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The Mechanized Commando Unit of Haman

This was another sadistic band of mass murderers, which participated, in the brutal slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Jewish men, women, children and infants. It managed to kill the largest number of Lithuanian Jews outside of the main killing sites at the forts of Kaunas and Panerai forest, focusing primarily on Jewish communities in outlying areas, villages and agricultural settlements. This unit’s existence and functioning has added significance since its modus operandi provided clear proof of the involvement of the Lithuanian Provisional Government in the genocide of Lithuanian Jewry.

All the mass murders carried out by this unit were on the direct initiative and in full cooperation with representatives of the Provisional Government. These included area commanders, city mayors, local councils, Lithuanian police and local activists who previously had belonged to the Saulist, Partisan and White armband militias. They, as described below, played key role in the “preparation” of victims prior to their murder and also took part in the killing themselves.

It should be stressed that the ranks of the activists included people from all walks of life in Lithuanian society. Doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, industrial tradesmen, clerics, police, army officers, soldiers, civil servants, university students and high school pupils were all among those who joined the ranks of local activist groups when assistance was required in killing local Jews. Before relating the horrific murders it committed, I will first provide some background information on the macabre events that led to the formation of this particular death squad.

The German commander of this infamous unit had a name, which has unique significance for the Jewish people because of its association with persecution throughout the ages. He was called Joachim Haman and his earliest namesake appeared in the biblical scroll of Esther as an oppressor of Jews during period of Babylonian exile. Born in 1913, Haman joined the SS in 1938 and rose rapidly through the organization’s ranks. By 1940 he had already been promoted to the rank of obersturmfuhrer and was just 28 years old when he was assigned the task of forming the unit that bore his name.

Haman arrived in Kaunas several days after the launch of the invasion at the head of the Einsatzgruppen’s EK3 Division. He also served as an aide to local SS Colonel Karl Jaeger and was ordered by General Stahlecker, with the approval of Jaeger, to form a mechanized commando unit. He selected eight German Einsatzgruppen members to assist him and began recruiting Lithuanians for his new unit. The primary mission of the commando unit, he explained to the new recruits, would be the extermination of the Jews of Lithuania.

 he recruitment for Haman’s own commando unit coincided with the formation of the much larger First Battalion mentioned earlier, and the latter provided an ideal source of manpower for Haman’s venture. He recruited 58 men from the battalion’s fourth company and appointed Lieutenant Bronius Norkus as senior Lithuanian officer with SS Sergeant Herman Rauca serving as deputy CO. Norkus had a reputation for extreme cruelty and Rauca went on following the disbanding of the unit, to assume command of the forces guarding the remaining Jews in the Kaunas Ghetto.   

Most of the Lithuanian recruits to the Mechanized Commando Unit of Haman had previous experience of murdering Jews, having participated in mass pogroms and assisted in the mass murders at the forts of Kaunas. The new unit’s principal task was, as mentioned earlier, the murder of Jews in provincial towns and villages throughout Lithuania. During its brief existence from July 7 through October 2, 1941 the unit murdered approximately 70,000 Jewish men, women and children at 54 locations throughout Lithuania (although Haman initially reported a total of only 43,677). These mass murders would not have been possible without the close cooperation of the Provisional Government’s various executive bodies and the thousands of local activists.

The task of apprehending, arresting and imprisoning Jews at the various locations and then reducing them to a state of mental lethargy by consistent torture was a complex logistical operation that required time.  Immediately following the forming of the Provisional Government on July 23, local police officials began collating information on Jews in local towns and villages and reported it to local area commanders who in turn, forwarded the information to the Provisional Government’s Minister of Police Reivytis. All activities against the Jews were recorded in code and a detailed information base was developed at police headquarters in Kaunas.

On Reivytis’ orders, Jews from local towns and villages were rounded up and transferred to key detention centers in the nearest major city. This task often met with resistance from local activist groups who insisted that they themselves be given the task of murdering the Jews. Provincial Jews were imprisoned at designated detention centers selected by local police or other authorities, in regional cities together with local Jewish communities. They were usually held in synagogues, military barracks and derelict buildings in the poorest part of the city.

It was here that the victims were subjected to the preliminary stages of “preparation” for their deaths. This was achieved principally by starvation, vicious beatings, appalling exercise drills and indescribable abuse. This usually included the rape of small children, cutting off beards of senior communal leaders and many other forms of sadistic torture. All these acts were documented and reported to police headquarters in Kaunas.

 Once the Jews were considered “ready” officials informed central command. If sufficient local volunteers were available to carry out the murders, the task was completed immediately. Where outside assistance was needed (usually in larger towns), police headquarters would dispatch Haman’s unit to help local groups but not before all the preliminary arrangements were in place. The commando was called in once the execution pits had been dug (usually by the victims themselves) and the potential victims moved to holding sites nearby. Local activists drove the victims into the pits and commando soldiers then proceeded to kill them. In many cases, local officials, among them, mayors, school principals and priests came to watch the killings.

Once the murders had been completed the Mechanized Commando Unit returned to its barracks in Kaunas. This procedure was repeated in most of the actions in which the unit was employed. The system was used to murder thousands of Jews at Panevezys, Ukmerge, Zarasai, Kedainiai, Kaisiadorys, Utena, Mariampole, Jonava, Raseiniai, Alytus, Zagare and other locations.

After the Provisional Government was dissolved in August 1941, the management of the Mechanized Unit transferred to the successor authority, the German-elected Council of Advisers headed by the Lithuanian colonel Kubiliunas. It continued to receive briefings from local commanders and issued orders regarding the murders of Jews in provincial towns and villages.

Haman left Lithuania at the beginning of October 1941, following the dissolution of his unit. A small number of Jews were still alive in Lazdijai and Vilkaviskis and they were murdered by local activists later that month. Haman also planned to destroy the Siauliai ghetto but was blocked by an order from the German Civil Command, which deemed the ghetto to be of economic importance and should therefore be retained.

Back in Germany, Haman continued to rise through the ranks of the SS and received his most important assignment on July 20, 1944 when he was ordered to oversee the execution of the conspirators involved in the failed assassination attempt on Hitler. He was also a member of the delegation that visited Field Marshal Rommel and offered him the choice between suicide and prison (he chose suicide). Haman continued to impress the Nazi leadership and rose to the rank of general. He was appointed senior aide to Kaltenbrunner and committed suicide at the end of the war, rather than face a war crimes tribunal. His Lithuanian deputy Bronius Norkus became an alcoholic and also committed suicide in 1942 while serving with the Twelfth Battalion on the Russian front near Leningrad.

It should be stressed here that the existence of the Mechanized Commando Unit of Haman was kept in such secrecy that no disclosures concerning its activities were ever made during war crimes trials after the war’s end. Five members of the unit, Jonas Krisciunas, Matas Lekavicius, Zigmas Packauskas, Vacys Sirocenko and Pranas Taparauskas were captured by the Soviets and tried as members of the Twelfth Battalion. But they never revealed, during the course of their trial, that they had also served in the Mechanized Unit of Haman and participated in the mass murder of Jews throughout provincial Lithuania

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