Picture of a killer
As an adult, Claudia Cornwall searched and found the name of her grandparents' murderer. But finding a photo of the Nazi officer had an unexpected and profound effect.
July 22nd, 2022
She was able to put a human face to the atrocious and horrific deed. “I can come no closer to the truth than this,” she says. “My quest finally came to an end.”
By Claudia Cornwall
“The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers. It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.” — Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands
He poses on a patch of dirt in a grove of trees. His hair is short, his head shaved a couple of inches above his ears. He looks straight ahead, doesn’t smile, and holds his hands behind his back. He wears polished boots and an SS uniform with a lightning bolt insignia on his right collar.
I had been trying to learn more about this man for decades. In the beginning, I knew him only as Unterscharführer Arlt. With a rank similar to that of a sergeant’s, he commanded a squad of ten men in the Waffen-SS, stationed in Minsk. The picture of him that arrived at my home in North Vancouver recently was a grainy copy of a photo. Still it made an indelible impression.
My search started nearly 30 years ago when I wrote Letter from Vienna: A Daughter Uncovers Her Family’s Jewish Past (D&M, 1995). In the book, I described how I discovered that three of my grandparents were Jewish and that two of them (my father’s parents, Rudolf and Regine Wiener) died in the Holocaust. I think my parents, Lore and Walter Wiener, kept the truth from me mostly out of fear that even in Canada, antisemitism was a threat. Three months after they arrived in Vancouver in 1949, a deportation order was issued because they were “not in possession of a proper immigrant visa.” At a hearing, both my parents were asked, “What is your racial origin?” The order was eventually revoked, but the experience was not reassuring.
When I gave readings from my book and talked to people in the audience, I realized that my story was not unique. The Holocaust was over, but many people were still in hiding. I discovered details my parents did not know. Rudolf and Regine Wiener were part of a group of 994 Jews deported from Vienna on May 5, 1942. Their journey began on a third-class passenger train. Then 250 kilometres from their destination, they were transferred to a cattle car. On May 11 at 10:30 in the morning, my grandparents reached Minsk, their final stop. They were taken to a nearby forest and shot.
I also determined that Unterscharführer Arlt led the platoon that killed them. In the UBC library, I located a copy of Unsere Ehre Heisst Treue (“Loyalty is my Honour,” an SS motto). The red leather volume contained SS activity reports. One dated May 17, 1942 confirms that a transport came to Minsk a few days earlier. It is signed “Arlt.” No first name. Below the signature is typed “SS Unterscharführer.”
Arlt stated that on May 4 his group of men started supervising the digging of a hole. He also related, “On May 11 a transport of Jews (1,000 head) from Vienna arrived in Minsk and was taken immediately from the railway station to the pit. The squad was positioned right next to the pit for this purpose.”
As I read Arlt’s report, I imagined the members of the transport holding hands — so many of them, they would have formed a line nearly half a kilometre long. It was harder to think about what actually happened that day: the relentless shooting; the bodies piling up in the pit; the screams. Were my grandparents together at the end? What were their last words? And what about Arlt and his men? What did they do when they were finished? Drink themselves into a stupor? Sleep?
A long chain of commands culminated in the death of my grandparents. Arlt was not the only person responsible. But he was at the end of the chain. Thus, he held a unique significance for me and I wanted to understand his background. Why was he in that forest killing people who had done him no harm? Was Arlt ever investigated for war crimes?
For many years, I couldn’t answer these questions. My book was published in 1995, but I kept looking to see if anything new had emerged about Arlt. In 2013, my cousin in Vienna emailed me to say that Waltraud Barton, whose relatives were also killed near Minsk, was starting a project to commemorate the people murdered there. I wrote to Waltraud hoping she could shed light on the mystery surrounding Arlt. She replied, “This Unterscharführer Arlt is mentioned in some documents. I also tried to find out what happened to him after WW2, but without any success.” She suggested I approach the Austrian Research Agency for Postwar Justice but it couldn’t help either.
Then I came across a historian in Portugal who had written extensively about the deportations and death camps in eastern Europe. He recommended the German Federal Archives in Ludwigsburg, Germany. A staff member informed me that Arlt’s first name was Gerhard. He was born in March 1912 and died in action in February 1944, in Estonia, close to the Russian front. I had always wondered whether he escaped to South America. Now I knew why he had seemed to vanish.
The archivist in Ludwigsburg also put me in touch with another archive in Berlin that houses the SS personnel records. It sent me more reports, memos and — unexpectedly — that picture of Arlt.
In some ways, Arlt was unremarkable. In a short biography that he penned by hand and signed, he recounts that he was born in Gotha, a small medieval town in the centre of Germany. His father, a saddler, was also born there. Arlt left school at 14 and apprenticed as a house painter. He finished his training in 1929 when the Great Depression started. Like millions of Germans, Arlt couldn’t find work for a long time, not until 1936, when he got a job in a factory. He stayed there until the the Second World War broke out in 1939 and the army called him up. He concluded, “In 1940, I joined the Waffen-SS and am still a member today.”
A series of memos in the Berlin dossier revealed that in November 1942, Arlt’s thoughts turned to marriage and to a young woman called Edith Lux. She was just 19, ten years younger than he was and also lived in Gotha — a few steps away from Arlt’s home. For members of the SS, getting married was not simple. Arlt needed to prove that Edith was not Jewish. He supplied the names of two neighbours to vouch for her and sent off an application.
Six months later, on June 4, 1943, Richard Hildebrandt, head of the Race and Settlement Office, wrote back: He needed another guarantor. Hildebrandt did not explain why, although “Lux” is sometimes a Jewish name, so that could have been the reason. Two days later, Arlt responded: “Request that the approval for marriage be sent quickly as I am on leave between June 9 and June 24. I would like to marry while I am back home and therefore, ask that the approval be sent quickly.” His impatience with the bureaucracy is palpable. We all know what that is like. Documents had been lost. Wheels turned slowly. He needed to resend the results of a medical exam and photographs.
I don’t know whether Arlt’s request was granted, but, as I had learned, eight months after Arlt asked for his marriage to be expedited, he was dead on an Estonian battlefield.
That’s why I couldn’t find any prosecution records. However, Joseph Skowranek, one of the men in Arlt’s squad, mentioned him to German police in Krefeld in 1967. This was in the course of an investigation about another former officer in the Waffen-SS. Skowranek was chillingly matter of fact when asked what happened when trucks carrying Jews arrived in Maly Trostenets, a village outside Minsk: “The victims were taken out of the vehicle and then led by the individual shooters to the grave. There they were killed by a shot to the neck.” After reading that the SS shot thousands of Jews in a forest near Minsk, I assumed it was done firing-squad style, with rifles at a distance. Instead, it was up close and personal, an act of perverse intimacy.
Skowranek said that at the end of April or the beginning of May 1942, Arlt drove a truck carrying his platoon, as well as six political prisoners, both men and women, to a forest ten kilometres outside Minsk. The prisoners were forced to dig a grave. When they were done, Arlt ordered his men to burn the prisoners alive. Skowranek protested, saying, “We can’t do that. I would rather shoot the people first, before they are burned.”
My stomach churned as I absorbed this. Arlt’s idea was so cruel, even a fellow member of the notoriously cold-blooded SS was shocked. In the end, Arlt backed off and Skowranek was not punished for objecting to an order. This was not as unusual as you might think. Doris Bergen notes in War and Genocide:
“To this day no one has found an example of a German who was executed for refusing to take part in the killing of Jews or other civilians. Defense attorneys of people accused of war crimes have looked hard for such a case because it would support the claim that their clients had no choice. The Nazi system, however, did not work that way. There were enough willing perpetrators so that coercive force could be reserved for those deemed enemies.”
Martin Cüppers, in Wegbereiter der Shoa, (Pioneers of the Holocaust), maintained Arlt’s group murdered at least 21,000 people between April 22 and Sept. 25, 1942. The squad killed partisans and political prisoners, Jews from the ghettos in and around Minsk, and those like my grandparents who were brought there to be murdered.
Arlt was not a weird loner or outsider. Rooted in his and his father’s community, he wanted to marry the girl who lived around the corner. When he needed someone to vouch for her, he asked his neighbours. His circle was tight-knit. Ordinary individuals created the Holocaust. They were people with wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, children, friends and neighbours. They worked, were sometimes unemployed, had struggles, as we all do. But they did monstrous things. They were part of a vast machinery of destruction in which, as Cüppers wrote, the “organized annihilation of people had become routine.” Nonetheless, Arlt could have objected. Arlt made a decision; he said “Yes.”
My grandparents were buried in a mass grave. A year and half later, the Germans disinterred the corpses of the tens of thousands of people they had slain near Minsk. In an effort to conceal the atrocities, the Nazis forced Russian prisoners of war to burn the bodies. My grandparents’ bones were pulverized and scattered in a forest, their final resting place irretrievable.
The impulse to honour our dead is old. Archeologists tell us that early humans placed gifts beside corpses and marked their graves as long as 40,000 years ago. But I couldn’t turn to these ancient rituals. Perhaps that is why I felt compelled to tell Rudolf and Regine’s story and search for the man in charge of killing them.
I received three pictures of Arlt: two head shots and one of him amongst the trees. I stared at the photos for a long time. Did Arlt’s file contain them because of his request to marry? Is that why I stumbled upon them? I was not looking for images. Did not anticipate finding them. But through the medium of photography, I looked at the man Rudolf and Regine saw shortly before their death over 80 years ago. I could put a human face to the deed. I thought, “I can come no closer to the truth than this.” My quest finally came to an end.
Claudia Cornwall is the author of British Columbia in Flames (Harbour Publishing, 2020) and other books. She teaches creative writing at Simon Fraser University and lives in North Vancouver.