Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
In the film Judgement at Nuremberg the American Prosecutor at the Judges Trial played by Richard Widmark asked a question when showing a film of the victims of the Nazis when the Concentration Camps were liberated by American and British troops in the spring of 1945. His question in the face of films of massed piles of bodies being bulldozed into mass graves at Bergen-Belsen, of the cremated remains, shrunken skulls, and lampshades made of human skin at Buchenwald, gas chambers, medical experiments, the emaciated bodies of still living victims; little more than skin and bones, elbows, hips, and knees bulging over the shrunken remains of their bodies, eyes sunken in to the skulls.
Who Were they?
The Nazis specifically targeted the Jews for extermination. According to Hitler, his hnchemen, and other German nationalists, the Jews were less than human, they worked hand in hand with the Bolsheviks, and thus deserved their fate. Likewise, there were those crippled in body or mind who were euthanized, political opponents, religious and racial minorities, populations of conquered nations, who died at the hands of the German military, or who were gunned down in mass graves by the Einsatzgruppen, intentionally starved to death, or who were worked to death as Slave laborers in the Nazi work camps.
They were men and women, wives and husbands, sons and daughters. They spanned the spectrum from infants to the aged. Too many times multiple generations of families went to death together. Hermann Graebe, a civilian employed to help build roads for the Wehrmacht came across one of the many massacres committed up close and personal by SS Men on October 5th 1943 at Dubno, Ukraine. He testified:
Moennikes and I went direct to the pits. Nobody bothered us. Now I heard rifle shots in quick succession, from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks—men, women and children of all ages—had to undress upon the orders of an SS-man, who carried a riding or dog whip.
They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes of about 800 to 1,000 pairs, great piles of underlinen and clothing. Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign from another SS-man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand.
During the 15 minutes that I stood near the pit I heard no complaint or plea for mercy. I watched a family of about 8 persons, a man and woman, both about 50 with their children of about 1, 8 and 10, and two grown up daughters of about 20 to 24. An old woman with snow-white hair was holding the one year old child in her arms and singing to it, and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The couple were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about 10 years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed toward the sky, stroked his head, and seemed to explain something to him. At that moment the SS-man at the pit shouted something to his comrade.
I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay before them. Blood was running from their necks.
I was surprised that I was not ordered away, but I saw that there were two or three postmen in uniform nearby. The next batch was approaching already.
These victims were not just numbers and statistics. They were living breathing human beings whose lives were snuffed out by the Nazis and their allies. They had been abandoned by most of the world. Anything of value that they possessed was appropriated by the men who exterminated them; their businesses, homes, farms, clothes, shoes, currency, jewelry, wedding rings, artwork, furniture, and even their gold fillings, and yes, their hair, and even their skin.
Whole towns were exterminated, millions of people killed and millions of other people displaced, never to return to their homes. At Babi Yar outside of Kiev 33,771 Jews were exterminated by the members of Sonderkommando 4b of Einsatzgruppen C as well as Police battalions. About 10,000 others, mainly Communist Officials and Gypsies were rounded up and killed in the same operation. The victims were stripped of all of their belongings taken to a ravine and shot. The German Army provided logistic support as well as security for the murder squads.
Fritz Hoefer, a SS man serving as a truck driver with the Sonderkommando said these words at the Einsatzgruppen Trial:
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.
Columns of Jews march past a corpse in Kiev
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.
German Einsatzgruppen & Police force groups of Jews to hand over their possessions and undress before being shot in the ravine at Babi Yar
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.
Jews at Babi Yar waiting to be murdered
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.
The men who were the leaders of the mobile Einsatzgruppen which conducted these up close and personal killings of nearly a million and a half Jews and others were not common thugs. Most were very educated and accomplished men.
General Telford Taylor, an American lawyer who served as a prosecutor at the Einsatzgruppen Trial explained:
“These defendants are not German peasants or artisans drafted into the Wehrmacht. They are not uneducated juveniles. They are lawyers, teachers, artists, and a former clergyman. They are, in short, men of education, who were in full possession of their faculties and who fully understood the grave and sinister significance of the program they embarked upon. They were part of the hard core of the SS. They did not give mere lip service to Himmler’s atrocious racial doctrines; they were chosen for this terrible assignment because they were thought to be men of sufficient ruthlessness to carry them out. They are hand-picked fanatics; every one of them was an officer of the SS … They are not unhappy victims, unwillingly pushed into crime by the tyranny of the Third Reich; these men, above all others, themselves, spread the Nazi doctrine with fire and sword.”
The men who ran the death camps might not have been from the same “elite” stock as the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen but they carried out their duties in calculating and businesslike manner. Rudolf Hoess who commanded Auschwitz gave this statement to the International Military Tribunal:
On 1 December 1943 1 became Chief of Amt 1 in Amt Group D of the WVHA, and in that office was responsible for co-ordinating all matters arising between RSHA and concentration camps under the administration of WVHA. I held this position until the end of the war. Pohl, as Chief of WVHA, and Kaltenbrunner, as Chief of RSHA, often conferred personally and frequently communicated orally and in writing concerning concentration camps. . . .
The ‘final solution’ of the Jewish question meant the complete extermination of all Jews in Europe. I was ordered to establish extermination facilities at Auschwitz in June 1941. At that time, there were already in the General Government three other extermination camps: Belzek, Treblinka, and Wolzek. These camps were under the Einsatzkommando of the Security Police and SD. I visited Treblinka to find out how they carried out their exterminations. The camp commandant at Treblinka told me that he had liquidated 80,000 in the course of one-half year. He was principally concerned with liquidating all the Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto. He used monoxide gas, and I did not think that his methods were very efficient. So when I set up the extermination building at Auschwitz, I used Cyklon B, which was a crystallized prussic acid which we dropped into the death chamber from a small opening. It took from 3 to 15 minutes to kill the people in the death chamber, depending upon climatic conditions. We knew when the people were dead because their screaming stopped. We usually waited about one-half hour before we opened the doors and removed the bodies. After the bodies were removed our special Kommandos took off the rings and extracted the gold from the teeth of the corpses.
When he was asked specifics, Hoess stated: This gold was melted down and brought to the Chief Medical Office of the SS at Berlin.
He continued with some pride during cross examination:
Another improvement we made over Treblinka was that we built our gas chamber to accommodate 2,000 people at one time whereas at Treblinka their 10 gas chambers only accommodated 200 people each. The way we selected our victims was as follows: We had two SS doctors on duty at Auschwitz to examine the incoming transports of prisoners. The prisoners would be marched by one of the doctors who would make spot decisions as they walked by. Those who were fit for work were sent into the camp. Others were sent immediately to the extermination plants. Children of tender years were invariably exterminated since by reason of their youth they were unable to work. Still another improvement we made over Treblinka was that at Treblinka the victims almost always knew that they were to be exterminated and at Auschwitz we endeavored to fool the victims into thinking that they were to go through a delousing process. Of course, frequently they realized our true intentions and we sometimes had riots and difficulties due to that fact. Very frequently women would hide their children under the clothes, but of course when we found them we would send the children in to be exterminated. We were required to carry out these exterminations in secrecy but of course the foul and nauseating stench from the continuous burning of bodies permeated the entire area and all of the people living in the surrounding communities knew that exterminations were going on at Auschwitz.
But the bodies…
Jews and Gentiles from every nation in Europe as well as the Americas, Africa, and Asia ended up dying at the hands of the Nazis, either in their Death Camps, Concentration/ Labor Camps, or up close and personal at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, the Waffen SS, or the Wehrmacht.
Every one of those bodies, the cold statistics of the Nazi machine were people like you and me. In April I visited the United States Holocaust Museum while visiting friends in Washington D. C.
I think that the one that hit me the hardest was the pictorial Tower of Faces from the Polish shtetl of Ejszyszki. That town was home to some 4,000 Jews and the pictures had been taken over the preceding decade by local photographers. They were pictures of everyday family and community life; men, women, children at work, at play, at rest. Worshipping, working, studying, the old and the young, the well off and the poor, the religious and those not as religious at all phase of life captured in photos for eternity. For 3500 of them their lives ended on September 21st 1941 when the Nazis rounded up the Jews at their Synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur and executed them by firing squad in mass graves at the town’s Christian and Jewish cemeteries. Only 29 of those who survived that day lived through the war. That Jewish community had existed for 900 years and was exterminated in a matter of hours.
I looked at those pictures and I could not get over all of those innocent lives cut short. Each face was the picture of an individual or individuals, families, friends, schoolmates. They were not abstract numbers or statistics but real flesh and blood people like you and me. They had hopes and dreams, but because they were Jews they were exterminated, like nearly six million other Jews who also were real people with hopes and dreams that would be destroyed by the Nazi racial war. Of course the Nazis targeted others, but none with the relentless anti-Semitic racial hatred propagated by Nazi ideology. Thus they condoned and executed by people who would have ordinarily have been considered upstanding and moral citizens. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote:
“We should not at all allow ourselves to forget the millions of non-Jewish citizens of Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, and other Slav territories who were also massacred. But for me the salient fact remains that anti-Semitism was the regnant, essential, organizing principle of all the other National Socialist race theories. It is thus not to be thought of as just one prejudice among many.”
The Jewish-Italian Philosopher and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi wrote:
Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we ill have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.
I write because the remaining witnesses to the Nazi Crimes are dying off and deniers are becoming ever more numerous. In researching this article I came across a man, an American of all people, who is denying the mass murder at Babi Yar. I have to shake my head, but the fact is that such people have become emboldened by the Presidency of Donald Trump. They see in him a kindred spirit. Such does not bode well for the future, and the lives who will stand behind the faces and names of the future crimes against humanity.
4 responses to “Who Were the Bodies? The Nazi Crimes Against Humanity in Retrospect”
This is hard to read, but important to understand what could happen again, especially in this current hate filled political climate. And if it happened once……..
I’m curious, since you are a chaplain or former chaplain, how do you justify your God being a loving one and totally capable of stopping something like this, but choosing not to?
If humans are truly capable of this incomprehensible behavior, through either DNA, genes or a form of insanity, then what hope is there,ever, for mankind and the future. Man obviously doesn’t learn from the mistakes of history and he often chooses to forget or contort the facts.
Mary, I struggle with this. My answer would be too long and theological and probably filled with contradictions to post here. I will quote German theologian Jürgen Moltmann who survived the firebombing of Hamburg as a 17 year old, wrote of theology after Auschwitz in his book “The Crucified God”
A shattering expression of the theologia crucis which is suggested in the rabbinic theology of God’s humiliation of himself is to be found in Night, a book written by E. Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz:
The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment for a long time, I heard the man call again, ‘Where is God now?’ And I heard a voice in myself answer: ‘Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows…’
Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would condemn men to indifference.
(Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, p 273-274)
In answer to the question “How can we believe in God after Auschwitz he responded:
“In whom can we believe after Auschwitz if not God?
Also, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim made a good argument: If we abandoned our faith in God after Auschwitz, we would give Hitler a posthumous victory.
And as long as we know that the ‘Sh’ma Yisrael’ and the ‘Our Father’ prayers were prayed in Auschwitz, we must not give up our faith in God.”
Respectfully, not a straight forward enough answer for me. Perhaps an avoidance of reality.
The problem of evil is a big one in religion and has been debated for years to no real satisfactory answer. To me, there is either no god or an indifferent one who simple got the “ball rolling” and our one little planet full of self made problems, in this vast universe of trillions of galaxies, is virtually meaningless.
Meaning becomes how one leads their life and the moral decency they try to live by and the positive way one interacts with their fellow man and creatures that also inhabit the earth.
I actually do share some of you beliefs, especially the comments that you end your response with.
I went to Iraq in 2007 as someone that any person who knew me or had read anything that I wrote up to that time would have considered me to be a very conservative Catholic Christian. In fact back in 1997 I had an enlisted Army Chaplain assistant, who is now a Colonel in the Army Chaplain Corps who said that I was like a “Catholic Rush Limbaugh”.
But Iraq changed me and I returned from it in 2008 as an Agnostic hoping that God might still exist. I remained that until Christmas of 2009 when something that I call my “Christmas Music Miracle” occurred. I have written about it before here, so I won’t go I to detail tonight because I am tired.
But the fact is that I am no Fundamentalist. I don’t think that you can prove the existence or non existence of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis remarked: “A God who would let us prove his existence would be an idol”.
For me that faith comes in the form of Christ, the Christ who Moltmann writes:
“When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakenness. In Jesus he does not die the natural death of a finite being, but the violent death of the criminal on the cross, the death of complete abandonment by God. The suffering in the passion of Jesus is abandonment, rejection by God, his Father. God does not become a religion, so that man participates in him by corresponding religious thoughts and feelings. God does not become a law, so that man participates in him through obedience to a law. God does not become an ideal, so that man achieves community with him through constant striving. He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.”
I am one of those Godless and godforsaken. I question everything, and belief comes hard. I do not consider myself to be a good example of faith for anyone to follow. But I believe, despite my unbelief; it is an act of faith.
Like you I believe that religion, including the Christian region has been the cause of untold suffering and evil, even when it has nothing to do with war. But honestly, as I tell the young Chaplains that I supervise, “if I wasn’t already a Christian, there is nothing that the Christian Church could say to make me become one.
When it comes to crimes against humanity, the religious faithful or all religions are all too often the culprits. Sadly, I cannot change that reality.
I do recommend Moltmann’s books to you.