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Why were Jewish women and children killed

LAURENCE REES: Why was the decision made to kill Jewish women and children, and not only men?

OMER BARTOV: Well, I would preface that by saying that having just in the last few years looked at a lot of such cases in small towns in Eastern Galicia, which is now Western Ukraine, and before that Eastern Poland, how things transpire is not so much, it seems, that the Einsatzgruppen and other police units are killing male Jews because they see them in any way as part of an enemy structure, but rather as elites. They kill what they call the intelligentsia and they seem to be killing them because they think then it will be easier to control the rest of the community. Those are people who could be leaders of the community. They kill doctors, they kill lawyers, they kill anyone who has some sort of standing within their own community. The mass killing in many of the communities that I’ve examined, apart from a few cases, begins only in spring 1942. So there are several mass shootings.

There’s an infamous case in an area now called Ivano Frankivsk in the Ukraine where about 10,000 Jews are shot in one day in the cemetery, and that’s already in summer 1941. But in many communities the vast majority of the population remains alive until spring of 1942, and then the mass killings begin, first with transportation to the designated extermination facilities and then later on mass killings on the spot. Why do they it? Or how does one cross that line? Well, that’s a question that is terribly difficult to answer. My sense is that the men in charge of that are completely aware that their goal is to do away with Jewish communities, even as they march into the Soviet Union. They are then told to carry that out, and many of them are strongly motivated by an internalised sense that Jews have to be wiped out as the Jews are major enemies of Germany. While you and I can say, well, how can you throw babies out of balconies and smash them, which was happening all over the place, they seem to see that differently. It is something that I cannot come up with a perfect explanation for; there is a brutalisation of these people, clearly, some of them have sadistic inclinations, but many of them are policemen, have worked as policemen before, they’ve probably helped old ladies cross the street before, and are relatively decent human beings like you and I, but they have become persuaded that the specific population that they are targeting has to be wiped out.

I do not subscribe to the idea that they’re only following orders, because there is an immense amount of gratuitous brutality going on there and they are helped by large parts of the local population. One has to remember that in many of those areas German security forces are spread very thin and so you would have 20 policemen in an area in which about 60,000 Jews were killed. These 20 policemen did not do all the killing; they had local militias, local police units, and in the area of Galicia these are Ukrainians who are doing much of the work for them. And so there is an atmosphere, a social atmosphere, around, that there’s a group of people that should be hunted down and done away with, however one feels personally about this or that individual.

LAURENCE REES: There is a suggestion that one reason the killing expanded from male Jews to women and children was because the women and children could not support themselves without the males. To what extent is this a credible view?

OMER BARTOV: To a very limited extent, I would say. In some cases there are some documents that actually say that; particularly regarding ghettos. The argument has been made about Belarus by a German historian, Christian Gerlach. My own sense, if you look at what happens in local communities, is that it is simply not true. These people could provide for themselves, and they did provide for themselves for a lengthy period of time, despite the fact that it was very difficult to do so. And they do that by all kinds of means. These are very poor areas, they sell whatever they have to peasants who come there in their carts to buy a ring or to buy a piece of clothing and they sell them some milk and they sell them some meat. So I don’t think this was being used by the Germans to justify to themselves what they were doing in many of those communities; I found very little evidence of that.

The people in ghettos, whether they’re enclosed ghettos or in many of the small towns that are not enclosed ghettos, there’s no fence, it’s just that if you walk out and you are recognised you might be shot. You probably would be. But there’s no fence, there are no real guards standing around; these people can provide for themselves and every once in a while, say, every Thursday, the German police come from another town with their Ukrainian militia and they do what they called an ‘action’ and they kill whoever they can kill, whoever they find. And other people hide in bunkers and then when the ‘action’ is over they come out of the bunker and they live for another two, three weeks until there’s another ‘action’. Nobody’s looking there for justification, it’s not that you find German policemen sitting around saying, well, these people are hungry and all the men are gone already; it does not work according to that logic. It may be like that in higher levels when people are exchanging memos, but on the ground I really believe that this has a completely different dynamic. It’s not a dynamic even of trying to sound humanitarian to oneself, however warped that might sound.

LAURENCE REES: So, essentially, it’s the dynamic of hate?

OMER BARTOV: It is a dynamic of hate, they despise these people. I should add another important element of this which has been largely ignored; it’s a dynamic of intimate relations. In many of these communities, and we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of communities, we’re speaking about half of the total number of Jews who were murdered, the perpetrators, the collaborators, the resistors and the people who give rescue, the people who are hiding know each other, know each other by name, which is to a large extent also the reason for this kind of gratuitous violence that you find ultimately when they come to kill. When I started studying this in the 1990s, this was at the time of the genocide in Rwanda and of the mass killing in Bosnia where you found precisely this kind of dynamic: people who had been neighbours, who had gone to the same school together, whose children had played together and who then kill each other. You find that in these communities. These are people who know each other by name. I have, for instance, one example in the area that I’ve studied. One labour camp commandant who was a corporal in the Waffen SS, not a high ranking fellow, has to kill the people in the camp, and he needs to select a few to leave still alive to destroy the camp after most of the people are killed. And so everybody wants to be selected for that job because that would give them a few more hours or days to live and maybe then they would be able to escape. And they appeal to him because he’s standing in front of them. And one of them says I was your barber, I shaved you every day, please spare me. So he shoots him in the head. So these people know each other, it is very intimate, and ultimately it leads to this kind of particularly horrendous violence where you are killing people that you have gotten to know.