Role of Kapos in Nazi Concentration Camps

Cruel Prisoner Supervisors in the Nazi Concentration Camps

Jewish police detain a former Kapo
Jewish police detain a former Kapo who was recognized in the street at the Zeilsheim displaced persons camp. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum/Alice Lev

Kapos, called Funktionshäftling by the SS, were prisoners who collaborated with the Nazis in order to serve in leadership or administrative roles over others interned in the same Nazi concentration camp.

How Nazis Used Kapos

The vast system of Nazi concentration camps in occupied Europe were under the control of the SS (Schutzstaffel). While there were many SS who staffed the camps, their ranks were supplemented with local auxiliary troops and prisoners.

Prisoners that were chosen to be in these higher positions served in the role of Kapos.

The origin of the term “Kapo” is not definitive.  Some historians believe it was directly transferred from the Italian word “capo” for “boss,” while others point to more indirect roots in both German and French.  In the Nazi concentration camps, the term Kapo was first used at Dachau from which it spread to the other camps.

Regardless of the origin, Kapos played a vital role in the Nazi camp system as the large amount of prisoners within the system required constant oversight.  Most Kapos were put in charge of a prisoner work gang, called Kommando. It was the Kapos job to brutally force prisoners to do forced labor, despite the prisoners being sick and starving.

Facing prisoner against prisoner served two goals for the SS: it allowed them to meet a labor need while simultaneously furthering tensions between various groups of prisoners.

Cruelty

Kapos were, in many instances, even crueler than the SS themselves.  Because their tenuous position depended on the satisfaction of the SS, many Kapos took extreme measures against their fellow prisoners to maintain their privileged positions.

Pulling most Kapos from the pool of prisoners interned for violent criminal behavior also allowed this cruelty to flourish.

   While there were Kapos whose original internment was for asocial, political, or racial purposes (such as Jews), the vast majority of Kapos were criminal internees.

Survivor memoirs and recollections relate varying experiences with Kapos.  A select few, such as Primo Levi and Victor Frankl, credit a certain Kapo with ensuring their survival or helping them get slightly better treatment; while others, such as Elie Wiesel, share a far more common experience of cruelty. 

Early in Wiesel’s camp experience at Auschwitz, he encounters, Idek, a cruel Kapo. Wiesel relates in Night,

One day when Idek was venting his fury, I happened to cross his path. He threw himself on me like a wild beast, beating me in the chest, on my head, throwing me to the ground and picking me up again, crushing me with ever more violent blows, until I was covered in blood. As I bit my lips in order not to howl with pain, he must have mistaken my silence for defiance and so he continued to hit me harder and harder.  Abruptly, he calmed down and sent me back to work as if nothing had happened.*

In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl also tells of a Kapo known simply as "The Murderous Capo."

Kapos Had Privileges

The privileges of being a Kapo varied from camp to camp but almost always resulted in better living conditions and a reduction in physical labor.

 

In the larger camps, such as Auschwitz, Kapos received separate rooms within the communal barracks, which they would often share with a self-selected assistant. 

Kapos also received better clothing, better rations, and the ability to supervise labor rather than actively participate in it.  Kapos were sometimes able to use their positions to also procure special items within the camp system such as cigarettes, special foods, and alcohol. 

A prisoner’s ability to please the Kapo or establish a rare rapport with him/her could, in many instances, meant the difference between life and death.

Levels of Kapos

In the larger camps, there were several different levels within the “Kapo” designation.  Some of the titles deemed as Kapos included:

  • Lagerältester (camp leader) – Within the various sections of large camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Lagerältester oversaw the entire section and served largely in administrative roles.  This was the highest of all prisoner positions and came with the most privileges.
  • Blockältester (block leader) – A position that was common in most camps, the Blockältester was responsible for administration and discipline of an entire barracks.  This position customarily afforded its holder with a private room (or one shared with an assistant) and better rations.
  • Stubenälteste (section leader) – Oversaw portions of large barracks such as those in Auschwitz I and reported to the Blockältester about specific needs related to the barrack’s prisoners.

At Liberation

At the time of liberation, some Kapos were beaten and killed by the fellow prisoners that they had spent months or years tormenting. But in most cases, Kapos moved on with their lives in a similar fashion to other victims of Nazi persecution. 

A few found themselves on trial in post-war West Germany as part of the U.S. military trials held there but this was the exception, not the norm.   In one of the Auschwitz trials of the 1960s, two Kapos were found guilty of murder and cruelty and sentenced to life in prison.

Others were tried in East Germany and Poland but without much success.   The only known court-sanctioned executions of Kapos occurred in immediate post-war trials in Poland, where five of seven men convicted for their roles as Kapos had their death sentences carried out.

Ultimately, historians and psychiatrists are still exploring the role of Kapos as more information becomes available through recently released archives from the East.  Their role as prisoner functionaries within the Nazi concentration camp system was vital to its success but this role, like many in the Third Reich, is not without its complexities.

 

Kapos are viewed as both opportunists and survivalists and their complete history may never be known.

*  Elie Wiesel and Marion Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night ; Dawn ; Day (New York: Hill and Wang, 2008) 71.