The local mandarin Zhang Mingfeng was no doubt disposed to take such an harsh line against this provocation by virtue of the ongoing, Christian-inspired Taiping Rebellion, which had originated right there in Guangxi and was in the process of engulfing all of southern China in one of history’s bloodiest conflicts.
So Chapdelaine and his associates were snapped up, put to a few days’ dreadful torture, and on this date a Chinese convert and Chapdelaine were both summarily beheaded. (A female convert, Agnes Tsaou-Kong, expired under torture around the same time.)
Pietistic accounts of believers’ last extremes are here and here.
It took months for word of this martyrdom to reach French consular officials, and many months more for the gears of international diplomacy to turn — but when they did so, France pressed a demand for reparations.
Since pere Chapdelaine had been acting illegally in the first place, the Qing’s obdurate Viceroy Ye(h) adamantly refused to offer Paris satisfaction.
It would be rather ungenerous to hold all the ugly imperial consequences personally against our day’s martyr. August Chapdelaine was canonized by the Catholic Church in 2000 as one of 120 Martyrs of China.
China was not impressed by this celebration of a onetime colonial catspaw, and met the Vatican’s “anti-China” celestial promotion announcement with one of its own — charging that Chapdelaine “collaborated with corrupt local officials, raped women and was notorious in those areas [where he preached].”
Detail view (click for the full image) of a mounted Charles the Bold under a forest of hanged men.
Charles — less generously known as “Charles the Rash” or “Charles the Terrible” — was the Duke of Burgundy, an ancient territory whose warlike inhabitants were celebrated back to The Nibelungenlied
Upon his single person the sword-strokes fell thick and fast. The wife of many a hero must later mourn for this. Higher he raised his shield, the thong he lowered; the rings of many an armor he made to drip with blood … Then men saw the warrior walk forth in full lordly wise. As the strife-weary man sprang from the house, how many added swords rang on his helmet! Those that had not seen what wonders his hand had wrought sprang towards the hero of the Burgundian land. (XXXII)
In the 15th century, the swords ringing on Burgundian helmets were those of the French and the Habsburgs, who squeezed the mighty duchy on either side.
Charles the Bold fought the expansionist Burgundian Wars as a project to strengthen his duchy’s independence. But it would have the exact opposite effect.
The Swiss had been pulled into the anti-Burgundian league, and taken the city of Grandson, inducing an irritated Charles to put it to a fearful bombardment that threatened to overrun the place in short order.
Sources vary by partisan affiliation as to whether the besieged garrison surrendered at its antagonist’s discretion (Burgundian version) or on a pledge of mercy (Swiss version). But in the actual event, no mercy at all was given. To a man, the prisoners were strung up on trees and drowned in the adjacent Lake of Neuchatel — a warning to the Swiss not to mess with Burgundy.
It was bluster that Charles’s men could not back up when their opponents fought back … and after this, who was going to surrender?
A couple days later, the Swiss relief force arrived too late to bail out the garrison. Instead, it trounced the Burgundians in battle, sending them fleeing “without looking back, helter-skelter” as Charles, “exasperated beyond measure by the stupid cowardice of his troops, rode amongst them with drawn sword, striking them furiously, in the vain effort to bring them to a standstill.”
There were found sadly the honorable men still freshly hanging on the trees in front of the castle whom the tyrant had hanged. It was a wretched, pitiable sight. There were hung ten or twenty men on one bough. The trees were bent down and were completely full. There hanged a father and a son next to each other, there two brothers or other friends. And there came the honorable men who knew them; who were their friends, cousins and brothers, who found them miserably hanging. There was first anger and distress in crying and bewailing.
Charles was plenty distressed himself at his embarrassing reversal, and boldly (or rashly) regrouped, marched on the Swiss again — and had Burgundian power decisively shattered at the Battle of Murten that June. The following January, a dispirited Charles died in another losing battle, leading the once-imperious realm of Burgundy to settle into French hands, where it remains today.
On this date in 1870, the lynching of a mulatto freedman in Alamance County, North Carolina sounded the tocsin for ex-Confederates’ rollback of Reconstruction.
Perhaps America’s most tragic period, the aftermath of the Civil War saw a too-brief attempt to enforce ex-slaves’ civil rights, before it succumbed to violent counterattack. The prevailing historiography in the century-long era of Southern apartheid that followed remembered it as a time of impertinent Negroes ravishing Dixie’s virtue by being seated in the legislature and giving orders to their natural betters.
Winners write history, after all.
Those of the pro-Republican coalition at the time, before Northerners folded their hand, had a mind to write a different history.
Alamance County was one epicenter of this aborted alternative. The enclave was cool to secession from the beginning, and in the early years of Reconstruction had a live black-white coalition. Wyatt Outlaw, a mixed-race Alamance native who had fought for the Union, was a local leader in it. A member of the antislavery Union League, which registered freedmen as voters throughout the South, he was appointed a town commissioner for Graham, N.C. under the state’s new constitution.
This made him a prime target of Ku Kluxers. On the night of February 26, 1870, an armed party of white supremacists about 100 strong raided his home and strung him up on an elm tree facing the county courthouse. Pinned to his corpse for the edification of the morning’s churchgoers was a note:
“Beware you guilty — both white and black.”
North Carolina Governor William Holden complained to the U.S. Senate of federal unwillingness to act against such outrages.
What is being done to protect good citizens in Alamance County? We have Federal troops, but we want power to act. Is it possible the government will abandon its loyal people to be whipped and hanged? The habeas corpus should be at once suspended.
One of the characters in Fool’s Errand is a nearly exact representation of Wyatt Outlaw: “Uncle Jerry Hunt”, who resists the Klan. It is “chiefly through Uncle Jerry’s persuasions, and because of his prominence and acknowledged leadership, this spirit had gone out among the colored men of the county.” He meets a graphic end that almost journalistically reports Outlaw’s real fate.
It was a chill, dreary night. A dry, harsh wind blew from the north. The moon was at the full, and shone clear and cold in the blue vault.
There was one shrill whistle, some noise of quietly moving horses; and those who looked from their windows saw a black-gowned and grimly-masked horseman sitting upon a draped horse at every corner of the streets, and before each house, –grim, silent, threatening. Those who saw dared not move, or give any alarm. Instinctively they knew that the enemy they had feared had come, had them in his clutches, and would work his will of them, whether they resisted or not. So, with the instinct of self-preservation, all were silent–all simulated sleep.
Five, ten, fifteen minutes the silent watch continued. A half-hour passed, and there had been no sound. Each masked sentry sat his horse as if horse and rider were only some magic statuary with which the bleak night cheated the affrighted eye. Then a whistle sounded on the road toward Verdenton. The masked horsemen turned their horses’ heads in that direction, and slowly and silently moved away. Gathering in twos, they fell into ranks with the regularity and ease of a practiced soldiery, and, as they filed on towards Verdenton, showed a cavalcade of several hundred strong; and upon one of the foremost horses rode one with a strange figure lashed securely to him.
When the few who were awake in the little village found courage to inquire as to what the silent enemy had done, they rushed from house to house with chattering teeth and trembling limbs, only to find that all were safe within, until they came to the house where old Uncle Jerry Hunt had been dwelling alone since the death of his wife six months before. The door was open.
The house was empty. The straw mattress had been thrown from the bed, and the hempen cord on which it rested had been removed.
The sabbath morrow was well advanced when the Fool [i.e., Tourgee himself] was first apprised of the raid. He at once rode into the town, arriving there just as the morning services closed, and met the people coming along the streets to their homes. Upon the limb of a low-branching oak not more than forty steps from the Temple of Justice, hung the lifeless body of old Jerry. The wind turned it slowly to and fro. The snowy hair and beard contrasted strangely with the dusky pallor of the peaceful face, which seemed even in death to proffer a benison to the people of God who passed to and fro from the house of prayer, unmindful both of the peace which lighted the dead face, and of the rifled temple of the Holy Ghost which appealed to them for sepulture. Over all pulsed the sacred echo of the sabbath bells. The sun shone brightly. The wind rustled the autumn leaves. A few idlers sat upon the steps of the court-house, and gazed carelessly at the ghastly burden on the oak. The brightly-dressed church-goers enlivened the streets. Not a colored man was to be seen. All except the brown cadaver on the tree spoke of peace and prayer–a holy day among a godly people, with whom rested the benison of peace.
The Fool asked of some trusty friends the story of the night before. With trembling lips one told it to him,
“I heard the noise of horses–quiet and orderly, but many. Looking from the window in the clear moonlight, I saw horsemen passing down the street, taking their stations here and there, like guards who have been told off for duty, at specific points. Two stopped before my house, two opposite Mr. Haskin’s, and two or three upon the corner below. They seemed to have been sent on before as a sort of picket-guard for the main body, which soon came in. I should say there were from a hundred to a hundred and fifty still in line. They were all masked, and wore black robes. The horses were disguised, too, by drapings. There were only a few mules in the whole company. They were good horses, though: one could tell that by their movements. Oh, it was a respectable crowd! No doubt about that, sir. Beggars don’t ride in this country. I don’t know when I have seen so many good horses together since the Yankee cavalry left here after the surrender. They were well drilled too. Plenty of old soldiers in that crowd. Why, every thing went just like clock-work. Not a word was said–just a few whistles given. They came like a dream, and went away like a mist. I thought we should have to fight for our lives; but they did not disturb any one here. They gathered down by the court-house. I could not see precisely what they were at, but, from my back upper window, saw them down about the tree. After a while a signal was given, and just at that time a match was struck, and I saw a dark body swing down under the limb. I knew then they had hung somebody, but had no idea who it was. To tell the truth, I had a notion it was you, Colonel. I saw several citizens go out and speak to these men on the horses. There were lights in some of the offices about the court-house, and in several of the houses about town. Every thing was as still as the grave,–no shouting or loud talking, and no excitement or stir about town. It was evident that a great many of the citizens expected the movement, and were prepared to co-operate with it by manifesting no curiosity, or otherwise endangering its success. I am inclined to think a good many from this town were in it. I never felt so powerless in my life. Here the town was in the hands of two or three hundred armed and disciplined men, hidden from the eye of the law, and having friends and co-workers in almost every house. I knew that resistance was useless.”
“But why,” asked the Fool, “has not the body been removed?”
“We have been thinking about it,” was the reply; “but the truth is, it don’t seem like a very safe business. And, after what we saw last night, no one feels like being the first to do what may be held an affront by those men. I tell you, Colonel, I went through the war, and saw as much danger as most men in it; but I would rather charge up the Heights of Gettysburg again than be the object of a raid by that crowd.”
After some parley, however, some colored men were found, and a little party made up, who went out and saw the body of Uncle Jerry cut down, and laid upon a box to await the coming of the coroner, who had already been notified. The inquest developed only these facts, and the sworn jurors solemnly and honestly found the cause of death unknown. One of the colored men who had watched the proceedings gave utterance to the prevailing opinion, when he said,–
“It don’t do fer niggers to know too much! Dat’s what ail Uncle Jerry!”
And indeed it did seem as if his case was one in which ignorance might have been bliss.
The multitalented, ahead-of-his-time Tourgee might well have uttered the same sentiment in 1896, when he was the lead attorney on the losing side of Plessy v. Ferguson — the Supreme Court’s landmark sanction of the color line that Uncle Jerry’s hangmen had drawn.
* Narrowly beating Nebraska’s David Butler, who got the boot a few months later. Holden remains the only governor to suffer this indignity in North Carolina history; there has been a recent push in the Raleigh legislature to posthumously pardon him. Holden’s own memoirs are also available free online.
** Along with the book’s contention that northern Republicans were to blame for vacillating on Reconstruction. “This cowardly shirking of responsibility, this pandering to sentimental whimsicalities, this snuffling whine about peace and conciliation, is sheer weakness … [the North is] a country debauched by weak humanitarianisms, more anxious to avoid the appearance of offending its enemies than desirous of securing its own power or its own ends.”
On this day in 1942, the Nazis shot five Jewish men from Sokal, which was then part of Poland and now belongs to the Ukraine.
During the first years of the war, the Germans had designated Sokal as a Judenstadt (literally “Jew-town”), a central destination point for all Jews expelled from nearby towns and villages. Or, as diarist Moshe Maltz put it, “A solitary island in a sea of blood.”
It was Maltz, an Orthodox Jew and native of Sokal, who recorded the executions described in this entry. He kept regular notes throughout the war about the plight of Sokal’s Jews — not a diary exactly, but a chronicle, meant for the benefit of history.
On February 24, five Jews from Sokal were taken to a place somewhere on the outskirts of town and shot. One of them was Yeshaye, son of Yankel the coachman. In 1940, during the period of Soviet occupation, Yeshaye had been a coachman working for the NKVD. Now the Gestapo called him and ordered him to turn over to them the reins of his horses. They said to him, “We’ll give you three days to deliver those reins to us. If we don’t get them by that time, we’ll have you shot.” Yeshaye thought that the Gestapo must be joking. How could he go on working as a coachman without his reins? Unfortunately for Yeshaye, the Gestapo men were in dead earnest.
Also among the five shot was Dr. Knopf, a lawyer who had converted to Christianity. The Germans had ordered him to dismiss his Gentile maid so that she could be sent to work in Germany. Knopf petitioned the Gestapo to let him have his maid back. That’s why the Germans shot him. Despite his baptism, he was simply not an Aryan. The third victim was blind Yankel, who was found guilty of buying and slaughtering a calf. Under German occupation regulations, cattle can be slaughtered only by officially approved butchers.
In October 1942, the Jews of Sokal were confined to a ghetto. The following month Maltz wrote, with the same dispassionate tone, of the murder of his fourteen-month-old daughter at the hands of the Nazis.
Later in November he escaped from the ghetto with his wife and surviving son. They had made an arrangement with a Polish woman who lived nearby, and moved into her hayloft, above the pigsty.
Eventually fourteen people from three families in all would come to live in the hayloft. All of them survived except Maltz’s sister, who died of fever while in hiding. The others staggered out into daylight, barely able to walk, when the Russians liberated the area in July 1944.
Maltz and his entire family eventually emigrated to the USA.
“The sovereignty of a people cannot be argued about, it is defended with a gun in the hand.”
On this date in 1934, the first name in Nicaraguan anti-colonial resistance was abducted and summarily executed by the Nicaraguan National Guard.
From 1927 until his death, Sandino led an armed peasant insurgency from the Nicaraguan mountains against the Yankee imperialists and the domestic dictatorship they backed.
Washington had had its nose (and its marines) in Managua’s business for decades, continuously occupying the Central American country since 1912. The Marine Corps saw this country’s people as
Densely ignorant … little interested in principles … naturally brave and inured to hardships, of phlegmatic temperament, tough, capable of being aroused to acts of extreme violence, they have fought for one party or the other without considering causes since time immemorial … a state of war is to them a normal condition.*
All this was the time of Sandino’s own coming-of-age. The son of a wealthy landowner and his domestic servant, Sandino grew up with the unprivileged and the working classes, eventually asorbing an eclectic mix of that period’s revolutionary ideologies.
From 1927 he took to the Segovia and began writing the playbook for the 20th century guerrilla: mobile infantry irregulars, striking from familiar-to-them forest cover, melting away among sympathetic campesinos.
The “Colossus of the North” — Sandino made no bones about his foe; his personal seal showed an American marine being killed — invariably described him as a “bandit” because he also raided towns to commandeer food, clothing, and medicine.
“Washington is called the father of his country; the same may be said of Bolivar and Hidalgo; but I am only a bandit, according to the yardstick by which the strong and the weak are measured.”
The strong, in this case, found little public appetite for the steady attrition of servicemen, and the U.S. employed a familiar strategy of its own: “Nicaraguanizing” the conflict by building up a National Guard to do the dirty work domestically.
That Guard’s head was headed by Anastasio Somoza — the very son of a bitch of whom FDR said, “but he’s our son of a bitch.”
While it’s hardly the only country to have been favored with an American son of a bitch, you could say that Nicaragua has been the American empire’s very own heart of darkness. Washington’s initial interest in the place after the Spanish-American War concerned preventing a canal project to compete with Panama. It invented dive-bombing to hunt Sandino. And it ranged around the world and outside the law to battle Sandino’s successors under the aegis of a modern imperial presidency.
Small wonder that an official anthem of the movement denounces “The Yankee / The enemy of all humankind.”
In the immediate aftermath of the American departure in January 1933, Sandino began coming to terms with the the country’s new president: the Sandinistas disarmed in exchange for amnesty and land. But Somoza, who at this point was “only” the head of the National Guard, was building up his own power … and he meant to have done with this inconvenient insurgent.
After Sandino left a presidential meeting on this date, at which the erstwhile rebel negotiated for his continuing demand to disband Somoza’s Guardia, Sandino was stopped at the gates by Guardsmen. They took Sandino, his brother, and two of his generals and marched them off to be shot. Then the Guard forcibly broke up the Sandinista remnants. Somoza soon seized official power for himself; his family ruled, and plundered, Nicaragua until 1979. Washington never called them bandits.
While Sandino vanished (the whereabouts of his remains are unknown), his revolutionary vision and praxis also persist down to the present day.
Sandinismo (aging much better than Somocismo) would influence Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution.
The United States, of course, went right back to war against its long-dead “bandit” foe.
* From Julian C Smith’s officially commissioned History of the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (1933), as quoted in Michael J. Schroeder’s “Bandits and Blanket Thieves, Communists and Terrorists: The Politics of Naming Sandinistasin Nicaragua, 1927-36 and 1979-90,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 1 (2005).
On this date* in 1799, Constantine Hangerli was deposed from his post as Prince of Wallachia by a Moorish executioner.
A veritable watchword for bad times, Hangerli was one of a clutch of disposable puppet rulers situated on the Wallachian throne by the Ottomans around the turn of the 19th century.
As had often before been the case, Wallachia was sorely pressed at this time by the cumulative exactions of its native boyars, the Ottoman Porte, and the plunder taken by the expeditions of rising Bosnian warlord Osman Pasvan Oglu.
Our man is famous, in particular, for the “Hangerli winter” of 1798, just after his elevation — when a confiscatory tax regime seized most of the countryside’s lifestock. Hangerli had a message for the generally currency-poor common man who objected to the much-despised per-head duty on cattle.
Pay the taxes, and you won’t be killed.
Hangerli’s real problem this year wasn’t the unmourned misery of his overtaxed serfs, but the Ottoman commander sent to rein in the Bosnians. Pasvan Oglu whipped that expedition, and its general Hussein Kucuk turned up at Hangerli’s doorstep late in 1798.**
Since it was dangerous for Ottoman generals to lose, Kucuk evidently arrived intending to put some blame on Hangerli — or at least, Hangerli thought that was the case. Secret dispatches from both parties to Istanbul ensued.
Whoever it was who schemed first, Kucuk schemed best. Selim III (later to die of palace scheming himself) decreed Hangerli’s immediate execution and dispatched a kapucu, one of the frightening envoy-executioners (two different men, in this case) who carried such decrees to their victims.
* I believe this may be per the Old Style/Julian date still in use in the Orthodox world.
In the small hours this date* in 1907, Venezuelan Gen. Antonio Paredes was summarily shot for an abortive rising against dictator Cipriano Castro.
The Andean military governor Castro had overthrown the previous kleptocracy in the Restoration Revolution of 1899.
Castro’s state was racked by internal conflicts as Castro’s body was by collapsing organ systems. Both factors helped encourage malcontents towards designs upon his job.
Paredes was one of the regime’s chief opponents, an admired officer who had been the last holdout (Spanish link) against the 1899 revolt from his own base in the port city of Puerto Cabello, latterly knocking about in exile openly scheming against Castro. Paredes steamed in to New York in the summer of 1906 “to obtain arms and ammunition … for this movement against Castro,” he told the New York Tribune in a story wired from coast to coast. “I came here solely on that mission.”**
Paredes finally landed in his homeland in early February 1907, just as Castro was undergoing an emergency surgery. The Chicago Tribune Feb. 9, 1907 dispatch ran under a headline announcing “Paredes’ Long Planned Insurrection Begun”.
But long planned evidently wasn’t well planned.
Making landfall with a token force of retainers, he banked on “rally[ing] an army of 5,000 to 8,000 men.” (Chicago Tribune, op. cit.) But he in fact rallied zero, and was almost instantly intercepted by Castro’s troops. After a couple of days in captivity, the men in the field received a curt telegram over Cipriano Castro’s name — either dictated from the president’s hospital bed between chloroform stupors, or simply given in his stead by powerful Interior Minister Julio Torres Cardenas — ordering the summary execution (Spanish link) of the prisoners.
The whole lot of 17 or 18 prisoners (including two US expatriates, John Godskin and Thomas Lovelace), were accordingly dispatched (Spanish again) without color of law.
Venezuela had actually abolished capital punishment for all crimes in 1863. While extrajudicial executions are always in a gray area, this might be the last event in that country’s history that could clearly be classified as an execution.
* This memoirs of Paredes’ 1899-1903 imprisonment at one point states that the execution occurred in the small hours of Feb. 16, but I believe this is mistaken.
** Quotes from an A.P. story titled “Planning Revolution Against Gen. Castro” in the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11, 1906.
The site of this execution is still known as Guthrie’s Mountain or Mound … and it’s even alleged that the spot is still ill-omened by the event, and that the dying Guthrie “assailed his executioners for lynching an innocent man,” prophesying that “each of them would meet a horrible death” which curse the imminent U.S. Civil War carried into effect.
For a fuller account, see this pdf of a 1982 Kansas History article, “Guthrie Mound and the Hanging of John Guthrie”.
I know a story I think worth preserving of a Bourbon county execution without benefit of clergy, but it was not a lynching. I have had the story from a lot of people, including two eyewitnesses — not participants, of course. Away back in the later territorial days, when Bourbon county was in the ‘region beyant the law,’ a young man named Guthrie was caught up near Mapleton riding somebody else’s horse. Everybody knows that at that time in those parts, horse stealing and nigger chasing and homicide were offenses in a class by themselves. The hardheaded and hard-fisted farmers thereabouts gathered in a hurry. But there were no courts that they respected or had reason to respect. What to do?
Just across the river south of Mapleton in the Little Osage bottom is a little round hill about three hundred feet high shaped almost exactly like an overturned soup bowl. They adjourned to the top of that hill. There they elected a judge and a sheriff and a prosecuting attorney. They selected a jury and tried their man, who admitted his guilt. After the verdict and the proper sentence, the sheriff had no place to keep the man, so he executed the sentence at once by hanging him to the limb of a jack oak tree nearby. His body was buried where it was cut dawn. It is there yet.
From what I have been told I am quite satisfied that that trial was quite as regular and formal as many cases in the regular courts of that day, though not sanctioned by the law.
By the way, that hill is the same ‘pretty little hill’ where Lieut. Zebulon M. Pike ate the fried venison steak that September morning in 1806, as he notes in his journal. It is still called Guthrie mountain, and is one of the real beauty spots of old Bourbon.
The horse-thief story has different versions, in which Guthrie is either innocent of the charge or not. For what it may be worth, the 1860 New York Times also reported a “very imperfect” version of this take.
However, there’s at least one primary document suggesting that “thieving” may have been a pretext for killing the man over his anti-slavery stance.
Mapleton, K. T., Feb. 12, 1860. “MY DEAR PARENTS: … Last Sunday night about 1 o’clock a man named John R. Guthrie was hanged about a mile and a half from here on the top. of what is known as Tigret Mound. He was left suspended until Monday eve. His corpse was in plain sight from here as he hung. The proslavery’s hung him for an alleged crime of horse stealing. They arrested him without authority or shadow of law and never gave him even a mock trial, as has generally been the case. The country is again in commotion. I know not what will be the result, the probability is that unless Montgomery takes the field again it will soon blow over and give them a chance to hang the next ones that gets in their way.
On this day in 1999, Serbian militants killed approximately 40 to 45 Kosovo Albanians near the village of Reçak in Kosovo. The victims allegedly included a twelve-year-old boy and at least one woman.
Depending on who you listened to, it was either a massacre against innocent civilians, or a military action against guerillas.
The New Kosova Report, adopting the former point of view, summarizes in a 2008 article:
In the early morning of 15 January, 1999, forces from Serbian Interior Ministry (MUP) and Yugoslav Army (VJ) moved into the village with tanks and began to shoot at houses sheltering civilians. After ransacking all the houses, they gathered 28 Albanian men and boys and ordered them to head towards a hill outside the village for questioning. There they were sprayed with machine guns and 23 of them died. Only five survived by pretending they were dead. Another 22 people were shot and/or decapitated at different places in the village. Some in a ravine behind the village, while others in front of their houses.
Policemen — Serbs — were hiding here, expecting them. I heard the Serbs saying, “Anyone under fifteen years old, don’t touch, but upwards of sixteen or seventeen years old, just kill them …” The people, when they were captured here, were made to stay in line, and every one of them was shot, and after that with a … very nice knife … they took eyes from the faces and hearts from the chest, and the Serbs later said, “That’s not true, we didn’t do that,” the mice, they’d eaten them. […]
Serbian police were shooting until four or five in the afternoon. When the observers arrived in the morning, we went with them to see the place where the people were murdered. Three of us stayed here all night to guard the bodies. […] Thirteen members of my family were killed there.
The Serbs denied having murdered civilians and claimed all those killed were all Kosovo Liberation Army fighters, shot during a skirmish with Serbian forces. To this day, many maintain the entire thing was staged, a hoax set up by the KLA in order to get support for their side.
Trying to sort the matter out, the European Union dispatched forensic experts to the scene from Finland. Helena Ranta, one of the experts, concluded that “There were no indications of the people being other than unarmed civilians.” When her opinion was broadcast in a press release, many mistook it for being the opinion of the entire group of scientists.
The Finns’ official report, however, has never been released. Dr. Ranta, a forensic dentist, later accused officials from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of pressuring her to go against the Serbs.
Yugoslav and Belarusian scientists also examined the bodies and said they believed all the dead were KLA combatants. In response, critics blasted them for using allegedly out-of-date and unscientific testing methods.
News of the killings made headlines all over the world and incited NATO to finally get involved in the war. A couple of years later, Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Miloševic was brought up on war crimes charges; ordering the Reçak killings was one of them. It was later removed from the indictment for lack of evidence, however. (Miloševic died before his trial was concluded.)
In 2001, a Kosovo Serb police officer was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for participating in the killings. Outside observers, including the United Nations and Amnesty International, criticized the trial proceedings, accusing the Kosovo war crimes tribunal of ethnic bias and politically motivated decision-making. As of this writing, no one else has been called to account for what happened in Reçak.
On this day in 1942, three anonymous Jewish residents of the Bialystok Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland were hung in the public square across the street from the Judenrat (Jewish Council) building. The three worked at the ghetto’s oil factory, and had been caught smuggling sunflower seeds.
The residents of the ghetto paid little attention to the execution, accepting it with resignation. It was hardly remarked on.
But this event was yet another small indication of dire events looming in the near future. Compared to those in other Nazi ghettos, such as those at Warsaw and Lodz, the Bialystok Jews had it pretty good. The ghetto, noted Sara Bender in her 2008 book The Jews of Bialystok During World War II and the Holocaust, was “organized, industrious, and even prosperous. Unlike other ghettos, it never experienced starvation or abject poverty.”
And it was seen as relatively safe. This day’s sort of vicious, arbitrary executions for minor rule infractions, which were so common elsewhere, were not at all frequent in Bialystok. Neither were the mass deportations that had by late 1942 decimated almost all the other ghettos.
Well, Bialystok’s turn was coming.
Unbeknownst to the Bialystokers, just as the sunflower seed smugglers were meeting their end, the powers that be in Berlin were debating the future of the ghetto. The Nazis in immediate charge of the ghetto wanted to keep it, and had logical reasons for doing so: namely, that it was a center of great industry, producing all kinds of goods for the German Army at almost no cost.
Killing off tens of thousands of hardworking slaves during wartime makes about as much sense as hanging three people over sunflower seeds, but this is what Berlin decided to do.
In early- to mid-February 1943, there was a surprise Aktion in the ghetto: 2,000 were killed and a further 10,000 deported to the Treblinka Extermination Camp. About 30,000 remained.
Once it was over, most of the surviving Bialystokers breathed a sigh of relief and hoped against hope that the worst was over — while a small underground group quietly organized an uprising for when the time came.
The rebellion, however, never really had time to get off the ground. When the final deportation occurred in August 1943, almost everyone went quietly in shock to their deaths. A cell of less than 100 fighters put up a few days’ struggle, enough to earn a footnote in history, before the last of the ghetto blew away with the ashes.