Operation Judgement – Post War Death Squads
Paul von Hindenburg, the ailing second president of the Weimar Republic (successor to the German Empire) died on Aug. 2, 1934. Following Hindenburg’s death, Adolf Hitler, political leader of Germany and the head of the Federal Government, declared himself dictatorial head of Germany and with that declaration, the last remnants of Germany’s democratic government were dismantled. Adolf Hitler was now the sole master of a nation intent on war and genocide.
Shortly after coming to power, he ordered a bloody purge of his own political party, assassinating hundreds of Nazis whom he believed had the potential to become political enemies in the future. Another thousand perceived political opponents of the regime were sent to Dachau, a concentration camp opened in Bavaria in March 1933. But it wasn’t long before other groups that the Nazis deemed “undesirable” were rounded up and sent away. Foremost among them were the Jews.
Hitler had hated the Jews since 1907, when his mother died of cancer while under the care of a Jewish doctor, whom he blamed for her death. His hatred grew during his service as a soldier in World War I. When the armistice was called, he assumed that Germany had lost the war because of a back room deal, and he blamed Jews for the capitulation. In his mind, Germany’s humiliation was the fault of the Jews and he wanted them to pay for it.
At the time, Jews made up less than 1% of the German population, yet they controlled Germany’s manufacturing, banking and a large share of small businesses. Since they wielded such economic clout, Hitler also blamed them for Germany’s Great Depression following WW I. There was also the issue of race: Hitler believed that the “Aryan race” was the best and strongest race. Jews were considered to be of such an inferior race, that they were not even considered to be “people” by the Nazis and, for that reason, Europe had to be rid of this “threat to German racial purity.”
After a decade of increasingly severe discriminatory measures against the Jews and other “undesirables,” Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime came up with a plan to annihilate the European Jewish population and “solve” the so-called “Jewish Problem.” They euphemistically called it the “Final Solution.” Every arm of Germany’s bureaucracy was involved in the planning and execution of the mass-killing centers constructed in the concentration camps of occupied Poland as part of the “solution.”
Six million Jewish men, women, and children were killed during the Holocaust – fully two-thirds of the Jews living in Europe before World War II. Other victims of Nazi crimes included Romanis (gypsies), ethnic Poles and other Slavs, communists, homosexuals, priests, trade unionists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, anarchists, the mentally and physically disabled, and resistance fighters. If you add in the 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war killed in German camps the total is 16.3 million. Some history books place the total as high as 19.3 million.
Although Adolf Hitler was the murderous madman responsible for the extermination of countless millions, he wasn’t alone. In fact, Hitler’s henchmen – his inner circle of fanatical and ruthless subordinates – were often just as evil as he was, and sometimes even more evil.
One of the most evil and sinister men in the world was Heinrich Himmler, the head of the cold-blooded SS and the madman in charge of the brutal Eastern death camps. After being captured by the Allies, Himmler committed suicide by biting a vial of cyanide that he had hidden in his mouth.
Other cold-blooded “exterminators” responsible for the deaths of millions of innocent victims were the high ranking SS officers shown in this rare photograph. From left to right are Richard Baer (Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau), Dr Josef Mengele (the Angel of Death), Josef Kramer (Commandant of Bergen-Belsen), Rudolf Hoess (Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau) and Anton Thumann (Commandant of Majdanek). Kramer, Hoess and Thumann were hanged. Baer escaped but was caught later and died in prison awaiting execution. Dr. Mengele escaped to South America, where he died in Brazil on February 7, 1979.
Although these men and others like them ordered the killings, German soldiers were more directly involved in the extermination that Hitler set into motion. In retaliation for sabotage, German soldiers would round up and execute all the men in a village, burn it to the ground, and send all the women and children off to concentration camps. They routinely shot dozens and even hundreds of hostages.
With the defeat of Hitler and his Nazi regime, a series of military tribunals, known as the Nuremberg Trials, were held by the Allied forces. The first tribunal was given the task of trying 23 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich who had planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes.
The second set of trials was for the lesser war criminals and included the Doctors’ Trial and the Judges’ Trial. The Doctors’ Trial was for the 20 medical doctors and 3 Nazi officials accused of involvement in Nazi human experimentation and mass murder under the guise of euthanasia, while the Judges’ Trial was for the 16 German jurists and lawyers accused of implementing and furthering the Nazi “racial purity” program through eugenic and racial laws.
Many of the war criminals that were tried were found guilty and sentenced to death either by hanging or by firing squads. For one reason or another, selected Nazi war criminals were tried and acquitted. Others managed to get away with murder, but most of those were minor members of the Nazi party whose roles weren’t as significant. Since they were less important and less involved, it was easier to find ways to completely deny their involvement.
Although the Allied forces considered the trials over, and the most deserving were executed or imprisoned, the Jewish people now living in Israel felt strongly that justice had not been served. They pointed to the many Nazi war criminals who were allowed to go unpunished or were never hunted down by authorities. These were the Gestapo agents and SS guards who’d broken into homes, dragged terrified citizens into the streets, crammed them into cattle cars, and carried them off to concentration camps to be slaughtered or starved to death. As a result, the Israelis formed death or revenge squads to track down and kill these former SS and Wehrmacht officers who had participated in the atrocities and eluded serious punishment.
Working under the code name “Operation Judgment,” those who volunteered for the killings had lost their families and communities in the Holocaust and were burning with hatred. Others were previously members of the Jewish Brigade, part of the British Eighth Army, which fought with distinction in northern Italy in the latter stages of the war. Most members of the death squads believed their people would never forgive them if they did not exploit the opportunity to kill the Nazis who were guilty of crimes against humanity.
Among themselves, they were referred to as “Din” squads, a Hebrew word meaning “revenge.” They operated in teams of three or four. One “Din” unit, acting on intelligence, raided a house in Austria where it was thought a Nazi Party official was living. The team of three found the house littered with jewelry and clothes. The lady of the house told the three revenge squad men that it had all once belonged to Jews. The “Din” men told the man and his wife that they would be executed on the spot for crimes against humanity. In a plea bargain, the former Nazi Party official gave a list of the current names and addresses of senior SS officers to the revenge squad.
Probably the most infamous person killed by the revenge squads was Dr. Ernst-Robert Grawitz. He was the chief medical officer of the SS and he is credited with creating the gas chambers used in the death camps. Surviving Nazis believed that he had committed suicide but a “Din” unit claimed responsibility, reporting that they had activated a grenade, killing Grawitz, his wife, and his children.
Other senior Nazis executed by the revenge squads included SS Colonel Dr. Hans Geschke and SS Lieutenant Kurt Mussfeld, who oversaw the ovens at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The last person killed by the revenge squads was Aleksander Laak, who had run the Jagala concentration camp in Estonia, where 100,000 were murdered under his rule. In 1960 Laak must have thought he was safe in Winnipeg, Canada but a revenge squad found him, confronted him with his crimes and talked him into hanging himself.
As well as the execution of 1,500 suspected SS and Gestapo war criminals, the Brigade also assisted tens of thousands of concentration camp survivors to reach Palestine, despite the fact that the British government was firmly opposed to Jewish immigration at the time and the country was the subject of a naval blockade.
While the Foreign Office, under the arch anti-Zionist Ernest Bevin, was hostile to the Jewish Brigade and wanted it to be stopped, the British military command refused to act and turned a blind eye to the brigade’s clandestine activities.
When the death squads disbanded in 1960, its members went their separate ways, taking with them their stories – grisly tales that add a unique dimension to the Holocaust, a dimension which poses several complex questions: Were they right to be judge, jury and executioner? At what point had they become just as bad as the evil they wanted to destroy? Did they start out as righteous warriors only to prove that hatred isn’t a quality exclusive to Nazis?
Many of the assassins became founders of Mossad, Israel’s Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations. Within Mossad is Kidon, an elite group of expert assassins who operate under the Caesarea branch of the espionage organization. Not much is known about this mysterious unit, details of which are some of the most closely guarded secrets in the Israeli intelligence community, except that they are an anchoring part of the philosophy of the Jewish people in Israel that they will do whatever it takes to prevent another Holocaust.