November 13th, 2012 Meaghan
(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)
Sometime in the autumn of 1943, a refined actor had a family of Vilna/Vilnius Jews summarily hanged on a public gallows.
Vilna* was one of the major Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.
Noted for its rich cultural life, the Vilna Ghetto, which at its peak contained approximately 40,000 people, lasted from September 6, 1941 to September 24, 1943. By the end of its existence, however, through starvation, overwork, disease, and bullets, the ghetto’s population had been reduced by three-quarters.
In late September 1943, the ghetto was liquidated. Most of the inhabitants were taken to the nearby forest in Ponar and shot, or sent to extermination camps in Poland or work camps in Estonia, where almost all of them died.
The liquidation was supervised by German Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel. (He is not to be confused with Otto “Bruno” Kittel, the Luftwaffe flying ace.)
Kittel was an actor. He graduated from the theater school in Berlin and from the plundering school in Frankfurt. On Sundays he played songs on his saxophone at the Vilna radio station. Kittel was not only the youngest of his colleagues; he was the most zealous … [His] reputation extended from Riga to Lodz to Warsaw.
At first glance, you would never guess that Kittel was an executioner. Constantly smiling with his dazzling white teeth, he was perfumed, elegant, polite, and refined.
After the ghetto was no more, a few skilled craftsmen and artisans whose work was essential to the war effort remained within the city at one of three labor camps.
Karl Plagge, a German major in charge of the HKP 562 camp, was sympathetic to the plight of his workers and worked to save their lives, albeit without much success. For this, he would later be honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.
During the liquidation, in an attempt to avoid capture, many of the Vilna Jews concealed themselves in hiding places and bunkers, called “malines” or “malinas”. Sadly, the Nazis caught almost all of them, but a few were able to wait out the carnage and then escape.
The Zalkind family were among the fortunate people who were able to remain in hiding throughout the liquidation.
But they did not survive for very long afterwards.
Their final days are described in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, a collection of accounts of atrocities in the Soviet Union from which the observation about Kittel above is also drawn.
Journalists and historians began gathering eyewitness statements before the war was even over, and Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman assembled and edited the accounts and finished the Black Book in 1946. It was the first major documentary work on the Holocaust. However, Stalin refused to allow its publication and had the type-plates and galley proofs destroyed in 1948.
A few copies survived, and the book was finally published in Russian in 1993. The English translation came out in 2002.
The full names of the Mr. and Mrs. Zalkind and their son are not recorded. Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names lists a Masha Zalkind, age 34, a store manager who was married to Moshe, and Hone Khona Zalkind, 2, whose parents were Masha and Moshe. Both lived in Vilna during the war and were killed in 1943; they might well be the mother and son from this story.
There are several Moshe Zalkinds listed. One, a tailor who was born in 1907, lived in Vilna and was married to Masha. He’s the closest match, but it says he was in Estonia during the war and was killed in 1944.
In any case, the Zalkinds were on the Aryan side of Vilna, probably posing as Christians with forged identity papers, when they were spotted in the street by Bruno Kittel. The Black Book records::
Suspecting they were Jews, Kittel stopped them and had them sent to the concentration camp [at 37 Suboch Street], where he determined that their name was Zalkind and that up until now they had been hiding in a malina. He ordered a gallows to be erected in the middle of the yard and summoned sixty SS men from the Gestapo. When everything was ready and the yard was full of SS surrounding the doomed Zalkinds — husband, wife and child — Kittel said:
“For having violated my order and hiding in the city, you will now be hanged in front of everyone.”
Kittel went over to the gallows to be sure that the rope was strong; then he began the execution process. The child was the first to be hanged. Then the mother. When the noose was tightened around the father’s neck, the rope broke.
Kittel ordered a new noose to be made. But as soon as Zalkind was hanging from it, the rope broke again.
Kittel was simply amused by it all.
“If the rope should break a hundred times, I’ll hang you a hundred times,” he said. And he ordered the hangman to prepare another rope.
Following the rule of collective responsibility, after Mr. Zalkind finally died, Kittel randomly selected fifty inmates of the camp, loaded them into a van and hauled them off to their deaths at Ponar.
Only a few hundred of the Vilna Ghetto’s Jews, mostly those assisted by Major Plagge, survived the Nazi era. Some of the Germans who helped wipe out this city’s once-vibrant Jewish community were apprehended after the war and prosecuted.
Bruno Kittel, however, disappeared without a trace and was never found at all.
* At the time, Vilna was part of Poland. Vilna was its Yiddish name; the Polish name was Wilnow. The city is now the capital of Lithuania and called Vilnius.
Also on this date
- 1765: Patrick Ogilvie, but not Katharine Nairn
- Announcing: Execution Playing Cards
- 1795: David McCraw, "blasted all our conjugal happiness"
- 2010: Farid Baghlani, womanslayer
- 1663: Corfitz Ulfeldt, in effigy
- 1676: Col. Thomas Hansford, the first American independence martyr
- 1534: Barthélemi Milon, for the Affair of the Placards
- 1849: Frederick and Marie Manning, a Dickensian scene
Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Jews,Lithuania,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women