Chapter 3: Killing


Chaining the prisoners took quite some time, but by mid-day they were ready: several hundred men linked together by steel, Jews and criminals—a mass of terrified humanity bound together on the banks of Poland’s Bug River. Told to advance, with certain death the alternative, they lumbered out onto the ice pack; was it solid enough to cross—Nazis along the shore anticipated the show with sadistic glee—surely not; the scum would slide into the ice cold water and pull each other down with shrieks of terror. Yet, to everyone’s amazement, the prisoners made it across the thin sheets of ice in mid-river, reaching the other side, where Russian troops awaited them.

One can only imagine the trauma of this community of the damned: the sense of relief that, somehow, they had made it to the other side; the anxiety and shattered nerves, as Russian soldiers cursed and beat them back onto the river. What angst and fear, as some prisoners pulled vigorously in one direction, others tugging and swearing as they favored the other; an experiment in the individual’s overwhelming desire to survive, but with the variation of being cast headlong into it with strangers. What to do? The Russians were hostile, the Nazis waited on the opposite bank. Pulling away from the abusive Russians, the damned soon took rifle fire from the Nazis. As bodies fell, their weight hindered the mass of the still-living trying to wretchedly drag themselves somewhere. Finally, sticks of dynamite from the Russian side ripped gapping holes in the ice. The prisoners could feel their fate—the ice sheet cracking and splintering beneath their half-frozen feet. They slid together into the frigid water, cries to God and curses at man piercing air.

The man who conceived this experiment in survival and death was a Slovenian with Austrian citizenship named Odilo Globocnik. Like Himmler, Globocnik was born too late to fight in the Great War. Having never experienced the horror and tedium of real soldiering, he embraced the romanticized military lifestyle, attending an academy and joining the ranks of Nazi Youth after studying engineering in a vocational school. Endlessly energetic and ambitious, he rose in the Austrian Nazi Party and acquired some political power as the Second World War began. He extorted money from Jews in Vienna, but also mismanaged Nazi funds for his own benefit. Transferred into occupied Poland as a new S.S. Officer, he sought to rise again in power and status, this time by zealously pursuing the organization’s racial agenda with bizarre episodes like that along the Bug River in winter 1940.

Heinrich Himmler may have never killed a Jew himself, but he facilitated epic killing by finding and rewarding assertive men like Odilo Globocnik. The quickest avenue to promotion in the killing wing of the S.S. was a parching blood thirst. But while calloused men like Globocnik abounded, others found the act of killing the helpless at least initially disturbing. For these weaker spirits Himmler offered encouragement. ‘The task is hard’, he would say, ‘but it must be done’. He assured countless clusters of S.S. officers, camp guards, soldiers, and executioners that their work was necessary, served the ultimate purposes of Germany and even humanity, and that responsibility for their actions rested upon his shoulders. The military code of obedience to orders usually convinced the most sensitive individuals to cross the line and kill.

Despite Hitler’s ominous January 1939 prophesy that Jews would be destroyed in the midst of another European war, the Nazi regime did not begin systematically killing them when the war started. After invading Poland in September the regime’s primary goal was to rid Germany of all Jews. For a while many, especially those with money, were able to receive visas and migrate overseas. Into 1940 several prominent Nazi officials conceived of shipping hundreds of thousands of Jews to Madagascar, the large island off the coast of Africa. A Nazi official named Adolf Eichmann began an alternative forced deportation, railing unwanted German and Austrian Jews by the trainload into south-central occupied Poland. At a little hamlet called Nesko tens of thousands of Jews were dumped without provision into the Polish countryside. This method of creating a ‘Jew Free Germany’ was problematic—it bred chaos in a swath of occupied Poland, prompting Nazi administrators there to soon complain about it.

As with the Jews of Sanok, the killing season began in earnest only in June 1941 with the invasion of the Soviet Union. As Germany broke its temporary alliance and unleashed blitzkrieg on the Russians, Himmler’s S.S. prepared death squads to follow on the heels of the German troops. Called Einsatzgruppen, or ‘One Sentence Groups’, these task forces administered only one sentence—that of death. Himmler and Heydrich cautiously screened scores of officers for Einsatzgruppen command. Typically these men were professionals; many were lawyers, but others were physicians, academics, and in one case an opera singer. Many were active members of the Lutheran Church; several were ordained ministers. Nearly all were in their thirties or early forties, the preferred age for command. About three thousand men served under them, drawn from the Gestapo, military wing of the S.S., and various police orders. Most of these were from the lower middle class and poorly educated. In the field, the Einsatzgruppen sometimes tapped into the German army and local police forces for additional manpower and assistance.

At first the Einsatzgruppen targeted Soviet officials and Jewish males in leadership positions, many Nazis wrongly believing that there was much overlap between the two. A few weeks into the invasion orders came down from Himmler and Heydrich to widen the target base to all Jews, including women and children. The speed of the German advance and the population density of Soviet Jewry made for a stunning pace of killing: from August to December nearly 100,000 Jews were eliminated each month. Because Einsatzgruppen units were completely motorized they kept pace with the German advance, often arriving in a given city within twenty-four hours of the army. Options for escape were few: while many able-bodied males fled in advance of the armies, invariably women, the infirm, elderly and children remained behind. Typically even moderate-sized towns had hastily erected anti-tank ditches, and these proved perfect for mass execution sites with immediate burial. Thousands of Jews were escorted to outlying ditches, often at night or shortly after dawn, stripped of their clothing and valuables, and shot.

In a Lithuanian town square, locals gathered for the show. A burly muscular local man wielding a heavy wooden club was ready for action: one-by-one from a nearby holding bin, authorities supplied him with Jewish victims. He bashed in their faces and smashed their skulls, as a large crowd that included women and children watched. Tossing each beaten and mangled body into a rising pile, the hero ended his hours-long celebration by climbing atop the corpses with an accordion and playing the Lithuanian national anthem. The crowd sang along and clapped.

In its work the Einsatzgruppen drew support from local officials, police, and even the general public—willing to see their neighbors obliterated. Acquaintances who had long chatted, gossiped, and greeted each other on the street now watched the other slowly die, and what’s striking is not just the sudden turning away, but the willingness to embrace the macabre spectacle itself. Collaboration was especially common in Lithuania and Latvia, where tens of thousands of Jews perished just in the closing weeks of 1941. The Einsatzgruppen also benefited from a much more cooperative German army. In the Polish campaign army officers were loathe to sanction mass killing of civilians—to the relief of Jewish townsfolk like those in Sanok. But during the Russian campaign, in which fighting on the front grew increasingly intense, the officer corps readily assisted the S.S. units following in their wake. Communications officers reported the locations of Jewish towns and districts, while many infantry regiments participated in executions when numbers and crowd control concerns prompted an appeal for help. Officers largely bought into Nazi propaganda that linked bolshevik communism with the Jews. Hence, unlike in the quick and easy campaign in Poland, killing Russian Jews seemed more like an extension of military goals. The stunning success of Hitler’s campaigns in the West in 1940 also convinced many army officers of the Fuhrer’s invincibility. It appeared that German arms were blessed of Providence and God—that the words on the Nazi soldier’s belt buckle, ‘God with us’, was something more than just an inspirational phrase. Epic success bred a heady, irrational sense of destiny.

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Wilhelm Trapp was upset. The career police officer, whom his men called ‘Papa’, fought back tears as he told them what they had to do. Orders could not be refused. They had to eliminate Jewish residents of the Polish town of Józefów, including women and children. Jews were ‘bombing German cities’, he told his men, but this task was hard. He had already lost the services of his immediate subordinate, an officer named Heinz Buchmann, who refused to participate and secured an alternative assignment. Now, looking at his men, he invited those who were unwilling to participate to step forward. Several did so. These men were transferred onto guard duty, while junior officers and sergeants readied the rest of the force for action. Trapp himself retreated into a nearby schoolhouse, where he spent much of the remainder of the day pacing and weeping.

Trapp commanded several hundred policemen from Hamburg. Serving in an organization known as the Order Police, these mostly middle-aged men were past their physical prime and not ideal for military combat, yet could tackle lesser assignments within the confines of the new German empire. Most were poorly educated, many working back home in unskilled manual labor. Some had once been members of socialist or communist parties, but now, swept away by the addicting triumphs of the Nazi state, they willingly served it. But a minority among them realized that they could not serve at the crack-of-dawn meeting outside of Józefów in July 1942.

For many of the rest, the trauma of killing unsettled them. Escorting Jews one-by-one, they took them into the woods, placed their rifle bayonets at an angle along the back of the neck, and pulled triggers. Despite orders to kill infants in town and on the spot, nearly all of the men let the crying little ones cling to their mothers. In the woods many Germans shirked from their duties. One went to his sergeant, termed the task distasteful, and asked for reassignment. Others followed. Some willfully misfired, or wandered away from the scene to temporarily hide themselves in the forest. But a majority of the policemen carried out their duties, even if troubled by them. Some rationalized that the Jews were going to die anyway. Others theorized that they were putting the mothers and kids out of their misery—in an act of kindness. Among this compliant majority, nearly all took comfort in the fact that they were in this together. To turn away from an ugly task was to stick one’s comrade with doing it. And so in time the collective mentality came to condemn those who stepped out-of-line or evaded the execution work. These men, in the eyes of the majority, were weaklings, soft and cowardly. Real men do their duty. And yet back in the barracks, after the hot summer’s day at Józefów, no one talked about what they had done. Drink flowed freely; the German policemen were angry and depressed. 

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Shooting people one-by-one is slow and messy. Shooting people en masse is inefficient. The professionalized Einstazgruppen operations were tedious. They took a lot of time, made some local officials nervous, especially in Russia proper, and had a questionable-to-negative effect on army morale and discipline. Outsourcing executions to less prepared forces, like the policemen who killed at Józefów, was almost dangerous. It bred resentment at orders and superiors, while unreliable officers like Wilhelm Trapp could potentially cause problems. Fortunately, almost without exception, even the most reluctant men over time would invariably coalesce into highly motivated killers. The Order Police who killed at Józefów went on to participate in the killing of tens of thousands of Jews and other undesirables. Trapp himself killed on one occasion with such zeal that, after Germany surrendered, he was tried and executed for war crimes in Poland. Other policemen at Józefów later learned to amuse themselves by torturing their victims pre-execution, while many of the killers carved out careers in police work, serving on Hamburg’s force into the 1960s. But the process of learning to kill enthusiastically took a bit too long for the likes of Himmler. Was there a way to do it all better?

In Russia execution sites were visible and well known to the local populations. As Soviet troops proved increasingly dogged in their fighting, the prospect of a reversal of military fortune was not out of the question. Besides being more efficient, could killing be done more discreetly? Was there a more humane way to exterminate people than by shooting them—a way less traumatizing to the executioners, if not to the victims? Himmler began asking these questions, and turned to his erstwhile subordinates for answers. One, a former police chief, proposed using dynamite. At an insane asylum in the Russian city of Minsk, with Himmler’s blessing, he undertook an experiment. It did not go well: a surprising number of the several hundred inmates survived the initial explosion, while German soldiers spent the next several days collecting limbs and body parts from surrounding trees and bushes. Globocnik tested a similar option with hand grenades. His men forced prisoners to dig six-by-six meter square holes deep into the ground. Four rows of victims were piled atop each other, alternating in position from head to foot. Grenades were then tossed into the pits, while machine gunners moved up afterwards and shot anyone that still moved. After dumping lime onto the corpses, a pad of straw was used to cover them and the cycle repeated. About 75,000 people were killed in this manner over several weeks, and in terms of efficiency it proved a nominal success. Casting grenades into the hole made killing less visible and intimate—though clumps of flesh and limbs routinely burst into the air, while in terms of resources the executions could be completed with relatively few men and little ammunition.

Still not satisfied, Himmler sanctioned experiments with poisonous gas. In Germany the Nazi regime ran an euthanasia program for mentally ill or ‘defective’ citizens until a public outcry forced them to stop it. The technique employed—with bottled carbon monoxide—showed promise as a quick killing method which evoked relatively little apparent suffering. After Poland was overrun in September 1939, the euthanasia program quietly migrated there. Planners rigged a mobile killing unit, a truck with pipes that allowed for the rerouting of its engine exhaust into an airtight compartment. The vehicle was emblazoned with the words Kaiser’s Coffee Company on its sides, and drove off to regional mental hospitals to deliver its real cargo: death. Himmler, who may have observed the truck in operation once, ordered the expansion of this program. Globocnik, his erstwhile subordinate, oversaw the effort.

Driving trucks into secure, isolated mental facilities worked well, but the disposal of large numbers of bodies was often problematic. S.S. administrators thus decided to set up a fixed location facility for the first gassing of Jews. Near the Polish town of Chelmno, in autumn 1941, they appropriated a neo-Gothic mansion, built in the 1880s but since abandoned. Sealing it off with an eight-foot fence, their Polish workers established the first true death camp. It featured a systematic process of routing prisoners like cattle into multiple gassing vans, while disposing of their bodies (after Polish assistants inspected their anuses and vaginas for hidden valuables) in large mass graves in a nearby forest. Gypsies and Jews died at Chelmno by the tens of thousands in early 1942, but the pace of killing was still too slow for Himmler and his associates. Gassing was the answer, but in terms of scale the trucks parked at the fixed location of Chelmno were insufficient.

Within a short time the senior S.S. leadership began to envision much larger gassing camps that could kill thousands in a single day. Himmler’s staff drew up plans for three big death camps—facilities designed solely for killing people. The camps were to be built in occupied Poland in order to target its large Jewish population. Polish Jews were by this time gathered in ghettoes, sealed off areas in large towns and cities. Why not gas them in the ghettoes? Continued use of mobile vans was an option, but among other factors the S.S. needed to ensure crowd control. Just as the Einstazgruppen led groups of fifty or one hundred Jews from holding areas to execution sites, the S.S. would move manageable trainloads of victims into the death camps. Killing in or near the cities, in contrast, would have been problematic in terms of secrecy and order. Even Chelmno was a badly kept secret; word got out. The process was obviously shocking, and it was prudent to keep both victims and bystanders unaware of it. Camp locations were selected for their relative isolation, but also for their proximity to major railroad lines.

Reinhold Heydrich was integral to planning these operations, which began in earnest during the spring of 1942. By that time Heydrich was moving into the highest orbit of Nazi power, talking to Hitler directly on occasion, and rivaling his mentor Himmler in importance. Given political charge of the troublesome region of western Czechoslovakia, it was assumed that Heydrich would suppress partisan activities there and gather even more fodder for the new death camps. A man certain of his self and destiny, he tended to take little precaution with regard to his personal safety as he shuttled between Prague, Berlin and Poland. While en route to Prague’s airport, partisans waylaid his motorcade at a sharp turn in the road, tossing a grenade into his open touring car. Shrapnel from the explosion cut deep into Heydrich’s chest cavity, and deposited bits of cloth into his bloodstream; he lingered in agony for a week before succumbing to his injuries. Hundreds of thousands of Czechs honored him in death; he received a state funeral in Berlin. Hitler eulogized him as film crews chronicled the ceremony for propaganda purposes. Himmler, who never seemed terribly disturbed by the loss of his most significant subordinate, rechristened the trio of death factories in Poland the ‘Operation Reinhard Camps’.