- Historic Sites
“The So-called Charge Was Murder”
A young GI making the journey from war to peace, and from enmity to friendship, finds amid the most tremendous change smoldering embers of an old tyranny
June/July 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 3
“No, that was for my Scharführer . Sergeant. He got the Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth, had them dig a trench, and came and told me everything was ready. I had my office in some sort of little place that had been a municipal building of some type, and I went out, stood next to him, and told him to go ahead. He then ordered the men to fire.”
“Was he condemned to wear the red jacket also?”
“No, he was later killed. But that’s beside the point. I was the officer. It was my order and my responsibility. The Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth—”
For the only time in the course of the evening I displayed emotion. “Mr. Schubert,” I said, “why keep repeating the phrase? Can’t you just say ‘the people'?”
“Yes, yes, of course! The people,” he said eagerly. “Well, the people had been collected, we had about 40 or 45, and our supply lines had been interfered with, so I told him to take half, the 20 or so, and shoot them.”
“If you had them collected, how could they have interfered with the supply lines?”
Apart from the two of us, no one else did any talking. Karl and Luise were entirely silent. “Do you mean,” I said, “that these 20 or 22 were shot for something they didn’t do?”
“But where did you get these people? Just picked them up off the street and kept them ready until something happened to the supply lines?”
He laughed. “You’ve never been to Russia. One doesn’t find many streets there. But yes, that’s the general idea. They were hostages, you understand. Examples.”
I was more than a decade away from being the ex-college boy who had arrived in Germany on a troopship. I had read a lot about precisely the subject we were discussing. But I felt a little dazed, almost dizzy.
“Did they face you, or did you have them turn their backs?”
“My men aimed for the back of their heads.”
“Did you take their names?”
“No, never did that.”
“Did you talk with them?”
“Talk? What about?”
We were interrupted when a boy of around 15 came into the room. Introduced to me as the Schubert son, he said in schoolboy English that he had seen the Jaguar and had hoped to be offered a ride. He helped himself to a plate of pastries and went upstairs.
We recommenced our talk. “I thought it was usually cold in Russia,” I said. “Wasn’t it difficult for them to dig the trench?”
“It wasn’t always cold. Sometimes it was very warm. But when the ground was frozen, we simply stacked them up somewhere and waited till spring.”
“So this sort of thing, then, it went on year-round?” Something must have sounded in my tone, for it became his turn to show emotion.
“Mr. Smith!” he said. “Germany was at war! You are a historian. You will be interested in these matters and understand. Have you ever seen young girls, Mr. Smith, young German girls, nurses, 20 years old, have you ever seen such girls crucified up against the side of a barn, hammered on?”
“No, Mr. Schubert, you know I never have.”
“No. Of course you have not. But this is what we saw! Jews, Gypsies, partisans, and so forth had done this, you understand, and it was our duty to stop them!”
It came into my mind that he could not realize I was Jewish. But it seemed inconceivable that Karl and Luise would have neglected to tell him. “You know I’m Jewish, Mr. Schubert?”
“Did you ever know any Jews, except for the ones you ordered shot?”
“Certainly. My first boss, Dr. Wolf, the attorney, in Berlin. I was the office boy. ”
“What happened to Dr. Wolf?”
“He left Germany around 1938. Dr. Wolf was a fine man. A very fine man. I was glad he got out.”
“Do you think he would believe you were unjustly condemned to wear the red jacket?”
“Certainly he would.”
“But people who had done nothing were killed! If you were innocent, who was guilty? Your Standartenführer ?” That was the SS term for colonel.
“My Standartenführer ? Of course not. How could he be guilty?”
“Field Marshal von Manstein?”
“Field Marshal von Manstein!”
“Well, who? Hitler?”
He considered the matter. “Hitler—maybe,” he said.
We had been talking for around two hours. I had not asked how it came about that he was tried on the specific act he had described, or why he was now free. I suppose I just didn’t think to do so. I looked over at Karl and Luise, and they said it was time we got going.