In early 1946 in Tel Aviv, Asher Berlin got attacked in an alleyway. A gang of men with knives slashed his stomach and face. While Berlin’s blood poured out on the ground, his attackers warned passersby not to help him: “Don’t interfere. He informed on Jews to the Gestapo.” In spite of the thugs’ threats, he was taken to the hospital and survived, his face and body covered with scars.
Asher Berlin never turned in Jews to the Gestapo. He had not set foot in Europe since coming to Tel Aviv in 1924. Mistaken for someone else, he was caught up by the mob justice meted out in the streets of Palestine in the years after the German surrender. Jews rumored to have collaborated with the Nazis were set upon by angry survivors of the camps, beaten viciously and in some cases, like Berlin’s, nearly killed. The editors of the Tel Aviv newspaper Iton Meyuhad warned, “The anarchy that is raging in our public places has gone beyond all bounds.”
A few years later, criminal courts replaced the lynch mobs. In 1950, the new state of Israel passed the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law. Under the law, Jewish kapos and members of the ghetto Judenräte (Jewish Councils) were put on trial for crimes against the Jewish people and crimes against humanity. The largely forgotten history of these trials has pivotal importance for our changing sense of what it meant to be a Jew during the Holocaust, as Dan Porat makes clear in his insightful, eloquently written new book, Bitter Reckoning: Israel Tries Holocaust Survivors as Nazi Collaborators.
Most surprising to readers will be Porat’s account of the charges against the Jewish defendants. Many survivors regarded Jewish kapos, policemen and Judenrat members as equivalent to Nazis themselves. Elsa Trenk, a kapo who had beaten female inmates at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was charged in 1950 with being guilty of genocide. The policeman who arrested her claimed she had “an intention to annihilate the Jewish people,” and the prosecutor at her trial argued that she “identified with her German superiors.”
Trenk was convicted of mistreating inmates, and she received a two-year sentence. Like all the other Jewish defendants in the trials, she was cleared of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Trenk had been traumatized by her experience of Auschwitz in the years 1942-43, the court concluded, and this explained her cruelty. She did not identify with the Nazis, nor did she wish to exterminate the Jewish people.
Another female kapo from Auschwitz, Raya Hanes, went to trial a few months after Trenk, in early 1952. Hanes’ defense shed a new light on the situation of Jews in the camps. The survivors who accused Hanes didn’t know why she shouted at them and struck them. Hanes wanted the inmates in her block to curse her, one witness explained. The harsher she was, the more the Germans trusted her, and this enabled her to help prisoners.
Hanes, it turned out, had risked her life to save inmates. How could this person also be a sadist? asked the judge who acquitted her. The judge added that there was a problem with some survivors’ memories. Traumatized by their suffering, they were unreliable witnesses. They mixed up events, or attributed cruel actions to Hanes that she couldn’t have committed.
Yet some of the kapos put on trial were sadists, unlike Raya Hanes. Jacob Honigman, who had served the Germans at the Gross-Rosen camp, habitually whipped frail inmates, and kicked them in the belly and genitalia, “for no reason whatsoever, just for sadistic pleasure.” So the court concluded when it sentenced Honigmann to 8 1/2 years in prison, later reduced to 6 1/2 years by the Supreme Court—the longest sentence handed down in the kapo trials.
The verdict in the Honigmann case suggested that Jewish functionaries could be judged by standards that applied outside of the Shoah. The fact that they, like all Jews, could have been murdered by the Nazis at any moment did not absolve them.
In 1954, another case of alleged Jewish collaboration seized the attention of Israelis. The accused, Rudolf Kastner, was a government minister from the Mapai party. Ten years earlier, as a leader of the Zionist Rescue Committee in Budapest, he had convinced Adolf Eichmann to release 1,685 Jews to safety in Switzerland in exchange for diamonds, gold, and a vast amount of cash. Among those on the “Kastner train” were more than 50 members of Kastner’s family and hundreds of people from his hometown. Meanwhile, Eichmann was murdering much of the rest of Hungarian Jewry.
Had Kastner agreed to keep the facts of the Nazi genocide secret from Hungary’s Jews, fearing that his plan to save his relatives would be endangered if Eichmann’s victims fled or revolted? This was the explosive charge of the journalist Malkiel Gruenwald, born in Hungary, who had lost 52 members of his own family during the war. Gruenwald was also outraged that Kastner had saved his negotiating partner, SS Commander Kurt Becher, from being prosecuted for war crimes at Nuremberg. Haim Cohn, the attorney general who presided over the kapo trials, pressed Kastner to join a libel suit against his accuser. If Kastner didn’t do this, Cohn added, he would be charged as a Nazi collaborator.
During the Kastner trial, as it came to be called, Gruenwald’s defense lawyer argued that Kastner was a willing tool of the Nazis and that his actions caused Hungarian Jews “to go like sheep to slaughter.” Cohn, speaking on behalf of Kastner, retorted that Kastner and the Rescue Committee may have made the wrong choice, but that was “a matter between them and heaven.” Negotiation with the Nazis was a legitimate tactic. Cohn added that Kastner’s 1,685 survivors did not come with a price tag of half a million dead Hungarian Jews. Kastner had not doomed the others; Eichmann and the Germans had.
Cohn’s argument for Kastner didn’t work with Judge Benjamin Halevi, who in a 274-page opinion ruled that Kastner had “sold his soul to the devil.” The judge didn’t explain how Hungary’s Jews would have escaped death had Kastner told them they were headed for Auschwitz, but he was sure that somehow they would have. Kastner appealed to the Supreme Court, but in 1957, before his case could be heard, he was murdered by a member of a right-wing cell.
The next year the Supreme Court took the side of the dead Kastner and overturned the original verdict. “Heaven forbid that we shall name this person ‘collaborator,’” Justice Shimon Agranat wrote in his majority decision. Kastner’s aim was to save Jewish lives. Even if some of his actions might have benefited the Nazis, helping the Germans was not his goal; saving Jews was.
The series of post-Holocaust collaboration trials, climaxing with Kastner’s murder, laid bare an explosive question: Could Jews be found guilty of partnering with the Nazis? Or was this accusation slanderous, born from a misunderstanding of the satanic upside-down world that the Germans had created for Jews—in which living itself was a criminal act?
The hellish reality that the Nazis created for the Jews of Europe was hard to parse using the ideas of good and evil that prevail in peacetime civilian life. During the Shoah, handing over others to death might be the only way to save yourself, or your friends, or your parents, or your children. This was routinely the case for Jewish policemen in the ghettos who were spared because they rounded up other people’s families—and even their own families.
Were such actions laudable? Surely not. They are reprehensible. But they were also common enough to make any morally and historically sensitive person hesitate before passing judgement. The death sentence that targeted the Jews of Europe for extermination was handed down and carried out by the Nazis, not by the people they murdered and tortured.
Yet surely, Holocaust victims who served the Nazis were exercising some degree of human agency, however circumscribed. Hirsch Barenblat, the head of the Jewish police in the Polish town of Bedzin, was charged with delivering thousands of Jews to their Nazi executioners. On one occasion, the prosecution insisted, he drove 50 children out of an attic and sent them to certain death. True, Barenblat also assisted the Jewish underground, but only starting in 1943, when his own wife, along with several Judenrat leaders, was deported to Auschwitz. After his position as Nazi collaborator began to seem less secure, Barenblat helped Jews, but not before.
Barenblat had been tried and acquitted once, in Poland in 1948. In 1962 he was put on trial again, this time in Israel, less than a year after Eichmann’s execution. The deputy district attorney of Tel Aviv, David Libai, wanted to prove that Barenblat was a member of an enemy organization—the same charge that had been leveled at Eichmann. During the Eichmann proceedings, Attorney General Gideon Hausner had spectacularly put the whole Nazi regime on trial, not just the little man in the bulletproof glass booth. In the same way Libai wanted to try the Jewish councils and Jewish police, not only Barenblat.
But at the last minute, just as he finished the prosecution’s case, Libai surprised the courtroom by withdrawing the final count against Barenblat: membership in an enemy organization. He had been ordered to do so by Israel’s attorney general, who was worried that if Barenblat was convicted, thousands of Israeli citizens who had been policemen or Judenrat members under the Nazis would also face trial. Barenblat was ruled guilty on other counts, including handing over persecuted people to the Nazis.
To many Israelis, Barenblat’s actions were appalling. The journalist and politician Uri Avnery considered the Barenblat trial even more important than the Eichmann proceedings, since it exposed the Jewish police as a “criminal organization.” Without the Jewish councils and Jewish police, Avnery thundered, “the annihilation would not have been possible!” Avnery was echoing Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Jewish collaboration was the “darkest chapter” of the Holocaust, Arendt notoriously remarked. If no Jews had cooperated with the Nazis, she said, “there would have been plenty of chaos and misery,” but no 6 million dead.
Avnery and Arendt, and others like them wanted the Jewish victims of the Holocaust to embody a higher sacrificial morality based on historical foreknowledge. The Jews of Europe, they implied, should have sacrificed their own lives instead of assisting, even in small ways, the executioners of their people. But establishing a standard that bears little connection to the historical circumstances or to the lived experience of actual survivors is not a higher form of morality; it is a form of egocentric fantasy, which victimizes the victims while celebrating those who criticize them for living.
Similarly, the fantasy that armed Jewish defiance would have stopped the genocide dishonors the victims of the Shoah, who overwhelmingly saw no such possibility. Were they wrong? In fact, history confirms their skepticism and should temper our wish to see images of heroic Jews triumphing over the Nazis. While the brave partisans and ghetto fighters will and should live forever in Jewish memory, their acts of resistance most often resulted in more dead Jews rather than in any way seriously obstructing the Nazi extermination machine. Holding them up as a moral standard imposes another unbearable burden for millions of other innocent victims of a genocide.
When Barenblat appealed to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Moshe Landau, who had presided over the Eichmann trial, declared him not guilty of all charges. Landau argued that it would be “hypocritical and arrogant on our part—on the part of those who never stood in their place,” to “criticiz[e] those ‘little men’ who did not rise to the heights of moral supremacy when mercilessly oppressed by a regime whose first aim was to remove the human image from their faces.” The most salient question, Landau suggested, was not whether turning people over to the Nazis for deportation is a criminal action, but rather who was responsible for the evil that those actions were a part of.
Hirsch Barenblat inhabited what Primo Levi famously called the gray zone. Levi recognized that when we think about the Nazi period we feel the need to take sides and separate evil from good. But the impossible strain that human nature suffered during the Shoah (and in other, similarly extreme situations) means that the clear oppositions between innocence and guilt on which any civilian legal system is constructed cannot adequately cover morally compromised people like Barenblat, whose role as victims is inseparable from their role in helping the perpetrators.
In his stunning 1954 poem “Yom hazikaron—vehamordim” (Memorial Day—and Day of the Rebels), Nathan Alterman depicts the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising blending in with the masses of Jewish dead. Alterman’s resistance fighters want the reader to admire “Jewish fathers who said, ‘the underground will bring a catastrophe upon us,’” along with the most tragic case of all, “that boy or girl … who left behind nothing but a small white sock.”
Heroism comes in varied forms, the poet argues. But there are also those who fell short and must be excluded from the collective lament. Porat remarks that Alterman elsewhere described some collaborators as mere “beasts of prey.” “There are acts and occurrences that a sane human being must not ‘understand,’” Alterman wrote. Jewish kapos, Judenrat members and Jewish policemen were not on the side of the Nazis. But the cruel and heartless among them must still be judged, if not in a court of law then in their exclusion from our collective mourning.