In 2017 a person I did not know emailed me to call me a kapo—a concentration camp prisoner who agreed to work for the Nazis. What had I done to deserve this? I had signed a letter that criticized then-President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. I suspected that the letter would provoke debate and discussion, as anything that touches the topic of Israel and Palestine tends to do. I did not expect to be called a kapo. Of course, the comparison was extreme—how is thinking that Jerusalem should be shared between Israel and Palestine akin to collaborating with Nazis?—but that email stayed with me nonetheless.
My great-uncle Charles had been a kapo in Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi extermination camp, where close to a million Jews from all over Europe were murdered. I know this because on June 14, 1945, five weeks after being liberated, Charles sent a long letter to his brother, Henri, my grandfather, containing a detailed account of his time in Nazi concentration camps. That slur in an intrusive email had nothing to do with historical kapos, yet in a strange and unexpected way, it had connected me through the generations to someone I had not known personally (Charles died before I was born) but whose story of deportation and survival had been seared in my family’s memory.
Holocaust survivors often say that their arrival in Nazi concentration camps was a moment of utter shock. It was a world they did not understand. They did not know its rules; they could not distinguish friend from foe. Most of the Jewish deportees were gassed to death upon arrival and never experienced that world. For the small number who entered the camps, a relentless struggle for survival started. They quickly understood that without extra food, death was unavoidable. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl, a survivor and psychologist, analyzed the attitudes of concentration camp prisoners who survived. Hope and the ability to find a meaning for one’s existence, even in the worst circumstances, were key, but those who survived, Frankl also tells us, were those who had lost all scruples and would not hesitate to steal, use force, or betray a fellow prisoner. It was “the best of us”—those who held on to a shred of conscience, Frankl wrote—“who did not return.”
Primo Levi, in The Drowned and the Saved, explained that there were a wide range of collaborators in the camp: the “sweepers, kettle washers, night watchmen, bed smoothers, checkers of lice and scabies, messengers, interpreters, and assistants’ assistants.” They worked for an extra bowl of soup and were ready to do anything to defend their jobs, but Levi felt that he could not judge them. That extra soup was the difference between life and death. Levi was more ambivalent about kapos, prisoners who held supervisory positions in the camp. Some were violent and cruel, while others tried to remain decent human beings; but all, whether they wanted to or not, became part of the machinery of the concentration camp. Kapos, according to Levi, included “the chiefs of the labor squads, the barracks chiefs, the clerks, all the way to the world (whose existence at that time I did not even suspect) of the prisoners who performed diverse, at times most delicate duties in the camps’ administrative offices, the Political Section (actually a section of the Gestapo), the Labor Service, and the punishment cells.”
Uncle Charles was one of those kapos whose existence regular prisoners like Levi “did not even suspect.” Charles had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in June 1942. The slave labor, hunger, and daily beatings, he said in his letter to my grandfather, quickly turned him into a shell of himself. He had lost all hope of surviving when, in the fall of 1942, he was chosen to work as Aufnahmeschreiber—a typist to register prisoners upon their arrival into the camp. Aufnahmeschreibers worked for Birkenau’s Political Department, a branch of the Gestapo. On days that a transport of new prisoners arrived, Charles worked as Aufnahmeschreiber; on other days, he was sent to the kitchens to peel potatoes, or to clean the camp’s streets, or on a work detail to perform harsh labor when workers were needed.
Despite the extra rations, he wrote, he continued to suffer from hunger and disease and was regularly beaten up. He became so ill from typhus that he doubted he would make it through the winter, but in the spring of 1943, he was promoted to kapo of the Aufnahmeschreiber commando. Charles was now in charge of the entire group of prisoners who were registering and matriculating prisoners when they arrived in the camp. From then on, life changed for him. He was well fed and well clothed, and he didn’t have to sleep in the block with other prisoners anymore—he had his own individual room. No wonder most lower-level prisoners were not aware that people like Charles existed.
In the camps, kapos were privileged, but after the war ended, they became the objects of scorn and hatred. Former inmates who recognized kapos savagely beat them, accusing them of being worse than Nazis. Anger against them was so strong that in 1950, the state of Israel passed the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law, which it used to judge kapos and even sentence them to prison. Today, the pendulum has swung and scholars, at least, agree that we should not judge kapos. They, too, were victims desperate to survive.
Still, Charles’ letter to Henri, my grandfather, is a rare first-person account of being a kapo. Because of the negative connotation the term kapo would acquire, most survivors who had similar experiences chose not to record their experiences in text or video. In the thousands of hours of video testimonies preserved at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and at Yale’s Fortunoff Archive, many witnesses talk about other prisoners who were kapos, but there are (according to my search, and in the opinion of experts I consulted) no testimonies by former kapos themselves.
Charles and Henri Katzengold were born in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1908 and 1914, respectively. When the Germans invaded Belgium, in May 1940, Henri was drafted into the Belgian army and was cited for bravery in action, but after a short, 18-day campaign, Belgium capitulated, and Henri was forced to return home to a now-Nazi-occupied city. Charles, who was a few years older and had a 2-year-old daughter, fled with his family to the south of France. After finding hiding places for his wife and child (both of whom would survive under false identities; his daughter spent many of those years on her own, hidden as a Christian child in a convent), Charles joined the resistance in early 1941 and accomplished a series of successful missions for a network called the Réseau Martin.
In the course of one of these missions, on Oct. 20, 1941, he was caught and arrested. He spent the next eight months jailed in France and was deported to Auschwitz on June 28, 1942. His was the fifth of 77 transports, of around 1,000 Jews each, that would leave France before the end of the war. In Charles’ convoy, all 1,038 deportees were selected for work—yet only 55 would be alive at the end of the war. In subsequent convoys, upward of 85 percent of deported Jews were gassed to death immediately on arrival.
Charles writes about his arrival in Auschwitz matter-of-factly, and with a touch of dry humor:
I arrived on June 30th at the famous concentration camp of Auschwitz. The reception was one of the warmest. After being fleeced of everything I had brought: clothes, food, luggage, and even my hair, I was given a beautiful tattoo on my left arm (I am probably the first in the family with a tattoo). Then the lager kapo [“camp kapo,” or a non-Jewish prisoner who was in charge of the camp], finding me particularly sympathetic, beat me up in a perfectly proper manner. I had not done anything to him but had the immense honor of being a saujude [“pig Jew”] and so I deserved his entire repertory of blows, with his feet in the stomach, his elbow under my chin, and so on, nothing was missed. When he was done (he was out of breath, the poor man) I understood; oh, yes, I understood that I was beginning to see another side of existence.
After two days, Charles was transferred to Birkenau, which, he adds with irony, “was a camp in the process of being constructed and in which one wanted to give Jews the opportunity to display their building talents.” (Birkenau was constructed in the fall of 1941, but gas chambers were added in the second half of 1942, which may be what Charles is referring to building here.) This may explain why his entire transport was selected for work: The Nazis needed workers. The conditions in the camp were so harsh that, in Charles’ words, “people perished as if it was a pleasure, at work or at the camp from diseases or beatings; every day we counted dozens of suicides. As a result, my transport was melting like snow in the sun.” Charles spent the winter of 1942–43 mortally ill with typhus, and would not have survived had he not been made kapo of the Aufnahmeschreiber commando in the spring of 1943.
Otto Wolken, an Austrian Jewish physician who arrived in Auschwitz in 1943, mentioned Charles by his last name, Katzengold, in testimony given in 1945 to a prosecutor in Krakow:
The men’s sector of the Birkenau camp had within it the so-called Political Department … run by SS officers. … The department had a special commando of prisoners. Its kapo was a Ukrainian named Bohdan (I do not recall his first name). The unterkapo was Katzengold, a French Jew. [Charles was French-speaking Belgian, deported from France.]
Prisoners who became administrators often had access to sensitive information about the camp and its leadership. Some, risking their lives, tried to use it to corrupt SS officers or help other prisoners. In his letter, Charles says that after becoming a kapo, “I was even able to help one or the other prisoner.” He gave no information about whom he helped or how, so I once asked my grandmother about this. She said, “Yes, he used his position to help people. I have a letter from a Dutch couple who told me that he helped many people in the camp. Wait—I will show it to you.” She could not find it. A few years later, I asked his only daughter (my first cousin once removed, who had spent the war in that convent) if she knew anything. She said no: “His letter to your grandparents was the only time he ever talked about his time in concentration camps. After that, he never uttered another word.”
The war had transformed Charles from an ordinary man to a Jew fleeing the Nazi invasion of his country, a father forced to hide his young daughter in a convent, a resistance fighter, a concentration camp prisoner, and a kapo. But that was not all. As the Russians advanced into Eastern Europe and German defeat loomed, Charles’ kapo status stopped protecting him. In the winter of 1945, he reports in his letter, he was sent on a death march, along with 6,000 other prisoners.
To walk, walk without stopping, without eating, without drinking, without sleeping. All who couldn’t follow were shot. … And yet our hopes were growing every day, we were witnesses to the collapse of the Third Reich and on May 9th, 1945 … the Russians liberated us. Of the 6000 [in this group] who left on January 20th … exactly 122 were left.
Charles had survived yet another horrific ordeal. What was the first thing he did upon being liberated? “My first task was to properly kill an SS officer whom I had recognized. A Russian soldier lent me his gun to accomplish the operation. Then he gave me the gun’s holster as a gift, and I still have it as a souvenir.”
According to historian Dina Porat: “Of the entire Jewish people in whose breasts the desire for revenge burned fiercely, only a few actually killed anyone.” Charles, per his letter, may have belonged to that small group.
My grandparents, who had managed to flee from Nazi-occupied Belgium to the Belgian Congo in 1943, were still there when they received Charles’ letter on Aug. 30, 1945. They moved back to Belgium six months later and, with Charles, reestablished themselves in Antwerp. They craved a return to normalcy, raising children, earning a living, and spending time with friends and family. They never talked about the war. After Charles died of colon cancer in 1965, my grandparents showed his letter to their children. Some 20 years later, they would make copies of it for all their grandchildren. Three generations of my family now have a copy of what we call “la lettre de l’oncle Charles” (“Uncle Charles’ letter”). We all know what the letter contains, yet we rarely talk about it, and even less so outside the family.
For a long time, I wondered about the ethics of Charles’ actions. Was it wrong to become a kapo? Should he have resisted killing that SS officer, but rather brought him to justice? Context matters, of course. Concentration camp prisoners were not free to make their own decisions. All they had were choiceless choices, between a quick death from hunger, disease, beating, or the gas chamber, or a delayed death, since the protections granted to kapos were, by design, temporary. For one, they knew too much, and according to Nazi ideology, all Jews would have to die in the end anyway. Right after liberation, Charles was a free man, at least in theory, but saying this also ignores the disorder and lawlessness of the immediate postwar period. Could he trust that SS officers would be brought to justice? Could he believe that, as a Jew, he would enjoy citizenship rights and the full protection of the law once again?
Over time, my thinking has shifted. I no longer believe that the central question Charles’ letter poses is an ethical one. Rather, what we can learn from Charles’ letter is a political lesson. We have come to think of Holocaust survivors as quasi-saints, pure and innocent, heroic victims who, after the war, did not dwell on hatred or revenge but rather dedicated themselves to building a better, “never again” world. I’m sure the dream of a better world appealed to them, but I wonder if we came to expect this attitude from them and did not make space for more difficult, perhaps uglier, emotions that they quite naturally may have felt. In desiring their pure victimhood and heroism, have we refused to see and understand the full horror of what it means to be thrown into a totalitarian universe designed to destroy any shred of humanity one possesses? Have we forgotten that totalitarian regimes thrive precisely on the ability to turn everyone, even their victims, into accomplices?
Primo Levi himself said: “It is naïve, absurd, and historically false to believe that an infernal system such as National Socialism sanctifies its victims: on the contrary it degrades them, it makes them resemble itself.” Uncle Charles’ letter teaches a lesson that Levi was anxious for us to learn as well: that in a totalitarian system, we are all liable to become its cogs and collaborators; that it is only by knowing that, by daring to see not only the pure victimhood of the survivors but also the corrupting effects that the Nazi regime had on them, that we can hope to be prepared, should we ever be thrown into such a situation.