Posts filed under 'Poland'

1983: Waldemar Krakos, Dekalog inspiration

Add comment October 10th, 2019 Headsman

Polish murderer Waldemar Krakos was hanged on this date in 1983 in Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison.

With a partner, Wiktor Maliszewski, he’d bludgeoned and strangled a female taxi driver to death on New Year’s Eve 1982/83, yielding a few thousand zlotys to drink away before their arrest on New Year’s Day.

Both initially caught a term of years when judge (and the future President of the post-Communist Supreme Court) Lech Paprzycki found that Krakos’s traumatic childhood rendered him mentally unfit to hang; but amid public clamor the sentence against Krakos was upgraded in June by the Supreme Court. (Although his was not a political crime, Krakos’s treatment was facilitated by Poland’s early 80s martial law.)

Prior to his execution the killer met cinema director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Five years later, Kieslowski’s acclaimed Dekalog drama series explores, in Dekalog: Five, a capital punishment case very much like Krakos’s own.

That film’s portrayal of violent lumpen “Jacek Lazar” brutally murdering a taxi driver and suffering a brutal hanging in retribution has been credited with helping bring about the abolition of the death penalty in Poland. Krakos, as a result, is among the very last to suffer that punishment in Polish history.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Poland

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1497: Nicholas II of Niemodlin

Add comment June 27th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1497, the Polish Duke Nicholas II of Niemodlin was executed in Nysa.

During a summit to dispel tensions with Casimir II, Duke of Cieszyn, our Nicholas tried to murder both Casimir and a mediator bishop.

After a failed attempt to claim sanctuary, the grandees in attendance decided to have him speedily beheaded rather than accept his large gold bribe in settlement.

This very nearly triggered a wider war when Nicholas’s brother, also a duke, began preparing for a retaliatory military expedition; deft diplomacy by the king of Bohemia defused the crisis.


(cc) image from Jacek Halicki.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Holy Roman Empire,Nobility,Poland,Power,Public Executions

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1947: Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz commandant

Add comment April 16th, 2019 Headsman

April 16, 1947, was the hanging-date of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss.

Not to be confused with the Rudolf Hess, the Nazi party defector held by the British in lonely confinement in Spandau until 1987, Höss was true to the swastika from beginning to end.

A World War I survivor, our guy joined the right-wing Freikorps paramilitaries and scored NSDAP party number no. 3240 in 1922 — soon thereafter proving a willingness to shed blood for the cause by murdering a teacher suspected of betraying to the French the Nazi martyr figure Albert Leo Schlageter. Höss served only a year in prison for the crime.

Come the time of the Reich, he joined the SS and was “constantly associated” (his words) with the camp networks — beginning in the very first concentration camp, Dachau, followed by a two-year turn at Sachsenhausen.

In May 1940, he was appointed to direct the brand-new Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland, a position that, excluding a few months when he was relieved of duties for having an affair with a camp inmate, he held until the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945.

Initially “just” a standard Reich prison camp with a mix of regular criminals, political prisoners, and Soviet POWs, Auschwitz earned its place as the Holocaust’s preeminent metonym in the subsequent years as it evolved into one of the primary killing sites of the Final Solution.

Höss himself is even “honored” as the namesake of Operation Höss, a deportation and extermination project targeting Hungarian Jewry that claimed 420,000 souls just in the last months of the war. It was one of the most efficient slaughters orchestrated by Nazi Germany, though even these were only a small portion of the crimes that stained Höss’s soul. In his postwar testimony at Nuremberg, Höss

estimate[d] that at least 2,500,000* victims were executed and exterminated there [at Auschwitz] by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3,000,000. This figure represents about 70% or 80% of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries. Included among the executed and burnt were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of Prisoner of War cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens (mostly Jewish) from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries.

It wasn’t the Nuremberg court that noosed him, however; that duty fell to Poland’s Supreme National Tribunal. It had him executed on a gallows set up adjacent to Auschwitz’s Crematorium 1.

Höss’s grandson, Rainer Höss, has been an outspoken voice for atoning his family’s role in the Holocaust.

* Höss later revised this “2.5 million” estimate down, claiming that he had that figure from Adolf Eichmann but “I myself never knew the total number, and I have nothing to help me arrive at an estimate.” After tabulating the larger extermination actions that he could recall (including the 400,000+ from Hungary), Höss came up with the lower and still incredibly monstrous figure of 1.1 million: “Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive capabilities.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Infamous,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Torture,War Crimes

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1919: The Pinsk Massacre

Add comment April 5th, 2019 Headsman

A century ago today, a Polish army major had 35 Jews executed in Pinsk.

After the devastation of World War I, Poland and now-Soviet Russia fell into war in early 1919 over the oft-trod lands between them.

In late March of that year — still the opening weeks of the conflict — the Polish 34th Infantry Regiment commanded by Major Aleksander Narbut-Luczynski captured the town of Pinsk which today lies just on the Belarus side of the Belarus-Ukraine border. This town had seen occupying armies cross it to and fro during the recent bloody years: Germany captured it from Russia in 1915; the Soviets recaptured it shortly after World War I; now, the Poles expelled the Red Army.

They weren’t exactly greeted as liberators. Town and occupiers alike were on edge when Major Narbut-Luczynski caught word of about 75 Jews holding a meeting. Believing them to be Bolshevik agitators, he had the lot arrested and — according to a subsequent report on events by former U.S. ambassador Henry Morgenthau, Sr.

conducted to the market place and lined up against the wall of the cathedral. With no lights except the lamps of a military automobile, the six women in the crowd and about twenty-five men were separated from the mass, and the remainder, thirty-five in number, were shot with scant deliberation and no trial whatever. Early the next morning three wounded victims were shot in cold blood as soon as life revealed itself in them.

The women and other reprieved prisoners were confined in the city jail until the following Thursday. The women were stripped and beaten by the prison guards so severely that several of them were bedridden for weeks after, and the men were subjected to similar maltreatment.

Morgenthau’s and history’s verdict on the Pinsk Massacre was that the town’s Jews were meeting legally to discuss distribution of relief packages received from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “Incredibly brutal,” Morgenthau wrote of Major Narbut-Luczynski in his memoirs. “And even more incredibly stupid.”

The still-extant kibbutz Gvat in northern Israel was founded by settlers from Pinsk — and dedicated to the victims of this massacre.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1944: Franz Kutschera, by underground justice

Add comment February 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Nazi governor of Warsaw was “executed” by assassination.

The Austrian Sudeten German Franz Kutschera had parlayed his early Nazi party membership into various posts in the Third Reich after it absorbed Austria into Greater Germany.

The last of his several stations on World War II’s Eastern Front was SS and Police chief of occupied Warsaw. He did not hesitate to brandish the iron fist, intensifying arrests of perceived subversives and carrying out public executions of civilians to avenge German casualties.

We enter ambiguous territory for this here site here, for Kutschera’s punishment, while delivered by ambush, was decreed by a court — the illicit (to Germany) “Special Courts” of the Polish government in exile. Needless to say, the defendant was judged in absentia.

Such courts asserted the legitimate governance of an occupied nation but they had to shift for themselves when it came to enforcing their underground writ. An orchestrated commando hit, uncontroversially titled Operation Kutschera, was required for this one since the SS chief wasn’t a fellow that an opportunistic assassin could just catch with his guard down in some cafe. Instead, Poland’s internal Home Army units under the command of Emil Fieldorf put a 12-person team on the job.

On the morning of February 12, 1944, Kutschera’s “executioners” blocked with another car the limousine carrying the doomed SS-man to work. In an instant three men, codenamed “Lot” (Bronislaw Pietraszewicz), “Kruszynka” (Zdzislaw Poradzki) and “Mis” (Michael Issajewicz), sprang onto the street brandishing submachine guns and efficiently slaughtered Kutschera and his driver. Meanwhile, other members of the team swooped in with getaway vehicles and covering fire for the resulting shootout with surprised German guards. Though all escaped the scene, Lot and another team member both succumbed hours later to their wounds; two additional members of the backup group were trapped escaping across the Kierbedz Bridge and died hurling themselves into the Vistula under a rain of German bullets.

The Reich paid Kutschera tribute in his customary coinage with the mass execution of 300 civilian hostages the next day, but the memory of this dagger to the throat of a national enemy has lived in glory for Poles ever since.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1886: The leadership of the Proletariat Party

Add comment January 28th, 2019 Headsman

A quartet of revolutionary socialists were executed by the tsarist authorities at Warsaw Citadel on this date in 1886.

Poland’s first socialist party of any consequence, the Proletariat was founded in 1882 by Ludwik Warynski.

“Small in number and very young in age,” were these founding socialists, “sons and daughters of a shattered class and a defeated nation.” But Moscow had long feared the diffusion of revolutionary ideologies in Poland, for as an 1873 Russian security brief observed, “of all the lands belonging to his Imperial Majesty the Kingdom of Poland more than any other constitutes a favorable ground for the Internationale.” (Both quotes from The Origins of Polish Socialism: The History and Ideas of the First Polish Socialist Party 1878-1886.)

The Proletariat Party went some way to vindicating the fears of the secret police by gaining several hundred members in its first years and conducting some successful protest campaigns in Warsaw. Naturally this invited state violence on the heads of the leadership; Warynski was in irons by the end of 1883, and would die in prison six years later.

This in turn brought new and more implacable men to the fore of the movement, like one of our day’s principals Stanislaw Kunicki (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) — who better inclined to ally the Proletariat Party with the anti-autocrat terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will). Eventually in the course of the 1880s crackdown

several hundred members of Proletariat were arrested, of whom twenty-nine from the industrial areas of Poland were selected as being principally responsible for the direction of the party. The trial of 23 November to 20 December 1885 produced its first socialist martyrs. In the end the Russian Piotr Bardovsky, Stanislaw Kunicki, the shoemaker Michal Ossowski and the weaver Jan Petrusinski were hanged on 28 January 1886.


A plaque at Warsaw Citadel commemorates the Proletariat martyrs ((cc) image by Mateusz Opasinski.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Treason

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1796: Jerzy Procpak

Add comment January 26th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1796 the Polish outlaw Jerzy Procpak was executed. Anticipate Polish in all links to follow.

It takes a stretch to reckon this avaricious cutthroat as a social bandit; nevertheless, he’s chanced to a fair measure of historical renown as an exemplar from the dying age of highwayman. He supposedly turned to crime after being punitively thrown in prison for shooting a grazing heifer he had mistaken for a deer. Thereafter he gathered around him a crowd of army deserters and other rough men who prowled the southern borderlands of Silesia, Moravia, and Slovakia.

The “forest Adonis” was celebrated in folk song, and in folk legend which became practically indistinguishable from his biography.

Captured in November 1795, the brigand admitted without recourse to torture to a charge sheet more than ample to take his life: some 60 highway robberies and 13 murders. We have a description of his costume preserved from those same records: “hat with band sewn on, blue caftan lined red, trousers of the same blue paint, sewn with twine, brown leather moccasins, a thin white tunic and sleeves with beautiful cuffs, a brass pin at his throat …”

Throughout January of 1796, ad hoc courts tried upwards of 200 of his alleged associates in ad hoc tribunals in the Silesian towns of Wieprz, Zywiec, and Milowka. Overall, twenty-one were condemned to death and apart from one man, Blazej Solczenski, saved by intercession of a parish priest, all these death sentences were carried into immediate execution.* Several others from the deserter demographic were returned to the hands of the Austrian army for punishment up to and including death by musketry.

* I assume that this reprieve is the source of the confusion among different texts reporting that Procpak was one of twenty robbers executed, or that those executed numbered Procpak plus twenty other robbers. The former is correct, although the executions were scattered across different days and sites; this source (Polish, like everything else) has the breakdowns with names and dates.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,Mass Executions,Murder,Outlaws,Poland,Prussia,Public Executions,Theft

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2003: Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri mock-executed at CIA black site

Add comment January 1st, 2019 Headsman

Around this time — “sometime between 28 December 2002 and 1 January 2003” — a CIA debriefer questioning Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri at a CIA “black site” in Poland mock-executed his prey.

The Saudi national had been captured in October of 2002 and vanished into the 9/11-mad empire’s dark heart of secret torture dungeons scattered across the globe.

He’d already been renditioned to Afghanistan, and then to Thailand, and then onward (for the events of this post) to a onetime Third Reich base in Poland. In Afghanistan he’d been stripped and hanged up by his shackled hands, his toes barely touching the floor. In Thailand, interrogators waterboarded him and locked him in a coffin.* Graphic videos of his treatment in Thailand, at least, once existed; they are among the evidence destroyed by the CIA in 2005 in its successful project to scotch any public accountability for its torture program.

Nashiri stands accused of the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, although different intelligence officers characterize him as anything from the “mastermind” to “the dumbest terrorist I ever met.” The only judicial hearing he’s ever had on this matter occurred in abstentia in Yemen in 2004, and resulted in a death sentence. He resides today in America’s forever oubliette at Guantanamo Bay, where a supposed prosecution began in 2011 and has been formally ongoing ever since, mired like all other cases there in the place’s intrinsic juridical incoherence. It seems likely that Nashiri will spend the rest of his days at Guantanamo, his mind a wreck from his ordeals.

One such ordeal, the one qualifying him for consideration by Executed Today, was his feigned execution by handgun and then by power drill — as disclosed by the CIA Inspector General’s report; the quoted excerpt below appears as paragraphs 91 and 92, beginning on page 49 of this pdf. The incident is likewise described in a subsequent Senate Intelligence Committee report, which can be perused here (see p. 98). The name of Nashiri’s mock-executioner is among the many bracketed redactions in this text; it has been publicly reported that the man in question is former CIA and FBI linguist Albert El Gamil.

[     ] interrogation team members, whose purpose it was to interrogate Al-Nashiri and debrief Abu Zubaydah, initially staffed [     ] The interrogation team continued EITs on Al-Nashiri for two weeks in December 2002 [     ] they assessed him to be “compliant.” Subsequently, CTC officers at Headquarters [     ] sent a [     ] senior operations officer (the debrief) [     ] to debrief and assess Al-Nashiri.

[     ]The debrief assessed Al-Nashiri as withholding information, at which point [     ] reinstated [     ] hooding, and handcuffing. Sometime between 28 December 2002 and 1 January 2003, the debriefer used an unloaded semi-automatic handgun as a prop to frighten Al-Nashiri into disclosing information. After discussing this plan with [     ] the debriefer entered the cell where Al-Nashiri sat shackled and racked the handgun once or twice close to Al-Nashiri’s head. On what was probably the same day, the debriefer used a power drill to frighten Al-Nashiri. With [     ] consent, the debriefer entered the detainee’s cell and revved the drill while the detainee stood naked and hooded. The debriefer did not touch Al-Nashiri with the power drill.

Mock execution was not among the menu of torture techniques given legal imprimatur by the Agency, and other interrogators’ protests at his methods led to El Gamil’s removal from the case shortly thereafter.

Sanctioned or no, it is not the only mock execution known to have been inflicted by CIA torturers. Scrolling past seas of black redactions to paragraphs 169-174 of that same Inspector General’s report, we find that

The debriefer who employed the handgun and power drill on Al-Nashiri [     ] advised that those actions were predicated on a technique he had participated in [     ] The debriefer stated that when he was [     ] between September and October 2002, [     ] offered to fire a handgun outside the interrogation room while the debriefer was interviewing a detainee who was thought to be withholding information. [     ] staged the incident, which included screaming and yelling outside the cell by other CIA officers and [     ] guards. When the guards moved the detainee from the interrogation room, they passed a guard who was dressed as a hooded detainee, lying motionless on the ground, and made to appear as if he had been shot to death.

The debriefer claimed he did not think he needed to report this incident because the [     ] had openly discussed this plan [     ] several days prior to and after the incident. When the debriefer was later [     ] and believed he needed a non-traditional technique to induce the detainee to cooperate he told [     ] he wanted to wave a handgun in front of the detainee to scare him. The debriefer said he did not believe he was required to notify Headquarters of this technique, citing the earlier, unreported mock execution [     ].

A senior operations officer [     ] recounted that around September 2002 [     ] heard that the debriefer had staged a mock execution. [     ] was not present but understood it went badly; it was transparently a ruse and no benefit was derived from it. [     ] observed that there is a need to be creative as long as it is not considered torture. [     ] stated that if such a proposal were made now, it would involve a great deal of consultation. It would begin with [     ] management and would include CTC/Legal, [     ] and the CTC.

The [     ] admitted staging a “mock execution” in the first days that [     ] was open. According to the [     ] the technique was his idea but was not effective because it came across as being staged. It was based on the concept, from SERE school, of showing something that looks real, but is not. The [     ] recalled that a particular CTC interrogator later told him about employing a mock execution technique. The [     ] did not know when this incident occurred or if it was successful. He viewed this technique as ineffective because it was not believable.

Four [     ] who were interviewed admitted to either participating in one of the above-described incidents or hearing ab out them. [     ] described staging a mock execution of a detainee. Reportedly, a detainee who witnessed the “body” in the aftermath of the ruse “sang like a bird.”

[     ] revealed that approximately four days before his interview with OIG, the [     ] stated he had conducted a mock execution [     ] in October or November 2002. Reportedly, the firearm was discharged outside of the building, and it was done because the detainee reportedly possessed critical threat information. [     ] stated that he told the [     ] not to do it again. He stated that he has not heard of a similar act occurring [     ] since then.

* Gina Haspel oversaw the Thailand site at the end of 2002, and her countenancing torture against Nashiri and other detainees there made for a passing controversy when Donald Trump appointed her to direct the Agency.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Poland,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Terrorists,Torture,Uncertain Dates,USA

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1941: 3,500 Jews at the Khotyn Fortress … but not Adolph Sternschuss

Add comment July 3rd, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On July 4, 1941, a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy named Ephraim Sternschuss began his diary in the Nazi-occupied Zloczow, Poland, with these lines:

Mother knows nothing about Father’s murder. I won’t be the one to tell. But I have to express what I’m feeling … I’ll write down all the details so when I’m old I’ll remember my youth and this World War, even though I’m not sure I’ll live through it.

I’m writing while lying on my back. I can’t move my legs. Mother says I’m in shock. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m so anxious because I can’t tell her about Father, who was drafted yesterday into forced labor and Mother still believes he’s alive.

The eastern Polish town of Zloczow had been annexed by the Soviet Union after the partition of Poland with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Zloczow‘s Jews, who at 14,000 people constituted about half of the population, lived in relative safety until the summer of 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

They arrived in Zloczow on July 2. With the help of enthusiastic local Polish and Ukrainian collaborators, the SS rounded up 3,500 Jews, among them Adolph Sternschuss, Ephraim’s father. The victims were told they would be sent to forced labor — excavating mass graves of Soviet victims, digging anti-tank ditches, and such.

They were, in fact, digging their own graves.

Ephraim described his father’s departure thusly:

Father was taken at 10:00 a.m. An evening earlier Mrs. Reichard came by and told us that at a local Ukrainian meeting, it was decided to carry out an anti-Jewish pogrom the very next day. Unfortunately, Father didn’t believe her because she was such a gossip. Father was sitting in the kitchen when two Ukrainians came in, Warwara from our street and Bojko a tailor …

They told Father to get ready for work. Father changed into an old suit, emptied his pockets of everything except a penknife, a handkerchief and a Soviet ID. They said to give Father bread because “he would return only at two in the afternoon and he’d get hungry until then.” (My god, what hypocrisy!) Mother made two sandwiches with sausage. They also told him to bring a shovel and he kissed Mother and me and went away.

Adolph did not return at two o’clock, and at four that afternoon, Ephraim and his mother, Anna, heard the sound of distant gunfire coming from the Khotyn Fortress. A neighbor came by and told Ephraim there had been a mass shooting (the perpetrators were members of Einsatzgruppe C) and “all the men were killed.”


Khotyn Fortress. (cc) image from Andriy Baranskyy.

Ephraim assumed his father must be dead. He started his diary because he couldn’t bear to speak the dreadful fact aloud, but had to confide in somebody, if only an old school notebook.

What he didn’t know was that Adolph Sternschuss had, in fact, miraculously survived the shooting. The happy news was delivered to Ephraim’s family on July 5: Adolph was alive and hiding with friends of the family.

Around four o’clock the mother of Mrs. Kitai, Mother’s friend, came in and said that Father was alive and staying with them. Hurray! I went wild, jumping, laughing, everything. Mother gave her clean underwear for Father and asked her to tell him to stay there, not to come home, until the situation improved. Mother went out to tell Mrs. Reichard the news, and about an hour later the door opened and Father came in.

I’ll never forget the sight. His black suit was gray with dirt and dust, on his head he wore some wrinkled hat … He held the package of underwear Mother sent him and a small army shovel. When he entered I jumped out of bed and screamed “Mummy!” and ran to him. I kissed him although he was terribly stinking, like a corpse — and he started crying. It was the first time I saw Father cry.

Together with Mrs. Beer we pulled a sofa into the other room and hid the door behind a mirrored chest. We helped Father remove his clothes and then we saw what the Ukrainians were capable of. His whole back was beaten to a black pulp and swollen and he had a hideous bruise on his head.

We washed him and then he ate something and then we put him to bed and he fell asleep. He didn’t say a word.

Over the next few days, Adolph described his ordeal and his incredible survival to his only child, who wrote it all down in detail in his diary. Adolph’s story, as told to Ephraim, is worth quoting almost in full:

At noon I brought him a meal and he told me what he had gone through. I didn’t recognize his monotonous tone, but there, in the darkness of the basement, I sensed that he was reliving his ordeal. Well, in the beginning he worked near the Fortress, burying cadavers of horses.

Then he was transferred to the Fortress itself. At the entrance he was ordered to show his papers, but he lied, claiming he had none. “A man is only an addition to his identity card,” he said as if he were the father I knew.

They worked in two places: the inner court of the prison and the garden. They had to dig up mass graves of corpses killed by the NKVD — Ukrainians and Poles (and some Jews like Dr. Grosskopf and his son-in-law). The bodies were laid out in rows to be identified.

On that occasion, the Ukrainians beat the Jews, accusing them of committing these murders. Naturally, the Germans and the S.S. troops joined in, beating the Jews mercilessly. Father was followed by a short, white-haired butcher who hit him with a stout stick he had pulled out of the fence, and by a tall, blond S.S. soldier who used a coiled rope.

At noon two officers came up to Father and asked his profession. He answered, “Lawyer.” Probably they could tell from his accent that he had studied in Vienna,* but they asked him anyway. When he confirmed it, one of the Germans asked, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” and Father said he was, and the German, furious, said, “Then I can’t do anything for you,” and the two of them stormed off.

Shortly after, the shooting began …

Around three o’clock they shot Father, but as he happened to already be in the ditch, all four bullets hit the pile of dirt, and Father fell down and pretended to be dead. An hour later it started raining and that’s what saved him: the Ukrainians and Germans were forced to stop shooting and shelter themselves under the roof.

At 9 p.m. sharp Kuba Schnapp and Freimann pulled Father out of the ditch and all three made their escape. Father practically had to be dragged away because both of them, and two corpses, were lying on his left leg. “After playing Indians,” said Father and it seemed to be that he smiled, they slipped through a hole in the fence and parted ways.

Father wanted to enter Winczura’s house but was refused. He then moved on to Barabasz and there, in the attic, were about thirty people. The next day he was forced to leave because of the terrible conditions. He moved over to a client of his, Mrs. Lewant, and stayed in the attic with the Kitai family. From there he returned home.

“One thing is etched in my memory forever,” he said. “I never imagined that Jews could die like that. They were like Romans. Proud, erect, silent. Thus they were killed.”

Seventy years later, one “old, toothless” witness, one of the fifteen remaining Jews still living in the area, recalled the massacre: “The earth shifted for days. They couldn’t bury them fast enough.”

Unfortunately, Adolph didn’t live long after he crawled out from under those corpses in the mass grave. He was not young, and his health was ruined by his horrific experience. Just a few days before Christmas, he died in his bed after a series of heart attacks.

On December 29 that year, Ephraim wrote mournfully,

Only those who have lost their fathers will understand me — and regrettably there are so many now. Dr. Hreczanik was right when he said to Mother, “your husband was killed at the Fortress.”

This first mass killing in Zloczow was followed by others. In late August 1942, the Germans rounded up 2,700 Jews and deported them to the Belzec Extermination Camp. In early November, a further 2,500 people were taken away.

A month later, a ghetto was established for between 7,500 and 9,000 people from Zloczow as well as the remnants of several nearby Jewish communities. Rather than go into the ghetto, Ephraim and his mother went into hiding, concealed outside the village of Jelechowice by sympathetic Ukrainian Catholic farmers: Grzegorz “Hryc” Tyz, his wife Maria “Misia” Koreniuk, and Helena Skrzeszewska.

The Sternschusses made the right choice: in April 1943 the Zloczow Ghetto was liquidated and all the survivors were shot and buried in mass graves.

Ephraim and Anna Sternschuss remained hidden on the rural farm for the rest of the war. When it was safe they just stayed inside the house; when there was danger they hid “downstairs” under the floor, “in a grave-like pit, narrow and long.” He kept writing in his diary:

We walk about the house without any inhibition, trusting Rex to faithfully do his duty. He barks differently at anyone so we can know in advance whether he’s a friend or a foe. In any case, whenever we hear him, Mother and I enter our room, shut the door and Misia, if the visitor is a stranger, sings “Chiming of Bells in the Dusk.” Then we sit quietly, almost without breathing, waiting for the visit to end. Nobody must know about our existence here.

The Sternschuss family’s hosts refused to accept any payment for their stay, but Ephraim and his mother did have to chip in to cover the cost of their food. Over time, others joined them: Ephraim’s aunt and uncle, Lipa and Linka Tennenbaum; the Tennenbaums’ daughters, Eda and Selma; the five members of the Parille family; and Edzia Weinstock and her daughter Eva.

Thus, the farm became a sanctuary for eleven Jews, plus the three hosts — all living on a small farm with a three-room farmhouse, a shed, an outhouse, and an uncertain grant of borrowed time. Ephraim occupied himself writing in his diary, drawing, and reading. Misia Koreniuk, one of his hosts, was a teacher, and she freely shared her “huge chest of books and magazines” with him. Ephraim even began teaching himself algebra and geometry.

It wasn’t all a nightmare. There was, for example, an amusing incident in February 1943 where they got the farm animals drunk on moonshine vodka:

It was a pity to have to throw it away, so Hryc scattered a bit in the yard for the chickens and the rest he put in the trough for the cow Krasula. The chickens pecked — and immediately lay down on the earth, absolutely foggy minded. But Krasula started going berserk, running around and climbing trees. It was terribly funny but also a bit dangerous. Hryc managed to overcome her with much difficulty and tied her up in the stable.

Through his hosts Ephraim kept up with the progress of the war and tracked the Allied advance in his diary, eagerly awaiting liberation. Yet it was hard to stay optimistic and he occasionally had thoughts of suicide. As he wrote in October 1943, he struggled to keep from succumbing to apathy and despair:

It’s all nonsense. […] Nobody knows us. We don’t have anybody in the whole wide world. Nobody. Only Mother and I. Therefore there’s no other option: one mustn’t give in to crises. We have to stay united. Today my heart is heavy. I’m writing almost in darkness but I must write. Too much crap weighs on my heart and I must pour all of it, at least in this diary.

Why is it called life? The best years of my youth have gone by and will not return. Never. Even if it all ends today, it won’t do any good … This is my life. And if I add the well known fact that everybody is born with a death verdict — what’s there to live for?

On November 6, 1943, a baby girl was born on the farm — the offspring of one of the members of the Parille family. Before the war, the mother had tried for years to get pregnant, going through “all possible treatments and nothing helped. And here, of all places, did she give birth.”

Ephraim wrote that their host, Hryc, started sobbing in despair when he found out:

So we aren’t only fourteen but fifteen with the baby! Not too bad … That’s to say very bad. Lipa is right saying that the baby can betray us all. We learned not to speak but to whisper, but a baby?! What’s to be done?

Within a few days the baby died. Perhaps it was just as well.

The situation became even more precarious in late January 1944, after a unit of retreating Germans showed up at the farm and the commander requisitioned a room in the farmhouse for himself and his Russian girlfriend.

Thus the farmhouse was divided: the German in one room, the three Ukrainian farmers in the next room, eight Jews in the 3×4 meter room down the hall, and three more hidden in the shed!

The German officer never found out about the hidden Jews, and as Ephraim noted, the man’s presence turned out to have a silver lining, because it protected everyone from the threat of looting, arson and murder at the hands of anti-Semitic Ukrainian partisans, who had become very active in the area.

Also, Helena Skrzeszewska was able to cajole the military kitchen into giving her their leftover soup, which she fed to the Jews. Ephraim noted wryly, “We live at the expense of Hitler.”

He was actually upset when the German officer left the farm two weeks later, writing,

Our citadel is no more. Again fearful nights will begin without the landlords who’ll go to the village for their sleep. We’ll remain on our own against the gangs, full of fear of the Ukrainian killers, of being set on fire … Again night watches every two hours, with a pistol and six bullets.

Sure enough, in early March, while Ephraim’s hosts were away from the farm, the Ukrainian partisans tried to set the place on fire. Ephraim was on watch that night:

I don’t know if I panicked. But now, while writing that, I think I wasn’t absolutely clear about what I was doing. Anyhow, after raising [the others in hiding], I opened the door and like an idiot went out into the lighted yard. Two sprints brought me to the well. I crouched behind its side and emptied my pistol of all its bullets, shooting into the darkness of the forest like a movie cowboy. The first time in my life.

In the meantime Lipa, Mother, Linka and Edzia came out with buckets. […] I don’t think it took us a long time to control the situation. The fools didn’t shoot at us from the forest despite the fact that we were in the light. I assume — and I’m not the only one thinking like that — that they were frightened of us being armed.

In the morning, when our landlords came back from the neighbors, they were surprised to learn that the house was still standing. […] Hryc went to the forest and found blood stains in the snow.

Later the month the Germans returned and searched the farm for signs of partisan activity, and actually encountered Ephraim’s aunt and mother inside the house:

Mother and Auntie locked us in and ran to the entrance door. They hardly made it when the door was busted open in spite of the big lock hanging outside. The Germans were astonished running into them. Despite Lipa’s warnings to Mother not to reveal her knowledge of German, she explained to them that they were locking themselves in the house in fear of the partisans.

“The partisans are all Juden,” said one of the Germans, and then asked where did Mother acquire such a German [language]. She told him she lived in Salzburg and came here to get married. “It’s all Love’s fault,” said the German, asked her to forgive him, went out and in a moment returned with a bomboniere.

In the meanwhile dawn was breaking and they discovered the Germans were S.S. troops. Mother says that if she wasn’t hit by a heart attack she would never have one. Immediately she told them they were being “evacuated” to the West. The Germans, perfect gentlemen that they were, proposed to help them, give them a truck. Auntie thanked them, said there was no need, everything was under control. Indeed.

Half an hour later our landlords returned back from the village. They looked really terrified when they saw Mother and Linka standing at the entrance to the house with two S.S. men. Mother introduced them, bid the Germans farewell and entered the hideout with Auntie.

The hideout happens to be east of the house, not west.

All the Jews spent three days in the underground hideout until the SS officers left. By then the front was very close, as Ephraim wrote on March 13:

In the nights, during shifts, we hear the “music” of artillery. The front keeps coming closer. Two days ago they were at Podhorce, 15 kms away! The windows were shaking to the blasts of cannon. But the Germans, damn it, pushed them back to a point 35 kms from us. There they stand and shoot. What bad fortune! Tarnopol has been liberated and we are not.

On March 26, Ephraim noted that it was the 1,000th day he had spent living under German occupation: “The 1,000 days we’ve spent in the Reich are like 1,000 years. With my whole heart I wish the Fuhrer and his admirers to have 1,000 such days …”

And he had months left to endure before he would see freedom.

On July 3, the second anniversary of the massacre at the Khotyn Fortress, Ephraim was using the outhouse when he saw a car stop and two Germans emerge with two men and a child. The Germans shot all three of them and left their bodies by the road. The victims, he found out later, were Jews who had been caught hiding nearby.

Liberation finally came to Jelechowice on July 16, 1944, as noted by a single sentence in red pencil in Ephraim’s diary: “THE BOLSHEVIKS HAVE ARRIVED!!!” He was sixteen years old, and had survived 1,111 days under the Germans.

On the third day after liberation, he recorded,

Mother, Auntie and I went to town. Zloczow made a terrible impression on us. Only bombed, burnt houses, torn wires on the road. A mass of troops on the way to Lvov. Our house is burnt. The neighbors — who couldn’t really understand how we managed to survive — said that the Germans had set the house on fire because it contained the archives of the Gestapo.

In the house, which was inhabited by the Gestapo unit, we found our dining room furniture in one of the rooms. It looked strange to me. That’s precisely what we need: a big table, or a buffet …

We haven’t met Jews.

Ephraim’s last diary entry was on July 29. He wrote of finally encountering some other survivors:

Maybe twenty people, perhaps thirty … All stood and cried. For sure I don’t have to write that picture down in the diary. I’ll remember it to the end of my life. All the Jews, the ten thousand Jews of Zloczow, were praying together in one small room. I heard the heart-rending sobbing, the wailing, the “Magnified and sanctified be His great name” prayer for the dead, and the “God, full of compassion” one, and I understood once and for all that they, we, address somebody who was absent when needed, and perhaps now wasn’t needed any longer, or maybe simply never existed. It was noontime and

The diary ends in mid-sentence.

Ephraim remained in Poland for over a decade after the war. He attended engineering school for two years, then switched his studies to theater. He moved to Israel in 1957. There he changed his family name from Sternschuss to Sten.

In Israel, Ephraim married, had children, and had a successful career as an author, actor, director and playwright for both stage and radio. But for decades he kept his diary hidden and did not speak of his Holocaust experiences to anyone.

Although he had a normal existence in his adopted country, he never recovered emotionally from the trauma of the war, describing it as “the load crushing my soul.”

He had thought, he said, once he left Poland, that he might finally “become a regular human being. But the world wouldn’t let me.”

In the 1990s, Ephraim returned to Zloczow, which is now part of Ukraine and called Zolochiv. Two of his Ukrainian rescuers had died, but Ephraim had a tearful reunion with Hryc Tyz, who told him, “You are my relatives. I didn’t believe I’d be lucky to yet see somebody from my family.”

His four-day trip inspired him to dig out his diary and translate it into Hebrew so that his children could read it. The diary was published in English in 2006, with annotations by an older Ephraim fifty years after the fact, under the title 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four.

Ephraim Sten died in 2004.

The Khotyn Fortress is a major tourist attraction in Ukraine and is considered one of the nation’s most stunning castles. In a nearby field, a “foul-smelling marsh” where “the grass is high and thick,” is a memorial for the 3,500 Jews (but not Ephraim’s dad) who were murdered there in July 1941.

* Zloczow answered to the sovereignty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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1584: Samuel Zborowski, dangerous precedent

Add comment May 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1584, Samuel Zborowski was beheaded at Krakow’s Wawel Hill for treason and murder committed ten years before.

A monument to the timeless abuse of the prosecutor’s discretion, Zborowski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) was a powerful nobleman who got into a snit when nobody of equal stature would enter the lists with him at a tournament.

Instead, his challenge was answered by a common trooper in the retinue of the castellan of Wojnice,* one Jan Teczynski. Pissed at the affront, and doubly so when his own retainer was defeated by Teczynski’s, Zborowski went right after Teczynski right there in the presence of the newly elected Polish king, Henry de Valois.** The affront of lese-majeste was compounded when Zborowski’s flailing mace mortally wounded another castellan who attempted to intervene.

The outlawed Zborowski fled to the protection of Stephen Bathory,† Voivode of Transylvania.

That might have been that, and left Zborowski to join Europe’s forgettable ranks of exiles, adventurers, and pretenders playing out the string under the patronage of some foreign prince.

But when the elective throne of mighty Poland came open soon thereafter, Zborowski’s patron decided that he liked the look of it — and he obtained the result, with the help of a dynastic marriage into Poland’s Jagiellon dynasty of illustrious memory.

Since the Zborowskis had been big supporters of Stephen Bathory, Samuel returned as well, justifiably anticipating not merely pardon but elevation. To their dismay, they found themselves frozen out … and they responded with a series of insubordinations: plotting with the invading Russians, fomenting an unwanted diplomatic crisis with freelance attacks upon the Ottomans.

In the end, our man was undone by the same violent highhandedness that had forced his flight from Poland in the first place. Zborowski’s ill treatment of the young lute composer Wojciech Dlugoraj left the latter so desperate to escape Zborowski’s court that Dlugoraj stole some treasonable correspondence between Zborowski and his brothers and sent it to Zborowski’s enemy, Jan Zamoyski.‡ Those letters indicated that Samuel was contemplating assassinating the king.

Zamoyski found, and Bathory agreed, that the most expedient way to remove this troublemaker was simply to execute the 1574 sentence, from that bludgeoned castellan. The new regime had conveniently never bothered to lift it.

Although legal, Zborowski’s execution was obviously quite irregular and it outraged many in the nobility who perceived it a potential precedent for absolutism; recrimination over the action tore apart the 1585 meeting of the Polish Sejm. (In later years, this body formally endorsed Zamoyski’s actions but only after enacting a Lex Zborowski to better govern the handling of treason cases.)


Jan Matejko‘s 19th century rendering of Samuel Zborowski en route to beheading.

* At the time an important fortified city, Wojnice or Wojnicz was ravaged by a Swedish army in the 1650s and never recovered; today, it’s a town — having only re-promoted itself from “village” status in 2007 — of fewer than four thousand souls.

** This youngest son in the French royal house had seemed to the Valois safe to make available on the transfer market for foreign sovereigns. However, his brothers’ uncanny talent for dying young without issue very soon required his return to his homeland to take up the throne of France as Henri III during that country’s Wars of Religion. There Henri proved not to be exempt from the family curse: we have previously explored the circumstances of his own violent death — which was also the end of the House of Valois — during the War of the Three Henrys.

† A legendary surname in the annals of horror. This Stephen Bathory was the maternal uncle of the infamous “Countess of Blood”.

‡ The gambit did indeed get the scared lutenist free from Zborowski’s control, but he had to flee to Germany for fear of Zborowski kinsmen’s vengeance.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Murder,Nobility,Notable Jurisprudence,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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