Skip to Main Content

Episode 21: Jewish Honor Courts

Read the Episode Transcript

About This Episode

Following World War II, Jewish honor courts in Europe and criminal courts in Israel handled accusations of collaboration by Jews who were believed to have assisted the Nazis in some way. These trials were meant to heal communal wounds and rebuild trust, meting out social punishments. In this episode, guest scholars Dan Porat and Laura Jockusch discuss these honor courts, which until recently have been mainly a footnote in history.

This episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies is sponsored by The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, a research center at the University of Pennsylvania devoted to supporting new research in the study of Jewish history, culture and thought. The center's international fellowship program is currently focused on the study of Jews and legal culture, and the center is pleased to support an episode that speaks to that theme. For information about an upcoming summer school for graduate students in Jerusalem cosponsored by the Katz Center, see the Center's website:

Episode Guests

Laura Jockusch

Laura Jockusch

Laura Jockusch is the Albert Abramson Associate Professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University, where her research and teaching focus on the social, political, cultural, and legal histories of European Jews before, during, and after the Holocaust. Her ongoing research project investigates how Jews conceptualized revenge and justice after the Holocaust. She is the co-editor of Jewish Honor Courts: Revenge, Retribution and Reconciliation in Europe and Israel after the Holocaust (with Gabriel Finder). She is currently working on a book entitled The Trials of Stella Goldschlag: Nazi Victim, Holocaust Survivor, and War Criminal?

Dan Porat

Dan Porat

Dan Porat is Unterberg Chair in Jewish Social and Educational History at the Hebrew University. His book, Bitter Reckoning: Israel Tries Holocaust Survivors as Nazi Collaborators (Harvard University Press/Belknap), was a 2019 Jewish Book Award finalist.

Episode Host

Avishai Artsy

Avishay Artsy

Avishay Artsy is an audio and print journalist based in Los Angeles. He works at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture and hosts the school's podcast, Works In Progress. His writing has appeared in the Jewish Journal, The Forward, Tablet, JTA, and other publications. His audio stories have appeared on NPR, Marketplace, KCRW, KPCC, KQED, WHYY, and other outlets. He is also an adjunct professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


Avishay Artsy: This episode of Adventures in Jewish Studies is sponsored by The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, a research center at the University of Pennsylvania devoted to supporting new research in the study of Jewish history, culture and thought. The center's international fellowship program is currently focused on the study of Jews and legal culture, and the center is pleased to support an episode that speaks to that theme. For information about an upcoming summer school for graduate students in Jerusalem cosponsored by the Katz Center, see the Center's website:

Welcome to Adventures in Jewish Studies, the podcast of the Association for Jewish Studies. In every episode, we take you on an entertaining and intellectual journey about Jewish life, history and culture, with the help of some of the world’s leading Jewish studies scholars. I’m your host for this episode, Avishay Artsy.

There’s a four-letter word that a Jew might use to call another Jew a traitor, in the harshest way possible. That word is kapo. 

Laura Jockusch: Kapo, I would translate it as “prisoner functionary” in broad terms.

Avishay Artsy: This is Laura Jockusch. She’s an associate professor of Holocaust Studies at Brandeis University.

During the Holocaust, Nazis put a small minority of Jews in charge of carrying out their orders. After the war, some of those Jews were accused of abusing their positions. In this episode, we’ll talk about how Holocaust survivors sought vengeance against kapos, and tried them in specially-created Jewish honor courts in Europe and state courts in Israel. It’s a history that has been largely forgotten. These stories show us the complexity of victimhood, and what can happen when the social fabric is torn apart under the pressure of tyranny.

Let’s start by understanding who the kapos were.

Laura Jockusch: The origin of the word isn't entirely clear, it's widely believed to have come from the Italian word kapo, as leader, head, boss, or from the French caporal, corporal. And it's believed to have originated in the Dachau concentration camp, which was the first concentration camp that the Nazi regime established in March 1933. 

Avishay Artsy: Kapos played a role in almost every aspect of Nazi persecution, from the ghetto police and those who drew up lists of fellow Jews for deportation, to kapo doctors and nurses, and those who worked in the gas chambers and crematoria. But kapos were not a distinctly Jewish phenomenon.

Laura Jockusch: Kapos existed in all of the enslaved nationalities that you find in the concentration camp populations. And of course, the idea behind it was to weaken the victims, to make them complicit in the concentration camp system and its oppressive measures. 

Avishay Artsy: The kapo system required fewer SS staff to run the camps. It also helped to spread discord among the prisoners. In a speech delivered in the summer of 1944, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, said that “because we can’t get by only with Germans, we naturally arrange things so that a Frenchman is Kapo in charge of Poles, or a Pole is in charge of Russians, so that one nation is played off against another.” 

Himmler also noted that while a kapo sleeps apart from the prisoners, “the minute we are not satisfied with him he stops being a Kapo and goes back to sleeping with the others. He knows only too well that they will kill him on the first night.”

Faced with this impossible choice, some kapos did the bare minimum. But survivors also recount horrific cases of kapos going too far.

Laura Jockusch: Because in some sense, they were doing the work for the SS. So we do have a lot of evidence of physical violence and sexual abuse. But there are also many examples of kapos who actually tried to protect the prisoners who were subordinate and tried to organize better conditions for them. So being a kapo doesn't necessarily mean that you were sadistic and murderous and brutal. That perhaps is the little element of choice there.

Avishay Artsy: Collaboration didn’t just happen at the individual level. Occupying Nazi forces convened Jewish Councils, or Judenrat, tasked with carrying out Nazi policies within Jewish communities. The Nazis specifically chose influential community leaders, like rabbis and successful businessmen, to ensure that Jews would listen to them. 

Dan Porat is a professor of history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He says the Jewish Councils acted in many different ways.

Dan Porat: There were those who were aiding the underground, but there were very important examples of those who in fact did collaborate with the Nazis almost to the letter. I mean, the most famous case of course, is Chaim Rumkowski in the Lodz ghetto, where he takes the approach of, we must produce and satisfy the Nazis as much as we can, be productive, and that way we will gain time, even if it means sending our children, tearing them away from their parents and sending them to their death. 

Avishay Artsy: The role of the Jewish Councils has long been a controversial issue, raised again recently with new evidence that the hiding place of Anne Frank and her family was betrayed by Arnold van den Bergh, a prominent Jewish businessman and a member of the Jewish Council of the Netherlands.

Laura Jockusch: Jewish Council members were intermediaries between the German authorities and the Jewish population who were in the straitjacket of having to supply forced laborers, having sometimes to select deportees by putting them on a list, and for the most part it was done in order to save the existence of a ghetto or to avert more brutalities from the Germans by selecting the deportees themselves, et cetera. Of course, this became morally questionable as time went on, if a Jewish Council had the knowledge where transports were going and would not disclose the destination or knew that the people were sent to their death. But then ultimately since all Jews were singled out for mass murder, in some sense, no strategy worked and no matter how Jews behaved, they could not change their fate, right. And in some sense, I think we always need to bear this in mind when we talk about collaboration and it's even questionable if collaboration, that implies a certain equality in the partners that collaborate, that work together, if it actually is legitimate to use the word in the Jewish context because of the total inequality of power and the singling out of Jews for collective mass murder, no matter how they behaved.

Avishay Artsy: Still, after the war, many survivors did blame the Jewish Councils for selling out their communities. 

In 1961, the New Yorker magazine sent journalist Hannah Arendt to Israel to cover the trial of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the “Final Solution.” In her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” Arendt made the inflammatory assertion that the Jews participated in their own destruction through the Judenrat’s collaboration with the Third Reich. Here’s a clip from the movie “Hannah Arendt,” in which the actress Barbara Sukowa, playing Arendt, speaks to a packed auditorium, and a student stands up to confront her.

“Ms. Arendt. You’re avoiding the most important part of the controversy. You claim that less Jews would’ve died if their leaders hadn’t cooperated.”

“This issue came up in the trial, I reported on it, and I had to clarify the role of those Jewish leaders who participated directly in Eichmann’s activities.”

“You blamed the Jewish people for their own destruction.”

“I never blamed the Jewish people! Resistance was impossible. But perhaps there is something in between resistance and cooperation. And only in that sense do I say that maybe some of the Jewish leaders might have behaved differently.”

Laura Jockusch: Hannah Arendt famously blamed them for the 6 million, in a way, claiming that had the Jewish community been leaderless and had their leaders not been so forthcoming, there would have been significantly less victims. I think that is absolutely wrong because I think she just overestimated the power of the Jewish Councils. But I think that's perhaps more Hannah Arendt’s post traumatic response to the phenomenon of Jewish Councils that made her overestimate their role. However, she also says that it's a painful  chapter, and that it represents the totality of the moral collapse the Nazi regime caused in respectable European society. And I think this moral collapse aspect is very important and here she's right. But again, I would say it doesn't tell us anything specific about Jewish society. There's nothing Jewish about this collapse. It tells us something about the nature of Nazi persecution and the nature of Nazi genocide 

Avishay Artsy: After the war, Jockusch says, Jews reckoned with feelings of anger, powerlessness, and survivor’s guilt. It was easy, she says, to blame the Jewish Councils, the Jewish police, the kapos.

Laura Jockusch: But what's of course completely awkward is that it blows out of proportion the power relationship that these functionaries actually had within the system of oppression and that they were victims themselves. 

Avishay Artsy: That anger towards Jewish Councils softened somewhat in the post-war years. In the immediate aftermath of the war, though, there was a desire for revenge. There were many accounts of survivors – and, again, not just Jewish survivors – attacking former block leaders or other functionaries, or former members of the Councils. These attacks took place in Israel as well. Back to Dan Porat of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 

Dan Porat: So, Israel in the 1950s, early 1950s, there were about half a million Holocaust survivors. As they walk through the streets of Israel and go on buses, they encounter each other and Holocaust survivors suddenly identify a family member they lost, they identify a friend that they thought was dead. But they also encounter other Holocaust survivors whom they see as the people who basically did evil to them.

One of the most extreme examples I can give is a horrific story that took place in the early 1950s. A woman Holocaust survivor from Vilna arrives at the Beilinson Hospital in her ninth month at the maternity ward. And she walks in there and she lies down and they call the midwife. And when the midwife comes into the room, you can hear screaming. And on the one hand, the woman who is in her ninth month has contractions, is in pain and giving birth to a child. And on the other hand, the midwife is pointing at her and said, you surrendered my children and you surrendered my aunt to the Nazis. And after she gives birth the police comes and put a policeman by her bed, first of all, to arrest her and second to prevent other people of taking revenge of her. 

Avishay Artsy: There are dozens of such stories: people being recognized and assaulted on the street, at the beach, in a coffee shop, at weddings and bar mitzvahs. In one example, a confrontation on a bus turned violent.

Dan Porat: A bus is going down one of the main streets in Tel Aviv, King George Street, bus number six, and a passenger gets on the bus and he looks, and suddenly he sees a person who seems familiar. And as he looks at him more and more, he identifies him. He approaches him and asks him, are you Haim Molchadsky from Bedzin? And the person doesn't answer. And he starts screaming. You were the head of the Judenrat, you sent thousands of Jews to their death, and then the entire bus started to scream at this person and hit him. 

Avishay Artsy: Molchadsky later explained to the police that before the war he had headed the Bedzin branch of the Jewish National Fund. When the Nazis occupied Bedzin, he was made a leader of the Jewish Council and forced to select those who would go to the camps. And then he too was deported to Auschwitz. Molchadsky was just one of many so-called collaborators who came under attack in Israel.

Dan Porat: The whole Israeli public felt that these people were the ones who basically brought about this catastrophe or basically enabled the Germans to take the Jews, in the terms of the time, as sheep to the slaughter. How was it that the Jews didn't resist? They didn't resist, the argument went at the time, because the leadership of the Jewish community betrayed the nation, led them and gave them in. So anybody at that time who had any function – as a policeman, as a Judenrat member, as a kapo – was seen as a betrayer of the nation. There was no distinction. Anybody who had a police hat or any other symbol of the Jewish organizations in the ghettos or in the camps was guilty unless proven innocent.   

Avishay Artsy: Such cases of extrajudicial violence were not limited to Israel and Europe. In 1950, there was a case in New York, of a Holocaust survivor, Benjamin Krieger, who looked out the window of his Brooklyn fish store one day and spotted a man that looked familiar. He rushed out and confronted the man, questioned him in Yiddish, and concluded that the man had beaten him and killed his brother at the Mühldorf concentration camp in Germany in 1944. A crowd formed, Krieger punched the man – his name was Majer Mittelman – and then the mob chased him. Mittelman ran into a bookstore and locked himself in until the police arrived. The police brought the men in for questioning, and told Krieger that they didn’t have any jurisdiction over crimes that took place in Europe. The story made it into the major papers. That's when the American Jewish Congress stepped in.

Dan Porat: And the American Jewish Congress is very concerned about the image of Holocaust survivors coming to the United States. This is a time when Congress is debating whether to allow for more people from the DP camps to come to the United States and having this case in the major newspapers in the United States depicting Jews as murdering one another in the camps will not give a good impression and it will not allow to increase the number of Jews coming from the DP camps. And, American Jewish Congress decides to basically prosecute this case. And they set up a tribunal that begins its hearings in October of 1950, basically bringing witnesses for both sides to testify whether or not Mittelman had murdered Krieger’s brother in the camp in Europe. The tribunal in the end, comes to a conclusion that they cannot come to a decision. But they basically take this case under control and make sure that it doesn't become a public relations disaster for the Jewish community at the time. And with that, that case ends.

Avishay Artsy: Cases of vigilante justice concerned Jewish leaders across Europe as well.

Laura Jockusch: There was a sensitivity on the part of Jewish leaders to say, there are some emotions about maybe shame on the one hand, guilt, and some unrest that need to be kind of channeled in a more organized framework because otherwise it's going to be very difficult to rebuild Jewish communities. In some sense it was, I would think, also about optics, so to speak, because if there would be too many cases of vigilante justice and violence in the street, it would have a negative impact on how the allies see Jews, and there was certainly also a concern about antisemitic views of Jews as vengeful that needed to be kind of not suppressed, but dealt with, and then genuine interest in finding a way of peaceful coexistence after conflict in a way. And I think that's what led to the idea that there should be courts.

Avishay Artsy: There is a long history of rabbinic courts as well as secular courts that arbitrated conflicts between Jews. After the Holocaust, many Jews in Europe didn’t trust state courts to handle what was essentially seen as an internal Jewish issue. 

Laura Jockusch: Because it’s about betrayal. Right? It's about Jews who supposedly acted against their fellow Jews. And there was a strong sense that it’s an inner Jewish matter that needs to be handled within the Jewish community.

Avishay Artsy: So-called “honor courts” were established across Europe to handle cases of Jewish collaboration.

Laura Jockusch: Usually they came in the form of just broad accusations that were then investigated. Or the individual who was accused could then request an honor court proceeding to kind of clear off his name or her name from the accusation. 

Avishay Artsy: The existence of these Jewish honor courts has been, until recently, a footnote in Holocaust studies, the kapo trials largely forgotten. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum held a workshop in 2011 on Jews and the law in modern Europe. Out of that workshop, Laura Jockush and her friend and colleague Gabby Finder at the University of Virginia decided to co-edit a volume of essays under the name “Jewish Honor Courts: Revenge, Retribution, and Reconciliation in Europe and Israel after the Holocaust.” The collection was published in 2015. The book was not meant to judge purported collaborators, Jockush says. Rather, they wanted to understand why survivors thought that these people needed to be judged and put on trial at all. 

Laura Jockusch: The honor court sentences often involve a moral rebuke that the verdict of a court case would be publicized within the community. And if it was to the embarrassment and to the moral rebuke of the individual, and a more severe punishment would be that the individual would then be banned from holding public office in the community or from participating in the various institutions of the community or to be banned from membership in the community altogether.

Avishay Artsy: These social punishments were part of a bigger question: who could speak on behalf of the Jews after the Holocaust? Who could lead? Who could belong?

Laura Jockusch: And there was this sense of quote unquote cleansing one's own ranks from those who had acted against the Jews and who should not be earning membership in the Jewish community after the war.

Avishay Artsy: In Israel, some Holocaust survivors wanted to leave the past behind. Others thought that the new state of Israel needed to be cleansed of traitors. Survivors filed complaints with the police, but there was no legal framework for prosecuting the cases. So in 1950, Israel passed a law called the “Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law.” 

Dan Porat: So when the minister of justice, Pinkhas Rozen, presents the law to the Knesset in 1950, he cites a verse from the Bible, ve’haya mekhanikha kadosh, your camp should be pure. Basically we need to take all of those who had collaborated and remove them from our society so we have a morally intact society. 

Avishay Artsy: The law criminalizes crimes against humanity, war crimes, and “crimes against the Jewish people.” The law was unusual. It was retroactive, applied to crimes committed outside the country, and required little evidence. The most serious charges mandated a death sentence. At that time, Jews accused of collaborating were viewed as worse than the Nazis for betraying their own people. Dan Porat says this desire for revenge came directly out of the resistance movement in Europe.

Dan Porat: And these people had a very dominant and very strong influence in early state Israel. So Chaim Badkin and others basically said anyone who was in those positions, anyone who served as a functionary, is guilty and we must put them on trial and get justice.

Avishay Artsy: Dan Porat writes about this chapter of history in his 2019 book “Bitter Reckoning: Israel Tries Holocaust Survivors as Nazi Collaborators.” In the early 1950s, there were around 350 investigations in Israel of alleged collaborators. About forty of those eventually went to trial. And of those, about two-thirds were convicted. The law was also used to try Adolf Eichmann in 1961 and then John Demjanjuk, known as “Ivan the Terrible,” in 1987. But it was mainly used to go after kapos. 

In 1952, a former kapo, Yehezkel Jungster, was accused of murdering other Jews. Those charges were dropped because there were no eyewitnesses or direct evidence to the murders. But there were witnesses who recounted how he beat and tortured Jews.

Dan Porat: Some of the witnesses say, ‘we feared Jungster more than the Germans. The Germans were basically saving us from the Jewish kapos in that camp.’

Avishay Artsy: Jungster was found guilty of crimes against humanity, which at the time mandated the death penalty.

Dan Porat: So they sentenced him to death. But the judges in their verdict say, we feel very uncomfortable with this decision. This is not the right decision. We're following the letter of the law. But we really don't think that should have been the case. 

Avishay Artsy: Israel’s Supreme Court overturned his sentence, and sent him to two years in prison instead. 

Dan Porat: Within months he's released from prison because his health condition is horrific. One leg is amputated. He's very sick. And within two weeks he dies a natural death. And with that, the prosecution understands that it was wrong to see these Jews as equal to the Nazis. We cannot allow for a Jew to be executed for what he did in the Holocaust, in Israel, in the Jewish state. And they create that first distinction between Nazis and between Jews who collaborated with the Nazis.

Avishay Artsy: In 1952, a female kapo from Auschwitz, Raya Hanes, was put on trial, accused of hitting prisoners and shouting at them. Hanes said in her defense that she had developed a reputation of cruelty in order to win the trust of the Germans, and use her position to smuggle food and medicine to those Jews who needed it.

Dan Porat: So basically it was a very unique defense, and the verdict is very fitting. And the verdict, while not saying this explicitly, implies very clearly that she was a hero in her action and the way she supported Jews without their knowledge and gave a face of being cruel.

Avishay Artsy: The trial of Rudolf Kastner also shifted public opinion against prosecuting the kapos. Kastner was a Hungarian journalist and lawyer who had negotiated with Adolf Eichmann to help more than 1,600 Hungarian Jews escape to Switzerland in exchange for money, gold, and diamonds. Kastner moved to Israel after the war and became a government spokesman. He was considered a hero. He had launched the largest Jewish rescue operation during the Holocaust, saving more people than Oskar Schindler! But in an ironic twist, in 1952, a freelance writer accused Kastner of collaborating with the Nazis to help out his relatives and friends, while keeping the rest of the Jews of Hungary in the dark about deportations to Auschwitz. The writer was charged with libel. But in the trial a lower court found Kastner guilty of “selling his soul to the devil.” A right-wing militant assassinated Kastner in 1957. The following year the Supreme Court of Israel overturned most of the judgment against Kastner.

By that time, the Israeli public and prosecutors had mostly lost interest in pursuing kapos. At the Eichmann trial in 1961, the prosecutors brought to the witness stand so-called “good kapos” like Vera Alexander. 

Excerpt from Adolf Eichmann trial - Session No. 71

Tell me Mrs. Alexander, please. How could one be a block senior in Auschwitz and keep the image of a human being?

Vera Alexander: It was not easy to guard one's image of God and the image of the human being at Auschwitz, yet to be a block eldest, one needed a lot of tact. On the one hand, to obey orders, on the other hand, to hurt prisoners as little as possible, and to try and help the prisoners.

You were required as others were to be stern towards the other inmates. 

Vera Alexander: Of course.

What did you do in order to avoid complying with such orders? How did you manage to do that?

Vera Alexander: One day, in the Lager C, I received from Irma Grese a whip. I never used that whip.

Avishay Artsy: Irma Grese was a notoriously vicious SS guard. Inmates nicknamed her the "Hyena of Auschwitz." Grese was executed after the war, at the age of 22.

The Eichmann trial, with its detailed depictions of Nazi brutality and the presentation of “good kapos” like Vera Alexander, made clear that the true culprits were the Nazis.

In 1963, the then-assistant conductor of the Tel Aviv Opera, Hirsch Barenblat, was accused of having been the head of the Jewish Ghetto Police in the Będzin Ghetto and for having handed over thousands of Jews to the Nazis. He’d been sentenced to five years in prison. Israel’s Supreme Court intervened and had all the charges dismissed. They were eager to end the pursuit of kapos, with one exception.

Dan Porat: And that exception is those kapos who acted cruelly or sadistically. And in 1971 arrives in Israel a Jewish tourist from Western Germany, and she was spotted on the streets in a town south of Tel-Aviv and she's arrested and put on trial for breaking the fingers of a few inmates in the camp where she was a kapo. And she’s sentenced, if I remember correctly, to three months of imprisonment. Her name was Luba Gritzmacher.

Avishay Artsy: The kapo trials could be compared to the reconciliation courts created in the 1990s – in South Africa after apartheid, and in Rwanda after the genocide. They were meant to heal communal wounds and rebuild trust. Unlike a traditional court, the Jewish honor courts required both accuser and accused to present witnesses and provide oral testimony. The question was not, did this person break the law? The question was, did this person act morally or immorally?

Laura Jockusch: And so it was really more about working through the past as a community and establishing truth than about the law.

Avishay Artsy: In that sense, too, the honor courts added nuance to a volatile discussion of Jewish culpability. But after a few years, the honor court trials came to an end in Europe, partly because the survivors had emigrated and didn’t show up to court to testify.

Laura Jockusch: But there's also an underlying kind of waning of the emotions behind these trials. As if it becomes less necessary to have these trials, as if this was something that was vibrant in the immediate aftermath of the war, but five years after the war, it's already less of a burning issue.

Avishay Artsy: As time went on, the view of kapos changed. There was a sense that they too were victims, forced to survive in an inhumane environment. The Italian-born Holocaust survivor Primo Levi described life at Auschwitz in this 1972 interview:

Primo Levi: Everybody was the enemy of the other. It was extremely rare to be able to have a friendship. Everybody had to fight his battle alone. Not only against the camp but against the comrades themselves, and it was extremely demoralizing to be compelled to watch your bit of bread from it being stolen away from your neighbor in the bunk. This was terrible.

Avishay Artsy: In the 1980s Levi wrote an influential essay called “The Grey Zone.” He argues that the reality of life in the camps couldn’t be reduced to binary divisions of good versus bad, us versus them, victim versus persecutor. That said, he stressed, he was not trying to erase the distinction between the two. He wrote, “to confuse [the murderers] with their victims is a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity; above all, it is a precious service rendered (intentionally or not) to the negators of truth.” Levi’s “grey zone” was a way of acknowledging the kapos’ victimhood as well as their guilt.

Dan Porat: And the kapos who stood trial in Israel, at least most of them, were in that gray zone. They were victims, undoubtedly they were victims, but they also acted in questionable ways when they beat people, when they took their food, when they harassed and did other horrific things. 

Avishay Artsy: There’s another term that scholars like to use: “choiceless choices.” It was coined by Lawrence Langer to describe the no-win situations Jews faced during the Holocaust.

Laura Jockusch: We sometimes naively think that it was a choice between good and bad or between life and death or between resistance and submission. And that's of course not the case and I think that we should stop thinking of survival in these binary terms, but really be clear about the fact that for most victims in concentration and death camps or in ghettos, it was a choice between one abnormal and another abnormal, not between life or death or freedom and captivity, and that, of course, ultimately those who impose the situation on the victims were the perpetrators, the Nazi perpetrators and the non-Jewish collaborators, but not the Jews.

Avishay Artsy: The story of these post-war trials has been largely forgotten, says Laura Jokusch.

Laura Jockusch: I grew up in Germany and I didn't learn anything about this.

Avishay Artsy: Dan Porat says that when he asks his students at Hebrew University if anyone has heard of the kapo trials, maybe one or two out of a full classroom will raise their hands. 

Dan Porat: It came to the extreme that I went to meet with one of the prosecutors, an 88-year-old, very lucid woman. And we were talking about the kapo trials. I said, how was it for you to participate in these trials? You prosecuted four of these people. And she said, ‘I prosecuted four of these people? I don't remember anything of this.’ And then I had to show her a document with her signature saying, ‘yes, your signature is here. You took part in prosecuting these people.’ She couldn't believe it.”

Avishay Artsy: The story of the kapo trials complicates the victim/perpetrator binary, which was the dominant narrative of the Eichmann trial. To accept that there is a “grey zone” changes how we see victims.

Dan Porat: There are cases where we need to learn about what happens to society under pressure. And these victims exemplify cases where society came apart and some of its members acted in questionable ways. Admittedly a very small number and we should always remember that it's a small number, but we need to remember and learn from those cases. Primo Levi says, look, we cannot judge these people in the gray zone, but we must morally discuss these cases and deliberate them without coming to a conclusion, because we, as people who did not live through the Holocaust, did not experience it, cannot judge them. Now it's very easy to sit here today in the 21st century and say, I would have acted in this way or that way. I think if we learn these cases, we understand that it's much more complex.

Avishay Artsy: It’s an uncomfortable realization, Porat says, but it’s important to recognize what war does to people.

Adventures in Jewish Studies is made possible with generous support from The Salo W. and Jeannette M. Baron Foundation. This episode also received support from The Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

I’m Avishay Artsy. The executive producer of the podcast is Warren Hoffman. The Association for Jewish Studies is the world’s largest Jewish studies membership organization, and features an annual conference, publications, fellowships, and much more for our members, as well as public programming. Visit for more information on what we do, to learn about joining, if you’re a Jewish Studies scholar, or to find out how to bring a Jewish Studies scholar to your community. Thank you for listening.

Listen to All Episodes

Adventures in Jewish Studies Masthead

Executive Producer: Warren Hoffman, PhD

Producers: Avishay Artsy and Erin Phillips