Hermann Graebe after the War
Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Over the past week I have been writing about the Nazi campaigns in Poland and the Soviet Union. These posts have included the actions of Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann’s Einsatzgruppen, Nazi Plans and policies, the military and legal precedents to genocide, the complicity of the German Army and many of their senior leaders in the genocide conducted against the Jews.
The things I have written about are not pleasant, but in a sense, despite the words of the Generals who issued criminal orders, The vast numbers killed by the Einsatzgruppen and a few incidents of individual actions against the Jews. All that being said it is really hard to grasp the killings of millions. Most of us can grasp the death of one or maybe two human beings, but to try to conceptualize the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions is far above what we can imagine. Mass numbers of dead human beings become statistics, they certainly were to Adolf Eichmann who took in the daily numbers killed by the Einsatzgruppen and recorded them like sports reporters reporting statistics.
But when reads the detailed account of a family of eight representing four generations going to their deaths it hits home more. The following is the testimony of Hermann Friedrich Graebe, a civilian German engineer and project manager for the Josef Jung Construction Company in the Ukraine. While working on a project at Dubno where among his laborers were Jews. He testified at the Einsatzgruppen Trial and as a result had so many threats on his life that he emigrated to the United States and settled in San Francisco until his death in 1986.
Before this he worked to save as many Jewish workers as possible when alerted to an Einsatzgruppen killing operation in Rovno. Although he was promised that his workers would be spared, he found that seven had being seized and were going to be killed. Hi account of that experience follows:
Hermann Friedrich Graebe, was a manager and supervisor engineer in charge of a German building firm in Sdolbunow, Ukraine, assigned to rebuilding aircraft hangers at the former Soviet airfield. Graebe narrated in graphic language how many Einsatzgruppen mass murder operations were conducted.
When he heard that one of these horrifying performances was being rehearsed in his town he called on the commanding officer of the area, SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Puetz, to make inquiries, since he, Graebe, employed a few Jewish workers he wished to protect. Sturmbannfuehrer Puetz denied the rumors. Later, however, Graebe ascertained from the Area Commissioner’s deputy, Stabsleiter Beck, that what he heard was true, but Beck exacted from Graebe the promise not to disclose the secret. In exchange for this promise, he supplied Graebe with a certificate which was to protect his workers when the storm of blood should burst. This amazing document reads:
“Messrs. JUNG ROVNO:
The Jewish workers employed by your firm are not affected by the pogrom (Aktion). You must transfer them to their new place of work by Wednesday, 15 July 1942, at the latest. From the Area Commissioner Beck”
That evening the Einsatzgruppen killers lashed through the streets of Rovno like a hurricane. Graebe described it:
“The people living there were driven on to the street just as they were, regardless of whether they were dressed or in bed. Since the Jews in most cases refused to leave their houses and resisted, the SS and militia applied force. They finally succeeded, with strokes of the whip, kicks and blows, with rifle butts in clearing the houses. The people were driven out of their houses in such haste that small children in bed had been left behind in several instances. In the street women cried out for their children and children for their parents. That did not prevent the SS from driving the people along the road, at running pace, and hitting them, until they reached a waiting freight train. Car after car was filled, and the screaming of women and children, and the cracking of whips and rifle shots resounded unceasingly. Since several families or groups had barricaded themselves in especially strong buildings, and the doors could not be forced with crowbars or beams, these houses were now blown open with hand grenades. Since the Ghetto was near the railroad tracks in Rovno, the younger people tried to get across the tracks and over a small river to get away from the Ghetto area. As this stretch of country was beyond the range of the electric lights, it was illuminated by signal rockets.
All through the night these beaten, hounded and wounded people moved along the lighted streets. Women carried their dead children in their arms, children pulled and dragged their dead parents by their arms and legs down the road toward the train. Again and again the cries “Open the door! Open the door!” echoed through the Ghetto.”
Despite the immunity guaranteed Graebe’s Jewish workers by Stabsleiter Beck, seven of his employees were seized and taken to the collecting point. Graebe’s narrative continued:
“I went to the collecting point to save these seven men. I saw dozens of corpses of all ages and both sexes in the streets I had to walk along. The doors of the houses stood open, windows were smashed. Pieces of clothing, shoes, stockings, jackets, caps, hats, coats, etc. were lying in the street. At the comer of the house lay a baby, less than a year old with his skull crushed. Blood and brains were spattered over the house wall and covered the area immediately around the child. The child was dressed only in a little shirt.
The commander, SS Major Puetz, was walking up and down a row of about 80-100 male Jews who were crouching on the ground. He had a heavy dog whip in his hand. I walked up to him, showed him the written permit of Stabsleiter Beck and demanded the seven men whom I recognized among those who were crouching on the ground. Dr. Puetz was very furious about Beck’s concession and nothing could persuade him to release the seven men. He made a motion with his hand encircling the square and said that anyone who was once here would not get away. Although he was very angry with Beck, he ordered me to take the people from 5 Bahnhofstrasse out of Rovno by 8 o’clock at the latest.
When I left Dr. Puetz, I noticed a Ukrainian farm cart, with two horses. Dead people with stiff limbs were lying on the cart, legs and arms projected over the side boards. The cart was making for the freight train. I took the remaining 74 Jews who had been locked in the house to Sdolbunow.
Five thousand Jews were killed in this pogrom.”
Hermann Graebe Receiving his Honors from Yad Vashem
For his actions to save these Jews, Graebe was recognized as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. As powerful as his actions were in this incident it was his testimony at the Einsatzgruppen Trial which are even more chilling.
“I, the undersigned, Hermann Friedrich Graebe, make the following declaration under oath:
From September 1941 to January 1944 I was director and chief engineer of the Sdolbunow branch of the Josef Jung Construction Company of Solingen. In this capacity one of my duties was to visit the firm’s projects. Under the terms of a contract with the army construction services, the company was building grain warehouses on the old Dubno airfield in the Ukraine.
On October 5th 1942, at the time of my visit to the construction offices in Dubno, my foreman, Hubert Moennikes told me that some Dubno Jews had been shot near the building, in three huge ditches about 30 metres long and three metres deep. The number of people killed daily was estimated at around 1,500. The 5,000 Jews who lived in Dubno before the Pogrom were all marked for liquidation. Since the executions took place in the presence of my employee, he was painfully aware of and affected by them.
Accompanied by Moennikes, I went to the work area. I saw great mounds of earth about 30 metres long and two metres high. Several trucks were parked nearby. Armed Ukrainian militia were forcing people out, under the surveillance of SS soldiers. The same militia men were responsible for guard duty and driving the trucks. The people in the trucks wore the regulation yellow pieces of cloth that identified them as Jews on the front and back of their clothing.
Moennikes and I went straight toward the ditches without being stopped. When we neared the mound, I heard a series of rifle shots close by. The people from the trucks – men, women and children – were forced to undress under the supervision of an SS soldier with a whip in his hand. They were obliged to put their effects in certain areas: shoes, clothing, and underwear separately. I saw a pile of shoes, thousands of pairs, great heaps of underwear and clothing. Without weeping or crying out, these people undressed and stood together in family groups, embracing each other and saying goodbye while waiting for a sign from the SS soldier, who stood on the edge of the ditch.
During the fifteen minutes I stayed there, I did not hear a single complaint or plea for mercy. I watched a family of about eight: a man and woman about fifty years old, surrounded by their children aged about one, eight, and ten, and two older girls about 20 and 24. An old lady, her hair completely white, held the baby in her arms, rocking it and singing it a song. The infant was crying aloud with delight. The parents watched the groups with tears in their eyes. The father held the ten-year-old boy by the hand, speaking softly to him; the child struggled to hold back his tears. Then the father pointed a finger to the sky and, stroking the child’s head, seemed to be explaining something.
At this moment, the SS man near the ditch called something to his comrade. The latter counted off some twenty people and ordered them behind the mound. The family of which I have just spoken was in the group. I still remember the young girl, slender and dark, who, passing near me, pointed at herself, saying, “23.” I walked around the mound and faced a frightful common grave. Tightly packed corpses were heaped so close together that only the heads showed. Most were wounded in the head and the blood flowed over their shoulders. Some still moved. Others raised their hands and turned their heads to show that they were still alive. The ditch was two-thirds full. I estimate that it held a thousand bodies.
I turned my eyes toward the man who had carried out the execution. He was an SS man; he was seated, legs swinging, on the narrow edge of the ditch; an automatic rifle rested on his knees and he was smoking a cigarette. The people, completely naked, climbed down a few steps cut in the clay wall and stopped at the place indicated by the SS man. Facing the dead and wounded, they spoke softly to them. Then I heard a series of rifle shots. I looked in the ditch and saw their bodies contorting, their heads, already inert, sinking on the corpses beneath. The blood flowed from the nape of their necks. I was astonished not to be ordered away, but then I noticed two or three uniformed postmen nearby. A new batch of victims approached the place. They climbed down into the ditch, lined up in front of the previous victims and were shot.
On the way back, while rounding the mound, I saw another full truck which had just arrived. This truck contained only the sick and crippled. Women, already naked, were undressing an old woman with an emaciated body, her legs frightfully thin. She was held up by two people and seemed paralyzed. The naked people led her behind the mound. I left the place with Moennikes and went back to Dubno in a car.
The next morning, returning to the construction, I saw some thirty naked bodies lying thirty to fifty yards from the ditch. Some were still alive; they stared into space with a set look, seeming not to feel the coolness of the morning air. A young girl of about twenty spoke to me, asking me to bring her clothes and to help her escape. At that moment we heard the sound of a car approaching at top speed; I saw that it was an SS detachment. I went back to my work. Ten minutes later rifle shots sounded from the ditch The Jews who were still alive had been ordered to throw the bodies in the ditch. They then had to lie down themselves to receive a bullet in the back of the neck.”
Hermann Graebe, a civilian, chose to risk his life to save people who were doomed to death. Survivors of the massacre remembered his efforts.
Survivors of Dubno Massacre honoring the dead in 1945
Another accidental witness was a German Army Lieutenant, Axel von dem Bussche, whose regiment was in the area but refused to participate in the action, but Bussche decided to witness what was really happening. He was so traumatized by what he saw that he joined the resistance cell in Army Group Center. After this experience he declared that there were only three ways left to preserve his honor as an officer: to die in battle, to desert, or to rebel against the government that had ordered this and all other massacres. He chose the last option, justifying his intention to kill Hitler by his legal right to defend others against unlawful, ongoing, criminal attacks. I wonder if any American Officers would choose the same course today if President Trump continues down the road to authoritarian dictatorship and attacking, jailing, or killing those that oppose him.
Von dem Bussche volunteered for two of the early operations to kill Hitler which each failed because Hitler changed his plans at the last moment. In January 1944 he was severely wounded in action and spent months in an SS Hospital recovering from the loss of his leg. Because of his wounds, and long absence from the conspiracy no conspirators arrested after the failed the July 20th plot exposed his involvement in previous attempts on Hitler’s life.
He survived the war and became a diplomat for the new West German Republic. He died in 1993, the last of the anti-Hitler conspirators to die.
Both Hermann Graebe and Axel von dem Bussche saw evil, and each in their own way decided to do what they could to stop it. Graebe, took action in the moment, Von dem Bussche, made the conscious decision to break his personal oath to Hitler and was involved in two assassination attempts.
The actions of both of these men who risked their lives to either save lives directly or to kill and overthrow the leader who had ordered genocide and war crimes. I wonder how many Americans would do either if they had to make such a choice. I know what I would do. I would do whatever necessary to save a vengeful racist dictator’s intended victims, or whatever I could do to put an end to such a man’s rule. As another of Hitler’s Victims said in 1933:
In April 1933 while speaking of the responsibility of Christians and the church to stand against injustice he wrote in his essay The Church and the Jewish Question:
“The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” and also“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
If a Christian makes the decision to draw a line around the Church and not to act to protect the people created by God outside of it in order to buttress their political and social power he or she does not know Jesus the Christ. If in the coming months or years I am put in the place to make such a choice, I will not hesitate to stake my life on my actions to both rescue the victims and to put a spike into the wheel, and the heart of injustice.