HAMANN RISES

How many of us get a second chance to fulfill our dreams?  Not many.  But it seems that Hamann rose from the dead for a second chance to kill Jews.

As retold in Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), Hamann was the Prime Minister of the ancient Persian Empire. He conspired to kill all the Jews living in the Empire – all on one day.  The heroine, Queen Esther, thwarted Hamann’s plans and the Jews were saved.  Still today, Jews throughout the world celebrate this victory on the holiday of Purim.

In the 1940’s Hamann was back in the form of a Nazi Obersturmfuhrer. In the summer and fall of 1941, Hamann was busy fulfilling his dream of killing Jews.  He was the commander of the Einsatzkommando 3.  “The Jewish situation in Siauliai [northern Lithuania] was a dirty mess and [] all Jews in the city had to be ‘liquidated,’” Obersturmfuhrer Hamann declared in September of 1941.  [yes, it’s really his name!] (Hilberg at 142) This time he was going to get it right.  With assistance from the German army and the local Lithuanians, Hamann murdered thousands of Jews in very short order – not on one day as the Persian Hamman had planned, but in just a few months.

As opposed to the Persian Hamann, this German Hamann’s method was successful.  Shooting Jews into massive pits, the Einsatzgruppen units began their murderous spree when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941.  In just five months, they murdered approximately 500,000 Jews, (Id. at 111) and by November of 1942, over 900,000 people were dead (Id. at 153).

I’ve known for a long time that Esther Wisznia Goldberg’s family was murdered by Einsatzgruppen B in August of 1941 –  just outside of Slonim (see blog post January 7. 2016), but I cannot stop wondering how the Einsatzgruppen managed this.  So many people shot dead in such a short time, over such a large territory.  In Raul Hilberg’s classic history of the Holocaust – The Destruction of the European Jews, I read the section on Einsatzgruppen three times to take it all in – it still somehow seems more than a human mind should have to absorb.

Hilberg emphasizes three main reasons why the Einsatzgruppen’s methods were so successful.  First, the Jews were surprised – there was no warning and most had no inkling that this could occur.  Second, the Einsatzgruppen units were efficient.  Third, the local population either cooperated or was passive.

The “victims were to be caught as quickly as possible,” writes Hilberg.  “They were to be given no warning and no chance to escape” (Id. at 104).  The Einsatzgruppen units were to follow closely behind the army, but more importantly, were also permitted to be on the front lines (Id.).  This allowed them to take the Jews by surprise.

Besides the advantage of surprise, these killing units were also efficient.  The Einsatzgruppen units were commanded by successful professionals – a physician, a professional opera singer, and numerous lawyers (Id. at 116).  “These men were in no sense hoodlums, delinquents, common criminals or sex maniacs,” Hilberg explains.  “Most were intellectuals. By and large, they were in their thirties, and undoubtedly they wanted a certain measure of power, fame, and success”  (Id.).

These professional commanders standardized the work in each city or town, streamlining the process.  The same basic procedures were almost always used: “The site of the shooting was usually outside of town, at a grave,” writes Hilberg.  “Some of the graves were deepened antitank ditches or shell craters, others were specially dug.  The Jews were taken in batches (men first) from the collection point to the ditch. . .. Before their death the victims handed their valuables to the leader of the killing party.  In the winter they removed their overcoats; in the warmer weather they had to take off all outer garments and, in some cases, underwear as well”  (Id. at 127).

Additionally, the Jews were used to thinking of the Russians as the bad guys and the Germans as the good guys.  In World War I, the Germans were “quasi-liberators” (Id. at 124).  Now, only 24 years later, many Jews unknowingly welcomed the Germans with open arms.  Because the Soviets and the Germans were allies between the summer of 1939 and June of 1941, Soviet newspapers and radio were silent about what was happening to Jews of Western Europe.  The Jews did not know what was coming.

In late summer, 1941, a Jewish delegation in Kamenka, Ukraine sent the following to a visiting German dignitary:

‘We, the old, established residents of the town of Kamenka, in the name of the Jewish population, welcome your arrival, Serene Highness, and heir to your ancestors, in whose shadow the Jews, our ancestors and we, had lived in the greatest welfare.  We wish you, too, long life and happiness. We hope that also in the future the Jewish population shall live on your estate in peace and quiet under your protection, considering the sympathy which the Jewish population has always extended to your most distinguished family’” (Id. at 124).

Still, of course, the Jews of the town were immediately ordered to wear a star and were subject to slave labor (Id.).  So, with the elements of surprise, efficient professionalism, and the Jews’ positive pro-Germans mentality, the Nazi killing machine proceeded with ease.

These factors, however, would not have been sufficient to shoot almost a million people (one at a time!).  It became possible when local auxiliary troops joined the 3,000 member Einsatzgruppen units and the rest of the local population either participated in pogroms[1] incited by the Einsatzgruppen or passively allowed the Nazi murder machine to operate.[2]

The first round of Einsatzgruppen killings went from June to December of 1941.   Four groups of Einsatzgruppen (A-D) followed the German army as it plowed through Soviet-controlled lands.  But the first round had left many Jews alive.  So the Einsatzgruppen did a second, more thorough, round of killings, even as the first was winding down.  This second round began in September of 1941 and continued until the end of 1942  (Id. at 138).

This is where Oberstrufurer Hamann enters the picture.  His order to kill the Jews of Siauliai, Lithuania, was given in the beginning of the second round of killing – in September of 1941.  Hamann’s stated mission to shoot all the Jews of the city was challenged by the district’s Gebietskommissar, the civil administrative leader.   The Gebietskommissar said, that the Jews should not be killed because they “were needed as skilled laborers” (Id. at 142).   Hamann’s response was that “such matters were none of his business and that the economy did not interest him at all”  (Id.).

This is how Hamann was able to rise again to carry out his dream of killing Jews.  The Jews of Europe had no Queen Esther to save them.  However, our own Esther was able to save a few – Chayim Kwiatek, Sam Goldberg and Velvel Schniedman.  Each of these went on to have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  Take that Hamann!

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SOURCES:

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. Teaneck, NJ. Holmes & Meier. 1985.

Wikipedia article – Reichskommissariat Ukraine

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichskommissariat_Ukraine

 

[1] A progrom is a “spontaneous” outburst of violence against the local Jewish population.  The Einsatzgruppen organized or inspired progroms throughout the region.  These progroms got the locals to do some of the Nazi’s dirty work – every Jew killed in a progrom was one less the Nazis had to shoot.   Further, by inciting the locals to attack their Jewish neighbors, they imposed guilt and responsibility on them.  Hilberg quotes Brigadefuhrer Dr. Stahlecker of Einsatzgruppen A: “‘It was not less important, for future purposes, to establish as an unquestionable fact that the liberated population had resorted to the most sever measures against the Bolshevist and Jewish enemy, on its own initiative and without instructions from German authorities.’” Id. at 120.

[2]  “In all the Einsatzgruppen reports,” Hilberg writes, “we discover only one indication of the pro-Jewish act in the occupied lands. Sonderkommandos 4b reported that it had shot the mayor of Kremenchug.  Senitsa Vershovsky, because he had ‘tried to protect the Jews.’  This incident appears to have been the only case of its kind. Id. at 118.

TOP PHOTO:  The Feast of Esther, by Jan Lievens circa 1625.  by Universal Pops.

 

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