“In the Nazi imagination,” writes historian Wendy Lower, “the eastern Lebensraum, an Aryan living space abroad, was a frontier where anything was possible—a place where mass-murder factories could be constructed alongside utopian German-only colonies.” It was a place, she continues, where “ethnic Germans appeared in Nazi photographs in wagon trains while . . . SS policemen crossed the plains straddling motorcycles like cowboys astride horses.”
Those images had a profound influence on Germans who settled in the “Wild East.” Among them was Erna Petri, who came east, like many other women, with her husband and their two young children. On a summer day in 1943, she noticed six Jewish children crouched along the side of a road. She realized that they had probably jumped out of one of the many boxcars transporting Jews to “the East.” Lower writes:
The children were terrified and hungry. Petri . . . calmed them and gained their trust by bringing them food from her kitchen. All Jews who were roaming the countryside were supposed to be captured and shot; she understood that. Horst [her husband] was not at home at the time. She waited, but Horst did not return, so she decided to shoot the six children herself. She led them to the same pit in the woods where other Jews had been shot and buried. She brought a pistol with her, one that her father had kept from World War I and given to her as a parting gift as she left for the “wild east” of Ukraine.
Petri killed the six children. Lower continues,
Erna was alone when she committed this crime, but she was far from alone at the estate. Besides her husband, her two small children lived at Grzenda. . . . Her mother-in-law and an uncle were visiting . . . and in addition she was surrounded by peasants working the fields. The best view of the area was from the hilltop villa’s second-floor balcony, where Erna . . . served [coffee and cake] to Horst’s colleagues in the military and the SS and police. While pouring coffee Erna had overheard the men speaking about the mass shootings of Jews. She had learned that the most effective way to kill was a single shot to the back of the neck. When she led those children to the mass grave on the estate, she knew exactly what to do.
Petri later tried to explain her behavior:
In those times, as I carried out the shootings, I was barely 23 years old, still young and inexperienced. I lived among men who were in the SS [the Nazi elite guard] and carried out shootings of Jewish persons. I seldom came into contact with other women, so that in the course of this time I became more hardened, desensitized. I did not want to stand behind the SS men. I wanted to show them that I, as a woman, could conduct myself like a man. So I shot 4 Jews and 6 Jewish children. I wanted to prove myself to the men. Besides, in those days in this region, everywhere one heard that Jewish persons and children were being shot, which also caused me to kill them.
When asked how she, as a mother of two young children, could shoot innocent Jewish children, Petri replied:
I am unable to grasp at this time how in those days that I was in such a state as to conduct myself so brutally and reprehensibly—shooting Jewish children. However earlier [before arriving in Ukraine] I had been so conditioned to . . . the racial laws, which established a view toward the Jewish people. As was told to me, I had to destroy the Jews. It was from this mindset that I came to commit such a brutal act.
- Accounts like those excerpted here are disturbing and painful to read. They prompt us to ask many questions, some of which may be unanswerable. What questions do these accounts raise for you about history and human behavior?
- How does Erna Petri try to explain her behavior? How do you think it can be explained?
- The readings in this chapter describe many different troubling instances when Jews were killed during the Holocaust. How is the story of Erna Petri different from those other examples? Does it share anything with them?
- According to Petri, what role did her gender play in her actions? What role might it play in our response to her actions?