"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child."
—Cicero, Orator, chapter 34, section 120.—Cicero: Brutus, Orator, trans. H. M. Hubbell, p. 395 (1939).
That's childish, with its selfishness and uncaring impulsivity, not childlike with its connotations of wonder and exploration.
There is some comedy value in beginning this post with a quote from a guy no one reads anymore on the virtues of having an historical grounding but I promise that is the last bit of lightheartedness you'll find in this piece.
Last month we saw headlines such as this from NPR, "The Startling Statistics About People's Holocaust Knowledge"
NPR's Scott Simon reflects on a new study which shows that many millennials don't know about the Auschwitz death camp and the true number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
Two-thirds of Millennials between the ages of 18 and 34, could not identify what Auschwitz was.
If folks haven't been taught about the murder factory the Germans established at Oświęcim, Poland, they sure as hell never learned about the Ordnungspolizei and the Einsatzgruppen. Here's an attempt to rectify the omission.
From the New York Times, April 12, 1992, a review of the earlier stages of the mass murders:
The Men Who Pulled the Triggers
ORDINARY MEN Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. By Christopher R. Browning. Illustrated. 231 pp. New York: Aaron Asher Books/HarperCollins Publishers. $22.
We know a lot about how the Germans carried out the Holocaust. We know much less about how they felt and what they thought as they did it, how they were affected by what they did, and what made it possible for them to do it. In fact, we know remarkably little about the ordinary Germans who made the Holocaust happen -- not the desk murderers in Berlin, not the Eichmanns and Heydrichs, and not Hitler and Himmler, but the tens of thousands of conscripted soldiers and policemen from all walks of life, many of them middle-aged, who rounded up millions of Jews and methodically shot them, one by one, in forests, ravines and ditches, or stuffed them, one by one, into cattle cars and guarded those cars on their way to the gas chambers.
In his finely focused and stunningly powerful book, "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland," Christopher R. Browning tells us about such Germans and helps us understand, better than we did before, not only what they did to make the Holocaust happen but also how they were transformed psychologically from the ordinary men of his title into active participants in the most monstrous crime in human history. In doing so he aims a penetrating searchlight on the human capacity for utmost evil and leaves us staring at his subject matter with the shock of knowledge and the lurking fear of self-recognition.
Mr. Browning, a professor of history at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., and the author of two other books on the Holocaust, focuses his study on one killing unit that operated in Poland during the German occupation, Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the German Order Police. This group of 500 policemen, most of them from Hamburg, was made up of truly ordinary men. Most were in their 30's and 40's -- too old for conscription into the army -- and of middle- or lower-class origins.
They included men who, before the war, had been professional policemen as well as businessmen, dockworkers, truck drivers, construction workers, machine operators, waiters, druggists and teachers. Only a minority were members of the Nazi Party, and only a few belonged to the SS. During their stay in Poland they participated in the shootings, or the transport to the Treblinka gas chambers, of at least 83,000 Jews.
IN the 1960's Battalion 101 was investigated for its activities by West German prosecutors. In the process, 210 former members were interrogated, and 125 of the testimonies were detailed enough to enable Mr. Browning, examining the records, to piece together not only how the unit operated but also how its members felt about their participation in the unit's work. It is on the basis of these testimonies -- some of them self-serving and mendacious, Mr. Browning recognizes, but many of them, he believes, remarkably open and revealing -- that "Ordinary Men" was written.
Battalion 101 was sent into Poland to participate in a "special action." Just what that action was to be its members weren't told. In fact, they were fated to play a crucial role in the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe.
Three months before the Battalion's arrival in Poland during the early summer of 1942, only about a quarter of the Holocaust's eventual victims had been killed, most of them in the Soviet Union. Six months after its arrival, only about a quarter were still alive. Most of the killing during this intense period of mass murder took place in Poland. Battalion 101 of the Order Police -- together with other Order Police battalions -- contributed to the manpower needed to carry out this immense task.
In fact, the Order Police was part of the answer to Heinrich Himmler's Holocaust dream. In the summer of 1941, while the Order Police and special units operating behind the German Army were busy killing the Jews of the Soviet Union, Himmler told Odilo Globocnik, the SS and Police Leader in Lublin, Poland, of Hitler's intention to kill the Jews of the rest of Europe as well. Globocnik's task, he was informed, was the murder of the Jews in the central part of Poland called, by the Germans, the General Government. It was in this area that two million Jews lived, and it was into this area that Jews would be dumped from other parts of Europe, such as Germany, Austria and Slovakia. It was Globocnik's job to kill them all.
But he was not to do it in the way the Germans were doing it in the Soviet Union. There, the Jews were being killed by mobile firing squads. That method was too public, too inefficient and too hard on the killers psychologically. The solution would be killing centers using gas chambers, which would require much less in the way of manpower and relieve Germans of the psychological burden of killing individual people with individual bullets.
But two manpower problems remained. The first resulted from the need to round up the Jews so that they could be consolidated in centralized ghettos and then transported by rail to the killing centers. The other resulted from the need -- when the gas chamber or rail lines were out of order, when there weren't enough trains to transport the Jews, or when the Jews were located in inconvenient places -- to shoot the Jews in the villages in which they lived.
WHERE to obtain this manpower at a time when the war against the Soviet Union was straining German resources to the limit? Globocnik hit upon the solution of using the three manpower pools available in his area: local ethnic Germans; the "Trawnikis" (Ukrainians, Latvians and Lithuanians recruited among Soviet prisoners of war who were willing to work for the Germans and who were trained for killing operations at the camp at Trawniki, near Lublin -- the same camp at which John Demjanjuk, who is currently appealing his conviction in Israel for war crimes, was trained); and three Order Police battalions, one of them Reserve Battalion 101.
A shortage of rolling stock was holding up transports to the killing centers when Reserve Battalion 101 arrived in Globocnik's Lublin region. At first, Globocnik had the battalion consolidate Jews in "transit" ghettos and camps so that they would be available for future transports. But within a few weeks Globocnik apparently decided that the killing itself had to resume, with or without rolling stock, and had the battalion sent to the village of Jozefow for its first "action."
Jozefow provided the men of Battalion 101 with their introduction to mass murder. The village contained 1,800 Jews. The orders were that the male Jews of working age -- those who would serve as "work Jews" before being killed -- were to be sent to camps in Lublin, while the women, children and elderly men were to be shot in Jozefow. The battalion commander, Major Wilhelm Trapp, a 53-year-old career policeman, clearly found these orders distasteful. Already one of his officers, the owner of a lumber business in civilian life, had learned about the impending massacre and asked to be given another assignment; he was. Upon arrival in Jozefow, Trapp informed the battalion's men what their task would be, and invited the older ones to excuse themselves if they felt they were not up to it; a dozen did. Battalion members were then ordered to surround the village, round up its Jews and shoot those trying to escape as well as infants and those too sick or frail to walk to the marketplace.
Trapp then absented himself, spending the rest of the day indoors, away from the action. One policeman remembered seeing Trapp at his headquarters muttering, "Man. . . . such jobs don't suit me. But orders are orders." Another remembered him crying. He later told his driver, "If this Jewish business is ever avenged on earth, then have mercy on us Germans."
Trapp's officers and men, however, went to work. After those Jews who weren't shot in the roundup were assembled, often with the ready help of local Poles who rousted Jews from hiding places, the battalion doctor showed the officers how to aim their rifles at the back of the neck so as to kill a Jew with one shot. In the marketplace, the Polish mayor of Jozefow provided the Germans with flasks of schnapps. The Jews, mostly women and children, were then brought to the nearby forest in trucks. Each truckload was met by an equal number of policemen, who marched the Jews down a forest path. The Jews were ordered to lie face down in a row; each policeman then placed his bayonet at the back of his Jew's neck and fired. This procedure was repeated throughout the day.
As the shooting went on, and as the battalion members found themselves covered with blood, brain tissue and bone splinters from the Jews they had shot at point-blank range, a few felt ill. One policeman was paired with an old man who, upon seeing the corpses of other Jews, threw himself on the ground. The policeman shot too high. "The entire back of the skull . . . was torn off and the brain exposed. Parts of the skull flew into Sergeant Steinmetz's face." The policeman asked to be excused, and was.
Other policemen recalled other reasons for asking to be excused. One, a tailor, discovered that the mother and daughter he had been assigned were German Jews from Kassel, apparently deported to Poland some time before; others encountered Jews from their hometown of Hamburg. Several battalion members slipped away and were cursed as weaklings. In all, as many as 20 percent quit shooting at some point; at least 80 percent kept on shooting until all 1,500 assembled Jews were dead.
Twenty years later, during their interrogations, those battalion veterans who claimed to have stopped shooting at Jozefow cited physical revulsion, in the main, as the reason. Very few -- even two decades later, when it might have helped them legally -- claimed to have had ethical qualms. A few observed that they felt they were freer than others to withdraw from the killing process because they had no intention of remaining policemen after the war; their colleagues, though, had to think about their careers. For many, the pressure to conform to the group, and to not seem like cowards, played a role in their continuing to shoot. One metalworker from Bremerhaven contented himself with the rationale that he would shoot only children, since if his partner shot the mother then the child would be unable to survive alone and killing it would be an act of mercy. For nearly all, the Jews were not in the same human family as they. Their commander, Major Trapp, had told them, in his initial speech, that all Jews were enemies who deserved to be killed, even their women and their children, because Germany's enemies were killing German women and children with bombs.
Though Trapp and many of his men found their participation in the murder of Jozefow Jews difficult, that difficulty diminished as the battalion continued its work. First of all, they got help from the Trawnikis -- the Ukrainians, Latvians and Lithuanians -- who were called in to do much of the shooting. In addition, the gas chambers came back on line, and it was less stressful to stuff cattle cars, no matter how brutally this had to be done, than to do "neck shots." And even when they had to shoot, the shootings themselves somehow got easier. In fact, after Jozefow the shootings became, for many, routine -- even, for some, fun. And for a few, the initial horror was replaced by a gory sadism, in which Jews, totally naked, preferably old and with beards, were forced to crawl in front of their intended graves and to sustain beatings with clubs before being shot. One officer even brought his new and pregnant wife from Germany to show off his mastery over the fate of the Jews....MUCH MOREMore tomorrow on another aspect of the Einsatzgruppen.