Einsatzgruppen Aktions

Remembered by the Perpetrators & Bystanders

The Einsatzgruppen were SS mobile units charged with carrying out the mass murder of Jews, communist functionaries and others deemed as undesirable elements, in the occupied territories, primarily in Eastern Europe. The Einsatzgruppen first operated in Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938, but very little is known about these early formations. Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Security Service formed six major Einsatzgruppen for the Polish campaign in 1939. Five of these formations were attached to the advancing German armies, whilst the remaining unit was designated for service in the Poznan area. Their role in Poland included the arrest of politically unreliable elements, confiscation of weapons, gathering of evidence for the security services and actions against Jews. The Einsatzgruppen gained the most notoriety for their role in the invasion of the Soviet Union and at the beginning of May 1941 recruits for the Einsatzgruppen gathered in the Elbe River town of Pretsch, north east of Leipzig, where they received training, on searching and rounding-up people.

During June 1941 Reinhard Heydrich and Bruno Streckenbach lectured the senior commanders about the extermination of Jews and the major policy objectives in the Prinz Albrecht Palace in Berlin

There were 4 Einsatzguppen established attached as follows:

Einsatzgruppe A – Army Group North

Einsatzgruppe B – Army Group Centre

Einsatzgruppe C – Army Group South

Einsatzgruppe D – German 11th Army

The main methods of killing were by shooting, and limited use of gas vans, and whilst the precise figures will never be known, it is widely acknowledged that over 900,000 men, women and children were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen during the Second World War. 

What follows are the accounts by members of the Einsatzgruppen, in their own words:

Fritz Höfer a truck driver provided a statement on the murder of 33,771 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev over two days in September 1941:

One day I was ordered to drive my truck out of town. I had a Ukrainian with me. It was about 10 a.m. On our way, we passed Jews marching in columns in the same direction, we were going. They were carrying their belongings. There were whole families. The farther we drove away from the town, the more people we saw in the columns. There were piles of clothes in a wide open field. My job was to fetch them. 

I stopped the engine nearby, and the Ukrainians standing around started loading the car with this stuff. From where I was, I saw other Ukrainians meeting the Jews who arrived, men, women and children, and directing them to the place where, one after another, they were supposed to remove their belongings, coats, shoes, outer garments and even their underwear. They were supposed to put all their belongings together in a pile. Everything happened very quickly, the Ukrainians hurried those who hesitated by kicking and pushing them. I think it took less than a minute from the moment a person took off his coat before he was standing completely naked. No distinction was made between men, women and children. The Jews who were arriving could have turned back when they saw those who had come earlier taking off their clothes. Even today I cannot understand why they didn’t run.

Naked Jews were led to a ravine about 150 metres long, 30 metres wide and 15 metres deep. The Jews went down into the ravine through two or three narrow paths. When they got closer to the edge of the ravine, members of the Schutzpolizei (Germans) grabbed them and made them lie down over the corpses of the Jews who had already been shot. It took no time. The corpses were carefully laid down in rows. As soon as a Jew lay down, a Schutzpolizist came along with a sub-machine gun and shot him in the back of the head.

The Jews who descended into the ravine were so frightened by this terrible scene that they completely lost their will. You could even see some of them lying down in the row on their own and waiting for the shot to come. Only two members of the Schutzpolizei did the shooting. One of them was working at one of the ravine, the other started at the other end. I saw them standing on the bodies and shooting one person after another. Walking over the corpses toward a new victim who had already laid down, the machine gunner shot him on the spot. It was an extermination machine that made no distinction between men, women and children.

Children were kept with their mothers and shot with them. I did not watch for long. When I approached the edge, I was so frightened of what I that I could not look at it for a long time. I saw dead bodies at the bottom laid across in three rows, each of which was approximately 60 metres long. I could not see how many layers were there. It was beyond my comprehension to see bodies twitching in convulsions and covered with blood, so I could not make sense of the details.

Apart from the two machine gunners, there were two other members of the Schutzpolizei standing near each passage into the ravine. They made each victim lie down on the corpses, so that the machine gunner could shoot while he walked by. When victims descended into the ravine and saw this terrible scene at the last moment, they let out a cry of terror. But they were grabbed by the waiting Schutzpolizei right away and hurled down onto the others. Those who followed them could not see the terrible scene because it was obstructed by the edge of the ravine. While some people were getting undressed and most of the others were waiting their turn, there was a lot of noise. The Ukrainians paid no attention to the noise and just kept forcing people through the passages into the ravine.

You could not see the ravine from the site where people were taking off their clothes, because it was situated about 150 metres away from the first pile of clothes. Besides, a strong wind was blowing and it was very cold. You couldn’t hear the shooting in the ravine. So I concluded that the Jews had no idea what was actually happening. Even today I wonder why the Jews did nothing to challenge what was going on. Masses of people were coming from town and they did not seem to suspect anything. They thought they were just being relocated.

Walther Mattner, an officer in the Vienna police, wrote to his wife on 5 October 1941 about the liquidation of the Mogilev ghetto:

5 October: So I took part in the great mass death the day before yesterday. When the first vehicles bringing the victims arrived, my hands trembled a bit when I started firing, but you get used to it. . At the tenth vehicle, I aimed calmly and shot with confidence at the women, children and numerous babies, aware that I have two babies of my own at home, and these hordes would treat them just the same, or even ten times worse, perhaps.

The death we gave them was nice and quick, compared with the hellish sufferings of the thousands and thousands of people in the jails of the GPU. The babies flew in great arcs and we shot them to pieces in the air before they fell into the ditch and the water. We need to finish off these brutes who have plunged Europe into war and who, even today, are prospecting in America.

Oh, Devil take it! I’d never seen so much blood, filth, flesh. Now I understand the expression ‘blood-drunk’. The population of Mogilev is now reduced by a number with  three zeros. I’m really glad and many people here are saying that when we get back to the Fatherland, it will be the turn of our local Jews. But anyway I mustn’t tell you anymore. This is enough until I get back home.

August Becker a Gas –Van Inspector provided a statement on the use of Gas-Vans by the Einsatzgruppen in the East:

When in December 1941 I was transferred to Rauff’s department he explained the situation to me, saying that the psychological and moral stress on the firing squads was no longer bearable and that therefore the gassing programme had started. He said that gas-vans with drivers were already on their way to or had indeed reached the individual Einsatzgruppen.

My professional brief was to inspect the work of the individual Einsatzgruppen in the East in connection with the gas-vans. This meant that I had to ensure that the mass killings carried out in the lorries proceeded properly. I was to pay particular attention to the mechanical functioning of these vans. I would like to mention there were two types of gas-vans in operation: the Opel-Blitz, weighing 3.5 tonnes, and the large Sauerwagen, which as far as I knew weighed 7 tonnes.

In the middle of December 1941, on Rauff’s instructions I left for the East to catch up with Einsatzgruppe A (Riga) to inspect their Einsatzwagen (special vehicles) or gas-vans. On 14 December 1941, however, I had a car accident at Deutsch- Eylau. As a result of this accident, I was sent to the Catholic Hospital in Deutsch-Eylau and following my recovery was discharged from hospital on 23 or 24 December 1941. I am sure of this because I spent Christmas with my family in Berlin.

On 4 or 5 January 1942 I received a message from Rauff asking me to report to him. On reporting to him I was instructed to depart immediately. This time I was to travel directly to Einsatzgruppe D in the south (Otto Ohlendorf) in Simferopol. I was originally to have travelled by aeroplane but this did not work out because of icy weather conditions. I thus left by train on 5 or 6 January 1942 travelling via Cracow and Fastov to Nikolayew. From there I flew in the Reichsführer’s plane to Simferopol in the Crimea. The journey took me about three weeks and I reported to the head of Einsatzgruppe D, Otto Ohlendorf, sometime in January. I remained with this group until the beginning of April 1942 and then visited each Einsatzgruppe until I reached Group A in Riga.

In Riga I learned from Standartenführer Potzelt, Deputy Commander of the Security Police and SD in Riga, that the Einsatzkommando operating in Minsk needed some additional gas-vans as it could not manage with the three existing vans it had. At the same time I also learned from Potzelt that there was a Jewish –extermination camp in Minsk. I flew to Minsk by helicopter, correction in a Fiesler Storch belonging to the Einsatzgruppe. Travelling with me was Hauptsturmführer Rühl, the head of the extermination camp at Minsk, with whom I had discussed business in Riga.

During the journey Rühl proposed to me that I provide additional vans since they could not keep up with the exterminations. As I was not responsible for the ordering of gas-vans I suggested Rühl approach Rauff’s office. When I saw what was going on in Minsk – that people of both sexes were being exterminated in their masses, that was it – I could not take any more and three days later, it must have been September 1942, I travelled back by lorry via Warsaw to Berlin.

I had intended to report to Rauff at his office in Berlin. However, he was not there. Instead I was received by his deputy, Pradel, who had meantime been promoted to Major...... In a private conversation lasting about an hour I described to Pradel the working method of the gas-vans and voiced criticism about the fact that the offenders had not been gassed but had been suffocated because the operators had set the engine incorrectly. I told him that people had vomited and defecated. Pradel listened to me without saying a word. At the end of our interview he simply told me to write a detailed report on the matter. Finally he told me to go to the cashier’s office to settle up the expenses I had incurred during my trip.

Kurt Werner, a member of Sonderkommando 4a in Kiev gave a statement regarding his role in the execution of Jews at the Babi Yar ravine in September 1941:

That day the entire Kommando with the exception of one guard set out at about six o'clock in the morning for these shootings. I myself went there by lorry. It was all hands to the deck. We drove for about twenty minutes in a northerly direction. We stopped on a cobbled road in the open country. The road stopped there. There were countless Jews gathered there and a place had been set up where the Jews had to hand in their clothes and their luggage. A kilometre further on I saw a large natural ravine. The terrain there was sandy. The ravine was about 10 metres deep, some 400 metres long, and about 80 metres wide across the top and about 10 metres wide at the bottom.

As soon as I arrived at the execution area I was sent down to the bottom of the ravine with some of the other men. It was not long before the first Jews were brought to us over the side of the ravine. The Jews had to lie face down on the earth by the ravine walls . There were three groups of marksmen down at the bottom of the ravine, each made up of about twelve men. Groups of Jews were sent down to each of these execution squads simultaneously. Each successive group of Jews had to lie down on top of the bodies of those that had already been shot. The marksmen stood behind the Jews and killed them with a shot in the neck. I still recall today the complete terror of the Jews when they first caught sight of the bodies as they reached the top edge of the ravine. Many Jews cried out in terror. It's almost impossible to imagine what nerves of steel it took to carry out that dirty work down there. It was horrible.....

I had to spend the whole morning down in the ravine. For some of the time I had to shoot continuously. Then I was given the job of loading sub-machine gun magazines with ammunition. While I was doing that, other comrades were assigned to shooting duty. Towards midday we were called away from the ravine and in the afternoon I, with some of the others up at the top, had to lead the Jews to the ravine. While we were doing this there were other men shooting down in the ravine. The Jews were led by us up to the edge of the ravine and from there they walked down the slope on their own. The shooting that day must have lasted until 17.00 or 18.00 hours. Afterwards we were taken back to our quarters. That evening we were given alcohol (schnapps) again.

Anton Heidborn another member of Sonderkommando 4a in Kiev recalled:

The third day after the execution we were taken back to the execution area. On our arrival we saw a woman sitting by a bush who had apparently survived the execution unscathed. This woman was shot by the SD man who was accompanying us. I do not know his name. We also saw someone waving their hand from among the pile of bodies. I don't know whether it was a man or a woman. I should think that this person was finished off by the SD man as well, though I did not exactly see it.

The same day work began to cover up the piles of bodies. Civilians were used for this task. The ravine walls were partly blown up. After that day I never returned to the execution area. The next few days were spent smoothing out banknotes belonging to the Jews that had been shot. I estimate these must have totalled millions. I do not know what happened to the money. It was packed up in sacks and sent off somewhere.


Sources:

G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution, Vallentine Mitchell and Co London 1953

E.Klee, W.Dressen, V.Riess, Those Were the Days, published by Hamish Hamilton London 1991

C. Ingrao, Believe and Destroy, published by Polity Press, Cambridge UK 2013

Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust – The Jewish Tragedy, published by Collins London 1986

Photograph – Yad Vashem

© Holocaust Historical Society 2018