KAPO, prisoner in charge of a group of inmates in Nazi concentration camps. The derivation of the word is not clear; according to one view the name is Italian (capo = "boss"); according to others it is an abbreviation of Kameradschaftpolizei and would then have originated among the prisoners themselves. Similarly, it is not possible to ascertain when this unofficial term first came into use. The appointment of Kapos was made by the SS who guarded the camps; but the authority to appoint Kapos was never explicitly defined. It was the Kapo's task to carry out the orders of the SS and to ensure absolute control over the prisoners. The Kapo was not an expert like the "chief worker" (Vorarbeiter) but just a strong man. For the most part, Kapos were in charge of work gangs, but there were also Kapos for the hospitals or the kitchens. Certain camps even had a hierarchy: Oberkapo, Kapo, Unterkapo. Initially, Kapos were appointed from the ranks of ethnic German prisoners convicted on criminal charges. These criminals enjoyed extra privileges of great importance under camp conditions: better food, clothing, and housing. In return, many of them tyrannized the prisoners with a cruelty equal to that of the SS, motivated both by the desire to curry favor among the SS as well as by sadistic inclinations. In the course of time, the political prisoners in many camps succeeded in ousting some of the criminals and having them replaced by Kapos from their own ranks. Jews were appointed Kapos only in those camps which were all Jewish. Some Kapos exercised their power humanely and sensitively and worked to assist their fellow prisoners. Others mimicked the oppressive behavior of the SS and may have indeed internalized their values. Thus, the term Kapo became synonymous with a cruel and egocentric person who oppresses, tortures, and exploits others.
E. Kogon, Theory and Practice of Hell (1950), passim; E.A. Cohen, Human Behavior in Concentration Camp (1953), index; D. Gaussen, Le Kapo (1965); O. Wormser-Migot, Le Système concentrationnaire nazi 1933–1945 (1968), index.
[Jozeph Michman (Melkman)]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.