Terrible choices people had to make during the Second World War

Laurence Rees, whose book is based on interviews with people who faced terrible Second World War choices, asks what we can learn from these individuals’ darkest hours.

This article was first published in the October 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine

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How could Japanese airmen “volunteer” to become Kamikaze pilots? Why did the SS believe the Nazi state’s racist values?

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For nearly 20 years I have tried to answer questions such as these by meeting hundreds of people from the Second World War. I was interested in what motivated the perpetrators, but I also encountered victims confronted with awful choices.

I travelled across the world; met rapists, murderers and cannibals; talked to heroic soldiers, survivors of atrocities and a man who shot children.

I used some of this material in a number of TV series that I wrote and produced (including Nazis: a Warning from History and Auschwitz: the Nazis and the Final Solution), but a great deal of material has never been published. So I wrote a book, Their Darkest Hour, about the 35 most extraordinary people I met on my travels.

I was struck by how relevant the testimonies are today. The experiences demonstrate that the past is not some alien world. Certainly, circumstances were different from today. But these dilemmas were faced by people who were like us in many fundamental ways, and I believe we can thus learn more about ourselves by asking a simple question: “What would we have done?”.

It was vital to treat the oral testimonies we gathered with an element of scepticism. We researched all interviewees thoroughly, and checked that the facts were consistent with documents of the period, such as military unit war diaries. If we had any doubts then we excluded the interviewee.

Then there’s the question of how much we can expect human beings to recall. If you interview someone about what seems to them insignificant details, their recollections will be unreliable. But if you focus on key emotional moments then people have very powerful and accurate recall.

Historians must ask questions of all source material, and oral testimony is no exception. But it’s important to remember that documents are capable of lying as much as people.

Above all, I found oral testimony allows us not just to reach intimately back into history, but to powerfully interrogate the past, in search of what all historians seek – understanding. 

Chose life or death for Jewish children

As a teenager Estera Frenkiel, a secretary in a Lodz ghetto, was given 10 certificates excusing Jews from the death camps

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At the heart of many of the stories I encountered lay a stark choice. Whether to pull the trigger, drop the bomb, hide your neighbour or save yourself; to die for your principles or live by expediency.

I’ve met people who confronted all of these issues, but no one faced a more stark problem than Polish woman Estera Frenkiel. She had to make a devastating choice – who should live and who should die.

In the spring of 1940 Estera Frenkiel and her parents were among the 160,000 Jews forced by the Nazis into a ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz. Germans seldom entered the ghetto, so the Nazis made the Jews establish a council of elders to deal with daily administration.

This meant that the Jewish Council of Elders in Lodz, and especially its chairman, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, possessed considerable power over the lives of their fellow Jews. It also meant that those close to Rumkowski could live a “better” life than the majority in the ghetto.

The teenage Estera Frenkiel – in the context of the privations of the ghetto – was “fortunate”, since she worked as a junior secretary in Rumkowski’s office. This was to be of crucial importance in September 1942, when the Nazis ordered the deportation of all those people unable to work – the children, the sick and the elderly – because Rumkowski and those close to him were given the opportunity by the Nazis to save their own offspring.

“Biebow [the Nazi ghetto manager] came to our office,” said Estera Frenkiel, “and said ‘I shall give you 10 release forms for the release of your children’. And quickly as I could, I typed them up on my machine so that he could sign them. Not only I got these forms, but my colleagues did as well.”

Estera Frenkiel now had the chance to save 10 lives. Who would she choose? How much would she agonise over this terrible choice? She didn’t agonise for a second. She acted purely by instinct: “What could I do? I also had close family. I had an uncle who had to be saved. I had a cousin. To me, one’s own family is always closer. I had to take care of them all; out of these 10 certificates I had first to consider my own relatives… in these cases tears are shed, but when there are so many tears, then one thinks only of one’s own situation.”

Having saved her own relatives, she then turned to the people closest to her: “I gave the neighbours two certificates and also gave the caretaker, who had a little girl, one as well, so that these three release forms were used up almost immediately… The children [of the neighbour] used to come to my home, to my flat. I knew them. They weren’t my children, but they were children I had known and once one knows someone, it gets very difficult…”

Estera Frenkiel has never pretended that she was driven by anything other than a desire to protect those nearest to her. She did confess that she experienced a “guilty conscience” when she saw the despair of mothers whose children had been deported. Once or twice she felt she should have saved the most useful people, but these feelings didn’t last very long. Ultimately, she was never shaken from the belief that she had done the right thing. In crisis, she believed, we look after ourselves and those closest to us first.

In any event, the certificates brought only a stay of execution. “Later,” she said, “everyone was sent away whom one had previously rescued. That’s how it is. That’s the reality.”

After the Lodz ghetto was liquidated by the Nazis in 1944, Estera Frenkiel was transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp. Here she survived a “selection” process and then worked in a Nazi labour camp until liberation. After the war she settled in Israel, but returned to Lodz for her filmed interview.

My last memory of this remarkable woman is of her standing defiantly dry-eyed in Lodz cemetery. I remarked to her that she was one of the toughest and most decisive people I had ever met. “If I wasn’t tough and decisive,” she replied, “I wouldn’t be standing here today”.

Survived as a Japanese POW

Peter Lee was a young RAF officer. Imprisoned in Borneo, he had to cope with hunger, beatings and sickness

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The North of England and a solid working class background was what made Peter Lee. The values he absorbed growing up in the 1930s helped him face one of the worst experiences of the Second World War – imprisonment by the Japanese.

He was incarcerated at Sandakan in Borneo. The Japanese wanted an airport, and the prisoners of war were to build it. The heat at the site was intense. When I filmed there, the fierce sun and humidity were scarcely bearable – and I was not malnourished and forced to carry heavy loads. “It was basically shifting earth,” recalled Lee. “There were no machines to assist. It was all human labour.”

If the prisoners did not work as the Japanese wanted, they were beaten. Special Japanese soldiers, known as “the bashers”, smashed the British about. “Whether you were an officer or another rank you had to obey the orders of the lowest-rank Japanese private. If you didn’t obey immediately, depending on the personality of that soldier, you’d get a crack over the head or a crack over the backside with a stick. There was one occasion on which a [British] officer intervened when one of his men was being beaten up by some Japanese guards and he was horribly beaten up by quite a number of them.”

All of which led Lee to this conclusion: “My considered opinion, over the whole range of our experience, was that the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war was brutal, sadistic and uncivilised.”

So, given all that, how did he manage to survive? “The natural emotion is anger. That’s the natural emotion of anyone – any reasonable person. If they’re attacked it’s to defend themselves. But as a Prisoner of War of the Japanese you very quickly realised that was not on. If you attempted to defend yourself you were bashed senseless… And the law of survival comes in. You have to realise the situation you’re in and order your actions according to that situation. In other words, you have to take it. In the old British phrase, you have to ‘grin and bear it'”.

Lee sat in front of me as he said this, looking like a well-turned-out schoolmaster. It was hard to imagine him sweating and steaming in Sandakan. But then I realised that while he would, of course, have sweated, he would never have steamed. Not for him the intense expression of personal emotions proselytised by the “Me” generation in the 1960s. No, by an exercise of phenomenal self discipline, he had banished hatred and even anger from his emotional make-up.

And he didn’t just eliminate hatred and anger at Sandakan, he excised another “negative” force, self-pity. He saw that it was a “positive disadvantage to have that frame of mind. The best thing you could do was to think of ways of assisting the community… in those circumstances, keep your mind and body occupied as much as you can and don’t mope about and never feel sorry for yourself”.

Lee believed it was vital to focus only on “living in the present – to take the situation as it was, not as I wished it to be… There was no point in reminiscing about the past – about your family, about your friends, because the past was the past and all you did if you reflected on the past in relation to the horrible present was to torture yourself”.

And so he took what he could from each moment – even finding positives: “We were fortunate that many people had gone into prison camps with books, and we passed them around. So if you had a spare moment you’d read a book.”

It wasn’t that he denied the harsh realities; rather that he chose not to focus upon them. His strength of mind, his stoicism, his toughness, all of these qualities became his protection against self-pity and physical and mental decline. It was these “old-fashioned” values that helped him survive the horror.

 

Volunteered to fight for the SS

Even though he had lost an eye and an arm, Jacques Leroy decided to fight again with comrades in “their hour of need”

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In popular culture the link between Germany and Nazism is explicit. Not everyone realises that Nazism and Fascism appealed to many non-Germans. Indeed, the most fanatical member of the SS that I met was Belgian.

Jacques Leroy was brought up in Bache in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. During his youth he subscribed to the views of Léon Degrelle, leader of the fascist Rexist party. And so, racist and deeply anti-Communist, it’s no surprise that he volunteered to fight Stalin in a special Walloon division within the SS.

“The ideological aim of the Waffen SS was to train men – elite men,” said Leroy. “This word is no longer appreciated in our multi-pluralist society, but it was to train men who could take over a command and serve their country.” The purpose was clear. “It was the war against Russia, against Communist and Bolshevik Russia, that was the motive for everything.”

Leroy and the rest of the volunteers in the 5th SS Volunteer Sturmbrigade Wallonien were transferred to the Eastern Front. Leroy proved himself a fierce and brave fighter: “One fought with weapons, one hid behind trees, one fought hand-to-hand.” He won a special medal for courage in hand-to-hand-fighting.

But, in the snow of the forest of Teklino in the west of Ukraine in 1943, they faced a Red Army force that massively outnumbered them – with disastrous consequences: “These fights were truly terrible. We lost 60 per cent of our men. Two or three panzer tanks were there to protect us, but they couldn’t get into the forest.” As he remembered these events, Leroy became animated: “We fought like lions! We attacked and we took position after position!”

But then Leroy’s luck evaporated.

“I was kneeling behind a birch tree – quite a slim tree – and then suddenly I felt something like an electric shock. I dropped my weapon, I dropped it and at that moment I saw blood, blood dripping into the snow. It was my eye which had been hit by a bullet, which burned it. And [I had] three bullets in my shoulder.” Leroy lay bleeding in the snow until two of his comrades carried him to a field hospital.

Surgeons failed to save his eye or his arm.

And now we come to the extraordinary part of his story. For, badly disabled as he was, he rejoined his unit. Why?

“So as not to fall into mediocrity, and to stay with my comrades,” Leroy answered. “Of course I had lost an arm and an eye, but when young, one isn’t affected by troubles in the same way that an older person might be. And, above all, so as not to fall into mediocrity. I don’t like mediocrity. I don’t like doing nothing, being idle and not having any aim in life… Sometimes you have to be a symbol in life. Otherwise what is your life for? Life is not about watching television all the time! You have to think, you must have a goal.” (Ironically, Leroy’s house had a huge television set, and he clearly spent a great deal of time watching it.)

Leroy emphatically denied seeing any atrocities committed against the Jews: “Never, never, never never! I have never seen a scene like that, that’s why I don’t believe it, I don’t believe it! You know, the answers that I’m giving you, it could be serious for me because you have to feel sympathy towards them these days.”

When I pointed out that there was photographic evidence of dead bodies at Nazi concentration camps, he said: “And you really believe these pictures are true?”

Leroy died shortly after our interview. I’m sure he went to his grave consistent to the last; a fanatical former member of the SS, denying the reality of the Holocaust, and shouting at his TV whenever it told him the truth.

Killed a German prisoner

Having joined SMERSH, the notorious Soviet counter-intelligence unit, Zinaida Pytkina was expected to kill a German prisoner

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At first glance, as she sat huddled in her rickety little house in Volgograd, Zinaida Pytkina looked like a typical Russian granny. She was, after all, in her late 70s when I met her. However, the directness of her stare was at odds with her age. This was a woman who unemotionally appraised everyone she met – and appeared to find most of them wanting.

She had been an officer in SMERSH, the secret Soviet intelligence unit so loved by thriller writers, and she had specialised in gathering intelligence from German prisoners. These captured Germans, claimed Pytkina, were not ordinary “Prisoners of War” since they’d been taken by Soviet snatch squads. As a result of this, SMERSH operatives felt they could treat them as they liked. German soldiers were ordered to reveal their units, their mission, battle plans, the names of their commanders. And if they didn’t co-operate to the satisfaction of their captors, said Pytkina, they were treated “gently”.

“Gently” was her way of describing torture; because if the Germans didn’t talk then a “specialist” was brought in who would “give them a wash” (the SMERSH euphemism for a beating) to make them “sing”. After all, said Pytkina: “No one wants to die”.

Even today, Pytkina was proud of the actions of SMERSH. She thinks it was right to treat German prisoners “the same way they treated us – what should we do – worship him? He kills our soldiers, what should I do?”

She didn’t just witness the interrogation and torture of German soldiers, she personally participated in their murder. One day her superior officer told her to “sort out” a young German major. She knew exactly what that meant – she was being asked to kill him.

“When they brought prisoners after the interrogations, it was a normal thing to do… If they had brought a dozen of them my hand wouldn’t have trembled to shoot them all… He had to be destroyed – the same way they treated us; we had to treat them the same way…

“…Now I wouldn’t do it whether he was an enemy or not, because I have got over it and I would leave it to others to sort things out, but at that time if they had lined up all those Germans I would have shot them all down, because so many Russian soldiers lost their lives at the age of 18,19 or 20 who hadn’t lived, who had to go and fight against the Germans because they just wanted more land. What would you have felt?”

Pytkina was almost ecstatic as she raised her pistol to shoot the young German major: “I felt joy… My hand didn’t tremble when I killed him… The Germans didn’t ask us to spare them. They knew they were guilty and I was angry. I was seeing an enemy and my father and uncles, mothers and brothers, died because of them”.

She didn’t look down as his body tumbled into the pit: “I was pleased. I had fulfilled my task. I went into the office and had a drink”.

“I understand the interest in how a woman can kill a man,” said Pytkina towards the end of the interview. “I wouldn’t do it now. Well, I would do it only if there was a war and if I saw once more what I had seen during that war, then I would probably do it again… One person less I thought.

“Ask him how many people he killed – did he not think about this? I wanted to go on a reconnaissance mission, to crawl to the enemy’s side and to capture a prisoner, perhaps kill him. I could have been killed too… that was my mood… and now if an enemy attacks I will do the same.”

That night I dreamt about the story I had just heard. I saw the body of the major decaying in the pit and Pytkina and her friends partying nearby. Perhaps the nightmare was inspired by the last words Pytkina spoke in her interview: “People like him [the young major she shot] had killed many Russian soldiers… should I have kissed him for that?”
 

Falsified Yugoslav handover to Tito

British Intelligence officer Nigel Nicolson was told to lie about the likely fate of Croats handed over to Tito’s partisans. Could he obey orders and still find a way of telling the truth?

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Many people prefer studying historical documents to questioning people who actually participated in historical events. “Interviewees can be so unreliable,” they say, so “trust the documents”. Whenever anyone says this I think of Nigel Nicolson, who revealed the danger of believing that any historical source is inherently accurate.

In the summer of 1945, Nigel Nicolson, a 28-year-old intelligence officer to the 1st Guards Brigade, participated in the deportation of thousands of Yugoslav soldiers who had sought refuge in southern Austria from the Communist Marshal Tito and his partisans.

Winston Churchill’s policy was clear: they should not be handed over to Tito. Yet senior officers in the British army decided that they should be handed over, against Allied policy.

Nigel Nicolson’s daily Sit Rep (Situation Report) recorded on 18 May, the eve of the forced repatriation, makes interesting reading: “About 2,000 Croats [non-Tito Yugoslavs] are being evacuated tomorrow morning from two large camps on the northern shore of the Wörther See… among whom are many women and children…

“The Croats have been given no warning of their fate and are being allowed to believe that their destination is not Yugoslavia but Italy until the actual moment of their handover. The whole business is most unsavoury and British tps [troops] have the utmost distaste in carrying out the orders. At the moment it is not known what higher policy lies behind the decision”.

The report was circulated to Battalion and upwards to Division. “There was the most frightful row,” said Nicolson. “I was sent for by the General or his chief of staff and told that, whatever truth there was in this, I should never have stated it in a public document and, further than that, I was told, and it was more or less dictated to me, that in the next day’s situation report I must deny what I’d written the day before and say that we have every reason to believe that they would be well treated once they got to Yugoslavia. That was totally untrue.”

And so after a day of handing over the non-Tito troops to the Communists, Nigel Nicolson wrote this on 19 May: “The transfer was efficiently organised by 3 WG [the Welsh guards unit involved] and the Tito Major, the latter showing considerable tact in clearing away all Tito soldiers from the area with the exception of himself.

“First impressions of the reception accorded to the Croats was definitely good. They were kindly and efficiently handled and provided with light refreshments before continuing their journey by train into Jugo-Slavia. A Tito representative said that only the war criminals among them would be punished, and the remainder sent to work on their farms. We have every reason to believe that this policy which accords with previous practice of Tito’s men, will be faithfully carried out”.

This daily Situation Report of 19 May is a significant document. Nigel Nicolson told me that he had used deliberately ludicrous language to make it clear to anyone subsequently reading the document that it was a piece of fiction. After all, he said to me, who could believe that Tito’s bloodthirsty Communists would provide “light refreshments”?

But Nicolson’s subterfuge didn’t work. I know of at least one historian who took the document at face value, and used it to try and prove that Tito’s partisans had behaved responsibly when presented with enemy prisoners.

The fate of many of the anti-Tito troops handed over to the Communists by Nigel Nicolson and the rest of 5 Corps was horrific. Thousands were murdered in the forest of Kocevje in Slovenia.

We are lucky that Nigel Nicolson admitted before he died in 2004 that he had lied in his Situation Report. If he hadn’t, the precise nature and detail of this appalling action would be obscured. His fictitious report would rest quietly in the archives, ready to lie to future generations.

Accepted a mission of certain death

Japanese pilot Kenichiro Oonuki was asked if he wanted to become a Kamikaze and fly his aircraft into an Allied warship

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The target Kenichiro Oonuki flew towards on 5 April 1945 was an Allied fleet off the Japanese island of Okinawa. His mission was simple: to smash his fighter plane, laden with high explosives, into an Allied warship. He would blow himself into a million pieces, and also, he was told, become a kind of god. For Oonuki was one of the infamous warriors of the Second World War – a Kamikaze.

These Japanese suicide pilots were called “madmen” by the Allied servicemen who faced them. In war, the belief that one’s foe is insane unites everyone around a common goal.

But the Kamikaze weren’t mad at all. A study of Japanese history reveals that, paradoxically, the only “inscrutable” Japanese were probably the tiny number who – when asked – didn’t volunteer to become Kamikazes.

In the autumn of 1944, a senior Japanese Air Force officer visited Oonuki’s training base, seeking “volunteers” for a “special mission”. He made it clear that anyone who volunteered had no hope of surviving. Oonuki and his comrades were told to think it over and then, the next morning, give one of three responses – “No”, “Yes,” or “Yes, I volunteer with all my heart”.

The immediate reaction was predictable. “We were taken aback,” said Oonuki, “I felt it was not the type of mission I would willingly apply for”. But, as the night wore on, they thought about what might happen if they said “No”. They might be accused of cowardice and be ostracised; their relatives shunned.

Apart from a brief period at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th, Japan had been one of the most culturally insular countries in the world. The government that had come to power in the 1930s had called for a return to the “traditional values” that existed before contact with the west. So in 1944, for anyone to be excluded from a cultural group they had been told for years was acceptable was a terrible humiliation.

Then Oonuki and his friends realised those who didn’t come forward could be “sent to the forefront of the most severe battle and meet a sure death anyway”. Surely, on reflection, the easiest action  was to “volunteer with all my heart” as Oonuki and all the other pilots on his course did. “Probably it’s unthinkable in the current days of peace,” said Oonuki. “Nobody wanted to, but everybody said ‘Yes, with all my heart’. That was the surrounding atmosphere. We could not resist.”

It would have taken an exceptional person to withstand this pressure. Propaganda trumpeted that the Kamikaze were heroes – they would receive a “promotion”, their families would get a bigger pension after their death. They would be gods. Their souls would live in Tokyo’s Yasukuni shrine where the Emperor would worship them.

Oonuki survived because his plane was forced to land by American fighters. He was not pleased: “It was dishonour; the special mission attack means you must meet an honourable death”.

Judged without knowledge of this background, Oonuki’s experience is a straightforward example of the insane behaviour of the Japanese during the Second World War. Yet on closer examination it was anything but irrational: “We were very calm and we went through a very calm, dispassionate process of analysis [before agreeing to take part]”.

Indeed, as Oonuki saw it, sometimes the only sane choice is to take the option others consider “mad”.

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