The Boy

A Holocaust Story

by Dan Porat

Hardcover, 262 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, List Price: $26 | purchase

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Title
The Boy
Subtitle
A Holocaust Story
Author
Dan Porat

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Book Summary

Reveals the history behind the widely known photograph of the Warsaw uprising, tracing the extensively researched stories of three Nazi criminals and two Jewish victims from the time of their confrontation in 1943 through the rest of their lives.

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Excerpt: The Boy

THE BOY
 
Chapter 1
 
Rising to Power

On a fall afternoon in 1913, eighteen-year-old Josef Stroop stood on the eighty-foot-high observation deck of the Hermann Monument in the Teutoburg Forest gazing up at the larger-than-life sculpture of the first-century leader of Germanic tribes, who, according to legend, had defeated the Romans in a decisive battle. Bright turquoise from the oxidation of the copper sheath, Hermann stood with his chest puffed out, a winged metal helmet covering his head and high leather boots adorning his feet. His fully extended right arm firmly gripped the hilt of a twenty-foot-long sword, the sharp blade pointing high into the blue sky.

A breeze rustled the green treetops in the thick forest. Stroop, enjoying the light wind ruffling his thick dark blond hair, stared into the distance. From this panoramic height he was able to make out a sprinkling of dots on the horizon’s green hills. Those were the buildings of his hometown, Detmold—a town of fifteen thousand residents, the capital of the independent principality of Lippe.

As the sun descended, Stroop entered a small opening directly beneath the statue’s feet. As on each of his frequent visits, he found it difficult to leave this inspiring shrine to the hero of Germany’s glorious past. But it was late and he had to depart. His hand on the rail, he walked down the dark spiral staircase, careful not to stumble. Emerging at the foot of the monument, he soon was walking in the shade cast by the tall trees on either side of the forest trail that led to Detmold. It was an hour’s walk, and before he reached home owls hooted overhead.

At dusk, Stroop passed the first houses on the outskirts of Detmold and then reached Neustadt Street. Across the canal that ran along Neustadt Street, over the high walls, he could see the red roof tiles of the royal family’s massive summer palace. A bit farther on, he could see the tops of the beech, walnut, and cedar trees, part of royal gardens accessible only to members of the royal family. He had heard of their large, oval pools with fountains and water cascades, but as an ordinary citizen he had, of course, never seen them.

Stroop followed the canal, its banks covered with shrubs, as it veered left onto Wallgraben Street. Across the strip of dark water towered St. Bonifatius Church. With his devout Catholic mother, Käthe Stroop, and his brothers, Conrad Jr. and Ferdinand, he passed through the church’s wide arched doors each and every Sunday. And on each and every weekday in the adjacent brown brick building, he had attended the parish school. In 1909, at the age of fourteen, after completing eight years of schooling, he, like most of his friends, had to quit school and find work.

Looking at the school’s shut door, he recalled his old aspiration to become a teacher. It was not that he had been a remarkable student possessed by intellectual zeal, or that he held a fondness for children. No, it was the thought of long straight rows of students looking up at him that inspired him. Dressed in a suit, he would tap a foot-long springy wooden cane on his fist as he marched back and forth before the blackboard, dozens of small eyes following his every move. As had been the case in his day, any student whose gaze wandered would be rewarded with a lash on the palm. Naughtiness would result in a more thorough caning. But Stroop’s parents had vetoed this aspiration; they couldn’t afford tuition for continuing his education.

After church, his father, dressed in his carefully ironed police uniform, took him to stand by the canal and watch the parade of the uniformed and sword-bearing honor guard pass to the music of local marching bands. Following them would roll a horse-drawn carriage carrying the royal family, citizens bowing as they passed by. Then Stroop’s father, a former coachman to the royal family, would solemnly remind his son that he must obey the prince.

It was dark when Stroop entered his parents’ modest two-story home at 7 Mühlen Street, which his father rented from the municipality of Detmold for reduced rent. The father, now a policeman, oversaw a nearby municipal shelter for the homeless and unemployed. He was frequently called out at night to break up a brawl or resolve a dispute.

Like his father, Stroop was now employed by the local government. He worked in the Land Registry, located in the government building on Kaiser-Wilhelm-Platz, as an apprentice in the tax collector’s office. For the past four years he had sat for hours glued to his wooden chair alongside a few other low-ranking clerks, laboriously registering in his stiff calligraphic handwriting the land tax on a farm sale, or hitting the typewriter keys to fill out a building license.

In the summer of 1914, with the clouds of war hovering over Europe, nineteen-year-old Stroop took a leave of absence from his job and volunteered for the 55th Prussian Infantry Regiment. The lanky six-foot-tall Stroop fit perfectly into the gray military uniform with its shiny buttons. Following a short ceremony under fluttering flags on Detmold’s train station platform, Stroop and his comrades, with long guns resting over their shoulders and spiked silver helmets on their heads, boarded a train. Over the sound of a brass band, crying crowds bid farewell to husbands, fathers, and sons destined for the Rhine River.

Within weeks, Stroop’s regiment was battling French forces. And near La Bassée, on October 22, a French bullet struck him in the shoulder. This injury took Stroop away from the battlefield, away from his comrades, and away from his service to the fatherland. He traveled back to Detmold to recuperate, where he impatiently awaited his return to the front. Finally, after a few months he was employed in the 256th Reserve Infantry Regiment (RIR) and fought along the eastern front in Poland, Lithuania, White Russia, Galicia, Romania, and Hungary. Bullets and shells hit comrades to the left and right of him, and Stroop suffered light wounds in battles in Hungary and Romania. Not once, however, did he request to be sent back home. Military service agreed with him.

The army recognized Stroop’s dedication, ability, and courage. His superiors awarded him three medals: the Lippische Principality Cross for Loyal Service, the Lippische Military Merit Medal with crossed swords, and the Iron Cross Second Class. And Stroop was promoted to vice sergeant, which gave him power to oversee other soldiers. He dreamed of higher ranks, but given his family’s modest social status and his limited education, this was an impossibility.

The signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, ending the Great War caught Stroop and his fellow soldiers occupying Hungarian soil. To them it was self-evident that Germany had not been defeated, and they could not fathom the reason for what seemed an unwarranted, even shameful, surrender. In late December, after a farewell ceremony in Hungary and a speech from the revered German general August von Mackensen about the need to restore national unity at home, the units of the 256th RIR meekly boarded a train. On Christmas Eve, after four years on the battlefield, Stroop stepped out onto Detmold’s almost empty train station platform. Only a few family members were there to greet the returning soldiers. No local dignitaries awaited them, no admiring schoolchildren, no town band, not a flag or banner.

Days after Christmas, he returned to his tedious job at the Land Registry. While stationed in Bucharest, Stroop had taken a four-month topography course. He presented his new credentials to his superiors at the registry and requested a promotion. They rebuffed his requests time and again. In the small and poor principality rendered poorer by the war, he could anticipate staying in his current post for the rest of his life.

Frustrated, Stroop took to wandering the corridors during office hours. These outings led him down to the ground floor, where he chatted with the young women at the telephone switchboard. Upstairs, the supervisor noticed Stroop’s empty chair. He called him into his office and reproached him for going missing during working hours. Still, Stroop continued to roam. One day, the cleaner’s son spotted him with a woman from a local Jewish boardinghouse in the bicycle storage room. He reported the incident to the supervisor, who again called Stroop in. He emphatically denied improper behavior. And any time he had spent in the bicycle storage room during regular work hours, he claimed, he had made up by working late. The supervisor remained unconvinced. A letter on November 23, 1920, warned Stroop:

You have not only acted contrary to proper conduct, which prohibits you from this kind of intimacy with young foreign women in the office building, but you have also harmed your service duties…. We therefore see ourselves obliged to reprimand you for the events in question and at the same time draw your attention to the fact that the repetition of similar offenses against the service order or justified complaints concerning your service behavior will cause your dismissal from the Land Registry office.

On April 1, 1921, fifteen-year-old Franz Konrad and his handicapped father, Florian, climbed up a narrow road in the small village of Aschbach near Mariazell in the Austrian Alps. The six-and-a-half-foot-tall blue-eyed and light-haired Franz had long dreamed of becoming a musician playing in one of Vienna’s coffee-houses or concert halls. This dream had unraveled, however, when his father, a coal miner, had lost his left arm and the sight in one eye in a work accident. The small pension that supported the Konrad family of several brothers and sisters dictated this move, from their hometown of Liezen to Aschbach, where Franz would serve as an apprentice to a merchant and learn the profession of tradesman.

For the first two years of his apprenticeship, the shop owner, Josef Niederauer, taught Konrad nothing about commerce. Konrad pulled weeds out of the merchant’s garden, plowed vegetable rows, and washed Niederauer’s new car. Only in the third year did Niederauer allow Konrad to assist him with clients in the shop. After work, Konrad took night classes at a local professional school, where he learned about pricing, tax payments, and financial forms, all in preparation for the certifying exam as a commercial assistant. Despite his limited experience, he passed the exam.

On his little time off, Konrad traveled to a nearby city to sing in a men’s choir, play in a chess club, and learn Esperanto, a language recently invented with the aim of allowing people everywhere to communicate in a common tongue. Once when he attended an open-air concert, two British women, who spotted on his shirt a green-and-white Esperanto badge, befriended him, going so far as to invite him to join them on a trip to Budapest. But Konrad had to turn the offer down; he could not take time off from work.

After three years of apprenticeship, Niederauer refused to hire Konrad as a permanent employee. Konrad’s family faced an immediate financial crisis. Fortunately, within five months, in October 1924, Konrad found a job as a salesman in a food and spice wholesale business in Rottenmann. Two and a half years later, he quit this position and took a job as a substitute salesman in a local cooperative food chain. He rotated among the chain’s twelve branches, replacing absent workers. Shortly thereafter, the cooperative’s board offered him a permanent position as the head of the warehouse. Working for the cooperative required that he join the left-wing Social Democratic Workers’ Party (SDAP) and its trade union, where he served as the local party’s treasurer.

At the end of a tedious workday at the Land Registry, Stroop frequented the Hermann Monument in search of solace. Here, beneath Hermann’s sword inscribed with the words “Germany’s unity, my strength—my strength, Germany’s might,” he joined other World War I veterans reminiscing about the comradeship and bravery of war. They lamented Germany’s disgraceful defeat, encapsulated in the humiliating Versailles Treaty, sang patriotic songs, and, to the sound of drums, marched with blazing torches held aloft.

The veterans gossiped, commiserated, and held strongly to the opinion that German unity was under threat. Alien forces on the home front had betrayed the fatherland. Otherwise, how could one explain the German army’s defeat in the war? Backstabbing by liberals, Socialists, Communists, and Jews explained it. Under Hermann’s extended sword and the light and shadow of torches, the veterans swore an oath of true loyalty to the German nation and pledged themselves to protect it from the forces threatening to destroy it from within. In 1926, the charismatic leader of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP, or the Nazi Party), Adolf Hitler, visited the Hermann Monument and in the guest book wrote: “I believe in the people, and in the power of the person, and in the necessity of fighting.”

One weekend when he was not at the monument, Stroop strolled down Paulinen Street and ran into Max, a childhood friend who like Stroop was wounded in the war and was now a decorated veteran. But Stroop did not greet Max; he snubbed him. Max was Jewish. And Jews, Marxists, intellectuals, scientists, artists, and journalists, Stroop knew, were all enemies of the German nation. From his like-minded comrades, Stroop concealed that as a child he had played after school with Jewish friends, the children of neighborhood families Herzfeld and Examus.

His comrades in the 256th RIR Veterans Association chose Stroop as editor of the veterans’ news bulletin, a position that, despite his nonofficer rank, put him in close contact with some of the regiment’s officers. On November 20, 1927, at the regiment’s memorial ceremony, Stroop delivered the keynote address in honor of Germany’s fallen soldiers. Standing by the monument in the regiment’s courtyard, Stroop spoke to the crowd of veterans, bereaved parents, widows, and orphans. The fallen, he lamented, fought and suffered,

hour by hour, day and night, in pain and sorrow, and suddenly, they were torn from your side, because they gave the highest sacrifice for their fatherland, because they found the glory of dying in battle. All over German lands, where memorials for these heroes were built, today come together war veterans to show they have not forgotten their dead comrades. Likewise, we turn up by the memorial of our regiment’s comrades, who as members of the 256 gave their lives for the beloved fatherland. The stone in front of us marks 1,255 dead!…Loyalty, as it was in the field, must keep us survivors united! The spirit of 1914, which especially in the first postwar years lay dormant, is slowly gaining momentum. We must allow it again to completely ignite us! We must believe in the future of our fatherland! With this belief our comrades stayed behind in foreign lands, and when we hold on to this belief then the death of our comrades is not in vain!

With soldiers standing at attention, Stroop marched to the monument, saluted, and placed a wreath before it.

At 7:30 p.m. on October 9, 1931, the Austrian police arrived at the home of twenty-five-year-old Franz Konrad in Liezen, where he now lived with his wife, Agnes, and their newborn son, Franz Josef. The cooperative store had reported that 900 schillings were missing from the store safe. The policemen arrested Konrad as a suspect.

Konrad denied the accusations. A coworker who wanted his managerial job at the cooperative was the culprit. He provided an alibi. On the eve of the theft, the local Social Democratic Party heads had asked him to help in an operation to retrieve weapons stored in a police building, arms that the police had confiscated six months earlier. Such requests were nothing new for Konrad, who had agreed in the past to spy on the meetings of the local branch of the Nazi Party, a rising force on the Austrian political scene. So on that rainy night, Konrad and a few party comrades had quietly sneaked through a window into the cellar of the building. They found no weapons. Disappointed, they returned home. It was during this escapade, Konrad stated, that his coworker took advantage of his absence to break into the store’s safe and take the 900 schillings with the goal of having Konrad sacked and himself promoted.

The district attorney did not believe him and pressed charges. At the trial, which took place in the Leoben District Court, Konrad pleaded not guilty. At the end of the hearings, Konrad stood in the dock and awaited the judge’s reading of the verdict. Guilty. Konrad was sentenced to three months in jail.

Upon his release in early 1932, Konrad joined the many thousands of unemployed Austrians. What was more, he felt betrayed by the Social Democratic Party, which had not confirmed his alibi or supported his family during his imprisonment. The local Nazi Party, into which his attorney had recruited him, however, did come to Konrad’s assistance, despite his having spied on them for the SDAP; they paid his legal fees and helped his family financially while he was behind bars. In April 1932, Konrad joined the Nazi Party, and a few months later he enrolled in the SS, the Nazi Party’s elite paramilitary unit.

On July 25, 1934, a group of eight Nazis entered the Chancellery in Vienna. The group made its way to the office of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. Otto Planetta, one of the eight, pulled out a pistol and shot Dollfuss twice. The chancellor bled to death. This was the first move in a coup. Nazis quickly thereafter overtook the Chancellery and the radio station in Vienna. Across Austria, Nazi supporters took to the streets.

That night, Konrad, now working in road construction, marched with a group of approximately one hundred armed farmers and lumbermen from Liezen to the Pyhrnpass, a serene alpine pass on the border between the Austrian provinces of Upper Austria and Styria. These Nazi supporters rolled large boulders onto the one-lane road that crossed the hilly terrain, an obstacle aimed to block Austrian armed forces from coming to the support of the government in Styria. At sunrise, Austrian troops reached the pass and halted by the boulders. From treetops and from behind rocks, the Nazis shot at them. Soon a unit of Alpine soldiers joined the pinned-down troops; the shooting went on for hours. Leaving several casualties dead on the mountain slopes as well as on the road, the military forces eventually broke through the pass and entered Liezen that evening.

In Liezen and elsewhere, Austrian armed forces successfully suppressed the Nazi revolt. Those who took part in the attempted coup went into hiding. On August 11, the police again knocked on the door of Konrad’s home. Again he was arrested. The court convicted him of betraying the state and sentenced him to four months in jail and the revocation of his Austrian citizenship. Together with hundreds of other Nazis, Konrad served his sentence in the detention camp of Wöllersdorf.

Released in December, Konrad took charge of an illegal SS volunteer unit in the Austrian town of Schladming. Soon the authorities were after him again on charges of illegal activity. Unwilling to be jailed a third time, he escaped with his family in July 1935 to the Waischenfeld SS camp in Germany, where many other Austrian expatriates had gathered. Here he worked in the administrative offices and, with Agnes, their son, Franz, and daughter, Gertrude, born in October 1936, awaited their uncertain future.

On July 17, 1932, Stroop, who had a month earlier joined the Nazi Party, stood in a party assembly at the Hermann Monument and listened to the widely admired General Karl von Litzmann speak. Afterward, the tall, commanding members of the SS in their dark uniforms marched along. At the assembly’s end, a party official approached Stroop and asked if he would help establish a local SS unit in Detmold. Stroop agreed. He enrolled in the SS as member number 44611.

Soon thereafter, Stroop, dressed in a black SS uniform, began patrolling the streets of Detmold with two large, fierce dogs and a whip at hand. Spying him in the distance, those residents targeted by the Nazis would quickly duck down alleys; many other residents, however, approached him with reverence and gifts. At times Stroop rode through the town on a horse, a gift from one of the residents.

On January 4, 1933, Stroop entered a large tent erected in Kronenplatz just across from the Detmold train station, where a local band was rehearsing marches and the buzz of an excited crowd of five thousand filled the tent decorated with red flags sporting white circles and black swastikas. Stroop approached a group of Aryan-looking boys and girls, some dressed in their best clothes, others in Nazi uniforms, holding bouquets of colorful flowers. Stroop examined the red and white flowers not for their quality but to make sure that no weapon or bomb was hidden among them. After hours of waiting, near midnight, a couple of cars drove up, and the audience’s excitement grew. As the cars rolled in, the band struck up patriotic marches. To the cheering of the crowds and the upheld bouquets, Hitler disembarked. He had come to Detmold to campaign in the local elections. Over nine days, he delivered to enthusiastic audiences all around the Lippe principality sixteen long speeches rife with attacks on the Social Democrats, the Jews, the Communists, and others.

Ever since the July 1932 parliamentary elections, the Nazi Party had faced a serious crisis. Several members had distanced themselves and even denounced the party. Some opposed the Nazis’ increasingly violent acts, and still others thought Hitler’s public influence had peaked and that he stood no chance of seizing the reins of power. In the November 1932 election, Nazi representation in the Reichstag shrank by 34 seats to 196 out of 584 delegates. As one means of reestablishing their dominance in German politics, the Nazis believed they must win a victory in the January 15, 1933, election for the parliament in the tiny Lippe principality. “Lippe must be a success. We have done everything for that,” Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary.

Stroop and his men from the local SS eagerly played their part. They worked to “convince” those citizens of Lippe who did not already intend to vote for the Nazis to do so and caused others to avoid the elections. With his black leather riding boots fitted with steel heels, Stroop beat up Jews and Social Democrats, smashed the store windows of opponents, and set their homes on fire. His tactics proved effective. When the election was held, the Nazis “won” in Detmold. And it was during the Nazis’ push to win that Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, who joined Hitler on his visit, took note of Stroop. For his part, Stroop already looked up to the soft-spoken Himmler and the great authority he wielded.

On January 30, 1933, Hitler became Germany’s chancellor. In March, Stroop took a leave of absence from his clerical position at the Land Registry. Leaving his desk in the clerks’ room behind, he moved up into a private office just beside the wide stairwell that led to the ministers’ floor in the Lippe government building. In addition to heading the SS II/72 unit, he had been named commander of the newly established party auxiliary police (Hilfspolizei). Now at his disposal was a force of 229 men, 30 in Detmold alone, 15 of them full-time employees, the rest volunteers. He frequently marched across the canal and over the moat and into the royal residence. There, over a glass of red wine and beneath the sixteenth-century tapestries in the castle where Johannes Brahms had been employed some seventy years earlier as the court’s theater director, the prince held personal consultations with Stroop, the leading SS man in town.

Within weeks of the Nazis’ rise to power, Jews in Detmold, as in all Germany, lost their jobs and livelihood. In Lippe, Stroop made sure this was seen to. Three weeks before the April 1 national boycott of Jewish businesses, Stroop ordered a local boycott throughout the principality.

He also took personal interest in ridding the government of Jews. Summoning his former superior, inspector Hermann Brand, to his new office, Stroop demanded to know why he was still employing the shorthand typist Erna Hamlet, the last Jew working in the Lippe government. Ten minutes later, Hamlet walked out of the building.

The Detmold Hilfspolizei arrested Felix Fechenbach, the thirty-nine-year-old editor of the local Social Democratic newspaper, Volksblatt. For years, the Jewish editor had ridiculed the local Nazi Party. Now he numbered among the 120 Social Democrats, Communists, and other political opponents arrested and harassed in the weeks following the Nazis’ assumption of power. Like the others whom the Nazis arrested, Fechenbach was delivered to Stroop’s office in the government building and then placed under “protective custody.”

For five months, Fechenbach sat in his prison cell waiting for a decision about his fate. Believing he might be transported to a concentration camp, he wrote his wife, Irma, “Maybe the transport will take place in the coming days. Maybe it will take place in a week. I do not know…. I think of the time when my protective imprisonment will be annulled and I bless and kiss you and the children from [my] heart. Yours, Felix.” Below his signature he added: “Just now I have learned that today, August 7[, 1933], I will be transported.”

Stroop ordered that Fechenbach, the father of three young children, be driven to Dachau, accompanied by four SS and SA men (storm troopers). In Kleinenberger forest, between Detmold and Warburg, the car stopped. The Nazis pulled Fechenbach out. They beat him, then one of the men pulled out a pistol and shot Fechenbach in his forehead. The SS later laconically informed Irma that her husband had been shot attempting to escape. Family members who came to pick up the body did not recognize the disfigured face. Only a birthmark allowed them to identify him.

The sun had already set when Josef Blösche stood in the kitchen of his father’s inn and with his rough-skinned hands scrubbed dishes. Short and slender, with large ears, high cheekbones, and narrow lips, he looked much like his father, Gustav. That morning, Blösche had harvested his family’s hay field. After harvesting, he had gone to the barn to take the livestock out to graze in the low hills of Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. Only in the early evening did he arrive at the family inn. Like every other day of the week, his father gave him a set of tasks: clean the dishes, wash down the tables, tidy up the floor, and prepare food.

Starting at the age of ten, when he had attended the local German-speaking elementary school, he had worked before and after school at the family farm and inn. Four years later, at the age of fourteen, his father had pulled him out of school to work full-time. Even on weekends, Blösche cleaned, washed, and served in his father’s busy guesthouse.

Blösche’s broad-shouldered brother, Gustav, fifteen months his senior, was taller than he was, and neighbors named the two brothers “the big and the little Blösche.” As the older son, Gustav was to inherit the family farm and inn, but he had fought with his father and left home during the recession of the early 1930s. After Gustav left, Blösche’s father decided that the little Blösche would one day inherit his inn, the field, the stock, and a small brickyard. He enrolled him in a professional school twelve miles away in the city of Liberec, where Blösche traveled twice a week to learn the profession of waiter.

As night fell and the food cooked, small groups of villagers and miners gathered in the inn. Blösche poured pints of beer and served platters of sausages. In the dimly lit, smoke-filled room, guests chatted and laughed. The guests that evening were members of the Sudeten German Party, headed by Konrad Henlein, of which both Blösche and his father had been members for many years. They spoke about their discrimination by the Czechoslovakian government, the German minority’s inability to become civil servants, and the lack of government assistance to German-owned businesses.

The platters lay empty when Blösche’s father shushed the noisy patrons. He raised the volume on the radio. All awaited a broadcast from Germany to the Sudeten-Germans. Here, for years, Blösche and his fellow Sudeten-Germans had heard passionate denunciations of their discrimination at the hands of Czechoslovakia. Long convinced of the party’s arguments, on his limited time off he volunteered for it. He gathered party taxes, posted election banners, and informed members of upcoming assemblies. In a white shirt and black tie, the uniform of the party’s paramilitary organization, the Freiwillige Selbstschutz, Blösche secured the assemblies, frequently getting into brawls with political opponents.

He also read in the Nazi newspapers Der Stürmer and Der Völkische Beobachter how the Jews came to Germany with rucksacks on their backs and, like vampires, further drained the already weakened German economy, and in so doing made millions within months. He saw the sketched images of Jews with their crooked noses, slanted eyes, wrinkled faces, black bristles, and beards. Fat beasts seated atop the globe, they conspired against the Aryans and lured into their beds innocent, young, smooth-skinned, blond German girls. The Jews had gained control over the German nation, Blösche thought. How else could one explain the fact that Jews arrived penniless in Germany only to amass vast wealth within a year? It was almost midnight when the broadcast ended and Blösche completed his workday. He would get a couple hours of sleep before having to begin another.

On the morning of November 14, 1933, Stroop left his one-story house at Am Eicheneke 3, where he lived with Käthe, his wife of ten years, and their five-year-old daughter, Renate. With three of his SS subordinates—the unit doctor, Dr. Kopsch, and two other men, Wolfgang Bothe and Hunke—he set off in a car to a forest near the Lopshorn hunting lodge. The four SS men worked all day hammering poles and arranging sanitary facilities for the upcoming fall maneuvers of the unit under Stroop’s command. When they had finished, Stroop led the tired men to the local Kuhlmann pub for a cool beer. A young innkeeper greeted them, serving them steins of beer and glasses of schnapps.

Several pints into the evening, Stroop stepped outside into the night to get some fresh air. He had been standing in the pub’s courtyard for a couple of minutes when he noticed a shadow along the ground. On the other side of the courtyard he spied the profile of a woman in a lit window. Stroop trotted over and saw the young innkeeper ironing. He stuck his face through the window. “You should stop mending socks and entertain dashing SS men. Have you already given your heart to an SS man?” he asked. The young woman did not respond. Stroop pulled on the handle of the door, but it was locked. He pushed it, but it did not budge. Then he broke in. The innkeeper, crying for help, ran to the upper floor. Stroop ran after her. He trapped her in the corner of one of the rooms. At that moment, Dr. Kopsch and Bothe, who had been searching for Stroop, came running up the stairs. Stroop turned to Bothe and said in a commanding tone, “Bothe, you really are a jolly good fellow. Go ahead, give the girl a kiss.” Bothe followed orders. The screaming girl twisted her head back and forth, her body pushing and shoving, attempting unsuccessfully to evade Bothe’s embrace.

A few minutes later, Stroop returned to the pub. Seeing him, the Nazis gathered around the table burst into laughter. Stroop’s face turned red as Dr. Kopsch, who had also returned to the pub, came to his aid. He leaned forward in his seat and took a woman’s hairpin out from under Stroop’s SS armband. “Ah, now I have the grounds for your divorce from your wife,” he said to the sound of giggling men. Dr. Kopsch put the hairpin away, and they turned to other topics.

During the conversation, Bothe ran back into the pub. Stroop turned to him and commanded, “Bothe, did you leave ‘the Thing’ in order?” Bothe left the pub. Hearing this cryptic exchange, Hunke gave a loud giggle. Stroop turned to him and barked, “Do not laugh like that. Soon it will be your turn, and then comes Castellan!” Castellan, an SS man who had joined the group a few minutes earlier, responded, “This is not an option for me.” Stroop, livid with anger, shouted, “When an SS man receives it [a command], he must carry it out! [Even] when he knows that an hour later he is going to be shot dead!” Kuhlmann, the pub owner, tried to leave and rescue his innkeeper, but Stroop spotted him. “Stay here! The fire is still burning!” Just then, Bothe opened the door, stood at attention, and announced, “‘The Thing’ is in order.”

Later that evening, the men drove back from Lopshorn to their homes in Detmold. In town, rumors of what had happened to the young innkeeper swept like wildfire through the pubs and coffee-houses, eventually reaching city hall. The town’s mayor, SS member Hans Keller, was shaken. He questioned a few of the Nazis present at Kuhlmann’s pub and then ordered Assessor Hagemeister to investigate the case. Hagemeister collected testimony from the Nazis but not from either the innkeeper or the pub owner. Stroop gave Hagemeister his word of honor that “as far as I can remember…I did not get closer to the young girl than to hug and kiss her.” Stroop’s word of honor was enough for Hagemeister. “It is true,” he wrote in his report, “that Stroop flirted intimately with the girl, as the people say, and that he hugged and kissed her…but there is nothing serious enough to require a disciplinary investigation.” The matter was dropped.

Only a few weeks after Stroop was cleared of any wrongdoing, he was promoted to the chief of staff of SS-Abschnitt XVII in the city of Münster. There he learned that Käthe was pregnant with their second child. On October 3, 1934, a son was born, filling his father with pride. Stroop chose a true Nordic name, Jürgen, partly compensating for having named his eldest daughter Renate, which he considered a Franco-Mediterranean-sounding name.

But the happiness and pride that filled the Stroop household ended five days later when Jürgen died. In years to come, Stroop would change his own name from Josef—which he thought had Jewish overtones—to Jürgen, in memory of his lost son. For years he would berate Käthe for having been “unable to give birth to our first son correctly.” (A little over a year later, in February 1936, Käthe gave birth “correctly” to Olaf.)

In June 1935, the SS promoted Stroop again, this time to the commander of the  SS-Standarte unit in Hamburg. Among other things, this meant that when Hitler attended a ship-launching ceremony at the Blohm & Voss shipyard, Stroop oversaw the Führer’s visit.

In January 1938, Stroop was summoned to the third course for SS-Führers at the SS leadership school in Dachau. There he read and reread, among other books, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century, and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. At the culmination of the course, he was drilled on history, SS structure, leadership, and military law. In his final exam, he wrote, in his distinctive cursive script, “By releasing the Jews from the ghetto and by granting them civil rights, the state structure and authority were undermined.” He also repeated the key values of the SS: “total obedience, unwavering discipline, fate, honor, strong character, and unconditional willingness to sacrifice one’s life for the fatherland.”

Later that year, Himmler chose Stroop to join him in leading the SS men marching in the Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. Just behind Himmler and his staff, the stiff-necked Stroop stumped in his black leather riding boots, a helmet on his head, and his hands firmly holding the hilt of the SS sword that Himmler had given him as a present. As he marched by the Führer, he raised high into the sky the shining sword upon whose blade was inscribed, “My honor is named loyalty.”

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