The Shawl

[A docudrama of the Holocaust first published on May 18, 2005] As a member of Lübeck’s Reserve Police Battalion 17, I was ordered to prepare for an assignment in Poland. I was told that we had an important mission there for the Fatherland, that we’d be involved in the final solution of the Jewish problem. Our battalion of 314 men was split up into companies and trucked separately to different camps.
When members of my undersized Third Company reached their temporary barracks, a converted brick dairy barn near the Polish town of Plock, we were ordered outside to listen as Oberleutnant Hans Schaefer gave us an orientational speech.
Standing stiffly, the heels of his boots touching each other, his officer’s cap square on his head, Schaefer began in a loud monotone, “Congratulations on being chosen for the work you are about to do, and welcome to Plock. You are here in the service of the Third Reich and the Fuehrer. It would take too many soldiers from the front lines to do this glorious work, and so you policemen are to replace them.
“Now, Jews from Plock will be collected from their homes at daybreak tomorrow and trucked to a field about a mile from here. You will be taken to the field after breakfast and calisthenics. There, you will take the Jews one by one into the adjacent woods, make them lie down on their stomachs, and shoot each in the back of the head.”
The oberleutnant abruptly stopped and looked at us, as though expecting a sudden outcry. Hearing none, he resumed, his voice taking on a sermon-like tone. “I know that this will be hard; I know that you may see these people as human beings. But, they are not. They are . . . ” Suddenly changing tone, he spit, “Vermin, cockroaches!” He punctuated the words by violently swinging one fist into his other hand. “And you are pest exterminators. You will be cleansing not only Germany of their filth, but the world.” Another beat of his fist accompanied the last word.
He settled himself, and put both hands behind him. His boots had not moved a millimeter so far. Again he spoke, “I recognize the personal strain this will place on each of you, however. You have been trained as policemen, to protect and save lives. Only those of us who are privileged to participate in this work will ever know what this will cost you emotionally, but that is your challenge and your heroism.”
He paused and scanned our faces. “If you cannot do this work, if you are psychologically or emotionally unable to, then you may stay here, cleaning the barracks and helping the cooks, until we are finished. Nothing will be done to you. There will be no mark on your record.
“Now, Doctor Alfred Helmut will show you how to carry out your task.”
The doctor had been standing nonchalantly off to the side with a large pad and a portable painter’s easel, which he now carried to the front of our group and set up. He put the pad on the easel. On the front page he had drawn an outline of the back of a human torso and head. He took a red crayon from his pocket and drew a small circle to indicate the precise point on the back of the head where a bullet would kill a person immediately. Then he took out a blue crayon and drew a rough picture of the barrel of a rifle with its bayonet attached.
He stood back to look at his drawing critically, and after a moment he nodded at it. He then partly turned to us, pointed with one unwavering finger to where the bayonet was pointed in the drawing, and announced, as though declaring the winner of a lottery, “Here!” He jabbed his finger closer to the spot. “Here you must aim the point of your bayonet. Then you can sight along it for the perfect shot into the back of the head.”
Looking self-satisfied, the doctor stood beside his pad, looked at us, and waited for questions.
When none came, the oberleutnant asked, “Are there any questions?”
Some of the policemen stared at the ground; others into the distance. Metal clanked on metal as one policeman shifted his position. Nearby tree branches rustled in the pleasant northern breeze.
“Okay, you men know what to do for the Fatherland.” The oberleutnant put his hands behind him again, and nodded to Unteroffizier—Sergeant—Rudolph Hermann.
Hermann saluted the oberleutnant and immediately ordered, “Dismissed.”
All of us were quiet as we headed into the dank barracks and found our bunks. I felt nauseous and my head ached from anxiety. I sat on my bunk with my head in my hands. My skin felt flushed. I could feel my heart beating rapidly. I can’t do this, I thought. But I must. If I don’t, they will all think I’m a coward. A Jew-lover. God in Heaven, what can I do?
There were a few idle conversations going on, but most of the men ignored each other and avoided meeting anyone’s eyes. There was none of the usual banter.
I pulled a newspaper I’d brought from home out of my pack, stretched out on my bunk, crinkled the paper more than necessary just for the distracting sound, and pretended to read. Tomorrow I will be murdering Jews, I thought in disbelief. The Nazis say they are vermin, cockroaches, and subhumans. Even so, why kill them? Why not force them out of Poland or wherever they are? Send them to Africa or somewhere like that. Or put them in ghettos. From what I’ve seen, they prefer to live together anyway. But, to kill women and children?
I didn’t get to sleep until it was almost light. By then I had convinced myself that I could do it.
Early morning crawled by in a haze. Roll call, calisthenics, breakfast, and a few mumbled exchanges with the others. Then we received extra ammunition and clambered onto the trucks for the bumpy ride to the field outside of Plock.
I peered out the back of the truck as it slowed. There they were in the bright morning sun—the Jews. A few old men, old women, young women with children and babies. The last of the trucks that had brought them were just exiting the field by another road in a haze of exhaust fumes.
I gripped my rifle and got out of the truck with the other fully uniformed, helmeted policemen. Ukrainian Auxiliary Police guards around the Polish Jews began to organize them into ten columns, with about five feet between each. The Jews behaved as though they were at some civil function. They obeyed quietly. There were no screams. The only yelling came from the guards. Only the children were noisy, sometimes trying to talk to their mothers or to each other. Some of the babies cried.
The policemen lined up in front of Oberleutnant Schaefer, who stood now with his chest thrust out and, as usual, with the heels of his well-shined boots together and his officer’s cap squarely on this head. He held a typed page of instructions in one hand. Like the others, I stared at the oberleutnant as though only he existed, even ignoring the Unteroffizier, who stood beside him. Nobody looked at the Jews.
“First, are there any of you who cannot do this?” Oberleutnant Schaefer asked. He waited a few moments.
I heard the trucks that had brought us driving off in their own cloud of fumes.
“Okay,” Schaefer continued, “here is the way we will do this.” He paused to consult his instructions, and then barked, “There are twenty of you, so count off beginning on my left.” He pointed at the first man.
We counted off to twenty.
“Now,” said the oberleutnant, “those numbered eleven to twenty form a second line, eleven behind the first man, twelve behind the second, and so on. Go!”
When our two lines had formed and we stood awaiting further instructions, the oberleutnant glanced at his instruction sheet again, then said, “The men numbered one and eleven will take Jews from the first column on my left.” He turned, swung out his arm, and pointed to the appropriate column. “Men numbered two and twelve will take Jews from the next column, and so on. Keep the mothers and their children and babies together. Once you deal with the mother, the children will present no problem.
“You will take your Jews into the woods, down that path behind you. Unteroffizier Hermann will be along the path. He will point to the area in the woods where you are to take your Jew. Once you are assigned an area, pick your spot and do your work. When you are finished, come back out and pick the next Jew from the same column. Any questions?”
One of the policemen put up his hand, and when the oberleutnant looked sharply at him, he asked, “W-what will happen to the bodies?”
The oberleutnant looked confused for a moment. He looked at his instructions.
A baby somewhere among the Jews started crying loudly. I heard its mother trying to hush and comfort it. I couldn’t look away from the oberleutnant.
He finally said, “There is a small concentration camp a short distance from here. A Jew work crew will be marched here from the camp. They will dig a pit, drag all the bodies from the woods into it, and close it up. More questions?” He scanned the policemen ranked before him. “No? Then for the Fatherland, do your duty.”

***

Third in the first row, I moved stiffly toward a woman in the third column. She was perhaps in her middle thirties, with curly black hair that stuck out from her head and fell in a tangle to a shawl around her shoulders. She wore a shapeless blue dress, beneath which showed what might have been her slip. She appeared to have been suddenly roused from her sleep and forced to dress hurriedly. She was pleasant looking, with a square face, high forehead, and small eyes.
I grabbed her arm and said, “Gekommen—Come.” I pulled her toward the woods. She looked up at me with an entirely blank face and walked with me toward the path.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. This woman was so willing to go with me. She must be afraid. She must fear death. Is it that she doesn’t know? Maybe she thinks I’m just going to rape her, I thought. I was shaking. Could she feel it through my hand on her arm?
We reached Unteroffizier Hermann, who pointed to a patch of grass well into the woods on the right.
I heard the first rifle shot when we reached the assigned spot. It startled me. I heard another shot as I pointed to a small grassy area between a bush of white flowers and a tree. My hand now visibly trembled. I gestured for her to lie down. She lay down on her back. I motioned for her to turn over.
When she did, all I could see of her head was her black hair. At that moment, I heard somebody nearby. I looked to the left and saw a girl stretched out on her stomach. One of my fellow policemen had his rifle’s bayonet pointed at the back of her head. The scene seemed frozen in time, a still picture. It will be in my mind always. No day goes by that the image doesn’t appear to me, sometimes when I get up in the morning; sometimes before bed; sometimes in my nightmares. Even while I’m trying to make love it will flash into my mind, which immediately destroys all passion.
Then the rifle jerked just as I heard the shot, and blood and brain tissue splattered from the girl’s head.
I looked back at the woman on the ground in front of me. I already had my rifle’s bayonet pointed at her head and she still had not made a sound. I stood there for minutes, unable to move, unable to pull the trigger, barely able to breathe. When I did, I smelled gunpowder on the breeze, and something else I hadn’t smelled before. Maybe it was the smell of death, emanating from its executioners and their victims.
I heard more shots, but still I could not pull the trigger.
Finally, I patted her shoulder. She turned her head and looked up at me with empty eyes. I think she was already dead, but for the physical act. I collapsed next to her, pulled her into my arms, and cried, rocking my whole body. My tears seemed pulled from deep inside me, from my soul.
At first, the woman just hung in my arms as though also physically dead. Then she slowly put her arms around my shoulders and held me as well, without a sound, with no tears of her own. She pushed away after a couple of minutes, looked at the tears in my eyes, and for a brief moment her eyes came alive. In one quick motion of her hand, she removed her shawl. She wiped my tears away with it, and then shoved it inside my coat.
I heard another shot nearby. Neuberger, a fellow policeman, came over and grabbed my sleeve and shook it. He hissed, “What are you doing, Schmidt?”
I gently released the woman and she turned to lay back on her stomach. I got up in a daze. Without looking at Neuberger, holding the rifle listlessly in one hand, I plodded away, heading back to the field.
I heard a shot behind me as I passed by Unteroffizier Hermann.
I saw Oberleutnant Schaefer chatting with an officer of the auxiliary guard company that had brought the Jews to the field. They watched the progress of the cleansing operation while they spoke. I approached the oberleutnant, saluted, weakly apologized for interrupting him, and asked, “May I be excused, sir? I don’t feel well.”
The other officer looked away. Oberleutnant Schaefer gave me a steely look for what seemed like minutes, and finally ordered in a cold voice, “Stand at attention here until we’re all done with our work.”
The other policemen stared at me as each emerged from the woods to get another Jew. Shots from the woods were almost continuous, some muffled, some sharp. The light breeze carried the gun smoke into the field, and with it again the hint of death. Everything went as smoothly as it did for a Berlin speech by Hitler. There were no voices, no screams, no yells. It was like a silent movie with the offstage piano music replaced by staccato rifle shots.
After a while there were no more Jews left in the field, and our trucks returned and parked near me. With a sharp motion of his hand, the oberleutnant released me to join the others as they clambered into the trucks. No one spoke with me as we returned; no one looked at me. In the barracks, no one came near me. I just lay on my bunk staring at the ceiling, the image of the girl I had seen shot mixed in my mind with that of the woman who wiped away my tears.
An orderly came in, silently strode up to me, and gave me several papers. One was an order for me to be trucked to the local train station, another was an order for my passage to Lübeck, and the third was my pass. I was to depart within the hour.
Back home, I was reassigned to a police battalion largely made up of old and middle-aged men exempt from “exterminating vermin,” and from the front lines. I never got a promotion, of course. Word went around that I was unpatriotic, so many of the townspeople shunned my family.
I survived the war, saved all the money I could, and with my police contacts, played the black market for American dollars.
Four years after that day in the woods near Plock, I calmly walked into the law office of former Oberleutnant Hans Schaefer. Without a word to his secretary, I opened the door to his inner office and approached the astonished Schaefer, just as I had approached him in that unforgettable field, years ago. He was sitting at his huge mahogany desk, eyebrows arched, small eyes round and staring, his thin lips slightly parted, surprised by the unannounced intrusion. On seeing me, he put both hands palm down on top of his desk as though about to push his corpulent body up.
Before he could rise fully, I strode quickly behind him, jerked his head back, and sliced into his throat with my old bayonet. Blood spurted.
I pulled the still gasping Schaefer onto the floor. When he was finally still, I rolled his body face up. From my pocket, I pulled the shawl I had carried with me since that murdered Jewish woman had given it to me. I draped it over Schaefer’s open, unseeing eyes.

One Response to The Shawl

  1. Mike says:

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