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We are marching.
There are 850 of us, with the Wehrmacht boys (like me) in the middle, the askaris in front, and those SS a**holes at the very back, well out of danger.
We also have a captured French tank, called a Char B1bis, or just B1bis (char is French for tank. Bet you didn’t know that). It’s a huge machine, a couple tons of solid steel, and the thing has two guns. Two of them! One 20mm job in the turret, and 75mm piece mounted in the hull, and we’ve even added a machine-gun on the turret. It makes a gigantic racket, and it’s scary as hell. Unfortunately it’s not good for much else; it breaks down fairly often. And its field of vision is so limited that one smart infantryman can take it out.
But the Juden don’t know that, of course.
We are singing, too; our Oberleutenant has ordered us too. We ran through the Horst-Wessel-Lied (or Die Fahne Hoch, depending on your tastes) and are now on Es zittern die morschen Knochen. That’s the one that goes “Heute gehört uns Deutschland, morgen die ganze Welt!” Today we have Germany, tomorrow the whole world!
I always feel good when I sing that song. It makes me feel invincible. We are German soldiers! We have conquered Death! We sing our hearts out.
Now we are strolling down the main road, and the order comes: “March easy!” The ranks break their stiff lines, and we mingle, talking loudly and jangling our equipment. The more the Juden can hear us, the more scared they will be and that’s good. I don’t even know why we have come in and get them. From what I heard, they came quietly enough the other times.
Now my three good friends have managed to work their way, through the ranks, to beside me. Bayer is on my right, Dresner on my left, and somewhere in between, out of step (of course) is the recruit we’ve taken under our wing, Eichelberger.
Eichelberger is certainly an odd bird. He’s short, thin, and very pale, with a shock of black hair that flops over his forehead. When he talks, he almost yells, and gesticulates wildly with his hands. It’s almost comical to see him, especially as he can hardly handle his rifle; it’s about as tall as him and very heavy. Currently, he’s bobbing and weaving in and out of the line, talking excitedly to Bayer with one hand and barely holding onto his rifle with the other. Bayer keeps quiet. Half of what Eichelberger says is too fast to be heard anyway.
Dresner is trying to talk to me. He’s tall, very thin, and red-haired, with his rifle balanced precariously on his shoulder. I can hardly hear him over the singing, excited chatter, and rattle of equipment.
We are told there will be lots of loot today. Dresner is excited. He hopes to find a gold watch.
“They’re very scarce, what with the war,” he said often (before the Grossaktion) “but some Jude somewhere will probably have one.”
Bayer extricates himself from Eichelberger for a moment, turns, and grins lazily at me, as if to say, Can you believe this guy? I glance at Eichelberger, who appears somewhat hurt that his audience is distracted.
Bayer’s a good fellow. He’s my size, a stereotypical Bavarian, good-humoured and solid. His Christian name is Josef, so of course everyone calls him Beppo, which he hates.
Among us he was the first to make Stabs-feldwebel, so he has a brand-new freshly-oiled Maschinenpistole 40. It’s the envy of all of us, not only because it has automatic fire but because it’s so light and manageable. Not at all like our heavy, unwieldy, rifles.
Bayer now says something to Dresner, who laughs nervously. Dresner doesn’t often laugh. He’s from Dresden (naturally) and just married. He’s always afraid for his wife.
“Bronchial troubles, poor thing. Oh, I hope she’s all right.” He says it over and over. Her picture is in his breast-pocket, and he takes it to sleep.
Now we are moving down the main street of the Ghetto. Our Unteroffizier has told us to be vigilant, but nobody is paying much attention to the darkened alleyways or broken windows. Briefly I consider what wonderful ambush positions they might be, but dismiss it. The Juden have never been fighters. All we’ll have to do, they tell us, is do a little probing around in the buildings, and the Juden will stream out like rats from a hole.
Bayer grins at me.
“I heard a great joke about the Polacks,” he begins. Bayer is always telling jokes.
“All right, so tell me,” I say.
“Well—” Bayer leans in conspiratorially. “What do you get when you cross a Polack--”
Suddenly there is a thunkkrangkrak! and Bayer is splattered with blood and bits of brain and skull. My heart stops. Wait, no— Bayer’s not been hit, it’s the one next to him. Bayer leaps back with a (surprisingly shrill) scream, as the soldier next to him, a surprised expression on his face, wavers and collapses in a heap. His rifle clatters as it hits the pavement.
Like ripples in a pond, fear spreads through the assemblage of soldiers, gaining speed as it moves through the ranks. Bayer is no longer cheerful, his face is pale and his hands shake. He grips his MP40 tightly to stop his hands from shaking.
“I have to get back to my men” he mumbles, and begins pushing his way through the crowd. I cannot move. I am in shock.
Our Unteroffizier runs up to us.
“Guns up, start scanning! Find those Juden!” In our haste we forget the protocol and bunch up, pressing ourselves together. The tank turret begins to turn towards the buildings on the left side of the alley.
My rifle is up, and I search the empty windows, looking frantically for a shadow, a darting figure, anything. I’m sweating and the sweat runs down my face and into my eyes. I hear another shot and someone near me jerks once and crumples. We haven’t been given permission to fire and now the fear is turning to panic. Suddenly bullets whipcrack over my head. I am petrified. I know I should duck, but I can’t move. Then I realize— it’s the tank’s co-axial machine gun, laying down suppressive fire. Relief floods my body. I raise my rifle again, wipe sweat out of my eyes, and keep on scanning.
Briefly it crosses my mind how big a target we must be— all pressed together in a sort of circle, rifles bristling outwards— but this thought is chased away as another soldier collapses. Somebody grabs my shoulder. It’s our Unteroffizier. His face is strained.
“SHOOT!” he screams in my ear. “For heaven’s sake, shoot!” So I shoot.
Aimlessly, mindlessly, I fire again and again. Shadows seem to jump and twist; I put them down with a shot or two. I work the bolt, not even aware I’m doing it. Terror has overtaken us.
The machine-gun fire stops suddenly. They’ve got a jam, perhaps, or they’re reloading or maybe changing barrels. Either way, we’re on our own. More rifle shots crack from the buildings, more of our men jerk and fall. The Juden can hardly miss.
I am suddenly overcome with an irrational desire to see my enemy, these faceless people easily picking us off. For some reason, a faceless enemy is scarier. But also, I remind myself, easier to kill.
And then, out of an alleyway, almost directly in front of my position, runs a Jude. He is tall, unshaven, with wild hair and dressed in a tattered overcoat. His eyes burn with a terrible fire. I can tell instantly that this man is not afraid of death. He is not afraid of us. He is not afraid of anything. That thought chills me.
And then I look at him again. What is he holding? I start when I see— two gas bombs, the fuses already lit. They are deadly, these gas bombs. The Finns call them Molotov cocktails.
The Jude glares at us, snarls, and cocks his arm to throw. I beat him to the punch. My rifle is already up. I will kill him and I shall be a hero and they’ll give me an Eisenkreuz: the thought bounces wildly through my fevered brain. I draw a careful bead in the centre of his forehead, steady my rifle, and— the firing pin clicks home on an empty chamber. Stupid! I curse myself. Why didn’t I count my shots? I pull the bolt back and fumble with the leather ammunition pouch. My fear now is not that the Jude will throw his bombs, but that someone else will kill him before me.
And then he throws it.
I look up, along with the others, as it arcs through the air, it’s a beautiful sight, trailing flame, like the shooting stars of my youth. I turn to see where it will land. Everyone turns with me. We are captivated.
The tank commander was standing in his turret, looking over the battle, apparently with no fear of the Jewish snipers. Now he is afraid.
Everything seems to move slower than normal. The Molotov arcs through the air, the tank commander, looking strapping in his black uniform and fabric-covered crash helmet, cringes behind the turret hatch, slowly descending into the tank, pulling the hatch closed— will he make it?
Then the Molotov explodes and the magic is gone.
It hits the lip of the turret, and bursts in a crump of shattering glass. The tank commander is consumed by a sheet of flame. He screams horribly, waving his arms frantically. After about thirty seconds he slumps against the edge of the turret. His flaming body slides into the hull of the tank. Horrified yells come from within.
The other Molotov explodes in the crowd of soldiers. There are screams from the centre of the crowd, and the Juden, apparently re-invigorated by the loss of the tank, (flames are now licking up through the engine grille. One of the tankers tried to escape through the back turret hatch and was shot dead) have opened fire again. They appear to have a machine gun.
I am still fumbling with the ammo pouch when something crashes into me hard. I roll over and over and then lie still. A human face moves into my field of vision. It’s Bayer. His face is stained with charcoal gun-smoke, vivisected here and there by the trails of smoke-tears. His goggles hang around his neck.
“Are you all right?” he asks. His eyes are frantic. Same as mine, I think bitterly. No, I want to say. No, I am very much not all right. I also think I need a hug. But I can’t. We are German soldiers, descended from Vikings, and we can never show emotion in battle. Not even when our units are getting massacred right in front of us. But— wait. Where are we? I’ve not been hit, as I recall. But still—
“Are we dead?” I ask. Bayer smiles bitterly.
“I don’t even know.” He jerks him thumb towards the entrance to the alleyway. Oh, I realize. I’m in an alleyway. “It’s a massacre out there” Bayer says. I just stare. And I see:
A soldier, on fire and screaming, is running madly in circles until he collapses, flames consuming his body.
Another soldier—in two neat halves. What’s left of the fuel tank of a Flammenwerfer lies between them.
Two Waffen-SS men, dragging a wounded comrade. One jerks and falls, the other takes cover behind his dead body.
“You’ll be okay” I hear him tell the wounded man. Suddenly his head snaps back and he slumps down. The wounded man begins to cry softly.
And the Jew. Still standing there. His pistols are empty, and I see them lying on the ground where he has thrown them. He now holds an MP40, which he fires with deadly accuracy.
The MP40 makes me think of my rifle.
“My rifle!” I say. “I have to go get it” and I start towards the alley entrance. Bayer grabs me roughly. His eyes have that wild look in them again.
“Don’t go out there!” he yells, shaking me. “You’ll get killed!” He calms down somewhat. “I can’t lose my greatest friend”
“What about Dresner?” I ask and regret it instantly. Bayer’s voice is a hoarse whisper.
“Burned” is all he says.
“Eichelberger?” I ask, dreading the answer.
“His arm was torn off when the tank exploded. Shock, I think” Bayer is slumped against the wall, his head between his legs. I don’t want him to keep talking, but obviously does. “They killed everyone” he whispers. “They killed the wounded— they took pleasure in it. What animals” he says, disgust in his voice. Then his tone changes to one of pleading. “Why are they doing this?” he asks, sounding rather pitiful. “Why?” I have no answer. I can think only of one thing.
“What will I do without my rifle?” I ask in a small voice. This may not be the best time to bring up the subject.
Bayer looks up incredulously, as if he can’t understand why I’d be asking something like that at a time like this. Then he seems to realize where we are.
“Here” he grunts. He reaches into his holster and pulls out his Walther and two spare magazines. “Take these” I grab them, stuffing the Walther into my belt and the mags into my tunic pockets.
“Where will go?” I ask. “We can’t go out there—” as if on cue, a burst of machine-gun fire cuts off my words.
“We’ll make a run for the south gate” he says. It sounds reasonable. They can’t be fighting everywhere. He grabs his Schmeisser.
“Help me up” he grunts. I grab his hand and help him to his feet. “Right,” he says, with what I believe is supposed to be a reassuring smile “let’s move”
So we run.
As we leave the alley behind, I almost ask Bayer if he knows where we are, but dismiss the thought. He must. He’s leading us. We run down another dark alley, change direction, run down another alley, going faster and faster.
I can’t run anymore. I can’t. I can’t. I’m going to collapse oh God I’m going to collapse I’m— we emerge from the maze of alleyways into a clearing in this brick forest. It’s a square, where normally the Juden congregate, fleeing the claustrophobia of their— ahem— houses. There are even a few market stalls, and of course the ever-present porters. I know. I’ve been on patrols here a thousand times. But now the square is, strangely, empty. There is not a soul to be seen.
“Come on” Bayer says. His eyes burn strangely.
He pulls the clip from his Schmeisser, jams another one in, and racks the bolt savagely. I, too, pull the Walther out of my belt and work the slide. We are deep into enemy territory.
“Where are the Jews?” I ask. Bayer puts a finger to his lips.
“They’re hiding” he whispers. “Be very quiet” We stay still for a while, then, when no attack seems forthcoming, relax. Bayer wipes his forehead.
“Which way is the South Gate?” I ask him. “We need to move on” Bayer looks around.
“There” he says, pointing to one of the highest, most rickety-looking buildings of the bunch ringing the square. “We’ll get up to the roof, and survey the area”
“But there could be Jews in there” I say, not so much worried about killing them than worried they might kill us. Bayer says nothing in response to this, only grins and pats his MP40. This is the man who minutes ago was slumped against the wall sobbing, terrified of the Jews.
I glance quickly at his ammunition pouch, and see that he has no more clips in reserve. If there are Jews in there— well, I shudder to think. At least I have my Walther.
“Come on!” Bayer yells. We start towards the building.
The floors swiftly blur into the smell of sawdust, shafts of light shining through high windows, and the occasional pile of rags, which is occasionally a dead body. We are almost at the top (I hope) when we run into a group of resting Jewish fighters. Bayer gasps and reaches for his Schmeisser. A Jew beats him to the punch, and he gasps and collapses down the stairs. I am reminded, rather incongruously, of the English children’s book Winnie the Pooh.
I barely have time to react, much less be afraid, before six hammer blows find their way into my chest and large intestine. Instantly I am sapped of all strength. I can’t stand anymore strange now I fall downstairs it doesn’t hurt as much as it should the color is leaving the world a pair of shoes find their way into my vision and a voice says “Don’t be afraid, Nazi boy” that could be Death, but it could also be a Jew.
Levitt: I didn’t see much action during the whole of the Grossaktion, you know, but on the first day, we (that’s me and some of my friends) were lounging in the old Szcepkanski Building, and two Nazis come running up the stairs with fire in their eyes. Now, I had a little automatic pistol, a little, ah, a Tokarev was what it was called, and I had been given it by Artur Kahanovitch, you know, the famous Jewish Red Army officer who the Russians had smuggled in to help us with our uprising. And it was a bit of a reflex, you know, but I just raised the gun and shot them both, pow, pow! I emptied my, eh, how do say it, my magazine, and they fell down the stairs. And we all walked down and found them, they were dying on the landing. And one of the boys, I forget his name, went and spit on them, and said, Rest in peace, a**holes, or something to that effect. Then we took their I.D. tags. I still have them, you know, there was a Josef Bayer and a Jan Bauer, both good Bavarians I suppose, and later on we had a good laugh, you know, Nazis should know better than to come into Jewish territory like that.
You might say I’m being callous here, but to us they weren’t even human anymore, what they’d done to us. They were the enemy, and we hated them. Besides, they would certainly have killed us if I hadn’t. It was war. That’s how it goes.
---From Vignettes of a Forgotten War: Remembering the Lodz Uprising, a 1984 documentary film. The subject of the interview is Henry (Itzik) Levitt (deceased), former resident of Petah Tikvah, Israel
…our troops were assaulted almost instantly, fired on from behind by the cowardly Jews…the tank was disabled in fierce fighting…however, it quickly became clear that they [the Jews] were fleeing from our advance, therefore we pursued them and shot them down like rabbits. It soon became apparent that they could not withstand any further attacks, and as we pressed our advantage, their offence collapsed completely…total casualties sustained: 24 dead, 57 wounded, 2 missing. Reprisals began today at the usual rate of ten dead Jews per German soldier killed, and twenty for dead SS men.
Heil Hitler! [Signed]
--Excerpt from after-action report, from Kleist to Reichsführer Himmler, 1943
…the actual casualties of the first day of the Lodz Uprising are still not certain, but the total of Nazi dead and wounded are generally agreed to be around 450.
--Excerpt: The Shoah: Revised Edition, by Sir Harold Samuels, OBE (1997)