The SS Einsatzgruppen


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Einsatzgruppen action: mother and child victims during mass shooting near Ivangorod, Ukraine (1942)


LAST UPDATE: Feb. 5, 2000

PREFACE

Following are two eyewitness accounts of aktions against Russian Jews during Operation Barbarosa (the invasion of Russia by Germany) by the Einsatzgruppen ("special action groups"). Many people today who know "the average amount" of information about the Holocaust have little or sometimes no knowledge of this truly horrible program that the Germans initiated in the first half of WWII. Herding 1,000's of Jewish non-combatants, i.e., men, women and children - whole families - to mass burial pits and graves to be shot one by one in the presence of other victims likewise waiting to be shot was something that must have been utterly horrible. So horrible that it is nearly unbelievable today. In fact, the Germans themselves found the "process" too horrible (and too "manual") and eventually abandoned the project. At any rate, the death camps became accepted as the true working "Final Solution" (Endlosung). Just as the secrecy that surrounded the death camps became eventually known to the world, so too did the actions of these death squads.


ORGANIZATION OF THE EINSATZGRUPPEN

The Einsatzgruppen were formed as a special action group to function behind the advancing German Army (Wermacht) to immediately deal with the region's non-combatants. The function they were to perform was two-fold: (1) to implement the Nazi agenda of "cleansing" these regions of Jews and (2) to establish and secure immediate political order by liquidating all persons perceived as enemies of the Reich. These non-Jewish "enemies" were political functionaries, communists, intellectuals and other such influential people of any former regime. Anyone who could stir public sentiment against the Nazi agenda could very well consider themselves an enemy of the Reich. As the Wermacht would mobilize to press on, the Einsatzgruppen squads would roll-in to handle these non-combatants and mass shootings of Jews were their specialty.

Established by SD Reinhard Heydrich, the Einsatzgruppen and it's susidiary Einsatzkommandos first appeared in Czechoslovakia some time after May 1939 under the order to "secure" political life and also any useful economic enterprises. Actions were limited and the group was essentially disbanded after a period of time.
With the invasion of Poland in Sept. 1939, the Einsatzgruppen was re-formed into 5 kommandos. Atrocities were numerous as the squads performed their mission of rounding up Jews, aristocrats, professionals and clergy.
It was during the planning of the invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa)that the Einsatzgruppen became truly organized. The group was placed under the auspices of the Race and Resettlement Office of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA (Reich Central Security Office) and would now take an active role in the Holocaust as we today know it. There were 4 of these units created and were composed of about 3,500 SS personnel totally. Group A was assigned to the Baltic States; Group B: Moscow and surrounding areas; Group C: Kiev and surrounding areas; Group D: Ukraine. Within each of these groups were around 1000 persons composed of about 350 Waffen-SS, 150 in the motor pool, 100 Gestapo members, 100 auxiliary policemen, 130 with the Ordungsplizei, 30 or so from the SD and another 50 or so from the Kripo.
At 4:11 am on June 22, Operation Barbarossa was launched. This would be Germany's "lightning war" into Russia which caused the world to once again, as Hitler declared, "..hold it's breath...". And it did. This time, the Einsatzgruppen were prepared to perform their task to the utmost.
Working with the army, police battalions, local police (at times) and with regular non-Jewish locals (usually eager to help), the Jews in areas behind the front lines were treacherously rounded up and forced to gather and "register" at pre-determined assembly points - typically the town's market square. From there, they were herded and/or force-marched to natural ravines, pre-dug pits or wooded areas and summarily shot, regardless of age or sex, en masse.
Of special note are some of the infamous massacres where very high numbers of Jews were exterminated. Some of the actions lasted only a day or two, sometimes up to a week or more. These are some of the larger aktions: 7,000 in Lvov, 15,000 in Rovno, 14,000 in Kharkov....and then the most infamous: the massacre at Babi Yar Ravine (outside Kiev) where 35,000 where shot in 2 days. The members of the killing unit had to work in shifts to complete the task. In all, it is estimated that 1.5 million were killed by these shooting squads.


THOUGHTS ON GERMANY'S PERSPECTIVE

From Germany's wicked perspective, it was the natural order of things to begin genocidal actions against the Jews by simply engaging in mass shootings. When Russia was invaded, the opportunity arose to begin these actions in areas that were isolated.The logic was that, yes, Germany already had it's own Jews and those of Poland, France, Belgium etc. and the questions of how to eliminate them were still burning.
With Russia and the East, it was different. These areas were more shut off from the rest of the world. It was already predetermined in Germany's grand plan that the Russians were to become the slaves of the Germans and would eventually be ground down by attrition while Russia became part of Germany's liebensrum (living space). However it was determined that Russia's Jewry would be killed on the spot.
Since the ground was still smoldering as the the Wermacht pressed Eastward, it seemed logical exterminate the Jews with a "special killing army" following behind the Wermacht. What seemed like a good plan to the Germans was, however somewhat problematic.
First, it was all too public. Townspeople watched with both horror and satisfaction (a strange mixture of emotions). Wermacht soldiers drove up and many gasped with disbelief, some even officially protesting these actions to their superiors. Photos, which were forbidden to be taken, kept appearing in private collections. People would not keep quiet about it, as well. Rumors spread of the "mass shootings in the East" all the way to Berlin and France. Such wholesale slaughter had to be kept out of the public eye - a difficult thing to accomplish.
Secondly, from the German perspective, the shootings exacted a psychological toll from the perpetrators often to a high degree. The perpetrators also found the process tedious, laborious, "messy" and offensive. The psychological stress to those doing the shootings was in most cases, immense and only the most drunken and brutal members of the squads could seem to accomplish the task with any zeal. Complaints from officers stated that the SS men were being ruined for the rest of their lives. It is hard enough to manually slaughter livestock day after day. However to slaughter people, to shoot hundreds of crying children and pleading mothers, begging for their lives...well this was even too much for the elite SS.
It was because of these two precepts that the Einsatsgruppen were finally seen as inefficient. Yet even though the program of killing Jews in the East by mass shooting failed as a "Final Solution", it successfully dealt witht the "Jewish Question" in the East long enough for the Germans to put together the master-plan (set in motion during the Wansee Conference in Jan. 1942) of using extermination camps and railroads to effectively orchestrate the Holocaust in it's truest form. This "form" I perceive exists in basically (3) steps which in effect, successfully concealed the Holocaust even from the victims (until the last moment):

Ghettoization: "Staging areas" for gathering & isolating Jews so that they could be effectively transported to killing centers.

Transportation: Efficiently transport intended victims en masse to the extermination sites by rail.

Extermination: Gassing at the death camps.

In this way, the genocide of the Jews was kept out of the public eye. Most Germans knew something "bad" was happening, but not many knew exactly how it was being done (Germany's public was focussed on the war). Knowing "a little" about what was going on in the camps in Poland made many Germans live with a sort of duality: realizing that something terrible was happening to the Jews, but unable and probably for most, undesiring to do anything about it. Anti-Semitism was dominant in Germany during this time. In any event, those Germans who did sympathize with the Jews were too frightened to do anything - even speaking sympathetically about it would be like inviting the Gestapo for a visit. Even Germans knew the Gestapo and it's inhumane edicts.. were nothing to toy with.
This "New Germany" - under Nazi control was working for the day when she would render Europe - and even the world Judenrein (Jew-free) - and this world, where so much anti-Semitism existed, would certainly turn their eyes away and allow it....and it nearly happened.

The Einsatzgruppen program exemplifies, in my opinion, that Germany's agenda for dealing with the "Jewish Question" was not totally outlined beforehand, but was an evolution via trial-and-error or the response to prevailing conditions. Conditions which culminated with such monstrous monuments to man's-inhumanity-to-man, the death camps of Sobibir, Belzec, Madjenek, Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Had the Germans not lost the war, the building of another, let's say, Auschwitz II might have been adequate to actually carry out the Final Solution. Then, I am sure, the Slavs would have been next, the Poles, the French,...and then...who knows? You and me? Are we all survivors, then?



THOUGHTS ON THE VICTIMS

It goes without saying what the victims must have endured...the utter despair and horror they embraced in the face of such cruelty and death are depths of human emotion we probably will never descend into or comprehend. Imagine being ordered to strip naked, then to march down into a mass grave or to be made to run naked towards "shooting pits" in groups...often hurridly...being hurried to be murdered with your naked, crying children running beside you... surely there are few things on this Earth more inhumane or terrible. What terror did the children endure? How can it be put into words? It cannot. The last moments of the children at the shooting pits is too sacred to even try to put into words.

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This picture says it all. In the process of undressing, this girl waits with her family to be shot.
She has not the will to even look as her picture is taken. In total resignation,
her face looks downwards as she leans against her mother.
Leipaja, Latvia. Dec. 1941



The Jews were made to submit to being murdered - there was no escape. Those who tried were shot. Imagine knowing that your non-Jewish "friends" back in the city, town or village where you lived in all your life had become collaborators - or even perpetrators themselves. Then imagine, in the few moments prior to your turn, at the edge of the pit the images that prevail. At the pit, you witness what few people on this earth have truly seen and lived to tell of: the actual mechanism of human slaughter perpetrated on one people by another people. In these final moments, you see your people, along with their children slaughtered within the presence of each other.
If you have the guts, hit this link and see the numbers...this is EK 3's (Einsatzkommando 3's) report of actions in Lithuania. Remember, as you scan the numbers which are tallied as per men, women, children, etc....that these were innocent human beings shot individually at the edge of or while standing in pits, with full knowledge of their own slaughter laying bare before their eyes. I sometimes think that instead of being "the most advanced form of life" on Earth, we must actually be the most advanced form of death.


EINSATZGRUPPEN-STYLED EXTERMINATION IN YOUR LIFE-TIME

Yes, in the 1990's: Srebrenica (Bosnia) and Kosovo are proof that the "It'll never happen again!" rhetoric...is just plain naivety. How dare anyone walk around and say "It will never happen again". Their naivety plainly shows. IT HAS HAPPENED and the world community was unable to come up with any means of stopping it. Just like during the Holocaust. We are the "bystanders" who do nothing yet clamor for justice after the fact. An example is during the last week of April, 1999: approximately 100 men and boys were separated from their families as they tried to flee the Serbs. The Serbs detained the refugee column, separated the men and boys out and then forced the column to move on. The victims were last seen by their families kneeling in a field with their hands on their heads. As soon as the column was out of sight, the shootings began. Subsequent refugee columns were witness to the aftermath: every man and boy had been executed and their bodies were left in the field.

Einsatzgruppen-styled executions also occurred in Srebrenica (July 1995) except on a larger scale: nearly 3,000 Muslim men and boys were executed. They were rounded up and brought to a soccer complex. With machine guns, they were shot within the soccer complex in groups of about 25 or so all day and all night...our spy satellites have the pictures. The photos show the complex crowded with people, then the next day, emptied - and what appears to be mass graves near the woods adjacent to the complex. The confirmation came from a lone survivor who crawled out of the mass of corpses. He lived to tell the story...any historical precedents? Look at this picture:

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Jewish men and boys await their extermination in an athletic field near Lomazy in August 18, 1942. They were marched from this place for about 1000 yds (into the woods) where 50 or so Jews had been forced to dig a large pit earlier in the day. 1600 Jews were shot this day and details of them being tortured and brutalized while being murdered are documented. The pit filled with water (being below the waterline) and many died from suffocation and drowning as the heap of bodies above them forced them downwards.



Read on with me as we go back 55 years, when there was no precedent for this type of extermination:


EYEWITNESS ACCOUNTS

This first testimony is by Rivka Yosselevscka in a war crimes tribunal court. For ease of presenting her testimony, I am eliminating questions and comments of the court itself. She lived in Zagrodski and the Einsatzgruppen commandos arrived in the summer of 1942. All Jews were rounded up, a roster was drawn up and the families were loaded onto trucks. Since there were around 500 families, many could not get on so they were told to run behind the trucks....

...I had my daughter in my arms and ran after the truck. There were mothers who had 2 or 3 children and held them in their arms - running after the truck. We ran all the way. There were those who fell - we were not allowed to help them rise. They were shot right there, wherever they fell. When we reached the destination, the people from the truck were already down and undressed - all lined up. All of my family was there. This was some 3 km from our village. There was a kind of hillock. At the foot of this little hill, there was a dugout. We were ordered to stand at the top of the hillock and the 4 devils shot us - each one separately. They were SS men - the 4 of them....

When I came to the place, we saw people naked lined up. But we were still hoping that this was only torture. Maybe there is hope - hope of living. One could not leave the line, but I wished to see. Is there anyone down below? I turned my head and saw that some 3 or 4 rows were already killed - on the ground. There were some 12 people amongst the dead. I also want to mention that my child said while we were lined up in the ghetto, she said, "Mother, why did you make me wear the Shabbat dress? We are being taken to be shot!". And when we stood near the dugout, near the grave, she said, "Mother, why are we waiting? Let's run!" Some of the young people tried to run, but they were caught immediately, and they were shot right there. It was difficult to hold on to the children. We took all children not ours, and we carried - we were anxious to get it all over - the suffering of the children was difficult. We all trudged along to come nearer to the place and to come nearer to the end of the torture of the children. The children were taking leave of their parents, and parents of their elder people. We were driven...we were already undressed, the clothes were removed; and taken away. Our father did not want to undress. He remained in his underwear. We were driven up to the grave...when it came our turn, our father was beaten. We prayed, we begged with my father to undress, but he would not undress, he wanted to keep his underclothes. He did not want to stand naked. Then they tore the clothing off the old man and he was shot. I saw it with my own eyes. Then they took my mother and shot her, too...and then there was my grandmother, my father's mother, standing there, she was eighty years old and she had two children in her arms; and then there was my father's sister. She also had children in her arms and she was shot on the spot with the babies in her arms..
Finally my turn came. There was my younger sister - and she wanted to leave. She prayed with the Germans, she asked to run - naked, she went up to the Germans with one of her friends, they were embracing each other. He looked into her eyes and shot the 2 of them. They fell together in their embrace, the two young girls - my sister and her young friend. Then my 2nd sister was shot and then my turn did come. We turned towards the grave and then he turned around and asked, "Whom shall I shoot 1st?" We were already facing the grave. The Germans asked, "Who do you want me to shot 1st?" I did not answer. I felt him take the child from my arms. The child cried out and was shot immediately. And then he aimed at me. First, he held onto my hair and turned my head around. I stayed standing. I heard a shot, but I continued to stand and then he turned my head again and he aimed the revolver at me and ordered me to watch and then turned my head around and shot at me. Then I fell to the ground into the pit amongst the bodies- but I felt nothing. The moment I did feel, I felt a sort of heaviness...and then I thought "maybe I'm not alive anymore - but I feel something after I've died". I thought I was dead, that this was the feeling that comes after death. Then I felt that I was choking; people falling over me. I tried to move, and felt that I was alive and that I could rise. I was strangling. I heard the shots and I was praying for another bullet to put an end to my suffering, but I continued to move about. I felt that I was choking, strangling, but I tried to save myself - to find some air to breathe, and then I felt that I was climbing towards the top of the grave above the bodies. I rose and I felt bodies pulling at me with their hands, biting at my legs, pulling me down, down. And yet, with my last strength, I came up on top of the grave, and when I did, I did not know the place, so many dead bodies were lying all over, dead people; I wanted to see the end of this stretch of dead bodies, but I could not. It was impossible. They were lying, all dying; suffering; not all of them dead, but in their last sufferings; naked; shot, but not dead. Children crying "Mother" & "Father"; I could not stand on my feet....the Germans were gone. There was nobody there. No one standing up. I was naked, covered with blood, dirty from the other bodies - with the excrement from other bodies which was poured on me....I was wounded in the head...I have a scar to this day from the shot by the Germans...and yet somehow, I did come out of the grave. This was something I thought I would never live to recount.
I was searching among the dead for my little girl and I cried for her - Merkele was her name - "Merkele!" There were children crying "Mother!", "Father!" - but they were smeared with blood and one could not recognize the children. I cried for my daughter. From afar, I saw 2 women standing - I went up to them. They did not know me. I didn't know them, and then I said who I was, then they said, "So you survived!"...and there was another woman crying, "Pull me out from amongst the corpses! I am alive! Help!" We were thinking how we could escape from the place. The cries of the woman, "Help! Pull me out of the corpses!" We pulled her out. her name was Mikla Rosenberg. We removed the corpses and the dying people who held onto her and continued to bite. She asked us to take her out, to free her, but we didn't have the strength - and thus we were there all night, fighting for our lives, listening to the cries and screams - then all of a sudden, we saw Germans, mounted Germans - we did not notice them coming in because of the screams and the shouting from the bodies around us. The Germans ordered that all the corpses be heaped together into one big heap and with shovels they were heaped together, all of the corpses, amongst them many still alive.- children running about the place. I saw them. I saw the children. They were running after me, hanging onto me. Then I sat down in the field and remained sitting with the children around me - the children who got up from the heap of corpses. Then Germans came and were going around the place.
We were ordered to collect all the children, but they did not approach me and I sat there watching how they collected the children. They gave a few shots and the children were dead - they did not need many shots - the children were almost dead, and this Rosenberg woman pleaded with the Germans to be spared, but they shot her. They all left - the Germans and the non-Jews from around the place. They removed the machine guns and they took the trucks. I saw that they all left, and the four of us - we went onto the grave - praying to fall into the grave -even alive, envying those who were dead already and thinking "What to do now?". I was praying for death to come, I was praying for the grave to open up and to swallow me alive. Blood was spurting from the grave in many places - like a well of water. When I pass a spring now - I remember the blood which spurted from the ground - from the grave. I was digging with my fingernails, trying to join the dead in that grave. I dug with my fingernails, but the grave would not open - I did not have enough strength. I cried out to my mother, to my father "Why did they not kill me? What was my sin? I have no one to go to!". I saw them all being killed. Why was I spared? Why was I not killed?...I remained there, stretched out on the grave, 3 days and 3 nights...




Pictures of Genocide



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Photo 1: Einsatzkommandos lining women & children after having them undress. Notice pregnant woman to the right. No one, not even infants & children were spared. The extreme antisemitism of the German's dictated the doctrine that Jewish women and children must be destroyed because they represented the future of European Jewry. This action took place on the outskirts of the Mizoc Ghetto on October 14, 1942

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Photo 2: Afterwards. After being made to lie down, each person was shot in the neck at the base of the head. Notice adults shielding their children. During roundups, any Jew unable for any reason not to show up in the market place or designated assembly area was shot onsite. Any Jew found after a roundup action was immediately shot In the beginning, graves were not even dug, natural pits and depressions in the earth were used and the burial detail was left for the locals to handle. Most non-Jewish locals were anti-Semitic to the point that they helped the Germans. Anti-semitism had reached a boiling-point in Europe, and no where was it worse than in Germany, Poland, the Ukraine & Lithuania.



The following account of Einstazgruppen aktions during the liquidation of the Dubno ghetto (Ukraine) was given by Hermann Graebe, a German civilian engineer, who witnessed the event:

On Oct. 5, 1942, when I visited a building office at Dubno, my foreman, H. Moennikes, told me that in the vicinity of the site, Jews from Dubno had been shot in 3 large pits, each about 30 meters long and 3 meters deep. About 1500 persons had been killed daily. All of the 5000 Jews who had been living in Dubno before the pogrom were to be liquidated. As the shootings had taken place in his presence, he was still much upset...
Moenikkes and I went directly 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 of the trucks - men, women and children of all ages - had to undress upon the order of an SS man who carried a riding whip. They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top-clothing and underclothes, I saw a heap of shoes - about 800 to 1000 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 & 10 and 2 grown-up daughters of about 20 & 24. An old woman with snow-white hair was holding the 1 yr old child in her arms and singing to it and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The couple was looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about 10 yrs old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed towards the sky, stroked his head and seemed to explain something to him. At that moment, the SS man at the pits shouted something to his comrade. The latter counted off about 20 persons and instructed them to go behind the earth mound. Among them was the family which I mentioned.
I well-remember a girl, slim and with black hair who, as she passed close to me, pointed to herself and said "Twenty-three!". I walked around the mound and found myself confronted by a tremendous grave. People were closely wedged together and lying on top of each other so that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people shot were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show that they were still alive. The pit was already 2/3 full. I estimated that it already contained about 1000 people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an SS man who sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. he had a tommy-gun on his knees and he was smoking a cigarette. The people, completely naked, went down some steps which were cut in the clay wall of the pit and clambered over the heads of the people lying there, to the place where the SS man directed. They laid down in front to the dead or injured people, some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots.
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 2 or 3 postmen in uniform nearby. The next batch was approaching already. They went down in the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot.
When I walked back around the mound, I noticed another truckload of people which had just arrived. This time it included sick and infirm people. An old, very thin woman with terribly thin legs was undressed by others who were already naked while 2 people held her up. The woman appeared to be paralyzed, the naked people carried the woman around the mound. I left with Moennikes and drove in my car to Dubno.
On the morning of the next day, when I again visited the site, I saw about 30 naked people lying near the pit - about 30 to 50m away from it. Some of them were still alive; they looked straight in front of them with a fixed stare and seemed to notice neither the chilliness of the morning nor the workers of my firm who stood around. A girl of about 20 spoke to me and asked me to give her clothes and help her escape. At that moment we heard a fast car approach and I noticed that it was an SS detail. I moved away to my site. 10 minutes later we heard shots from the pit. The Jews still alive had been ordered to throw the corpses into the pit - then they themselves had to lie in this to be shot in the neck.



Thanks to my neice, Laura Wright for her assistance with this text.

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