Ordinary men, p.13
Ordinary Men, p.13Christopher R. Browning
Many of the men remembered in particular the building that had served as the ghetto hospital—in fact nothing more than a large room filled with three or four levels of bunk beds and emitting a terrible stench. A group of five or six policemen was assigned to enter the room and liquidate the forty or fifty patients, most of whom were suffering from dysentery. “In any case almost all of them were extremely emaciated and totally undernourished. One could say they consisted of nothing but skin and bones.”8 No doubt hoping to escape the smell as quickly as possible, the policemen opened fire wildly as soon as they entered the room. Under the hail of bullets, bodies toppled from the upper bunks. “This way of proceeding so disgusted me, and I was so ashamed, that I immediately turned around and left the room,” reported one policeman.9 Another remembered, “At the sight of the sick, it was not possible for me to shoot at one of the Jews, and I intentionally aimed all my shots wide.” His sergeant, who had joined in the shooting, noticed his marksmanship, for “after the conclusion of the action he took me aside and reviled me as a ‘traitor’ and ‘coward’ and threatened to report the incident to Captain Hoffmann. However, he did not do that.”10
At the marketplace the Jews were separated, men on one side, women and children on the other. There was a selection of men between eighteen and forty-five, particularly skilled workers. Possibly some women were selected for work as well. These Jews were marched out of the ghetto to the train station outside Puławy, to be shipped to work camps in Lublin. They were in such a weakened condition that many could not make the five-kilometer march to the train station. Witnesses estimated that 500 to 1,000 Jews were selected for labor, but 100 were shot en route after collapsing from exhaustion.11
As the Jews deemed suitable for work were marched out of town, the remaining Jews—800 to 1,000 women and children as well as a large number of elderly men—were simultaneously led off to a shooting site in a woods beyond the edge of town. Peters’s First Platoon and some of Messmann’s Gendarmerie supplied the firing squads. First the Jewish men were taken into the woods, forced to lie face down, and shot. The women and children followed.12 One of the policemen chatted with the head of the Jewish council, a German Jew from Munich, until he too was led away at the end.13 When the policemen who had escorted the work Jews to the train station returned to the marketplace in Końskowola, they found it empty, but they could hear shooting from the woods. They were assigned to make one more sweep through the ghetto, after which they were allowed to break ranks and relax. By then it was late afternoon, and some of the men found a pleasant farmhouse and played cards.14
Twenty-five years later Wolfgang Hoffmann claimed to remember absolutely nothing of the Końskowola action, in which 1,100 to 1,600 Jews had been killed in a single day by policemen under his command. His amnesia may have been grounded not only in judicial expediency but also in the health problems he was experiencing during his assignment in Puławy. At the time Hoffmann blamed his illness on a dysentery vaccine that he had taken in late August. In the 1960s he found it more convenient to trace his illness to the psychological stress of the Józefów massacre.15 Whatever the cause, Hoffmann began to suffer from diarrhea and severe stomach cramps in September and October 1942. By his own account, his condition—diagnosed as vegetative colitis—was terribly aggravated by bumpy movement, as on a bicycle or in a car, and thus he personally led few of his company’s actions at this time. Nonetheless, out of “soldierly enthusiasm” and the hope of improvement, he refused to report his illness until the end of October. Only on November 2 did he enter the army hospital on doctor’s orders.
Uniformly, Hoffmann’s men offered a different perspective. By their observation his “alleged” bouts of stomach cramps, confining him safely to bed, coincided all too consistently with company actions that might involve either unpleasantness or danger. It became common for the men to predict, upon hearing the night before of a pending action, that the company chief would be bedridden by morning.
Hoffmann’s behavior rankled his men even more because of two aggravating factors. First, he had always been strict and unapproachable—a typical “base officer” who liked his white collar and gloves, wore his SS insignia on his uniform, and demanded considerable deference. His apparent timidity in the face of action now seemed the height of hypocrisy, and they derided him as a Pimpf, the term for a member of the ten- to fourteen-year-old age group of the Hitler Youth—in effect a “Hitler cub scout.”
Second, Hoffmann tried to compensate for his immobility by intensified supervision of his subordinates. He insisted on giving orders for everything from his bed, to all intents functioning not only as company commander but as platoon commander as well. Before every patrol or action, the noncommissioned officers reported to Hoffmann’s bedroom for detailed instructions, and afterward they reported to him personally again. Third Platoon, stationed in Puławy, had no lieutenant and was led by the senior sergeant, Justmann.* He in particular was allowed to make no disposition of men without Hoffmann’s approval. Justmann and the other sergeants felt they had been demoted to the rank of corporal.16
Hoffmann was hospitalized in Puławy from November 2 to November 25. He then returned to Germany for convalescent leave until after New Year’s. He briefly led his company again, for one month, before returning to Germany for renewed treatment. During this second leave in Germany, Hoffmann learned that Trapp had had him relieved of his company command.
Hoffmann’s relations with Trapp had already soured in January, when the battalion commander ordered all his officers, NCOs, and men to sign a special declaration pledging not to steal, plunder, or take goods without paying for them. Hoffmann wrote Trapp a blistering reply in which he explicitly refused to carry out this order because it deeply violated his “sense of honor.”17 Trapp had also heard unflattering accounts of Hoffmann’s inactivity in Puławy from his temporary replacement, First Lieutenant Messmann, commander of the motorized Gendarmerie company that had taken part in the Końskowola massacre. Trapp consulted with First Sergeant Karlsen* of Third Company, who confirmed the pattern of Hoffmann’s illness. On February 23, 1943, Trapp submitted his request that Hoffmann be dismissed from his post as company commander because he always reported sick before important actions and this “deficient sense of service” was not good for the morale of his men.18
The proud, touchy Hoffmann responded bitterly and energetically to his dismissal, claiming once again that his “honor as an officer and soldier had been most deeply hurt.” He accused Trapp of acting out of personal spite.19 Trapp responded in detail and was upheld. The commander of the Order Police for the Lublin district concluded that Hoffmann’s behavior had been “in no way satisfactory,” that if he really had been sick, he was irresponsible in not reporting according to regulations, and that he should be given an opportunity to prove himself with another unit.20
Hoffmann was in fact transferred to a police battalion that experienced frontline action in the fall of 1943 in Russia, where he earned the Iron Cross Second Class. He was later given command of a battalion of White Russian auxiliaries near Minsk, and then of a battalion of Caucasian “volunteers.” He ended the war as first staff officer for the commanding police general in Poznań.21 In short, from his subsequent career it would be difficult to conclude that Hoffmann’s behavior in the fall of 1942 was a case of cowardice, as his men and Trapp suspected. Ill he was. Whether his illness was initially caused by the murderous activities of Reserve Police Battalion 101 cannot be established, but he had the symptoms of psychologically induced “irritable colon” or “adaptive colitis.” Certainly, Hoffmann’s duties aggravated his condition. Moreover, it is clear that rather than using his illness to escape an assignment that involved killing the Jews of Poland, Hoffmann made every effort to hide it from his superiors and to avoid being hospitalized. If mass murder was giving Hoffmann stomach pains, it was a fact he was deeply ashamed of and sought to overcome to the best of his ability.
The “Jew Hunt”
BY MID-NOVEMBER 1942, FOLLOWING THE MASSACRES AT JÓZEFÓW, Łomazy, Serokomla, Końskowola, and elsewhere, and the liquidation of the ghettos in Międzyrzec, Łuków, Parczew, Radzyń, and Kock, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 had participated in the outright execution of at least 6,500 Polish Jews and the deportation of at least 42,000 more to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Still their role in the mass murder campaign was not finished. Once the towns and ghettos of the northern Lublin district had been cleared of Jews, Reserve Police Battalion 101 was assigned to track down and systematically eliminate all those who had escaped the previous roundups and were now in hiding. In short, they were responsible for making their region completely judenfrei.
One year earlier, on October 15, 1941, the head of the General Government, Hans Frank, had decreed that any Jew caught outside ghetto boundaries was to be hauled before a special court and sentenced to death. This decree was at least partly in response to the pleas of German public health officials in Poland, who realized that only the most draconian punishment could deter starving Jews from leaving the ghettos to smuggle food and thereby spreading the typhus epidemic that was ravaging the ghettos. For example, the head of public health for the district of Warsaw, Dr. Lambrecht, had argued for a law threatening Jews found outside the ghetto with “fear of death through hanging” that was “greater than fear of death through starvation.”1 Complaints soon arose concerning the implementation of Frank’s decree, however. The manpower available to escort captured Jews was too limited, the distances to be covered too great, the judicial procedures of the special courts too cumbersome and time-consuming. The remedy was simple; all judicial procedures would be dispensed with, and Jews found outside the ghettos would be shot on the spot. At a meeting between the district governors and Frank on December 16, 1941, the deputy to the governor of the Warsaw district noted how “gratefully one had welcomed the shooting order of the commander of the Order Police, whereby Jews encountered in the countryside could be shot.”2
In short, even before they were systematically deported to the death camps, the Jews of Poland were subject to summary execution outside the ghettos. This “shooting order,” however, was loosely applied in the district of Lublin, for there—in comparison to the rest of the General Government—ghettoization was only partial. Jews living in the small towns and villages of northern Lublin were not concentrated in the transit ghettos of Międzyrzec and Łuków until September and October 1942. The predecessor to Trapp’s unit in the northern Lublin district, Police Battalion 306, did indeed shoot Jews encountered outside of town on occasion.3 But the systematic tracking down of Jews did not begin until ghettoization was complete. It truly intensified only after the ghettos were liquidated.
In late August Parczew became the first ghetto in the battalion’s security zone to be completely cleared. According to Sergeant Steinmetz, whose Third Platoon of Second Company was stationed there, Jews continued to be found in the area. They were incarcerated in the local prison. Gnade ordered Steinmetz to shoot the imprisoned Jews. “This order of Lieutenant Gnade explicitly extended to all future cases as well…. I was given the task of keeping my territory free of Jews.”4 Lieutenant Drucker likewise remembered receiving orders from battalion headquarters in late August “that Jews wandering freely about the countryside were to be shot on the spot when encountered.” But until the final deportations of Jews from the small villages to the transit ghettos, the order was not fully implemented.
By October the order was for real.5 Placards announced that all Jews who did not go to the ghettos would be shot.6 The “shooting order” was made part of regular company instructions to the men and given repeatedly, especially before they were sent on patrol.7 No one could be left in any doubt that not a single Jew was to remain alive in the battalion’s security zone. In official jargon, the battalion made “forest patrols” for “suspects.”8 As the surviving Jews were to be tracked down and shot like animals, however, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 unofficially dubbed this phase of the Final Solution the Judenjagd, or “Jew hunt.”9
The “Jew hunt” took many forms. Most spectacular were two battalion sweeps through the Parczew forest in the fall of 1942 and the spring of 1943, the latter alongside army units. Not only Jews but partisans and escaped Russian prisoners of war were the targets of these sweeps, though Jews seem to have been the primary victims of the first one, in October 1942. Georg Leffler* of Third Company recalled:
We were told that there were many Jews hiding in the forest. We therefore searched through the woods in a skirmish line but could find nothing, because the Jews were obviously well hidden. We combed the woods a second time. Only then could we discover individual chimney pipes sticking out of the earth. We discovered that Jews had hidden themselves in underground bunkers here. They were hauled out, with resistance in only one bunker. Some of the comrades climbed down into this bunker and hauled the Jews out. The Jews were then shot on the spot…. the Jews had to lie face down on the ground and were killed by a neck shot. Who was in the firing squad I don’t remember. I think it was simply a case where the men standing nearby were ordered to shoot them. Some fifty Jews were shot, including men and women of all ages, because entire families had hidden themselves there…. the shooting took place quite publicly. No cordon was formed at all, for a number of Poles from Parczew were standing directly by the shooting site. They were then ordered, presumably by Hoffmann, to bury the Jews who had been shot in a half-finished bunker.10
Other units of the battalion also remembered discovering bunkers and killing Jews in batches of twenty to fifty.11 One policeman estimated the total body count for the October sweep at 500.12
By spring the situation had altered somewhat. The few Jews still alive had for the most part been able to join bands of partisans and escaped POWs. The spring sweep uncovered a “forest camp’’ of escaped Russians and Jews who offered armed resistance. Some 100 to 120 Jews and Russians were killed. The battalion suffered at least one fatality, for Trapp’s adjutant, Lieutenant Hagen, was accidentally killed by his own men.13
A number of Jews had been sent as workers to various large agricultural estates that the German occupiers had confiscated and now administered. At Gut Jablon, near Parczew, a unit of Steinmetz’s platoon loaded the thirty Jewish workers on trucks, drove them to the forest, and killed them with the now routine neck shot. The German administrator, who had not been informed of the impending liquidation of his work force, complained in vain.14 The German administrator of Gut Pannwitz, near Puławy, encountered the opposite problem of too many Jewish workers. His estate became a refuge for Jews who had fled the ghettos to the nearby forest and then sought sanctuary and food among his work Jews. Whenever the Jewish worker population swelled noticeably, the estate administration phoned Captain Hoffmann, and a German police commando was sent to shoot the surplus Jews.15 After Hoffmann’s hospitalization, his successor, Lieutenant Messmann, formed a flying squadron that systematically eliminated small batches of Jewish workers in a fifty- to sixty-kilometer radius of Puławy. Messmann’s driver, Alfred Sperlich,* recalled the procedure:
In cases where the farmyard and the Jewish lodgings could be reached quickly, I drove into the farmyard at high speed, and the police sprang out and immediately rushed to the Jewish lodgings. Then all the Jews present at that time were driven out and shot in the farmyard near a haystack, potato pit, or dung heap. The victims were almost always naked and were shot in the neck while lying on the ground.
If the road into the farmyard was too visible, however, the police approached stealthily on foot to prevent their victims’ escape. Routinely in workplaces near the woods the police found many more Jews than expected.16
Some Jews had survived by hiding in town rather than in the woods, but they too were tracked down.17 The most memorable case was in Kock, where a cellar hiding place was reported by a Polish translator working for the Germans. Four Jews were captured. Under “interrogation,” they revealed another cellar hidin
The most common form of the “Jew hunt” was the small patrol into the forest to liquidate an individual bunker that had been reported. The battalion built up a network of informers and “forest runners,” or trackers, who searched for and revealed Jewish hiding places. Many other Poles volunteered information about Jews in the woods who had stolen food from nearby fields, farms, and villages in their desperate attempt to stay alive. Upon receiving such reports, the local police commanders dispatched small patrols to locate the hiding Jews. Time and again the same scenario was played out, with only minor variations. The policemen followed their Polish guides directly to the bunker hideouts and tossed grenades in the openings. The Jews who survived the initial grenade attack and emerged from the bunkers were forced to lie face down for the neck shot. The bodies were routinely left to be buried by the nearest Polish villagers.20
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