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Reflecting on our Time in Poland

Eisenbeiβ, Erhard. "Reflecting on our Time in Poland." Mitteilungsblatt des Bessarabiendeutschen Vereins, April 2012, 21.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.


On the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazis’ concentration camp at Auschwitz, Reich-Ranicki spoke to the Bundestag [the Federal German Parliament’s Lower House]. The title which the newspaper Die Volksstimme [Voice of the People] gave its report on the speech was, “Reich-Ranicki Shocks the Bundestag.” His gist of main statements was: “The resettlement of the Warsaw Jews to points eastward such as Auschwitz and Treblinka had only one purpose – death.”

Who of our countrymen knows about Poland and its history?

Between 1942 and 1945 I lived in the “General-Gouvernement” and in the Warthegau [respectively, the large district of Poland controlled by German occupation groups, and the district dominated by the river Warthe – Tr.]. German occupation of Poland during World War II had begun with the German Wehrmacht’s campaign into Poland that began on September 1, 1939. Pursuant to the secret supplemental agreement of the Hitler-Stalin Pact dated August 23, 1939, Soviet troops also marched into Poland. With that German-Soviet Border and Friendship Pact, the two major powers essentially carved up the Polish state between themselves. Accordingly, western Poland came under German occupation or was partially subsumed into the German Reich [Empire]. And after Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, even parts of eastern Poland would be occupied by the Germans, and civilian German administration would be expanded.

No country was subject to German occupation longer than Poland. More than three million Jews were living in Poland. From there the National Socialists [Nazis] conducted their Volkstumskampf [somewhat loosely rendered, the struggle for ethno-nationalist ideals– Tr.], which resulted in millions of civilian victims. The conquered territory, part of the planned Lebensraum [expansionist space] in the East, was exploited economically and settled with ethnic Germans while the local population was being deported en masse.

With the onset of WW II in September of 1939, Reserve Battalion 101, a military unit of the Nazi Ordnungspolizei [nominally, an active arm of the police for keeping order] crossed the political border [into a military role]. Members of this unit were directly involved in the extermination of at least 38,000 Jews.

In 1942 the unit was stationed in Zamose, where our Hoffnungstalers were resettled. In the 2009 Heimatkalender (p. 80) a village farm leader describes how, as part of an SS campaign of retaliation, an entire village was destroyed. He was forced to inspect the results and, later that day, to gather the cattle. In the so-called General Gouvernement, between 1942 and 1943, thirty-four other villages were treated similarly for resistance and partisan activities.

I talked about the above with Herbert Müller, a Bessarabian from Hoffnungstal and my former HJ [Hitler Youth] leader. He said, “You don’t know the whole truth. The members of Battalion 101 were given license to kill. There was a quota, namely, a requirement that for every German killed a certain number of Poles were also to be killed. And if there were not enough Poles to satisfy the norm in a specific village, Jews were brought from the ghetto and shot along with the others.” [I then asked,] “Herbert, as my Hitler Youth leader you taught me that for a Hitler Youth member there was no higher calling than to serve the fatherland and the Führer; to work, to fight, to win and, if need be, to die for them.” [He replied,], “My dear Erhard, in the system of that time it was our task to teach exactly that, and we fulfilled our duty.” We can only be grateful that by the grace of God we were born a little late, which made it possible for my own generation not to carry any such guilt.

 [Former German Chancellor] Helmut Kohl opened his eagerly awaited remarks to the Knesset in Israel on January 24, 1984 as follows: “I am speaking to you as one who could not incur guilt under Nazi times, because due to the grace of God I was born later and had the fortune of having a specific set of parents.”

Forgetting, suppressing, denying and allocating blame –all of these have been part and parcel of superficial self-presentation for generations. This applies to my generation as well. The experiences, insights, and practical knowledge we have assumed from our grandparents, parents and teachers have all shaped us. And it must not be overlooked that the result of this process includes a great deal of room for blaming others. There have been and, in my experiences, there have always been enthusiasts and conformers – something that is not likely to change. Bessarabians were farming leaders, mayors, Hitler Youth leaders, and military guards, and that cadre of people embodied active support for National Socialism. Conformers did their duty and did no harm to National Socialism. My generation and the ones after ours are not responsible for Auschwitz and all the killing, yet it remains our duty to keep up our awareness of those events, of the perpetrators, and of the victims, and never to forget that responsibility.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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