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Letter from Karl Kretschmer to His Family

US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Bundesarchiv

The German invasion of the Soviet Union (USSR) on June 22, 1941 included the use of Einsatzgruppen—special squads tasked with the mass murder of the Third Reich's so-called "enemies." Consisting of members of the SS and German police—as well as collaborators from German-occupied territories—these units rounded up Jewish people, Roma and Sinti, and others, shooting and burying them in mass graves. Historians estimate that by the end of 1942, four mobile units operating in German-occupied territories of the Soviet Union (Einsatzgruppen A, B, C, and D) killed roughly one million Jews.1

SS-Obersturmführer2 Karl Kretschmer joined Einsatzgruppe C in the summer of 1942. During his service in Kursk in the western part of the Soviet Union, Kretschmer corresponded regularly with his family. A postwar investigation identified several letters that Kretschmer sent to his wife Sonja and their children at home in Germany.3 A reproduction of one of these letters, likely submitted as evidence, is featured here. Kretschmer mailed the letter, dated October 15, 1942, along with a food parcel meant to support his family while he remained far away in the Soviet Union. Among other items, he sent tins with sardines, sausages, and sweets—goods that were all relatively hard to get in Germany at the time.4

In the featured letter to his family, Kretschmer describes his daily routine, his living conditions, and his work in the Einsatzgruppe. Claiming that the sight of blood was "something you get used to quite soon," he writes that he also found it disturbing. Kretschmer seems proud that others in his unit consider him "a real man," but he tells his children that "you can trust your Papa. He thinks about you all the time and doesn’t overshoot and go too far."5

Kretschmer's letter shows how acts of mass murder could intersect with perpetrators' family lives. The letter describes his misgivings and anxieties as a member of the Einsatzgruppe alongside expressions of love and devotion to his wife and children. It seems as if Kretschmer is trying to justify his behavior to his family. Regular contact with his family might have offered Kretschmer a distraction from his involvement in genocide, but family life could also become a part of perpetrators' attempts to rationalize their crimes.

Estimated numbers of the Jewish victims of the Einsatzgruppen vary between 750,000 and more than one million. See, for instance, Ronald Headland, Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943 (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1992), 96–106.

A paramilitary rank in Nazi Germany, equivalent of first lieutenant.

In 1959, Karl Kretschmer was the subject of an investigation by the Central Office of the State Justice Administrations for the Investigation of National Socialist Crimes [German: Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen zur Aufklärung nationalsozialistischer Verbrechen]. For more details, see USHMM, RG-14.101M, file 434, case no. 3517. Kretschmer was also interviewed in 1979 by director Claude Lanzmann for his documentary film on the Holocuast, Shoah. 


Available letters were translated into English and published in "The Good Old Days": The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, ed. Ernst Klee et al. (New York: Free Press, 1991), 163–171. 

See Richard Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 218–221. 

As the paymaster for his unit, Kretschmer was responsible for distributing payments to other servicemen.

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No. 11                                                                                                                                                   Kursk, October 15, 1942


Dear Wife, Dear Children,

You will be surprised to receive a letter from me mailed from the Reich. But the reason for this is that someone going on leave is taking the letter along and then mailing it. In addition, I am giving the person on leave a parcel (8 kg) to take, which he is supposed to mail in Koblenz. It contains: 5 kg of butter, 2.5 kg of wheat flour, and 1 bar of hard soap.

I assume that you will have the parcel by October 22–24, 1942. Then if Mom also gets curd cheese, she can make cheese pastries for Wurzel’s birthday. I packed the parcel myself. In addition, another parcel is on the way, to be mailed in Berlin. I have no idea how it was packed, I wasn’t there long enought to see it. It is supposed to contain: 3 kg of butter, 1 kg of flour, 1 kg of honey, and in addition from me: 2 bottles of honey and 1 bottle of vodka (schnaps), please write and let me know when it arrives. Enclosed in both parcels are inconsequential notes added by me.

Yesterday, Wednesday, October 14, 1942, I received the letter dated October 5, 1942 (the 5th one received by me, without a number) and the newspapers, no. 14 (with the first Berliner Illustrierte). Thank you very much for your dear letters. In the meantime, I hope you will also have received more letters from me. Meanwhile my nerves have calmed down again to some extent. Therefore, I don’t know whether I might have done better not to write letter no. 10. Well, it has been sent. It is also better if Mom is informed about everything.

About my present life, I can tell you that, to some degree, it is taking a regular course. We have a small house, similar to those on Gartenstr[asse] only not so nice, confiscated. Everything dirty and badly built. Approximately 40 families lived here before. They were forced to make room for us. I myself have a two-room apartment now. The living area is my workroom, with the war chest (RM 150000.–),1 and I sleep in the kitchen. The apartment gets its heat from the kitchen. Up to now the weather has not been very cold, so it is bearable. We bring in wood in vast quantities. I hope it lasts through the winter. The prisoners have to chop it and stack it. So I can put up with life here. If only you all were here with me, it would be wonderful. Six a.m. is wake-up time. I am always awake earlier, however, because I haven’t been able thus far to sleep for longer than 5 hours, even though I sometimes go to bed earlier. At 7 a.m. there is coffee (bread, as much as you want, a dab of butter, around 60 grams, sometimes fruit purée or artificial honey, once our relocation is carried out, there will always be real honey). I always eat four slices of bread and butter. Then we work until 12 noon. At midday there is always good food, lots of meat, lots of fat (we have our own livestock, pigs, castrated rams, calves, and cows). Because we have also acquired a lot of potatoes, everybody can eat generous portions. We pickled tomatoes and cucumbers ourselves. Our cook has a side job at home as a dealer in specialty foods, and he understands everything thoroughly. As the whim takes me, I eat as many as three platefuls. Then it’s back to work until 6 p.m. For supper, we have either hot food, fried potatoes (put in the pan raw, with fat) with scrambled eggs or other dishes, or cold food with bread and some sausage. As you see, our physical needs are well taken care of. We get the Wehrmacht rations, which are not overly generous but adequate, and besides that we acquire some additional food supplies. I think it all will be enough to last through the winter. At the moment, 600 geese are making a tremendous racket in the yard. Your Christmas goose (geese?), I hope, will be among them. If possible, I will bring it myself. If not, I will make certain that you receive it on time.

Then we spend the evening either playing cards, boozing, or sitting together with the boss. I have to be with the boss a great deal. If he wants to play cards, drink coffee, or drink schnaps, some of his commanders must be there. So you can’t dissociate yourself. I think I have made a good impression so far. The first few days, admittedly, I was tired and quickly exhausted. But then I managed to keep going through the nights and be the last to quit the field. I have already told you about the shooting, and said that here too I didn’t dare fall short on the job. More or less, they have said that now, at last, they have gotten a real man as administrative officer, after the previous one turned out to be a coward. That’s how people are judged here. Differently than back home. But you can trust your Papa. He thinks about you all the time and doesn’t overshoot and go too far. So that’s what our life is like.

We don’t get out of the building, except for going to the movies or theater or when invited by duty stations or officers. In the town, there is absolutely nothing going on. Sunday is just like the weekdays. But how nice it is at home with you. How is my garden doing? Have you taken care of the lettuce plants and transplanted them, or have they shriveled? Have you [word missing] potatoes yet?

It’s nice that Mr. Kern is supposed to go to France. I think he would be too soft for the East. Nevertheless, people change here. The sight of blood is something you get used to quite soon, but blood sausage is not popular with us here.

Now, my best regards to you all. In the near future, my packages (10 packages, 2 parcels) will reach you. For the time being, I can’t send anything more, as nothing is allowed to be sold. But what I have sent you will certainly last for a while. By then, another opportunity will arise.

I hope the package for Wurzel will come in time for his birthday. I would be enormously glad.

For the children, many kisses and hugs.

For dear Mom, a long and heartfelt kiss.

You are my everything,

Your Papa.


Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Courtesy of the Bundesarchiv
RG Number 14.101M
Accession Number 2011.99
Date Created
October 15, 1942
Page(s) 13–15
Author / Creator
Karl Kretschmer
Kursk, Soviet Union (historical)
Karlsruhe, Germany
Document Type Letter
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