A Kapo at Grossingers

After the war, Sam and Esther settled in Brooklyn, NY.  Vacations were rare, but once they went to Grossingers, a kosher resort hotel in the Catskill Mountains (picture – Catskill Mountains).  It was one of the largest “Borscht Belt” resorts, frequented by Jewish patrons.  The manager at Grossingers was someone Sam recognized from Treblinka. He was a Kapo.

At Treblinka a Kapo was a Jew, appointed by the SS to supervise other Jewish prisoners.  Many were ruthless.  We met a different Kapo in an earlier blog post – the one who was ready to send Sam to the gas chamber and place some of his Warsaw relatives into the Laundry in his place.  Sam hit that Kapo over the head with a wooden plank.  (See Blog Post – Hitting of Biblical Proportions, posted Jan. 1, 2016)

Well, when Sam saw the Kapo at Grossingers, he was shocked.  It had been some 20 years, but still, he recognized him immediately, as the “terrible” Kapo who “lived with maybe 10 girls.”   He said to him: “You, you’re here?”   The Kapo said to Sam: “Be quiet, don’t say anything.”  Needless to say, if it had gotten out that the manager of Grossingers was a Kapo at Treblinka, he would not have kept his job very long.  Sam decided not to “touch him.”  However, the Kapo, feeling the need to add some insurance to Sam’s silence, gave Sam and Esther the nicest room in the hotel and sent them a beautiful bottle of champagne and all kinds of delicious food.

Kapos were not a Nazi invention.  They arose out of a much older German prison tradition.  Certain prisoners would be appointed as “trustees” to represent the prisoners.  The trustee was given certain responsibilities over the prisoners and in turn received privileges.  The word “Kapo” is “widely thought to derive from the Italian capo (head or leader).”[1]

Kapos were part of the fabric of the concentration camps from day one.  You may recall, hundreds of concentration camps were set up as soon as Hitler took power in 1933.  So by 1938, the Kapo system was well established.  For example, in 1938, Buchenwald had approximately 11,000 prisoners and over five hundred Kapos. These Kapos were responsible for supervising the prisoners and making sure they did their jobs and kept the bunks clean.  During the first phases of the evolution of the concentration camp, Kapos were not necessarily Jews.  During the final phase, however, most Kapos were Jews, because most prisoners were Jews.

As the war progressed, Kapos’ influence and power grew.  In the late 1930’s the ratio between SS and prisoners was 1:2. By mid-1943 the ratio was 1:15.   Concentration camps and later death camps, were able to keep the SS officers to a minimum by utilizing Kapos as their stooges.   Kapos took charge of many camp functions, from discipline and supervision of the labor, to serving as administrative clerks in the office.

Kapos took advantage of their position and “were not shy about parading their power and privilege.”[2] They were often easily spotted, as some had longer hair, instead of shaven heads. They wore clean clothes and had real shoes or boots.  Male Kapos were allowed to have sexual relations with women. It seems our Grossingers Kapo took advantage of this privilege.

Some Kapos used their positions of power to help prisoners when they could.  Most, it seems, took to their duties of coercion and terror quite seriously.  During the second half of the war, the SS relied on Kapos to whip the prisoners when punishment was “needed.”  As a reward for such behavior the Kapos received money or cigarettes.  You may recall, in Sam’s hitting story, the Kapo beat him with a beitch and a conchic – types of whip enhanced with wire and leather.

Even worse than the whipping, which is bad enough, some Kapos assisted the SS in their project of mass murder.  Some Kapos selected “weak and sick inmates, escorting condemned prisoners to execution sites, or killing them.  . . . and Kapos murdered on their own initiative, too, acting far more brutally than before the war.”[3]

I believe that Sam did not “touch” the Kapo at Grossingers because he did not want to be his judge and jury.  Though he despised him, he would not be his executioner.  It is a testament to his upright and strong character.

Sources:

  • Interview with Sam Goldberg – 1993.
  • Wachsmann, Nikolaus.  kl: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  2015.

[1] Wachsmann, kl, A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps at 122.

[2] Id. at 123.

[3] Id. at 514.

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