Friday, August 14, 2009

The Chilling Past

As we approach our last week in Vilnius many of us are feeling a bit overwhelmed with the historical immersion into the Holocaust. I still find it difficult to watch a movie about the Holocaust and for many years hesitated to dive into genealogy as I knew I would have to confront the role of the Holocaust in my own family history. When I did finally tackle that subject I had to steel myself to read the horrors in the Yizkor Books of the shtetls from which my family came.

It is a subject that we typically absorb in small doses. Here it is ever present around us. We feel a ghostlike presence when we look at the well-worn steps in places that once were Jewish institutions. We also feel it deeply in the negative space, the failure to recognize the 200,000 deaths as murders of Jews. Frequently genocide is discussed solely in terms of the Soviet occupation despite the fact that almost half the town was murdered by the Nazis. That half is no longer here to protest so their history is easily forgotten.

One of the places that seeks to preserve that history is the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum, also known as the Green House. Our visit to it yesterday was led by Rokhl Kostanian, its Deputy Director. She had also been our guide for the Vilna Ghetto Walk. We have also had some contact with the museum through an Austrian classmate who is working at the museum as part of the Gedenkdienst (Remembrance) Program, an important resource for the museum. In 1944-45 there was a Jewish Museum which was closed by the Soviets. It was started again in 1990. Announcements were put in newspapers to buy Jewish materials. All museums having Jewish articles were required to return them to the museum resulting in a collection of 6,000 artifacts.

The museum tells the history of the Jews in Vilna and the rich cultural community that existed prior to the war. It also tells the story of the Jewish partisans who fought the Nazis as well as life within the ghetto. Note that the use of the term partisan is also used in a totally different context when talking about Lithuanian partisans. The museum has maps that show the killing sites that dot the entire map of Lithuania as well as the routes by which Jews from France, Germany, Latvia and Austria were sent to Lithuania because the Lithuanian population was more cooperative with the Nazis.

Our guide told us that in Berlin there are plaques between the rails at the train station that cite the number of Jews who were deported to such places as Kaunas and murdered.

What was most horrifying were the words of the Nazis captured in their internal memos and the complicity of many in the local population. In today’s blog these words will speak for themselves.

In a memo from Jager, SS Standartenfuhrer it states, “On my instructions and orders the following executions were conducted by Lithuanian partisans.”After listing a number of actions it then provides a lengthy list of actions that were conducted in cooperation with Lithuanian partisans. A typical entry in the list that follows provides the date, the city and records the number murdered broken down by Jews, Jewesses and Jewish children. Occasionally the list includes gypsies, Communists and the mentally ill. One entry caught our attention as it recorded the death of 2,007 Jews, 2,920 Jewesses and 4,273 Jewish children. In parenthesis it notes “mopping up ghetto of superfluous Jews.”

At the end of the memo it states “Today I can confirm that our objective, to solve the Jewish problem for Lithuania, has been achieved by EK3. In Lithuania there are no more Jews, apart from Jewish workers and their families.

These total:
In Schaulen c. 4,500
In Kauen c. 15,000
In Wilna c. 15,000

I also intended to kill these Jewish workers plus their families but came against strong protests on the part of the civil administration (the Reichskommisar) and the Wehrmacht and instructions were issued that these Jews and their families were not to be executed.

It was only possible to achieve our objective of making Lithuania free of Jews by forming a raiding squad consisting of specially selected men led by SS-Obersturmfuhrer Hamann, who grasped my aims completely and understood the importance of ensuring cooperation with the Lithuanian partisans and the relevant civilian authorities.

The execution of such actions is first and foremost a matter of organization. The decision to clear each district of Jews systematically required a thorough preparation of each individual action and reconnaissance of the prevailing conditions in the district concerned. The Jews had to be assembled at one or several places. Depending on the number of Jews a place for graves had to be found and then the graves dug. The distance from the assembly point to the graves was on average 4 to 5 km. The Jews were transported in detachments of 500 to the execution area, with a distance of at least 2 km between them.

The following example, selected at random, demonstrates the difficulties and the acutely stressful nature of the work:

In Rokiskis 3,208 people had to be transported 4 ½ km before they could be liquidated. In order to get this work done within 24 hours, over 60 of the available Lithuanian partisans had to be detailed for cordon duty. The rest who had to be relieved constantly, carried out the work together with my men. Lorries are only very occasionally available for transporting the Jews. There were a number of escape attempts which were thwarted single-handedly by my men, whose own lives were at risk….The marching distance to and from each individual action totaled 160-200 km. It was only through the efficient use of time that it was possible to carry out up to five actions per week…

The actions in Kauen itself, where there was an adequate number of reasonably well-trained partisans available, were like parade ground shooting in comparison with the often enormous difficulties which had to be faced elsewhere. All the officers and men in my Kommando took an active part in the major actions in Kauen….

I consider the Jewish action more or less terminated as far as Einsatzkommando 3 is concerned. Those working Jews and Jewesses still available are needed urgently and I can envision that after winter this workforce will be required even more urgently. I am of the view that the sterilization programme of the male worker Jews should be started immediately so that reproduction is prevented. If despite sterilization a Jewess should become pregnant she will be liquidated.” Based on Ernest Klee, Willi Dressen and Volker Riess, The Good Old Days-New York 1991 & the Mass Murders in Lithuania, Document Collection, vol 1 Vilnius, 1965.

Ever write a self-evaluation for a performance review? Essentially that is what this was.

The role of the Lithuanian partisans is noted above, but the effort to engage them is stated even more directly in a document from Franz Stahlecker, SS Brigadier General and Major General of the Police. He apparently did his job so effectively that he was made Chief Commander of the SS. Here he states the following:

“It was the task of the Security Police to set these self-cleansing movements going…It was no less important to establish as unshakeable and provable facts for the future that it was the liberated population itself which took the most severe measures, on its own initiative, against the Bolshevik and Jewish enemy, without any German instruction being evident.

In Lithuania this was achieved for the first time by activating the partisans in Kovno…the leader of the partisan group…succeeded in starting a pogrom with the aid of instructions given to him by a small advance detachment operating in Kovno, in such a way that no German orders or instructions could be observed by outsiders. In the course of the first pogrom during the night of June 25/26, the Lithuanian partisans eliminated more than 1,500 Jews…During the nights that followed, 2,300 Jews were eliminated in the same way. ..It was obvious that only the first days after the Occupation would offer the opportunity for carrying out pogroms. After the disarmament of the partisans the self-cleansing Aktionen necessarily ceased.

The document goes on to state that German special units were assisted by partisan groups in Lithuania and parties of the Latvian Auxilary Police in Latvia. It notes that a large part of skilled trades were in Jewish hands and those Jewish craftsmen were indispensible at that time. It notes the resistance of the Civil Administration to large-scale executions and states, “This (resistance) was confronted in every case by pointing out that it was a matter of carrying out orders (involving) a basic principle.”

The detachment and rationality of these memos about cold blooded murder is chilling. In conversations with my classmates, we can’t help but wonder what it is in the make-up of a human being that allows such inhumanity and degradation. The ability of these people to compartmentalize and rationalize their job of murder while continuing to live a normal family life is incomprehensible to us. And it doesn’t end. We are told that anti-Semitism is on the rise again in this region of the world. We are amazed that such hatred against so few can still exist. We look around the world and see this inhumanity continue to play out in different forms around the globe while the rest of the world allows it to happen.

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