Ordinary men, p.15
Christopher R. Browning
By the fall of 1943, two things were apparent to Himmler. First, the work Jews in the camps would have to be killed if his mission were to be completed. Second, over the past six months Jewish resistance had arisen in Warsaw (April), Treblinka (July), Biabłystok (August), and Sobibór (October), when the Jews in those places saw no further hope of survival. Until the spring of 1943, the Jews of Poland had clung to the all too understandable but mistaken assumption that even the Nazis could not be so irrational by utilitarian standards as to kill work Jews making essential contributions to the German war economy. They had therefore pursued the desperate strategy of “salvation through labor” as the only hope that a remnant of Jews would survive. This strategy and hope were the crucial preconditions for continuing Jewish compliance. But the Jews were gradually being stripped of their illusions. The Germans encountered resistance when they tried to carry out the final liquidation of the Warsaw and Białystok ghettos, and revolts broke out in the death camps of Treblinka and Sobibór when the work Jews there realized that the camps were about to be closed. Himmler could not expect to liquidate the Lublin work camps gradually or one by one without encountering further Jewish resistance born of desperation. The inmates of the Lublin labor camps would therefore have to be killed in a single massive operation that would catch them by surprise. Such was the genesis of Erntefest.18
Mass killing on such a scale required planning and preparation. Globocnik’s recent successor as SSPF, Jakob Sporrenberg, traveled to Krakow, where he consulted with his superior, Wilhelm Krüger. He returned with a special folder and began issuing instructions.19 In late October Jewish prisoners were put to work digging trenches just outside the camps at Majdanek, Trawniki, and Poniatowa. Though the trenches were three meters deep and one and a half to three meters wide, the fact that they were dug in a zigzag pattern gave credence to the claim that they were intended as protection against air raids.20 Mobilization of SS and police units from all over the General Government then began. On the evening of November 2, Sporrenberg met with the commanders of the various forces, which included Waffen-SS units from the districts of Krakow and Warsaw, Police Regiment 22 from Krakow, Lublin’s own Police Regiment 25 (including Reserve Police Battalion 101), and the Lublin Security Police, as well as the commanders of the camps at Majdanek, Trawniki, and Poniatowa, and Sporrenberg’s SSPF staff. The meeting room was full. Sporrenberg gave instructions from the special folder he had brought back from Kraków.21 The massive killing operation began the next morning.
Members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 participated in virtually every phase of the Erntefest massacre in Lublin. They arrived in the district capital on November 2 (so Trapp presumably attended Sporrenberg’s conference) and were lodged overnight. Early on the morning of November 3, they took up their stations. One group from the battalion helped to march Jews from various small work camps around Lublin to the Majdanek concentration camp several kilometers from the city center on the main road leading southeast.22 The largest contingent of Reserve Police Battalion 101 took up positions five meters apart on both sides of the angled street that led from the main highway past the commandant’s house to the entrance of the inner camp. Here they watched as an endless stream of Jews from various work sites in Lublin filed past.23 Woman guards on bicycles escorted 5,000 to 6,000 women prisoners from the “old airport camp” where they had been employed sorting the warehouses of clothing collected at the death camps. Another 8,000 male Jews were also marched past in the course of the day. Together with the 3,500 to 4,000 Jews already in the camp, they swelled the victim pool to some 16,500 to 18,000.24 As the Jews passed between the chain of reserve policemen into the camp, music blared from two loudspeaker trucks. Despite the attempt to drown out other noise, the sound of steady gunfire could be heard from the camp.25
The Jews were taken to the last row of barracks, where they undressed. Arms raised, hands clasped behind their necks, totally naked, they were led in groups from the barracks through a hole cut in the fence to the trenches that had been dug behind the camp. This route too was guarded by men from Reserve Police Battalion 101.26
Stationed only ten meters from the graves, Heinrich Bocholt* of First Company witnessed the killing procedure.
From my position I could now observe how the Jews were driven naked from the barracks by other members of our battalion…. the shooters of the execution commandos, who sat on the edge of the graves directly in front of me, were members of the SD…. Some distance behind each shooter stood several other SD men who constantly kept the magazines of the submachine guns full and handed them to the shooter. A number of such shooters were assigned to each grave. Today I can no longer provide details about the number of graves. It is possible that there were many such graves where shooting took place simultaneously. I definitely remember that the naked Jews were driven directly into the graves and forced to lie down quite precisely on top of those who had been shot before them. The shooter then fired off a burst at these prone victims…. How long the action lasted, I can no longer say with certainty. Presumably it lasted the entire day, because I remember that I was relieved once from my post. I can give no details about the number of victims, but there were an awful lot of them.27
Observing the killing from a greater distance was SSPF Sporrenberg, who circled above the camp in a Fieseler Storch airplane. Poles watched from the rooftops.28
On the same day and in the same way, other German units massacred the Jewish prisoners at the Trawniki work camp forty kilometers to the east of Lublin (estimates vary from 6,000 to 10,000 victims) and several smaller camps. Still alive were 14,000 Jews at Poniatowa, fifty kilometers west of Lublin, and 3,000 Jews at camps in Budzyn and Krasnik. The last two were to be spared; Budzyn was producing for the Heinkel aircraft company, and Krasnik for the personal needs of the SSPF Lublin. But the big labor camp at Poniatowa had not been liquidated on November 3 simply because the Germans lacked manpower. However, the camp had been sealed and telephone lines cut so that the events at Majdanek and Trawniki could give no forewarning of what was to happen the following day, November 4. Here too surprise was to be total.
In the memories of many of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101, the two massacres in the two camps merged into a single operation of two to three days at a single camp, either Majdanek or Poniatowa. But some witnesses—and at least one from each of the companies—did in fact remember shooting operations at two camps.29 It seems clear, therefore, that early on the morning of November 4, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 traveled the fifty kilometers west from Lublin to Poniatowa.
This time the battalion was not dispersed. The men were stationed either between the undressing barracks and the zigzag graves of the shooting site or at the shooting site itself.30 They formed the human cordon through which the 14,000 work Jews of Poniatowa, stark naked and hands behind their necks, marched to their deaths while the loudspeakers once again blared music in a vain attempt to cover up the noise of the shooting. The closest witness was Martin Detmold.
I myself and my group had guard duty directly in front of the grave. The grave was a big zigzag-shaped series of slit trenches about three meters wide and three to four meters deep. From my post I could observe how the Jews … were forced to undress in the last barracks and surrender all their possessions and were then driven through our cordon and down sloped openings into the trenches. SD men standing at the edge of the trenches drove the Jews onward to the execution sites, where other SD men with submachine guns fired from the edge of the trench. Because I was a group leader and could move about more freely, I went once directly to the execution site and saw how the newly arriving Jews had to lie down on those already shot. They were then likewise shot with bursts from the submachine guns. The SD men took care that the Jews were shot in such a way that there were inclines in the piles of corpses enabling the newcomers to lie down on corpses piled as much as three meters high.
… The whole business was the most gruesome I had ever seen in my life,
The other policemen were long inured to the mass killing of Jews, and few were as impressed as Detmold by the Erntefest massacres. What they did find new and impressive, however, was the problem—hitherto confined to the relative secrecy of the death camps—of disposing of so many corpses. Wilhelm Gebhardt,* who was part of Gnade’s special guard company that remained in Lublin after the killing, recalled, “In Lublin itself it stank terribly for days. It was the typical smell of burned bodies. Anyone could imagine that a great number of Jews were burned in the camp at Majdanek.”32
If the inhabitants of Lublin only had to smell the burning corpses at a distance, many members of Third Company had a much more immediate experience with the disposal of bodies at Poniatowa. As Poniatowa was a mere thirty-five kilometers south of Puławy, the men of the company sometimes had occasion to go there, and some were in fact assigned to guard the work Jews who had the gruesome task of disinterment and body burning. The policemen could observe in detail how the bodies were taken from the trenches, pulled to the burning site by horses, placed on a grill of iron rails by Jewish workers, and burned. A “bestial stench” dominated the area.33 A truckload of policemen once stopped at the camp while the burning was in progress. “Some of our comrades got sick from the smell and sight of the half-decomposed corpses, so they had to throw up all over the truck.”34 When Third Company’s new commander, Captain Haslach,* heard the reports from his returning men, he found them “unbelievable” and said to First Sergeant Karlsen, “Come, we’ll go there and have a look for ourselves.” When they arrived, the work was already done, but an obliging SS officer showed them the graves and “burning grill” of iron rails some four by eight meters.35
At the conclusion of the Erntefest massacres, the district of Lublin was for all practical purposes judenfrei. The murderous participation of Reserve Police Battalion 101 in the Final Solution came to an end. With a conservative estimate of 6,500 Jews shot during earlier actions like those at Józefów and Łomazy and 1,000 shot during the “Jew hunts,” and a minimum estimate of 30,500 Jews shot at Majdanek and Poniatowa, the battalion had participated in the direct shooting deaths of at least 38,000 Jews. With the death camp deportation of at least 3,000 Jews from Międzyrzec in early May 1943, the number of Jews they had placed on trains to Treblinka had risen to 45,000. For a battalion of less than 500 men, the ultimate body count was at least 83,000 Jews.
WITH THE BATTALION’S CONTRIBUTION TO THE FINAL SOLUTION complete and the tide of war turning against Germany, the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 increasingly found themselves in action against armed partisans and enemy soldiers. In the spring of 1943 the battalion experienced a rare casualty when First Lieutenant Hagen was killed accidentally by police gunfire. In the last year of the war, the toll among the officers rose dramatically; Lieutenants Gnade, Hoppner, and Peters fell in action, and Lieutenant Drucker returned to Germany wounded.1 Major Trapp also returned to Germany, in early 1944.2 A few of the men were captured by the advancing Russian army, but most made their way back to Germany as the Third Reich collapsed in defeat.
Many resumed their prewar occupations. For the two SS Hauptsturmführers, Hoffmann and Wohlauf, as well as twelve from the sample of thirty-two noncommissioned officers, this meant an ongoing career in the police. Another twelve policemen from the rank and file sample of 174 managed to put their reserve service to good use and made a postwar career in the police. Not surprisingly, the interrogations contained little information about the ease with which these twenty-six men continued in the police. While only two of the reservists had been Party members, nine of the NCOs had belonged, and three had been in the SS as well. Hoffmann and Wohlauf, of course, had also been in both the Party and the SS. Hoffmann mentioned a brief period of internment by the British due to his SS membership. Though interrogated by Polish authorities, he was released and immediately rejoined the Hamburg police.3
Ironically, it was not the hardcore SS officers who suffered postwar difficulties because of Reserve Police Battalion 101′s actions in Poland, but Major Trapp and Lieutenant Buchmann. One policeman who had been in the firing squad at Talcyn was denounced by his estranged wife. Under interrogation, he named his battalion commander, Trapp, his company commander, Buchmann, and his first sergeant, Kammer. All of them were extradited to Poland in October 1947. On July 6, 1948, they had a one-day trial in the city of Siedlce. The trial focused solely on the reprisal shooting of seventy-eight Poles in Talcyn, not on any of the battalion’s murderous and far more numerous actions against Polish Jews. The policeman and Trapp were sentenced to death and executed in December 1948. Buchmann was sentenced to eight years in prison and Kammer to three.4
Reserve Police Battalion 101 was not subjected to further judicial investigation until the 1960s. In 1958 the Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen (Central Agency for the State Administrations of Justice), headquartered in the town of Ludwigsburg just north of Stuttgart, was formed to initiate and coordinate the prosecution of Nazi crimes. The staff of the Zentrale Stelle was organized into various task forces, each assigned to investigate various “crime complexes.” Only after they had conducted the initial research into a particular crime complex and discovered the whereabouts of the highest-ranking suspects did they assign jurisdiction to the Office of the State Prosecutor of the federal state in which the prime suspect or suspects lived. It was in the course of investigating various crime complexes in the district of Lublin that Ludwigsburg investigators first encountered several witnesses from Reserve Police Battalion 101. In 1962 the case was turned over to police and judicial authorities in Hamburg, where most of the surviving battalion members still lived.
From late 1962 to early 1967, 210 former members of the battalion were interrogated, many of them more than once. Fourteen men were indicted: Captains Hoffmann and Wohlauf; Lieutenant Drucker; Sergeants Steinmetz, Bentheim, Bekemeier, and Grund; Corporals Grafmann* and Mehler*; and five reserve policemen. The trial began in October 1967, and the verdict was rendered the following April. Hoffmann, Wohlauf, and Drucker were sentenced to eight years, Bentheim to six, Bekemeier to five. Grafmann and the five reserve policemen were declared guilty, but at the judges’ discretion—under a provision of the 1940 criminal code that governed the trial, so as to avoid the criticism leveled at the Nürnberg trials of applying ex post facto law—they were given no sentence. Grund, Steinmetz, and Mehler were not included in the verdict, as their cases had been separated during the trial because of their failing health. A lengthy appeals process finally concluded in 1972. The convictions of Bentheim and Bekemeier were upheld, but they also received no sentence. Hoffmann’s sentence was reduced to four years, Drucker’s to three and a half years. The case pending against other members of the battalion was dropped by the prosecution in light of its inability to get sentences against any but three defendants in the first trial.
However inadequate the postwar judicial outcome may seem at first sight, it must be kept in mind that the investigation of Reserve Police Battalion 101 was one of the few that led to the trial of any former members of the Order Police. Most of the investigations of police battalions did not even lead to indictments. In the few cases that did come to trial, only a handful of convictions were obtained. Comparatively speaking, the investigation and trial of Reserve Police Battalion 101 was a rare success for German judicial authorities attempting to deal with the police battalions.
The interrogations of 210 men from Reserve Police Battalion 101 remain in the archives of the Office of the State Prosecutor in Hamburg. They constitute the prime, indeed indispensable, source for this study. It is to be hoped that the admirable efforts
Germans, Poles, and Jews
THE PRETRIAL AND COURTROOM TESTIMONIES OF THE MEN OF Reserve Police Battalion 101 must, of course, be used with considerable caution. Problems of judicial calculation, involving both self-incrimination and incrimination of comrades, weighed heavily upon each witness. The effects of twenty-five years of memory loss and distortion, even when not feigned for judicial convenience, were equally important. Psychological defense mechanisms, especially repression and projection, crucially shaped the testimony as well. Nowhere do all these qualifications about the reliability of the testimonies become more problematic than in connection with the fateful triangle of German-Polish-Jewish relations. Simply put, the portrayal of German-Polish and German-Jewish relations in these testimonies is extraordinarily exculpatory; in contrast, the portrayal of Polish-Jewish relations is extraordinarily damning. If we begin by examining the first two relationships as described by the former policemen, we can better see the asymmetry and distortion involved in their account of the third.
Concerning German-Polish relations, the most salient feature is the scarcity of any comment. The men make general references to partisans, bandits, and robbers, but the thrust of their comments is not the specifically anti-German character of such phenomena. On the contrary, they depict banditry as an endemic problem that predated the German occupation of Poland. Thus, they invoke the presence of partisans and bandits in two ways: on the one hand, to imply that the Germans were protecting Poles from an indigenous problem of lawlessness; and on the other hand, to obscure the frequency and intensity of the battalion’s anti-Jewish activities by alleging that partisans and bandits, not Jews, were the chief preoccupation of the policemen.
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