The Russian commissar [officer] spoke fluent German. He took a great interest in the German . . . employees in the Danish bunker. The younger women, who had been kept out of sight by curtains, empty cardboard boxes, and so on, were told to come out and take a spot on the mats with the men and children. I was requested to sit next to the commissar; I had no idea what his intentions were. He gave a fairly long speech:
“If I were to ask you individually, I am certain that not one person among you would be a Nazi. We know this already; now that the German army has been defeated, all Germans are suddenly opponents of Hitler and have always been anti-Nazi. . . . I am a Russian, a Communist, and a Jew. I have seen the German atrocities in my country. My mother and father were murdered by the SS, because they were Jews; my wife and my two children have disappeared; my home is destroyed. Millions of people have gone through what I and my family have gone through. Germany has murdered, raped, plundered, and destroyed. . . . What do you think we’d like to do now that we have defeated the German armed forces?”
The Germans crouched down, trembling with fear. The commissar stared at Carl’s oldest son, a twelve-year-old boy. [Carl was the caretaker of the Danish legation.]
“Stand up!” he ordered. “How old are you?”
“Twelve years old,” answered the boy.
“That’s around the age my boy would have been today. The SS criminals took him from me . . . ”
His hand disappeared under his uniform. He brought out a revolver and pointed it at the boy. Carl leaped up; his wife grabbed for the boy.
“But commissar, this boy cannot be made responsible . . . ” I began. The tension was dreadful.
“No, no, ladies and gentlemen,” continued the commissar. “I won’t shoot. But you must admit, I’d have reason enough. So many people are crying out for revenge.”
He put the revolver back under his uniform.
In Kronika’s story, the Soviet commissar chose not to shoot. Often, however, victorious troops did choose to take revenge on the German civilian population.
- Why does the commissar have the impulse to shoot the 12-year-old son of a German caretaker? Why does Jacob Kronika say that “this boy cannot be made responsible”?
- What is the difference between justice and acts of revenge? Can revenge ever be part of justice?
- What might be the consequences of widespread actions that are viewed as revenge? What would it take to prevent or limit such acts?
- In what ways does this reading suggest what kinds of challenges were facing the world in the aftermath of the Holocaust?