe, whose bodies and souls had been scarred by their ordeals. Shattered by their suffering, most of them had come to Israel alone, having lost their parents, their siblings, and in some cases their spouses and children. This was the situation in Israel in August of 1950.
That very month, the Knesset passed the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law. The impetus for the law was the fact that the police had received hundreds of complaints against Jews who were suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. As it turned out, among the many survivors of the death camps who had come to Israel, there were some Jews who had held the horrific title of “kapo” in the concentration camps. These were Jews who were placed in positions of responsibility over a camp, block, or barracks – people who could rightfully be accused of having sold their souls to the devil. On the other hand, it could be said that some of them were forced to take on that dreadful position – or even that some of them believed, deep within their hearts, that they could use the position to somehow ease the suffering of their brethren.
Hundreds of complaints were filed with the police, but the vast majority of the cases never reached the courts. The stories of the 23 trials that did take place have recently been compiled in a book called Kapo on Allenby, by Israeli journalist and Holocaust researcher Itamar Levin. It is a pioneering work that not only depicts historical events, but also raises piercing moral questions that remain troublesome to this day. The statistics that Levin uncovered are highly edifying: Nine of the trials ended with an acquittal, and in the 14 cases that resulted in a conviction, the average sentence was less than 17 months of incarceration. These statistics attest to the seriousness, objectivity, and levelheadedness with which the complaints and accusations were handled – something that certainly could not be taken for granted so few years after the Holocaust.
Some of the complaints submitted to the police were groundless from the outset. There were cases of survivors, for instance, who believed that they had identified a kapo with “near certainty.” Logically, anyone who served as a kapo in a concentration camp should not have come to Israel; they should have feared being identified by their victims. Moreover, the Nazis themselves made every effort to eradicate their collaborators before the end of the war.
The Kapo Who Was Spotted on a Bus
A brief perusal of newspaper headlines from 1951 reveals that this was a widespread phenomenon at the time. “Official in the Ministry of Defense Accused of Being a Kapo,” one headline reports. “Tourist Charged with Being a Kapo Arrested,” another announced. A third article reports that a woman who was brought to Beilinson Hospital to give birth was recognized by a midwife as a kapo from the Vilna Ghetto.
One of the most famous incidents took place at the Dan Carmel Hotel in Haifa many years later, in 1967. In that case, a Jewish man from America was visiting Eretz Yisroel and was davening in the hotel on Shabbos. During the davening, the color drained from his face and he nearly fainted. The reason? He had glanced at the gabbai of the shul and realized that the man looked exactly like the kapo who had beaten him in the Dachau concentration camp. The next day, the visitor filed a complaint with the police. During the investigation, the gabbai admitted that he had been an inmate in Dachau, but claimed that he had been like any other Jewish inmate. He was deeply insulted that he had been suspected of being a kapo.
Similar incidents took place on a regular basis. A new immigrant arriving in Israel in May 1957 was identified by a Jewish Agency clerk as a man who had collaborated with the Germans before the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto.
A woman was accused of being a kapo in Auschwitz-Birkenau, and one of the witnesses against her, Rivka Goldstein, testified about her inhuman cruelty: “A girl once brought food for herself from a different block, and the kapo spilled her food on the ground and beat her. She did it because she was sadistic.” Goldstein related that she had spotted the woman in an ice cream store. “I asked her if her name was Elsa, and she didn’t respond. She simply turned pale and confirmed that she had been the head of the block.” In the course of the woman’s trial, she was proven to have been guilty of unimaginable acts of cruelty. She was given a separate prison sentence for every act that was proven, but the sentences were served concurrently and she was released soon after her arrest.
Another witness, a man by the name of Yanovski, testified at the trial of a different person, on whom we will focus later in this report. “I encountered him at the coffeehouse that he managed in the Ein Kerem neighborhood of Yerushalayim in 1949,” the witness related. “I recognized him right away as Blinder Max. I immediately found myself in the grip of intense emotion, and I demanded to know if he was indeed Blinder Max and if he had been in the Jaworzno camp. He denied it. His wife then came over to the table and said, ‘We are in Israel now; we must forget what happened.’ The accused then took on a look of panic and appeared to be very emotional.”
Three months later, Yanovski met up with a fellow former inmate from the camp, Dovid Levi. Upon discovering that there was another eyewitness, he decided to contact the police. “We went to the police station, and then we traveled to Ein Kerem with two plainclothes policemen to identify the accused. The man approached our table, and Levi and I both recognized him immediately and told the police officer.”
Most of the people who were placed on trial denied the allegations against them categorically.
“Wasn’t it enough that we suffered so much during the war?” they demanded in court. “Why are you now making these accusations against us?”
Other suspects admitted that they had been kapos, but denied doing any harm to their Jewish brethren. Only a few admitted to their actions and asked for special consideration in light of the circumstances. Some former kapos agreed to pay large sums of money to people who had identified them to prevent the accusers from reporting them to the police. In that sense, they also indirectly confessed to their acts of collaboration with the Nazis.
Weeding Out the Collaborators
It soon became clear that a law had to be passed in order for the exposed collaborators to be prosecuted for their crimes. In April 1959, an interview with a man who had identified “his” kapo was published in Maariv. The interviewee related that although he had built a new life for himself, he was deeply aggrieved by the knowledge that the kapo who had tormented him and his Jewish brethren at the Plaszow concentration camp near Cracow had also come to Eretz Yisroel. “One day,” he related, “I was on the number 4 bus in Tel Aviv and I saw him on the bus – the very same sadistic murderer who beat me brutally on many occasions.”
The kapo quickly got off the bus and fled. The man who had identified him hurried to report his presence to the police, but he was surprised when they informed him that there was nothing they could do. “There is no law in this country that allows us to punish Nazi collaborators,” the police officer told him. The officer advised him to appeal to the Knesset to pass a law.
“I won’t wait for a law to be passed,” the man replied. “If I see that man again, I will kill him! I already know where he works, and I will take revenge.”
The police officer warned the young man, “If you do anything to him, you will be arrested and charged with a crime.”
In response to the unique situation created by the many complaints, the Knesset – which was still located on Rechov King George in Yerushalayim – decided to pass a law that would make it possible to press criminal charges against the former kapos. Pinchas Rosen, the Minister of Justice at the time, explained the rationale for the law in the Knesset plenum: “The proposed law is intended to make it possible in Israel to prosecute the Nazis, their collaborators, and all who abetted them for their attempts to exterminate the Jewish nation and for their persecution, oppression, and exploitation of individual Jews, as well as for their crimes against humanity as a whole.”
Rosen added, “The purpose of the law is to punish those who abused or exploited the prisoners in the ghettos and concentration camps.”
His meaning was clear: Even a Jew who committed those crimes would be punished. The State of Israel would not forgive such a person for his sins.
Rosen went on, “It can be assumed that the Nazi criminals who committed those offenses will not dare come to Israel, but this law applies to the Nazis’ accomplices as well. Unfortunately, we cannot be certain that such people are not in our midst, even if there are very few of them. But even if there are no more of them among us than there were tzaddikim in Sedom, this law has a right to exist – even if it concerns only a tiny number of criminals. The proposed law is also likely to help cleanse the atmosphere among the survivors who have come to Eretz Yisroel. Everyone who is familiar with this population is well aware of the pain associated with the suspicions and mutual accusations that still surround many people who were freed from the camps and the ghettos and who came to Eretz Yisroel.”
Dozens of Jews who had survived the Holocaust were prosecuted in Israel based on this law. Most of them were people who were identified as ex-kapos by others whom they had tormented. Some were even handed death sentences. The State of Israel set up special courts to deal with the cases, and the trials evoked torrents of emotion throughout the country. The testimonies reopened wounds that the survivors had struggled to hide. The accounts that emerged from the trials were horrifying, as Jews accused other Jews of the most horrendous crimes. Countless tears were shed in the course of the proceedings.
For some reason, the protocols from those trials were released only recently, making Levin’s book even more significant as a historical document. Levin did not succeed in locating the protocols of all the trials, some of which were lost or damaged, but he did amass a significant amount of material, and the resulting compilation is both fascinating and painful to read. In its first eleven chapters, the book recounts eleven different trials. The twelfth chapter presents an overview of several more cases. Every chapter is essentially a world of its own. In each case, Levin describes how the defendant was identified and recounts both the testimonies of the alleged victims and those of the witnesses brought to defend the accused. This is followed by the court’s verdict and the sentence. It is a book that can evoke extraordinary emotional reactions.
In some of the trials, the defendants were women. As I read the testimonies of women who were abused as teenagers by those female kapos, I could not help but think about my mother a”h, who was in Auschwitz at the ages of 15 and 16. It is almost certain that she suffered the same abuse as the witnesses at these trials. The terrible feeling this engendered within me is impossible to describe.
Itamar Levin is considered an expert on the subjects of the Holocaust and of Jewish property left behind in Arab countries. He has authored a number of books that earned great acclaim, some of which were translated into English and German, including the following titles:
The Last Deposit: Swiss Banks and Holocaust Victims’ Accounts (Praeger, 1999),
His Majesty’s Enemies: Great Britain’s War Against Holocaust Victims and Survivors (Praeger, 2001),
Locked Doors: The Seizure of Jewish Property in Arab Countries (Praeger, 2001),
Walls Around: The Plunder of Warsaw Jewry During World War II and Its Aftermath (Praeger, 2004),
Aufstand in Auschwitz (with Gideon Greif, Bohlau, 2015).
His Hebrew books also include a compilation of halachic literature that sheds light on the events of the Holocaust years, and even a Haggadah of sorts dealing with the Holocaust.
Levin holds a degree in Middle East history from Tel Aviv University and is a highly respected journalist. He served as an advisor to the Israeli delegations to the conferences in London and Washington (in 1997 and 1998, respectively) on the subject of the lost property of Holocaust victims. Levin is a sought-after lecturer on the subjects of economics, communication, and the property of Holocaust victims.
The Crimes of a Kapo
I do not wish to identify the suspects mentioned in the book by name, even though the book itself reveals their identities. Levin provides his readers with detailed accounts of the defendants’ abuse of other Jews, and it is certainly possible that their children and grandchildren are living among us. Why should we pain them by publicizing these things? I would like to focus on one specific trial, at which the defendant was a Jew accused of being a “Blockeltester” at the Jaworzno concentration camp. I will call him X.
The charge sheet against the man was filed in August of 1951 at the District Court in Yerushalayim and included three clauses. The first charge was that the defendant had committed acts intended to cause severe physical harm to his victims: “On an unknown date in 1943 or 1944, X left a prisoner of unknown identity hanging for a period of about 20 minutes. On another unknown date at the end of 1943, he hung another prisoner, whose name is not known, for about ten minutes.”
The second charge was that the defendant had caused severe physical harm to others. He was accused of brutally beating prisoners Dovid Levi, Moshe Wurzberger, and Yaakov Moshe Teomim with his hands and with a stick, as well as kicking them with his feet. He was also accused of beating a Hungarian Jew of unknown identity until blood flowed from the man’s wounds. The third charge was that he had inflicted abuse on prisoners in the concentration camp that had caused internal damage: X was accused of beating inmates in the camp and forcing them to sit for hours on end at a table, with their hands on the edge of the table. According to the allegations, he would beat anyone who moved during that time. He was also accused of forcing the inmates of a block to kneel and perform various exercises in the snow on different occasions.
The trial was held before Justice Alfred Witkon of the District Court of Yerushalayim, who would later go on to serve on the Israeli Supreme Court from the year 1954 through 1980. Witkon was born in 1910 in Germany, where he earned a doctorate in law, and moved to Israel in 1937. In 1948, he was appointed to serve as a judge on the District Court in Yerushalayim. During his tenure on the court, he also sat on the panel that rejected Adolf Eichmann’s appeal.
The prosecuting attorney was Yisroel Weiner, who was later appointed in 1952 to serve as a judge on the Shalom Court, and who served on the District Court in Yerushalayim from 1982 through 1986. The defense attorney was Eliyahu Meridor, a senior commander in Etzel and one of the leaders of the Cherut party, who went on to serve as a member of the Knesset from 1959 through 1966. Meridor’s son, Dan Meridor, served as a government minister many years later. At one of the trials, a young lawyer named Yaakov Bazak took Meridor’s place. In 1955, Bazak would become the youngest judge in the country, and he would go on to serve in that capacity for 41 years, the second longest period of time in the history of Israel’s judicial system.
The first witness called by the prosecution was Yerachmiel Yanovski, who was responsible for X’s initial arrest. “This man treated the prisoners in the barracks with dreadful cruelty, using all sorts of torments against them,” he related when he began his testimony. Yanovski went on to discuss the first accusation on the charge sheet: “I was present in the winter of 1943 when the defendant accused a Jewish boy of stealing a shirt and beat him with a stick. He struck the boy on his back, in the middle of his body. The boy cried and claimed that he hadn’t stolen it. The defendant then took the boy and tied his hands behind his back. There were wooden beams in the barracks, and he hung the boy from a beam by his bound hands… He was a Jew from Poland. His feet were suspended above the floor. The young man remained hanging that way for about ten minutes. I was there. The defendant made all the men gather together, probably in order to frighten us. He threatened us that we would all be subject to the same abuse as that boy if any of us repeated what was done… I saw the boy when he was taken down. I am not a doctor, but as a layman I believe that he was blinded and in a faint.”
Another witness, Dovid Levi, related that he had received 25 lashes from X after he was falsely accused of stealing a blanket. “He made the judgment and carried out the punishment completely on his own,” Levi stressed. “He wanted to ingratiate himself with his superiors… He would administer collective punishments, sometimes without the Germans even being present. Sometimes, if someone didn’t put on or take off his cap in the exact same way as everyone else, he would beat the person until he was bleeding.”
Levi also testified to another shocking incident: “The defendant once told his two stubendiensts [deputies] to tie a man’s hands behind his back. This man was a Polish Jew; I don’t remember his name. The defendant ordered them to hang him by his hands from the ceiling. The man was suspended there for around half an hour, perhaps slightly less. His feet were off the ground; his entire body was in the air. It is possible that he was able to reach the floor with the tips of his toes. I witnessed the entire scene. Throughout the time that he was hanging by his arms, the young man thrashed around as if he was trying to get down. His skin turned blue. The defendant warned us that this was an example of the punishment that would be given to anyone for not being orderly… There were no SS men in the barracks at the time… When the victim was taken down, he was barely alive. People tried to help him. He was blue, and he was in a state worse than a faint. About a week after that incident, that young man’s body was brought back from a work detail where he had died. I do not know the cause of his death, but people assumed that he died because of the hanging.”
The Kapo Denies His Guilt
Police officer Chaim Solomon was called to the witness stand to testify about the defendant’s interrogation in February, 1950. He related that X had initially denied that he was in the Jaworzno camp or that he had even heard of the place. Since Levi refused to withdraw his complaint, the police decided to arrange a meeting between the two.
“They sat opposite each other,” the officer related in the courtroom. “I was present for the entire encounter. X was asked repeatedly if he had been there, and he repeatedly denied it. Levi grew angry and shouted in Yiddish, ‘How can you claim that you don’t remember? Are you pretending to be a fool? I recognize you; you used to beat me! We called you der Blinder Max!’ I understand Yiddish well, and I knew exactly what he was saying. The accused also grew emotional and responded in Yiddish, ‘Nu, so I was in Jaworzno, but so what? Does that make me a criminal?’” That was the first time that the defendant admitted that he had been in Jaworzno, and his earlier denial was cited in court as incriminating evidence.
Another witness, Yaakov Moshe Teomim, claimed that X was responsible for the fact that the inmates in Block 10 did not receive their full soup ration. “They received less than a liter, instead of one and a quarter liters,” he related. Teomim also testified that X had beat him when he told the kapo that he had been given shoes that were too narrow. He went on to describe at length how X had tortured a young Hungarian Jew, the son of a rov, mere days before the liberation. He related that X had beaten the young man on every part of his body, had ordered him to crawl under a bed and to come out from the other side, had forced him to run around the block, and had then beat him until he was bleeding while he lay on the floor.
Another incident that Teomim described cast X in a more positive light and provided a rare insight into the observance of Yom Kippur in Jaworzno.
“On Yom Kippur, I had a machzor that a Christian had brought me,” Teomim related. “I left the machzor in my bed, and when I returned to the block, it wasn’t there. The defendant then said to me, ‘It’s all right. You will get the machzor back.’ A group of men had gone to the defendant and had asked for a little extra food before the fast. The man who asked for a larger portion received a shove and a kick from the defendant, along with a number of blows, and he was forced to enter the fast without having eaten at all. The others received their usual rations. At night, we gathered together in the barracks. The rov of Danzig was there, and the defendant had given the machzor to him, allowing him to deliver a drashah and to daven. The defendant himself was present in the barracks at the time, and people remarked that nothing like this happened in any of the other barracks. We spoke about the fact that a Jewish spark could be awakened even in the lowliest person. When we returned from work the following night, the defendant asked us who had fasted, and he gave those people an extra portion of soup. That is the only positive memory of the defendant that I have. People in the camp said that he was worse than any of the officers in the camp, although some people tried to see the positive in him. I was also in Block 9, and the kapo there was a Polish non-Jew. I am ashamed to say it, but that non-Jew acted better than this Jew as the designated supervisor of a block.”
I will not quote all of the bitter testimonies against X. The book relates that the accused himself was called to the witness stand and tried to defend himself. He related that his wife and six of his children were murdered by the Nazis in Majdanek, where he was imprisoned before he was transferred to Jaworzno in August, 1943. “There were only one or two barracks there, and the prisoners were forced to chop wood and perform other work on the infrastructure. One hundred people died of starvation and from the beatings. We had to step on the bodies of the dead. After a few weeks, the commandant, Bruno, appointed me to be a deputy kapo in Block 5 and gave me half a loaf of bread and some soup. My job was to clean the five large rooms – which took the entire day – and I would be beaten if the beds weren’t properly arranged. After four months had passed, I approached Bruno and asked to be released from the job. He replied, ‘Wait. A transport is coming and you will be the Blockeltester.’” X vigorously denied the accusations against him.
He also claimed to have tried to help his brethren. “I suffered as a prisoner in the concentration camp just as everyone else did. I endangered myself in order to help a rov who had come from Hungary. When the Jews of Hungary arrived, they came with tefillin. I don’t know how they got the tefillin there. The rov gave me the tefillin, and I kept them under my bed and gave them to him every morning. I risked my life for him. If the SS men had come and found out about this, I would have paid with my life. But I was ready to make that sacrifice in order to protect something Jewish. Even before that, the rov asked me to guard some food for him. I had an urn, and I used it alternately for meat and margarine for the rov. I was also approached by inmates who wanted to daven on Yom Kippur. They all davened, led by Rav Friedman.”
One of the witnesses for the defense was Yitzchok Friedman, son of Rav Shlomo Zalman Friedman, who was a prisoner in Block 10. The younger Friedman related that his father had told him in the camp that he was not working hard and that he had enough food. “My father ate with his hat on, and he told me that he had tefillin.” This was the very pair of tefillin that X had hidden away for the rov. Friedman himself davened in Block 10 every morning and put on tefillin, as did other prisoners, and the kapo was fully aware of their actions. “The defendant had a very good reputation among the Hungarian prisoners,” he added. Friedman maintained that the story of X torturing the son of a rov could not possibly have been true. “My brother and I were not the victims,” he explained, “and the only other rov who was there, Dr. Greenbaum, had no children at all.”
The Defendant Argues That He Was a Victim
After all the testimonies had been heard, the prosecution and the defense both delivered their concluding arguments. Each side tried to convince the judges that its position was correct. There was no question as to the man’s identity, nor was there any doubt about the severity of his alleged crimes. The only question was if his crimes had been proven sufficiently for him to be convicted and sentenced. The court convened to issue its ruling on September 2, 1951, and it began with a very important legal question: Was it even possible for X to be prosecuted under the Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law? Justice Witkon pointed out that X had testified that he was forced into the position of kapo by an SS officer, whom no Jewish inmate in a concentration camp would dare disobey. In light of that fact, Meridor claimed that X was “neither a Nazi nor a Nazi collaborator, but simply a victim.” This argument, though, was rejected.
Justice Witkon continued, “I agree with the defense that it is important, in general, to exercise great caution regarding the witnesses in a trial of this nature. But I do not believe that every testimony is bound to be suspect. We must weigh the testimonies in accordance with the impression that each witness makes on the court. Every witness has his own reaction to the events that he experienced. There are some witnesses whose memories have been blurred, whether because they feel a desire to be forgiving or because they wish to forget the dreadful past. One person may have emerged from the nightmare of the Holocaust completely shattered, apathetic and confused, while another may have emerged healthy and may be harboring clear memories of everything that he saw or experienced. Almost everyone has forgotten peripheral details of their experiences, but there are many for whom the main points of what they went through are etched into their memories, and when they testify, it is clear that they speak the truth. In these cases, we certainly cannot use every minor contradiction as a basis for invalidating an entire testimony. We must judge each testimony based on our overall impression, albeit with particular caution.” Witkon made it clear that he trusted the witnesses brought by the prosecution – Yerachmiel Yanovski, Dovid Levi, and Yaakov Moshe Teomim.
The judge did not ignore the testimonies in favor of the defendant, but their effect on his attitude was limited. “In my opinion, these testimonies do not contradict the primary accounts of the prosecution’s witnesses or undermine their credibility in any way. I am not saying that the witnesses for the defense are trying to exonerate the defendant in an underhanded way, but I do believe that their negative testimony – that is, the fact that they are not aware of the defendant’s misdeeds – is not sufficient for us to reject the positive testimony of the witnesses for the prosecution. Moreover, the witnesses for the prosecution have also testified that the defendant was not cruel to all the prisoners.” In halachah, this line of reasoning is known as “lo ra’isi eino raayah.”
The case of the Hungarian youth is discussed at relative length in Witkon’s ruling, due to the question of the victim’s identity. Teomim testified that the boy was the son of a rov and one of two brothers. Only Rav Friedman’s son meets that description, but the rov testified in X’s favor and did not claim that the kapo had beaten his son. Witkon ultimately concluded that there was a lack of precision in Teomim’s account, but not one that raised any doubts as to whether the incident actually took place. Teomim was a very reliable witness, the judge maintained, and had simply erred in identifying the victim. The judge added that the inmates generally did not know each other’s names unless they had come from the same city or town.
This left only one question to be discussed: Could X be exempted from criminal prosecution by virtue of the mitigating circumstances set forth in the law – namely, danger to his own life or the interest in preventing even worse consequences from befalling his victims? Witkon accepted the fact that X himself had suffered terribly. He also accepted the defendant’s claim that he hadn’t wanted to be a kapo. He even accepted the claim that the barracks was plagued by theft and disorder, and that the only way for X to combat the phenomena was with harsh discipline. “Nevertheless,” he went on, “I do not think that all of these circumstances justified the use of cruel, sadistic punishments, such as hanging a person by his hands from the ceiling or beating him on his bare skin, as in Levi’s case, or until he was bleeding, as in the case of the Hungarian Jew whom Teomim described. For one thing, we do not know if there was any basis at all for people to be punished. The defendant has denied these acts altogether, and he has not explained why there was a need, even a subjective one, to administer punishments in these cases.”
The judge then added another argument: “When the law mentions an immediate danger to life as a mitigating circumstance, I do not believe that it refers to the danger that was faced by every persecuted Jew, and especially by every prisoner in a concentration camp, of being killed in a crematorium or in some other way by the Germans. If that was the law’s intent, then why doesn’t it exempt every person from liability if he was persecuted, without any conditions or limitations? The law must be referring to an immediate danger to life, meaning that the defendant must have been threatened with death by someone if he refused to commit the acts for which he is being prosecuted. For instance, if the SS men were present at the time, or if they ordered him to do something, we might be able to consider it a case of immediate danger to life. In our case, though, there is no indication in the testimonies that the defendant was facing an immediate danger to his life.”
Witkon sentenced X to five years of imprisonment for each of the acts of hanging a victim by his arms, three years of imprisonment for beating Levi, another three years of imprisonment for beating the Hungarian Jew, six months in prison for kicking Teomim, and another six months in prison for the incident when the inmates were forced to sit at a table. He ultimately ruled that X would spend ten years in prison, including the time he had served since his arrest on January 25, 1951.
The Supreme Court Reduces the Sentence
X appealed his sentence to the Supreme Court. The appeal was heard by Chief Justice Yitzchok Olshan and Justices Shimon Agranat and Moshe Zylberg. The court released its verdict on June 9, 1952. Olshan, who was born in Kovno in 1895, came to Israel in 1912. When the state was founded, he was one of the first five justices on the Supreme Court, where he served as the chief justice from 1954 through 1964. Among other accomplishments, Olshan was one of the justices on the panel that rejected Adolf Eichmann’s appeal. Agranat was born in America in 1906 and immigrated to Israel at the age of 24. He was a member of the panels of Supreme Court justices that dealt with the Eichmann and Kastner trials. Moshe Zylberg was born in Lithuania in 1900 and arrived in Israel in 1929. From 1965 through 1970, Zylberg served as the deputy president of the Supreme Court. He, too, was a member of the panel that heard Adolf Eichmann’s appeal. Thus, all of the justices who dealt with X’s appeal were destined to be among the five judges who would later handle the Eichmann case. The government’s case was represented by the attorney general himself, Erwin Shimron.
The discussions were lengthy, exhausting, and filled with legal wrangling over the case of the Jew who was a kapo but was himself living in constant mortal danger. There were debates over the witnesses’ testimony as well. I will not weary you with the details of the extensive discussions. Ultimately, the Supreme Court granted X a significant reduction in his sentence, after reaching the conclusion that Justice Witkon had made a mistake: X had been tried on only three charges, but he had been convicted of six crimes. His defense attorney argued that each sentence must pertain to the overall offense, not to each of its details. Therefore, if he was convicted on the first charge – the charge of hanging two inmates by their arms – he could receive only one sentence for that crime. Likewise, if he was found guilty of beating four inmates in the camp, he could be given only one penalty for that crime. Shimron did not respond to this argument, and Olshan accepted it, praising its logic.
Olshan, Agranat and Zylberg accepted the arguments of the defense and revoked the double sentences that had been given to X. They acquitted him altogether of the charge of beating the Hungarian Jew of unknown identity, considering the uncertainty to be a factor in the defendant’s favor. In their final decision, the judges wrote, “Based on all these decisions, we have decided to partially accept the appeal. For the first offense in the charge sheet, the appellant will be sentenced to imprisonment for a period of five years. For the second charge, he will serve a three-year sentence, and for the third charge, he will serve a six-month sentence. All of the periods of imprisonment will be concurrent and will begin from the date of May 21, 1951.”
In other words, X was sentenced to 8.5 years of imprisonment altogether, but the periods of imprisonment would be served simultaneously and would begin from the date of his arrest. As a result, he had only 3.5 years left to serve after the Supreme Court rendered its verdict.