The Children of Bjelaja-Zerkow April 26, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
A horrid story from August 1941 at Bjelaja-Zerkow in German occupied Soviet territory. In this town the SS murdered as many as nine hundred Jewish residents. That is nightmarish enough, of course, if unfortunately an all too typical act in the war in the east. What allows Bjelaja-Zerkow to climb a little higher in the history of infamy is though the fate of ninety children that the SS forgot. These children, babies and infants – the oldest were six (five according to some sources), had been herded into the upstairs room of a town building and left in the blistering heat: they seem to have been neglected when other children had been taken away in trucks 19 August to be slaughtered at a local shooting range. For a few hours Nazi bureaucracy dignified these children with humanity, before, all too soon, removing it from them again.
The children, abandoned, naturally made themselves heard: ‘without water, covered with flies, and reduced to eating mortar prised from the brickwork, [they] cried and screamed throughout the night’ (618). At this point the ‘normal’ German army in the area couldn’t help but notice. First four chaplains, attached to a nearby unit complained to a superior, a certain Helmuth Groscurth (pictured), a deeply Protestant and conservative nationalist who hated Nazism. (HG called Heydrich a ‘criminal’ in his diaries). Groscurth, 20 August, visited the children, learnt there from an SS officer that the children were to be also killed, and then brought his complaints up the hierarchy. In fact, with a certain courage, Groscurth ordered his men to prevent the SS removing more children in a truck, with force if necessary.
The children having been left alone for three days, 21 August a meeting was organized between Groscurth and representatives of military intelligence and the local military hierarchy. HG was quickly cowed by the killers in the room – he was, like this blogger and perhaps many of his readers, brave but not brave enough. Indeed, he later wrote, in a splendid euphemism that he wanted ‘to avoid any personal acrimony’ at the meeting. He, certainly, changed his position there. His objection, he explained, was not that the children were to be killed but that they had been left alive in such a sloppy fashion. The closest he publicly came to something that we would recognize as regret was in noting, in a subsequent report, that it meant unnecessary suffering to leave children in this world (‘inhuman agony’) after their parent’s death. Groscurth was later to die in captivity 7 April 1943: he was taken at Stalingrad. He was, thus, given, by the divinity ‘that shapes our ends’, a couple of months in captivity to reflect on the events of his life.
There, then, followed something that historians of German atrocities will know all too well. There was agreement that the killing had to take place. But a lack of candidates ready to undertake the task. Groscurth managed to avoid being given the job himself ‘speaking quietly’. The SS commander pointed out that many of his men had children of this age at home. Ditto the Sonderkommando. So, in the end, the job was given over to the Ukrainian militia, who were, 22 August, given the job of leading the children out into the forest (most will have had to be carried) and shooting them. Reportedly the Ukrainians shook as they did so.
There is a strange consolation in the reluctance of men in uniform to murder innocents: the final of a dozen safety nets that are stretched between plummeting humanity and the abyss. Even the Einsatzgruppen had to dull themselves with alcohol after a day’s killing. Indeed, many military reports were concerned with the plunging morale of the murder squadrons: ‘Look at the eyes of the men in this commando [after a shooting], how deeply shaken they are. Those men are finished for the rest of their lives.’ Karl Wolff reported that Himmler vomited on witnessing the holocaust up close and personal: the butchery of civilians in the east. And the hardened, probably anti-semitic Ukrainians here went home with enough blood to drip through a lifetime of bad dreams.
30 April 2013: LE writes in: ‘There may be something missing in your blog concerning the sad fate of the children of Bjelaja-Zerkow. You write: HG [Helmuth Groscurth] was quickly cowed by the killers in the room – he was, like this blogger and perhaps many of his readers, brave but not brave enough’. While ‘cowed’ is an appropriate term, Groscurth’s options were limited. He would have been threatened, and one can well speculate on the nature of the threats. The SS would have let Groscurth know that ‘personal acrimony’ meant not only his own death, but it would also have led to atrocity against his family. Threats against family were generally effective. They were (and are) standard operating procedure for totalitarian enforcers. Groscurth would have been persuaded that the fate of the Bjelaja-Zerkow children was sealed, that his resistance would lead to the disappearance of his family and himself, and that the circumstances leading to their fate would never see the light of day. How confidently can we state that ‘There was agreement that the killing had to take place?’ Groscurth may simply have agreed that martyrdom was not a good idea considering the circumstances.’ I would agree with most of LE’s analysis here, in other words that Groscurth would have died if he had pushed the boat out any further. Though I’m not sure his family would have suffered physically, that was generally restricted for ‘blood’ crimes against the state. I also feel terribly sorry for a man who belonged to the old and honourable nineteenth-century nationalist tradition, finding himself amid these monsters. (The linked French article has the perfect title in this respect: ‘the Loneliness of Helmuth Groscurth’). I though wonder whether death was the worst thing that could have happened here. There may be a case for letting something, even something terrible pass so that you can try and do good later on. But if HG had not managed to do some good here – he clearly tried… – then what possibilities were there for him in the context of the Wehrmacht gone mad? A Russian POW here, a dying soldier there… It would be interesting to know what his final reflections were in captivity after the surrender at Stalingrad: an intelligent man with a pre-Nazi conscience. All of this is written, of course, under the painful consciousness that while judging might be necessary, I will never, pontificating and eating chocolate at my keyboard, come close to the experience of decent men and women locked into that (and other) ghastly twentieth-century regimes. Incidentally, one of my sources here was Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich. In that book MB quotes a depressing line from Solzhenitsyn: ‘Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.’ Thanks to LE for taking the time to write this comment!
20 Jan 2014: Robert Kunath writes: ‘I read your post on Helmuth Groscurth with considerable interest because I’ve been working intensively on the incident for a couple of years. I don’t think you’ve got it quite right: Groscurth wasn’t cowed by the SS. He wanted to get the top brass to back him, and he knew he had a reputation as an anti-Nazi hothead, so he wanted in his report to stress that he had not behaved provocatively. You might be interested in my brief alternative take on the incident, written as an exercise for a workshop: If you read German, you’ll find a very interesting portrait of Groscurth in the foreword to his published papers and diaries _Tagebücher eines Abwehroffiziers_ edited by Helmut Krausnick and Harold C. Deutsch (1970). The only reason we have the documents related to the murder of the children is because Groscurth very carefully (and illegally) preserved them as part of a larger archive of Nazi criminality. I know because I’ve worked with his papers in the German Military Archive in Freiburg.’ Thanks Robert!