The historical episode in which Jews were put on trial in Israel for aiding the Nazis – the subject of a new book by Holocaust scholar Itamar Levin, called “Kapo on Allenby” – took place in the 1950s, between two other post-Holocaust events of great significance: the Nuremberg Trials, which took place in Germany in the late 1940s, and the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, in 1961.
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The phenomenon of Jews standing trial in Israeli courts on charges of abetting the Nazi genocide was exceptional and, naturally, unprecedented.
In 1950, the Knesset passed a law allowing for the punishment of Nazis and Nazi collaborators. One section of the law related to placing Jews on trial for crimes they had committed against Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust.
At the end of that year, shortly after the law went into effect, the (now defunct) newspaper Herut reported that “120 individuals suspected of committing crimes against the Jewish people have been located in Israel,” and that while there were seven or eight Christians among them, most were Jewish. The newspaper reported that the suspects included a doctor from a clinic in Hadera and a waiter from Tel Aviv’s Café Pasaz. Most of this evidence never made it to court, and some of the accusations, it transpired, were linked to personal vendettas that had nothing to do with the Holocaust.
Levin estimates that about 40 indictments were issued during the 1950s under the law against Nazis and Nazi collaborators. Documentation still exists for 23 of these indictments, with 9 ending in acquittals and 14 with convictions. The average sentence handed down to those found guilty was 17 months in prison. Official records regarding the rest of the cases no longer exist. Some of the files were simply lost over the years, others damaged in a flood at the court archives, while others were destroyed. Much of the material that did survive is now in poor condition.
Charged with crimes against humanity
Levin found the indictments that led to trials in the Israel State Archives – these documents had been handwritten by judges in the 1950s. Levin complemented his research by studying the newspapers that covered the trials, where he uncovered headlines like “Defense Ministry official accused of being kapo” and “Woman brought to maternity ward recognized by nurse as kapo from Vilna ghetto.” (“Kapo” referred to Jews who worked inside the death camps and ghettos on behalf of the Nazis.) The testimonies of those accused of being kapos are hard to read, even so many years on. Murder, beatings, humiliations, and severe and arbitrary abuse are some of the accusations that appear among these files and court transcripts.
In August 1951, Moshe Pochich – who was vice commander of the Jewish police in the Ostrovitz ghetto in Poland and ran the labor camp that was built outside the city – became the first Jew to stand trial in Israel for being a Nazi collaborator. One of the charges listed in the indictment against him was war crimes, based on the fact that he systematically beat many ghetto residents and labor camp workers, and handed many on to the Nazi regime. He was also charged with crimes against humanity, for “cruelly abusing camp prisoners and beating them indiscriminately.”
Pochich, who had subsequently helped Holocaust survivors in the camps in Germany and then worked for the government in Israel, was attacked with his wife outside the courthouse. “It’s a disgrace that you walk freely in Israel,” someone shouted at his wife. Prosecution witnesses said he had prowled the ghetto like a “predator.” They described how he handed over a child to the Gestapo, revealed the hiding place of a father and daughter to the Nazis, as well as the hiding place of another woman who was later murdered. A witness also told of how Pochich buried another Jew alive.
The judges, however, acquitted him of all charges, and wrote about the legal difficulty in hearing such cases. They did not accept the claims on either side: not the prosecution’s claim that he was a power-hungry, cruel man; nor the defense’s claim that he was an innocent man who would turn the other cheek and was incapable of harming anyone.
Troubling testimonies of Jews’ behavior during the Holocaust came during the trial of Elsa Trank, who, as the elder of her block in Birkenau, was responsible for maintaining order. She was tried for crimes against humanity. She was arrested after another survivor recognized her selling ice cream in a bakery on Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Binyamin Street. When asked her name, she provided it and admitted that she was responsible for block 7 in Birkenau.
At the trial, witnesses testified that she would “threaten to send us to become smoke.” Others described her violence against other prisoners: “Her relations to other women were as bad as bad can be. She beat all of the women, particularly the elderly and weak – the ones who could not defend themselves,” claimed one witness.
The indictment against her stated that Trank abused female prisoners by waking them up three hours before inspection and forcing them to kneel while waiting for inspection. Those who fainted in the meantime were not permitted water.
Under questioning, Trank said she was a prisoner like everyone else, and was forced to obey the Germans’ orders. Her sentencing also described her situation as complex, stating that “she herself was also persecuted, like the others.” At the end of her trial, Trank – who was only 26 at the time of her trial – was sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment.
Another suspect to stand trial was Reya Hanes, who was a kapo in Birkenau. One survivor testified at her trial that Hanes ordered her to bring over some bread, but she couldn’t do it because she was too weak. “The defendant said that if I was sick, then there was the crematorium,” the witness recalled. The defendant also allegedly hit her for dropping a loaf of bread. “The defendant beat me for this. A horrible beating, with all her strength, on my entire body,” the witness stated.
Even worse than the Nazis
Yaakov Honigman, who served as a kapo at three different labor camps, was said to have abused prisoners “in a terrible, horrible, unforgivable manner.” The indictment against him was the most comprehensive of its kind to be issued against a Jewish collaborator. It included 25 separate charges – unparalleled in all other cases except Eichmann’s – and included murder, beatings and abuse.
The testimonies, as expected, were particularly harsh. Yaakov Neufeld, a witness, stated that Honigman’s “job was basically to kill Jews. He was the worst person, and the writer has not yet been born who can describe his actions. I spent that entire time in Germany and met many Nazis, but none of them scared me as much as Honigman did.”
Honigman wielded a leather-encased iron club, which he used to beat prisoners waiting in line for soup. “He would severely beat people for the slightest thing, and would stop only when his hands were covered in blood,” said one witness.
Honigman was 33 when he stood trial. “There was never a case in which a Jew was beaten and killed by another Jew,” he said, denying the allegation against him. He did, however, admit that he beat prisoners, but said he only did so if they got into a fight. He was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison, which was slightly reduced on appeal.
Mordechai Goldstein was a police officer in the ghetto and labor camp at Ostrovitz. He was accused of many crimes, including “turning persecuted individuals over to a hostile regime.” This charge was based on how he would close the doors and windows with nails, while he himself escaped, while the Nazis were preparing a shipment of prisoners to Auschwitz. Goldstein, who owned a box factory in Lodz and was a former yeshiva student, said in his defense that his wife and daughter were killed by the Nazis, and that he “didn’t beat people without reason.” He was sentenced to a month in prison.
Yehezkel Ingster was the only Jew to be sentenced to death for crimes committed during the Holocaust. Ingster was responsible for a block at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp in Germany. He was convicted of murder, abuse and causing the death of prisoners. “He served as the monster for the camp administrators. I saw him beat prisoners every day by hand, whip and club, and anything else he could get his hands on,” said one survivor during the trial. A prosecution witness spoke about “the worst hell imaginable” with regard to Ingster’s actions. He was convicted of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death. However, the Supreme Court accepted his appeal and commuted his sentence to jail time. He was ultimately pardoned, but died a few days after his release.