1 Breaking the Silence
2 His Time of Service
(Excerpts and Photos from a Documentary)
Memorial Plaque, Baranowicze
Timeline: Baranowicze, July 1941 – July
Almost two years after the beginning of World War II, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. SS mobile killing units followed directly on the heels of the Wehrmacht, the German army, and routinely rounded up Jews. With the assistance of the Wehrmacht, Jews were taken to extermination camps and killing fields.
Many German soldiers kept photo albums to recall their adventures and commemorate their “glorious days” in World War II. They had been in places where German killing units – Einsatzgruppen – had murdered Jews and anyone opposed to their advance. In towns like Grodno, Baranowicze, Bobruisk, Orel, and Briansk – hardly household names - Jews were sent to ghettos, forced into labor service, and routinely rounded up and massacred. The Einsatzgruppen and the German Army worked together. Logistical support including supplies, housing, and manpower were provided by the army. By spring 1943, over a million Jews and thousands of Soviet political commissars, partisans, and disabled persons were dead.
The starting point of the present project was the discovery of the hidden military album of my father who drove a truck through Belarus and Russia in 1942/43. The annotated photo presentation displays 24 black and white photographs. Dates and names of the depicted places were taken from the very few handwritten notes in the album; other dates had to be estimated on account of the absence of written documentation. Explanations of the pictures derive largely from the documentary “My Time of Service” (Richmond, VA 2005). Further details on towns, ghettos and killing sites were found in libraries and archives as well as on the Internet; those comments are written in italics.
For the most part the discovered photo album consists of ordinary pictures routinely taken during and after World War II – photos you can see in other military albums as well. But for one notable exception. That photo shows Jewish women, shovels in their hands, digging or closing graves. What is the background to that picture? What had happened there? How deeply was my father involved in the Aktionen against the Jews? In the presentation at hand, the author tries to find answers to these questions – questions which are difficult to solve almost seventy years after the Holocaust.
First of all, I want to thank the Virginia Holocaust Museum in Richmond/Virginia where Jay Ipson, the former director, and Charles Sydnor, the present museum head, advised and encouraged me to research my father’s military album. My thanks also go to the former museum curator, Dianna Gabay who made it possible to digitize the photos in the album and store them on CD for future lectures and presentations. I also want to thank Tim Hensley, head of the museum’s library and archives, for his help.
Last but not least, I want to express my thanks to the librarians and archivists of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for their warm assistance. My special thanks go to Donna Schatz who turned the discovery and contents of the album into a short documentary.
Jerusalem, 27 January 2014
The Hidden Album
(Annotated Photo Presentation)
When I was a child, Uncle George and his family often visited us on weekends in our small townhouse in Berlin which had been built during the Nazi era. My uncle loved to imitate Hitler and Goebbels and make fun of them. After his visit my parents used to say, "It's nice to have George here. But we don't like his mockery of Hitler and Goebbels." I did not ask why. When in 1979 almost the entire German nation watched the TV series Holocaust, my parents did not want to see it. I did not ask why. When my father mentioned the Second World War and added that he had driven a truck in Russia, I did not ask further questions.
illustration not visible in this excerpt
Fig. 1: Near Livny (Orel, Russia) 1943.
Handwritten note “Vor dem Einsatz” (Before the action).
Then the day came when my father passed away. My mother’s death followed eight years later. She was buried in the same cemetery where my grandmother and my father had been laid to rest. After the funeral I began to empty my parents’ house. Among religious books, old music tapes and loose pictures, I found my father’s military album stored in a cupboard in the living room. I hastily thumbed through its pages and decided to keep it for later study without knowing what I was going to discover there.
Many German soldiers kept photo albums to remember their wartime adventures. But I didn’t know my father had done so too. All I knew was that he had driven a truck through Russia. When I looked through the album more carefully, I discovered he had been in places where German mobile killing units had murdered Jews, Communists, partisans and anyone opposed to the National Socialist regime.
My father received the album on his 23rd birthday in April 1940, probably the month he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. He sometimes labeled his photos. Some were dated. But many of them were just stuck into the album without a hint where or when they had been taken. There were pictures of him in Nazi uniform, as a Wehrmacht soldier, his comrade playing the accordion, clowning around with buddies on the grass. He drove his truck, repaired it, celebrated Christmas dinner in a bunker, and took pictures the same time that Einsatzgruppen were doing their murderous work in the East.
Looking closely at one snapshot, I could see a woman with a yellow badge on the back of her coat. In front there were women with shovels in their hands – on the back of the picture, the handwritten name of the town, "Baranowitsche" (Baranowicze). On the same album page, I discovered my father, cigarette in mouth, laughingly pulling a woman away from a truck in Brostowiza. These photos had never been shown to me. I was stunned, shocked, paralyzed.
I started researching the towns and locations displayed in the album. I searched the Internet and read books on the persecutions of Jews in Belarus and Russia. I went to Holocaust museums in Washington, DC, Richmond, VA and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I contacted the Wehrmachts-Auskunftsstelle (Wehrmacht Information Center) in Berlin to get information on his military career. I wanted to know more about the Jewish communities in Belarus and Russia and my father’s involvement in the Holocaust.
My father had been a soldier of the 383rd Infantry Division from 1942 to 1943. As a member of a supply unit, he drove "his" truck through Belarus and Russia from approximately March 1942 to August 1943. His division passed through locations where massacres of Jews and so-called partisans were frequently reported by the Security Police and the Security Service. His division had been in towns and sites where the subunits of the Einsatzgruppe B (SK 7b and EK 8) had carried out actions.
In 2005, a friend of mine, an American documentarian, asked me for an interview about the album, its content, pictures and background. I agreed to be interviewed on camera which resulted in a short documentary on my father’s military service during World War II. It simultaneously resulted in breaking his life-long silence about his Nazi past.
 Sonderkommando 7b (SK 7b) was active in Brest-Litovsk, Kobrin, Pruzhany,Slonim,Baranowicze,Minsk, Orsha,Klinzy,Briansk, Kursk,Tserigov, and Orel. It executed 6,788 people.
Einsatzkommando 8 (EK 8) was in Volkovisk,Baranowicze,Babruysk,Lahoysk,Mogilev, and Minsk. It executed 74,740 people (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Einsatzkommando).
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