London - Blonde German housewife Erna Petri was returning home after a shopping trip in town when something caught her eye: six small, nearly naked boys huddled in terror by the side of the country road. Married to a senior SS officer, the 23-year-old knew instantly who they were. They must be the Jews she’d heard about — the ones who’d escaped from a train taking them to an extermination camp.
But she was a mother herself, with two children of her own. So she humanely took the starving, whimpering youngsters home, calmed them down and gave them food to eat.
Then she led the six of them — the youngest aged six, the oldest 12 — into the woods, lined them up on the edge of a pit and shot them methodically one by one with a pistol in the back of the neck.
This schizophrenic combination of warm-hearted mother one minute and cold-blooded killer the next is an enigma and one that — now revealed in a new book based on years of trawling through remote archives — puts a crueller than ever spin on the Third Reich.
Because Erna was by no means an aberration. In a book she tellingly calls Hitler’s Furies, Holocaust historian Professor Wendy Lower has unearthed the complicity of tens of thousands of German women — many more than previously imagined — in the sort of mass, monstrous, murderous activities that we would like to think the so-called gentler sex were incapable of.
The Holocaust has generally been seen as a crime perpetrated by men. The vast majority of those accused at Nuremberg and other war crimes trials were men. The few women ever called to account were notorious concentration camp guards — the likes of Irma Grese and Ilse Koch — whose evil was so extreme they could be explained away as freaks and beasts, not really “women” at all.
Ultra-macho Nazi Germany was a man’s world. The vast majority of women had, on Hitler’s orders, confined their activities to Kinder, Küche, Kirche — children, kitchen and church. Thus, when it came to responsibility for the Holocaust and other evils of the Third Reich, they were off the hook.
But that, argues Lower, is simplistic nonsense. Women were drawn into the morally bankrupt conspiracy that was Hitler’s Germany as thoroughly as men were — at a lower level, in most cases, when it came to direct action but guilty just the same.
Ironically, it was the professional carers who were the first to be caught in this evil web. From the moment the Nazis came to power and imposed policies of Aryan racial purity, countless nurses, their aprons filled with morphine vials and needles, routinely slaughtered the physically disabled and mentally defective.
Pauline Kneissler worked at Grafeneck Castle, a euthanasia “hospital” in southern Germany, and toured mental institutions selecting 70 “patients” a day. At the castle they were gassed, which she decided was not that bad because “death by gas doesn’t hurt”.
Meanwhile, midwives were betraying a whole generation of German women by reporting defects in unborns and newborns and recommending abortions and euthanasia, as well as sterilisation of mothers.
From the outset, Lower concludes, “women made cruel life-and-death decisions, eroding moral sensibilities”. A line had been crossed. It was no big step when the racial purification process turned to the Final Solution of exterminating millions of Jews.
That Jews were the enemy and their annihilation the answer was taken for granted by millions of women who would later deny knowing what was going on under their noses.
Lower, though, dubs them “primary witnesses of the Holocaust”.
The worst outrages took place in the ‘Wild East’, Hitler’s newly acquired (by military conquest) territories in Poland, Ukraine and other parts of overrun Russia. At least half a million young women joined in this colonisation process, and became accomplices to genocide on an unprecedented scale.
A mass of secretaries, for example, typed the orders to kill and filed the details of massacres. This placed them at the very centre of the Nazi murder machinery, but they, like so many others, chose to shut their eyes and benefit from their proximity to power.
But, picnicking in the country on their days off, how did they miss the mounds that hid mass graves, the gagging smell of rotting corpses? Whose clothes and possessions — plundered from ghettos or confiscated at camps and killing fields — did they think they were cataloguing for redistribution back home?
Trainloads of booty went back to Germany in what Lower calls “the biggest campaign of organised robbery in history”. And German women, she charges, were among its prime agents and beneficiaries.
Even more caught up in the criminal madness were administrators such as Liselotte Meier, who worked so closely with her strutting boss, an SS officer, that they were almost indistinguishable. She joined him on shooting parties in the snow, hunting and killing Jews for sport.
In the early phases of the Holocaust, massacres were generally by shooting. In her area of Belarus, she coordinated the arrangements with the executioners and even decided who lived and who died.
She spared the life of the Jewish woman who did her hair, while another secretary removed from a woman from the death line who hadn’t yet finished the sweater she was knitting for her.
Secretaries had another important role, too. After each operation, it was usual for the SS killers, many of them drunk on schnapps, to seek solace in the women’s quarters, whether for sexual release or a shoulder to cry on after the exertions of mass execution. In support of the men, women even manned refreshment tables during executions so the killers could take a break.
But much worse than these active accomplices were the women who killed — often the wives of SS officers. Erna Petri — callous dispatcher of those six Jewish boys — was one such Frau. She had followed her husband to Poland and lived in a mansion overseeing a vast estate for the Race and Resettlement Office of the SS, with “sub-human” Slavs as slaves.
Another SS wife, Lisel Willhaus, wife of a camp commandant, used to sit on the balcony of their house and take pot shots at Jewish prisoners with her rifle.
Also in Poland was Vera Wohlauf, whose husband Julius commanded a police battalion ordered in 1942 to round up 11 000 Jewish inhabitants of a small town for transportation to Treblinka for liquidation.
She sat by her husband in the front seat of the lorry that led a convoy of killers to the town, and stood in the market square brandishing a whip as nearly a thousand who resisted the round-up or collapsed in the summer heat were beaten to death or shot.
She was pregnant at the time, a further incongruity.
In the Ukraine, 22-year-old secretary Johanna Altvater played an even more prominent role in a massacre while working for regional commissar Wilhelm Westerheide.
During the liquidation of a Jewish ghetto, Fräulein Hanna, as she was known, was seen in her riding breeches prodding men, women and children into a truck “like a cattle herder”.
She marched into a building being used as a makeshift hospital and through the children’s ward, eyeing each bed-ridden child. Then she stopped, picked one up, took it to the balcony and threw the child to the pavement three floors below. She did the same with other children. Some died, and even those who survived were seriously injured.
Her speciality — or, as one survivor put it, her “nasty habit” — was killing children. One observer noted that Altvater often lured children with sweets. When they came to her and opened their mouths, she shot them in the mouth with the small pistol that she kept at her side.
On another occasion, she beckoned a toddler over, then grabbed him tightly by the legs and slammed his head against a wall as if she were banging the dust out of a mat.
She threw the lifeless child at the feet of his father, who later testified: “Such sadism from a woman I have never seen. I will never forget this.”
Close to the mass-shooting site where the ghetto inhabitants were herded to await their deaths, Westerheide and his deputies partied with some German women. Altvater was among the revellers, drinking and eating at a banqueting table amid the bloodshed.
Music playing in the background mixed with the sound of gunfire. From time to time, one of the Germans would get up, walk to the shooting site, kill a few people and then return to the party.
Violence to children was also the trademark of Gestapo wife and mother Josefine Block, who liked to carry a riding crop and lash out at prisoners waiting to be deported.
A little girl approached her, crying and begging for her life. “I will help you!” Block declared, grabbed the girl by the hair, smashed her with her fists, then pushed her to the ground and stamped on her head until she was dead.
Desperate Jewish parents often approached Block to ask for help, assuming that, as a young woman and mother, she’d be sympathetic.
But she would use her pram to ram Jews whom she encountered on the streets and was said to have actually killed a small Jewish child with it. Such treatment is an affront to any sense of humanity, let alone womanhood — all the more so because most of these crimes went unpunished.
Erna Petri was the exception and spent more than 30 years in prison. But all the others mentioned here were either tried and acquitted or released after questioning.
Their defence was often to play the helpless woman card and blame the men. “I was just a secretary,” pleaded Johanna Altvater. Meanwhile, the millions of other women who were complicit in these odious events got on with their lives after the war as best they could, as if the whole Hitler era had been a nightmare to be put aside and forgotten once everyone had woken up.
Yet the deep stain remains. Thirteen million women were actively engaged in the Nazi Party. Not all of these could have been innocent bystanders.
Lower says: “To assume that violence is not a feminine characteristic and that women are not capable of mass murder has obvious appeal: it allows for hope that at least half the human race will not devour the other, that it will protect children and so safeguard the future.
“But minimising the violent behaviour of women creates a false shield.”
At least half a million women, she says, witnessed and contributed to the operations and terror of Hitler’s genocidal war. “The Nazi regime mobilised a generation of young women who were conditioned to accept violence, to incite it, and to commit it.
“This fact has been suppressed and denied by the very women who were swept up in the regime and by those who perpetrated the violence with impunity.
“But genocide is also women’s business. When given the ‘opportunity’, women too will engage in it, even its bloodiest aspects.”
For those tempted to think that things are different now, consider those shocking photographs earlier this month of a beheading in the Syrian bloodbath.
What was even more gut-wrenching than the gore was to see children looking on, unperturbed, drawn into a terrifying topsy-turvy morality, just as German mothers and children were 80 years ago.
Perhaps, too, the executioner wielding the sword went home to a wife who mopped his brow, in the same way as Hitler’s firing squads did. The lesson of the atrocities of the Holocaust is that they are not something of the past to be filed away and forgotten, but still very much with us. - Daily Mail
* Hitler’s Furies: German Women In The Nazi Killing Fields by Wendy Lower is published by Chatto & Windus