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Photograph of German Order Police Publicly Humiliating a Jewish Man

Police Humiliating a Jewish Man
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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?

Guarding prisoners of war (POWs) was a task primarily carried out by the German army (Wehrmacht). To learn more, see the related Experiencing History item, Labor Deployment of Soviet Prisoners of War.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, units of the Order Police also participated in mass shootings. Other German police became perpetrators of mass murder during the Holocaust as well. Along with members of the SS, personnel from the Security Police (Gestapo and Kripo) formed the core of the infamous Einsatzgruppen (special duty squads). To learn more about the involvement of German police in the mass shootings of the Holocaust, see Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Collins, 1992); and Edward B. Westermann, Hitler's Police Battalions: Enforcing Racial War in the East (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005). 

For more about the role alcohol played among perpetrators of the Holocaust, see Edward B. Westermann, Drunk on Genocide: Alcohol and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021). 

Order Police Battalion 101 also participated in mass shootings in occupied Poland beginning in July 1942. For more on Battalion 101 and the different ways in which orders were implemented, see Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), 41.

The perimeter of the Zawiercie ghetto was guarded by Jewish police forces operating under the orders of the Zawiercie Jewish council (Judenrat). When German forces occupied towns and cities of conquered territories, they appointed Jewish councils and forced them to carry out German policies within Jewish communities. Individuals placed in these positions often faced difficult choices and profound moral dilemmas. Many members of the Jewish councils and Jewish ghetto police facilitated deportations to killing centers, but some also used their positions to participate in underground resistance efforts. To learn more, see Calel Perechodnik, Am I a Murderer?: Testament of a Jewish Ghetto Policeman, edited and translated by Frank Fox (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996); Samuel Schalkowsky and Samuel D. Kassow, The Clandestine History of the Kovno Jewish Ghetto Police (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2014); and Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1996). 

For more on the Zawiercie ghetto, see The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945, Vol II: Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe, Part A, edited by Geoffrey P. Megargee, Martin Dean, and Melvin Hecker (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012): 174–6.

The forced shaving of beards had long been a means of tormenting Jews in Europe. For other primary sources about rituals of public humiliation during the years of the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Holocaust, see the related Experiencing History items, Diary of Aharon PickPhotograph of Jews Cleaning Streets in Vienna, Photograph of Prisoners Forced to Exercise, and Public Humiliation of a Young Couple.

Although the photograph is undated, it was almost certainly taken between fall 1939 and spring 1943. The men's heavy coats suggest that the image was captured sometime during the winter months of those years.

Several similar photographs can be found in the archival collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. As the images show, these rituals of public humiliation were often performed in front of very large groups of people. 

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Accession Number 94654
Date Created
1939 to 1943
Photographer / Creator
Reference Location
Zawiercie, Poland
Still Image Type Photograph
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