Dolores Noboa

The Einsatzgruppen

The Einsatzgruppen were formed in order to function as a special action group behind the advancing army. Their function was to liquidate the politically and racially undesirable -which meant Jewish people, since the Nazis equated Jewishness with Bolshevism. (Burleigh 230) Reports of the Einsatzgruppen frequently show that they also murdered the 'asocial', i.e. gypsies and mental patients. (Burleigh 230) Reinhard Heydrich, who was later assassinated by Czech resistance early in 1942, established the Einsatzgruppen. The Einsatzgruppen and its subsidiary Einsatzkommandos first appeared sometime after May of 1939 in Czechoslovakia. ( They were formed in order to secure political life and any useful enterprises. The actions of the Einsatzgruppen were limited here.

In September of 1939, Poland was invaded and the Einsatzgruppen were formed into five kommandos. ( The planned operations of the Einsatzgruppen were given the cover name "Tannenberg." (Bretiman 68) It was a name that almost every German knew. Himmler had been thirteen years old when the German victory over the Russian forces took place at Tannenberg, in East Prussia, in 1914. (Bretiman 68) The Einsatz groups had first been organized by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich to follow German armies into Poland in 1939. They were to round up the Jews and put them in ghettos. (Shirer 958)

The Einsatzgruppen fully became organized during the planning of the invasion of Russia. It was not until the beginning of the Russian campaign nearly two years later that, they were ordered to follow the combat troops and carry out a phase of the "final solution." (Shirer 959) Mobile killing occurred as part of Operation Barbarossa, Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, and took place over a wide area, from the Baltic down to the Ukraine. (Landau 171) The Race and Resettlement Office of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt or RSHA (Reich Central Security Office), sponsored them. ( Four of these units were created, each with about 3500 members.

Group A, led by Brigadefuehrer Dr. Walter Stahlecker, followed Army Group North through the Baltic states to Leningrad, Group B, led by Arthur Nebe, was attached to Army Group Center between the Baltic and the Ukraine, Group C, headed by SS-Brigadefuehrer Dr. Otto Rasch, operated in the western areas (Lwow, Rowne, Zhitomir, Kiev, Kursk, Poltava, Kharkov), and Group D, led by Dr. Otto Ohlendorf, head of the inland SD, followed the Eleventh Army and was active in Besserabia and the Crimea. (Fischer 500) Within each group there were 350 Waffen-SS, 150 in the motor pool, 100 Gestapo members, 100 auxiliary policemen, 130 Ordungsplizei, 30 from the SD and 50 from the Kripo. (

Working alongside the army, police battalions, local police and regular non-Jewish locals, the Einsatzgruppen rounded up Jews. The Einsatz unit would enter a village or town and order the prominent Jewish citizens to call together Jews for "resettlement." (Shirer 959) From there, they were either herded or forced into ravines, pre-dug pits or wooded areas. Then Jews were to hand over their valuables and before execution, their clothing. They were transported to the place of executions, usually an antitank ditch, in trucks. (Shirer 959) This was done in order to keep the span of time from the moment in which the victims knew what was to happen to them until the time of their execution, as short as possible. They were shot, en masse, kneeling or standing, regardless of age or sex by firing squads in a military manner and the corpses were thrown into a ditch.

In the spring of 1942, General Ohlendorf of Einsatz D recounted; an order came from Himmler to change the method of execution of the women and children. In the future they were to be dispensed in "gas vans," specially constructed for the purpose. An SD officer described how these vehicles worked: "The actual purpose of these vans could not be seen from the outside. They looked like closed trucks and were so constructed that at the start of the motor the gas [exhaust] was conducted into the van causing death in ten to fifteen minutes." But these gas vans, as Ohlendorf would later testify, were entirely inadequate for the massacres on the scale which Hitler and Himmler had ordered. (Shirer 960) Most of these en masse killings lasted only a day or two, sometimes up to a week or more. Some of the larger aktions were in Lvov (7,000 killed), Kharkov (14,000 killed) and Rovno (15,000 killed). The most infamous aktion was at the Babi Yar Ravine, outside of Kiev. 35,000 Jews were shot to death in two days. The members of the killing squads had to work in shifts in order to complete the task. It is estimated that a total of 1.5 million were murdered.

    This eyewitness testimony is by Rivka Yosselevscka in a war crimes tribunal court. She lived in Zagrodski when the Einsatzgruppen arrived in the summer of 1942. All Jews were rounded up, a roster was drawn up and the families were loaded onto trucks. Since there were approximately 500 families, many could not get on the trucks and were ordered to run behind them...

  "...I had my daughter in my arms and ran after the truck. There were mothers who had 2 or 3 children and held them in their arms - running after the truck. We ran all the way. There were those who fell - we were not allowed to help them rise. They were shot right there, wherever they fell. When we reached the destination, the people from the truck were already down and undressed - all lined up. All of my family was there. This was some 3-km from our village. There was a kind of hillock. At the foot of this little hill, there was a dugout. We were ordered to stand at the top of the hillock and the 4 devils shot us - each one separately. They were SS men - the 4 of them....

When I came to the place, we saw people naked lined up. But we were still hoping that this was only torture. Maybe there is hope - hope of living. One could not leave the line, but I wished to see. Is there anyone down below? I turned my head and saw that some 3 or 4 rows were already killed - on the ground. There were some 12 people amongst the dead. I also want to mention that my child said while we were lined up in the ghetto, she said, "Mother, why did you make me wear the Shabbat dress? We are being taken to be shot!". And when we stood near the dugout, near the grave, she said, "Mother, why are we waiting? Let's run!" Some of the young people tried to run, but they were caught immediately, and they were shot right there. It was difficult to hold on to the children. We took all children not ours, and we carried - we were anxious to get it all over - the suffering of the children was difficult.

We all trudged along to come nearer to the place and to come nearer to the end of the torture of the children. The children were taking leave of their parents, and parents of their elder people. We were driven...we were already undressed, the clothes were removed; and taken away. Our father did not want to undress. He remained in his underwear. We were driven up to the grave...when it came our turn, our father was beaten. We prayed, we begged with my father to undress, but he would not undress, he wanted to keep his underclothes. He did not want to stand naked. Then they tore the clothing off the old man and he was shot. I saw it with my own eyes. Then they took my mother and shot her, too...and then there was my grandmother, my father's mother, standing there, she was eighty years old and she had two children in her arms; and then there was my father's sister. She also had children in her arms and she was shot on the spot with the babies in her arms..

Finally my turn came. There was my younger sister - and she wanted to leave. She prayed with the Germans, she asked to run - naked, she went up to the Germans with one of her friends, they were embracing each other. He looked into her eyes and shot the 2 of them. They fell together in their embrace, the two young girls - my sister and her young friend. Then my 2nd sister was shot and then my turn did come. We turned towards the grave and then he turned around and asked, "Whom shall I shoot 1st?" We were already facing the grave. The Germans asked, "Who do you want me to shot 1st?"

I did not answer. I felt him take the child from my arms. The child cried out and was shot immediately. And then he aimed at me. First, he held onto my hair and turned my head around. I stayed standing. I heard a shot, but I continued to stand and then he turned my head again and he aimed the revolver at me and ordered me to watch and then turned my head around and shot at me. Then I fell to the ground into the pit amongst the bodies- but I felt nothing. The moment I did feel, I felt a sort of heaviness...and then I thought "maybe I'm not alive anymore - but I feel something after I've died".

I thought I was dead, that this was the feeling that comes after death. Then I felt that I was choking; people falling over me. I tried to move, and felt that I was alive and that I could rise. I was strangling. I heard the shots and I was praying for another bullet to put an end to my suffering, but I continued to move about. I felt that I was choking, strangling, but I tried to save myself - to find some air to breathe, and then I felt that I was climbing towards the top of the grave above the bodies. I rose and I felt bodies pulling at me with their hands, biting at my legs, pulling me down, down. And yet, with my last strength, I came up on top of the grave, and when I did, I did not know the place, so many dead bodies were lying all over, dead people; I wanted to see the end of this stretch of dead bodies, but I could not. It was impossible.

They were lying, all dying; suffering; not all of them dead, but in their last sufferings; naked; shot, but not dead. Children crying "Mother" & "Father"; I could not stand on my feet....the Germans were gone. There was nobody there. No one standing up. I was naked, covered with blood, dirty from the other bodies - with the excrement from other bodies which was poured on me....I was wounded in the head...I have a scar to this day from the shot by the Germans...and yet somehow, I did come out of the grave. This was something I thought I would never live to recount. I was searching among the dead for my little girl and I cried for her - Merkele was her name - "Merkele!"

There were children crying "Mother!", "Father!" - but they were smeared with blood and one could not recognize the children. I cried for my daughter. From afar, I saw 2 women standing - I went up to them. They did not know me. I didn't know them, and then I said who I was, then they said, "So you survived!"...and there was another woman crying, "Pull me out from amongst the corpses! I am alive! Help!" We were thinking how we could escape from the place. The cries of the woman, "Help! Pull me out of the corpses!" We pulled her out. Her name was Mikla Rosenberg.

We removed the corpses and the dying people who held onto her and continued to bite. She asked us to take her out, to free her, but we didn't have the strength - and thus we were there all night, fighting for our lives, listening to the cries and screams - then all of a sudden, we saw Germans, mounted Germans - we did not notice them coming in because of the screams and the shouting from the bodies around us. The Germans ordered that all the corpses be heaped together into one big heap and with shovels they were heaped together, all of the corpses, amongst them many still alive.- children running about the place.

I saw them. I saw the children. They were running after me, hanging onto me. Then I sat down in the field and remained sitting with the children around me - the children who got up from the heap of corpses. Then Germans came and were going around the place. We were ordered to collect all the children, but they did not approach me and I sat there watching how they collected the children. They gave a few shots and the children were dead - they did not need many shots - the children were almost dead, and this Rosenberg woman pleaded with the Germans to be spared, but they shot her.

They all left - the Germans and the non-Jews from around the place. They removed the machine guns and they took the trucks. I saw that they all left, and the four of us - we went onto the grave - praying to fall into the grave -even alive, envying those who were dead already and thinking "What to do now?". I was praying for death to come, I was praying for the grave to open up and to swallow me alive. Blood was spurting from the grave in many places - like a well of water. When I pass a spring now - I remember the blood which spurted from the ground - from the grave. I was digging with my fingernails, trying to join the dead in that grave. I dug with my fingernails, but the grave would not open - I did not have enough strength. I cried out to my mother, to my father "Why did they not kill me? What was my sin? I have no one to go to!". I saw them all being killed. Why was I spared? Why was I not killed?...I remained there, stretched out on the grave, 3 days and 3 nights..." (

Ohlendorf's Einsatzgruppen D did poorly in comparison to the other groups, with its 90,000 victims. (Shirer 962) Group A reported that it had executed 229,052 Jews in the Baltic region and in White Russia. (Shirer 62) Einsatzgruppen A's commander, Franz Stahlecker, reported to Himmler that he was having difficulty because of a late start "after the heavy frost set in, which made mass executions much more difficult." He reported "41,000 Jews have been shot up to now." (Shirer 962)

    Following a severe winter, the Einsatzgruppen firing squads kept going all the way through summer of 1942. 55,000 more Jews were executed in White Russia by July 1. In October, the remaining 16,200 inhabitants of the Minsk ghetto were eliminated in one day. (Shirer 962) In November, Himmler reported to Hitler that 363,211 Jews had been killed in Russia from August through October. This figure was most likely exaggerated in order to please the bloodthirsty Fuehrer. (Shirer 962)

    According to Karl Eichmann, head of the Jewish Office of the Gestapo, the Einsatzgruppen in the East liquidated two million persons, almost all of them Jews. This is also almost certainly an exaggeration; it is strange how the SS were so proud of their exterminations that they often reported swollen figures in order to please Himmler and Hitler. (Shirer 963) Himmler's statistician, Dr. Richard Korherr reported to him that 633,300 Jews in Russia had been "resettled" -a euphemism for massacre by the Einsatzgruppen. (Shirer 963) This figure tallies well with exhaustive studies later made by a number of experts. If another thousand slain in the last two years of the war are added, the figure is probably as accurate as we will ever have. (Shirer 963)

    The tragedy of this ethnic-cleansing policy unfolded in Poland, where Himmler's Einsatzgruppen implemented their bestial policy of "decimating the ranks of the upper classes and screening for racial elements considered valuable. (Fischer 495) The Einsatzgruppen encountered much resistance from the regular army, because the army had been given the responsibility maintaining order in the occupied territories. Technically, the Einsatzgruppen was subordinated to the army -this is the result of pressure from the military -but their only real responsibility was to the men who assigned them their functions: Himmler and Heydrich. (Breitman 67) It was not long before members of the Wehrmacht (regular army) realized what Hitler's assassin's were up to, namely murdering Polish teachers, doctors, aristocrats, priests, and businessmen. (Fischer 495) Although many German soldiers as well as officers were horrified by the executions conducted around them, few dared to stand up and opposed this organized massacre. It will forever be a stain on the German military that it did not resist Hitler's program of genocide. (Fischer 495)

    The men of the Einsatzgruppen were physically and psychologically drained. Some sought refuge with alcohol, others became physically ill, and a few committed suicide. (Fischer 503) Under these circumstances, the question arose of how to maintain the pace murder and to expand the killings that were being planned in order to eradicate the remaining Jews in Europe. (Fischer 503) The killings in the past had been random and personal; nerves were frayed. It became necessary to find a more efficient and less personal method of murdering what was left of the Jews. Discussions had been underway as to how this "final solution" to the Jewish problem may be accomplished. (Fischer 503)

Works Consulted

Duelffer, Jost. Nazi Germany 1933-1945 Fatih and Annihilation. London: Oxford University Press, Inc. 1998.

Kershaw, Ian. The Nazi Dictatoship. New York: Edward Arnold. 1993.

Marrus, Michael R. The Holocaust in History. New York: Penguin Group. 1987.

Wheatcroft, Andrew and Richard Overy. The Road to War the Origins of World War II. New York: Random House. 1989.

Works Cited

Burleigh, Michael. Death and Deliverance. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1994.

Fischer, Klaus P. Nazi Germany A New History. New York: Continuum. 1995.

Landau, Ronnie S. The Nazi Holocaust. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc. 1994.

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1960. (online source)