Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Holocaust snapshot: one day in Josefow

The Holocaust; a snapshot: One Day in Josefow

At dawn on July 12th 1942, the 500 men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 from Hamburg stood by for special duty in the village of Josefow, south of Lublin in German-occupied Poland. Their unit formed part of the Order Police (ORPO), a non-elite body who usually performed ordinary constabulary work but who during the war were often sent on duties outside the Reich. Their task this day would be to round up the 1800-odd Jews who lived in Josefow, select 300 adult males for forced labour and kill all the rest; men, women and children alike.

Their commander, major Trapp, was visibly distressed at the orders he was to carry out, and according to some accounts was reduced to tears, but managed to overcome his scruples. He detailed his men to surround the village, load onto lorries those Jews unfit for work, drive them into the forest and shoot them. Many of his battalion were also upset. A few refused to take any part in the action, and, contrary to popular beliefs about discipline in Nazi Germany, were sent to other duties and suffered no punishment. The rest were issued with whips and despatched to their first task, which was to round up all the Jews from their homes and assemble them in the village square. This took a long time, because of the men's inexperience, and some children and old people were shot on the spot, or even in their beds, rather than being assembled. Once the young men selected for labour had been segregated, the rest were taken into the forest, made to lie face-down and shot in the back of the head.

When it came to the actual killing, some of the policemen drew the line at murdering children, and some cried off after firing a few shots. Others became so agitated that they could not shoot straight, and succeeded in only maiming their victims. Firing at close range caused the men's uniforms to be spattered with blood and brains. Liberal quantities of vodka were provided for the firing-squads, and many soon made themselves very drunk. A few must have been surprised to hear themselves roundly denounced in German: the victim in question being a former colonel from the army of the pre-war Austrian Empire; but neither his words nor his campaign medals saved the old soldier or his non-Jewish wife. But despite all the problems, Major Trapp's operation was successfully concluded by nightfall, by which time some 1500 Jews lay dead. The bodies were left where they lay, for the local Polish mayor to arrange disposal. A handful of Jews from the village survived by chance.

Battalion 101 went on to take part in similar actions over the next few weeks, such as at Lomazy on August 19th, where many of their victims were not even Polish Jews, but Jewish deportees from Germany. By then some of the men had acquired a taste for the work, or perhaps alcohol and the experience of the previous surrender to savagery had overcome all qualms,because here the victims were treated with gratuitous cruelty, being beaten and humiliated before being shot. Much of the dirtiest work was done by the "Hiwis" (the nickname for volunteer militia recruited from the Ukraine and other occupied territories), who were to alarm even the Germans by their savagery towards Jews.In spring 1943 the battalion took part in "Operation Harvest Festival" against the Jews of the Lublin resgion. Altogether it has been estimated that the men of the battalion shot around 3,800 Jews and help deport 45,000 others to the camps.

In the 1960s, the story of Battalion 101 was subjected to detailed investigation, with evidence taken from its surviving members. The most remarkable fact to emerge about the men was their extreme ordinariness. They had mostly been of early middle age,in their thirties and forties, and because of this had been drafted into the police rather than into the front-line army. They were drawn from the working class or lower middle class. They were old enough to remember Germany before Nazism, and might therefore have been less susceptible to its propaganda. Almost all were married, and most had children. Only a quarter were members of the Nazi Party, and before 1933 many would perhaps have supported the Social Democrats, Catholic Centre or Communists, since their home city of Hamburg was notoriously a place where Nazi support was amongst the lowest in Germany: it was a cosmopolitan city, much influenced by Britain, and traditionally regarded Berlin as somewhat provincial. In other words, these men were hardly the sort of people likely to have committed mass murder of helpless victims. Yet they did, and so did thousands of other ordinary men, both in Germany and the occupied territories. But why did they do it? That question remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable.

There is a strange and grotesque coda to the Josefow story. After the war, Major Trapp, who was reduced to tears by the order to shoot Jewish children, and who allowed his men to drop out from such an unpleasant duty, did pay the supreme penalty for his crimes. He was extradited to Poland, where he was convicted of having ordered the shooting of 75 Polish civilians in September 1942, and executed in December 1948. At his trial, the massacre of the Josefow Jews was not mentioned at all!

(Much of the detail here had been taken from "Ordinary Men" by Christopher Browning)


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