Bitter Reckoning by Dan Porat (Harvard University Press, £23.95)
Those familiar with present-day Israel and its diverse population are in for a shock when reading Dan Porat’s masterful Bitter Reckoning (sub-titled, Israel Tries Holocaust Survivors as Nazi Collaborators) the inside and almost forgotten story of Israel in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
For, as well as having no financial resources and facing enmity from Arab countries on all sides, the new state was struggling with making new laws — and the most painful and difficult of such laws were those dealing with alleged Jewish “collaborators”.
Perhaps the best known of such cases is that of Rudolf Kastner, accused of being hand-in-glove with the Nazis in order to secure escape for himself, his family and his friends.
But early Israel was consumed, we learn, with Holocaust survivors recognising former hated persecutors in the street and denouncing them to the authorities.
One man accused of collaboration was knifed in the street and nearly died: it later emerged that he had been in Israel for 22 years and had not been back to Europe in all that time. The atmosphere was febrile, fed by newspapers and shrieking headlines of revenge.
People were attacked on buses, shouted at in shops or in the street, and some were even marched off to line-ups to be identified.
Porat, who teaches and researches history at the Hebrew University, has meticulously trawled through numerous court cases where the accused was a concentration camp functionary, or kapo, appointed by the Nazis to keep the terrified inmates in place.
Or, in the dock might be a former Jewish police officer, or a member or leader of a local Jewish council, all protesting their innocence — and claiming victimhood themselves. Many of the trial records were suppressed by the state for years, and it is a shock to discover that such cases went on until as late as 1972.
The real beauty of this book is how Israeli society gradually came to different conclusions as to the guilt or complicity of those standing trial, choosing, ultimately, not to stand-in judgment over men and women in impossible situations.
To refuse a Nazi command to serve as a kapo in a camp would have meant instant death, and Porat shows that the defence of many of those on trial was that they made that appalling choice — which was not a choice — in order to try to save Jews where they could.
One man, for example, was alleged to have beaten Jews in a camp to prevent them eating precious potato peelings. His defence was that eating the peelings would almost certainly have made them ill — a defence accepted by the court.
Porat’s book carefully traces, in close detail, eight landmark cases which, he says, mark important milestones in the development of the kapo trials. Perhaps the most important was that of Yehezkel Jungster in 1951-2. Jungster was found guilty but his case led to a legal distinction between collaborators and Nazis.
By the early 1970s, the number of witnesses was diminishing, as was the public appetite for moral judgments. But Bitter Reckoning is an essential guide to understanding the torments of the young state of Israel and, in the process, adds to our sum of knowledge about the Holocaust.
Jenni Frazer is a freelance writer