Ordinary men, p.5
Christopher R. Browning
With the change of engine in Lemberg, such an old engine was hooked up that further travel was possible only with continuous interruptions. The slow journey was time and again used by the strongest Jews to press themselves through the holes they had forced open and to seek their safety in flight, because in jumping from the slow-moving train they were scarcely injured. Despite the repeated requests to the engineer to go faster, this was not possible, so that the frequent stops on open stretches became increasingly unpleasant.
Shortly beyond Lemberg the commando had already shot off the ammunition they had with them and also used up a further 200 rounds that they had received from army soldiers, so that for the rest of the journey they had to resort to stones while the train was moving and to fixed bayonets when the train was stopped.
The ever greater panic spreading among the Jews due to the great heat, overloading of the train cars, and stink of dead bodies—when unloading the train cars some 2,000 Jews were found dead in the train—made the transport almost unworkable. At 6:45 p.m. the transport arrived in Beżec, and around 7:30 p.m. was turned over by Corporal J. to the SS-Obersturmführer and head of the camp there. Until the unloading of the transport around 10 p.m., J. had to remain in the camp, while the escort commando was used to guard the train cars parked outside the camp. Because of the special circumstances described, the number of Jews who escaped from this transport cannot be specified. Nonetheless, it can be assumed that at least two-thirds of the escaping Jews were shot or rendered harmless in some other way.
In the actions themselves for the period of September 7-10, 1942, no special incidents occurred. The cooperation between the Security Police and the Order Police units involved was good and without friction.
Reserve Lieutenant of the Schutzpolizei and Company Commander7
This document demonstrates many things: the desperate attempts of the deported Jews to escape the death train; the scanty manpower employed by the Germans (a mere 10 men to guard over 8,000 Jews); the unimaginably terrible conditions—forced marches over many miles, terrible heat, days without food and water, the packing of 200 Jews into each train car, etc.—that led to fully 25 percent of the deported Jews dying on the train from suffocation, heat prostration, and exhaustion (to say nothing of those killed in the shooting, which was so constant that the guards expended their entire ammunition supply as well as replenishment); the casual mention that even before the deportations hundreds of Jews judged too old, frail, or sick to get to the train were routinely shot in each action. Moreover, the document makes clear that this action was only one among many in which members of Reserve Police Battalion 133 participated alongside the Security Police in Galicia during the late summer of 1942.
Such documents, however, do not tell us much that we would like to know about the “grass-roots” perpetrators of the Final Solution. These men were not desk murderers who could take refuge in distance, routine, and bureaucratic euphemisms that veiled the reality of mass murder. These men saw their victims face to face. Their comrades had already shot all the Jews deemed too weak to be deported, and they subsequently worked viciously for hours to prevent their victims from escaping the train and hence the gas chambers awaiting them in Beżec. No one participating in the events described in this report could have had the slightest doubt about what he was involved in, namely a mass murder program to exterminate the Jews of Galicia.
But how did these men first become mass murderers? What happened in the unit when they first killed? What choices, if any, did they have, and how did they respond? What happened to the men as the killing stretched on week after week, month after month? Documents like the one on the Kołomyja transport give us a vivid snapshot of a single incident, but they do not reveal the personal dynamics of how a group of normal middle-aged German men became mass murderers. For that we must return to the story of Reserve Police Battalion 101.
Reserve Police Battalion 101
WHEN GERMANY INVADED POLAND IN SEPTEMBER 1939, POLICE Battalion 101, based in Hamburg, was one of the initial battalions attached to a German army group and sent to Poland. Crossing the border from Oppeln in Silesia, the battalion passed through Częstochowa to the Polish city of Kielce. There it was involved in rounding up Polish soldiers and military equipment behind German lines and guarding a prisoner of war camp. On December 17, 1939, the battalion returned to Hamburg, where about a hundred of its career policemen were transferred to form additional units. They were replaced by middle-aged reservists drafted in the fall of 1939.1
In May 1940, after a period of training, the battalion was dispatched from Hamburg to the Warthegau, one of the four regions in western Poland annexed to the Third Reich as the incorporated territories. Stationed first in Poznań (Posen) until late June, and then in -Łódź (renamed Litzmannstadt by the victorious Germans), it carried out “resettlement actions” for a period of five months. As part of a demographic scheme of Hitler and Himmlers to “germanize” these newly annexed regions, that is, to populate them with “racially pure” Germans, all Poles and other so-called undesirables—Jews and Gypsies—were to be expelled from the incorporated territories into central Poland. In accordance with provisions of an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union, ethnic Germans living in Soviet territory were to be repatriated and resettled in the recently evacuated farms and apartments of the expelled Poles. The “racial purification” of the incorporated territories desired by Hitler and Himmler was never achieved, but hundreds of thousands of people were shoved around like so many pieces on a chessboard in pursuit of their vision of a racially reorganized eastern Europe.
The battalion’s summary report boasted of its zealous participation in the “resettlement“:
In actions night and day without pause, 100% of the battalion’s strength was employed in all of the districts of the Warthegau. On the average some 350 Polish peasant families were evacuated daily…. During the peak of the evacuation period they [the men of the battalion] could not return to quarters for eight days and nights. The men had the opportunity to sleep only while traveling at night by truck…. In the biggest action, the battalion evacuated about 900 families … on one day with only its own forces and 10 translators.
In all the battalion evacuated 36,972 people out of a targeted 58,628. About 22,000 people escaped the evacuations by fleeing.2
One drafted reservist, Bruno Probst,* recalled the battalion’s role in these actions.
In the resettlement of the native population, primarily in the small villages, I experienced the first excesses and killings. It was always thus, that with our arrival in the villages, the resettlement commission was already there…. This so-called resettlement commission consisted of members of the black [-uniformed] SS and SD as well as civilians. From them we received cards with numbers. The houses of the village were also designated with the same numbers. The cards handed to us designated the houses that we were to evacuate. During the early period we endeavored to fetch all people out of the houses, without regard for whether they were old, sick, or small children. The commission quickly found fault with our procedures. They objected that we struggled under the burden of the old and sick. To be precise, they did not initially give us the order to shoot them on the spot, rather they contented themselves with making it clear to us that nothing could be done with such people. In two cases I remember that such people were shot at the collection point. In the first case it was an old man and in the second case an old woman…. both persons were shot not by the men but by noncommissioned officers.3
Others in the battalion also remembered the resettlement actions, but no one else remembered or admitted to such violence.4 One policeman did recall that the battalion had provided the Security Police with firing squads for the execution of 100 to 120 Poles during its stay in Poznań.5
Following its five-month resettlement campaign, the battalion carried out “pacification actions.” Combing villages and woods, they caught 750 Poles
Luków, probably in the fall of 1942, when the Order Police liquidated the main ghetto there. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
The Międzyrzec “transit” ghetto, liquidated in a series of seven “actions” between August 1942 and July 1943. Lieutenant Gnade’s Second Company referred to Międzyrzec by the apt German nickname Menschenschreck, or “human horror. (Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw)
Order Police stand guard in the marketplace during the “sixth action,” May 26, 1943, when 1,000 Jews were deported to the labor camp at Majdanek. In earlier Międzyrzec deportations, the Jews were sent directly to the gas chambers of Treblinka. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
Order Police inarch the Międzyrzec Jews through town, May 26, 1943. The Jews deported to Majdanek that day would perish in the Erntefest massacre of November 1943. (Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw)
Lieutenant Gnade in front of his “undressing barracks” in Międzyrzec. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
At the “undressing barracks”—a stage in the deportation process first introduced by Lieutenant Gnade in the fall of 1942, when the Miédzyrzec ghetto was subjected to a particularly brutal series of “clearing operations”—Order Police forced the Jews to strip and searched them for valuables. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
In most deportations, the Jews were instructed to take a few personal belongings with them, to give credence to the cover story of resettlement. Lieutenant Gnade’s strip search was a clear sign that no one, neither policemen nor Jews, believed in this pretense any longer. (Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute of Warsaw)
After the strip search, the Jews were allowed to put their underclothes back on before being marched to the train station and packed into cattle cars. (Courtesy of Yad Vashem)
Their task was made more difficult because even the newly arrived ethnic Germans did not always report the unauthorized presence of the Poles they had displaced, wishing to avail themselves of cheap labor.6
On November 28, 1940, the battalion took up guard duty around the -Łódź ghetto, which had been sealed seven months earlier, at the end of April 1940, when the 160,000 Jews of Łódź were cut off from the rest of the city by a barbed wire fence. Guarding the ghetto now became the major duty of Police Battalion 101, which had a standing order to shoot “without further ado” any Jew who ignored the posted warnings and came too close to the fence. This order was obeyed.7
None of Battalion 101′s men, however, remembered excesses such as occurred while the First Company of Police Battalion 61 was guarding the Warsaw ghetto. There the company captain openly encouraged shooting at the ghetto wall. The most notorious shooters were not rotated to other duties but were kept permanently on ghetto guard duty. The company recreation room was decorated with racist slogans, and a Star of David hung above the bar. A mark was made on the bar door for each Jew shot, and “victory celebrations” were reportedly held on days when high scores were recorded.8
Stationed outside the ghetto wire, the battalion members had more contact with the non-Jewish population than with the incarcerated Jews. Bruno Probst recalled that the guards on the thoroughfare that cut between the two halves of the Łódź ghetto occasionally amused themselves by setting their watches ahead as a pretext for seizing and beating Poles who were allegedly violating the curfew. He also recalled that drunken guards, intending to kill a Pole on New Year’s eve, shot an ethnic German by mistake and covered it up by switching the victim’s identity card.9
In May 1941 the battalion returned to Hamburg and was “practically dissolved.” All remaining prewar recruits beneath the rank of noncommissioned officer were distributed to other units, and the ranks were filled with drafted reservists. The battalion had become, in the words of one policeman, a “pure reserve battalion.”10
During the next year, from May 1941 to June 1942, the battalion was reformed and underwent extensive training. Only a few incidents from this period remained in the memories of the men. One was the bombing of Lübeck in March 1942, for units of the battalion were sent to the damaged city immediately afterward.11 Another involved the deportation of Hamburg Jews.
From mid-October 1941 to late February 1942, 59 transports carried more than 53,000 Jews and 5,000 Gypsies from the Third Reich “to the east,” in this case Łódź, Riga, Kovno (Kaunas), and Minsk. The five transports to Kovno and the first transport to Riga were massacred upon arrival.12 The remaining transports were not “liquidated” immediately. Rather the deportees were initially incarcerated in the ghettos of Łódź (where the 5,000 Austrian Gypsies were sent), Minsk, and Riga.
Four such transports that were spared immediate death came from Hamburg. The first, with 1,034 Jews, departed on October 25, 1941, for Łódź. The second, with 990 Jews, left for Minsk on November 8. The third, with 408 Jews from Hamburg and 500 from Bremen, left for Minsk on November 18. The fourth left Hamburg for Riga with 808 Jews on December 4.13
Men from Reserve Police Battalion 101 were involved in various phases of the Hamburg deportations. The collection point for the deportations was the Freemason lodge house on the Moorweide, which had been confiscated by the Security Police. Flanked by the university library and an apartment block, within several hundred yards of the heavily used Dammtor train station, the collection point was scarcely an inconspicuous location out of the sight of Hamburg citizens. Some Order Police of Battalion 101 provided guard duty at the Freemason lodge house, where the Jews were collected, registered, and loaded on trucks to the Sternschanze train station.14 Other men of Battalion 101 guarded the station, where the Jews were loaded onto the trains.15 And finally, Battalion 101 provided the escort for at least three of the four transports—the first, on October 25, to Łódź; the second, on November 8, to Minsk; and the last, on December 4, to Riga.16 According to Hans Keller,* escort duty on the Jewish transports was “highly coveted” because of the chance to travel, and was assigned only to a “favored” few.17
Bruno Probst, who accompanied the November 8 transport to Minsk, recalled:
In Hamburg the Jews were told at the time that they would be allocated a whole new settlement territory in the east. The Jews were loaded into normal passenger cars … accompanied by two cars of tools, shovels, axes, etc., as well as large kitchen equipment. For the escort commando a second-class carriage was attached. There were no guards in the cars of the Jews themselves. The train had to be guarded on both sides only at stops. After about four days’ journey we reached Minsk in the late afternoon. We learned of this destination for the first time only during the journey, after we had already passed Warsaw. In Minsk an SS commando was waiting for our transport. Again without guard, the Jews were then loaded onto the waiting trucks. Only their baggage, which they had been allowed to bring from Hamburg, had to be left behind in the train. They were told it would follow. Then our commando was finally driven to a Russian barracks, in which an active [i.e., not reserve] German police battalion was lodged. There was a Jewish camp nearby…. From conversations with members of the above-mentioned police battalion we learned that some weeks ago this unit had already shot Jews in Minsk. We concluded from this fact that our Hamburg Jews were to be shot there also.
Not wanting to be involved, the escort’s commander, Lieutenant Hartwig Gnade, did not remain at the barracks. Instead he and his men returned to the station and took a late-night train out of Minsk.18
We have no description of the escort duty to Riga from Hamburg, but the Salitter report on the Order Police escort of the December 11 Jewish transport from Düsseldorf to Riga provides graphic evidence that policemen there learned as much as the Hamburg policemen did in Minsk. As Salitter noted:
Riga consisted of some 360,000 inhabitants, including some 35,000 Jews. The Jews were everywhere dominant in the business world. Their businesses were nonetheless immediately closed and confiscated after the entry of German troops. The Jews themselves were lodged in a ghetto on the Düna [Dvina] that was sealed by barbed
In June 1942, Reserve Police Battalion 101 was assigned another tour of duty in Poland. By then, only a few noncommissioned officers who had been on the first Polish action remained, and less than 20 percent of the men had been on the second in the Warthegau. A few of these had witnessed what they called “excesses” in Poznań and Łódź. A few more had accompanied one of the Hamburg Jewish transports to Łódź, Minsk, or Riga. At the latter two destinations, as we have seen, it was difficult not to learn something about the mass murder of Jews in Russia. But for the most part, Reserve Police Battalion 101 was now composed of men without any experience of German occupation methods in eastern Europe, or for that matter—with the exception of the very oldest who were World War I veterans—any kind of military service.
The battalion consisted of 11 officers, 5 administrative officials (in charge of financial matters relating to pay, provisioning, lodging, etc.), and 486 noncommissioned officers and men.20 To reach full strength, some non-Hamburg contingents were added at the last minute from nearby Wilhelmshaven and Rendsburg (in Schleswig-Holstein), and from distant Luxembourg. Still, the vast majority of the rank and file had been born and reared in Hamburg and its environs. The Hamburg element was so dominant and the ethos of the battalion so provincial that not just the Luxembourgers but also the contingents from Wilhelmshaven and Rendsburg felt themselves to be outsiders.21
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