Approaching the Holocaust through family History:

A Pilgrimage to Belarus

By Katharina von Kellenbach

According to the Bible, 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 such as guilt and forgiveness, sin and redemption, adequately address the reality of perpetrators of genocide? Did these executioners emerge from their conversions "cleansed of their sins" and "reborn" as different persons? 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about the charges against Ebner as a teenager but could not emotionally or intellectually connect the elderly, somewhat withdrawn man to mass murder. Clearly, a man guilty of such crimes should be "marked" in some visible way, but my uncle was free. His trial was discontinued for fraudulent medical reasons, and he became a successful business man, a devoted husband and father, and a welcome guest at many family gatherings. Everyone denied what he had done and the charges against him were generally dismissed as vengeful lies and Soviet Cold War propaganda.

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 cousins.

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.

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 twelve thousand 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.

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 seven thousand human beings? Only two of the shooters were later imprisoned, in Frankfurt/Main in 1973, and they received three and fifteen 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 tortured victims?

Stasino comes close to descriptions of hell, a place where God does not exist, where life, goodness and life-giving nefesh (Hebrew for breath/soul) is sucked out and drained away. There is no prayer and 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.

We do not like to admit that we are descendants of Cain. In the Bible, Eve gives birth to a third son, Seth, who becomes the father of humankind. Cain, and the legacy of slaughter, is comfortably written out of our line of ancestry.

In real life, 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.


Katharina von Kellenbach is Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, at St. Mary's College of Maryland.