The Jew and the German
We rounded up one hundred and sixty Jews today. The rifle shots that ended
their lives had stopped less than an hour ago. I had witnessed it all, standing
among my German comrades, not twenty meters from the edge of the trench
that served as a mass grave.
Men, women, children; it didn’t matter as long as they were Jews, or
gypsies, or suspected Bolshevik sympathizers. I had seen the increasingly
higher pile of naked bodies at the bottom of the trench, watched the officer go
down among them and blow out the brains of those still moving. I had
listened to them moan and beg and pray, and watched as they somberly
removed their clothes, then stood shivering at the edge of the trench, not
allowing their eyes to fall below the eastern horizon. I had felt my stomach
roil with bitter acid, felt my teeth hurt from clenching them so tightly. I had
been part of it, me, a draftsman just out of college. I had been conscripted
into the SS, assigned to the ranks of Sonderkommando 4a, one of the outfits
designated to address the Jewish question, currently operating in Ukraine. My
group had been ordered to clean out the surrounding villages around Kiev.
The day would come I would be chosen to man one of the rifles. I still could
not comprehend why we were doing this. I had not figured out what had
happened to my homeland. My breathing had been labored since my first day
in Ukraine. I could not imagine pulling the trigger.
Now, as the gloom of night cast the first shadows over the long weary day,
I stood a few yards outside of camp, leaning against a tree, taking long draws
off my third consecutive cigarette, staring absently across the vast steppe.
Sonderkommando 4a was following the wehrmacht as it plowed through
Russia. Setting up command centers in the cities and villages behind the front
line, our objective was to round up and eliminate German enemies. Of
course this included the Jews. My small group, part of the central group in
Kiev, had been sent southeast to clean out the small villages. It was
horrifying, merciless, carried out with ruthless detachment. I would never
adjust to this manner of thinking. I had known many Jews in my hometown
in Germany, neighbors, chums I had gone to school with. Why were we
From the corner of my eye, I saw an approaching prisoner, a young man in
tattered peasant clothes assigned the chore of picking up the trash and
cigarette butts littering our camp. I watched him, his cautiousness as he got
down on his knees to scour the ground, glancing at me, most likely fretting
over every tiny scrap and every last cigarette butt, trying to avoid a beating. I
felt ashamed of my uniform.
Eventually he stared at me, the look in his eye chilling; more than hostility,
analytical perhaps, a look that almost seemed to suggest pity, though not quite
masking his hatred and contempt. Moving forward on his knees, likely
resigned to his fate, his courage seemed to gather, reflected in the expression
of defiance on his face. When he got to his feet, he glanced behind and saw
we were alone, then fixed his arrogant, scornful eyes on me. “You think you’
ll get away with this, with what’s going on here,” he said bitterly, staring
fearlessly like a man with nothing to lose.
I couldn’t believe my ears. The Jews I had observed since my recent
arrival have shown nothing but fear and cowed obedience. I stared at him, a
young man about my age, a prisoner with a grim destiny, speaking in defiance
to a German wearing an SS uniform. “What did you say?”
“You heard me. You think Germany can defeat the Russians. You think
you’re going to kill all of us. You’re wrong. A year from now, things will be
Aware of his certain fate, I felt no anger toward him. Perhaps sympathy.
Perhaps I feared him more than I realized. Perhaps I felt compassion and
respect for his defiance. He couldn’t know, were it up to me, he would be
free, along with all of his comrades.
He stepped forward another two paces. I checked the impulse to reach for
my sidearm, though he could see I was shaken. “You seem frightened,” he
said, the hint of a vengeful smile curling the corners of his mouth. “Maybe
you know things won’t go so well for you in the end.”
“At least you seem certain,” I said to him.
“Yes.” He nodded southward, a distant forest. “There. In that forest, or
the forest south of that one, or the hills north of the village, men are plotting
your fate, training, determined to destroy you.” He nodded eastward.
"There. Millions of square kilometers. Millions of Russian men, angry every
one of them, determined to stop you, to give you a taste of what you’ve done
here in Ukraine. Thousands of factories assembling guns, munitions, tanks,
airplanes. They’re buying time. Soon your army will come up against the
Russian wall. All their resources will be thrown against you. All of this …”
he waved his arm out toward the eastern steppe, “will soon be a killing field
for German soldiers.”
A cold fear chilled my spine listening to this resentful young man, though it
was very difficult to imagine the German war machine seriously challenged by
the Russians. Then again, why not? It wasn’t difficult to imagine those
masses of men, those factories, those tanks and those airplanes, to imagine the
resources of this vast country being thrown against the German army. I had
not figured out why, other than Goebbels ludicrous propaganda, we invaded
Russia in the first place. Then I noticed the glint of a knife in his hand.
Our eyes met, my heart thumping. I swallowed dryly and held my arms
outward. “Go ahead,” I said. “I’d be better off. They’ve taken away
everything I had to live for.”
He stared at me with stunned disbelief, as if he had expected me to go for
my pistol or call out. It was like his urge to kill me had faded into conflicting
“When did you arrive in this camp?” I asked.
“I was brought here two hours ago.”
“Do you know what goes on here?”
“I heard the gunshots,” he snarled. “I saw the freshly turned earth.”
I nodded in thought. This man would be shot tomorrow, a fact harder to
bear having encountered him personally, having heard the bitterness that
burned in his soul. I had a terrifying desire to help him, to save him from
ending up under that freshly tilled earth. I knew it was insanity to think such
things—I could be shot as readily as any Jew; yet, once recognized, the desire
to help him felt like the key to my own salvation.
“Why don’t you try to escape?” I asked.
A smile broadened on his face.
“You’re planning to, aren’t you?”
“I should trust you? Is that what you’re saying?”
I looked down at the ground, saddened. I admired this man, despite his
hatred for me. I wanted to help him, but to him I was some kind of disease.
I hated the way things had turned out for me, for Germany. And it seemed
circumstances would only get worse, never mind this young man’s
prophecies. I looked at him again, having realized, beneath the rags and filth
beat the heart of an attractive intelligent man, a man with dreams and
aspirations probably much like my own, now threatened by the tyranny I was