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Death and deception
Lies, rifle butts forced the innocent to killing grounds
Saturday May 6, 2000
Jeff Outhit

A group of young Soviet children just prior to their execution by an Einsatzkommando.

Members of Einsatzkommando 10a during the Second World War.

Helmut Oberlander was a Soviet citizen and ethnic German, 17 years old, when the Germans invaded Ukraine and overran his hometown in 1941.

He had been schooled for 10 years in German and Russian and also spoke Ukrainian. His language skills were useful to the invading Germans, who needed more interpreters.

Oberlander was attached to Einsatzkom-mando 10a, a unit of about 120 men within Einsatzgruppe D.

Federal prosecutors contend he joined German forces of his own accord in October 1941. Oberlander claims he was conscripted in February 1942.

He served EK 10a until the unit was dissolved in the summer of 1943.

The afternoon is fading. A six-ton van clatters into the courtyard of the children's home in Jeissk, occupied Ukraine.

It's Friday, Oct. 9, 1942, nearly 16 months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

The asylum on the outskirts of town is home to disabled and bedridden children, aged three to 17. Some healthy children live there also.

The truck has false windows painted on its sides to present a more cheery look.

Inside, a hose redirects exhaust fumes into its sealed cargo hold.

Members of a German police unit surround the building to prevent children from escaping.

Asylum officials are told the children are being taken to Krasnodar for medical treatment.

The children are assembled in the courtyard.

The smallest ones and those who cannot walk are carried out of the building.

Nurses cry.

Asylum workers, suspecting the worst, try in vain to prevent the children from being transferred.

Some children climb into the van themselves. There are no seats in the cargo hold. Others try to run away but are caught, beaten and thrown inside.

Volodia Goncharov tries to flee. Two men grab the child by his legs, his head toward the ground. They drag him out of the building and into the van.

The van doors are closed, sealing the crying children into the tin-lined cargo hold. The engine is fired up.

All the children perish inside the truck, killed by poisonous fumes, a Munich court later finds.

A second gassing the same day kills more children.

Such was a day's work for Einsatzkommando 10a, a Nazi killing unit tasked with slaughtering civilians.

The death squad will murder 214 children from the Jeissk asylum.

-- taken from a 1972 verdict of Munich State Court I.


Einsatzkommando members were mass murderers whose job was to kill perceived enemies of the German state and those deemed racially undesirable by the Nazis.

It's estimated they slaughtered more than a million civilians, mostly Jews, following the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. Other victims included Communists, Gypsies, invalids, and the mentally ill.

The Nazis handed the killing job to 18 einsatzkommando units, special police units that followed invading armies into the Soviet Union.

The killing units (also known as sonderkommandos) were highly mobile and ranged in size from 70 to 170 men. They often operated in sub-units called teilkommandos (part kommandos) that travelled all over the countryside.

The killing units operated under the umbrella of four einsatzgruppen (special groups) lettered A through D.

The five units of Einsatzgruppen D, including the Ek 10a unit that Helmut Oberlander served, operated in the southern Ukraine and Crimea.

It's estimated that Einsatzkommando 10a killed more than 23,020 people.

Written instructions for einsatzkommandos, received by officers within 10 days of the June 1941 German invasion, read thus:

The following categories are to be executed:

Comintern officials (as well as all professional Communist politicians); party officials of all levels; and members of the central, provincial and district committees;

people's commissars;

Jews in the party and state apparatus; and other extremist elements (saboteurs, propagandists, snipers, assassins, agitators, etc.).

In practice, the orders meant killing all Jews in the Soviet Union.

"It was understood that they would kill all the Jews, men, women and children, all the Gypsies, any Communist officials or others who were perceived as being a current or potential future threat to the Third Reich," says Benjamin Ferencz, who prosecuted 24 top Einsatzgruppen leaders in 1947 at Nuremberg.

Otto Ohlendorf led Einsatzgruppe D, which had 600 men.

The Allies hanged him in 1951 after Ferencz persuaded a Nuremberg court of his war crimes.

Highlights from Ohlendorf's Nuremberg testimony:

Question: In what respects, if any, were the official duties of the Einsatz groups concerned with Jews and Communist commissars?

Ohlendorf: The instructions were, in the Russian operational areas of the Einsatzgruppen the Jews, as well as the Soviet political commissars, were to be liquidated.

Q: And when you say liquidated do you mean killed?

Ohlendorf: Yes, I mean killed . . .

Q: Will you explain in detail to the Tribunal how an individual mass execution was carried out?

Ohlendorf: A local einsatzkommando attempted to collect all the Jews in its area by registering them. This registration was performed by the Jews themselves.

Q: On what pretext, if any, were they rounded up?

Ohlendorf: On the pretext they were going to be resettled.

Q: Will you continue?

Ohlendorf: After the registration, the Jews were collected at one place; and from there they were later transported to the place of execution, which was, as a rule, an anti-tank ditch or natural excavation. The executions were carried out in a military manner, by firing squads under command.

Q: In what way were they transported to the place of execution?

Ohlendorf: They were transported to the place of execution in trucks, only as many as could be executed immediately. In this way it was attempted to keep the span of time from the moment the victims knew what was about to happen to them until the time of their actual execution as short as possible . . .

Q: . . . For what reason were the children massacred?

Ohlendorf: The order was that the Jewish population should be totally exterminated.

Q: Including the children?

Ohlendorf: Yes

Q: Were all the Jewish children murdered?

Ohlendorf: Yes.

The Nazi death squads were led by intellectuals and professionals who quickly grasped how to be mass murderers.

In the first days after the June 1941 invasion, the squads encouraged local collaborators to conduct anti-Jewish pogroms.

These were horrific and bloody, but difficult to control and not always thorough.

The Germans also tended to spare women and children in their earliest executions.

Within a month, however, the death squads had turned to killing all Jews, using mass registration procedures, elaborate resettlement deceptions, and firing squads.

"That is generally taken . . . as the indication that the Nazis had gone over to seeking to wipe out the entire Jewish population," says Lawrence Stokes, a retired Dalhousie University historian who is studying Heinz Seetzen, the first commander of Einsatzkommando 10a.

Wartime Nazi dispatches reveal the earliest activities of Einsatzkommando 10a, when it was working with Romanian allies who had also invaded the U.S.S.R.

July 29, 1941

Einsatzkommando 10a:

Location: Iswary . . .

Report from the district Belzy . . .

During the night of July 11-12, a German military vehicle was fired at in Belzy.

Consequently 10 hostages were executed and a public announcement was made by the Rumanian police. During the evening of July 15, military vehicles were again fired at and 20 more hostages were dealt with by a summary court . . .

Rumanian police in and around Belzy act harshly against the Jews. The precise number of shootings cannot be ascertained. On the evening of July 15, the Kommando appropriately punished the Jewish Council of Elders in Belzy and other Jews totalling 45 for failing to comply with security police directives and as retribution for attacks on German military personnel.


Aug. 7, 1941

Einsatzkommando 10a

Location: Petschanka

Because of riots and attacks against the German Army, raids were carried out against Jews in Kodyma. In the course of these raids, 97 Jews were shot and 1,756 hostages taken. Hostages are taken in each new place, and they are executed on the slightest pretext. 9 Jews were shot in Yampol.

The Germans thought the Romanians unprofessional in their persecution of Jews because they didn't count or bury their victims.

Seetzen, the first commander of Einsatzkommando 10a, complained about Romanian sloppiness in a report to the German army in July, 1941.

In one room, a patrol last evening discovered 15 Jews, of different ages and both sexes, who had been shot by Romanian soldiers. Some of the Jews were still alive; the patrol shot them to death for mercy's sake.


It's autumn 1941 near Kachowka, in occupied Ukraine.

The harvested grain is drying in rows, piled into haystacks or rings of sheaves. There's not a village or barn in sight for kilometres.

Richard Togel, a German police officer, arrives at the remote site in a troop carrier with other members of Einsatzkommando 10a.

He's carrying his carbine. Other kommandos bring their pistols or submachine-guns.

The Jews have also been brought by truck. There are hundreds of men and women, maybe even a thousand.

Years later, Togel can't recall if there are any children.

The Jews are told to lie or kneel about 100 metres away from Togel in a depression that's been hollowed out by rain.

They're ordered to strip to their underclothes.

Ten at a time, they're brought forward, half-naked, to the edge of a hole that's six to seven metres deep, a well in the steppe.

Togel stands behind them with nine other men in an execution squad.

All the ammunition they need is kept ready in boxes.

It takes barely an afternoon to kill all the Jews.

"When they were shot, the people fell forwards into the well. Sometimes they were so frightened that they jumped in alive," Togel would later tell German investigators.

The firing squad is switched many times as shooters rotate duty.

All is not calm.

Women scream and weep. So do the men. Kommandos yell just as loudly to get them to stand above their grave.

Some victims try to escape but don't get far. They're beaten if they don't do as they're told.

A red-haired German policeman attacks victims with a length of cable and beats them if the action isn't going as it should. But many come to their deaths without resistance.

"It's not as if they had any alternative," Togel recalls.

The ground near the execution area is covered in blood.

There are bits of brain on the ground that victims step in as they're brought over.

By this time, they have realized what lays ahead for them.

They can hear the screaming and the shooting from where they've been kept waiting their turn.

Years later, Togel remembers that some of the executioners got drunk after killing all the Jews.

They must have been rewarded with a special ration of schnapps.

But he and some of the other shooters received nothing.

"I remember that we were very angry about that," he recalls.

-- taken from Richard Togel's 1965 statement to German investigators.


Einsatzkommando 10a moved quickly to round up Jews for killing under Heinz Seetzen's command.

On the heels of the invading army, squad members would enter an occupied town, head to the mayor's office, and start the process of registering Jews, usually within hours.

"I think they realized that the longer they were there, the more likely it was that the Jews were going to grasp that something they did not want to happen was going to happen to them," says Lawrence Stokes, the historian who is studying Seetzen's career.

The unit deceived doomed Jews by claiming they would be resettled.

"Usually they told (the Jews) they were going to resettle them . . . They would then show up the next day with a suitcase, or whatever they were allowed to take with them, and very often they ended up taking these things with them to the shooting place, so as not to upset them," Stokes says.

"And only at the shooting site did they take these things away from them, along with watches or any money they might have with them.

"And it's there that they forced them to get undressed."

Heinz Seetzen, who came to the death squad from the Gestapo, was a hard leader who is reputed to have ordered all Einsatzkommando 10a members to participate in executions.

Postwar prosecutors uncovered Seetzen's alleged execution order while investigating members of the death squad through the 1960s.

"He is quoted over and over again by different of these policeman, being interrogated, as having said that," Stokes says. "No one's got it in writing."


It's January, 1943. Einsatzkommando 10a commander Kurt Christmann is told in Krasnodar that men from a nearby Cossack village have joined anti-German partisans in the mountains.

Christmann, who has succeeded Heinz Seetzen in a transfer of unit command, takes some squad members to investigate in Maryanskaya, a village 35 kilometres west.

The kommandos take 60 villagers for questioning.

Some are later released but at least 31 are held under arrest, including several children.

Interpreters from the einsatzkommando help with interrogations.

Christmann decides to have the remaining prisoners killed.

To keep order among the victims and their anxious kin, interpreters claim that those under arrest are being taken to Krasnodar to work.

The prisoners are even told to bring along food for their children.

Many don't buy the deception. Some prisoners resist, but they're dragged away by Russian auxiliaries serving the einsatzkommando.

Women and children sob as prisoners are forced from their homes.

There are at least 13 women among the doomed. There's a disabled boy, 12, and his four-year-old sister. Two teenaged boys, 12 and 14, are among the prisoners.

None of the prisoners are anti-German partisans, a postwar German court later finds.

The prisoners are marched to the Kuban River, seven kilometres away. It's dusk, Jan. 19, 1943. The river has not frozen over but there are patches of ice on the shore.

Russians surround the prisoners so they cannot escape.

Christmann orders the prisoners to strip to their underwear. They're marched, five or six at a time, to a steep riverbank.

This way, he figures, their bodies will fall into the river, saving the work of burying them.

Many prisoners refuse to go. They're beaten with rifle butts and dragged to the riverbank.

At the riverbank, Germans and Russian auxiliaries open fire with carbines and submachine-guns.

Most victims fall into the river as planned. Those who do not fall are pushed over the slope.

Many are shot from behind, but at least two victims are shot between the eyes.

Christmann runs around, pistol in hand, giving orders as the massacre unfolds.

Prisoner Maria Tilikina jumps into the icy waters, hoping to save herself by swimming away. Executioners shoot at her from the shore.

She dies, from gunshot wounds or from drowning.

Half-naked victims wait their turn in the cold, listening and watching as family members die before them. They cry, scream and beg for mercy.

A 12-year-old disabled boy asks to be put out of his misery early.

"Shoot me right here," he begs a Russian auxiliary.

Darkness comes. The massacre has been completed. At least 31 villagers, but probably 42, are dead.

Christmann and other Einsatzkommando 10a members drive back to their Krasnodar headquarters.

Villagers learn the fate of their neighbours from Russian policemen who return from the river.

-- taken from a 1980 verdict of Munich State Court I.


Shooting was not the only way that the members of Einsatzkommando 10a killed Jews.

After December 1941, Nazi death squads began locking victims into special trucks and gassing them with exhaust fumes.

Nazi leaders thought gassing might prove less stressful to shooters.

They had found that some executioners fared poorly in killing women and children, because they tended to think of their own families.

The shooters would aim badly, missing their targets or leaving victims wounded and writhing on the ground.

Squad members would then have to go around firing into screaming victims.

It was not efficient.

To maintain the resettlement ruse and avoid alarming victims, the vans were disguised as family trailers.

Windows were painted on the sides, with curtains blowing in the breeze and flowerpots on the windowsills.

Suspicious Russians called the trucks soul killers.

In 1945, after the war had ended, Einsatzgruppe D chief Otto Ohlendorf described the gas vans used by Einsatzkommando 10a and other killing units under his command.

We had received orders to use the cars for killing women and children. Whenever a unit had collected a sufficient number of victims, a car was sent out for their liquidation. We also had these gas vehicles stationed in the neighbourhood of the transient camps in which the victims were brought. The victims were told that they would be resettled and had to cling to the vehicles for that purpose. When the doors were closed and the gas streamed in through the starting of the vehicles. The victims died within 10 to 15 minutes. The vans were then driven to the burial place, where the corpses were taken out and buried.


It's late 1942 or early 1943 in the occupied city of Krasnodar.

Prisoners held in the cellar of the Einsatzkommando 10a headquarters are ordered to strip to their underclothes.

They are told that they will be taken to baths.

At least two children younger than 10 are among the prisoners.

A six-ton truck backs up to within a metre of the cellar door. It can carry 30 people or more in its tin-lined cargo hold. There are no seats.

Unit commander Kurt Christmann is supervising.

"Move, move," he shouts to the harried prisoners.

Christmann sees the two children among the prisoners but does not stop the transfer.

He wants the cargo hold filled to capacity so the truck can do its job more quickly.

Prisoners are forced out the cellar door and into the truck, as many as the cargo hold can carry.

Their fate dawns on them.

Prisoners shout.

They cry.

Some try to resist.

But Russian auxiliaries, under German orders, strike them and force them into the van.

The driver closes the van doors.

He climbs into the cab and starts the engine.

The truck is left to idle near the cellar door in the courtyard.

Exhaust fumes invade the cargo hold.

Inside the truck, desperate prisoners shout and pound on the sides as the poison gas invades their air.

No one comes to their aid.

The hammering fades.

Eventually, there is silence.

When no more sound is heard, the truck pulls out of the courtyard and into the Krasnodar streets.

To citizens who do not know its cargo, it's just another clattering truck.

The playing card "10 of hearts" is painted on its outside, the identifying symbol of Einsatzkommando 10a.

The truck heads to anti-tank ditches outside Krasnodar, a 15-minute trip.

Russian auxiliaries throw open the doors, drag out the bodies, throw them in the ditches and cover them with earth.

In 1980, Christmann will be convicted for this massacre and for the murder of Maryanskaya villagers.

A Munich court will sentence him to 10 years in prison.

His predecessor in command, Heinz Seetzen, will commit suicide in Allied custody in Sept. 1945.

-- taken from a 1980 verdict of Munich State Court I.


Wartime Nazi dispatches to Berlin reveal that the combined units of Einsatzgruppe D killed at a rate of 316 victims per day from June 1941 through April 1942.

Highlights from those dispatches:

Feb, 18, 1942

In the northern parts of the Crimea particularly, the territory of the Security Police work, four Teilkommandos (partial units) are engaged in combing the area village by village. These are for the most part villages with 15 to 300 inhabitants, mainly Russians and Ukrainians. Apart from carrying out executions, the Teilkommandos set up advance message centres in the villages . . .

The search for isolated Jews who, up to now, have avoided being shot, by hiding or giving false personal data, was continued . . .

Between February 1 and 15, 1,451 people were executed, of which 920 were Jews, 468 Communists, 45 partisans, and 12 looters, saboteurs and associated elements.

The total to date: 86,632.


March 23, 1942

In the area of Dzankov alone, 241 Jews who had recently come there were arrested. 437 more were shot in other parts of the Crimea. In these activities, the system has shown itself very effective. The village elders, etc. constantly report to the Kommandos or Teilkommandos about strangers . . .

During the time under report, 2,010 people were shot, of them 678 were Jews, 359 Communist officials, 153 partisans, and 810 asocial elements, Gypsies, mentally ill and saboteurs. In addition, a number of Jews and Jewesses were arrested and shot in Orel. They had engaged in Communist propaganda in a particularly impertinent way and incited against the German army in an ugly manner ...


April 8, 1942

Except for the small units which occasionally show up in the northern Crimea, there are no more Jews, Krimchaks or Gypsies. As experiences of the past weeks have proven, wherever they have been able to hide their identity with false documents, etc., they will be recognized anyway sooner or later.

In the second half of March, a total of 1,501 people were executed.

Among these were:

588 Jews

405 Communists

247 partisans

261 asocial elements, including Gypsies

To date, 91,678 have been shot.


Sarra Gleykh is walking beside a trench filled with corpses.

Some are still alive, begging for another bullet to finish them off.

There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of bodies in the trench.

It stretches 500 metres.

Is that her mother, she wonders as she spies a grey-haired woman?

She tries to get closer but she's forced back into line by clubs.

There's an old man with his brains bashed out.

Maybe it's Papa?

She can't get any closer.

It's Oct. 20, 1941. Gleykh is walking to her grave, after being rounded up for the massacre of 8,000 Jews by members of Einsatzkommando 10a.

The kommandos forced Gleykh to walk 10 kilometres to the anti-tank ditches outside Mariupol.

Her elderly parents, her sister and her sister's grandson were put aboard trucks to make the same trip.

The Germans had said they would be resettled out of town.

The road from Mariupol to the execution site is muddy and miserable. Kommandos beat anybody who dares to stop walking.

Gleykh arrives at a state farm to discover a scene of senseless death.

She finds her sister Fanya. Fanya's grandson Vladya is with her but their parents cannot be found.

They are probably dead, Gleykh figures. Sending them by truck shortened their lives by a few hours.

It comes their turn to die.

Gleykh, her sister and the boy are ordered to strip to their underclothes.

They are searched for money and documents and they are herded out along the trenches.

They begin to say goodbye and even manage a kiss.

"Can it be that I will never again see the sun and light?" Fanya asks.

Little Vladya is confused. "Are we going to swim. Why are we undressed?" the boy asks. His grandmother takes him in her arms. It is too difficult for the little one to walk in the clay.

"I am dying calmly with him, because I know I am not leaving him an orphan," Fanya says.

Gleykh begins to scream. She cannot stand it any longer. But she will not die today.

Gleykh will awake under a pile of corpses at twilight.

She will crawl out from underneath the corpses, tearing the nails off her foot, dressed only in her bloody slip.

She will never find her sister.

But she will find a few others who have also survived the massacre. She will dodge the Germans who are shooting the wounded, and she will make her way to the safety of the Russian army. She will write about the murder of her family.

Gleykh hears babies crying as she slips away from the trench.

Many mothers held their babies in their arms as the kommandos shot them in the back.

The infants, protected by their mother's bodies, fell unharmed into the trenches.

They will be buried alive, under the corpses.

-- taken from the published diary of Sarra Gleykh.

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