'They Really Do Smell Like Blood' Among Hitler's Executioners on the Eastern Front
Part 2: 'Oh, What an Enormous Slaughterhouse the World Is'
SPIEGEL: On Nov. 5, 1941, you wrote to your parents: "What Papa says is true: people with no moral inhibitions exude a strange odor. I can now pick out these people, and many of them really do smell like blood. Oh, what an enormous slaughterhouse the world is." Did you think you could detect the murderers?
Schücking-Homeyer: Yes, at least I thought so at the time. If you are a master over life and death, you behave and move differently than other people do. You give off the impression that you are the one making all the decisions.
SPIEGEL: Did you avoid these men?
Schücking-Homeyer: Well, you could at least choose the people you wanted to talk to.
SPIEGEL: Your letters contain many passages like "But the Jews, who ran most of the shops, are all dead" or "There aren't any more Jews here in Zwiahel." You write nothing about killing or murder. Were you afraid you might be censored?
Schücking-Homeyer: Of course. You know, I was an anxious girl. I wrote to my mother -- who was completely different from me -- that she wouldn't have lasted there a day. And I'm sure she would've found a way to get away from there. By staying there, you were basically supporting the system. But I didn't know what reason I could give for wanting to leave, and I needed a permit to go back to Germany.
SPIEGEL: Do you think your family got your hints?
Schücking-Homeyer: Of course.
SPIEGEL: Could you talk about these things with the other nurses?
Schücking-Homeyer: No, we didn't discuss such things.
SPIEGEL: But did everyone know what was going on?
Schücking-Homeyer: I can't say for sure whether soldiers at the front knew. But everyone behind the lines -- and especially those who'd been there for a while -- knew about it.
SPIEGEL: What makes you so sure?
Schücking-Homeyer: Because, in conversation, it was always assumed that everyone knew. I haven't told you yet, but one day I was in a car with a sergeant named Frank. He said he was from Münster and that he was going to be part of a major campaign in the coming weeks in which people would be executed by firing squad. He said he was doing it because he wanted a promotion. I told him not to do it, that he wouldn't be able to sleep afterwards.
Schücking-Homeyer: He did it anyway, and later he complained to me about not being able to sleep and about how bad he felt. "I told you so," I replied.
SPIEGEL: Why do you think he confided in you?
Schücking-Homeyer: Oftentimes, conversations with soldiers got personal fast. They were all men who hadn't been around women for a long time. There were the Ukrainian women, of course, but they couldn't talk to them -- and they all had an intense need to talk. On another occasion, I was riding in a truck when, all of a sudden, the driver started telling me that in Kasatin, a village southwest of Kiev, they had allowed several hundred Jews to go hungry for two days before shooting them to death because the firing squads had been busy working somewhere else.
SPIEGEL: And that was just something he said to you in private?
Schücking-Homeyer: Yes. But there was another story that everyone knew about. German farmers controlled the Zwiahel area, one of whom was a certain Mr. Nägel from Hesse. There was an oft-told story about how one time, when a group of Jews was being herded past the house, his housekeeper -- who was also a Jew -- laughed. He reportedly then pushed her into the line with the other Jews. It didn't take long for me to figure out that I was dealing with criminals.
SPIEGEL: You wrote to your mother: "Soon, I'll get to the point where I'm past all the justified outrage, and then it'll be much easier for me to process things. Even the most decent people here have already reached that point. Once you don't have to see everything -- and, in general, things are already over here -- you can forget. But I still get terribly upset when I see a child and know that it'll be dead in 2-3 days." It reads as if you were searching for a way to deal with the horrible things that were happening.
Schücking-Homeyer: I don't remember exactly. I might have also written that to mislead the censors.
SPIEGEL: Of course, your letters also contain passages that lead one to believe that you let yourself be infected by your surroundings.
Schücking-Homeyer: No. My father had been an attorney, but he had been barred from practicing since 1933, so I was very afraid of censorship. I was never an anti-Semite. On the contrary, on several occasions later in the war, we helped out persecuted Jews.
- Part 1: Among Hitler's Executioners on the Eastern Front
- Part 2: 'Oh, What an Enormous Slaughterhouse the World Is'
- Part 3: 'Former Nazis Were Everywhere'