anti-semitism in germany

Murders from the Crimea to the Caucasus

Einsatzgruppe D worked in the southern part of the Ukraine (the Crimea and the regions of Krasnodar and Stavropol), as well as in the northern region of the Caucasus. The EG was headed by Dr. Otto Ohlendorf, who was at the same time head of the internal security service in the Reich Security Main Office. At Nuremberg he was the main defendant in the so-called Einsatzgruppen trial. Einsatzgruppe D was made up of Einsatzkommandos 10a, 11a, 11b, and 12. During their advance on the Crimea, all the units employed gas vans to exterminate Russian prisoners of war and civilians, mostly Jews.

At the beginning of 1942 the staff of EG D was in Simferopol. Three gas vans were also there at this time - two large Saurers and one small Diamond. Their first operation, which was attested to by the drivers Pauly and Stadler, was to "clean out" the Jelna prison in Simferopol. According to Pauly, the large van could hold eighty people, and the smaller one fifty. On that day he had driven the accompanying vehicle during the two trips made by these vans. He was thus, according to his testimony, witness to the murder of about 260 people. (46)

At Nuremberg, Ohlendorf admitted that EG D had gas vans at its disposal. Interrogated by one of the judges, he declared that Himmler had ordered that the women and children be killed by means of gas, and that the vans had been delivered for this purpose. (47)

The verdict handed down by State Court 1 in Munich on 17 September 1975 against two members of the EG D staff, Max Drexler and Walter Kehrer, dealt in detail with the gas vans and their use in Simferopol.

The use of gas vans began at the end of 1941 in the sector of Einsatzgruppe D. They were deployed in order to avoid the psychological distress undergone by those who had to carry out the shootings in the smaller Jewish extermination operations. During these operations the victims were loaded into the gas vans - trucks with hermetically sealed cargo compartments - and killed by engine exhaust fumes.

The staff of EG D had several of these vans, which sent to the various commandos as needed. They were used several times at Simferopol to empty the prison, which was in the building occupied by the group staff. Those Jews who had survived the mass shootings of December 1941, but had gradually been tracked down, were imprisoned here. As soon as the prison was full, the prisoners were killed in a gas van on the order of the group staff, and their bodies were thrown into an antitank ditch outside the town. One several occasions Caucasians were also involved in these operations...

Each time the operations were carried out as follows: one of the vans entered the court- yard of the group staff headquarters, which was near the prison. The Jewish prisoners were brought out of their cells, known as "liquidation cells", and made to get into the vans under strict supervision. The victims first had to strip down to their underclothes.

Because the victims knew what fate awaited them and some of them resisted, members of the commando pushed them into the van. Kehrer occasionally yelled at them and struck them with his fist. The loading over, the back doors were closed. The van stood with its engine running for give to ten minutes, during which time the exhaust fumes were directed into the interior of the cargo compartment by a special device.

The horrors of death were rendered even worse by the conditions of the operation - lack of space, the darkness, and the smell of the exhaust fumes. In mortal agony, the victims shouted and hammered on the sides of the van with such force that those standing near the van could hear them distinctly. With the arrival of the exhaust fumes the victims experienced feelings of suffocation, increased heart rate, and dizziness, etc., until they finally lost consciousness. Some of them started to vomit or empty their bowels and bladder. The victims died after a few minutes, the brain having been deprived of oxygen. But because of the varying degree of each individual's resistance, not all the victims lost consciousness at the same time, which meant that some of them stayed conscious long enough to witness clearly the death throes of the others.

When nothing more could be heard from the interior, the van drove to the antitank ditches that had been dug around Simferopol. Kehrer took part in the loading of the gas vans on all three occasions. For the first operation, only German members of the commando were used. Caucasians took part in subsequent operations.

Each time, the gas van was accompanied by a vehicle in which there were some guards and at least four Jews who were temporarily spared. It was they who had to remove the bodies from the van and throw them into the antitank ditches; then they were killed. Kehrer was present during at least the second and third operations. He was driven there in the vehicle that accompanied the van. He took some of his Caucasians along with him and directed the unloading in the van. The Jews who had to unload the bodies were then shot on his orders. He himself discharged a couple of final shots. (48)

During the advance of the German troops in the second half of 1942, the Einsatzkommandos and their subunits were further deployed in the newly conquered territories. It seems that the use of the gas vans was no longer controlled by the EG D staff, and that the vans were permanently attached to the individual Einsatzkommandos. Einsatzkommando 10a was commanded by Dr. Kurt Christmann. In the findings leading to the verdict delivered against him by a Munich court in 1980, one reads:

On an unspecified day between December 1942 and the beginning of February 1943, the accused personally directed a gas-van operation in the courtyard of the commando building. The van was backed up to within about a meter of the cellar door. In order to obtain what the accused called "speedier effect" from the fumes, as many people as were necessary to fill the van to capacity were made to come out of the cellar and get inside. It held at least thirty people in all. The accused supervised the operation. He tried to hurry along the proceedings by shouting "Faster, faster!" The victims had been made to strip to their underclothes in the cellar. They had been told that they were being taken to the baths. But they were to be killed, because they were considered real or potential enemies of the regime...Among the victims were at least two children under the age of ten.

As they were loaded into the truck, all the victims guessed that they were being taken not to the baths but to their deaths. Many of them shouted, cried, and tried to resist, but the Russian auxiliaries who, under orders from the accused, were carrying out the loading operation, struck them and pushed them into the gas van. Then the driver closed the doors, climbed into the cab, started the engine, and left it running while directing the exhaust fumes into the interior of the van. Finding themselves locked in and in total darkness, the victims must have realized, as soon as they smeeled the exhaust fumes, that they were going to be killed by the fumes. Seized with fear,...they shouted and hammered desperately against the sides of the vehicle.

The gas van remained in the courtyard of the commando building with its engine running until no sound could be heard from inside. Only then did the van leave the courtyard. In this way the local population did not discover from the screams of the victims the real purpose of these vans. The vehicle then headed from the antitank ditches outside Krasnodar, where the Russian auxiliaries, arriving at the same time or having preceded them, threw the bodies into the ditches and covered them with earth. (49)

This was not the first time, however, at the Christmann's name had been mentioned in a war-crimes trial. It had already been brought up between 14 and 17 July 1943, after Krasnodar had been retaken by Red Army troops and a group of his "Caucasian" auxiliaries were being tried by a Societ court. Two of them, named Tischtschenki and Puschkarew, had been given the rank of noncommissioned officer and had been assigned to loading the gas vans used by Einsatzkomando 10a. They described these vehicles in close detail, and their statements coincide with the evidence presented to the Munich court thirty-seven years later. The trial of these Caucasian auxiliaries of ED 10a provided the first opportunity for the public in the Soviet Union and the Western Allied countries to learn the facts about the existence of the gas vans.

The most important evidence was provided by a witness named Kotov, who had been loaded into a gas van and survived. So far as we know, he is the only survivor of this operation. He made the following statement to the court on 16 July 1943:

On 22 August I went to Municipal Hospital No. 3, where I had previously received treatment. I wanted to get a certificate. As I entered the courtyard I saw a large truck with a dark-gray body. Before I had taken two steps a German officer seized me by the collar and pushed me into the vehicle. The interior of the van was crammed full of people, some of them completely naked, some of them in their underclothes. The door was closed. I noticed that the van started to move. Minutes later I began to feel sick. I was losing consciousness. I had previously taken an anti-air raid course, and I immediately under- stood that we were being poisoned by some kind of gas. I tore off my shirt, wet it with urine, and pressed it to my mouth and nose. My breathing became easier, but I finally lost consciousness. When I came to, I was lying in a ditch with several dozen corpses. With great effort I managed to climb out and drag myself. (50)

Under the command on an officer named Trimborn, a subunit of Einsatzkommando 10a went to the town of Jeissk (Yeisk) and executed the children in an asylum there. The verdict of Munich State Court I against Trimborn and his unit, handed down on 14 July 1972, stated:

After Krasnodar had been taken by German troops on 9 August 1942, Einsatzkommando 10a moved into the town. A subunit, under the command of defendant Trimborn, was sent to the town of Jeissk, situated on the east coast of the Sea of Azov, which had been taken the same day. On 8 October 1942 a detachment arrived from Krasnodar. Defendant Dr. Gorz was part of this detachment, which brought with it a gas van and the order to kill the children in the asylum at the corner of Shcherbinovskaia, Barikadnaia, and Budjenny streets. This children's home lay on the outskirts of the town and consisted of several buildings...The central building was reserved for retarded and feeble-minded children; the building at the corner of Shcherbinovskaia and Gogol streets for invalid children and partly for normal children; and the building on Budjenny Street for bedridden children (hydrocephalitics). Their ages ranged from about three to seventeen. The gas van, nicknamed the "soul killer" by the Russians, was a heavy truck with false windows painted on the sides. At the back, double doors permitted the closing of the cargo compartments. The inside was lined with white sheet metal, and the floor was covered with a wooden grid. A hose permitted the exhaust fumes to be directed into the interior. As per the instructions received from Krasnador, the detachment, accompanied by members of the subunit stationed at Jeissk, arrived at the children's home on Friday, 9 October 1942, at about four or five in the afternoon. First the van drove into the court- yard of the building on the corner of Shcherbinovskaia and Gogol streets. The building was surrounded, to prevent any children escaping. The head of the instruction and education sections of the establishment, Galina Kochubinskaia, and the children were assured that they were being taken to Krasnodar for medical treatment. The directress and probably the childrem themselves knew that the Germans killed people in their "soul killer" vehicles. This woman did not believe the reason given, and tried to prevent the children from being transferred, but in vain. The children were assembled in the courtyard. The smallest ones and those who were unable to walk were carried out of the building. The nursing staff cried as they helped with the operation. Some of the children climbed into the van by themselves. When one or two of them resisted or started to scream and try to escape, they were caught, and sometimes beaten or pulled by their arms and legs to the van and thrown inside. Volodia Goncharov, a "pioneer" (a member of the Soviet youth organization), was grabbed by the legs, his head toward the ground, by two men who dragged him out of the building and into the van. The children, who were crying and screaming, finally lay piled one on top of the other in the back of the van. When it was full the doors were closed....The same day the bedridden children from the Budjenny Street building were gassed in the same way. (51)

The use of gas vans by Einsatzkommando 10b was brought to light by the operations carried out in the Crimea. In Feodosiya a commando member named Hanssen received orders in April 1942 from his immediate superior, SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Persterer, to empty the gas vans into an antitank ditch. Hanssen saw women and children among the murdered Jews. (52)

The verdict handed down by Munich State Court I on 23 March 1972 against Finger and other defendants stated:

On an unspecified day in the first half of 1942, dring the second occupation of Kertsch by German troops, the gas van was used to execute at least fifty Jewish men and women, by order of the group. The gas van was a truck with a closed cargo compartment like a moving van. The back door could not be opened from the inside. During the journey the exhaust fumes were diverted into the inside of the van and the people killed in this way.

The defendant Schuchart was present at the loading of the van, for which he provided men from his unit. The Jews, who were being killed because of their race, were submitted to unimaginable suffering and anguish in their fight with death. After the doors of the van were locked and those inside had realized what fate awaited them, they began to scream and hammer against the walls.

The defendant Schuchart declared to a member of the commando, the defendant Schuchart later refused to use the gas vans again, on the grouns that it was impossible to persuade his men to carry out such a task. (53)

Paul Zapp was, until July 1942, head of Einsatzkommando 11a. He had been to Sebastopol to try to get one of EG D's gas vans assigned to him, and he stated that "on this occasion I was present at the extermination of Jews - men and woman - in gas vans. The victims had to strip naked and were herded into the vans. The doors were then closed so that the van was hermetically sealed. The engine was started and left running. After only a short time no more signs of life came from those inside. The van was then driven to a ditch outside of town. The doors were opened and the bodies thrown into the ditch." (54)

In October 1941 a member of Einsatzkommando 11a, named Schiewer, witnessed the use of a gas van with a capacity of fifty people in Armavir in the Caucasus. He was on the cordon duty at the ditch. The van made ten trips to the unloading site. Those on duty with Schiewer were told that the victims were Jews. (55)

An exact description exists of the use of gas vans in an operation carried out in Cherkessk (Cherkassy), in the region of Maikop. The section of the commando stationed there was led by Johannes Schlupper. Towards the middle of September 1942, Schlupper received an order by telephone from the commando leader telling him to arrest the Jews living in Cherkessk and informing him that a gas van would be arriving shortly. Schlupper declared:

On the day specified, the gas van arrived from Cherkessk with a driver and his co-driver. An Untersturmfuhrer accompanied them in an automobile. He was to supervise the operation. On the mayor's orders, the Jews assembled in the freight shed of the railroad station. It is not true that I reassured the Jews by telling them they had to climb into the gas vans so that they could be taken to be deloused. That was the group's business.

I was standing next to the gas van. It was the first time I had seen one. It is not true that as the van drove off I reassured the Jews by telling them that those who got into the gas van would return. I did not even enter the freight shed where the Jews were waiting, and I do not remember that the van made several trips. The victims had to strip completely before getting into the vehicle. I drove ahead of it to the mass grave, where I had already stationed some of my men. All the Jews who had been assembled - forty to fifty men - had to get into the van. So far as I can remember, the exhaust was diverted into the interior as it approached the mass grave. Then we heard a muffled trampling sound coming from the inside . . . The van remained stationary, with its engine running, near the mass grave for about ten minutes. Then it backed up to the edge of the grace, the rear doors were opened, and the cargo compartment tipped up. This made the victims fall out into the grace. It was at night, by moonlight, that this operation took place. (56)

Einsatzkommando 12 had a gas van in the northern Caucasus. A former member of EK 12, Paul Otto, testified to the use of a gas van at Piatigorsk. In September 1942 the Jews were assembled in a square in the town and then taken away in a gas van. It did not make more than ten trips. According to Kramp, another member of the commando, this was a "gassing operation -special treatment," which lasted from six in the morning until the early afternoon. (57)

In the Russian collection entitled Dokumenty Obviniaiut (The documents accuse) there is a statement by a witness, Eugenia Ostroven, who lived near the courtyard onto which the cells of the Piatigorsk prison faced:

I often saw a large truck stop near the prison cell. Then the prison wardens could be heard giving orders to strip, and you could hear the terrible screams of women and children. They were finally pushed half-naked into the van by men from the Gestapo. When it was quite full, the doors were firmly locked. The driver started the engine and left it running at full revs, but he couldn't drown the cries of the prisoners and the trampling of the Russia civilians were taken in the same vehicle somewhere out of town. (58)

In another part of the collection of documents is a statement by one Fenichel, a German prisoner of war who had worked as an auto mechanic. He was able to describe the gas van in Stavropol in detail. He stated that its engine had been built by Saurer and its cargo compartment by the German firm of Gaubschat. (59) Between 5 and 10 August 1942, 660 mentally ill patients were gassed in this van. In the town of Spa-Teberda, fifty-four seriously ill young children were gassed. This was confirmed by the reports of an eyewitness, dated 27 January 1943, and by a medical report. (60)

From all we have been able to learn so far, a total of fifteen gas vans operated in the territories of the Soviet Union occupied by the German Army.

46.StA Hanover AZ: 2Js 299/60, vol. 10 fols. 193f

47.Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals, Washington, D.C., 1950, Case 9, vol. 4, pp. 206, 300ff

48.Sta Munich I AZ:119c Ks 6a-b/70, verdict of 18 November 1974 against Drexel and Kehrer, pp. 33 - 36 (ZSL Coll.: 32)

49.StA Munich I AZ:Ks 314 Js 15264/78, verdict of 19 December 1980 against Christmann and others, pp. 14ff. (ZSL Coll.: 569)

50. Judicial proceedings in the case of the acts of cruelty committed by the German facist invaders and their accomplices in the territory of the town of Krasnodar and the Krasnodar area during the period of their temporary occupation (14 - 17 July 1943), Moscow, 1943, p.21

51. StA Munich I AZ 114 Ks 4a-c/70 verdict of 14 July 1972, case against Kurt Trimborn, pp. 29-33 (ZSL Coll.: 460)

52. StA Hanover AZ: 2 J s 299/60, vol. 10, fols. 83 f.

53. StA Munich I AZ: 111 Ks 2a-c/71, verdict of 22 March 1972, pp. 40f. (ZSL Coll.: 418)

54. ZSL : AZ 213 AR 1900/66, vol. 1, fol. 83.

55. StA Hanover AZ: 2 J s 299/68, vol. 10, fol. 81.

56. StA Munich I AZ: 115 Ks 6/71 (ZSL: AZ: 213 AR-Z 1901/66, vol. 2, fols. 180ff.; further evidence from the witness, vol. 2, fol. 223).

57. StA Hanover AZ: 2 Js 299/60, vol. 10. fols. 58ff.

58. Dokumenty obvinjajut (The documents accuse) (Moscow, 1945), vol. 2, pp. 158f.

59. Ibid., pp. 131f.

60. Ibid., p. 139

Kogon, Eugen, Hermann Langbein and Adalbert Ruckerl, ed. Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1993. pp. 64 - 71

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Ken Lewis
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March 27 , 1999
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