Not long afterward Heydrich had me carry an order to Major General Odilo Globocnik, SS commander of the Lublin district. I cannot remember whether Heydrich gave me the actual message or whether I had to draw it up. It ordered Globocnik to start liquidating a quarter million Polish Jews.
Later that year I watched my first execution. It was at Minsk, then recently come under German occupation. I was sent by my immediate superior, General Müller. Müller never stirred from behind his desk at Gestapo headquarters but he knew everything that went on in Europe. He liked to send me around on his behalf. I was in effect a traveling salesman for the Gestapo, just as I had once been a traveling salesman for an oil company in Austria.
Müller had heard that Jews were being shot near Minsk, and he wanted a report. I went there and showed my orders to the local SS commander. "That's a fine coincidence, " he said. "Tomorrow 5,000 of them are getting theirs."
When I rode out the next morning, they had already started, so I could see only the finish. Although I was wearing a leather coat which reached almost to my ankles, it was very cold. I watched the last group of Jews undress, down to their shirts. They walked the last 100 or 200 yards -- they were not driven -- then they jumped into the pit. It was impressive to see them all jumping into the pit without offering any resistance whatsoever. Then the men of the squad banged away into the pit with their rifles and machine pistols.
Why did the scene linger so long in my memory? Perhaps because I had children myself. And there were children in the pit. I saw a women hold a child of a year or two into the air, pleading. At that moment all I wanted to say was, "Don't shoot, hand over the child...." Then the child was hit.
I was so close that later I found bits of brains spattered on my long leather coat. My driver helped me remove them. Then we returned to Berlin.
The Gestapo chauffeurs did not like to drive me, principally because I rarely spoke more than 20 words during a 12-hour trip, as for instance the long haul from Berlin to Paris. On this trip back from Minsk I spoke hardly a word. I was thinking. Not that I had become contemptuous of National Socialism after watching this previously unimaginable event. I was reflecting on the meaning of life in general.
Having seen what I had in Minsk, I said this when I reported back to Müller: "The solution, Gruppenführer, was supposed to have been a political one. But now that the Führer has ordered a physical solution, obviously a physical solution it must be. But we cannot go on conducting executions as they were done in Minsk and, I believe, other places. Of necessity our men will be educated to become sadists. We cannot solve the Jewish problem by putting a bullet through the brain of a defenseless women who is holding her child up to us."
Müller did not answer. He just looked at me in a fatherly, benevolent fashion. I never could figure him out.
Later in that same winter Müller sent me to watch Jews being gassed in the Litzmannstadt [Lodz] area of central Poland. I must stress that the gassing was not done on his orders, but Müller did want to know about it. He was a very thorough government official.
Arriving at Litzmannstadt, I drove out to the designated place where a thousand Jews were about to board buses. The buses were normal, high-windowed affairs with all their windows closed. During the trip, I was told, the carbon monoxide from the exhaust pipe was conducted into the interior of the buses. It was intended to kill the passengers immediately.
A doctor who was there suggested that I look at the people inside one bus through a peephole in the driver's seat. I refused. I couldn't look. This was the first time that I had seen and heard such a thing and my knees were buckling under me. I had been told that the whole process took only three minutes, but the buses rode along for about a quarter of an hour.
We reached our destination and hell opened up for me for the first time. The bus in which I was riding turned and backed up before a pit about two meters deep. The doors opened. Some Poles who stood there jumped into the buses and threw the corpses into the pit. I was badly shaken by what I then saw. Another Pole with a pair of pliers in his hand jumped into the pit. He went through the corpses, opening their mouths. Whenever he saw a gold tooth, he pulled it out and dumped it into a small bag he was carrying.
When I reported back to Müller in Berlin, he chided me for not having timed the procedure with a stop watch. I said to him, "This sort of thing can't go on. Things shouldn't be done this way." I admitted I had not been able to look through the peephole. This time, too, Müller behaved like a sphinx. He forgave me, so to speak, for not having looked. Perhaps "forgive" sounds like an odd expression here.
The executions at Litzmannstadt and Minsk were a deep shock to me. Certainly I too had been aiming at a solution of the Jewish problem, but not like this. Of course, at that time I had not yet seen burned Germans, Germans shrunken like mummies in death. I had yet to see the heavy, imploring eyes of the old couple in a Berlin air raid shelter who lay crushed beneath a beam, begging me to shoot them. I couldn't bear to shoot them, but I told my sergeant to do so, if he could. If I had known then the horrors that would later happen to Germans, it would have been easier for me to watch the Jewish executions. At heart I am a very sensitive man. I simply can't look at any suffering without trembling myself.
May 29, 1998