IN THE SUMMER of 1992 I bought a plane ticket to Paris, purchased an old Renault, and drove with a friend to Kiev over hundreds of miles of bad Soviet roads. We had to stop often. The tires blew on the jagged pavement, there was no gas available, and curious peasants and truckers wanted to look under the hood to see a Western automobile engine. On the single highway stretching from Lviv to Kiev, we visited the town of Zhytomyr, a center of Jewish life in the former Pale of Settlement, which during the Second World War had become the headquarters of Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust. Down the road to the south, in Vinnytsia, was Adolf Hitler’s Werwolf compound. The entire region was once a Nazi playground in all its horror.
Seeking to build an empire to last a thousand years, Hitler arrived in this fertile area of Ukraine—the coveted breadbasket of Europe—with legions of developers, administrators, security officials, “racial scientists,” and engineers who were tasked with colonizing and exploiting the region. The Germans blitzkrieged eastward in 1941, ravaged the conquered territory, and evacuated westward in defeat in 1943 and 1944. As the Red Army reoccupied the area, Soviet officials seized countless pages of official German reports, files of photographs and newspapers, and boxes of film reels. They deposited this war booty and classified the “trophy” documents in state and regional archives that would remain behind the Iron Curtain for decades. It was this material that I had come to Ukraine to read.
In the archives in Zhytomyr I came across pages with boot footprints and charred edges. The documents had survived two assaults: a Nazi scorched-earth evacuation that included the burning of incriminating evidence, and the destruction of the city during the fighting of November and December 1943. The files contained broken chains of correspondence, tattered scraps of paper with fading ink, decrees with pompous, illegible signatures left by petty Nazi officials, and police interrogation reports with the shaky scrawls of terrified Ukrainian peasants. I had seen many Nazi documents before, while comfortably ensconced in the microfilm reading room of the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. But now, seated in the buildings that had been occupied by the Germans, I discovered something besides the rawness of the material I was sifting through. To my surprise, I also found the names of young German women who were active in the region as Hitler’s empire-builders. They appeared on innocuous, bureaucratic lists of kindergarten teachers. With these leads in hand, I returned to the archives in the United States and Germany and started to look more systematically for documentation about German women who were sent east, and specifically about those who witnessed and perpetrated the Holocaust. The files began to grow, and stories started to take shape.
Researching postwar investigative records, I realized that hundreds of women had been called to testify as witnesses and that many were very forthcoming, since prosecutors were more interested in the heinous crimes of their male colleagues and husbands than in those of women. Many of the women remained callous and cavalier in their recounting of what they had seen and experienced. One former kindergarten teacher in Ukraine mentioned “that Jewish thing during the war.” She and her female colleagues had been briefed as they crossed the border from Germany into the eastern occupied zones in 1942. She remembered that a Nazi official in a “gold-brownish uniform” had reassured them that they should not be afraid when they heard gunfire—it was “just that a few Jews were being shot.”
If the shooting of Jews was considered no cause for alarm during the war, then how did women respond when they actually arrived at their posts? Did they turn away, or did they want to see or do more? I read studies by pioneering historians such as Gudrun Schwarz and Elizabeth Harvey that confirmed my suspicions about the participation of German women in the Nazi system but left open questions of wider and deeper culpability. Schwarz had uncovered violent SS wives. She mentioned one in Hrubieszow, Poland, who took the pistol from her husband’s hand and shot Jews during a massacre in the local cemetery. But Schwarz provided no name for this killer. Harvey had established that women teachers were active in Poland and that, on occasion, they visited ghettos and stole Jewish property. The scope of women’s participation in the massacres in the eastern territories remained unclear, however. It seemed that no one had scoured the wartime and postwar records and memoirs with these questions in mind: Did ordinary German women participate in the Nazi mass shooting of Jews? Did German women in places such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Poland participate in the Holocaust in ways that they did not admit to after the war?
In the postwar investigations in Germany, Israel, and Austria, Jewish survivors identified German women as persecutors, not only as gleeful onlookers but also as violent tormentors. But by and large these women could not be named by the survivors, or after the war the women married and took on different names and could not be found. Though there were source limits to my inquiry, over time it became clear that the list of teachers and other female Nazi Party activists that I had found in 1992 in Ukraine was the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of thousands of German women went to the Nazi East—that is, to Poland and the western territories of what was for many years the USSR, including today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—and were indeed integral parts of Hitler’s machinery of destruction.
One of these women was Erna Petri. I discovered her name in the summer of 2005 in the archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum had successfully negotiated the acquisition of microfilmed copies from the files of the former East German secret police (Stasi). Among the records were the interrogations and courtroom proceedings in a case against Erna and her husband, Horst Petri, who were both convicted of shooting Jews on their private estate in Nazi-occupied Poland. In credible detail Erna Petri described the half-naked Jewish boys who whimpered as she drew her pistol. When pressed by the interrogator as to how she, a mother, could murder these children, Petri referred to the anti-Semitism of the regime and her own desire to prove herself to the men. Her misdeeds were not those of a social renegade. To me, she looked like the embodiment of the Nazi regime.
Recorded cases of female killers were to a degree representative of a much bigger phenomenon that had been suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched. Given the ideological indoctrination of the young cohort of men and women who came of age in the Third Reich, their mass mobilization in the eastern campaign, and the culture of genocidal violence embedded in Nazi conquest and colonization, I deduced—as a historian, not a prosecutor—that there were plenty of women who killed Jews and other “enemies” of the Reich, more than had been documented during the war or prosecuted afterward. Though the documented cases of direct killing are not numerous, they must be taken very seriously and not dismissed as anomalies. Hitler’s Furies were not marginal sociopaths. They believed that their violent deeds were justified acts of revenge meted out to enemies of the Reich; such deeds were, in their minds, expressions of loyalty. To Erna Petri, even helpless Jewish boys fleeing from a boxcar bound for the gas chamber were not innocent; they were the ones who almost got away.
It was not by chance that eastern Eu...