“In the summer of 1943, Erna Petri was returning home from Lviv. She had gone into town to pick up some supplies. It was a sunny day… She saw something in the distance. When the carriage drew closer, she saw that it was children crouching along the side of the road, dressed only in shreds of clothing. It occurred to her that ‘these were the children who broke out of the boxcar at the train station Saschkow.’…The children were terrified and hungry. Petri beckoned to them and brought them home. She calmed them and gained their trust by bringing them food from her kitchen… She led them to the same pit in the woods where other Jews had been shot and buried. She brought a pistol with her [and] shot until all of them lay in the gully.
None of the children tried to run away since it appeared that they had already been in transit for several days and were totally exhausted.” The juxtaposition is jarring and almost unbelievable; the woman seamlessly assumes roles that are ostensibly diametrically opposed—that of a nurturer and that of a coldblooded killer of children. It is hard to believe that what Dr. Lower tells us is true. A young mother herself, Erna’s two young children were not far away from the scene of the crime, waiting at home while she murdered these innocent children. What Dr. Lower’s extensive research has uncovered is that Erna wasn’t the only one. A product of the Third Reich, she is symbolic of at least half a million German women of her generation who contributed to the devastation of the Holocaust—many as witnesses, others as accomplices, and some as actual perpetrators like Erna.
These thousands of young German women were nurses who routinely disposed of the mentally ill and disabled, midwives who were called upon to commit infanticide, and a legion of secretaries who functioned as “desk murderers” by typing and filing orders to exterminate millions of Jews. Hitler’s Furies incontrovertibly dispels the myth that only a select few women were involved in atrocities. Even more shocking, however, is that almost all of them went entirely unpunished. Hiding behind a gender bias that considers women incapable of such horrific acts and the notion that German women were themselves victims of their society, countless women got away with murder—literally. When I first came across Lower’s book, I didn’t know what to expect.
As the granddaughter of survivors, I’m no stranger to Holocaust literature, but as I later told Dr. Lower, it was hard for me to get through these graphic depictions. I often found myself wondering, “Is that how my great-grandmother, for whom I am named, died?” Dr. Lower, a professor of history, told me that she does not have any personal connection to her subject matter, which she believes is the reason she can study this disturbing topic. It is her hope that her work will serve a higher purpose. Interestingly, my own personal background and connection to the Holocaust make me feel the same way. Reading about the horrors attributed to these women reminded me of my own higher purpose and mission as a Jewish woman: to pass on the mesorah I received from these kedoshim and transmit it to the next generation.
A Conversation with Wendy Lower
How have people responded to your book? What kind of feedback have you gotten from the public?
In general, it’s been very positive. The German translation is coming out this summer. It was already reviewed by an academic journal and got a very positive review. I receive mail all the time. It astounds me. Many people who have read the book tell me how powerful they thought it was. Whenever I came across the name of a Jewish victim, I provided it in the book. This is something that is very rare in German courtroom testimonies. I included the names deliberately, even if it seems as if there are too many of them. I felt very strongly that the least we could do is put the names of murder victims in print.
Why did you become involved in this field of research?
When I was in graduate school, I had an interest in German history. In the course of my studies of Nazi Germany, I realized that the Eastern territories—what we call the “bloodlands” today—had not been significantly researched from the ground up, in terms of social history. When the Soviet Union collapsed, local archives were opened and there was a lot of documentation available as to who was there, what they were doing and what happened to those communities. This was information we didn’t have access to before. I went to Ukraine in the early 1990s to explore its records because this was an understudied area. That’s when I came across these documents. I didn’t choose this topic for any personal or family reasons. I do not have any direct connection to it. But when I came across these stories, I felt compelled to get them out there, to make sense of them and learn from them.
What was your initial reaction to the documents you uncovered?
The realization of what I was looking at happened gradually. I was really surprised when I found a document about German women in an archive in Zhytomyr in the summer of 1992, as I had been so focused on studying the SS men and the [male] army administration. I thought of the entire area as a war zone and didn’t imagine that young single German women would appear there. I interviewed the locals, and they were very open. It was a very chaotic time, right after the Soviet regime collapsed. At that historic moment, in the spirit of glasnost and perestroika, people felt that they could finally talk about these things openly, without fear of being taken in and interrogated by the KGB. There was a new sense of freedom. I was staying with a Jewish host family who had lost family members in Babi Yar.
Ordinary Ukrainians who were childhood friends of Jews, former slave laborers and people who had worked in the administration heard that I was in town. I would sit and read the archives all day, and these people would come and talk to me at night. They wanted to tell me what they remembered. They were anxious to get their stories out. It was very informative. Speaking to people face to face who were very emotional about their experiences, I felt I had a mission to go back to the West and tell the world what happened. I’m an historian and scholar, and I feel passionate about this. When dealing with topics like the Holocaust, where there is such loss of life and suffering that isn’t accounted for and people who don’t have a voice, there’s an ethical component that makes me feel morally obligated to do this. Once I got into the research, it was hard to walk away. I felt compelled to tell the story. When I read about Erna Petri, the wife of an SS officer, confessing to killing those children—I have children of my own—I couldn’t just move on to the next file.
Are any of the women featured in the book still alive?
Most of them are confirmed dead. Erna Petri was sentenced to life in prison; she got the harshest sentence. But the majority of them got away. Most of my contact was with witnesses, as explained in the book. I found other people who were associated with the perpetrators, such as prosecutors, defense attorneys or family members. For example, I met with the Petri family. The perpetrators tried to conceal who they were, attempting to slip back into society and remain inconspicuous. It was hard to develop [the picture] fully. But I spoke to as many people who interacted with them as I could to obtain different perspectives.
Why did you visit the Petri family?
I visited Erna Petri’s children in 2006 in the same house where their parents were arrested, not far from Weimar. I wanted to hear what they would say. It was a bizarre experience. They implied that their parents were victims, wrongfully accused. Their father had also been a war criminal and was guillotined in 1962. It was a very somber and awkward visit. It made me realize the importance of generational transmission of history. While Holocaust survivors try to get their memories out and work with researchers and historians to uncover the truth, the children of perpetrators feel shame and confusion and are reluctant to share; there is a fear of what they will uncover.
Are there other perpetrators still out there?
Yes. In the course of my research I interviewed perpetrators and spoke to the wives of perpetrators. There aren’t many left but there are still some. I attended the Demjanjuk trial when I was in Munich. I do believe that there are still women around. Women tend to outlive men, and the women who engaged in these crimes were young. Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has really been trying to initiate a last wave of trials with “Operation Last Chance.” They put out a public announcement in the German press for people to present themselves or identify others. Surprisingly, the campaign has been relatively successful. People have been identified and new cases are being pursued right now. There was an article in a newspaper a few weeks ago about someone else who had just been identified.
Are any of these people women?
No, not yet. They were after one woman who was a guard. They tracked her down in Austria but she had died.
What would happen to female perpetrators today? Would they be prosecuted and made to pay for their crimes?
They could. It depends on where they are found. In Austria they probably wouldn’t be. There are districts there that have become havens. The neo-Nazis in Klagenfurt are the most well known. At least one or two of the most wanted Nazi criminals are living there peacefully. But in Germany there’s a new generation of prosecutors who are interpreting the law more liberally, so someone could turn up and be tried there. It’s very possible. The average life sentence in Germany is only 12 to 15 years, and age would also be taken into consideration, but just getting a conviction is also important.
Has any other information come to light since the book was published?
I recently attended a conference at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. One scholar determined that one-quarter to onethird of all adult Germans had some experience in the East [the “bloodlands”]. My estimate of a half-million German women was conservative because I couldn’t get into all of the archives; much of the information is in private corporate possession. So my numbers could change. This made me realize that my book is only a part of it. Someone should do a full study of all the nurses or all the teachers. A few dissertations have been done, but I hope my book will encourage more research.
Are you pursuing the topic further?
Right now I’m working on another topic. I keep getting drawn back into the Holocaust; I’d like to study more about the phenomenon of collaboration. I’m going back to Ukraine this summer. In 2009 I found an incredible photograph, and I’m building the story around it. It is a very striking image, a close-up showing a Ukrainian policeman and German commander at the edge of a pit shooting Jewish women and children in a public park. The picture opens up questions of collaboration on the part of the Ukrainians. I want to find out about the victims and perpetrators. The field of Holocaust studies has really been pioneering in many respects in terms of the mix of sources we use. There were so many different agencies involved. I have colleagues who look at medical records from the camps. Others are looking at accounting records to figure out the expropriation of properties. There are researchers who look at film and people who visit killing sites and work to disinter victims.
Why did these women get away with their horrific crimes?
There are several reasons. There are different levels of participation and culpability that need to be distinguished. In the most appalling cases we had dozens of survivors identifying these women by name, like Johanna Altvater Zelle, who was seen killing people with her bare hands. Why did she get away with it? In the context of West Germany during the Cold War, her whole persona as a killer would have been contrary to what was considered respectable and normal. She presented herself as working for a welfare office, the mother of an adopted son; no one could really believe she was capable of this.
Even with all the witnesses?
Witness testimony is problematic in the courts. I interviewed the prosecutor. I said to him, “You had all this different testimony from Israel, Canada and New York.” This was pre-Internet; there was no collusion! All of the witnesses consistently gave the same story, whether from Haifa, Toronto or New York. He said, “I believe that she is guilty, but I couldn’t prove it in the courtroom.” He couldn’t convict on testimony alone. You need a witness, but the bar is very high for standards of evidence. They wanted hard documentation. These female perpetrators were working outside of the system, while there are records of the male perpetrators. They could put her at the scene of the crime—she admitted to being there—but it was outside of her normal duties. It’s terribly frustrating. The German case law said that we needed to show base motive, that the person was acting excessively. Yet this is actually a prime example because she acted of her own initiative, outside of her official duties. It’s this weird, ironic paradox. Another factor was the political climate. The court system had been poisoned during the Nazi era and had not yet been fully purged.
But some of the men paid for their crimes.
Yes. They were the primary perpetrators. Most of these trials took place in the first decade after 1945. You did have women who were defendants, mostly camp guards and nurses. There were 500 female and 20,000 male defendants during this time period. There were two women in the Nuremberg trials. But the women tended to get lighter sentences. There was also a period of amnesty in the early ’50s that was an attempt to normalize relations with West Germany in order to fight against the Soviets. Gender bias was also a factor. The ordinary German women presented themselves as victims of the war. It was easier to allow that image to spread than to challenge it with this other one that is so contrary to what we think of as normal.
Do you believe this gender bias no longer exists and that the outcome would be different if they were prosecuted now?
Yes. The main defendant in the trial against the National Socialist Underground, the neo-Nazi group responsible for the murder of Turks and foreigners, is a woman. The courts also aggressively pursued the women who carried out bombings against German bankers in the 1970s. If the political will exists, women will be held accountable, but it wasn’t present at that time because men were also tainted, and the push was to put everything behind them. The East German system was different because it drew a lot of its strength from continuing the fight against fascism, so Erna Petri was singled out as someone from the past. The system came down harder on her because it was a way for the East German– Soviet system to establish its authority. Gender bias crept into that case too. She was very emotional and claimed that it was her husband’s fault. She was incarcerated in 1962 and wasn’t let out until the system collapsed in 1992. She died in 2000.
Were you surprised to learn that women could be so cruel?
The extremes were shocking and disturbing. Two of the perpetrators were pregnant. There had to have been a cognitive split that allowed these women to live in two worlds, as mothers and killers. The phenomenon of men who were mass executioners and then went home and were wonderful husbands and fathers had been studied, but it wasn’t fully understood in terms of women. You don’t typically read about how women slipped in and out of these roles. I also hadn’t imagined the extent to which women were involved in the machinery of destruction as “desk murderers.”
What motivated these women?
There is a whole range of reasons. We will never pin it down. Anti-Semitism was pervasive, but it’s the hardest thing to document. When they searched the apartment of Josephine Bloch after the war, they found anti-Semitic literature. Erna Petri also showed attachment to the movement. She actually met with Himmler’s daughter after she got out of prison. If she wasn’t attached to the cause, why would she do such a thing?
Do you see any comparison between those women and female suicide bombers?
Today’s “black widows” are examples of women who are aligned with radical causes and use violence as a means to assert their political views or seek revenge. Women are involved in genocide in many different capacities. A Rwandan woman was responsible for ordering massacres in the 1994 genocide. The German women during the Holocaust are simply the biggest documented case.
What is the take-away message of the book?
There are many lessons to be derived. If women hadn’t made the strides they did in the twentieth century, at least in the Western world, beginning with the ability to vote, I wouldn’t be able to do this work. There is much to celebrate, but along with the increase in power comes the potential for abuse. Given the opportunity, women aren’t any less likely to abuse power than men. We as women must take into account that this possibility exists and use our power wisely.
Your book has been a real eye-opener, and it isn’t as if this topic is foreign to me. My grandparents and my husband’s grandparents were survivors, and many of our family members perished in the Holocaust. But we never really knew about this aspect of it.
I hope my book will make a difference and that people’s eyes will be opened. I’ve read a lot of survivor and victim literature. I annotated the diary of a man named Samuel Goldfarb, who was killed in 1943. His diary was given to me by his friend, with whom he had hidden in the forest. The victim’s family asked me to write a book about the diary, and I did. Goldfarb tried to resist by shooting a German commander when he was asked to line up. It was a dignified act. The diary is amazing. Goldfarb reflected on what he saw and wrote so poetically. He described it as “a world turned upside down.” That line really stuck with me.