- A Jewish Kapo in Auschwitz: History, Memory, and the Politics of Survival by Tuvia Friling
Primo Levi noted in “The Gray Zone,” chapter two of his monumental The Drowned and the Saved, that Nazi camps presented prisoners a morally ambiguous universe fraught with what Lawrence Langer would later term “choiceless choices.” Prisoners struggled within a context that was mostly beyond their control and made decisions negatively impacting the lives of other prisoners. Isaiah Trunk’s study examining the controversial Judenräte also illustrated Jewish responses to the extreme circumstances of the ghettos. These three scholars did more than any others to advance a nuanced approach: after the publication of their studies, no serious Holocaust scholar would portray the victims’ responses to persecution in black-and-white terms.1
Tuvia Friling, a renowned scholar of Zionism and modern Jewish history at Ben-Gurion University, continues in this tradition of superb scholarship with his latest study, which chronicles the story of Eliezer Gruenbaum (also known as Leon Berger), the son of noted Polish Zionist leader Yitzhak Gruenbaum. Friling traces the younger Gruenbaum’s political development in Poland as a young Communist; his activity in Paris among Polish Communist émigrés; his role as a volunteer on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War; his eventual arrest and deportation to Auschwitz; his controversial actions as a kapo and prisoner in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Jawischowitz (an Auschwitz sub-camp), and Buchenwald; the postwar political and legal problems resulting from his wartime activities; his death in the Israeli War of Independence; and the eventual role his life, death, and memory played in the creation of postwar survivor and Israeli identity. This is no small task, as the search for primary sources for the life and death of this polarizing figure took Friling and his research assistants to several countries. Friling performs it competently and gracefully.
The chronological analysis aims to accomplish two goals. Friling hopes first to fully describe Eliezer’s actions and motivations in the Nazi camps. The fragmentary, biased, and highly contentious sources prevent a full reconstruction. Gruenbaum maintained a consistent defense, but Friling correctly approaches his sources with a keen skeptical eye. Eliezer claimed that he reluctantly became a kapo at the behest of his Party comrades; that in his capacity as kapo he worked to help develop a vibrant camp underground and to shield Party members and the other prisoners from the harshest of Nazi camp policies; that if he beat prisoners, he did so to prevent intervention by SS guards. Occasional brutality, he argued, allowed him to remain a kapo, thus ensuring his ability to alleviate the harshest of camp conditions. But questions remain. Did he beat prisoners to death, as some witnesses alleged? Could Eliezer have achieved his stated goals without becoming a kapo? Friling recognizes the impossibility of a definitive answer. At any rate, he seems more concerned with the role Eliezer’s story played in creating collective Holocaust memory in Israel. [End Page 134]
This concern leads to Friling’s second aim: to trace the development of four separate retrospective narratives—“the Communist narrative, the Haredi narrative, the Zionist narrative, and the personal and family narrative” (p. 260). Friling has much more success in analyzing various Jewish groups’ use of Eliezer’s story to forward differing political agendas during Israel’s creation. The Communist Party conducted the first inquiries into Eliezer’s role as kapo. The Communist leadership soon realized, however, that Eliezer and other Party comrades who served as prisoner functionaries posed a danger to the Party’s image in France and Poland. Admitting that Party members collaborated in the camps was too embarrassing, and so the Party washed its hands of the investigations and of Eliezer. In contrast, Friling reports, “the Haredi narrative grew out of that community’s need to link the father to the son” (p. 260). As bitter enemies of political Zionism, Haredi community leaders hoped to undermine a perceived political enemy, Yitzhak Gruenbaum, and...