'They Really Do Smell Like Blood': Among Hitler's Executioners on the Eastern Front
As a young woman, Annette Schücking-Homeyer served as a Red Cross volunteer on the Eastern Front in Ukraine. In an interview with SPIEGEL, the retired judge discusses the horrors committed against the Jews there, how everyone knew about them and why, even after the war, most people just wanted to forget.
SPIEGEL: After World War II, most Germans denied having known about the Holocaust. From 1941 to 1943, you were a volunteer with the German Red Cross behind the lines on the Eastern Front. When did you discover that Jews were being murdered?
Annette Schücking-Homeyer: In the train on the way to the front. It was October 1941. I had been sent with another nurse to run a so-called soldiers' home in Zwiahel, a small city 200 kilometers (125 miles) west of Kiev. After Brest-Litovsk, two soldiers joined us in our compartment, but I don't remember whether they were with the SS or just regular soldiers. All of a sudden, one of them told us how he had been ordered to shoot a woman in Brest. He said the woman had begged for mercy, pleading that she had to take care of her handicapped sister. He had someone get the sister, and then he shot them both. We were horrified, but we didn't say anything.
SPIEGEL: Was the man trying to show off?
Schücking-Homeyer: I don't know.
SPIEGEL: Before you arrived in Zwiahel, the city's Jewish community -- which had numbered in the thousands -- was annihilated. When did you learn of this?
Schücking-Homeyer: On the day we got there, an older officer told us that there weren't any more Jews, that they were all dead and that their houses were empty.
SPIEGEL: Did the man tell you this in private?
Schücking-Homeyer: No, he told us at the dinner table. I described it in a letter I sent to my parents soon thereafter. I also wrote that other nurses had told me that I had shouted in my sleep: "But that's impossible, it's completely impossible, it's against all international laws."
SPIEGEL: What did the town look like?
Schücking-Homeyer: The houses that had belonged to the Jews were ransacked, and you could often find Hebrew texts lying in the dirt on the floors. We were told that we could find nice Jewish candlesticks there. One of the officers took one home with him.
SPIEGEL: Did you see any mass graves?
Schücking-Homeyer: One day, the director of the combat engineering staff offered to show us the historic fortifications of Zwiahel. He pointed to a spot on the bank of the Sluch River and said that 450 Jewish men, women and children were buried there. I didn't say anything in response.
SPIEGEL: Do you know how many people were killed in Zwiahel?
Schücking-Homeyer: A few local Ukrainian girls helped us out in the soldiers' home; they said 10,000 people had been murdered. In any case, it was a large number, as I realized a few weeks later when the National Socialist People's Welfare (NSV) opened a huge clothing warehouse in Zwiahel. Since our Ukrainian helpers always had so little to wear, one of the officers asked me if they wanted to have any of the clothes. So I went there with the girls. There was a lot of children's clothing. Some of our girls didn't want to take anything; others said "Heil Hitler" when thanking the soldiers. I wrote to my mother about it and immediately informed her nurses in Hamburg that under no circumstances should they take any clothing from the NSV -- because it was coming from murdered Jews.
SPIEGEL: Did you ever witness any of these crimes with your own eyes?
Schücking-Homeyer: No. But it almost happened once. Every week, I would travel to Rivne, about 100 kilometers away, to pick up food and beer for the soldiers' home. There was a large ghetto there. One day -- it was in July 1942 -- the brewery where many Jews had worked was closed for business. Then we drove through the ghetto, but it was deserted. It had apparently been cleared just a short time before. And then we saw Germans soldiers herding together women and children who had apparently been hiding. There was no doubt that they were about to be shot. When I got back to Zwiahel, I was still crying. All I wanted to do was go home.
SPIEGEL: Rivne saw several waves of murder, and thousands were killed. Do you know anything about the circumstances?
Schücking-Homeyer: I would often go to the office of the military administration in Rivne to pick up ration coupon books. The soldiers discussed the resettlements so nonchalantly that I had to ask. "What's this resettlement all about?" I would ask. "When do they find out about it…"
SPIEGEL: At that point, had you already figured out that "resettlement" was just a polite way of saying "murdering Jews"?
Schücking-Homeyer: Yes, but I don't remember exactly when and how I found out. At any rate, the people at the military administration in Rivne said: "We are notified on the evening before it happens that a resettlement is going to take place at a specific location, and that it could get violent. The locally stationed troops aren't supposed to worry about it or get involved." Today, we know that special task forces and police officers carried out the shootings.
SPIEGEL: Did you also talk to any of these men in the soldiers' home?
Schücking-Homeyer: I can't say. They were all wearing uniforms and did everything that normal soldiers do.
- 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'
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