Donald Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, has called Jews with left-leaning political views “far worse than kapos.” It’s a highly-charged word, to say the least, and discussion of Friedman’s word choice — kapoim in Hebrew — is blaring from the radio on Israeli buses.
I heard a radio host explain Friedman’s use of kapoim this way: whereas Jews in concentration camps were prisoners without a choice, American Jews who support J Street are voluntarily imprisoning fellow Jews.
Reading Friedman’s article, he states that the kapos selected Jews for slaughter. The exact quote from Friedman’s article for Arutz Sheva, or IsraelNationalNews.com, defines kapos this way: “Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps.”
That’s a lie. A kapo was a concentration-camp prisoner assigned by the SS guards to supervise other prisoners during forced labor; kapos are associated with concentration camps, not death camps — the exception is Auschwitz, which was both. And there’s another problem with Friedman’s definition; some kapos were not Jewish. They were convicted criminals who were assigned to be kapos.
Some kapos were cruel, beating inmates, whereas others were more humane and tried to help. There were cases where kapos killed fellow prisoners — but it’s important to remember that the kapo was a key part of the Nazi plan. The Nazis designed their brutal system to turn victim against victim, and minimize costs; with prisoners helping, fewer SS personnel were needed.
Kapos were rewarded with an easier stay in a concentration-camp: they didn’t do hard labor, and were treated better than other prisoners, with a private room. But let’s not forget that they were living under Nazi rule, in a continent where Jewish lives were worthless. The most chilling description of the precarious role of kapos probably comes from Heinrich Himmler, who said this in 1944:
The moment he becomes a Kapo, he no longer sleeps with them. He is held accountable for the performance of the work, that they are clean, that the beds are well-built. […] So, he must drive his men. The moment we become dissatisfied with him, he is no longer Kapo, he’s back to sleeping with his men. And he knows that he will be beaten to death by them the first night.
After the war, there were numerous incidents of survivors recognizing kapos — one was selling ice cream in Tel Aviv — and bringing them to trial. There were even cases, in the 1940s in Israel, of people who were identified by survivors as former kapos who abused their fellow prisoners who were lynched in the street.
But we don’t know as much as many of us would like to know about kapos; in 1995, the Israeli Government sealed the court records of cases involving former kapos for a period of 70 years from the trial date. It seems reasonable to assume that this court decision was intended to protect kapos from often-violent retaliation, but it does make it even more difficult for us to understand the moral dilemmas kapos faced.
While concentration-camp survivors are often extremely clear in their memories of kapos, to the point of recognizing them decades later, the linguistic origin of the word kapo is unclear. The most common explanation is that the term Kapo is derived from the Italian word capo, meaning “chief” or “boss,” and was used in the concentration camps to refer to functionary prisoners who were chosen by the SS to oversee a labor Kommando of other prisoners. The Duden, the German dictionary first published in 1880 and updated every five years or so, says kapo is used to mean “foreman” in Southern Germany and Austria, and is derived from caporal in French, which means “corporal.”
The Jewish Virtual Library suggests that kapo may be a shortened form of the German term Kameradschaftpolizei — which interestingly, does not appear in the Duden dictionary. It’s difficult to define without a dictionary, but “community police” seems approximate. In any case, Kameradschaftpolizei is more of a mouthful than kapo.
The Nazis themselves seem to be part of the linguistic confusion. While the Nazis called such prisoners kapos, as many survivors have testified, the official government term for prisoner functionaries was Funktionshäftling. To break down the term, Funktionshäftling means a prisoner or inmate (Häftling) who has been assigned a function (Funktion).
And of course, “funktionshäftling” doesn’t sound like much of anything. It’s enough to make a person pull out George Orwell and re-read the sections about how unclear language makes murder possible.
What gives the word kapo its charge — and the reason Friedman’s use of it is raising eyebrows and tempers — is not that kapo may derive from the Italian capo, but rather what kapo came to mean in the concentration-camp system. The kapos in Nazi camps were themselves prisoners, trying to survive; and yes, some mimicked their captors’ sadism to stay alive. Many suffered psychologically after the war, and were shunned by fellow survivors—and some even stood trial after the war for murder and crimes against humanity. To call American Jews honestly hoping for peace, and working for it “worse than kapos” is slander. And it opens the door to all sorts of other wild and dangerous comments that are based on half-truths — and flat-out lies.
The Israeli radio host blaring from the loudspeakers on Bus 90 today said — “it’s no surprise that these Jews are now against Jerusalem,” referring to the pledge to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. There’s a linguistic difference between objecting to a politically charged embassy move and objecting to a city itself — especially the holiest city in Jewish tradition, the object of thousands of years of yearning and hope.
Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God: A Journey Into the Words and Worlds of the Bible. Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner