While we partake in many discussions throughout the year about Holocaust history, it is always exciting to be able to explore important new research with those who are conducting it. This Wednesday, October 9, we’re honored to welcome Wendy Lower, the author of the groundbreaking book Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields which has been long listed for the National Book Award. We hope you will join us.
Below, please find an excerpt.
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields
By Wendy Lower
In the summer of 1992 I bought a plane ticket to Paris, purchased an old Renault, and drove with a friend to Kiev over hundreds of miles of bad Soviet roads. We had to stop often. The tires blew on the jagged pavement, there was no gas available, and curious peasants and truckers wanted to look under the hood to see a Western automobile engine. On the single highway stretching from Lviv to Kiev, we visited the town of Zhytomyr, a center of Jewish life in the former Pale of Settlement, which during the Second World War had become the headquarters of Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust. Down the road to the south, in Vinnytsia, was Adolf Hitler’s Werwolf compound. The entire region was once a Nazi playground in all its horror.
Seeking to build an empire to last a thousand years, Hitler arrived in this fertile area of Ukraine—the coveted breadbasket of Europe—with legions of developers, administrators, security officials, “racial scientists,”and engineers who were tasked with colonizing and exploiting the region. The Germans blitzkrieged eastward in 1941, ravaged the conquered territory, and evacuated westward in defeat in 1943 and 1944. As the Red Army reoccupied the area, Soviet officials seized countless pages of official German reports, files of photographs and newspapers, and boxes of film reels. They deposited this war booty and classified the “trophy” documents in state and regional archives that would remain behind the Iron Curtain for decades. It was this material that I had come to Ukraine to read.
In the archives in Zhytomyr I came across pages with boot footprints and charred edges. The documents had survived two assaults: a Nazi scorched-earth evacuation that included the burning of incriminating evidence, and the destruction of the city during the fighting of November and December 1943. The files contained broken chains of correspondence, tattered scraps of paper with fading ink, decrees with pompous, illegible signatures left by petty Nazi officials, and police interrogation reports with the shaky scrawls of terrified Ukrainian peasants.
I had seen many Nazi documents before, while comfortably ensconced in the microfilm reading room of the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. But now, seated in the buildings that had been occupied by the Germans, I discovered something besides the rawness of the material I was sifting through. To my surprise, I also found the names of young German women who were active in the region as Hitler’s empire-builders. They appeared on innocuous, bureaucratic lists of kindergarten teachers. With these leads in hand, I returned to the archives in the United States and Germany and started to look more systematically for documentation about German women who were sent east, and specifically about those who witnessed and perpetrated the Holocaust. The files began to grow, and stories started to take shape.
Researching postwar investigative records, I realized that hundreds of women had been called to testify as witnesses and that many were very forthcoming, since prosecutors were more interested in the heinous crimes of their male colleagues and husbands than in those of women. Many of the women remained callous and cavalier in their recounting of what they had seen and experienced. One former kindergarten teacher in Ukraine mentioned “that Jewish thing during the war.” She and her female colleagues had been briefed as they crossed the border from Germany into the eastern occupied zones in 1942. She remembered that a Nazi official in a “gold-brownish uniform” had reassured them that they should not be afraid when they heard gunfire— it was “just that a few Jews were being shot.”
If the shooting of Jews was considered no cause for alarm during the war, then how did women respond when they actually arrived at their posts? Did they turn away, or did they want to see or do more?
Excerpted from HITLER’S FURIES: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower. Copyright © 2013 by Wendy Lower. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.