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:
Felix Landau in April 1940 was assigned to KdS (Commander of the Security Police and SD) in Radom. On 30 June 1941, he reported to an Einsatzkomando just after the commencement of the campaign in Russia. The following is an extract from his daily journal:
Drohobycz, 12 July 1941
At 6.00 in the morning I was suddenly awoken from a deep sleep. Report for an execution. Fine, so I’ll just play executioner and then gravedigger, why not? Isn’t strange, you love battle and then have to shoot defenceless people.
Twenty –three had to be shot, amongst them the two above mentioned women. They are unbelievable. They even refused to accept a glass of water from us. I was detailed as marksman and had to shoot any runaways. We drove one kilometre along the road out of town and then turned right into a wood. There were only six of us at that point and we had to find a suitable spot to shoot and bury them. After a few minutes we found a place.
The death candidates assembled with shovels to dig their own graves. Two of them were weeping. The others certainly have incredible courage. What on earth is running through their minds during those moments? I think that each of them harbours a small hope that somehow he wont be shot. The death candidates are organised into three shifts as there are not many shovels. Strange, I am completely unmoved. No pity, nothing. That’s the way it is and then it’s all over.........................
And here I am today, a survivor standing in front of others in order to shoot them. Slowly the hole gets bigger and bigger, two of them are crying continuously. I keep them digging longer and longer; they don’t think so much when they’re digging. While they’re working they are in fact calmer. Valuables, watches and money are put into a pile.
When all three of them have been brought to stand next to one another on a stretch of open ground, the two women are lined up at one end of the grave ready to be shot first. Two men had already been shot in the bushes by our Kriminalkommissar..... I did not see this as I had to keep my eye on the others. As the women walked to the grave they were completely composed. They turned round. Six of us had to shoot them. The job was assigned thus: three at the heart, three at the head.
I took the heart. The shots were fired and the brains whizzed through the air. Two in the head is too much. They almost tear it off. Almost all of them fell to the ground without a sound. Only with two of them it didn’t work. They screamed and whimpered for a long time. Revolvers were no use. The two of us who were shooting together had no failures.
The penultimate group had to throw those who had already been shot into the mass grave and then line up and fall in themselves. The last two had to place themselves at the front edge of the grave so that they would fall in at just the right spot. Then a few bodies were rearranged with a pickaxe and after that we began the grave-digging work
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.
Wilhelm Findeisen a member of Sonderkommando 4 in Einsatzgruppe C recalls the shooting of two people and the use of a Gas –Van in Kiev, Ukraine:
I was told that the whole operation and the van itself were secret. It was expressly forbidden to photograph the vans and I was ordered not to let anyone near the van. I then joined Sonderkommando 4 in Einsatzgruppe C.
The van was not used immediately when we arrived in Kiev. When we first arrived they were only carrying out isolated actions. Being a driver, I had nothing to do with these isolated actions. One evening several officers appeared and ordered certain people to go with them. They went into a private flat where they picked up a professor and his daughter. These people were then taken to a spot close to a piece of open land where a grave was dug.
The people, i.e. the officers, then gave orders for these two people to be shot. One of the officers said to me, ‘Findeisen, shoot these people in the neck.’ I refused to do this as did the other men. The girl must have been about eighteen or nineteen. The officer shot the people himself as the others refused. He swore at us and said we were cowards, but apart from that he did not do anything else.
The gas-van was used for the first time in Kiev. My job was simply to drive the van. The van was loaded at headquarters. About forty people were loaded in, men, women and children. I then had to tell the people they were being taken away for work detail. Some steps were put against the van and the people were pushed in. Then the doors were bolted and the tube connected.... I drove through the town and then out to the anti-tank ditches where the vehicle was opened. This was done by prisoners. The bodies were then thrown in the anti-tank ditches.
Hermann Graebe, a German engineer witnessed an Aktion in Dubno, on 5 October 1942 and his moving account of this brutal slaughter stands as a fitting testimony to the victims:
On 5th October 1942, when I visited the building office at Dubno, my foreman told me in the vicinity of the site Jews from Dubno had been shot in three large pits, each about thirty metres long and three metres deep. About fifteen hundred persons had been killed daily. All were to be liquidated. As the shooting had taken place in his presence he was still very upset.
Moennikes and I went straight to the pits. Nobody prevented us. I heard a quick succession of shots from behind one of the mounds of earth. The people who had got off the lorries – men, women and children of all ages – had to undress upon the order of an SS man, who carried a riding or dog whip. They had to put their clothes on separate piles of shoes, top clothing and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes that must have contained eight hundred to one thousand pairs, great piles of clothes and undergarments.
Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood in family groups, kissed each other, said their farewells, and waited for a sign from another SS man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand. During the fifteen minutes that I stood near the pit, I did not hear anyone complain or beg for mercy.
I watched a family of about eight, a man and a woman, both about fifty, with their children, aged about one, eight and ten, and two grown-up daughters of about twenty to twenty-four. An old woman with snow-white hair was holding the one-year old child in her arms, singing something to it and tickling it. The child was crowing with delight. The man and his wife were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy of about ten, speaking to him softly. The boy was fighting back his tears. The father pointed to the sky, stroked the boy’s head and seemed to explain something to him. At that moment the SS man at the pit shouted something to his comrade, who separated off about twenty persons and ordered them to go behind the mound of earth. Among them was the family that I have mentioned. I still clearly remember a dark –haired, slim girl who pointed to herself as she passed close to me and said, ‘Twenty-three.’
I walked to the other side of the mound and found myself standing before an enormous grave. The people lay so closely packed, one on top of the other, that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of them were still moving. Some lifted an arm and turned a head to show that they were still alive. The pit was already two-thirds full. I estimated that it contained about one thousand people. I looked round for the SS man who had shot them. He was an SS man, who was sitting on the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his legs dangling into it. He had a sub-machine gun across his knees and was smoking a cigarette.
The people, completely naked, went down some steps which had been cut in the clay wall of the pit and climbed over the heads of those already lying there, to the place indicated by the SS man. They laid down in front of the dead or injured people. Some of them caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them softly. Then I heard a series of shots. I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or that the heads lay motionless on top of the bodies which lay before them. Blood was pouring from their necks. I was surprised that I was not ordered away, but saw that there were also two or three uniformed policemen standing nearby.
The next batch was already approaching. They climbed into the pit, lined up against the previous victims and were shot. When I walked back round the mound I noticed another lorry-load of people which had just arrived. This time it included sick and infirm people. A very thin old woman, with terribly thin legs, was undressed by others who were already naked, while two people supported her. The woman appeared to be paralysed. The naked people carried the woman around the mound. I left with Moennikes and drove back to Dubno in the car.
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 2014