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Jewish Kapo in Auschwitz

History, Memory, and the Politics of Survival

Tuvia Friling

Publication Year: 2014

Eliezer Gruenbaum (1908–1948) was a Polish Jew denounced for serving as a Kapo while interned at Auschwitz. He was the communist son of Itzhak Gruenbaum, the most prominent secular leader of interwar Polish Jewry who later became the chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Rescue Committee during the Holocaust and Israel’s first minister of the interior. In light of the father’s high placement in both Polish and Israeli politics, the denunciation of the younger Gruenbaum and his suspicious death during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war add intrigue to a controversy that really centers on the question of what constitutes—and how do we evaluate—moral behavior in Auschwitz.

Gruenbaum—a Jewish Kapo, a communist, an anti-Zionist, a secularist, and the son of a polarizing Zionist leader—became a symbol exploited by opponents of the movements to which he was linked. Sorting through this Rashomon-like story within the cultural and political contexts in which Gruenbaum operated, Friling illuminates key debates that rent the Jewish community in Europe and Israel from the 1930s to the 1960s.

Published by: Brandeis University Press

Series: The Schusterman Series in Israel Studies

Title Page, Copyright Page, The Schusterman Series in Israel Studies, Dedication

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pp. xi-xvi

This book began to run through my mind as I was writing my previous study, Arrows in the Dark: David Ben-Gurion, the Yishuv Leadership, and Rescue Attempts during the Holocaust. That work offers an extensive account of the labors of the father of the subject of this book. Yitzhak Gruenbaum...

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1. Jerusalem, May 22, 1948, Morning

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pp. 1-2

Had you walked past the Ta’amon Café on the corner of Hillel and King George Streets in Jerusalem on the morning of May 22, 1948, you would have spotted a gaggle of about thirty men, all in the fourth decade of their lives. Packs on their backs, they were waiting to be picked up and sent...

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2. Poland, Lancicia, District Prison, 1929

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pp. 3-10

Lancicia (Łęczyca in Polish) is a district capital in Łódź Province in central Poland, about eighty miles north of Warsaw. It lies at the crossing of two important roads, one a north–south route that runs through the Pinsk Marshes and the other an east–west route through the Bzura River...

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3. Paris, Fifth Arrondissement, 5 Rue Linné, 1931

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pp. 11-14

Eliezer was taken in by the Polish-Jewish Communist Party cell in Paris. His comrades were members of the Polish Communist Party (Komunistyczna Partia Polski—kpp) who had fled to France either because the Polish authorities were after them or because of economic hardship...

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4. Spain, March 1938–1939

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pp. 15-23

On March 3, 1938, Eliezer boarded a train at the Gare de Lyon, the huge and colorful train station on Paris’s east side. His official destination was Perpignan, a city on the border with Spain,1 but his real objective was to insinuate himself over the border and sign up for combat in...

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5. Saint-Cyprien, Paris, Les Tourelles, Beaune-la-Rolande, France, 1939–1942

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pp. 24-30

Aft er crossing into France, Eliezer and his stateless comrades were sent to the internment camp at Saint-Cyprien, pending determination of their cases. They realized that they had left France illegally, but as far as they were concerned they had done so to fight for the forces of good...

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6. Auschwitz, Auschwitz-Birkenau, July 1942–March/April 1944

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pp. 31-50

Eliezer Gruenbaum—who was using the name Leon Berger—now gained yet a new designation: Häftling (prisoner) 43057.1 Unlike his previous names, this one was tattooed on his left forearm; he also wore a yellow Star of David, designating him as a Jew. There were other symbols...

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7. Jawischowitz, March 1944–January 1945

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pp. 51-65

In March 1942 Hermann Göring Industries (Reichswerke ag für Bergund Huttenbetriebe, known as the “Hermann Göring Werke,” or hgw) signed a contract with Wirtschafts Verwaltungshauptamt, the economic- administrative arm of the SS, according to which Auschwitz would...

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8. Buchenwald, January–June 1945

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pp. 66-73

Buchenwald’s original name had been the Ettersberg Concentration Camp, after the nearby mountain of that name, located about five miles north of Weimar in Thüringen, in east-central Germany. A group of 149 men, most of them convicted criminals but some of them political prisoners...

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9. Warsaw–Paris, Paris–Warsaw, June–September 1945

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pp. 74-132

A new inquiry into Eliezer’s conduct in the camps got under way on May 25, 1945. Once again it was a panel sponsored by the Polish Communist Party. Its members included two men named Kowalski and Eisner.1 The inquiry was conducted in Warsaw, Buchenwald, and Paris, and was...

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10. Paris, June 1945–May 1946

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pp. 133-169

Eliezer arrived in Paris at the beginning of June 1945 as an emissary of the Polish Communist Party, tasked with promoting the party’s vision of a new Poland. He was just one of the displaced persons who streamed into the country after the war—les déportés, as the French called them in admiration...

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11. Jerusalem, May 1946–May 1948

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pp. 170-186

When they arrived in Jerusalem, Yitzhak asked his close friends to come to hear Eliezer tell his story directly. Sneh and Hartman accepted and arrived the next day, May 2. “[Yitzhak] Gruenbaum looked like a shadow of his former self, bent, pale, gaunt,” Hartman recounted...

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12. Ramat Rachel, May 21–22, 1948

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pp. 187-199

The People’s Guard Reserve, to which Eliezer was attached, was one of the units that took part in the battles of southern Jerusalem.1 The force was called up on May 15, the day British rule came to an end and the armies of Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Transjordan invaded Palestine. Over...

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13. Postmortem: Israel, the First Decades

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pp. 200-226

Following Eliezer’s death, his family sought a way to honor his memory. The family of every fallen soldier feels this need—creating a memorial to a son who fell in battle is an integral part of how parents and siblings cope with their overwhelming sorrow. It is also an important...

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14. History, Politics, and Memory

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pp. 227-262

A great outpouring of retribution and revenge began while the prisoners were still in the camps. Isaiah Trunk has noted that hundreds of copies of a “blacklist” of perceived collaborators circulated at the time. It provided personal details and an account of the crimes committed by each suspect, along...

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Research Notes: From Clio’s Elusive World

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pp. 263-264

I asked F__ n about the significance of the name Leon Berger. In French, berger means “shepherd.” But does it have another, more exalted meaning in French culture? She told me that it is a very common name in France, and many Jews adopted it as a replacement for a previous name that sounded too Jewish. It was a good name for assimilating into...

Eliezer Gruenbaum: Chronology

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pp. 265-266


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pp. 267-294


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pp. 295-314


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pp. 315-325

E-ISBN-13: 9781611685770
E-ISBN-10: 161168577X
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611685763

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2014

Series Title: The Schusterman Series in Israel Studies

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Subject Headings

  • Grinboim, Eliʻezer, 1908-1948.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Poland -- Biography.
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Collaborationists -- Poland -- Biography.
  • Auschwitz (Concentration camp).
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