Kapo - or Hero?

A film to be aired on TV tries to dispel the fog that surrounds the mysterious figure of Eliezer Gruenbaum, and to seek the truth behind the stories linked to his life and death.

Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem
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Tamar Rotem
Tamar Rotem

A large, lumbering man is walking in the dark. In his hand, dangling by his side, he clutches a yellowing photograph. In the picture, an enlargement of the sort that could have been plucked off the wall, is a strapping man with a shaved head, staring straight into the camera. He looks determined, but not threatening. His face is round and open, but set in an expression that remains etched in the mind. In this short scene from the film "Kapo Gruenbaum," to be aired on the eve of Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Day (next Monday, Channel Two, 9 P.M.), Matti Gruenbaum is seen at the start of his journey to piece together the enigma of his uncle, Eliezer Gruenbaum, the man in the photograph.

It is a photograph that attracts the viewer like a magnet. It is hard to reconcile this pleasant face with the sadistic kapo (a concentration camp inmate who collaborated with the Nazis) he was accused of being - so cruel that the Jews murdered him during the War of Independence (the accusations against him have never been confirmed). Certainly, the man does not look like a monster.

If his face arouses our curiosity, it is also because Eliezer Gruenbaum is the son of Itzhak Gruenbaum, who was known in Poland as the "king of the Jews." From testimony in the film, we learn about the strong physical resemblance between Gruenbaum the son and his father, the famous Zionist leader. It was easy to point him out in a crowd and cluck one's tongue: "Look what happened to Gruenbaum's son, a boy from a good family."

So what did happen to the son of Itzhak Gruenbaum? How did he become a kapo? Was he really a brutal murderer? Is there any truth in the allegations brought against him by the Holocaust survivors interviewed in this film - or is his nephew right in saying that it's all delusion and hearsay?

"Kapo Gruenbaum," directed by Duby Kroitero, documents Matti Gruenbaum's travels to Poland and Paris in a search for witnesses: survivors who knew Eliezer ("Itche") Gruenbaum or were in his block. Kroitero tries to dispel the fog that surrounds this mysterious figure and seek the truth behind the stories linked to his life and death. For example, the claim (supported by historian Ze'ev Tsahor) that Gruenbaum did not fall in the battle for Ramat Rahel, but was murdered by fellow Jews as an act of revenge. Others say that he committed suicide. The film manages to disprove the first claim, but not the second.

Although its intentions are sincere, this film is too short and superficial to deal with the whole picture: the mysterious character of Itche Gruenbaum, the father and son relationship, the political and historical background, and the source of the accusations and rumors. Between the lines, however, it emerges that Gruenbaum's character and background worked to his detriment, turning him into a symbol of someone who is disloyal to one's own. And from the moment he became a symbol, the facts no longer mattered: He became an easy target for all the pent-up emotions. How did he become a symbol? The film doesn't explain, although Matti Gruenbaum feels that Itche's complex personality and his father's position contributed greatly.

Spreading rumors

Itzhak Gruenbaum was a respected figure who attained one of the highest positions a Jew could hold: He was a member of the Sejm, the Polish parliament, where he headed the minority bloc. It was not for nothing that people called him the "king of the Jews." During World War II, he served as chairman of the Jewish Agency's Rescue Committee. His determination not to halt the development of the Jewish Yishuv (pre-state community) in Palestine and make rescuing European Jewry his top priority drew much flak, especially from the ultra-Orthodox community. Later, when he was appointed minister of the interior under David Ben-Gurion, the ultra- Orthodox treated him much the way they treat Yossi Sarid or Shulamit Aloni today. Matti Gruenbaum believes that this led to the spread of rumors about Itche.

Eliezer Gruenbaum was the middle child, the second of Itzhak Gruenbaum's three sons. Refusing to follow in his father's footsteps, he caused the elder Gruenbaum considerable embarrassment. As a young man, he was active in the Communist Party, which was blacklisted by the Polish authorities at the time. At the age of 19, he was arrested and sent to prison for four and a half years. After serving two years, he escaped from jail and fled to Paris, where he continued his political activity and edited a Polish workers' newsletter (a kind of "workers' hot line").

In 1936, he volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War, against Franco. Afterward, he returned to France, where he was arrested on charges of sedition. When the Nazis invaded France, Gruenbaum volunteered to serve in the French army. His friends fled to London, but he stayed in Paris and joined the underground. In 1942, he was captured and deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where he was the deputy chief of one of the prisoners' blocks. When the war ended in 1945, he was tried and released. He immigrated to Israel and died in the War of Independence.

These are the facts, so far. In a broadsheet distributed by the ultra-Orthodox after the war, Itche was accused of murdering tens of thousands of Jewish prisoners. These allegations reappear with added force in various books published after the Holocaust, such as those of K. Zetnick, who draws a portrait of him as a vicious kapo (under a fictional name, but the reference was clear to everyone).

Within the family, however, Itche has become a kind of mythical figure. Matti, a playwright in his fifties today, is the bearer of the family "cross." He staunchly defends his uncle. Two years ago, he appeared on Channel One's "Half Past Seven" to respond to a derogatory reference to Itche Gruenbaum made by Minister Shlomo Benizri in a speech on Zionism. He is displeased with the lack of support for his view expressed in the film, and has even threatened to sue the filmmaker. As a compromise, Gruenbaum was interviewed next to his uncle's grave this week, and this clip will be shown after the film.

Proof of innocence

From childhood, Matti Gruenbaum had heard remarkable tales of heroism about his uncle, mainly from his grandfather, Itzhak, with whom he spent a lot of time as a youngster. He heard about Itche insuring that bread was distributed equally, about fewer deaths in Itche's block, about access to a laundry service run by Polish and communist prisoners which Itche arranged for the inmates of his block, about the heater turned on in Itche's block every evening. Matti Gruenbaum never doubted the truth of these stories.

Thus his trip to Poland and Paris in search of survivors from Auschwitz who knew Itche Gruenbaum is problematic. He is not looking for the facts. On the contrary: One has the feeling that he is trying to find confirmation for what he already knows rather than going to these places with an open mind, ready to accept whatever conclusion offers itself.

Gruenbaum himself does not see the problem. He keeps repeating that his grandfather, Itzhak, was convinced of his son's innocence even before the trial. After sitting with him a whole night, he was certain that Itche's actions had only helped the Jews.

"He mediated between the block chief, a murderous Polish brute, and the prisoners," says Matti Gruenbaum. "Night after night, he would tell the block chief stories about nightlife in Paris in order to distract him. Meanwhile, he helped to make the place more hygienic and less horrible."

Matti Gruenbaum insists that his uncle is innocent. He wants to know why firsthand witnesses were never brought in to tell the story, as in the Eichmann trial, rather than relying on hearsay. In a section that was omitted from the film, one of the survivors from the neighboring prisoners' block says that "fewer people were killed in Eliezer's block. Twenty instead of 30." For Matti Gruenbaum, this is incisive proof of his uncle's innocence.

If this film is searching for answers, the best it does is arouse curiosity, without really satisfying it. At the same time, Kroitero seems to have learned, in the course of making the film, that the attempt to reach a solid conclusion is doomed in advance.

Like every story connected to the Holocaust, there are many layers. It is a complicated narrative. Even if we peel away layer after layer, the question marks and the enigmas remain. Perhaps that is the nature of all historical narratives: There is no historical truth, but only versions of the truth.

A year before his death, Itche Gruenbaum fell in love with a girl and they decided to get married. On the day of his death, she committed suicide.

"We have the makings of a Greek tragedy here," says Matti Gruenbaum. "The film has not dealt with them. What remains are distorted memories."