- Jewish Honor Courts: Revenge, Retribution, and Reconciliation in Europe and Israel after the Holocaust ed. by Laura Jockusch and Gabriel N. Finder
This book is about a neglected and taboo slice of history: the postwar allegations of individual Jews and Jewish communities against fellow Jews who, they believed, had collaborated with the Nazis during the war. Jewish honor courts were secular initiatives of Jewish communities and survivor organizations to adjudicate these conflicts and either exonerate defendants or mete out punishments to those found guilty. Unlike state courts, in which state prosecutors filed criminal charges against alleged collaborators, the honor courts applied the moral standard of whether a defendant had “betrayed the trust of the Jewish people” and should be deemed a “traitor to the Jewish nation” (p. 5). After the war, honor courts emerged in several countries throughout Europe and in the nascent state of Israel. Jewish communal leaders believed that only Jews should sit in judgment of the wartime behavior of fellow Jews—that only a Jewish court could render justice in the cases of internal adversaries.
Each of the twelve chapters in Jewish Honor Courts deals with a particular country or highlights a particular theme. In the first chapter, “Why Punish [End Page 553] Collaborators?” David Engel compares the handling of perceived Jewish collaborators in three settings: the Warsaw Ghetto, postwar honor courts in Displaced Persons (DP) camps, and Israeli proceedings based on the 1950 Nazi and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law. The proceedings in occupied Poland, he observes, appear to have been motivated by tactical, political, and psychological concerns as much as by a desire for retribution. Proceedings held after the war, in the DP camps and in Israel, focused more narrowly on the strictly legal question of whether, in beating, extorting, or otherwise harming fellow Jews, the defendant had been motivated by criminal intent.
In her contribution, co-editor Laura Jockusch analyzes the Jewish honor courts established in Allied-occupied Germany between 1946 and 1951—by East European Jews in Munich and by German Jews in Berlin. Jockusch estimates that some 100 to 150 cases were heard. The hearings reflected the struggles of defendants, witnesses, and judges to evaluate whether particular Jews had behaved “morally” during the wartime persecution and genocide of the Jewish people. Court records reveal the participants’ awareness of what Lawrence Langer would later label the “choiceless choices” Jews faced in the extreme circumstances that characterized the Holocaust. As they tried to determine whether a defendant had crossed an ethical line, jurists were mindful of the Nazis’ skill in turning Jewish victims into accomplices.
In the fascinating chapter “Judenrat on Trial: Postwar Polish Jewry Sits in Judgment of Its Wartime Leadership,” co-editor Gabriel Finder explores the role and actions of the Jewish councils established by the Nazis in occupied Poland. In 1947, the Central Jewish Historical Commission, which had been tasked by the Central Committee of Polish Jews with “reconstruct[ing] the fate of Polish Jewry during the Holocaust” (p. 90), compiled lists totaling 2,000 names of Polish Jews suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. The majority had been members of Jewish councils or Jewish ghetto police forces. Jewish lawyers investigated twenty surviving council members, of whom only four went to trial, and only one was found guilty. Despite the pressure to punish surviving council members, the honor court used an ethical rather than legal standard to judge the defendant’s behavior. This standard “exempted the court from determining whether the defendant’s state of mind or intent were good or evil.… What mattered was how the defendant acted or failed to act, measured by how a Jewish citizen was obligated to act under the circumstances” (p. 96).
One of the best chapters in the volume, Ewa Koźmińska-Frejlak’s “I’m Going to the Oven Because I Wouldn’t Give Myself to Him,” examines the role of gender...