“He was God. He was the man, that if you looked at him close, you would be dead.”
Survivor Leon Zelig on Kapo
Nazis wanted to eliminated Jews in areas conquered by them. Most common way of doing it was to send Jews to concentration camp, make them work to death and if they didn’t die they were killed by bullets, hanging or poison gas.
In some camps the Nazis decided to outsource work of supervising Jews to prisoners with criminal background. These Jewish collaborators of Nazis were called Kapos. They were as cruel as Nazis when it came to supervising the Jewish prisoners. There were many reasons for becoming Kapos, primary being to save self and get some concessions from Nazis in form of food, clothes, better living conditions etc.
But if a Kapo lost his status, then he was reduced to mere prisoner and in most cases, they were killed by inmates whom he had tortured.
”What needs to be said generally is that one must make a distinction between those who volunteered for the SS or the Gestapo and those who thought they would save their lives by cooperating. You can’t say Patty Hearst played the same role as her kidnappers. The same is true of any kapo.”
-Rabbi Marvin Hier
One such Kapo was Jacob Tannenbaum. He was as ruthless as Nazis with prisoners.
So how to present day Jews views Kapos? Not all hate them, some feel that Kapos were forced to behave that way. Like other inmates of camp, they too were victims.
”There is a critical difference between the Barbies of the world – the victimizers – and the Tannenbaums, as sad and tragic and despicable as they were. They were victims. They were people who succumbed to unbelievable stress.”
-Henry Siegman, the executive director of the American Jewish Congress
There is an interesting film of Kapos called “Kapo”, an Italian film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.
Thousands of miles away from concentration camp, Maharaja of Jamnagar in India decided to help Polish orphans who were in concentration camp and later were captured by Red Army of USSR. Red Army was no better than Nazis when it came to treatment of Polish orphans.
“When we arrived at the camp, the Maharaja gave a party but he did not know what we children liked to eat. Oh! The spicy Indian food, which despite being hungry, we didn’t like to eat at all. Bapu saw this & said don’t worry, I will fix this and he brought seven young cooks from Goa…. When we won(the football match), the Maharaja rose up from his arm chair, stood smiling & clapping, almost as if it mattered to him that the match had ended in a victory for these newcomers from a distant country, than from his own countrymen”
– Mr Wieslaw Stypula (Polish Survivor).
Maharaja (Jam) Digvijaysinhji of Jamnagar decided to adopt these Polish orphans and told them that from now on he was their “Bapu” or father. There were treated very well by Jam Saheb. Most of the Polish victims were not Jews but Roman Catholic, which shows that ill-treatment was not reserved for Jews, Nazis ill-treated other too.
“Bapu told the Britishers – this is not state money but my money. I have adopted these children and I am paying from my personal account”
– Princess Hershad Kumari, daughter of Jam Saheb
Jam Saheb started camp for them at Balachadi. There is novel on these Poles in Indian camps by Anuradha Bhattacharjee called “The Second Homeland”