Before the day was out, six of members of the hit squad were lined up and machine-gunned on the very same spot.
Calinescu was a conservative politician trying to fight off the rising fascist movement in his country — that aforesaid Iron Guard — and preferred to keep Romania in politic neutrality and friendly with England and France rather than hitching its fate to Nazi Germany.
This entailed an increasingly acrimonious struggle throughout the 1930s against the fascists. Calinescu once called the Guard “an association of assassins,” and the prospect of taking a bullet from them can’t have been far from his mind. Calinescu’s fingerprints were all over press closures, pre-emptive arrests, and still worse offenses to outrage the far right. After years in the cabinet working hand-in-glove with the hated-by-fascists King Carol II, Calinescu finally became Prime Minister in March of 1939. Carol hoped he could be the bulwark against a Legionary takeover.
If by his enemies ye may know a man, know that Calinescu was taken seriously enough for a multilateral meeting between representatives of the Iron Guard, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany in order to make the arrangements for his murder. But Calinescu would probably have just as soon have preferred his life to this tribute of his foes.
Upon news of the assassination, Calinescu’s place was immediately filled by Gen. Gheorghe Argesanu, whose one week as head of government was distinguished by a ruthless crackdown on his country’s homegrown terrorists.* The very next day’s British papers, in the same stories reporting the assassination, carried news “of an exemplary punishment” delivered within hours: “Last night, under the glare of powerful arc lamps, the murderers were publicly executed by machine-gun on the spot where the crime had been committed.” (London Times, September 22, 1939)
Nor was that the last exemplar.
The Times reported on September 25th that the ensuing days had seen “more than 300 former Iron Guards were shot” all around the country, including many “in the open street as a public example, on the pattern of the machine-gun executions in public at the scene of the crime.”
The “example” did not have the intended effect: in the span of another year, a fascist-aligned government had control of Bucharest and King Carol had hightailed it to Mexico, never to return.
* The Iron Guard would pay back Argesanu a year later by killing him during the Jilava massacre of its political prisoners.
On this date in 1459, the former Doge of Genoa Pietro di Campfregoso was stoned to death by his city’s enraged populace.
This Pietro (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) succeeded his cousin to the merchant oligarchy’s head in 1450. Genoa resided in a crab-bucket of rival peninsular and Mediterranean powers, and Pietro was distinctly out-scuttled in the 1450s.
Genoa unsuccessfully supported the Byzantine Empire when it was decisively conquered by the rising Ottomans in 1453, and the Genoans found themselves consequently rousted from a number of Aegean and Black Sea possessions. Meanwhile, fickle Italian fortune brought Neapolitan troops to the walls of Genoa and eventually forced Pietro to submit to a humiliating French protectorate under Charles VII.*
By this point, Genoa was also in the sights of Francesco Sforza, and when Pietro had to abdicate and blow town he went to the protection of the the great condottiero in Milan. There he joined a Sforza-backed plot to pull Genoa out of the French orbit and into that of the Duke of Milan, which coup utterly failed and got Pietro di Campofregoso lynched/murdered/summarily put to death near the Porta Soprana.
If only he’d been able to avoid that fate, he would have seen the plot come to fruition: when the French-supported Duke of Calabria left Genoa to attempt to re-establish his family’s foothold in Naples, Sforza’s agents got hold of the city and installed yet another Fregoso cousin, Spinetta, as the Milanese puppet.
The Campofregosos (or simply Fregosos) were far from finished with their misadventures in power. Pietro’s predecessor and kinsman Lodovico found his way back into office after Spinetta, but in 1462 the Genoan archbishop Paolo Fregoso (also kin!) arrested the sitting doge, and replaced him in office with his own self. Paolo was doge briefly in 1462, and again 1463-64, and then once again in the 1480s, being repeatedly deposed and exiled in between shifts.
* That’s the king at the end of his life whom Joan of Arc rallied to when he was a mere dauphin.
[Adolf Eichmann] did not expect the Jews to share the general enthusiasm over their destruction, but he did expect more than compliance, he expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — their cooperation. This was “of course the very cornerstone” of everything he did … Without Jewish help in administrative and police work — the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police — there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower …
To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.
Among the many horrors of the Holocaust were the Judenräte, Jewish administrative councils set up under the aegis of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe.
Typically recruited from local elites and granted special privileges by the Germans, these collaborators managed the day-to-day operations of the ghettos, up to and including the horrible sharp end of Final Solution: confiscating Jewish property for the Germans, registering and organizing Jews destined for slave labor or extermination, and even managing deportations with the desperate hope that willingly engaging a sacrifice they could never prevent might enable them to save some others. Once all the deportations were done, the Judenrat itself would be executed or deported: Faust had nothing on this bargain.
Chaim Rumkowski, perhaps the most (in)famous Judenrat administrator, issued posterity the definitive howl of a collaborator’s agony when he was forced by the imminent Lodz Ghetto children’s action to implore Lodz’s families to peaceably surrender their young people to certain death: “I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”
Rumkowski, a deeply checkered figure who fended off liquidation of his ghetto until the very late date of 1944, well knew that Judenrat personnel were entirely disposable. After all, he delivered this plaintive speech on September 4, 1942 — just three days after his counterpart in the Lvov Ghetto had been publicly strung up on a balcony.
Six Jews (including Henryk Landsberg) hanged in the Lvov Ghetto, September 1, 1942 (via). The US Holocaust Memorial Museum also identifies this clearly distinct execution as a picture of Lvov Jewish Council members being hanged in September 1942.
The city of Lwow/Lvov (or to use its present-day Ukrainian spelling, Lviv) had had a centuries-old Jewish population when the Soviet Union seized it from Poland in consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That population almost immediately doubled as Jewish refugees fleeing the half of Poland that Germany got in the deal poured into the city.
Practically on the frontier of the German/Soviet border, Lvov was captured in the opening days of Germany’s June 1941 surprise invasion of the USSR. In November-December 1941, the 100,000-plus Jews* still surviving in Lvov (after several post-conquest massacres) were crammed cheek to jowl into the new Lvov Ghetto. There they endured the usual litany of privations for World War II ghettos: starvation rations, routine humiliation, periodic murders. forced labor at the nearby Janowska concentration camp.
The ghetto’s first chairman, Dr. Josef Parnas, didn’t live to see 1942 before he was killed in prison for non-cooperation. Dr. Adolf Rotfeld followed him, and died of “natural” causes in office a few months later.
Dr. Henryk Landsberg, a lawyer, succeeded Rotfeld. He had been a respected community figure before the war, but was disposable to the Nazis as his predecessors; during a large-scale Aktion to cull the camp and further reduce its boundaries, a Jewish butcher resisting the SS killed one of his persecutors. Landsberg and a number of the Jewish policemen employed by the Judenrat were summarily put to death.
The Lvov Ghetto was liquidated June 1, 1943; a bare handful of its former inmates escaped into the sewers or managed to avoid death in the camps before the war ended. After the Red Army took back the city, a 1945 survey of the Jewish Provisional Committee in Lvov tallied just 823 Jews. Today, there are all of 5,000.
On this date in 1941, 534 Jewish intellectuals were lured out of the Nazi ghetto in the city of Kovno, Lithuania (also known as Kaunas), taken to Ninth Fort, and shot to death.
Over 5,000 Jews would die there during the Nazi occupation.
The Nazis had captured these people using a very clever ruse: on August 14, they had advertised for 500 Jews to help sort out the archives at City Hall, which were in disarray due to the chaos that followed the Germans’ conquering the city in June.
The workers had to be intelligent, educated types and fluent in German and Russian. They would be treated well and given three solid meals a day, in order that they could do the work properly and make no mistakes.
Most of the other jobs available for Jews at that moment involved manual labor under brutal conditions, on starvation-level rations.
More than the requested 500 showed up. The Nazis happily took them all.
Vilius “Vulik” Mishelski (later anglicized to William Mishell), who was 22 and had studied engineering in Vytautas Magnus University [Lithuanian link], was nearly victim no. 535. His mother told him about the job offer, because it upset her when he home from working at the airfield, “my clothes torn, my face covered with dust and sweat, my fingers bleeding, and I myself so exhausted I could hardly speak.” The archives job seemed like a gift from heaven to her.
Vulik wasn’t so sure.
Why, he asked, had the archives not been sorted out sooner? After all, the Germans had conquered Kovno a full two months earlier.
And why not get Lithuanians to do the job? It certainly wasn’t necessary to employ Jews.
He debated with himself for the next four days, then finally decided to go. Many of his friends were going, he wrote later on, and “this put me at ease. All of them could not be crazy.”
When he actually arrived at the gate, however, what he saw made him profoundly uneasy. The size of the guard was unusually large, and he witnessed Jewish police and Lithuanian partisans mistreating and beating people. Because it was taking long for the quota of 500 people to arrive, the Lithuanians started dragging people from their homes by force.
This struck me as odd. This was supposed to be a job where we were to be treated in a civilized manner; was this the treatment awaiting us? Oh, no, I would not be caught in this mess! Without hesitation, I turned around and rushed back home.
My mother was astounded. “What happened, why are you back?” she asked.
“Don’t ask questions,” I said, “move the cabinet, I’m going into hiding.”
Vulik was right not to trust the Nazis’ promises. He stayed in his hideout, a little cubbyhole behind the kitchen cabinet, all day.
The chosen 534 didn’t return that night, or the next night either, and no one believed the assurances that the work was taking longer than they thought, and they had spent the night at City Hall. Before long, the truth leaked out.
That same day, the men had been lead away in several smaller groups to an area containing deeply excavated holes in the ground. Then the Lithuanian guard, known as the Third Operational Group, had shot them all. Several men who tried to escape were killed on the run. Almost the entire intelligentsia of Jewish Kovno had thus been liquidated in one mass execution.
Mishelski stayed in the Kovno Ghetto until 1944, when he was sent to Dachau. He survived the war: 95% of the Lithuanian Jews, including most of his family, did not.
Landing at the southern Italian city on July 28, the Ottoman force quickly overwhelmed Otranto. (Otranto rashly slew the messenger come to offer a merciful capitulation, only to find that its garrison began deserting within days.) On August 11, the Turks took the city by storm. Thousands died on that day’s bloodbath, including the Archbishop of Otranto.
Surviving women and children were sold into slavery. Men over age 15 had the choice of conversion — or death.
“Now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for the Lord!” a Christian shoemaker is said to have exhorted his 800 fellow prisoners. “And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him.”
The acclaim greeting this call signaled inflammation ahead for the Turkish headsmen’s rotator cuffs. They had 800 faithful souls to dispatch to their eternal reward this date at the place still known as the Hill of Martyrs. (When in Otranto, visit it by taking the via Ottocento Martiri, just off via Antonio Primaldo — that’s the name of the militant shoemaker.)
The remains of the Otranto martyrs, arrayed as relics in the Otranto cathedral. (cc) image from Laurent Massoptier.
This, at least, is the most pious version of the story. The mass execution certainly did occur, but some latter-day historians like Francesco Tateo have argued that martyrdom is not attested by any of the contemporaneous sources, and the specifically religious understanding of events was only read in after the fact.
On whatever grounds one likes, Italy’s fractious city-states were deeply alarmed by the appearance on their shores of the all-conquering Turks. “It will always seem as if the funeral cross is borne before me while these barbarians remain in the boundaries of Italy,” wrote the Florentine humanist Poliziano.* (Source, a nonfiction book which covers Otranto in some detail.)
In the ensuing months, they rallied together vowing to expel the invaders.
Fortunately for this coalition, the Ottoman sultan Mehmed the Conqueror died in May 1481, and a brief period of internal conflict within the Ottoman empire over the succession perhaps led it to allow its Otranto outpost to wither on the vine. The Turks made peace and withdrew from their potential beachhead not long after, having held the city for just over a year. The bodies of the martyrs were said to have been found uncorrupted by decay.
The Catholic church beatified the 800 martyrs in 1771, but their final elevation to sainthood occurred only in 2013, just three months ago as I write this. They were in the very first group canonized by the new Pope Francis — although the canonization was approved by his predecessor Benedict XVI on the same day that Benedict resigned his pontificate. Considering current relations between the respective faiths, it was seen as a potentially impolitic move.
“By venerating the martyrs of Otranto, we ask God to protect the many Christians who in these times, and in many parts of the world, are still victims of violence,” Pope Francis said at the canonization Mass, diplomatically not naming any of those parts of the world.
Li’s generalship kept the Taiping in the fight for a long, long time: the war spanned 14 years, with some 20 million estimated killed. In July of 1864 the central government finally overran the rebel capital of Nanking/Nanjing and put that city to a frightful sack. Here’s Platt on Li’s fate:
Zeng Guofan seeded his reports on the fall of Nanjing with fabrications, claiming that a hundred thousand rebel soldiers had been killed in the fighting, inflating the glory of his family and his arm, masking their looting and atrocities against cvilians. He kept careful control over what the cout would know. To that end, from the day he arrived in Nanjing he took over the interrogation of Li Xiucheng for himself. The Hunan Army commanders had already secured a long confession from Li Xiucheng in the weeks since he had been captured — pages upon pages detailing his origins and the history of the war and explaining the tactical decisions he had made, many of which they still did not understand. The honor of beginning the questioning had fallen to Guoquan, who had taken to the job with undisguised relish; his primary tools were an awl and a knife, and he managed to cut a piece out of Li Xiucheng’s arm before the others made him slow down.
When Zeng Guofan took over the interrogations on July 28, at last the two hoary, weatherbeaten commanders in chief of the civil war faced each other in person for the first time: square-shouldered Zeng Guofan on the one side, the weary-eyed scholar, his long beard turning gray;wiry, bespectacled Li Xiucheng on the other, the charcoal maker who had risen to command the armies of a nation. It would be no Appomattox moment, however. There was no wistful air of regret and respect between equals. For the defeated, it was no prelude to reconciliation, to twilight years on a rolling plantation. This war ended not in surrender but in annihilation. Zeng Guofan would spend long hours of the following evenings editing his counterpart’s fifty-thousand-word confession, striking out passages that didn’t paint his own army in a good light and having it copied and bound with thread for submission to the imperial government, before casually ordering Li Xiuceng’s execution — in spite of orders he knew were coming from Beijing, that the rebel general be sent to the Qing capital alive.
That identification, stretching all the way back to the club’s formative early-20th century years (“History of FC Barcelona” enjoys its own voluminous Wikipedia page) put the Barca president at the end of fascist guns on this date in 1936.
Josep Sunyol was born into the Catalan elite, and had a varied career in the public eye: left activist, parliamentary deputy, newspaper founder, and, come 1935, president of FC Barcelona. He’d been serving on the Barca board of directors since 1928. There’s a lengthy Sunyol biography here.
On the return trip from Madrid, Sunyol’s chauffeured car flying the Catalan senyera was stopped by pro-Franco Falangist forces in the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Madrid. It may have been only inadvertently that Sunyol crossed this checkpoint of nationalists, who were already gathering for an attack on Madrid that would eventually inspire For Whom The Bell Tolls. (Indeed, this novel is set in the Sierra de Guadarrama.)
Whatever Sunyol’s intention, he was quickly recognized and detained by his foes on the evening of August 6. Shortly thereafter, they decided to shoot him out of hand.
The civil war and the era of Franco are still sensitive topic in Spain, but FC Barcelona’s politically engaged supporters have pushed the present-day club (with partial success) to more overtly embrace its anti-fascist “martyr president”.
On this date, some 400-plus Ba’ath party leaders were summoned to a pavilion near the Iraqi presidential palace. The secret police locked the doors behind them.
As film rolled, a man named Muhyi Abdel-Hussein came to the stage. Until just days prior, he had been the general secretary of the Revolutionary Command Council, the executive committee that ran the state. For opposing Saddam Hussein’s accession, he’d been arrested and endured God knows what. It was enough to break him, and make him the star in a drama worthy of the old Soviet show trials.
Speaking deliberately, Muhyi Abdel-Hussein* stood at the podium and accused himself of involvement in a Syrian plot against the regime. He had, moreover, been joined in his treason by a number of men in that very room. And then as the names were read off to the stunned audience, Mukhabarat men arrested them and dragged them out of the hall. Colleagues gaped as their ranks were culled around them, each paralyzed with the same panicked thought: am I next? Realizing their vulnerability, some began to chant feverishly their loyalty: “Long live Saddam Hussein!”**
All the while, the emerging dictator — younger and trimmer than we remember him at the end — sat steps away at a simple little table, coolly puffing his cigar. He would be the unquestioned master of Iraq for the next 24 years.
In all, 68 people were hauled out of the room; they were tried immediately and sentenced within minutes: 22 to die, the rest to the dungeons.† The condemned were shot that very day: in a diabolical twist, a number of their former, as-yet-unpurged Ba’ath Party colleagues were detailed for firing squad duty.
Nor was this the end. A wider purge of potential rivals with potential influence — party members, union leaders, intelligentsia, businessmen — unfolded throughout that week; by August 1, several hundred (the exact figure will never be known) had been condemned to die. Muhyi Abdel-Hussein, whatever they promised him, was among them.
* “Al-Khalil gives the last name of Muhyi Abdel-Hussein as Rashid. Matar gives it as Mashhadi. Since Mashhad is a place in Iran, one can only assume that this name was bestowed on the unfortunate Abdel-Hussein posthumously, after it had been discovered that ‘he had reached his position through devious means and that he was originally Persian.'” (Source)
** The entire liturgy of terror was stage-managed by Taha Yasin Ramadan, who became Iraq’s vice president (and, like his president, was eventually hanged for his trouble). Also making an appearance: Barzan al-Tikriti, who was likewise destined to hang during the American occupation; on July 22, 1979, he was one of the judges on the kangaroo court that issued the death sentences.
† Different sources produce slight variations on the counts of 68 arrests and 22 executions.
June 29, 1944, saw several noteworthy mass executions around Axis western Europe.
France: Seven Jewish hostages for the assassination of Philippe Henriot
Poet and journalist Philippe Henriot (English Wikipedia entry | French), the “French Goebbels”, was the Vichy government’s able chief propagandist.
On June 28, 1944, Henriot was assassinated by Maquis operatives disguised as milice paramlitaries.
Incensed, the real milice this morning gathered seven Jews already held in prison as hostages at Rillieux, drove them to the cemetery, and shot them one by one.
(Paul Touvier, who orchestrated this retaliatory execution, managed to stay underground until 1989. At his 1994 war crimes trial, he claimed that the Germans wanted 30 hostages killed, and therefore what he actually did was “save 23 human lives.” Touvier was convicted on the charge of crimes against humanity.)
Italy: Massacres in San Pancrazio, Cornia, and Civitella
As dawn broke this date, German soldiers retreating from liberated Rome fell upon several Tuscan villages.
German columns had been beset by partisans on the way, and standard operating procedure was to retaliate against partisans indirectly, by killing civilians — as in the notorious massacre in the Ardeatine caves. This vengeance was visited on the three towns: over 200 civilians were summarily executed on June 29, 1944.
“My mother later said she went to speak to my father,” remembered one San Pancrazio man. “A soldier turned her back and told her they were taking him to be tortured. She and my father both cried.” The father and those taken with him were shot in the basement of a farmhouse.
Caution: Graphic video.
The towns themselves have kept this date in remembrance, but the massacres were swept under the rug in the postwar settlement as Italy, Germany, and their former western enemies realigned for the Cold War. Only in the 21st century have they come to wider attention, when the discovery of secret archives documenting the atrocities enabled an Italian court to convict an aged German soldier in absentia.
There’s a CNN documentary on these events focusing particularly on San Pancrazio. Called “Terror in Tuscany”, it may be viewable here or here, depending on your location.
On this date in 1944, Jakob Edelstein, his wife Miriam, their twelve-year-son Arieh and his mother-in-law Mrs. Olliner were shot to death at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland. They had been inmates in Auschwitz since the previous December; Jakob had been in an isolation cell the whole time while the others stayed in the so-called “Family Camp.”
For two years prior they’d lived in Theresienstadt (also known by its Czech name, Terezin), a the former Czech fortress town that had been turned into a city just for Jews. Jakob Edelstein was named Eldest of the Jews and was nominally in charge of the place, but in practice he had no choice but to cater to the whims of the Nazis. He was assisted by a deputy and a council of twelve.
Edelstein, a Czech Jew born in 1903, had been a leader within the Jewish community in Prague and had had papers for himself and his family to emigrate to Palestine. But when the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, Edelstein and the other Zionist leaders decided it was their duty to stay and do what they could for the community during this time of crisis.
He became a liaison between the Germans the Jewish community and tried to facilitate immigration to Palestine. From 1939 to 1941 he made several trips back and forth between Czechoslovakia and Palestine, with permission from the Germans, trying to find ways for more Jews to emigrate.
Theresienstadt was a strange place: neither concentration camp nor ghetto but something in-between, it was billed as a “paradise” and a “gift” from Hitler to the Jewish people.
Elderly Jews were sent there, as well as Jews who were “prominent” for some reason or had Aryan connections (such as Jews who had a non-Jewish spouse). It was advertised as a luxurious resort community where they could live out the rest of their lives in ease and plenty.
Residents were allowed to receive food packages from the outside, and send postcards (one per month, limited to 30 words, and censored).
Many people believed the propaganda and were persuaded to go there voluntarily, signing all their possessions and assets to the German government in exchange for what they thought would be a comfortable and peaceful retirement.
The 500-ish Danish Jews who weren’t evacuated to Sweden by the Danish Underground right after the Nazi invasion of Denmark were ultimately sent to Theresienstadt. Many talented artists, actors, musicians and scholars lived there. The Nazis would ultimately make a propaganda film about how wonderful life was in Theresienstadt, and a Red Cross delegation toured the place and came away satisfied.
As you might have guessed, living conditions within the fortress city didn’t exactly live up to what it said in the brochures.
It’s true that it was possible to survive in Theresienstadt for an extended time period, even for the duration of the war. There were no gas chambers and relatively few executions. Certainly it was worlds apart from, say, Auschwitz or Treblinka. But that was as close to “paradise” as it got.
Yes, there were stores, more than a dozen of them, but their stock consisted of “goods the Nazis had originally confiscated from the residents and later found they didn’t need or want.”
Theresienstadt, like the Lodz Ghetto, had a bank and its own money, but there was nothing to spend it on. “The ghetto crowns,” Berkley says, “were used mostly like Monopoly money in playing cards and other games. Still, the bank staff kept themselves busy balancing their books, and auditors arrived regularly from Berlin to ensure the accuracy of the bank’s essentially fictitious accounts.”
Theresienstadt’s population, at its peak, was 58,497, in a town which before the war had a population of less than 10,000. Nearly everyone had lice, toilets and taps were scarce, and disease was rampant.
Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children each residing in different barracks.
“Horrendous as Theresienstadt housing conditions may have been,” Berkley says, “they were not the residents’ chief source of daily suffering. Food, or rather, the lack of it, weighed on them much more heavily.” The menu, he explains,
consisted chiefly of bread, potatoes, and a watery soup. Some margarine and sugar — about two ounces a week of the former and less than one and one-half ounces of the latter — were sometimes included. The residents were also to receive up to four ounces of meat, mostly horseflesh, and up to eight ounces of skim milk a week, though many a week would see less or none of those foodstuffs available. No fruits were ever officially distributed, and turnips were the only vegetable to show up with any regularity.
Estimates of total per capita calories provided daily ranged from 1300 or less, to 1800, with the lower figure being more frequently mentioned. This should be compared with the “Special Regime” given the worst offenders in the Soviet labor camps which provided about 2,000 calories.
According to modern nutritional guidelines, to maintain a healthy weight, the average adult with an average level of physical activity needs 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. At Theresienstadt all inmates between age 14 and 70 had to work long hours, many of them at strenuous jobs. In addition to being calorie-deficient, the Theresienstadt rations lacked essential vitamins and minerals. It’s no wonder that one survivor later recalled, “After three months in Theresienstadt, there was only one feeling left in my body: hunger.”
Six months after his arrival, Edelstein and the Council of Elders made a difficult decision about the food problem, as Berkley records:
It became apparent that an even distribution of the food supply would not allow the ghetto to survive. Those doing heavy work needed more than those doing normal work, and the latter needed more than nonworkers. In addition, children required extra rations, for they represented the Jewish future…
Thus, heavy workers … began to receive a little over 2,000 calories of food a day. Children were to get 1,800 and regular workers a little over 1,500. But the daily intake for nonworkers, which included most of the elderly, fell to less than 1,000 calories.
This terrible choice, however necessary to the population’s long-term survival, consigned thousands of people to death.
But even though starvation and disease took many lives, the most deadly aspect of life in Theresienstadt was deportation.
Contrary to what the propaganda messages said about people living out their lives in Theresienstadt, it was largely a transit camp. Most people who arrived would be sent on “to the east” sooner or later; some of them lasted only a few days in the fortress city before being deported.
Although certain classes of people, such as decorated World War I veterans, “prominent” people and those over 65, were in theory exempted from deportation, in practice anyone could be sent away and just about everyone ultimately was.
Approximately 145,000 denizens passed through Theresienstadt during the course of its existence, most of them from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria. About a quarter of these inmates died within Theresienstadt itself. Another 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other camps in the East, almost all of them dying there. Out of about 15,000 children who passed through Theresienstadt, less than 2,000 survived, and some estimates put the number in the low hundreds.
When the camp was liberated, it had a population of about 17,000, and most of those had arrived in the during the final months of the war.
Jakob Edelstein didn’t know about the gas chambers when he became Eldest of the Jews at Theresienstadt in December 1941, but he knew that conditions in the East were very bad and realized that, in order for the community to sustain itself, as many people as possible had to remain within Czechoslovakia.
As a committed Zionist, he hoped that the young people in the camp would survive and go on to colonize Israel. Like most otherleaders of Jewish communities throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, he made the decision to cooperate with the occupiers in hopes of saving lives.
And as far as that goes, he failed, as the numbers quoted above indicate. But if he failed, so did everyone else.
Unlike many Jewish officials in the Nazi ghettos, he wasn’t corrupt and he wasn’t a toady to the Germans. It’s worth noting that he had many opportunities to flee the country with his family, even after the war started: all he had to do was not come back to Europe after one of his trips overseas.
But he stayed, because he felt he had a responsibility to his beleaguered people.
Edelstein did the best he could with what he had to work with, which is all you can say for anybody. He worked tirelessly, making himself available at all hours, and under his leadership the camp developed a welfare system as well as many cultural and sports activities.
His job as Eldest of the Jews in Theresienstadt, trying to play the balancing act between advocating for his people and not pissing off the Germans, was always extremely stressful, difficult and dangerous.
But things really started to go downhill for him after the city’s first commandant, Siegfried Siedl, got reassigned to Bergen-Belsen in July 1943.
Siedl’s replacement, Anton Burger, hated Czechs and took an immediate dislike to Edelstein as a result. He replaced Edelstein with Paul Eppstein [German language link, as is the next], a German, and demoted Edelstein to first deputy to Eppstein. Benjamin Murmelstein, an Austrian, became second deputy.
This wasn’t enough for Burger, however, as George Berkley records:
As leader of the Czech Jews, [Edelstein] naturally bore the brunt of Burger’s hatred for them. The new commandant had not only deported many of his countrymen and his chief aide … but had also moved Germans and Austrians into key positions formerly held by Czechs. Burger had apparently also stirred up his own superiors against him for during the fall some bakery workers, looking out the window, saw and heard Eichmann sharply dressing down Edelstein and even threatening to have him shot.
The incident alarmed Edelstein’s many loyal followers and the next day the leaders of Hechalutz, the largest Zionist organization in the camp, met with him to urge him to flee. They said they could help him escape … But though he suspected a Nazi scheme to get rid of him, Edelstein refused to run away.
In the end, the Nazis didn’t need to trump up any charges of insubordination or sabotage against their former Eldest of the Jews: they found some real “crimes.” It seems that Edelstein had been saving people from deportation by allowing them to remain in Theresienstadt, off the books, and adding the names of dead people to the transport lists to make the numbers match up.
He was immediately arrested. It was November 9, 1943, the fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Edelstein was kept in custody in Theresienstadt until December 18, when he and his mother-in-law, his wife, and his young son were sent to Auschwitz with a transport of 2,500 others. The transport became part of the Auschwitz “Family Camp”, joining 5,000 Czech Jews who’d arrived there from Theresienstadt in September.
Edelstein’s family was allowed to join the Family Camp. Edelstein himself was put in the punishment block and subjected to interrogation although not, apparently, tortured. He gave nothing away.
In March 1944, the residents of the Family Camp who’d arrived in September were gassed. The December group was allowed to stay alive for the time being.
On June 20, an SS officer went to Edelstein’s cell and told him he’d been sentenced to death. While the condemned man (who’d become quite popular in jail) was taking leave of his fellow inmates, the SS officer got impatient and snapped, “quickly, quickly.”
Edelstein replied, “I am the master of my last movements.”
He was driven to the execution site and then the car went away to fetch Miriam, Ariah and Mrs. Olliner. Miriam had measles and had to be brought on a stretcher. The Nazis forced Jakob Edelstein to watch as his wife, child and mother-in-law were shot to death. He was the last of them to die.
The remaining residents of the family camp were gassed in early July 1944.
Paul Eppstein was executed in Theresienstadt in September. Murmelstein became Eldest of the Jews in his place and actually managed to survive the war. Because he had lived, he spent the rest of his life under a cloud of distrust and suspicion as a possible collaborator.
Siegfried Siedl was hanged for war crimes in 1947. Anton Burger escaped Allied custody (twice) after the war, assumed a new identity and died of natural causes in Essen in 1991. His true identity wasn’t discovered for years after his death.
After the war, the city of Theresienstadt reverted to its former name of Terezin, and the fortress became an internment camp for ethnic Germans, who found themselves quite unpopular in the newly liberated Czechoslovakia and were expelled from the country in droves. The internment camp closed in 1948.
The modern town of Terezin has a population of 3,500 and is noted for its manufacture of knitwork and furniture. Tourists from all over the world come to learn about its important role in one of the most tragic events in modern history.