In this unsettled environment, an able man could rise. Few were abler than Hem Chandra, more familiarly known to posterity as Hemu.
Born to a family of Hindu priests in a time when Hindu kings had not ruled his homeland for centuries, Hemu first came to prominence as a merchant supplying provisions, and later armaments, for the imperial army. He proved so capable that Islam Shah took him on as an adviser.
Now, despite the Mughal conquest, Islam Shah was actually an Pashtun. A weak succession after Babur had thrown the Mughals into retreat, and most of their once and future territory was now under the temporary authority of the Sur Empire.
Following Islam Shah’s death in 1554, the political situation for the Sur Empire fell into confusion. A boy-emperor successor was murdered to give way to a drunk, and Hemu emerged as the de facto authority in the chaotic realm … which in practice meant racing around dealing with various military threats.
Hemu put down the many internal revolts that flowered after Islam Shah’s death, but his greater problem was the resurgent Mughals.
Babur’s heir Humayun had been driven into exile in Persia years ago. Now he returned at the head of an army to retake his patrimony. Even when Humayun himself died in the process (he fell down a flight of stairs*), he bequeathed Hemu a potent foe in the form of his teenage heir Akbar — the sovereign who would eventually be esteemed the Mughals’ greatest emperor.
Even so, Hemu was routing all who stood against him. The onetime merchant had proven himself “one of the greatest commanders of the age,” in the words of Victorian historian John Clark Marshman. “He never shrank away from the battlefield and when the fight was most fierce, he did not bother for his personal safety and always fought with his adversaries courageously along with his comrades.”
On October 7, 1556, Hemu whipped Akbar at the Battle of Delhi. Entering the ancient capital, Hemu proclaimed himself emperor under the regnal name Raja Vikramaditya. And why not, after all? The kingdom already only maintained itself by Hemu’s own brilliance; he’s reputed to have had an undefeated combat record at this point.
But sometimes a single loss is all that’s needed.
Hemu was the first Hindu emperor in 350 years, but he only held the position for a month.
The new emperor again met Akbar (and Akbar’s regent Bairam Khan) on the fifth of November at Panipat, and this time the Mughals won. Hemu’s valorous exposure to danger proved his undoing when he was struck in the face by an enemy arrow.
As his once-unconquerable army routed, the captured Hemu was taken as a prisoner to his rival ruler — unconscious, and already dying. Again, the accounts vary;** in the classical version, Akbar nobly refuses to put the captive to death. Elphinstone‘s History of India, glossing some earlier Muslim historians, writes that
Bairam was desirous that Akbar should give him the first wound, and thus, by inbruing his sword in the blood of so distinguished an infidel, should establish his right to the envied title of ‘Ghazi’ or ‘Champion of the Faith'; but the spirited boy refused to strike a wounded enemy, and Bairam, irritated by his scruples, himself cut off the captive’s head at a blow.
However, there are other versions of this story in which the 14-year-old Akbar is not so reticent.
Whoever chopped it, the severed head was sent to Kabul to cow Hemu’s Pashtun supporters, while the torso was publicly gibbeted outside Purana Quila. Hemu’s followers were massacred afterwards in numberless quantities sufficient, so it is said, to erect minarets of their skulls.
Akbar ruled the Mughal state until his death in 1605.
** See Vincent A. Smith, “The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the Battle of Panipat,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (July 1916). Smith’s opinion is that Akbar probably did cut off Hemu’s head personally, but might later have spun the incident in a less distasteful direction.
Agnes Bernauer (English Wikipedia link | German) was supposed to have been the daughter of an Augsburg barber, though hard details about her life are hard to come by owing to her social class.
By 1432, she’s demonstrably a part of the Munich court; it’s thought that the prince Albert (the future Duke Albert III) must have met her at an Augsburg tournament in 1428.
The nature of her relationship to the Bavarian heir, too, must largely be guessed at. It’s been widely hypothesized that they might have married secretly.
Such a marriage might explain the shocking end to the Agnes-Albert relationship by situating it as a threat to dynastic succession: Albert was Ernst’s only legitimate son, and the Bavarian patrimony had been subdivided and fought over among Wittelsbach kin over the preceding decades.
Whatever the reason, Ernst took the disapproving (maybe) in-law act quite a lot farther than most. While Albert was out on a hunt, Ernst had Agnes seized, condemned for witchcraft, and executed by drowning in the Danube River on Oct. 12, 1435.
Upon hearing of the death of his beloved, Albert bitterly deserted his father for Ernst’s cousin and rival Louis VII, Duke of Bavaria-Ingolstadt. The prospect of capping domestic homicide with civil war loomed for several months until father and son were reconciled — and one must guess, once again, at how that conversation went. Albert endowed a perpetual mass for Agnes which is still said annually. A Bernauer chapel containing a tomb relief of Agnes, erected as an apology by Duke Ernst, remains a tourist draw in Straubing.
The star-crossed love of Agnes and Albert has proven irresistible to the arts over the centuries, with a special boom in the Romantic era.
Sometime in early October 1943, fifteen-year-old Yitskhok Rudashevski and his entire family were rousted out of their hiding place in the Vilna Ghetto, taken to nearby Ponary, shot to death and buried in a mass grave.
The Rudashevski family were among the last remnants of a once-vibrant Jewish community in the city once known as “the Jerusalem of the north” for its culture and scholarship. People came there from as far away as the United States to study in its highly regarded yeshivas.
After the start of World War II, Vilna was annexed by the Soviet Union. It became a sanctuary to Jews fleeing from the Nazis, who occupied western Poland.
All of that changed on June 22, 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began. On the day Germany invaded the USSR, there were approximately 80,000 Jews living in Vilna, many of them refugees from the Nazi terror. By the time the Red Army arrived and kicked the Nazis out three years later, Vilna’s Jewish population had been reduced –through starvation, disease, deportation and executions — to zero.
Yitskhok (also spelled Yitzhak, Yitzak, etc., or anglicized to Isaac), was thirteen years old at the time his city was occupied by the Germans.
An only child, he was the son of a typesetter and a seamstress. Talented in writing, history and languages, he was also a faithful Communist and a member of the Pioneers, the Communist youth organization.
From June 1941 to April 1943 he kept a diary in Yiddish. Yitskhok had a sense of the significance of his account; at one point he wrote, “I consider that everything must be recorded and noted down, even the most gory, because everything will be taken into account.”
He not only wrote about his own life and his family and friends, but about the wider community events and the devastation the Germans wrought on his people. The historian Allan Gerald Levine called him “an astute and passionate observer of the times,” and compared him to Anne Frank.
Nor was the diary Yitskhok’s only writing project.
When one of his teachers, a beloved figure in the ghetto, died, he wrote a eulogy for the man and read it out before a large audience. He was a member of a literary group and was also attached to the ghetto’s history project, for which he interviewed ghetto residents about their lives:
I got a taste of the historian’s task. I sit at the table and ask questions and record the greatest sufferings with cold objectivity. I write, I probe into details, and I do not realize at all that I am probing into wounds … And this horror, this tragedy is formulated by me … coldly and dryly. I become absorbed in thought, and the words stare out of the paper crimson with blood.
The Vilna Ghetto, whose population initially numbered 40,000, had a rich cultural life, just like prewar Jewish Vilna had. There were theaters, cabarets, the symphony, art exhibits, a library, public lectures, and underground schools for both children and adults.
Vilna Jews saw art, music, literature and the pursuit of knowledge as a form of resistance. As Jacob Gens, head of the “ghetto’s Judenrat, put it, cultural activity gave a person “the opportunity to free himself from the ghetto for a few hours … We are passing through dark and difficult days. Our bodies are in the ghetto, but our spirit has not been enslaved.”
Reality intruded, however, and in the final analysis the Vilna Jews were doomed to extinction.
Yitskhok’s final diary entry was dated April 7, 1943, two days after five thousand Vilna Jews had been rounded up and shot at Ponary. He was understandably in a very grim mood. His prophetic last line was, “We may be fated for the worst.”
On September 23, 1943, the Nazis began the final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, which had by then been reduced to about 10,000 people. After a selection, those who could work were sent off to labor camps in Estonia and Latvia, where almost all of them died due to the brutal conditions there.
Children, the elderly, and the sick were shot at Ponary or sent to the extermination camp Sobibor and gassed.
Yitskhok, his parents and his uncle’s family chose to go into hiding rather than take their chances at the selection. In hiding he sank into apathy and said very little. After about two weeks in the hideout, they were discovered and taken to their deaths.
The only surviving member of Yitskhok’s family was his teenage cousin, Sarah “Sore” Voloshin. Somewhere on the route to Ponary she was able to escape. She joined a partisan group in the forest and survived until the Red Army liberated the area in the summer of 1944. After the war was over, she returned to the family’s hiding place and found Yitskhok’s diary. As of 2010, Sore Voloshin was still alive in Israel.
And the diary she retrieved had become one of the major sources on day-to-day life in the Vilna Ghetto.
Yitskhok Rudashevski suffered and died in just the same way as hundreds of thousands of others, but unlike them he did not remain anonymous: he is one of the ghetto’s most famous inhabitants. His writings have been published in their original Yiddish and in Hebrew, German and English translations. Extracts of his diary can be found in several anthologies, and it’s available in its entirety under the title The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto.
My initial plan for the operation, which I always adhered to, was to encircle the masses of Hereros at Waterberg, and to annihilate these masses with a simultaneous blow, then to establish various stations to hunt down and disarm the splinter groups who escaped, later to lay hands on the captains by putting prize money on their heads and finally to sentence them to death.
On this date in 1904, von Trotha did a little of that executing bit, further to doing a whole lot of genocide. It was the very day after von Trotha’s Vernichtungsbefehl, or extermination order, against the Herero people.
Pocketed by the desert and the German patrols the Herero chiefs and their followers congregated along the Eiseb river. Around the first of October 1904, General Lothar von Trotha, who was actively taking part in the pursuit, and his retinue had reached the waterhole Osombo-Windimbe. During the afternoon of the following day, Sunday 2 October 1904, after the holding of a field service, General von Trotha, addressed his officers. In his address Trotha declared that the war against the Herero would be continued in all earnestness, and read out the following proclamation:
I the great General of the German troops send this letter to the Herero people.
The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and stolen, they have cut off the ears, noses and other bodyparts of wounded soldiers, now out of cowardice they no longer wish to fight. I say to the people anyone who delivers a captain will receive 1000 Mark, whoever delivers Samuel will receive 5000 Mark. The Herero people must however leave the land. If the populace does not do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr [cannon]. Within the German borders everyHerero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.* These are my words to the Herero people.
At dawn the following morning, Herero prisoners, who had been sentenced to death by a field court-martial, were hung in the presence of about 30 Herero prisoners, women and children amongst them. After the hanging, Trotha’s proclamation was read out to the prisoners in Otjiherero. Printed copies of the text in Otjiherero were distributed amongst the Herero prisoners. The prisoners were then turned loose and driven out into the Omaheke. [i.e., the western Kalahari desert -ed.]
For me, it is merely a question of how to end the war with the Herero. My opinion is completely opposite to that of the governor and some “old Africans.” They have wanted to negotiate for a long time and describe the Herero nation as a necessary labor force for the future use of the colony. I am of an entirely different opinion. I believe that the nation mustbe destroyed as such, or since this was not possible using tactical blows, it must be expelled from the land operatively …
Because I neither can treat with these people, nor do I want to, without the express direction of His Majesty, a certain rigorous treatment of all parts of the nation is absolutely necessary, a treatment that I have for the present taken and executed on my own responsibility, and from which, as long as I have command, I shall not detour without a direct order. My detailed knowledge of many Central African tribes, Bantu and others, has taught me the convincing certainty that Negroes never submit to a contract but only to raw force. Yesterday before my departure, I had the warriors who were captured in the last several days [and who were] condemned by court-martial, hanged, and I have chased all the women and children who had gathered here back into the desert, taking with them the proclamation to the Herero people. This proclamation (enclosed), which will unavoidably bcome known, will be attacked … accepting women and children, who are mostly ill, is an eminent danger to the troops, and taking care of them is impossible. Therefore, I think it better that the nation perish rather than infect our troops and affect our water and food. In addition, the Herero would interpret any kindness on my side as weakness.They must now die in the desert or try to cross the Bechuanaland border. This uprising is and remains he beginning of a race war, which I already predicted in 1897 in my reports to the chancellor on East Africa … Whether this uprising was caused by poor treatment [of the Africans] remains irrelevant to its suppression.
Gewald also quotes one of von Trotha’s subalterns, undisguisedly revolted at what he was involved in.
Cattle which had died of thirst lay scattered around the wells. These cattle had reached the wells but there had not been enough time to water them. The Herero led ahead of us into the Sandveld. Again and again this terrible scene kept repeating itself … the water became ever sparser, and wells evermore rare. They fled from one well to the next and lost virtually all their cattle and a large number of their people. The people shrunk into small remnants who continually fell into our hands, sections of the people escaped now and later throug the Sandveld into English territory. It was a policy which was equally gruesome as senseless, to hammer the people so much, we could have still saved many of them and their rich herds, if we had pardoned and taken them up again, they had been punished enough. I suggested this to General von Trotha but he wanted their total extermination.
Technically, complete destruction of the Herero was reversed as German policy a few months after von Trotha began implementing it, and the general himself recalled from South West Africa before the end of 1905 — leaving only a “softer” genocide of disease-ridden concentration camps through 1908. Although firm numbers are hard to come by, it’s thought that well over half the Herero population died during this period.
Yet neither was von Trotha a lone butcher. Diary entries of settlers and regular soldiers well before the extermination order record many instances (pdf) of the most cavalier slaying of Herero prisoners and noncombatants, abuses which continued long after von Trotha’s departure.
It’s difficult not to see in the racial ideology and the eliminationist military doctrine prefiguring (pdf) later and better-publicized brutalities. Indeed, even some of the personnel are the same:
Hermann Goering‘s father Heinrich was Germany’s first Reichskommissar in South West Africa, plopping his home down right on a Herero burial site.
Eugen Fischer, a eugenicist who availed the Namibian concentration camps’ ready supply of subjects to produce career-making research that would influence German race law and make Fischer a big brain in Nazi intellectual circles
Franz Ritter von Epp, one of von Trotha’s officers, formed in the aftermath of World War I one of the far-right Freikorps paramilitaries, with many subsequently-influential Nazis among its membership, including Ernst Roehm (who may have cribbed the SA “brown shirt” look from colonial Schutztruppe khakis) and Adolf Hitler himself
* He meant, shooting over their heads to run them off. “I assume absolutely that this proclamation will result in taking no more male prisoners, but will not degenerate into atrocities against women and children,” Lothar explained. “The latter will run away if one shoots at them a couple of times. The troops will remain conscious of the good reputation of the German soldier.”
On this day in 1901, James Edward Brady was hauled out of his jail cell and hanged from a telephone pole on the corner of Main and Lawrence Streets at Haymarket Square in Helena, Montana. He had been arrested three days before in relation to his attack on Hazel Pugsley, a five-year-old girl.
On September 30, Brady, who had arrived in Helena from the city of Boulder, Montana only the day before, waylaid little Hazel while she was on her way to kindergarten. He convinced her to get on a streetcar with him and they didn’t get off until they were three miles outside town.
Hazel’s mother reported her missing after she didn’t arrive home from school, and a search was launched. Later that day, the police found her walking home alone. She was “a nervous wreck, and when the accused man was taken in front of her she began crying hysterically, at the mere sight of him.”
Brady was charged with “criminal assault,” a euphemism for rape.
He had once been a highly respected and influential man in the Yellowstone River area and was credited with bringing the first thoroughbred cattle into Montana, but he developed a drinking problem and somewhere along the line he fell from grace.
Brady had been in and out of trouble in Jefferson County before he moved to Helena, and in Boulder he had become overly familiar with several children. After the Hazel Pugsley incident, it came out that he’d lured at least four little girls to his cabin in Boulder and then molested them.
He was not criminally charged in that instance, but was warned to leave town or else. So he came to Helena.
Although Montana had a long tradition of lynchings and emotions were running high in the aftermath of Hazel’s attack, the sheriff wasn’t worried: Brady was housed in a secure stone jail with five locked doors between him and the outside. On the night of the lynching, the sheriff was asleep with his family as usual.
At 1:30 a.m. on October 2, a mob of thirty masked men pounded on the doors of the jail and demanded the prisoner. When they couldn’t get the jailer to answer the door, they stationed men around the building to keep watch while they started working on the door with a sledgehammer and a crowbar.
The mob easily broke open the outer wooden door, but the next door was barred. Jailer George Mahrt was awakened by the noise and mistakenly opened the barred inner door just as the lynch mob had broken through the outer door. Once inside the building, the men forced Mahrt to hand over his keys, unlocked the last three doors, and barged in on James Brady.
“What is it, gentlemen?” he asked.*
In spite of the early hour, a crowd of about 200 spectators gathered to watch as the vigilantes hustled the helpless Brady out of jail and force-marched him, already noosed, six blocks to Haymarket Square.
The spectators knew what it was.
The lynchers summoned a saloon-keeper who had witnessed Hazel’s abduction, to confirm for the assembling multitude that it was indeed Brady who took her. One of the masked lynchers then forced his way through the crowed and slugged Brady twice in the face; this may have been Peter Pugsley, Hazel’s father. (The same man would later go after Brady again, but the mob held him back.)
“Now, then,” the mob’s leader addressed his prey. “Brady, your time on earth is short. Have you any confession to make?”
Brady had little to say: only to reiterate his innocence, and ask that his last paycheck be sent to the Boulder School for the Blind where his niece was a student.
When asked if he wanted to say a prayer, Brady said he didn’t know how to pray and asked that someone pray for him instead. One of the mob said, “May the Lord help you, Brady; that is all I can say for you.”
Then his time was up.
Several people already positioned on top of the nearby telephone pole jerked Brady up from the ground violently, probably breaking his neck, and as Brady hung twitching and dying, the members of the lynch mob pulled off their masks and melted into the watching crowd.
In addition to the 200-some people who witnessed the lynching, another thousand or so viewed the body by moonlight before it was cut down.
Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot, Oct. 2, 1901.
A coroner’s inquest was held later that day. Several people testified that they’d witnessed Brady’s death, but they all swore they were not part of the lynch mob and developed amnesia when asked if they recognized anyone who was.
The coroner’s jury ruled Brady’s death a homicide.
On October 3, Peter Pugsley — the father — was arrested and charged with murder. Investigators hoped he would provide them with other names, but Pugsley said he hadn’t been present at the lynching and produced an alibi, which friends backed up. He was released the next day on bail, his bond secured by several prominent members of the community.
Ultimately, a grand jury heard testimony from thirty-eight witnesses during an eighteen-day investigation. It then declined to indict Pugsley or any other suspect. Later, some of the jurors said it was impossible to name anybody connected with the crime because so many witnesses refused to answer questions, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
However, someone did pay for what happened to Brady.
As amateur historian Tom Donovan writes of this case in volume two of book Hanging Around the Big Sky: The Unofficial Guide to Lynching, Strangling and Legal Hangings of Montana, “The Brady incident was the only case where an official was severely disciplined for losing a prisoner to a lynch mob. The Lewis and Clark County grand jury found that Jailer George Mahrt was incompetent and he was apparently fired.”
Not only had Mahrt, an experienced jailer, opened the inside door to the armed mob, he had also failed to notify the sheriff what happened until Brady had already been marched out of the jail. All he would have had to do to arouse the sheriff was press an electric panic button, which would have sounded an alarm at the sheriff’s residence.
In the aftermath of Brady’s death, officials in Butte, Montana announced he was also a suspect in the 1898 abduction and murder of nine-year-old Ethel Gill. She was missing for several days before her body was found in an outhouse.
Gill had been raped, beaten and strangled. Brady lived and worked in the same neighborhood where Ethel’s body was found. He quit his job and left Butte immediately after the murder, but wasn’t considered a suspect until after he was killed. Ethel Gill’s murder was never solved and Brady’s connection to the crime remains a matter of speculation.
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.