Jewish police detaining a former kapo who was recognized by former concentration camp inmates in the Zeilsheim Displaced Persons camp, Germany, ca. 1945. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Alice Lev)

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Honor Courts

After World War II, Holocaust survivors found consolation in the claim that Jews had heroically resisted the Nazis on a large scale, and that even if not every Jew had engaged the enemy in armed combat, all Jews had exhibited high moral standards. Survivors from Eastern Europe demonstrated their solidarity and identification with the myth of Jewish valor by censuring the questionable conduct of a small fraction of Jews suspected of collaboration with the Nazi regime. During the war, the Jewish underground in Eastern Europe had assassinated several Judenrat functionaries, ghetto policemen, and informers, while concentration camp inmates had occasionally killed brutal former kapos stripped by the Germans of their authority. After liberation there were survivors who wanted to settle scores with Jewish collaborators still alive. This wish for revenge led to prosecutions of putative collaborators in Jewish honor courts, administrative tribunals mandated by local Jewish communities to investigate individuals whose behavior under Nazi occupation was called into question, and to condemn and sanction those whose actions were deemed reproachable.

Jews in Poland and in displaced persons camps established honor courts under various names. In 1946, the Central Committee of Jews in Poland, the principal organization of postwar Polish Jewry, created a civic court (Pol., sąd społeczny; Yid., gezelshaftlekh gerikht) in Warsaw, to determine “whether during the occupation a member of the [Jewish] community [had] behaved in a matter befitting a Jewish citizen.” Jewish displaced persons in the postwar camps of Germany and Italy established central and local honor courts (Yid., eren-gerikhte) to preserve order among residents and gave them jurisdiction to judge suspected collaborators. In 1948, the Central Committee of Liberated Jews in the American Zone in Germany transferred jurisdiction over cases involving alleged collaborators to a central Rehabilitation Commission of the Association for Liberated Jews in the American Zone (Yid., Rehabilitatsye-komisye baym Farband fun di Bafrayte Yidn in der Amerikaner Zone in Daytshland), located in Munich. The commission was authorized to pass judgment on “all Jews who are accused of injurious activity during the war,” including petitions of individuals who, feeling unfairly vilified, sought to clear their names. In conducting their investigations, Jewish lawyers received invaluable assistance in Poland from the Central Jewish Historical Commission in Łódź and its successor, the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, and in Germany from the Central Historical Commission in Munich, all of which compiled dossiers on scores of suspects, often on the basis of survivor testimony.

Outside Poland and the displaced persons camps, Jewish political organizations occasionally erected ad hoc honor courts to examine the wartime conduct of single individuals. At the first Zionist Congress held after the war, in December 1946 in Basel, a panel of inquiry at Rezső Kasztner’s request heard charges that accused him of self-serving negotiations with the Nazis in Hungary, but it did not reach a verdict. In 1950, a tribunal assembled in New York by the American Jewish Congress acquitted Majer Mittelman, a Czech Jew, of killing a Jewish labor camp inmate. Germane to this context were the trials of some 40 postwar immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe, by Israeli courts in the 1950s and early 1960s under Israel’s 1950 Nazi and Nazi Collaborators Law. Although these trials were in principle based on legal standards of criminal liability, the courts were wont, not unlike the honor courts, to apply a communal moral yardstick in judging defendants, of whom a majority were convicted. In 1946–1948, Dutch Jews established the only semipermanent honor court (Joodse Ereraad) in Western Europe.

The number of putative collaborators who stood trial in Jewish honor courts was small but not insignificant. In Poland, lawyers from the Central Committee of Jews in Poland opened 175 files and eventually prosecuted 25 suspected collaborators. There is no reliable figure to indicate how many alleged collaborators were tried between 1945 and 1950 in displaced persons honor courts and the Rehabilitation Commission, but the number probably exceeded 100 and may have approached 200. The Rehabilitation Commission alone received 88 cases for consideration in its first year of operation; it ruled on 40.

Jewish Council members, many of whom were accused of cooperating with the German authorities in liquidating ghettos, were a minority of the defendants in honor courts, since most either had perished during the war or had emigrated immediately after liberation. Jewish ghetto policemen, charged with assisting the Germans (often zealously) in ghetto clearances and deportations, and kapos, charged with mistreating fellow Jewish inmates in concentration camps, constituted the majority of defendants. Among the accused were several prominent prewar figures, including Stanisław (Shepsel) Rotholc (1912–1996), an outstanding Jewish boxer, and Michał Weichert (1890–1967), a Yiddish theater producer, convicted by the Jewish Civic Court in Poland in 1946 and 1949, respectively. Honor courts applied a deontological standard of liability, examining whether individual suspects had breached a moral obligation to the Jewish community with a mind to deciding what place they deserved in postwar Jewish society. But none of the honor courts considered membership in Jewish councils, the Jewish police, or the ranks of kapos culpable behavior per se.

With rare exceptions, honor courts weighed the evidence before them seriously. In general, they allowed defendants to be represented by counsel, refused to convict on the basis of the testimony of just one witness, and permitted vigorous cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. Of 25 alleged collaborators who ultimately stood trial in the Jewish Civic Court in Poland, 18 were convicted and 7 acquitted. More telling is the court’s dismissal, upon motions of lawyers from the Central Committee, of some 50 cases on the grounds that there was insufficient incriminating evidence to proceed to trial. In its first year, the displaced persons Rehabilitation Commission granted 8 petitions for rehabilitation, acquitted 3, and condemned 15. It is thus fair to say that honor courts were not kangaroo courts and that they operated with a significant degree of fairness and integrity.

As a report from the Rehabilitation Commission put it, “rehabilitation will cleanse the social atmosphere.” In line with this goal of social cleansing, defendants who were found guilty of collaboration were disqualified from occupying leadership roles in postwar Jewish organizations for a number of years or even permanently. In addition, the punishment of convicted collaborators consisted of censure in the Jewish press, ineligibility for material assistance, and, in extreme cases, banishment from the Jewish community.

The honor courts in both Poland and the displaced persons camps were dismantled in 1950. Public interest in the trials, initially high, had faded by 1948 and 1949. By this time, most survivors wanted to put the war behind them and rebuild their lives. Moreover, the imposition of Stalinism in Poland ended the autonomy of Jewish institutions there, entailing the demise of the Civic Court, while the honor courts in postwar Germany and Italy folded in anticipation of the closure of displaced persons camps after most Jews had immigrated to Israel or North America.

Suggested Reading

David Engel, “Who is a Collaborator? The Trials of Michał Weichert,” in The Jews in Poland, vol. 2, ed. Slawomir Kapralski, pp. 339–370 (Kraków, 1999); Gabriel N. Finder, “‘Sweep Out Evil from Your Midst’: The Jewish People’s Court in Post-War Poland,” in Beyond Camps and Forced Labour: Current International Research on Survivors of Nazi Persecution, ed. Johannes-Dieter Steinert and Inge Weber-Newth, pp. 269–279 (Osnabrück, 2005); Gabriel N. Finder, “The Trial of Shepsl Rotholc and the Politics of Retribution in the Aftermath of the Holocaust,” Gal-Ed 20 (2006): 63–89; Zeev W. Mankowitz, Life between Memory and Hope: The Survivors of the Holocaust in Occupied Germany (Cambridge and New York, 2002); Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation (New York, 1972).