The Bila Tserkva massacre was the mass murder of Jews by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen and its Ukrainian auxiliaries in Bila Tserkva, Ukraine, in August 1941. The adult Jewish population had already been killed, and when several soldiers complained that a number of children were about to be executed as well, they reported the matter to four chaplains, who passed along their own protests to officials of the Wehrmacht, which was the only time during the World War II that Wehrmacht chaplains tried to prevent an Einsatzgruppen massacre.
In August 1941, General Walther von Reichenau, commander of the 6th Army of Nazi Germany, ordered his men to assist the Einsatzgruppen and its Ukrainian auxiliaries with killing the Jews of Bila Tserkva. Over the course of the following days, virtually the entire adult Jewish population of Bila Tserkva was shot. All that remained were the children and a few of the women, who were dumped off at a school to await execution. As the task of shooting children was psychologically difficult, none of the Germans present were willing to shoot them, so the job was assigned to the Ukrainians. It took several days for the SS to recruit enough Ukrainians to shoot the children with promises of extra pay and free vodka.
Several soldiers were disturbed by the crying of the children and infants at the school, and asked their chaplains what to do. The two chaplains attached to the 295th Infantry Division, the Catholic Father Ernst Tewes and the Lutheran Pastor Gerhard Wilczek, visited the school. They were appalled by the condition of the frightened, hungry children. The chaplains asked the local army commander to free the children, but he refused. Father Tewes later reported he "turned out to be a convinced anti-Semitic". Joined by two other chaplains from the 295th Division, a series of protest letters were sent to people in positions of authority asking that the children of Bila Tserkva be spared. The chaplains won over staff officer Lieutenant-Colonel Groscurth to their cause. He ordered a postponement of the planned massacre of the children. In areas near the front, the Einsatzgruppen were under Army command, so when Colonel Groscurth ordered the massacre to be delayed, the local Einsatzkommando leader had no choice but to comply. Ultimately, General von Reichenau himself intervened and ordered the executions to go ahead. After receiving a protest letter from two of the chaplains, Reichenau wrote in response:
The conclusion of the report in question contains the following sentence: "In the case in question, measures against women and children were undertaken which in no way differ from atrocities carried out by the enemy about which the troops are continually being informed".
I have to describe this assessment as incorrect, inappropriate and impertinent in the extreme. Moreover this comment was written in an open communication which passes through many hands.
It would have been far better if the report had not been written at all.
Father Tewes later recalled, "All those we wanted to save were shot. Because of our initiative it just happened a few days later than planned".
One SS man who saw the subsequent murders on 21 August 1941 described them as follows:
I went to the woods alone. The Wehrmacht had already dug a grave. The children were brought along in a tractor. I had nothing to do with this technical procedure. The Ukrainians were standing around trembling. The children were taken down from the tractor. They were lined up along the top of the grave and shot so that they fell into it. The Ukrainians did not aim at any particular part of the body. They fell into the grave. The wailing was indescribable. I shall never forget the scene throughout my life. I find it very hard to bear. I particulary remember a small fair-haired girl who took me by the hand. She too was shot later ... The grave was near some woods. It was not near the rifle-range. The execution must have taken place in the afternoon at about 3:30 or 4:00. It took place the day after the discussions at the Feldkommandanten ... Many children were hit four or five times before they died.
The protests at Bila Tserkva were unique as being the only time during the war that Wehrmacht chaplains tried to prevent an Einsatzgruppen massacre. The American historian Doris Bergen wrote that all four chaplains involved in the protest were aware that Jewish adults were being killed, and only protested when they learned that children were to be shot. Bergen further observed the "terrible irony" that a gesture of protest further served the genocidal aims of the regime; the soldiers who were troubled by the crying of the children waiting for their time to die felt that they had "dealt with" this issue by "doing something", namely appealing to Father Tewes and Pastor Wilczek, and that they had no further role to play in this matter.
- Bergen, Doris (2001). "Between God and Hitler: German Military Chaplains and the Crimes of the Third Reich". In Bartov, Omer; Mack, Phyllis. In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century. New York: Berghahn Books. pp. 123–138. ISBN 1571813020.
- Klee, Ernst; Dressen, Willi; Riess, Volker (1991). "The Good Old Days" – The Holocaust as Seen by its Perpetrators and Bystanders. Trans. Burnstone, Deborah. New York: MacMillan. ISBN 0-02-917425-2. (originally published as Klee, Ernst; Dreßen, Willi; Rieß, Volker (Hrsg.) (1988) (in German). Schöne Zeiten. Judenmord aus der Sicht der Täter und Gaffer.. Frankfurt / Main: S. Fischer. ISBN 978-3-10-039304-3. )
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