The Slave and the Kind Kapo

nonfiction by Louis Arthur Norton

“The Slave and the Kind Kapo” is a story about a friend’s life during World War II as a German captive and slave laborer. Some of the names that appear in the narrative have been changed to protect their identity. 

One late summer night we slept with the windows open. The cool air felt wonderfully crisp. Just before dawn, I awoke to the whining of airplane engines. It was not the steady grind of an occasional passing but the penetrating sound of diving and climbing. There were loud, thunderous explosions. I jumped out of bed and saw them through the window. They were barely noticeable but I saw three or four, maybe five. One by one they dove over the roofs of the sleeping city, each dive followed by an explosion and a small cloud of smoke. Within a few minutes, a siren started. Then another and another, till their frightening cacophony filled the air. Nazi Germany had attacked Poland. It was Friday, September 1, 1939. 

My surname is Natan, but that is not important. I was born and raised in the Polish industrial city Katowice, not far from Kraków. We were not deeply religious Jews, but when the Nazis invaded my homeland, it became obvious that the Germans were rounding up everyone of our faith. My family quickly left the city and went into hiding in a nearby forest. After two weeks of evasion, the intruders eventually apprehended us. There were no charges or trial for the captives, only a conviction and sentencing to a concentration camp because of our ethnicity. 

During the early days of my incarceration, my vision of life became distorted into a surreal scene. I was twelve years old and had only completed the sixth grade. The opportunities to further my studies, play music, play sports, dream about the opposite sex were denied to me. My family’s voices, our apartment, the smells of my favorite foods, my childhood friends became a distant, blurred image. The brutal reality was the prison camp. Its many inmates, with their senses dulled, milled around like ghosts.

The only shred of good fortune, if you can call it that, was that my father and I were incarcerated in the same camp—but in separate barracks. Father was assigned to a different work detail so we didn’t see each other during the day. Some nights we would sneak out from the barracks, hiding from the searchlights, and meet in the dark to spend a few precious minutes together. 

Every morning we marched six abreast under guard to work in the nearby factory.  After twelve exhausting hours we trudged back to the camp. My survival instincts took over as I adjusted to the dreary routine of avoiding the Schutzstaffel or SS men and the Kapos.

The Kapos were concentration camp prisoners assigned by the SS guards to supervise forced labor or carry out administrative tasks. This sinister system turned Kapos against their fellow prisoners in exchange for the possibility of favorable treatment. Kaposwere spared physical abuse and hard labor, provided they performed to the satisfaction of the SS guards. They could use beatings, humiliation, and punishment of whole groups for the actions of one prisoner. Their methods were psychological and/or physical torments such as starvation and physical exhaustion from backbreaking labor. If he displeased the SS hierarchy however, the Kapo would be returned to the status of ordinary prisoner then subjected to those whom he had tormented. Some showed flashes of humanity to their fellow prisoners, but many became known for their brutality.

Upon our return to the camp one evening, a large number of armed guards in long coats with rifles slung over their shoulders herded us into the barracks. An SS man accompanied by several guards barged into the barracks with a skinny prisoner carrying a small toolbox. Screaming and prodding us with their rifle butts, the guards made us form a line. The prisoner set the toolbox on a small table, opened it, and took out a strange instrument. The SS man and guards began dragging people to the table. Two guards firmly held each prisoner as the man tattooed each left wrist to distinguish an escapee if he successfully fled the compound. I didn’t know what the letters meant, but I knew that I did not want to be tattooed.

Someone from behind pushed me forward then two guards grabbed me, forced my left hand to the table, and held the palm of my hand firmly on the table’s rough surface. I kicked and screamed in an attempt to break their grip, but within seconds, the repulsive stigma was on my wrist. When I was released, I scampered up to my high bunk. Enraged, I tried to suck the ink out. Stubborn and defiant, I bit deeply into the skin until much of the ink and surrounding pieces of flesh were gone. The offensive tattoo was mutilated, but a scar was left behind.

The next month the executions began. Every night a long procession of prisoners slowly passed by my window, dragging their feet in silence. Occasionally we could hear the machine gun’s staccato fire followed by the muffled growl of tractors moving earth to bury the dead. The horrific scent of death clung to the air.

Rumors spread that if you belonged to a work detail, you might be saved from execution. Shortly thereafter my father seized upon an opportunity to talk to a Kaponamed Switsky whoregularly took a group of prisoners to work outside the main camp. I heard the two speak in Yiddish, the language commonly spoken by Jewish prisoners. The Kapo abruptly turned to look at me, apparently assessing my abilities. Finally he motioned to me and we joined his detail. 

Kapo Switsky came from a nearby village where the Germans had captured him as he tried to jump onto a train to go north, but he had succeeded in sending his wife and two daughters into hiding. Kapo Switsky appeared kindly, unlike many Kapos. A tinsmith by trade, he had spent most of his life fixing leaking tin roofs. Judging by his limited vocabulary, he likely had little schooling. He would yell and curse in Yiddish pretending to be tough, especially when the guards were around. Kapo Switsky projected the appearance of a soldier with his special armband, but from some unknown army. He dressed in ragged clothes, but his pants legs were always neatly tucked into his boots. His dark olive-green jacket was tightly buttoned and a threadbare black beret cockily tipped over his right ear. Always full of energy, he exuded a determination to survive with the belief that the war would soon be over. Using smuggled cigarettes, money, and other bribes, he shielded us from the viciousness of the guards and the sadistic Kapos.

From the very first day, Kapo Switsky took me under his protection, watching out for my safety. I became his personal helper, carrying his toolbox full of tin snips, hammers, a dented kerosene blowtorch, and soldering irons up narrow stairways to fix leaking roofs. While I moved cautiously when placing my feet on the slippery inclines, Kapo Switsky, in his element, hopped around the rooftop as sure-footed as a mountain goat.

High above the nearby city of Płaszów, we would peer at the horizon where grey and white clouds crept quietly, giving the impression of serenity and perhaps sanity. We were two improbable friends, a simple tinsmith and a young boy, both enslaved because of an evil dictator’s hate for the Jewish people. By inhaling the fresh breezes that filled our nostrils, we somehow felt free of the war, the camp, and the guards. This fantasy always ended when the shrill factory whistle proclaimed the end of the workday and the brutal reality of electrified fences and wooden bunks returned.

Once Kapo Switsky reached into his breast pocket and retrieved a creased photograph of a young woman and two small girls, the blurred image of his wife and daughters. He said he was confident that some day they would be together again. Then, gazing on the city below, he mumbled about them being safe and that the Germans would never find them.

A day or two later, when we assembled for the trek back to camp, Kapo Switsky became agitated jumping back and forth, looking from the head of his column to its rear and repeating the tally several times. There was no mistake; the count was short. Two men had escaped. The guard at the gate always counted the prisoners in the morning and again in the evening, and KapoSwitsky was responsible for bringing his entire work detail back to camp. We inmates had learned to cover for the missing men by creating diversions to confuse the guards and slip them up on the count. On this day, 

however, a guard at the gate noticed some excessive shuffling and sounded an alarm. We were rapidly surrounded, ordered to stand still, and counted. The escape was discovered. Kapo Switsky was roughly dragged into the guard shack while we were escorted to our barracks and locked up.

The next morning, the customary commotion created by the formation of work details was missing. All was quiet. No one ordered us out to work. We speculated what would happen next. The Germans did not tolerate escapes from the camps and often retaliated by executing the entire work detail. The day plodded on as one rumor replaced another. The night came and still nothing happened. The camp was eerily silent, yet there was a palpable sense of anticipation.

About mid-morning on the following day, hundreds of soldiers poured from military trucks and surrounded the barracks. With loud shouts, the soldiers ordered us to assemble in front of each barracks in rows, six deep. Shortly afterward the prisoners from the Plaszów labor camp were marched onto a rectangular field then ordered to stand and remain silent in a four-sided formation. I looked for my father but did not see him. 

Machine gun barrels pointed menacingly at us from the watchtowers, as guards with snarling dogs took positions all around us. I then noticed a newly-built platform in the middle of the field about five feet high with a stout pole immediately adjacent to it. Near the top of the pole was a long, sturdy reinforced arm. A thick rope tied into a noose hung from this arm. Under the rope was a three-legged stool. Ten soldiers appeared at one corner of the field led by an SS officer in a black uniform followed by a nondescript spectacled man in a white coat. Immediately behind them were four armed guards surrounding the diminutive figure of Kapo Switsky.

Switsky’s small frame was barely visible between the guards. His hands were tied behind his back, but he walked briskly with his head high, his black beret pulled over his right ear. The legs of his pants, as always, were neatly tucked into his boots. Once at the platform, two of the guards effortlessly lifted him and stood him on the three-legged stool. One of the guards tightened the noose on his neck. Suddenly, the silence was pierced by KapoSwitsky’s high-pitched voice. 

“Brothers,” he yelled in Yiddish, “the war will be over soon. Take care of my wife and children.”

Just as the wind carried his voice to the corners of the field, the SS man yanked the small stool out from beneath him with one quick, decisive motion. Kapo Switsky dropped straight down. His feet thrashed, feeling for support. None was there. Within seconds his listless shape started to slowly sway in the bright sun. Kapo Switsky’s head was bent sideways, his swollen tongue protruding between bluish lips. 

The man in the white coat walked up to examine the body. He whispered something into the SS man’s ear. The SS officer nodded, turned to the swaying form, then pulled a pistol from the leather holster on his belt. He fired two shots into the hanging body, the quick pops cracking the silent air. Kapo Switsky, the mentsh (the Yiddish word for a righteous person of noble character), was no more.

The prisoners stood motionless. I stared at the ground rather than the limp, lifeless body hanging from the end of the rope. Executions were a common occurrence at the camp, yet this death was deeply personal. Kapo Switsky’s companionship had erased the darkness in my bleak world. 

A large black raven squawked, interrupting the tense silence. Dwarfed by my fellow prisoners, I stood transfixed. Tears blurred my vision, but I knew that all eyes were riveted on the wooden scaffolding in the center of the field. The Nazi bastards had taken my family, my youth, my innocence, my material possessions, my health, and now had pillaged my faith in humanity. 

I had little time for spirituality, but faith brought hope and, at times, courage. Because of the atrocities I had witnessed, I began to question the existence of God. Was God present? Would not a compassionate God save us from this evil? Why did God permit this wickedness? These are questions without reasonable answers—answers that only exist beyond human comprehension.