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A kapo leader at Salaspils concentration camp, Latvia, with a Lagerpolizist (camp policeman) armband.

A kapo or prisoner functionary was a special type of prisoner in the Nazi concentration camps during The Holocaust. Kapos were chosen by the Schutzstaffel (SS) camp guards to help run the camps. Some kapos were in charge of other prisoners, who had to do forced labor. Other kapos did paperwork and kept records in the camps.

The Nazis used kapos for many reasons. With kapos helping to run the camps, the camps did not need as many SS guards. The kapos helped the SS control the other prisoners. This made it possible for a small number of SS to run large concentration camps. Also, because kapos were prisoners, they were not paid for their work, so this system also saved a lot of money.

Even though they were not paid, the kapos got special treatment. They did not have to do hard labor, and they were not physically abused like the other prisoners. They sometimes got extra food, cigarettes, alcohol, regular clothes, and private rooms.[1] However, to keep this special treatment, the kapos had to keep the SS guards happy. If they did not control the other prisoners well enough, the kapos would lose their jobs. They would become regular prisoners again.

The SS often chose kapos who were members of violent criminal gangs. These kapos often abused other prisoners badly. The SS allowed this abuse to happen.

What did the kapos do?[change | change source]

The SS controlled the concentration camps. However, from day to day, the kapos helped keep the camps running. They made it possible for the camps to run with fewer SS guards. Sometimes, up to 10% of the prisoners at the camps were kapos.[2][3] Without the kapos, the SS running the camps would not have been able to keep the camps running smoothly.[4][5]

Kapos were often hated by other prisoners and were seen as Nazi henchmen. Sometimes, other prisoners would spit on the kapos.[6] Some barracks leaders (blockälteste) secretly helped prisoners in their barracks get extra food or easier jobs. However, other kapos did more to help the SS, partly because they thought this would help them survive the camps.[7][8]

Criminal kapos were called "professional criminals" by other prisoners . These kapos were known for being cruel and brutal to other prisoners.[9] In fact, this was why the SS had chosen them to be kapos.[10][11][12] According to former prisoners, kapos who were criminals were more likely to be helpful to the SS. Kapos who were sent to concentration camps for disagreeing with the Nazis' politics were more likely to be helpful to other prisoners.[7]

In his Dictionary of the Camp, Oliver Lustig wrote:

Vicenzo and Luigi Pappalettera wrote in their book The Brutes Have the Floor[13] that, every time a new transport of [prisoners] arrived at Mauthausen [concentration camp], Kapo August Adam picked out the professors, lawyers, priests and magistrates and cynically asked them: "Are you a lawyer? A professor? Good! ... I am a killer. I have five convictions on my record: one for manslaughter and four for robbery. Well, here I am in command. The world has turned upside down, did you get that? Do you need a dolmetscher, an interpreter? Here it is!" And he was pointing to his bat, after which he struck. When he was satisfied, he formed a [work group] with those selected and sent them to clean the latrines.[14]

Domination and terror[change | change source]

The SS used domination and terror to control the many prisoners in the camps with just a few SS guards. Kapos were a very important part of this system, where prisoners were completely controlled and always had to be afraid of being hurt or murdered.

The Nazis used many different strategies to torture prisoners mentally and physically, and to keep them under control. These strategies included:[2]

  • Starvation: Even though prisoners were doing hard labor, they were not given enough food to survive
  • Exhaustion: Prisoners were always weak and exhausted (very tired) from doing very hard work without enough food
  • Physical abuse: The SS or the kapos could hit or hurt prisoners any time they wanted to. Prisoners never knew when they might be beaten, whipped, or tortured
  • Humiliation: The Nazis ran the concentration camps in ways that were humiliating, on purpose. They treated prisoners like they were not even human.
  • Strict camp rules
  • If one prisoner did something the SS did not like, whole groups of prisoners would be punished

Kapos helped with all these things. Their job also included pushing the prisoners to work harder. Many kapos, especially the criminals, could be very cruel to prisoners, especially when SS guards were nearby, to show that they were doing their jobs and deserved their special treatment.[9][15] They often beat prisoners, and some even killed prisoners.[15] Some kapos sexually abused young boys and men.[16]

One non-criminal kapo was Josef Heiden. He was an Austrian political prisoner (someone put in prison because they disagreed with the Nazis' political beliefs). Prisoners feared and hated him. He was known as a sadist - someone who liked hurting and torturing people. He killed several people while he was a kapo. He was set free from Dachau concentration camp in 1942, and joined the Waffen SS.[17] Some kapos personally helped the SS mass murder other prisoners.[18] Beginning in October 1944, the Nazis started transferring criminal kapos to the Dirlewanger Brigade of the Waffen SS.[10]

Kapos had a bad reputation for helping the Nazis and often being cruel. However, a book written about Jewish kapos says that many kapos felt caught in the middle. They felt like victims of the Nazis, but at the same time they were helping the Nazis and hurting fellow prisoners. Many of them felt guilty about what they did, both at the time and after World War II ended.[2]

Kapo ranks[change | change source]

The armband of an oberkapo

In the capo system, there were different types of kapos, who had different ranks and different jobs.

The highest, most powerful job that a prisoner could get was called Lagerältester ("camp leader" or "camp senior"). He (or she) answered directly to the camp's commandant (commander). The Lagerältester had to make sure that everything ran smoothly in the camps every day.[7][19][20]

The second-most powerful kapos were the Blockältester (block or barracks leader) and the Stubenältester (room leader).[note 1] The Blockältester was in charge of the prisoners in the barracks, and making sure they followed the rules.[7][11] The Stubenälteste was in charge of a specific room within a barracks. He had to force the prisoners to make the barracks neat and clean. He was also in charge of the room's hygiene, like killing lice (which spread diseases like typhus).

The Blockschreiber (registrar or barrack clerk) kept records. For example, he kept track of prisoners during roll calls (where prisoners were forced to stand and be counted over and over).

Work crews outside the camp were controlled by a Vorarbeiter (foreman), a Kapo, or Oberkapo (chief kapo). These functionaries pushed their fellow prisoners to work harder and harder, hitting and beating them, even killing them.[15]

Kapos could often help other prisoners by getting them into better barracks, or getting them assigned to easier work.[7] Sometimes, kapos were even able to get other prisoners removed from transport lists when they were scheduled to be sent to death camps. Some kapos were also able to get prisoners new identities to protect them from persecution[21] When kapos did these things, they usually did them only for people in their own group (for example, people from the same country or political party). Not every kapo did this, and the ones who did had to be very careful. If the kapos made the SS angry by helping other prisoners, they would lose their jobs and might even be sent to the gas chambers to be murdered. Heinrich Himmler described this in a speech:

The moment he becomes a Kapo, he no longer sleeps with [the other prisoners]. He is held accountable for the performance of the work, that they are clean, that the beds are well-built. [...] So, he must drive his men. The moment we become dissatisfied with him, he is no longer Kapo, he's back to sleeping with his men. And he knows that he will be beaten to death by them the first night.
—Heinrich Himmler, June 21, 1944[10]

A kapo who the SS liked could have a camp "career" and be promoted from Kapo to Oberkapo and eventually to Lagerältester. However, he could also just as easily be sent to the gas chambers if he did something the SS did not like.[22]

Related pages[change | change source]

References[change | change source]

  1. Ältester is translated into a few different words in English: "leader", "elder", "supervisor", "commander" or "senior".
  1. René Wolf (2007). "Judgement in the Grey Zone: the Third Auschwitz (Kapo) Trial in Frankfurt 1968". Journal of Genocide Research. 9 (4): 617–663. doi:10.1080/14623520701644432. S2CID 71894716.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Yizhak Ahren, "Überlebt weil schuldig – schuldig weil überlebt" Archived 2016-02-05 at the Wayback Machine Review of book about Jewish kapos. Leo Baeck Bookshop, official website. Retrieved May 8, 2010 (in German)
  3. Marc Schemmel, Funktionshäftlinge im KZ Neuengamme. Zwischen Kooperation und Widerstand. Saarbrücken (2007) p. 4. ISBN 978-3-8364-1718-1 (in German)
  4. Stanislav Zámečník, Das war Dachau. (Published by Comité International de Dachau) Luxemburg (2002) pp. 151–159 (in German)
  5. Jerzy Pindera, edited by Lynn Taylor, Liebe Mutti: one man's struggle to survive in KZ Sachsenhausen, 1939–1945 University Press of America (2004) pp. 113 ISBN 0-7618-2834-6 Retrieved May 5, 2010
  6. Jens-Christian Wagner, Häftlingseinsatz im KZ Dora-Mittelbau… article from Ausbeutung, Vernichtung, Öffentlichkeit. Norbert Frei (Ed.), pp. 26–27. Munich (2000) ISBN 3-598-24033-3 (in German)
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Shirli Gilbert, Music in the Holocaust: confronting life in the Nazi ghettos and camps Oxford University Press (2005) page 101. ISBN 0-19-927797-4 Retrieved May 5, 2010
  8. Guido Knopp, Die SS. Eine Warnung der Geschichte, Bertelsmann Verlag, Munich (2002) p. 209 (in German)
  9. 9.0 9.1 "Neuengamme / Bremen-Farge" United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, official website. Retrieved May 6, 2010
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Karin Orth, Gab es eine Lagergesellschaft? „Kriminelle“ und politische Häftlinge im Konzentrationslager, article from Ausbeutung, Vernichtung, Öffentlichkeit. Norbert Frei (Ed.), pp. 110, 111, 127, 131. Munich (2000) ISBN 3-598-24033-3 (in German)
  11. 11.0 11.1 "Audio guide 05: Prisoner functionaries" Mauthausen Memorial official website. May 6, 2010
  12. "Organized Resistance" Archived 2012-03-06 at the Wayback Machine Against the odds, official website. Documentary about prisoner resistance in Nazi concentration camps. Retrieved May 6, 2010
  13. The author or translator probably refers to the book: Pappalettera, Vincenzo y Luigi. " La parola agli aguzzini: le SS e i Kapò di Mauthausen svelano le leggi del lager.", Milano: Mondadori (1969), Mursia, (1979), also "Los SS tienen la palabra: las leyes del campo de Mauthausen reveladas por las Schutz-Staffeln". Barcelona: Editorial Laia, 1969).
  14. Oliver Lustig, Dicţionar de lagăr, Bucharest, Hasefer, 2002 ISBN 973-630-011-0 (English translation)
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 "Prisoner administration" Wollheim Memorial, official website. Retrieved May 7, 2010
  16. Neander, Joachim. "To My Comrades – From Karl…". Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau. Retrieved February 20, 2016.
  17. Ludwig Eiber and Robert Sigel (Editors), Dachauer Prozesse: NS-Verbrechen vor amerikanischen Militärgerichten in Dachau 1945-1948, page 18. Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen (2007) ISBN 978-3-8353-0167-2 Retrieved May 7, 2010 (in German)
  18. "The prisoner functionaries system" Archived 2012-03-06 at the Wayback Machine Gusen Memorial, official website. Retrieved May 7, 2010
  19. Danuta Czech, Auschwitz Chronicle, 1939–1945, (1990) ISBN 0-8050-5238-0, Glossary
  20. Stanislav Zámečník, Das war Dachau Comité International de Dachau, Luxemburg (2002) p. 154 (in German)
  21. Bill Niven, The Buchenwald child: truth, fiction, and propaganda Camden House (2007) ISBN 978-1-57113-339-7. Retrieved April 15, 2010
  22. "7. Juli - 19. Oktober 1940"[permanent dead link] Auschwitz survivor Heinrich Dronia's official website. Retrieved May 7, 2010 (in German)