Hitler's European Holocaust Helpers

Hitler hadn't worked out all the details of the Holocaust from the start, instead assuming he would be able to drive out all Jews from his sphere of influence after a quick victory over the Soviet Union. But the German advance into the Soviet Union started faltering in autumn 1941, which raised the problem of what to do with the people crammed into ghettos, especially in Poland. Many Gauleiter, SS officers and top administrators called for their territory to be made "judenfrei" ("free of Jews" -- which meant liquidating them. The construction of extermination camps began, first in Belzec, then Sobibor, then Treblinka.

Brief Holocaust Training Course

It was a gigantic killing program in which most of Poland's Jews, 1.75 million, were murdered. The SS preferred to recruit its helpers among Ukrainians or ethnic Germans in prisoner-of-war camps where Red Army soldiers like Demjanjuk faced the choice of killing for the Germans or starving to death. Later, increasing numbers of volunteers from western Ukraine and Galicia joined the unit. The men had to sign a declaration that they had never belonged to a communist group and had no Jewish ancestry. Then they were taken to Travniki in the district of Lublin in south-eastern Poland where they were trained for their deadly profession on the site of a former sugar factory. In mid-1943 some 3,700 men were stationed in Travniki. Training for the Holocaust took several weeks. The SS men showed the new recruits how to carry out raids and how to guard prisoners, often using live subjects. Then the unit would drive to a nearby town and beat Jewish residents out of their homes. Executions were carried out in a nearby forest, probably to make sure that the recruits were loyal.

At first the Travniki were used to guard property and to prevent supply depots from being plundered. Then their German masters sent them to clear ghettos in Lviv and Lublin, where they were remorseless in rounding up their Jewish victims. Finally they were put to work in eight-hour shifts in the extermination camp. "Everyone jumped in where he was needed," recalled one SS officer. Everything worked "like clockwork."

Historians estimate that a third of the Travniki absconded despite the punishment that entailed if they were caught. Some were executed for disobedience. And the others? Why didn't they try to get out of the killing machine? Why didn't Demjanjuk? Die he allow himself to be corrupted by the feeling of "having attained total power over others," as historian Pohl argues. Was it the prospect of loot? In Belzec and Sobibor the Travniki engaged in brisk bartering with the inhabitants of surrounding villages and paid with items they had seized from the prisoners.

Perhaps there was something else, something even more disturbing that many people have deep in their psyche: following orders from authorities even if they ran counter to their conscience. Total and utter obedience.

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