On this date in 1941, less than two months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they executed the Hassidic Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam along with his son, Rabbi Moshe Aaron, three of his sons-in-law, and a number of other Jews.
Born in Galicia in 1874, Ben Zion was the son of Grand Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam in the village of Bobov. After the father’s death in 1905, the Chassidim elected the son Grand Rabbi in his place.
During World War I, the Bobever Rebbe fled to Austria, but he returned to Poland once hostilities ceased and founded a highly regarded yeshiva. During the mid-thirties he lived in the town of Trzebinia in south central Poland, and developed a following of thousands of disciples.
He was a farsighted man and in 1938, when Germany expelled its Polish-Jewish minority, he wrote an open letter to the Jews of Poland explaining the terrible situation and asking them to help their displaced brethren. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Haberstam fled to Lvov,* which was under Soviet control and relatively safer. He hid there in a disciple’s house, and his followers tried and failed to get him papers to travel to the United States.
In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By June 30 they’d reached Lvov, and by July 25, Rabbi Halberstam and several other members of his family were placed under arrest and marched to the Gestapo prison.
Rabbi Ben Zion [he was 67 years old by then] was weak, and could not keep up with the fast pace of the march. When he fell to the back of the column, the policemen whipped him and shouted at him to move faster. The march continued until the prisoners arrived at the Gestapo headquarters. Rabbi Ben Zion’s family tried everything to win their release, but after three days, he was executed at the Yanover forest together with his son, three sons-in-law and the other prisoners.
They were a mere 19 kilometers from the future site of Auschwitz.**
Although the Halberstam family suffered significant losses during the Holocaust, at least one of Ben Zion’s sons survived, and so their dynasty did not die out. There exists today a community of Bobover Hassidim in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam in the center, pictured during his time in Trzebinia. The bare-faced youth directly over the rabbi’s shoulder is Moshe Aaron Halberstam, the son who would eventually be shot at the rabbi’s side.
* Called Lviv in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian, Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German; the city is at the heart of Galicia, and has changed handsrepeatedly between these countries. Right now it’s Lviv.
** Although the smaller Auschwitz I camp for political prisoners existed from 1940, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the Reich’s metonymical extermination facility, was constructed towards the end of 1941.
Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.
Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”
Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.
With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.
She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.
She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.
The captain of a brigand company stalking the Black Forest, Hannikel (English Wikipedia entry | German) kept one step ahead of pursuers for many years simply by exploiting the fragmented map of southern Germany: the next lord’s border was never more than a few strides away. Like his near-contemporary Schinderhannes, the bandit prince earned the affection due charismatic rogues for the usual reasons, viz., turning the wheel of fortune against the great and the good whom they made to stand and deliver.
Hannikel elevated his crew’s outlawry level from nuisance to anathema in 1786 by killing a guy in the course of a home invasion, which featured the less romantic part of the robber’s job: dripping burning resin on the lady of the house until she yielded up the concealed ducats. This incurred the wrath of the Duke of Wurttemberg, and the great bailiff (and early criminologist) Jacob Georg Schaeffer damned the borders and pursued the marauders all the way to Switzerland before he finally had them all rounded up.
Hannikel hanged along with three others of his gang; other members received lengthy prison sentences at hard labor.
On this date in 1941, near the city of Lvov in eastern Poland (now called Lviv and part of Ukraine), an Einsatzgruppe—mobile Nazi killing squad—shot an unknown number of Poles and Jews. We know a little bit about what happened because of Felix Landau, a young SS Hauptscharführer of Austrian origin, who kept a diary of his experiences in the Einsatzkommando.
Landau was a Nazi of the Old Guard who’d been involved in National Socialist activities since the age of fifteen, served time in prison for his role in the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss, and ultimately became a naturalized German citizen. He volunteered for the Einsatzkommando on June 30, 1941 — the same day the Wehrmacht arrived in Lvov — and went right to work.
It should be emphasized that Landau was not, by SS standards, a particularly vicious man. He rapidly became disillusioned with the kommando, writing that he preferred “good honest open combat.” In his first diary entry he referred to “scum” who “did not even draw the line at children” and also wrote, “I have little inclination to shoot defenseless people — even if they are only Jews.”
Yet shoot them he did, and he described it in his diary in a flat, matter-of-fact way.
Often he simply put down the dry numbers, as on July 22: “Twenty Jews were finished off.”
Other times, Landau recounted his gruesome work in chilling detail. And so it was on July 4, when over 300 people were killed. His entry describing that day is worth quoting at length:
One of the Poles tried to put up some resistance. He tried to snatch the carbine out of the hands of one of the men but did not succeed. A few seconds later there was a crack of gunfire and it was all over. A few minutes later after a short interrogation a second one was finished off. I was just taking over the watch when a Kommando reported that just a few streets away from us a guard from the Wehrmacht had been discovered shot dead.
One hour later, at 5 in the morning, a further thirty-two Poles, members of the intelligentsia and the Resistance, were shot about two hundred meters from our quarters after they had dug their own grave. One of them simply would not die. The first layer of sand had already been thrown on the first group when a hand emerged from out of the sand, waved and pointed to a place, presumably his heart. A couple more shots ran out, then someone shouted — in fact the Pole himself — “shoot faster” What is a human being? […]
The stench of corpses if all pervasive when you pass the burnt-out houses… During the afternoon some three hundred more Jews and Poles were finished off. In the evening we went into town for an hour. There we saw things that are almost impossible to describe… At a street corner we saw some Jews covered in sand from head to foot. We looked at one another. We were all thinking the same thing. These Jews must have crawled out of the grave where the executed are buried. We stopped a Jew who was unsteady on his feet. We were wrong. The Ukrainians had taken some Jews up to the former GPU citadel. These Jews had apparently helped the GPU persecute the Ukrainians and the Germans. They had rounded up 800 Jews there, who were supposed to be shot by us tomorrow. They had released them.
We continued along the road. There were hundreds of Jews walking along the street with blood pouring from their faces, holes in their heads, their hands broken and their eyes hanging out of their sockets. They were covered in blood. Some of them were carrying others who had collapsed. We went to the citadel; there we saw things that few people had ever seen. […] The Jews were pouring out of the entrance. There were rows of Jews lying one on top of the other like pigs whimpering horribly. We stopped and tried to see who was in charge of the Kommando. “Nobody.” Someone had let the Jews go. They were just being hit out of rage and hatred.
Nothing against that — only they should not let the Jews walk about in such a state.
Writing on July 6, Landau described himself as “psychologically shattered” — not due to what he had just seen and done, but because he was homesick and especially missed his girlfriend Trude. He complained of not being able to find stationery to compose a letter to her. (Landau was forever fretting when they weren’t able to write to each other, constantly worried she would leave him.)
He was, however, able to find “a lovely big traveling bag” for only 3.80 reichmarks.
Just another day on the job.
It is often said that the reason the Nazis stopped using the Einsatzgruppen to kill Jews and started using gas chambers was because it was more efficient: they could kill more people in less time using gas. This isn’t true. The Einsatzgruppen’s shooting at Babi Yar, for example, killed more than 33,000 people in two days. Gas chambers could not have done better than that.
In fact, the reason for the switch to the quieter, cleaner method of gassing had more to do with the effect the shootings were having on the Einsatzkommando men themselves. Men would rapidly develop what, in the modern parlance, would be called post-traumatic stress disorder; many were ruined for life. Given the conditions Landau described in his diary, it’s no wonder.
August Becker, a gas van inspector, later stated, “The men in charge of the Einsatzgruppen in the East were increasingly complaining that the firing squads could not cope with the psychological and moral stress of the mass shootings indefinitely. I know that a number of members of these squads were themselves committed to mental asylums and for this reason a new and better method of killing had to be found.”
The first gas vans wouldn’t be created until December 1941, however, and gas chambers came later still. In the meantime, the Einsatzgruppen traveled from town to town, massacring civilians everywhere they went.
As for Felix Landau: in late 1941 he moved in with Trude, and they married in 1943 after Landau divorced his first wife. He and Trude divorced in 1946, though, and that same year he was recognized and arrested for war crimes. Escaping from an American prison camp, he adopted an alias name and lived in plain sight as an interior decorator.
In 1959 he was arrested again and ultimately sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings, but pardoned in 1973. Felix Landau died a free man in 1983, at the age of 73.
Children, how should it be otherwise? They were ranchmen and proprietors, and we were there to make them landless workingmen; and they rose up in revolt. They acted in just the same way that North Germany did in 1813.
On or about this date in 1896, Herero chiefs Kahimemua Nguvauva and Nicodemus Kavikunua were executed by the Germans.
Germany was little more than a decade into its colonization of South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) when the events of this post took place, and the growing German presence was a growing thorn in the side of native chiefs.
Colonial administrator Theodor Leutwein had the delicate task of trying to negotiate a convenient-to-Germany colonial order among rivalrous tribes of Herero hersdmen … even as Germany’s expanding presence guaranteed their continually growing irritation.
Leutwein approached this Gordian knot in a manner convenient for a European functionary but less so for his unwilling subjects: he recognized the friendly leader Samuel Maharero as the “paramount” chief with whom he could arrange policy — a stature that rival Hereroland chiefs did not so readily admit. Maharero and Leutwein scratched one another’s backs: Maharero made treaties touching lands and people that were never truly in his jurisdiction, and superior German arms then cowed lesser chiefs into compliance with those treaties — and the attendant cattle confiscations, boundary adjustments, land clearances, and population expulsions, all of it tending to the steady increase of Maharero and his German backers.
Finally in 1896, chiefs Nicodemus and Kahimemua rose in revolt in the colony’s eastern reaches, a short-lived bush scrap known as the Ovambanderu Khauas-Khoi War.*
The Germans prevailed easily, forced the discontented chiefs’ surrender, and then eliminated them.
The two were tried and convicted by court-martial on June 11 and shot either that same day, or this, the next day.**
Maharero and the German colonists both profited by their relationship with each other, and eliminated some rivals in the process. But their marriage was only an expedient one.
Years later, as the German posture towards natives moved from rough colonial domination to outright genocide, Maharero himself would rebel, eventually having to flee to Botswana for his trouble. The sentiments he voiced at that time — sentiments that have helped land him an honored place in the national-resistance mythology of the post-colonial state Namibia — would have been awfully surprising to Nicodemus and Kahimemua, had they been around to hear him utter them.
All our obedience and patience with the Germans is of little avail, for each day they shoot someone dead for no reason at all. Hence I appeal to you, my Brother, not to hold aloof from the uprising, but to make your voice heard so that all Africa may take up arms against the Germans. Let us die fighting rather than die as a result of maltreatment, imprisonment or some
other form of calamity. (pdf source)
* Refers to two different groups of peoples who participated in the rebellion: the (Ova)Mbanderu — whose zone one can see on this map of Namibia c. 1896: look for where the colony’s eastern border with British territory does a right-angle dogleg, then carry your eyes straight to the left along the 22nd parallel; and, some allied Khauas-Khoi.
** Sources I’ve found are cleanly split on which was the execution date. It is not clear to me that there exists any dispositive primary source.
On this day in 1940, in the tiny village of Celiny in Nazi-occupied Poland, German soldiers and gendarmes stood 32 Polish citizens against the wall of a house and shot them all to death.
The victims of the shooting had, by the Germans’ own admission, done nothing to deserve their fate. They were killed in reprisal for crimes committed by others: namely, the murder of a German gendarme the previous day.
Two Poles had apparently become involved in a dispute with the gendarme, provoked by a disagreement over the legality of ordering a certain dish in a local hostelry: that particular cut of meat was not supposed to be available to Poles under the rationing system introduced by the German administration. The Poles initially succeeded in escaping from the fracas by bicycle, but were caught up by the gendarme, on a motorbike, in Celiny; here, a further scuffle had ensued, in the course of which the gendarme was fatally wounded.
In a slightly different version of the story, the German gendarme had not even been killed by the Poles but had died as a result of crashing when, somewhat inebriated as well as angry, he took a corner too fast in pursuit of the two Poles. Whatever the truth of the matter, the latter knew they were in for trouble and rapidly escaped; they were nowhere to be tracked down.
The Germans had previously registered prominent local citizens to serve as hostages for just this sort of situation. But everyone on the registration list was forewarned by their friends and family and went into hiding to avoid arrest.
The next morning, unable to find any of their hostages, the local German authorities got together and argued for a full three hours over what to do. In the end they settled on a plan: They went to the prison in the nearby city of Sosnowiec and grabbed 32 inmates who had been “incarcerated for all the manner of reasons, including minor infringements of the most trivial of the new rules imposed by the German occupation, political resistance, and sheer bad luck.”
The men’s bad luck got even worse: the 32 men (29 Catholics and three Jews) were trucked fifteen miles back to Celiny, taken to the scene of the fight from the night before, stood in a row against the wall and shot dead at point-blank range.
Nearly three-quarters of a century later, Fulbrook visited the site of the massacre:
The wall against which the thirty-two people were shot remains pockmarked by the bullet holes, daubed now with dashes of red paint to intimate their bloody origins; there is a memorial stone, for which money had arduously to be raised among the local community; and fresh flowers were often laid there, to keep the memory of former compatriots and relatives alive.
The memorial stone lists the names of the 29 Catholic victims, but not the names of the Jews, apparently because the townspeople didn’t know who they were.
Fulbrook notes that this incident seems insignificant when put into context of the “enormity of other crimes that were soon to engulf the area.” Indeed, she says, “This incident would scarcely bear mention in comparison with the crimes committed on an infinitely larger scale at Auschwitz.”
But to the tiny village it was devastating and not easily forgotten — a small emblem of the countless nameless Poles casually put to execution in those years.
There is next to no archival information surviving that would give us insight into this remarkably lateHexenprozess. However, it seems that Schnidenwind got Willinghamed: when a fire destroyed the village of Wyhl, local grandees immediately assumed that the cause of such a devastating event ware eine Zauberin (“would have been a sorceress,” as an abbot wrote in his diary).
Having begun from the conclusion it was simply a matter of finding the witchiest character in the vicinity to fit as the Zauberin. Schnidenwind, a 63-year-old peasant, probably had some pre-existing reputation as a possible witch — a reputation that a visit to the rack obligingly confirmed.
The ferocious commitment of the Third Reich to fight to the last man even when World War II provided the occasion (or the pretext) for many of that bloody conflict’s most poignant and pointless deaths.
In these execution-focused pages we have seen the death penalty meted out to ideological enemies whom the Nazis hastened to dispose of in their last hours; almost infinitely more numerous were everyday people who by Berlin’s Götterdämmerung were made so much meat for the ordnance of the advancing Allies.
On this date in 1945, Robert Limpert’s effort to avoid the latter fate for his native Ansbach caused him to suffer the pangs of an entirely gratuitous execution.
Only 19 years old, Limpert had been disqualified from even desperate war’s-end military conscription by a severe heart problem.
He had made little secret of his antiwar views in the earlier years of the war. Even so, it was a deep shock while he was studying at the University of Wurzburg to see that ancient city devastated by a March 16 bombing raid that claimed 5,000 lives and destroyed most of its historic center.
He wandered back to Ansbach horrified, and sure that this city ought not share Wurzburg’s ordeal.
By April 18, American troops were just a few kilometers from the town. Limpert had spent the night before surreptitiously distributing pamphlets calling for a bloodless surrender, as he had on several earlier days. (Sample rhetoric: “Death to the Nazi hangmen.”)
According to Stephen Fritz, who describes this story in detail in his Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, Ansbach was in a state of near-collapse that Wednesday. Party officials were discreetly discarding their soon-to-be-incriminating insignia, and crowds jostled each other to loot canned goods for the prospective months of want ahead.
Though the Ansbach populace was violently hostile to the idea of inviting bombardment by fighting the Americans, word was that the rigorous commandant, Col. Ernst Meyer, did indeed mean to do so. Trying to prevent a disaster from befalling his city, Limpert that morning cut the telephone wires from the Col. Meyer’s command post to the nearby troops at the front — an act observed and reported by two diligent Hitler Youth.
What followed was a cruel exertion of a military machine aggrieved by Limpert’s entirely well-founded lese-majeste. The cut wire didn’t matter at all because the command post had already been abandoned. But it was reported, and policemen and bureaucrats began mindlessly following procedures. “In the chaos, nothing would have been easier than to drop the matter quietly and let Limpert go,” Fritz observes.
Meyer was frenetically trying to organize defenses that did not want to be organized and by the time he caught wind of of the Limpert investigation he was fit to be tied.
“For me,” he said later, “there was no doubt that I had found the man who had already engaged in treason for the past eight days [pamphleting against the war] … While forward in the front lines … brave soldiers risked their lives to defend the homeland, a coward attacked them in the back. I now had to act. I said, ‘Gentlemen, we’ll now immediately form a court-martial …’ Silence everywhere. I had the impression of a certain helplessness.” (Fritz, again)
Meyer’s aides were reluctant to speak. It was obvious that the Americans would occupy Ansbach with hours, but also obvious that an insufficiency of zeal could have any one of them shot on the spot. One or two of them hesitatingly suggested further investigation — an overtly correct notion that would be tantamount to dropping the case under the circumstances.
Meyer brusquely announced, “I sentence Limpert to death by hanging; the sentence will be carried out immediately.” According to Zippold [a constable], Meyer also declared that the entire Limpert family would be executed, whereupon both policem[e]n rushed to their defense. Unwilling to press the issue, Meyer said curtly, “We don’t have any time, let’s get going.”
In NS-Offizier war ich nicht, Col. Meyer’s daughter, Ute Althaus, grapples with his perspective on Limpert’s hanging — which Meyer always felt was justified.
It was past 1 in the afternoon when Meyer stalked out to the entrance of the city hall to conduct the execution personally. While all of Ansbach, all of the western front, sabotaged his frenzied defense of the Reich, Meyer had this boy at his mercy. The colonel poured all of his rectitude and despair into taking away at least this one life.
Nevertheless, Meyer was not an executioner. Nothing was ready for his improvised hanging, and while the colonel tied up the nearest rope he could get someone to fetch him, Robert Limpert twisted away and escaped. He made it maybe 100 yards: no bystander dared to answer his pleas for help as he was tackled, kicked, and dragged back to his gallows.
The story has it that Meyer, after hanging Limpert twice — the noose broke the first time — pinned some of the treasonable pamphlets to the body, then immediately hopped on a bicycle and fled directly out of town. Maybe the folklore has become a bit exaggerated on that point … but he can’t have stayed much longer. The Americans were there by supper time to cut Robert Limpert’s body down.
The clear “lasts” we do have are country by country, earlier or later depending on the vigor of the pushback witch-hunters could muster against the theonset of rationalism.
The last witch execution that can be documented on in the Holy Roman Empire’s illustrious history took place on this date in 1756, in Landshut, during the age of Maria Theresa.* Its subject was a 15-year-old named Veronika Zeritschin, who was beheaded and then burned.
There is scant information readily available online as to how she came to that dreadful pass, perhaps because the distinction was long thought to be held by a woman named Anna Maria Schwegelin (English Wikipedia entry | German) — condemned for her Satanic intercourse in 1775. That sentence, it was only latterly discovered, was not actually carried out, leaving poor Anna to die in prison in 1781.
As one might infer, Veronika Zeritschin’s own distinction might not be entirely secure against subsequent documentary discoveries. But as of now, she appears to be the last person executed on German soil as a witch.
* Marie Antoinette‘s mother. Maria Theresa’s absolutism was not quite that of the Enlightenment; she was a staunch foe of the trend towards religious toleration:
What, without a dominant religion? Toleration, indifferentism, are exactly the right means to undermine everything … What other restraint exists? None. Neither the gallows nor the wheel … I speak politically now, not as a Christian. Nothing is so necessary and beneficial as religion. Would you allow everyone to act according to his fantasy? If there were no fixed cult, no subjection to the Church, where should we be? The law of might would take command. (Source)
Igo Sym tickles the ivories in Zona i nie zona (Wife and No Wife) … his last role.
On this date in 1941, the Germans occupying Poland took revenge for the loss of an artist.
Handsome Austrian-born silver screen luminary Igo Sym, whose silent film credits included roles opposite Marlene Dietrich and Lillian Harvey, had become a prominent fixture of the Warsaw stage when the Germans overran Poland in 1939.
This attracted the hostility of the Polish underground, which secretly condemned him to death — and executed that sentence on the morning of March 7, 1941, with a knock at Sym’s apartment door and a sudden 9 mm pistol.
In punishment for this gesture of national defiance, all of Warsaw was clapped under a harsh curfew and dozens of hostages seized as surety for the public’s promptly rendering the actor’s murderers for punishment. But the assassins were not so delivered: in revenge, the Germans executed 21 hostages at the nearby village of Palmiry.* Two University of Warsaw professors were among those hostages, biologist Stefan Kopec and historian Kazimierz Zakrzewski.
* Palmiry had the sorrow to host numerous similar mass-executions during the German occupation of Warsaw. Over 2,000 bodies have been recovered from the site.
Polish hostages (not necessarily those of March 11, 1941) being readied for execution at Palmiry. This photo (and others) via the Polish Wikipedia page on war crimes in Palmiry.