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‘Kapo’ is the Jewish N-Word

I was an angry, hormonal 11-year old when I asked my mother why a family we were friendly with had so many grandparents, aunts, and uncles, when all we had were three aunts and a few cousins.

The parents of that family had – like my parents – survived the Holocaust. But they had somehow emerged from the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz with their own parents, aunts, uncles, and most of their siblings in tow.

“Why do you think?” my mother answered.

Her halting and somewhat mordant tone indicated that I was approaching what rarely emerged from her lips: The Truth. Despite my age, it took me no time to respond.

“You mean…?”

Her creaking, three-syllable “Yes” was the signal that the door had shut forever on any discussion of how our friends’ teeming clan managed to survive and establish a compound of homes in an up-and-coming Southern California neighborhood.

Our friends had relied on their matriarch’s old family recipes to feed wistful, transplanted New Yorkers the deli food of their homesick dreams – transforming a sandwich shop into a thriving empire of gourmet eateries. I loved visiting their sprawling homes, where wrinkled relatives hunkered down in sagging, vinyl-covered armchairs, yelling in thick Yiddish accents to armies of children to stop running up and down the stairs. I loved watching the men pop seedless grapes into their mouths as they jumped from the couch, waving their fists at the Sunday night wrestlers on TV.

I particularly loved being left with all the other children under the watchful, benevolent, and watery brown eyes of the aging patriarch responsible for all his family’s freedom.

He never raised his gritty voice. An avid gin rummy player, he made us sausage sandwiches for lunch – “cutting the deck” of sliced Jewish rye,” as he put it, and “dealing” each of us a thickly buttered slice to put on the yellow Formica kitchen table. He topped each of our slices with two thick rings of garlicky sausage, and dealt us another buttery “hand” to slap on top. Then he dispatched us to the basement, never complaining about the smashed half-sandwiches we left in the grid of the always-newly-vacuumed plush cream carpet. Unlike our once-starved mothers, he never cajoled us to eat more. I never did find out if his family’s survival was because of this man’s choices during the Holocaust, or simply due to extraordinary luck.

As a child of freed slaves, I have some understanding of why African-Americans find the “N-word” utterly reprehensible. But I also find it hard to understand why some African-Americans use the N word to address each other. Still, though it may take several post-Holocaust generations before it is possible, one day Jews might affectionately call each other yid or kike. Even then, it is never acceptable for anyone, Jewish or not, to smear Jews as “kapos,” the Nazi’s term for the unfortunate concentration camp prisoners who were assigned by SS guards to supervise forced labor and carry out other administrative tasks.

The “K-word” has nonetheless become nearly ubiquitous in the Netanyahu-and-Trump-era screed of American and Israeli Jews. Hecklers and trolls post, tweet, and scream, “kapo,” at brothers and sisters, simply because they sincerely believe that a two-state solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict is the best way forward for the Jewish People and the State of Israel.

In fact – not alternative fact – we are now facing hearings in which the US Senate will address President Donald Trump’s choice of ambassador to Israel, David Friedman – a Jew who called supporters of the pro-two-state solution Jewish advocacy group J Street “worse than kapos.”

No one – not even the President’s bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman – has the right to judge what others did in those dark days to save children who are now the beloved great-grandparents of legions of offspring—people, if my mothers’ suspicions were correct, like the patriarch of that family of survivors. No one has the right to cheapen the memories of beloved parents and unknown grandparents – like my own – who were not kapos, by calling their left-leaning offspring the K word. No one should utter or write a German expletive that forces the hair to stand up on our parents’ tattooed arms, and us to revisit childhoods shaped by their nightmares.

We should never use the K word as a weapon. Let’s delete it from our discourse.

Varda Spiegel was born in Israel and raised in the United States, returning to Israel in 1978. A nurse with an MPH in Maternal-Child Health Care, Ms.Spiegel served as Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev and Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District.

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