Regarding Schluch (SS-Scharführer in Belzec), who Wirth had assigned to the shooting of unfit Jews (in the Lazarett), he said to me, face to face, 'I would have dearly liked to have shot him down in the grave!' Wirth made this remark, not for the reason that Schluch had not carried out an order or had completely refused (to obey it), but only that he had not shown sufficient vigor. This was Wirth. If anyone argued with him, he immediately went for his weapon. None of us were safe, not even me, a close colleague.
Wirth was the kind of man who exterminated thousands of Jews every day, and for whom the life of one SS man who refused to obey an order meant not the slightest thing. On many occasions Wirth simply drew his pistol. He had an iron hard discipline, unconditional obedience, belief in the Führer, and an absolute heartlessness and ruthlessness.
As the Prosecuting Counsel in the Belzec Trial later remarked,Without bothering with an SS Court, the refusal to obey orders led to certain death..
The usual punishment for the SS, according to SS-Scharführer Heinrich Gley, was 'hard probation' in Camp II, especially during the digging up and burning of the bodies, a punishment that both Wirth and Hering liberally exercised. Gley continued, Refusal to do this duty would mean immediate execution without courts martial. Out of anxiety for these fearful measures, I bowed to his will.
If the leadership was able to shoot or gas properly inducted Ukrainian security personnel for minor infringements (as they did), threaten to whip an SS officer who was personal assistant and deputy to the commandant (Oberhauser), to pull a pistol on an SS-Scharführer and make moves to shoot him down where he was (Fuchs), then anything was possible. However, even Wirth had to act within certain SS regulations, especially with the pre-war professional SS-NCOs. Fuchs was a 'civilian in uniform'; he could only have had Fuchs brought before a special court for 'obstructing important SS business'-- i.e., sabotage, which carried the death sentence. There are many other incidents of this nature in the Belzec, Sobibór and Treblinka files, all of this contrary to what was happening outside of Reinhardt, where a much more liberal view of dissent was taken. This was Reinhardt in full flow get the job done whatever the costs!
The Nazi approach to murdering Jews was paradoxical. There were fundamental differences between what prevailed in Reinhardt and the general protocols practiced elsewhere. It was generally accepted within the prosecution of the war and its political objectives that killing Jews was a lawful 'duty' for the personnel given this task. However, to kill Jews with sadistic brutality, even with authority, was not lawful and could not be justified. Killing Jews without an order was unlawful and could be excused only if the circumstances warranted it. It was contended that such savage behavior brought the German people down to the level of the 'savage Bolshevik hoards' with their un-German methods. To murder persons who had put themselves on the side of the Germans, i.e., the Ukrainian cadres, was not acceptable without conclusive evidence against them produced in judicial proceedings. SS-Judge Konrad Morgan, a criminal investigator with a roving brief from Himmler, stipulated three kinds of acceptable murder: officially decreed murder of Jews, euthanasia killings at T4, and lawful executions in the concentration camps Morgan's assessment of course, dealt with everything outside Reinhardt.
Some scholars conclude that there was no real overt threat by the leadership to shoot or incarcerate those members of the security personnel who showed dissent when enmeshed in killing operations. This may well have been the case for police squads engaged in mass shootings, but in Reinhardt, a contrary picture emerges. The accepted thinking on this issue is based on judicial pronouncements made in subsequent SS prosecutions during the war, particularly in relation to the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile killing squads). The consensus of the courts at the time and in post-war years was that the SS personnel had a choice of refusal to shoot Jews, rejecting claims that they had no choice but to kill in fear of retribution. The SS judiciary concurred that refusal was not a threat to their personal safety as they had an appeal route to their superiors. There is no proof that any German officer or NCO was ever punished for refusing to obey orders to kill Jews. On this basis for the general conduct of the war, there is conflicting evidence that this may have been the case.
In this study, we are not dealing with general killing actions by the SS, Schutzpolizei, or the Einsatzgruppen. The death camps were operating according to quite different rules and criteria from police operations in the ghettos and killing sites in the occupied areas. I draw attention to the numerous testaments made under oath by former members of the SS-garrisons of Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka. These men were in the utmost fear of their lives should they not carry out their duties as ordered in killing operations. Of this there is no doubt, as the evidence is overwhelming.
To rely on SS court pronouncements and the numerous individual statements obtained from perpetrators outside Reinhardt is both misleading and spurious. Much was left to individual commanders as to how the killing was to be conducted. When SS-Obersturmführer Albert Hartl, a member of a mobile killing squad in Russia, was asked at the Nuremberg trials, Was it possible to refuse to take part in a shooting? he replied, In my experience it depended on the mentality of the individual commander. This view by Hartl is corroborated by events happening outside Reinhardt. After SS-Brigadereführer Dr. Schöngarth had entered Lvóv with his zbV unit, he immediately began the mass killing of all perceived political opponents, including Jews. Schöngarth personally ordered his commanders to shoot Jews during these operations and demonstrated how this was to be done. After shooting his selected Jew into a pit, he said
You saw how it was done. Every man should join in the shooting. I will shoot anyone who does not agree. I will back up every SS Führer who shoots a man for not obeying my order.
The SS officer who recalled the Schöngarth's 'shooting seminar' was SS-Hauptsturmführer Hans Krüger, who became the leader of the largest mass shootings in East Galicia.
As has been indicated elsewhere, the men holding the power in the Einsatzgruppen, the KZs and Reinhardt camps, were mostly hardened, ideologically committed Nazis who were authorized to act on their own responsibility. Although given wide discretion as to how they were to be effective in an unclear and fluctuating situation, they were not officially authorized to shoot Jews from the area of the German Reich. However, the open-ended mass murders in the Soviet Union soon spilled over into other regions where the security services responded in kind. These regional annihilation programs were all part of a much wider scenario of deportation and decimation of the Jewish populations. Some regional commanders responded by developing their own methods through experimentation during the day-to-day killings. This does not necessarily mark them all down as wanton killers, as many of them firmly believed they were acting under orders. Certainly, many of the Einsatzgruppen commanders carried out executions but adhered to well laid-down, recognized principles of properly convened and regulated firing squads. This principle of military honor was the well-established code of shooting at 'twelve paces' and the coup de grace given by the squad leader. These recognised practices soon deteriorated once mass murder of the Jews began to accelerate, and when the killers became overwhelmed, exhausted, and psychologically impaired by sheer weight of numbers. This was evident in the killings on Soviet territory and in East Galicia, where the SD independently organized mass shooting operations at Nadworna and Stanislawow. The interesting point here is that extermination policies at this time (Autumn 1941) were very much organzed on a local level, based primarily on economic conditions and not on direct orders from Berlin. Dieter Pohl and Thomas Sandkühler both emphasize this point. Christoph Dieckmann and Christian Gerlach concur that to kill Jews for ideological and economic reasons was both desirable and necessary.
There is no doubt that the shooting operations in the East were causing serious psychological problems for the killers. Participants of firing squads/execution squads carried out their orders despite personal repugnance, many breaking down in tears when faced with killing women and children. Many had nervous breakdowns and some resorted to suicide. Himmler had taken steps to alleviate such heavy psychological pressure by offering a blanket protection for any refusals or requests not to take part in these actions. He also made available a convalescent home for those seriously affected. Was this an understanding by the RFSS for the morale of his men, or was it a clever maneuver? There were certainly mixed messages coming from Berlin to the leadership in the field. Those SS personnel of the lower ranks who refused outright to obey orders and genuinely could not reconcile the action with their conscience stood their ground and put up with ridicule from their comrades. They were labelled 'cowards' and 'un-soldierly' by their compatriots and not worthy of the SS. Higher ranks of leadership, who refused on principal to become involved in 'un-German' actions, avoided serious consequences, but had to forego any further advancement.
Occurrences of unlawful killing of their own men by the SS leadership is illustrated by the following incident. Again, Dr. Schöngarth is involved. On November 21, 1944, the crew of an Allied bomber bailed out near Enschede in Holland. One of the crew had the misfortune to drop into the SD headquarters where Dr. Schöngarth was attending a conference. On Schöngarth's orders, the airman was taken outside and shot. He was buried in the grounds of the SD/HQ and the grave carefully camouflaged.
Shortly after the war, the grave was opened. In addition to the airman's remains, three other corpses were found with ropes around their necks as opposed to the airman who had a bullet wound in the head. The three corpses, in SS uniform, were identified as SS/SD officers, one of them named SS Hauptscharführer Peter Bell. We may assume with some certainty that these corpses had been the subject of an unofficial SS hanging party, but for what offenses it has not been ascertained. It was this one incident of shooting the British airman that resulted in Schöngarth being sentenced to death by a British military court and hanged. Dr. Schöngarth's personal contribution to violent excesses in East Galicia and elsewhere are immeasurable and probably unsurpassed.
Throughout the war the more maverick commanders of the SD, like Schöngarth, Otto Ohlendorf and Hans Krüger, made up their own minds and devised their own methods of summary justice according to their idiosyncratic personalities. It would be naïve to think otherwise. In Reinhardt, the question of choice or uncertainty never arose - summary justice ensued for all those engaged under Reinhardt command.
The attitude of the majority engaged in Reinhardt towards the victims was contemptuous indifference. In Belzec, when two Jews, after seeing their families go to the gas chamber pleaded to be shot, Josef Oberhauser pulled his pistol and shot them as a 'mercy death.' Although acts of murder, whether by shooting or by gas, were carried out quickly and efficiently, there was a sadistic quirk in the system. The timing and place of death were dictated and controlled by the SS killers, and although the principle of a painless death had been practiced in T4, in Reinhardt there was no conscious consideration for this. The psychological circumstances surrounding the victims once in the death camps was in many cases more terrifying than the act of murder itself. The main affront to the perpetrators in the camps was the victim committing suicide at a time of his or her own choosing. Nothing was guaranteed to enrage the killers more than suicides among their prisoners, which as a result, would set off a train of events that brought about more brutality and death for the helpless and innocent victims. When a Jew attempted suicide at Sobibor in the spring of 1943, SS- Scharführer Karl Frenzel whipped the dying man and then shot him: Jews have no right to kill themselves. Only Germans have the right to kill. The files are replete with similar incidents.
Attempted suicides occurred not only among victims in the death camps. For these crimes, execution was not enough to satisfy the persecutors who demanded torture first in the most demeaning way. In Belzec a Jewess who had concealed a razor on her person assisted several Jews of the work detail to end their lives by cutting their throats. She was immediately shot by the guards. Wirth deeply regretted that the woman was already dead as in his view she should have suffered some exemplary punishment. As for the Jews, now wounded, they were given medical attention in the camp and this fact of concern for their welfare deceived them that they would survive. Wirth found an inexhaustible source of astonishment and amusement in the fact they (the Jews) believed in their survival. And the fools believed it.
Suicide enabled the victims to choose the time and place to beat the hangman rather than face what lay before them. Suicides were prevalent in all three Reinhardt camps, both among the victims and the perpetrators. This was particularly apparent in the extermination areas where the SS leadership assigned guards to 'suicide prevention duty,' observing Jews likely to put a rope around their own necks. Failure to stem Jewish suicides merited a brutal beating or even hanging for the guards. At Sobibór in the winter of 1942/3, 10 Jews chose this course rather than submit to further mental torture.
In Belzec, Sobibór and Treblinka, everyone killed Jews. The question of a choice was never a possibility, unless, that is, the perpetrator committed suicide or rashly showed open dissent that could amount to the same end. Suicide was obviously a way out, but even here, it was either freely entered into or it was carried out by coercion. Suicides among the SS perpetrators during actual duty were of three kinds: those who could just not stand the sight of mass murder and were in absolute fear of Wirth, those who relished the murders but were troubled by them, and those who were persuaded by outside influences.
In the first category, at Treblinka, SS-Scharführer Erwin Kainer was ordered by Wirth to supervise the clearing away of a mound of decomposing corpses outside the gas chambers. Kainer was so distressed at the sight in front of him and so in fear of Wirth should he refuse, that he shot himself in desperation. Erwin Kainer was looking at decomposed corpses 5 meters high beneath a 75 cm-deep cesspool, full of blood, maggots, and excrement.
In December that same year, SS-Scharführer Bauch at Sobibór shot himself in what was referred to by Franz Suchomel, as a 'neurosis fear' of Wirth.' In the second category, we have the Volksdeutsche Heinz Schmidt who was the most brutal killer in Belzec and, because of it, was ostracized by the camp SS. Schmidt later shot himself in Italy. The third category is more difficult to establish in the death camps, but we do have examples of this occurring in the HHE cadre of zbV, the pre-Reinhardt spearhead unit. In this case, induced suicide was the preferred method whereby the SS would shoot themselves out of fear of the consequences should they feel unable to obey orders. This category also challenges the Goldhagen theory, as discussed above. It also supports the third category of suicides which were absent in the death camps but materialized later. Depression in individual members of the SS was only too apparent in the death camps. In the Deutsches Haus (German House), the German recreation center at Rawa Ruska, an SS man from Belzec was seen 'bawling like a child.' The SS man said that he was on duty in Belzec and if it was going to go on for another 14 days he would kill himself because he could not stand it anymore.
This was not the only occasion where we see the authority of rank determining suicide as the outcome of events. Two SS men who refused to kill Jews were driven to commit suicide by Dr. Schöngarth: Some SS men went into the woods near Lvóv in search of partisans and an SS Führer shot himself there. The other SS men reported that partisans had shot him. In fact, this man had shot himself on orders from Schöngarth because he did not want to kill Jews. Dr. Schöngarth gave him the choice of either facing an SS court and being shot, or killing himself so that his wife would receive a pension, which she would not have received if the officer had appeared before an SS Court'. In Warsaw, an SS Führer refused to kill Jews and was imprisoned. Dr. Schöngarth arranged for a pistol to be placed in his cell; the man shot himself'. SS-Brigadeführer Eberhard Schöngarth was not a man to be trifled with; he was a key architect in the destruction of European Jewry who sat on Heydrich's right at the Wannsee Conference table.
One of the central themes of this thesis has been to highlight how, from its inception, the T4/Reinhardt personnel were held together 'incommunicado' from all other wartime activities, and to examine the means the Nazis devised to protect their most secret operation. Those privy to Reinhardt were kept outside the norms of military discipline, regulation and punishment, and although they were financially rewarded by the KdF with extra bonuses, there would eventually be a price to pay.
At Belzec, once Wirth had thoroughly worked out the extermination procedure, and the SS had little actual participation in the gassings apart from supervisory duties. Once the victims had left the undressing/haircutting barracks and entered the 'Tube,' the Ukrainian auxiliaries supported by the Jewish 'death brigade' took over and were able to complete the whole murder process with very little SS assistance. Backed-up by heavily camouflaged perimeters and buildings, and overseen by heavily armed guards in watchtowers there was little need for their interference. It was on the periphery of events that the leadership focused, maintaining a continuous flow of transports and fulfilling the aftermath of their deadly work. Within this cauldron of mass killing, every conceivable manifestation of cruelty and murder was carried out daily.
With so many Jews rolling off the transports, the men soon became blasé and to relieve their boredom commenced to turn the victims' plight into periods of amusement to break up the monotony of daily gassings. The SS guards were an idle lot and providing there were no problems, wandered from post to post within the camp looking for entertainment until their shift finished. 'We didn't have to do anything. There wasn't really anything for us to do. Yes, we just had to be there, said former Scharfüher Gustav Münzberger. Jews were picked on to entertain and satisfy this need and it is within this atmosphere of idleness that many of the 'work-Jews' suffered from such excesses. Many guards resorted to sadistic acts of cruelty by making the victims perform all kinds of unnatural acts. The SS repeatedly spoke about their individual actions against Jews in the mess rooms and during off-duty hours.
The punishment most favoued by the SS leadership to curtail undiscipline or other misdemeanors by their own men, was a period of hands-on duty at the reception ramp where, at times, several thousand Jews were found dead on arrival, their bodies bloated and infested with flies. On the Kolomyja transport of September 14,1942 (discussed later), over 2,000 out of 8,250 Jews (25%) were found dead in the wagons after a journey which had lasted several days in unusually hot weather. Another designated duty for punishment ordered by Hering was to assign them to execution duties assisting the specialist SS-Scharführer Heinrich Gley (an original T4 member from Grafeneck). It was here that the SS shot the sick, elderly, and infirm victims in the back of the neck with a small caliber pistol or machine pistol. They didn't suffer, Gley claimed. Only one SS-NCO in Belzec was excused this duty: SS-Rottenführer Heinrich Barbl (the metal worker at Hartheim) who was considered the 'fool' of the SS-garrison (which may explain his low rank). Barbl was a 42-year-old man of low intelligence, always drunk on duty. He was the subject of many jibes by his SS colleagues and was a source of constant amusement. None of them could decide whether he really was 'stupid', or just 'playing the fool' in order to avoid the more onerous duties in the camp. Commandant Hering refused to allow him to participate in such executions because,he is so daft that he would shoot us,not the Jews. However, Barbl was not to escape severe punishment by Hering. For some unknown reason in the winter of 1942-43, Hering had Barbl imprisoned in a concrete bunker for several days, without food or water.
For commandants Hering, Stangl and Reichleitner, their loyalty and allegiances (reluctantly) were strictly to Wirth with no possibility of compromise. They dared not oppose his authority, as the consequences would be too catastrophic to contemplate. None of the SS, including the police leadership, could get out of Reinhardt. An order from the KdF forbade any transfer even to front line duties.
On a number of occasions a few men from the Belzec garrison attempted to seek release by pleading directly to Berlin; others showed reluctance when carrying out their murder duties, exhibiting a distinct lack of enthusiasm. These cases failed and only brought more trouble and grief for those concerned. Wirth knew full well that no one under his command would ever be released simply through a request to Berlin and he reacted swiftly and harshly to any such attempts, especially with those who went behind his back. By the very nature of Belzec's untouchability and secrecy, Wirth was free to avenge any perceived disloyalty in his own way and to resolve matters accordingly.
In October 1942, Heinrich Unverhau (another original T4 member from Grafeneck) contracted typhus in Belzec and was hospitalized in Lublin. Latert he was allowed to return home to Berlin to convalesce. On advice from a colleague, Erwin Fichtner, Unverhau applied to T4 for discharge from further duty in the camp. T4 informed him that the best they could do was offer a transfer to a euthanasia institution in the Reich. Declining the offer, Unverhau returned to Belzec. Immediately on reporting to the camp, he was paraded before the SS-garrison and vilified by Wirth in the crudest language. When Unverhau attempted to justify his actions, Wirth shouted, Halt die Gosch! (shut your trap). He was in such a rage that he drew his pistol and threatened to shoot him there and then. Needless to say, Unverhau was given 'hard probation' and was destined for permanent duty in camp 2.
When SS-Scharführer Erich Fuchs was ordered by Wirth to fix shower heads in the newly erected gassing barracks in the first phase, he questioned Wirth as to the logic of this as there were no water pipes to attach them to. Wirth exploded in a rage, beat Fuchs with a whip, and ordered two SS-Scharführers who were standing nearby to take him away and shoot him. Fortunately for Fuchs, the Scharführers talked Wirth out of it. Wirth was certainly capable of carrying out his threats and everyone else was aware of this. Erich Fuchs submitted a report of the incident complaining about his treatment to T4 but received no reply, which is not surprising, as Wirth confiscated it. From then on Fuchs never again dared question an order from Wirth. Even the loyal Oberhauser attempted to be transferred out of Reinhardt. While driving Wirth from Belzec to Lublin he took the opportunity to mention his request for a transfer. Wirth was so overcome with rage at hearing this that he took his whip and threatened Oberhauser.
In August 1942, during the visit to Belzec by Wilhelm Pfannenstiel, Professor of Hygiene at the University of Madeburg/Lahn, several of the SS-NCOs begged him to use his influence in Berlin to get them out.
The overriding question that concentrated the minds of the SS was, 'Would Wirth carry out his threats?' They just did not know! In addition, this was the fear they dared not put it to the test. It was the view of the more experienced SS personnel that it was no longer possible to converse with Wirth, as he was no longer normal. Even SS-Scharführer Bauer, the Sobibór 'Gasmeister', a committed Nazi, anti-Semite, and a Wirth 'reliable', has commented: Wirth was a man mad with rage; he was the worst beast, a sadistic pig.
Several SS-NCOs in Treblinka, affected by the work and the way they were being treated, applied to T4 for transfer anywhere, as long as it was away from Wirth and his work. On hearing about these requests for transfer, Wirth went to Treblinka and berated each man in turn. When Werner Blankenburg, Brack's deputy at Hauptamt II of the KdF, visited Treblinka, Stangl also requested a transfer to be returned to normal police duties. His request, too, was denied.
Outside the Reinhardt camps, however, Wirth adhered to normal SS disciplinary measures and procedures. Hering and Gley, who had been transferred to the Poniatowa labor camp after Belzec closed, were instrumental in prosecuting their SS medical officer, Waffen-SS Sanitätsoffizier Bachaus. Bachaus had committed a grave offense - Rassenschande (lit. 'race shame') - by associating with a Jewess in the camp hospital. The inseparable duo, Wirth and Oberhauser, came to the camp and arrested Bachaus. After interrogating him for some hours, Wirth placed Bachaus before the SS/Police Court in Lublin, where he was tried, found guilty, and executed. If this offense had occurred in one of the Reinhardt camps, I doubt whether the SS court would have been considered. To shoot, torture, and abuse Jews was acceptable practice. To associate with a Jewess was an anathema to the leadership and the basic principles of Nazi ideology.
In attempting to maintain intact the secrecy surrounding Reinhardt, the KdF leadership was confronted with a new problem. When SS-Scharführer Heinrich Matthes from Treblinka fell ill with typhus and was removed to hospital, in his delerium he rambled about his work in the camp. To overcome any further incidents like this, guards were placed at the beds of all T4 patients in hospital.
In regard to the online translation of Rabka Police School (author's publication), I came across reference that SS General Schongarth was executed for killing an unknown Airman 21 Nov 1944. I made a inquiry onto a 8th Air Force message board as to whether there was a case of an allied bomber shoot down over Enschede Holland with one crewman captured and murdered. I received the following response (below).
(P.S. Airmen Galle is buried in Plot B Row 38 Grave 34 Ardennes American Cemetery Neupre Belgium-ABMC record)
Hello P. F. Re your recent query on the 8th AFMB. I believe I have the correct plane for you. This was an easy one as my uncle was with 86l/493rd. BG (H). B-l7G #43-38107, 86l/493rd BG. On 2l Nov, '44. FTR, due to A/A (flak) & crashed at Enschede(?) or Encheda(?), Holland.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Belzec, Poland Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2013 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 13 Feb 2008 by LA