Special path to hell
LESLIE JONES examines a German wartime functionary’s disingenuous memoirs
A Small Town near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust
Mary Fulbrook, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, hb, 421 pp, £20
Udo Klausa was the Landrat (chief administrator) of the Landkreis (County) of Będzin, in the border region of Eastern Upper Silesia, annexed by Germany after the invasion of Poland in September 1939. He was by all accounts a thoroughly “decent” German- a devout Catholic, a family man and a brave soldier. Yet qua functionary, he helped to implement racial policies designed to exploit, expropriate and ghettoize the local Jewish community, the prelude to rendering this area judenfrei (Jew free). Indeed, in Będzin town, Klausa and his wife lived in the “villa of the Jew Schein” which was filled with furniture confiscated from local Jews, acquired at knock-down prices. Whatever reservations Klausa may have had about the policies in question (reservations informed by his religious beliefs) their successful implementation depended on conscientious administrators like him. As Mary Fulbrook observes, it was ultimately how such people behaved in these years that mattered, not what they thought or felt.
Concerning the pre-war community of Będzin, approximately half the population of the town at this juncture was Jewish. One former resident recalls that by late Friday evening, when the celebration of Shabbat commenced, it resembled a ghost town. A former student of the Fürstenberg Grammar School (or Jewish High School) remembers how the school’s brass band led an annual procession to the Great Synagogue, perched below the castle. There, the Rabbi would bless the school’s endeavours in the forthcoming year. Yet by the end of 1943, almost all of the school’s students and teachers were dead. Virtually all that remained of a rich Jewish community life were the memories of the few survivors and the photographs collected from victims’ clothing by Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz. As for the Great Synagogue, it was burnt to the ground in September 1939 with several hundred souls inside.
Born in 1910 in Allenstein in German East Prussia, Klausa belonged to the “war youth generation”. As a fifteen year old boy, he joined the Following (Gefolgschaft) which engaged in disguised military training. He was a convinced nationalist and critic of the Versailles treaty, especially in regard to the contested German-Polish border.
A lawyer by training, Klausa joined the Nazi party in February 1933 and was an enthusiastic member of the SA. After the war, Klausa claimed that his primary reason for joining the NSDAP was to progress his career. But he conceded that he had welcomed Hitler’s assumption of power, in particular his attempt to deal with the problem of unemployment and concomitant social unrest. He had also hoped to counteract the baneful influence of the “riff raff” within the movement’s ranks.
Klausa’s tenure as Landrat in Będzin commenced in March 1940. Yet before this date he held a succession of important positions in the administration of the annexed territories, first in the Sudetenland, then in Bohemia and Moravia and finally in Posen, where he was Personal Assistant to August Jäger, the Deputy of Arthur Greiser, Gauleiter of the Warthegau. In Posen, Klausa’s job was to implement a whole gamut of racial policies, notably the expulsion en masse of Poles and Jews into the adjoining General Government and their replacement with ethnic Germans (Volksdeutsche) from the Baltic States, Volhynia and Eastern Galicia. As Alexandra Klausa informed a friend in November 1939, referring to her husband’s “great task”, “Conquering the eastern territories and a farsighted colonization…could be something great – a parallel to…the Teutonic Knights”.
Professor Fulbrook (the goddaughter of Alexandra Klausa) has painstakingly pieced together the details of his wartime career, both as civil servant and soldier. She considers in particular his exculpatory memoirs written in 1980, which enabled him both to live with his past but also to avoid punishment. He depicted himself therein as only nominally a Nazi and conveniently claimed to be on military service when some of the more notorious incidents occurred in Będzin. No mention was made of public hangings which he must have witnessed; of enforced starvation; of deportation to labour camps, including the labour camp at Golonog, whose ill-fed inmates had to work on railroad construction for eleven hours a day.
One infamous incident that took place in the Landkreis of Będzin while Klausa was in post was the execution by the gendarmerie of 32 innocent Poles at Celiny, on 6th June 1940, in reprisal for the killing of a German policeman. In 1960, this incident was investigated by the Ludwigsburg Central Office for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes. Klausa told the Ludwigsburg authorities that he was on military service in France at the time. In fact he was on leave in the neighbouring Landkreis of Tarnowitz. He may even have authorised the killing over the telephone. Moreover, as the author convincingly argues, Klausa’s initial absences on military service (in 1940 and then again in 1941) were no “flight to the last bastion of decency, in an otherwise unbearable regime”, as he tried to suggest (not that the army was a bastion of decency*). He had always intended to serve his country militarily and in early summer 1940 was understandably keen to participate in a seemingly endless series of victories.
In the spring and summer of 1942, thousands of Będzin Jews were brutally rounded up and made to assemble in the Hakoach sports ground opposite Klausa’s villa and in other locations. Those deemed unfit for work were immediately dispatched to the gas chambers of nearby Auschwitz. Klausa, invariably economical with the truth, concedes in his memoirs that he witnessed some of the deportations during the week of 12 to 19 August. His version of these events is that he immediately returned to the front rather than play any further part. In reality, he did not resume his military duties until December 1st 1942. He was still in Będzin when the fateful decision to consolidate the Jewish ghetto prior to deportation was taken. He also denied knowing at the time that a programme of mass extermination was taking place at Auschwitz. Alexandra Klausa’s correspondence indicates that her husband’s nerves, a recurrent problem, were a serious concern at this juncture. Had the “sheer criminality of the Nazi enterprise” and his own role within it, however minor, become all too apparent?
In From Bendzin to Auschwitz: A Journey to Hell, Arnold Shay ruefully remarks,
“Bendzin** Jewry flourished in poverty and under Polish anti-Semitism, and we brought pride and civility to the cities we lived in. Now Bendzin as we knew it is no more, and will be no more…”
It was “decent” Germans like Udo Klausa who helped to destroy these once thriving communities.
Dr. LESLIE JONES is the deputy editor of the Quarterly Review. © Leslie Jones, February 2013
* See Christopher R. Browning, Les Origines de la Solution Finale, p 53 and passim
** There are various spellings of this place name