The Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law, passed by the Knesset in 1950, was not actually intended to punish Nazis. The MKs knew that no Nazi would come voluntarily to the Jewish state, and that the state would not go looking for them. They never imagined hosting a trial against a Ukrainian guard who had served in a Nazi concentration camp – a scenario that became conceivable only after it became known in the 1970s that there were such people living in the United States. The law was intended to punish Jews: Holocaust survivors who during the war were members of the Jewish councils (Judenraete) in the ghettos, or were supervisors in concentration camps (kapos). As Justice Minister Pinhas Rosen put it when the bill was proposed, the legislation was meant “to clear the air” in Israel.
Israeli police began interrogating people immediately thereafter, and the Shin Bet security service also forwarded them names of suspects. The detainees were all survivors. A few years after emerging from the hell of the Holocaust, they were wrenched from their new lives in Israel and held in custody for weeks on end. While they were in detention, the police drew up lists of other survivors from the towns that the suspects were from or who had been incarcerated in the same camps. In some cases, the police were compelled to search for potential witnesses by placing notices in the press.
So harsh were the testimonies against Yehezkel Ingster, a kapo in the Graditz and Faulbruck camps, that two judges sentenced him to death – while recommending that the president pardon him in light of the circumstances. The Supreme Court reduced his sentence to two years’ imprisonment; he died after a short time of an illness. A more junior kapo in those camps, Yaakov Honigman, was sentenced to a prison term of six-and-a-half years.
Prof. Hanna Yablonka, who has studied this subject, thinks that a few dozen survivors were tried. In other cases, even when the police thought there was cause to place people on trial, the courts were in no hurry to convict. A case in point was that of the head of the Judenrat in Ostrovitz, Poland, Moshe Pochich (who was detained, put on trial and eventually exonerated).
Following weeks in custody, most of the detainees were released without being charged. There was no need to wait for decades, to let tempers cool and for people to develop a historical perspective, in order to understand that the people in question were more Holocaust survivors than they were criminals. In many of the files the positive testimonies outnumbered those that were condemnatory. There were survivor-witnesses who testified that it was actually the few powers the suspects possessed in the camps that allowed them to save people. In some cases, the investigators realized that the accusations were a matter of settling scores, or of anger that was unfathomable to those who had not been there. Some survivors spent weeks under false arrest, until the interrogators despaired of finding witnesses, or understood that it was a case of mistaken identity due to a deceptive exterior appearance or a similarity of names.
One survivor prepared a 10-page essay for her investigators, in which she wrote that she had been in a camp and had been a kapo, and that thanks to her activity dozens of Jewish girls had been saved when she arranged easier tasks for them or removed them from death lists. While she was in custody, “her” survivors demanded her release. A reader of her essay understands that she wanted it to be published: She was proud of what she had done.
One of those questioned was a Judenrat member whose wrongs were reported in the local press when he was detained. However, the investigators found no evidence and closed the case. One of the last documents in the file is a heartrending letter in which he pleads with the investigators to publish their findings and clear his name.
- The crime: Collaborating with the Nazis. The punishment: Excommunication from Judaism
- The Nazi collaborator who served ice cream in Tel Aviv
There were a few complaints against a Jewish policeman from the Bochnia ghetto, in occupied Poland, but most of the ghetto’s survivors who gave testimony to the police spoke instead about the help he managed to give them. The file of one woman who had been a kapo contained one accusatory testimony and three testimonies clearing her. She was in custody, her close circle knew about her detention and the suspicions, but not about the balance of the testimonies. From the perspective of those who knew her, she remained under a cloud for the rest of her life although, like so many others, as mentioned, she was never indicted.
There were survivors who left Israel after their release in order to start a new life – again. Some established themselves in the countries to which they immigrated but wished to return to Israel. The old investigative files that sat on the shelves in some police building were augmented in the 1960s by letters from lawyers demanding that the state publish the findings of their investigations in order to exonerate the suspects, or at least undertake not to launch other investigations. As far as is known, they did not receive an answer.
A perusal of the files is also illuminating with respect to the police investigators. At the start of their work, in 1950, they took every complaint seriously. As time passed and they became more closely acquainted with the impossible circumstances in which Jews lived and died in the Holocaust, they preferred not to probe further or were quick to close files due to “lack of public interest.” It was clear that they knew they were dealing with stories that were not appropriate for the courts.
Yablonka saw these files in the 1990s, when they were still held by the police. In 2014, journalist Itamar Levin understood that the files had been deposited in the Israel State Archives and submitted a request to view them. The archives confirmed their existence but refused to allow him access, citing privacy laws. Levin went to court, and while the state prosecution was contemplating how to reply, the issue was placed on my desk as the state archivist at the time. I read about 120 files. I thought that most of them should be made accessible to the public, but because the final decision lies with the depositing body – the police – I apprised the police commissioner of my findings. The police appointed a young officer to examine the files: She has not completed her examination to this day.
At that time, some veteran staff members at the state archives asked the state comptroller to examine the wide range of reforms that I was trying to bring about. In their letter they expressed hope that his findings would lead to my being fired. The comptroller’s findings were quite routine. Only on one issue did he make a personal comment: for my having dared to open the investigative files of those suspected of collaborating with the Nazis.
But I didn’t open them. I opted for a well-known procedure intended to enable research on sensitive issues of this kind: I allowed the journalist to see the files on condition that he refrain from revealing personal details of the people described – a condition he respected. In 2016, when the state archives revised its activity and all their declassified material was posted on the internet, those files were not included.
Earlier this year, 70 years after the last of the files was closed, I asked the present state archivist to open the files. All the suspect survivors were already dead; they had been held in custody and their reputations were sullied. The opening of the files would show their grandchildren and great-grandchildren that their detention had never been justified. At most they would understand how impossible it is to understand the complexity of the cases.
By its obstinacy in continuing to keep the files closed, the state is not protecting the privacy of suspects. It is preventing the possibility of exonerating them. Such secrecy hides the state’s part in the short-lived episode of maltreatment of Holocaust survivors, during a period when the fog of pain and anger still cast a pall over reason and compassion. It also conceals the humanity and wisdom of the police investigators.
If there is a feeling that the opening of the files should arouse in us, it is compassion.
Dr. Yaacov Lozowick was Israel’s state archivist from 2011 to 2018.