After World War Two, Nazi war criminals were tried in courts around Europe. Most defendants denied they had carried out any crimes or claimed they were only “following orders.” One of the few who did express remorse was SS Staff Sergeant Karl Frenzel, one of the top commanders at the Sobibor Death Camp.
At the Sobibor trials in 1965, Frenzel was charged with personally murdering 42 Jews and participating in the murder of roughly a quarter of a million at the camp. In one incident, Frenzel ordered the deaths of 20 Jews as punishment for the escape of two prisoners. He often whipped prisoners and, one time when a prisoner tried to commit suicide, Frenzel shouted that Jews had no right to kill themselves. He then whipped the dying man and shot him with his pistol.
Another SS man said of Frenzel: "He was one of the most brutal members of the permanent staff in the camp. His whip was very loose.”1 “Frenzel was really one of the bad ones – if he could kill people he did,” survivor Chaim Engel stated. “If he didn’t like somebody, he shot them.”2
Another survivor testified that one time Frenzel grabbed an abandoned baby in an incoming transport, smashed its skull and threw it aside, like a dead rat. Frenzel did not deny the accusation. In his defense Frenzel stated: “As I already pointed out, under the prevailing war conditions, which are now difficult to comprehend, I unfortunately believed that what was going on in Sobibor was lawful. To my regret, I was then convinced of its necessity. I was shocked that just during the war, when I wanted to serve my homeland, I had to be in such a terrible extermination camp.”1
Frenzel served 16 years in prison, was released on a technicality and then retried. During his second trial, he agreed to speak with Toivi Blatt, one of the few survivors of the death camp, who had arrived in West Germany and testified against Frenzel. Blatt met Frenzel in a hotel room, the only time a Nazi death camp supervisor was ever interviewed by a death camp survivor. Blatt agreed to meet to discuss details of the camp for the history of Sobibor he was writing.
To tolerate meeting with the murderer, Blatt tried to distance himself emotionally, to act only as an objective writer carrying out important historical research. Frenzel, however, saw the meeting very differently. He had a more personal agenda.
Blatt began the meeting by pointing out the enormity of the crimes Frenzel had committed: “Here you are drinking beer. With that smile on your face you could be anybody’s neighbor, anybody’s fellow sporting-club member. But you are not anybody. You are Karl Frenzel, the SS commandant. You ranked third in the chain of command at the extermination camp of Sobibor…I was fifteen years old. I survived because you made me your shoeshine boy. Besides me, nobody survived; not my father, not my mother, not my brother, none one of the two thousand Jews from my town, Izbica. At least a quarter-million Jews were murdered at Sobibor.”
Blatt asked Frenzel why he wanted to meet him. “I would like to apologize to you,” Frenzel responded. Blatt blinked. “You want to apologize to me?” he asked incredulously. “I would like to apologize,” Frenzel repeated. “Nothing can be done about the victims. What happened happened. We can’t change anything about that. But I would like to extend my personal apologies to you.”
Blatt still couldn’t quite comprehend what Frenzel had said: “You would like to apologize?” he asked again. “I can only say it now in tears,” Frenzel replied. “Not only am I beside myself now, no, back then, too. I was greatly bothered by it all.”
Blatt collected himself and began pressing the former death camp supervisor. He noted that Frenzel not only did not prevent any of it from happening but actively took part in the mass murder. “You don’t know what went on inside of us. You don’t understand the circumstances in which we found ourselves,” Frenzel responded. “I condemn what happened to the Jews. I understand how you must feel. You cannot forget; neither can I. I dream about it at night; for sixteen years in prison. Just as you dream about it at night.”
Blatt asked Frenzel if he carried out his actions due to anti-Semitism or orders. “I was no anti-Semite, but we had to do our duty. For us, this was a bad time,” Frenzel answered. “Duty,”
Blatt responded skeptically. “That’s what it always comes down to, duty. Why did you club my father to the ground immediately upon arrival? Was that your duty?”
Frenzel claimed that he did not recall the incident. Blatt inquired about several other times Frenzel whipped inmates. “I would like you to know I was always fair,” Frenzel replied. “I never punished anyone who didn’t do anything wrong.” Blatt noted that Frenzel once shot a boy for stealing sardines. The former SS guard denied the incident, as well as several other murders he had been accused of committing: “It is incomprehensible to me that that I should be accused of having killed children,” Frenzel explained. Blatt noted that tens of thousands of children were killed at Sobibor, but Frenzel denied having taken part in the killing of children.
“What happened to the Dutch Jews?” Blatt asked.
Frenzel said he was warned by a Polish Kapo that a number of Dutch Jews were preparing a revolt and informed Commandant Niemann. “He ordered the execution of 72 Jews.” Frenzel denied that he had taken them to the gas chamber.
Blatt asked Frenzel if he felt torn between his Nazi party membership and his religious beliefs as a regular churchgoer. “Oh, yes, of course!” Frenzel responded. “Ever since 1945. I have been cursing the Nazis – for what they did, and everything they stood for.”
Frenzel told Blatt that before he arrived at Sobibor, he was told it was a work camp. Once he found out it was an extermination camp he asked for a transfer but was denied: “So, all I could do was my duty,” he told Blatt.
When Blatt asked whether the murder of 250,000 Jews was his duty, Frenzel replied: “We had to do our duty. I am sorry about what happened there, but I cannot make what’s done undone. I would like to ask the forgiveness of all of them. The things that have stayed with you have also stayed with me. And I too, have often thought about it, about justice and injustice, and I have to the conclusion that what happened then was an injustice. I condemn that time.”
Frenzel continued to try and humanize himself to his former victim: “I beg you to see me from a different perspective, other than Sobibor. I have much on my conscience, many human lives. Not one, no – 100,000 human lives are on my conscience.”
Blatt closed the interview by asking Frenzel again why he wanted to speak with him. “I wanted to apologize to you in person for all that happened then. If you would accept my apologies in the names of the victims, it would in some small measure be a comfort to me. I wanted to have a heart-to-heart talk between two human beings. I can understand how you feel and that you harbor a certain hatred against us. I don’t hold that against you. I would feel the same way.” 3
Blatt never forgave Frenzel for his crimes at Sobibor. Frenzel was re-sentenced to life in prison, but was released due to ill health a short time later. He died a free man in 1996. Blatt published his history of Sobibor the following year.
This extraordinary exchange raises many questions. Among them:
- Do we believe that Frenzel was sincere in his apology? Did he truly feel remorse for his actions?
- If so, why did he not act in a different manner during the war?
- Are people really capable of such change, going from active participation in genocide to true regret?
- Are people capable of carrying the most heinous crimes imaginable because they were ordered to, and then truly coming to realize they were wrong? If so, what does this say about human nature?
- Is circumstance as important as Frenzel maintains? Would other people in his situation act the way because they were ordered to? Scholars like Stanley Milgram and Christopher Browning maintain people are hard-wired to follow orders, while others like Daniel Goldhagen, reject this claim.
- Frenzel claims he is sorry about what happened at Sobibor, but doesn’t apologize for his own actions, including whippings and murders, saying he was doing what he thought was his duty. He seems to be saying he is sorry for what happened, but not for what he did personally. Does this make his apology less sincere?
- What would be an appropriate punishment for Frenzel?
1Yitzchak Arad. (1987). Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps, Indiana University Press, Bloomington: pg. 192.
2 United States Holocaust Museum. Oral testimony of Chaim Engel. http://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn505563.
3Toivi Blatt. Ashes of Sobibor. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1997235-242