For many German police, the outbreak of World War II brought new duties and assignments in the occupied territories. When German forces invaded Poland in September 1939, units of the uniformed German Order Police were sent to secure the region and guard Polish prisoners of war as the German army advanced.1 They also enforced Nazi racial policies, which became increasingly radical amid the violence of the war. In the territories of occupied Poland annexed by Germany, units of the Order Police evicted Jews, Poles, and Roma from their homes and deported them.2 Order Police were also assigned to guard Jewish ghettos established by German authorities.
Some Order Police units were stationed outside the borders of major ghettos like Warsaw and Łódź with orders to shoot any Jews who came too close to the wall or fence. Such orders were often carried out differently depending on the culture of each police unit, the influence of commanding officers, and the choices of the individuals involved. For example, the First Company of Order Police Battalion 61 kept its most eager shooters permanently on guard duty around the Warsaw ghetto, and the men regularly celebrated their mass shootings by drinking together.3 On the other hand, the members of Order Police Battalion 101 also obeyed the order to shoot Jews when they were guarding the Łódź ghetto in 1940–1941, but the unit did not encourage or celebrate these shootings in the same way.4 Such differences show how orders could be interpreted or applied differently depending on the choices and personalities of the individuals involved.
The featured photograph shows a member of the Order Police cutting off the beard of a Jewish man in Zawiercie, Poland. The ghetto in Zawiercie was not guarded by German police like the ghettos of many larger cities,5 but members of the Order Police, the Gestapo, and the German military police often entered the ghetto to conduct inspections, oversee deportations, or harass the Jewish inhabitants.6 Cutting off beards—which held deep religious and cultural significance for many of them—was a common form of public humiliation experienced by Jewish men. Public beatings, sexual assaults, forced exercise, and forced labor were also frequently used to torture and humiliate Jews during World War II and the Holocaust.7 Who might have taken this picture, and why?8
Many other images like this exist, including another photograph of a policeman shaving a Jewish man’s beard in the Zawiercie ghetto—possibly on the very same day.9 Who took this picture, and why? Was the public humiliation of an elderly Jewish man the primary purpose of the group’s trip into the ghetto, or was this a spontaneous act of cruelty? What seem to be the expressions on the men’s faces, and what might this suggest about their attitudes toward the incident?