My uncle, Alfred Ebner, was accused of killing 20,000 Jews ( from the
by Katharina von Kellenbach
A Holocaust scholar, the niece of an SS-officer who oversaw the
slaughter of 30,000 Jews, returns to the scene of the crime.
Murder is almost as old as humanity itself. When Cain, the first
born son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Abel, he could not hide
his deed but was questioned by God: "What have you done? The voice of
your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are
cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your
brother's blood from your hand" (Gen 4:12). Cain is protected from
revenge killings by a mark of God, but sent away from God's presence
and forced to live as a fugitive and wanderer on the earth. His life
is forever marked by the memory of his crime.
As a religious studies scholar, I have been studying the post-war
lives of 20th Century Cains, those Nazi war criminals who participated
in the slaughter of six million Jewish men, women and children in
Europe during the 1940s. Have they been marked and, if so, how?
I am particularly interested in the fact that many Nazi perpetrators
converted or reconverted to Christianity after the war. Can
traditional Christian theological concepts adequately address the
reality of perpetrators of genocide? Did these executioners emerge
from their conversions "cleansed of their sins"? For answers, I have
been studying the archival documents of prison chaplains who provided
pastoral care and counseling to incarcerated and convicted Nazi
officials and SS-men.
As is often the case with scholars, my professional research interests
are rooted in my personal life. I am the niece of Alfred Ebner, a
SS-officer who became the deputy commissioner of the predominantly
Jewish town of Pinsk in Belarus, a man who oversaw and participated in
the slaughter of 30,000 Jews. I had first learned about the charges
against Ebner as a teenager but could not emotionally or
intellectually connect the elderly, somewhat withdrawn man to mass
murder. (For further reading see,
Over the years, I have collected information about the Belorussian
city of Pinsk, examined the trials against my uncle and the police
battalions involved in the massacres, and searched for the victims who
vanished and those who survived the killings. Last year, my path
intersected with the Nosanchuk family who emigrated from the small
village of Rubel located outside of Pinsk to the United States,
Israel, Canada and Cuba. Ten members of this Jewish family, including
two octogenarians who grew up in Rubel before the war and the son of a
third who had survived two massacres in hiding, planned to undertake a
journey to Belarus. And although we had never met, the Nosanchuks were
willing to take me along as they searched for ancestral homes,
synagogues and the graves of parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and
By publicly proclaiming my family connection to the Nazi deputy
commissioner of Pinsk, I risked being identified directly with the
legacy of annihilation wrought by Nazi Germany.
Our first meeting face to face occurred in the Pripyat Hotel in Pinsk.
We were all nervous, but I was especially so. By publicly proclaiming
my family connection to the Nazi deputy commissioner of Pinsk, I
risked being identified directly with the legacy of annihilation
wrought by Nazi Germany.
The very next day, we planned to attend a memorial in Rubel, where the
Nosanchuk family's home and business, a mill, once stood and where
Michael Nosanchuk had been hidden by a neighbor. The mill was burned
to the ground along with all the wooden structures in the village. The
mill stone was recently unearthed and now serves as the marker for the
mass grave of the Jewish men of Rubel. The Belorussian villagers
joined us in this memorial. Belarus suffered more than any other
country under Nazi occupation. By the end of the war 2.2 million
civilians (Jewish and Gentile) were dead out of a total population of
10.6 in 1939. Three million people were left homeless in the wake of
Germany's "burnt earth" policy, 85% of the factories were demolished,
and half of the agricultural land lay devastated. Today Belarus is the
poorest country in Europe with little contact to the outside world.
I was probably the first German the Nosanchuks and these villagers had
met since the war and I was known as little more than the "niece of
the Nazi." For a short time, this label would define me and eclipse my
present-day, individual reality as religion professor and Holocaust
scholar. For the duration of this pilgrimage, I would symbolically
walk in the shoes of Cain.
As I contemplated a speech for the memorial service in Rubel, I
wondered what people expected to hear from me. Surely, nobody would
want to hear excuses and explanations. Only open acknowledgement and
condemnation of the atrocities would do in such a place. And although
I could not apologize for something I had not committed, I decided to
express remorse on behalf of the perpetrators and to pledge resistance
and vigilance against the ideologies of anti-Semitism, racism and
nationalism that had legitimated their actions.
Such a speech seems easy and self-evident, but few Nazis disassociated
from their crimes publicly. My historical research and personal family
experience confirms that most perpetrators remained caught in denial
and self-deception and could not abjure the ideologies that justified
their crimes. Instead, they delegated such "coming to terms" to the
next generation and transmitted moral paralysis and vague guilt
feelings to their children and grandchildren.
The Belorussian villagers acknowledged that the Jewish men of Rubel
were not killed by Germans but by local thugs, members of their own
By acknowledging the crime on my uncle's behalf and asking the
attendees to build coalitions against the ideologies of hate, I wanted
to contribute to the emergence of a new memorial community. For a
moment, our different histories and antagonistic family roots
converged and committed us to joint grief and a shared vision of
humanity. Later my speech at the memorial became part of a surprising
conversation in which the Belorussian villagers acknowledged that the
Jewish men of Rubel were not killed by Germans but by local thugs,
members of their own families. "There were no Germans around," we were
told, on the day when the Jewish men were forced to assemble and then
killed in the middle of the village in broad daylight.
There together, on this hot summer day, we sifted through the
historical questions of who ordered the execution of the Jewish men of
Rubel. What had precipitated this "spontaneous pogrom"? Who protected
the local perpetrators? Who benefited from these killings? Perhaps
because I had publicly stepped into the role of Cain, the Belorussians
were willing to entertain questions of moral, political and criminal
responsibility and to openly acknowledge the village's own
contribution to the horrors of genocide.
The "local pogrom" against the Jewish men of Rubel happened within the
larger German plan for the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question."
The following day, the remaining Jewish women and children were
marched to the nearby town of Stolin. Eventually, they were massacred
in a gravel pit called Stasino, in the meticulous, orderly, efficient,
cold-blooded, time-conscious and cruel way that has given the
Holocaust its unique quality. Stasino became the final destination for
12,000 people, the vast majority of whom were Jews.
I had never heard of Stasino and was unprepared for the emotionally
wrenching atmosphere. As we approached the mass grave through an
unpaved trail into the forest, dark storm clouds gathered overhead.
While the Nosanchuks intoned the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the
dead, to the sound of growling thunder, I entered the pit, a vast
depression surrounded by pine trees. Losing sight of the group because
of the driving rain, I walked down the field and was assaulted by the
memory of archival documents describing the executions. Seven thousand
Jewish men, women and children were shot here in the course of one day
alone, on September 11, 1942.
The stillness of the forest was pierced by imaginary screams of agony
that had seeped into this earth: "His blood is crying up to me from
All of a sudden, the stillness of the forest was pierced by imaginary
screams of agony that had seeped into this earth: "His blood is crying
up to me from the ground," says God, and as I turned the corner on the
far end of the field with thunder roaring and lightning flashing above
me, I began to wonder about the nature of human and divine justice.
Certainly no Hollywood movie director could have scripted the weather
to greater dramatic effect as the rain drenched and chilled me.
And what had been the punishment of those men who walked into the pit
and killed 7,000 human beings? Only two of the shooters were later
imprisoned, in Frankfurt/Main in 1973, and they received three and 15
years respectively. Did they leave this place as human beings, or did
their souls drip away into the earth as surely as the blood of their
Stasino comes close to descriptions of hell, a place where life,
goodness and life-giving nefesh (Hebrew for breath/soul) is sucked out
and drained away. There is no redemption in such a place devoted
exclusively to atrocity and destruction. By the time I boarded the
bus, I felt physically and spiritually cold, numb, and empty, without
words or thoughts. Only later was I overcome by grief over this
senseless devastation. Abel would not have been the only one engulfed
by the horror. Cain must have walked away from Stasino forever marked
as a lost soul, a wanderer and fugitive from the earth, from humanity,
and from God.
In the Bible, Eve gives birth to a third son, Seth, who becomes the
father of humankind. Essentially Cain, and the legacy of slaughter, is
written out of our line of ancestry.
Today, however, the executioners live on and father families. The
murderers, past, present and future live among us, without the mark of
Cain for easy identification. Genocide entraps thousands of people in
webs of complicity and collusion. It is always more than the work of
one dictator, one party, or even one people. Ideologies of hate and
supremacy are ever powerful and persuasive, and their appeal
transcends particular times and cultures. It is only by listening to
the drowned voices from the killing fields that we guard against the
future spilling of blood of our brothers and sisters.