Sometimes one runs into a story that, if it appeared in a novel, would stretch credulity.
The following Jewish rescue story is not only true, but its protagonist, Wehrmacht Oberleutnant [1st Lt.] Albert Battel, was honored posthumously by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among The Nations” in 1981. The Israeli lawyer and historian Zeev Goshen wrote a long and detailed article about the case in the Munich-based historical journal Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte (freely: Contemporary History Quarterly). https://www.ifz-muenchen.de/heftarchiv/1985_3_5_goshen.pdf [in German].
Przemysl was and is a small city of about 60,000 people in South-East Poland, near the present-day border with Ukraine. Its already favorable location as a trading center — on the San river, a navigable tributary of the Vistula — was further further enhanced in 1861 by the opening of a railway station on the line between Krakow and Lemberg [a.k.a. Lwow/Lvov/Lviv, present-day Ukraine]. As Przemysl was near the border between the Austro-Hungarian empire and Tsarist Russia, major fortification works were built there, at one point manned by 140,000 troops. The 1914-5 Siege of Przemysl counts as the largest siege of WW I.
After WW I and the birth of the Second Polish Republic, Przemysl was now part of the Lwow voivodeship (province) of Poland, but continued to have regional importance. About one-third of its population was Jewish.
Following the Nazi invasion of Poland (and the coordinated Soviet invasion of what was then Eastern Poland), the Nazi-Soviet demarcation line ran along the San river, and the Nazis violently drove the Jews from the left bank into the Soviet-occupied right bank part of the city. Come June 1941 and the invasion of the USSR, this Eastern part became the Jewish ghetto, its population swelled by Jews from surrounding towns being deported there.[*]
A Wehrmacht depot was established in Przemysl – for, among other things, vehicle repair and maintenance. As of July 1942, the military commander was one Major Max Liedtke, a WW I veteran and erstwhile regional newspaper editor (Greifswalder Zeitung, 1929-37) who reportedly had been dismissed for his critical comments about the Nazi regime.
His adjutant was Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) Albert Battel, a 51-year old lawyer from Breslau, Silesia (present-day Wroclaw, Poland) who had been called up for reserve duty. Battel actually had joined the NSDAP in 1933 (which ensured his continued legal career) but got into trouble with the party hierarchy: he continued to have friendly relations with Jews and, on one occasion, extended a loan to a Jewish colleague who had fallen on hard times [presumably, due to effectively being banned from representing non-Jewish clients]. Battel also reportedly assisted his Jewish in-laws to emigrate to Switzerland. While posted at Przemysl, he got a party reprimand for shaking the hand of the head of the Jewish council, a former classmate named Dr. Duldig.
On July 26, 1942, the SS planned the “Resettlement to the East” of the city’s Jews, the true destination being the nearby extermination camp of Belzec.
But when the SS task force showed up at the bridge across the San into the Jewish ghetto, they found their way blocked by a Wehrmacht detachment. The sergeant-major commanding it stated he had been ordered by Lt. Battel to block access across the bridge, by live fire if necessary. This is one of a few rare examples where Wehrmacht and SS actually pointed guns at each other!
The SS turned tail, and lodged an official complaint with the Wehrmacht city commander. However, Liedtke clearly approved of his adjutant’s behavior and backed him. About 100 Jews from the ghetto were working at his depot, and he was satisfied with their labor.
It was, however, obvious that the SS would return with reinforcements. So before they could do so, Battel sent three trucks into the ghetto, and in several trips, the depot workers and their families were shuttled across and given shelter at the Wehrmacht depot.
The SS did return the next day and deported the city’s remaining Jews, but were forced to spare the Wehrmacht depot as “they had nothing lost there”. Altogether, Battel (with the connivance of Liedtke) saved about 500 Jews from certain death.
Significantly, Battel did not suffer more severe consequences for his actions than a dressing-down — although correspondence within the SS and Party about his case got to the very top of the food chain, with a letter from Himmler to Bormann. Battel was supposed to be punished upon demobilization following the “Final Victory”, which [thank G-d] never came. Eventually Battel was given a medical discharge in 1944 for the heart disease that eventually claimed his life in 1952.
But, while escaping punishment for his courageous act, he received no reward in his lifetime either. Indeed, a postwar denazification court classified him as “IV. Mitlaüfer” (Category 4: Fellow Traveler[**]), and consequently barred him from practicing law in postwar Germany.
Battel’s superior officer, Liedtke, had been (punitively?) sent to the front, was taken prisoner by the Red Army, and eventually died in 1955 at a Soviet POW camp.
Until near the end of the war (post-Valkyrie, perhaps), the Wehrmacht still enjoyed a measure of protection from the SS thugs. Liedtke and Battel had plausibly argued operational exigencies: that the smooth functioning of their depot was logistically and strategically essential for the Wehrmacht’s Eastern Front, and that their “essential workers” could not be missed. No bribes were required, as they were in the case of Oskar Schindler. That Liedtke and Battel knew how to argue their case in writing (being an erstwhile journalist and lawyer, respectively) surely did not hurt.
But I would also like to think Battel, as a veteran lawyer, would have familiarized himself with the Wehrmacht’s own Military Penal Code (issued 1872 under Kaiser Wilhelm I, but apparently reprinted as late as 1944!)
Art. 47: I. If through the execution of a military order a penal offense is committed, then only the commanding superior officer is responsible. [So far, no surprise.] However, the obeying subordinate is liable to punishment as a participant if:
1. He has exceeded [the limits of] the order given
2. It was known to him that the purpose of the superior officer’s order was a military or civil crime or offense. [Original wording: “wenn ihm bekannt gewesen, daß der Befehl des Vorgesetzten eine Handlung betraf, welche ein bürgerliches oder militärisches Verbrechen oder Vergehen bezweckte.”]
Had Battel appeared before a court-martial, he would likely have invoked this clause, which would have brought considerable embarrassment.[***]
[*] The well-known if controversial Israeli political scientist Ze’ev Sternhell hails from the town. He was hidden and raised by a Polish Catholic family and even acted as an altar boy until reconnecting with his roots.
[**] The categories were: “I. Hauptschuldige (Major offender)” “2. Belastete (including Activists, Militants, Profiteers)” “3. Minderbelastete (Lesser offenders)” “4. Mitläufer (Fellow traveler)” “V. Unbelästet (Exonerated)”
[***] I will devote a separate blog post to the defense of “Befehlsnotstand” — freely: obeisance of criminal orders under duress — in German law. Suffice to saw: examples of true Befehlsnotstand were vanishingly rare: commanders of shooting squads such as Reserve Battalion 101 (the subject of Christopher Browning’s landmark book “Ordinary Men”) relied on peer pressure and indoctrination rather than coercion.