Posts filed under 'Poland'

1863: Zygmunt Padlewski, January Uprising rebel

Add comment May 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1863, Zygmunt Padlewski was shot for rebelling against the Russian empire.

A young St. Petersburg-trained tsarist officer with a patriotic bent — his father had taken part in the November [1830] Uprising against Russian domination — Padlewski (English Wikipedia entry | German | the surprisingly least detailed Polish) spent the early 1860s organizing revolutionary exiles in Paris.

He then put his neck where his mouth was by returning to Warsaw to agitate and, eventually, to assume the leadership of Polish rebels in that area during his own generation’s doomed revolution, the January [1863] Uprising.

Padlewski’s carriage was detained at a checkpoint when he tried to sneak back to Warsaw after a defeat, and his too-liberal bribes excited the suspicion of the Cossack sentries — who searched the traveler and discovered they had a man well worth the capturing.

He was shot at Plock, where a street and a school today bear his names (numerous other cities around Poland also honor Padlewski).

On this day..

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

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1943: Piotr Jarzyna, Polish Resistance

4 comments October 22nd, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1943, Piotr Jarzyna was shot at Auschwitz for his activities in the Polish resistance. He was fifty years old.

Jarzyna, a wheelwright, was born to a peasant family in the village of Polanka Wielka near Oswiecim, the town that would become known as the site of the Auschwitz Camp. He moved to Krakow, the nearest big city, in 1938.

Under the German occupation of Poland he joined the peasant resistance movement using the pseudonym “Jacek”, working as a courier and a soldier in the Peasant Battalions in the vicinity of Auschwitz. One of his tasks was providing covert aid to the prisoners in the camp.

As the Auschwitz Museum website notes,

Aid to Auschwitz prisoners took various forms. It consisted above all in furnishing them with food, but also with medicine and bandages. In the winter, people attempted to get warm clothing and underwear to the prisoners. However, the help was not confined to the material sphere. It was equally important to make it easier for the prisoners to stay in touch with their families, usually by helping to deliver illicit correspondence, but there were also cases in which arrangements were made for prisoners to have face-to-face meetings with their loved once. People helped prisoners who had escaped from the camp, and even played a role in organizing the escapes. Local residents’ organisations also received documents from the prisoners that revealed the crimes being committed by the SS, and forwarded this evidence to the headquarters of the Polish underground movement.

In 2009, the Auschwitz Museum published People of Good Will, which provides information about more than 1,200 Polish people from the vicinity of Auschwitz who helped the prisoners. Piotr Jarzyna is one of those.

While continuing to live in Crakow, he frequently sneaked into the vicinity of the camp, carrying various items including copies of the underground press, but most of all medicine for the prisoners, including valuable, highly specific preparations. Reaching the area of the camp involved the great risk of crossing the border between the General Government and the Third Reich, since Germany had annexed the Land of Oswiecim.

Jarzyna was often accompanied on these expeditions by his young daughter Helena. Fortunately he was alone when he was caught by border guards in the autumn of 1942, carrying precious doses of medicine. He was able to dump some of his stash before his arrest, but when they searched him they found several vials of anti-typhus serum meant for Auschwitz inmates.

The Nazis sentenced Jarzyna to serve a term in Monowitz, one of Auschwitz’s three main sub-camps, where inmates did slave labor for I.G. Farben. After three weeks, he was able to escape and made it back home to Krakow.

Amazingly, this experience did not deter Jarzyna from his resistance activities: he went right back to smuggling stuff over the border into Auschwitz. In January 1943, doing another medicine run, he was caught a second time, and this time Helena, then just fourteen, was with him.

People of Good Will states,

The Germans took them both to Wadowice, and then transported them to Gestapo headquarters in Bielsko. They underwent brutal interrogations there, before being taken to the prison in Mylowice. The Germans then committed Helena to the Gestapo jail in Bielsko, while sending her father to Auschwitz. The Gestapo summary court in the camp sentenced him to death, and he was shot on October 22, 1943.

Helena survived. After the war, her father was posthumously decorated with the Order of the Cross of Grunwald, Third Class, due to his heroics during the Nazi occupation.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Shot,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1944: The Wola Massacre begins, during the Warsaw Uprising

2 comments August 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1944, a weeklong German slaughter of Polish civilians and resistance fighters began in the Wola district of the capital city Warsaw.

The Wola Massacre marked the start of the Reich’s counterattack against the Warsaw Uprising, the heroic and suicidal rising mounted by the Polish Home Army as the Red Army’s summer offensive brought it to the banks of the Vistula.

Aiming to claim some foothold upon which to influence events in the soon-to-be Soviet-occupied Poland, the Home Army enjoyed initial success in the first days of August. But German reserves from the Replacement Army — the vehicle by which the Valkyrie plotters had attempted their coup against Hitler just days before, and now as a consequence answering directly to Heinrich Himmler — were quick to the scene and would turn back the rising in weeks of bloody urban warfare. Himmler’s authority in crushing the Warsaw Uprising would also allow him to give rein to his SS for a campaign of atrocities intended to cow the populace into speedy submission.

Himmler wasn’t a battlefield commander, of course. Chief on the scene would be Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski; for this purpose he would enlist some of the more notorious units on the eastern front, such as the lawless Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger and the “Russian National Liberation Army” of Bronislav Kaminski. They were just the types to implement Himmler’s brutal orders* for a city they were soon to lose anyway:

  1. Captured insurrectionists shall be killed whether or not they fight in accordance with the Hague Convention.
  2. The non-fighting part of the population, women, children, shall also be killed.
  3. The whole city shall be razed to the ground, i.e. its buildings, streets, facilities, and everything within its borders.

The outcome rates as perhaps the largest battlefield massacre of World War II.

On August 5, Bach-Zelewski’s forces began a coordinated push into the western suburb of Wola. Himmler’s orders were implemented immediately, as attested by numerous civilian witnesses and lucky survivors:

I lived in the Wola district at No. 8, Elekcyjna Street. At 10 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1944 a detachment of SS-men and Vlassov’s men entered. They drove us from the cellars and brought us near the Sowinski Park at Ulrychow. They shot at us when we passed. My wife was killed on the spot: our child was wounded and cried for his mother. Soon a Ukrainian approached and killed my two-year-old child like a dog; then he approached me together with some Germans and stood on my chest to see whether I was alive or not – I shammed dead, lest I should be killed too. One of the murderers took my watch; I heard him reloading his gun. I thought he would finish me off, but he went on further, thinking I was dead. I lay thus from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. pretending to be dead, and witnessing further atrocities. During that time I saw further groups being driven out and shot near the place where I lay. The huge heap of corpses grew still bigger. Those who gave any sign of life were shot. I was buried under other corpses and nea rly suffocated. The executions lasted until 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. a group of Poles came to take the corpses away. I gave them a sign that I was alive. They helped me to get up and I regained sufficient strength to carry with them the body of my wife and child to the Sowinski Park, where they took all the dead. After this sad duty had been performed they took me to St. Laurence’s Church at Wola, where I remained till next day. I cannot state the exact number of the victims, but I estimate that those among whom I lay amounted to some 3,000 (three thousand). I met a friend in the church who had gone through the same experience as I, having lost a boy of 8, who had been wounded and died calling for his father. I am still in hospital and the image of death is constantly before my eyes.

And another:

On August 5, 1944, between 12 and 2 p.m., I saw from a window on the first floor of Wola Hospital Germans dragging women out of the cellars of No. 28, Plocka Street. They shot them in the courtyard with machine-guns. Almost at the same time, I saw in the courtyard of No. 30, Plocka Street the hands of more then 20 people raised and visible over the fence (the people themselves could not be seen). After a volley of shots these hands fell down: this was another of the executions in Wola.

And the agonizing testimony of Wanda Lurie:

I stayed in the cellar of No. 18 until August 5, when, between 11 and 12 noon, the Germans ordered all of us to get out, and marched us to Wolska Street. This march was carried out in dreadful haste and panic. My husband was absent, taking an active part in the Rising, and I was alone with my three children, aged 4, 6 and 12, and in the last month of pregnancy. I delayed my departure, hoping they would allow me to remain, and left the cellar at the very last moment. All the inhabitants of our house had already been escorted to the “Ursus” works in Wolska Street at the corner of Skierniewicka Street, and I too was ordered to go there. I went alone, accompanied only by my three children. It was difficult to pass, the road being full of wire, cable, remains of barricades, corpses, and rubble. Houses were burning on both sides of the street; I reached the “Ursus” work’s with great difficulty. Shots, cries, supplications and groans could be heard from the factory yard. We had no doubt that this was a place for mass executions.

The people who stood at the entrance were led, no, pushed in, not all at once but in groups of 20. A boy of twelve, seeing the bodies of his parents and of his little brother through the half-open entrance door, fell in a fit and began to shriek. The Germans and Vlassov‘s men beat him and pushed him back, while he was endeavouring to get inside. He called for his father and his mother. We all knew what awaited us here; there was no possibility of escape or of buying one’s life; there was a crowd of Germans, Ukrainians (Vlassov’s men), and cars. I came last and kept in the background, continuing to let the others pass, in the hope that they would not kill a pregnant woman, but I was driven in with the last lot. In the yard I saw heaps of corpses 3 feet high, in several places. The whole right and left side of the big yard (the first yard) was strewn with bodies. We were led through the second. There were about 20 people in our group, mostly children of 10 to 12. There were children without parents, and also a paralysed old woman whose son-in-law had been carrying her all the time on his back. At her side was her daughter with two children of 4 and 7. They were all killed. The old woman was literally killed on her son-in-law’s back, and he along with her. We were called out in groups of four and led to the end of the second yard to a pile of bodies. When the four reached this point, the Germans shot them through the backs of their heads with revolvers. The victims fell on the heap, and others came. Seeing what was to be their fate, some attempted to escape; they cried, begged, and prayed for mercy. I was in the last group of four. I begged the Vlassov’s men around me to save me and the children, and they asked if I had anything with which to buy my life. I had a large amount of gold with me and gave it them. They took it all and wanted to lead me away, but the German supervising the execution would not allow them to do so, and when I begged him to let me go he pushed me off, shouting “Quicker!” I fell when he pushed me. He also hit and pushed my elder boy, shouting “hurry up, you Polish bandit”. Thus I came to the place of execution, in the last group of four, with my three children. I held my two younger children by one hand, and my elder boy by the other. The children were crying and praying. The elder boy, seeing the mass of bodies, cried out: “they are going to kill us” and called for his father. The first shot hit him, the second me; the next two killed the two younger children. I fell on my right side. The shot was not fatal. The bullet penetrated the back of my head from the right side and went out through my cheek. I spat out several teeth; I felt the left side of my body growing numb, but I was still conscious and saw everything that was going on around me.

I witnessed other executions, lying there among the dead. More groups of men were led in. I heard cries, supplications, moaning, and shots. The bodies of these men fell on me. I was covered by four bodies. Then I again saw a group of women and children; thus it went on with group after group until late in the evening. It was already quite, quite dark when the executions stopped. In the intervals between the shootings the murderers walked on the corpses, kicked them, and turned them over, finishing off those who still gave any sign of life, and stealing valuables.

German soldiers too recorded wholesale executions in their diaries and correspondence; while the accounts above are all specifically attributable to the 5th of August, those that follow are undated snapshots of environment:

Policemen with rifles under their arms trudged along. All of the police from occupied Poland came together there to show off their bravery and also to enrich themselves on the side. I did not see this activity, but others did. They saw how these policemen executed those from the procession who could not keep up, those who were sick and lagging behind, and right in front of their compatriots. What was particularly troubling about this misery is that unlike in Russia what was occurring was not a matter of a completely poor, and in any event already moaning, mass of people; rather these were people of our own social class, women in fur coats, cute children who up until two days before had been fully cared for. This memory has always caused me anguish during my short stopovers in Warsaw: the look from so many hostile eyes, people of our culture, who knew exactly what I knew. For that reason I was always glad never to have been deployed in the West. And now I stood beside these people in bitter agony, and I was shocked.

Now we arrived at the command post of the SS-commander. There were two buses parked on the right side of the street. We reported to the SS-commander, a medium-built stringent man with a sharply chiseled face. With a cold glance at the procession of women and children that was passing no farther than 10 meters from us, he said, “You see, this is our biggest problem. These refugees! I don’t have enough ammunition to kill them all!” He said this quietly and with a remorseful shrug of the shoulders, this elegant officer with the Iron Cross and pleasant manners. Meanwhile tears fell down my cheeks. What kind of human being was he?

Hans Thieme

And another:

Before each daily operation I reported to the SS commander. During one visit I witnessed an event, which sickened me to my very core. The SS officer’s office was on the upper floor of a building and had a balcony that overlooked a large courtyard. The SS had lined up near a wall about 40 or so Polish men, women, and children of all ages. I distinctly recall a young woman holding hands with two small children. It was clear to me what was about to happen. I confronted the SS commander as to why these people were about to be shot. His reply was that they were being executed as a reprisal for the Germans that had been killed in the Uprising. He informed me that it was also none of my concern. Shortly, thereafter the hostages were shot before my eyes. I was disgusted by what I had witnessed and after 60 years later it still haunts me.

Eberhard Schmalz

And another:

I was setting explosives under big doors, somewhere in Old Town. From inside we heard Nicht schiessen! Nicht schiessen! (Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!). The doors opened and a nurse appeared with a tiny white flag. We went inside with fixed bayonets. A huge hall with beds and mattresses on the floor. Wounded were everywhere. Besides Poles there were also wounded Germans. They begged the SS-men not to kill the Poles. A Polish officer, a doctor and 15 Polish Red Cross nurses surrendered the military hospital to us. The Dirlewangerers were following us. I hid one of the nurses behind the doors and managed to lock them. I heard after the war that she has survived. The SS-men killed all the wounded. They were breaking their heads with rifle butts. The wounded Germans were screaming and crying in despair. After that, the Dirlewangerers ran after the nurses; they were ripping clothes off them. We were driven out for guard duty. We heard women screaming. In the evening, on Adolph Hitler’s Square [now Pilsudzki Square] there was a roar as loud as during boxing fights. So I and my friend climbed the wall to see what was happening there. Soldiers of all units: Wehrmacht, SS, Kaminski’s Cossacks, boys from Hitlerjugend; whistles, exhortations. Dirlewanger stood with his men and laughed. The nurses from the hospital were rushed through the square, naked with hands on their heads. Blood ran down their legs. The doctor was dragged behind them with a noose on his neck. He wore a rag, red maybe from blood and a thorn crown on top of the head. All were lead to the gallows where a few bodies were hanging already. When they were hanging one of the nurses, Dirlewanger kicked the bricks she was standing on.

Mathias Schenk

A much larger catalogue of atrocity accounts awaits at warsawuprising.org.

The massacre at Wola would run on to about the 13th at which point Bach-Zelewski abated the civilian massacre order as counterproductive: too many soldier-hours needed for focused bloodbaths were being squandered orchestrating gratuitous ones. Nevertheless, weeks of hard urban warfare lay ahead, and policy continued to embrace the summary execution of captured fighters and of all fighting-age men, resistance or no. Some 200,000 civilians are thought to have died during the Warsaw Uprising.

One legacy was eerily and unknowingly captured by a LIFE magazine photographer in 1948, of a young girl in a school for disturbed children in Poland. Her face a scramble of innocence and madness as it peers into the lens, she illustrates her “home” as an incoherent chalk vortex. It wasn’t known until many years after this photo became emblematic of a generation wracked by horror, but “Tereska” — Teresa Adwentowska — was an orphaned survivor of Wola.

* Per Bach-Zelewski’s evidence to the Nuremberg tribunal. By dint of cooperation, he saved his own life from the Nuremberg gallows.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Execution,Executions Survived,Germany,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1943: The massacre of Janowa Dolina

3 comments April 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1943, a Ukrainian militia massacred the Poles of the village of Janowa Dolina (Yanova Dolina).


Janowa Dolina in the 1930s. The village was a model settlement for workers at the nearby basalt quarry, jobs given at that time by official preferences to Poles. It was created in the 1920s, and featured an orderly plot with running water and electricity throughout.

In World War II, each theater of the war was unhappy in its own way. For the beautiful region of Volhynia long straddling the blood-soaked marches between Poland and Ukraine, it meant a ghastly local war under the umbrella of German occupation.

Mostly Polish in the interwar years, when Ukrainian residents chafed under “Polonization” policies, Volhynia had come fully under Soviet control when Berlin and Moscow carved up Poland in 1939, and then, of course, fully under German control in 1941. In these years of ash and bone, ethnic compositions in Volhynia were redrawn with every desperate ferocity nationalism could muster: pogroms visited neighbor upon neighbor, or ethnic cleansing visited state upon subject. It would be Ukrainian ultras positioned in the end to fantasize about ethnic purity by dint of their collaboration with the conquering Reich.

Come 1943, Poles comprised a shrinking minority in Volhynia. The prospect of purging this borderlands to cinch its place in a Ukrainian homeland made those Poles an inviting target for a campaign of ethnic slaughter that’s remembered now as the Volhynia or Volyn Massacres. And with the German defeat at Stalingrad and the Red Army’s advance on eastern Ukraine, Reich administration further west had become sufficiently distracted by more urgent priorities that genocidaires* perceived their moment to strike.

“We should undertake a great action of extermination of the Polish element,” thundered Dmytro Klyachkivsky, a commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), military organ of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B).** “As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment for liquidating the entire male population from the age of 16 up to 60 years. We cannot lose this battle, and it is necessary to diminish Polish forces at all costs. Forest villages and those near forests, should disappear from the face of the earth.”

Many specific atrocities, beginning in February 1943 and continuing well into 1944, comprise this liquidation drive.

The one of interest for this post is the invasion on the night of April 22-23 — the eve and morning of Good Friday — of Janowa Dolina, a predominantly Polish village where 600 were massacred by the UPA and the village put to the torch.†

This horror is commemorated by a monument at the site …


The 1990 monument commemorating Poles murdered by UPA. Here’s a closer view of the stone marker, and here’s the inscription on the adjacent cross.

… but there seems to be a slight difference of opinion: the event is also memorialized by a rival stone erected by Ukrainian nationalists which “gives glory to the Ukrainian heroes” of the UPA for “destroying the fortifications of the Polish-German occupiers.”‡


(Thanks to Sonechka for translation help.)

As anyone holding even passing familiarity with events in present-day Ukraine will surely know this is no mere historiographical quibble; the legacy of the OUN from World War II and of its descendants on the modern far right remain deeply contentious in and out of Ukraine.

* Poland officially (and to the dismay of Ukraine) considers this campaign a genocide. There’s also a Polish film on the horrors of Wolyn.

** The OUN split factionally; the “-B” suffix in this case stands for Stepan Bandera, leader of the most militant faction; his surname is still today a byword and/or slur (“Banderists”) for Ukrainian fascism. Its rival faction was the more moderate OUN-M, led by Andriy Melnyk.

† The territory became Ukrainian — which at the time meant Soviet — after World War II and remains so today, so Janowa Dolina is now the Ukrainian town of Bazaltove. There’s a Flickr album tour of the muddy mining village, including photos of the Polish monument and a separate marker for Soviet POWs, but not the UPA monument, here.

‡ The UPA stone also cites April 21-22 as the date. It appears to me, a distant non-specialist, that the Ukrainian construction on what adherents prefer to more neutrally describe as the “tragedy” of Janowa Valley spreads action over two days and emphasizes alleged guerrilla actions by the UPA against German occupation targets prior to destroying the village.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Put to the Sword,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1943: Dora Gerson, cabaret singer

1 comment February 14th, 2017 Headsman

Jewish cabaret singer and silent film actress Dora Gerson was gassed with her family at Auschwitz on this date in 1943.

IMDB credits the Berlin entertainer (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed German) with two silver screen roles,* both in 1920 and both now believed lost.**

Gerson’s cabaret career was the more robust through the roaring twenties but with benefit of retrospection we admit with Liza Minelli that from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay.

And the ominous next act would not belong to Weimar Jews.

After being elbowed off German stages by Reich race laws, Gerson recorded several songs in German and Yiddish; her “Vorbei” (“Beyond Recall”) hauntingly commemorates the lost world before fascism — “They’re gone beyond recall / A final glance, a last kiss / And then it’s all over.”

Gerson fled Nazi Germany to the Netherlands; once that country fell under its own harrowing wartime occupation, she tried to escape with her family to neutral Switzerland but was seized transiting Vichy France. Gerson, her second husband Max Sluizer, and their two young children Miriam (age 5) and Abel (age 2) were all deported to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival on Valentine’s Day 1943.

* Her first marriage was to film director Veit Harlan, who would later direct the notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film Jud Süß — based on an executed Jewish financier. From the German-occupied Netherlands, Gerson unsuccessfully appealed to this powerful ex for protection.

** Future horror maven Bela Lugosi also appeared in both Gerson films, Caravan of Death and On the Brink of Paradise. Gerson’s German Wikipedia page also identifies her as the voice of the evil queen in the 1938 German-language dub of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Germany,History,Jews,Mass Executions,Netherlands,No Formal Charge,Poland,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1963: Stanislaw Jaros, twice-failed assassin

Add comment January 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1963, Polish electrician Stanislaw Jaros (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) hanged for two assassination attempts on Polish premier Wladyslaw Gomulka.

A figure nearly forgotten outside of Poland and not well-known within, Jaros is mostly written about in Polish as the links in this post will attest. His affair was quietly handled at the time, and that has sufficed to consign him to obscurity even in the post-Communist Poland.

On December 3, 1961, with the First Secretary in the mining town of Zagorze for a St. Barbara’s Day coal mine ribbon-cutter, Jaros set off a homemade bomb concealed in a roadside pole or tree. Gomulka’s motorcade had already passed the spot, but the blast mortally injured one adult bystander, and wounded a child.

A rigorous police investigation captured him, and soon determined that Jaros had been bombing away in merry anonymity for many years — including a 1959 device placed to target Gomulka and visiting Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, which had failed to detonate. (That incident had been discovered, but hushed up to avoid antagonizing Moscow.)

Jaros professed an inchoate ideological motivation in the form of bitterness against the state police after he’d been brutalized when caught stealing bullets from a factory in the postwar years, but it is difficult to tell where principled anticommunism ends and pyromania begins.

After his release from prison, he returned to live with his mother, never marrying or holding steady employment. His occasional hobby was sabotaging state economic assets with his home-brew explosives. No person was ever injured by one of his mines until the second Gomulka bomb, but he did acknowledge that he certainly was trying to kill the head of state — inspired, he said, by reading about the plots to kill Hitler.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable for their Victims,Poland,Treason

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1946: Gen. Leopold Okulicki murdered in Soviet prison

1 comment December 24th, 2015 Headsman

The fate of the last Commander in Chief of Home Army General Leopold Okulicki “Niedzwiadka”, imprisoned in Moscow and murdered there, symbolize the postwar fate of the Home Army and of Poland.

-2012 resolution of the Polish parliament

On this date in 1946, Polish Home Army General Leopold Okulicki was murdered by the NKVD in a Moscow prison.

Okulicki (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Polish) embarked his military career at the tender age of 16, when he ditched school in favor of an Austrian legion on the eastern front of World War I — then segued directly into newly independent Poland‘s subsequent war against the Soviets.

Already a veteran soldier, Okulicki proceeded to the Warsaw military academy and made soldiering his career. He had advanced to the brass by the time Hitler and Stalin destroyed Poland in 1939. Okulicki had the tragic honor to maintain the hopeless defense of Warsaw, but went underground thereafter with the remains of the Polish state — hunted by Germans and Soviets alike.

The NKVD caught him in January 1941, but his residence in the discomfiting environs of Lubyanka prison was ended by the Soviet Union’s arrangement with Poland following Operation Barbarossa. Paroled back into the field, he played a leading part for the Polish Home Army for the balance of the war — finally becoming its supreme commander in the last weeks of the war.

Now that the Nazis were no longer knocking on the gates of Moscow, the Soviets renewed their interest in detaining Okulicki, which was again effected with relative ease. (Comparing German and Soviet secret police, Okulicki would say that the NKVD made the Gestapo look like child’s play.) Sentenced “only” to a 10-year prison term at the Russians’ postwar show trial of Polish leadership, Okulicki disappeared into Soviet detention and was never seen again.

In the Khrushchev era, the USSR revealed that Okulicki had died on Christmas eve of 1946 at Butyrka prison; subsequent revelations of the medical records there revealed that he had succumbed to organ damage suggestive of having been beaten to death — perhaps as punishment for hunger-striking.

The post-Communist Russian state has posthumously exonerated Okulicki of his show-trial conviction; he is, of course, an honored figure in post-Communist Poland where many streets and squares bear his name.


Plaque honoring Gen. Okulicki in Warsaw. (cc) image from Tadeusz Rudzki.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,USSR

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1591: Elisabeth von Doberschütz, Stettin witch

Add comment December 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Elisabeth von Doberschütz was beheaded at Stettin (Szczecin) as a witch.

Elisabeth (English Wikipedia entry | German), whose husband Melchior was a lesser son of a minor noble house and (since his tiny patrimony did not afford him the ease of the great aristocrat) a somewhat favored captain of the Duke of Pomerania, was accused a sorceress on the grounds that a draught she had concoted for the duchess some years before when the latter was abed following a miscarriage had rendered the lady permanently infertile. Rumors to the effect that Elisabeth’s potionmaking ran wider still completed the customary witches’ brew.

Elisabeth being a person of consequence and not some spinster midwife or family of beggars, it is typically supposed that the “real” cause of her execution can ultimately be found in rivalries among the elites: calumnies loosed abroad by Melchior’s rivals dating from the early 1580s in a (successful) campaign to separate him from a lucrative appointment to govern Neustettin. It was under Melchior’s successor in that post that Elisabeth was ultimately brought to trial.

Melchior was not caught up in the accusation. He married another woman in 1600, then faded out of history’s annals.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Nobility,Poland,Public Executions,Women

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1939: Operation Tannenberg public mass executions begin

Add comment October 20th, 2015 Headsman

This photo (from the German Bundesarchiv) captures an SS execution of Poles in Kornik just weeks into the German occupation of Poland in 1939, fruit of a pre-planned Nazi project to secure the new territory as lebensraum.

Operation Tannenberg (English Wikipedia entry | German | Polish) could be seen as a vanguard for the mind-boggling exterminations to come in subsequent years, cementing the army’s commitment to a campaign that extended well beyond territorial conquest. Alexander Rossino examines this understudied segment of World War II in Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity and contends that “the unlimited, almost nihilistic violence of the Wehrmacht” emerges first in these initial weeks of the Polish campaign, which proved a “transitional conflict” pivoting towards the more notorious atrocities to come. “The invasion of Poland thus occupies a crucial place in the history of Nazi Germany’s descent into mass murder and genocide.”

Drawn up by Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich and officially authorized on August 25, a week before Germany invaded Poland, Tannenberg intended to destroy Poland’s elites — from intelligentsia and nobility down to community priests and teachers, and the politically active across the spectrum from Communist to monarchist. The hope was to leave the subject nation supine, incapable of challenging Berlin’s designs on her future. Estimates I have seen vary widely but tens of thousands of Poles (with a liberal portion of Polish Jews) were shot by SS Einsatzgruppen units under Tannenberg even by the end of 1939, and kilings continued apace thereafter. Though not the literal first Operation Tannenberg Killings, the October 20-23 period marked the first public mass executions; a Polish-language list of the incidents and victims involved is available here.

The very name Tannenberg is a nationalist allusion to Germany’s time-immemorial rivalry with Poland; the original Battle of Tannenberg saw the rising Polish-Lithuanian empire defeat the Teutonic Knights, essentially breaking the latter as a European power. This defeat resonated in 20th century German national mythology not unlike the Battle of Kosovo for Serbia; in 1914, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg made himself a household name by smashing the Russians in a battle vaguely in the vicinity, and cannily christened it, too, the Battle of Tannenberg. (The Germans put up a monument to it which they felt obliged to tear down later in the war as they were being driven out of Poland.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Public Executions,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1638: Stepan Ostryanin, Cossack hetman

Add comment October 14th, 2015 Headsman

(Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for research, translation, and background information touching this post. -ed.)

October 14 (October 1 O.S.) is a liturgical feast celebrating the protective intercession of the Virgin Mary, a date of particular significance in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos [i.e., Mary] on the Moat, just one of many Orthodox churches so named.

Also known as Pokrov — a quaint Slavic term for covering, denoting safeguarding — the holiday celebrates an incident from 10th century Byzantium when a saint beheld Mary descend through the dome of the church, then spread her garment protectively over the entire congregation.

It is of special significance in Ukraine where the ecclesiastical celebration pulls double duty as the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. And it is in honor of Pokrov that we dedicate this post.


17th century icon of the Madonna’s broad cloak protecting Ukrainians.

On an unspecified date in 1638, a Cossack named Ostryanin was broken on the wheel in Warsaw … maybe.

The Ostryanin Uprising of 1638 was one of the ongoing cycle of Cossack disturbances in the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire — modern-day Ukraine. Like many of these, it was a short-lived affair considered on its own, but the pattern of disaffected Cossacks struggling against the Polish crown for some combination of recognition, largesse, and autonomy was an ongoing pattern in the 17th century — and by the 1650s it would begin tearing apart the formerly mighty Polish-Lithuanian realm and transferring Ukrainian territory from Polish to Russian domination.

Tradition held that after the rising was stamped out in the summer of 1638, Stepan Ostryanin himself was treacherously seized and taken to Warsaw for execution. A late 18th century chronicle* of a distinctly patriotic bent called Istoriya Russov embroiders upon that death by breaking-wheel with racist gusto:

in accord with their treachery, insidious and duplicitous, having learned through their Jew spies that hetman Ostryanin’s would travel unguarded … the Lyakhs [term for “Poles”; it’s derogatory in present-day Russian but may have been less so at the time -ed.] surrounded him in Kanev monastery with a host of men. They, having tied the hetman and his men, altogether thirty seven people, … prepared an execution for them in Warsaw unprecedented in its cruelty, which posterity will scarcely believe to be true, because it would not occur to even the most barbarous and ferocious Japanese (!) and the reality of which would terrify the very beasts and monsters.

On the other hand, a Cossack named Yakiv Ostryanin was to be found on Russian soil in the subsequent years, until he was murdered in 1641. Some historians think that he was the very same namesake Cossack rebel escaped from Polish vengeance, and the story about him being broken on the wheel in Poland is pure sentimental folklore; alternatively, Stepan and Yakiv might have just been two different Cossacks named Ostryanin who met two different fates.

Quite a difference for our supposed Stepan Ostryanin, but a minor mystery from this distance in time. Nevertheless, our man, whoever he was, had a posthumous contribution yet to make to the letters of his Slavic brethren.

Polish historian Szymon Okolski rode along with the Polish commander Mikolaj Potocki in Potocki’s successful campaign of the spring-summer 1638 to suppress this rebellion. Okolski’s field diaries of the campaign are a key historical source on the Cossacks and are thought to have been used extensively by the Cossack-descended writer Nikolai Gogol in composing his short story Taras Bulba.

A product of Gogol’s youth, Taras Bulba has a rough romanticism — and a romanticism for the Cossack (read: national Ukrainian) cause specifically that nonplussed Russian authorities at the time. (And probably now, too.)

Taras Bulba‘s title character is a mature Cossack patriot who with his two sons joins the Cossack risings against Poland. Its location in time is indeterminate, not unlike the unending cycle of risings themselves. Taras Bulba is a nearly eternal character, almost a fixture of nature, because his war seemed eternal too.

And of course it contains some cracking execution scenes. The execution by breaking-wheel of Taras Bulba’s son might have been inspired by the Istoriya Russov‘s outraged account of that full Japanese barbarism. The excerpt below hails from this public-domain English translation.


Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. Grief overpowered him. He pulled off and tore in pieces the bandages from his wounds, and threw them far from him; he tried to say something, but only articulated some incoherent words. Fever and delirium seized upon him afresh, and he uttered wild and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood beside him, scolding and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him without stint. Finally, he seized him by the arms and legs, wrapped him up like a child, arranged all his bandages, rolled him in an ox-hide, bound him with bast, and, fastening him with ropes to his saddle, rode with him again at full speed along the road.

“I’ll get you there, even if it be not alive! I will not abandon your body for the Lyakhs to make merry over you, and cut your body in twain and fling it into the water. Let the eagle tear out your eyes if it must be so; but let it be our eagle of the steppe and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I will bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraine!”

Thus spoke his faithful companion. He rode without drawing rein, day and night, and brought Taras still insensible into the Zaporozhian Setch itself. There he undertook to cure him, with unswerving care, by the aid of herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilled Jewess, who made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at length he improved. Whether it was owing to the medicine or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at all events, in six weeks he was on his feet. His wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how deeply injured the old Cossack had been. But he was markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles engraved themselves upon his brow and never more departed thence. Then he looked around him. All was new in the Setch; all his old companions were dead. Not one was left of those who had stood up for the right, for faith and brotherhood. And those who had gone forth with the Koschevoi in pursuit of the Tatars, they also had long since disappeared. All had perished. One had lost his head in battle; another had died for lack of food, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had fallen in captivity and been unable to survive the disgrace. Their former Koschevoi was no longer living, nor any of his old companions, and the grass was growing over those once alert with power. He felt as one who had given a feast, a great noisy feast. All the dishes had been smashed in pieces; not a drop of wine was left anywhere; the guests and servants had all stolen valuable cups and platters; and he, like the master of the house, stood sadly thinking that it would have been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired guitar-players come by twos and threes to glorify his Cossack deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, with inappeasable grief printed on his stolid face; and said softly, as he drooped his head, “My son, my Ostap!”

The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were thronging thither from all quarters. In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of their bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. “Ah, what tortures!” many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk’s heads, to get a better view. Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as “Gossip,” because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses. In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya, and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word. “All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,” he said, “have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will despatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will still be alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.” Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.

The upper stories of the houses were filled with people. From the windows in the roof peered strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath shady awnings, sat the aristocracy. The hands of smiling young ladies, brilliant as white sugar, rested on the railings. Portly nobles looked on with dignity. Servants in rich garb, with flowing sleeves, handed round various refreshments. Sometimes a black-eyed young rogue would take her cake or fruit and fling it among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The crowd of hungry gentles held up their caps to receive it; and some tall noble, whose head rose amid the throng, with his faded red jacket and discoloured gold braid, and who was the first to catch it with the aid of his long arms, would kiss his booty, press it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. The hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a golden cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and with one foot raised, he, too, watched the people attentively. But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread, “They are coming! they are coming! the Cossacks!”

They were bare-headed, with their long locks floating in the air. Their beards had grown, and their once handsome garments were worn out, and hung about them in tatters. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain pride, neither looking at nor bowing to the people. At the head of all came Ostap.

What were old Taras’s feelings when thus he beheld his Ostap? What filled his heart then? He gazed at him from amid the crowd, and lost not a single movement of his. They reached the place of execution. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: “God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, the unclean dogs, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word.” After this he ascended the scaffold.

“Well done, son! well done!” said Bulba, softly, and bent his grey head.

The executioner tore off his old rags; they fastened his hands and feet in stocks prepared expressly, and—We will not pain the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the outcome of that coarse, wild age, when men still led a life of warfare which hardened their souls until no sense of humanity was left in them. In vain did some, not many, in that age make a stand against such terrible measures. In vain did the king and many nobles, enlightened in mind and spirit, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could but fan the flame of vengeance in the Cossack nation. But the power of the king, and the opinion of the wise, was as nothing before the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom, who, by their thoughtlessness and unconquerable lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and miserable pride, converted the Diet into the mockery of a government. Ostap endured the torture like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan, was heard. Even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when, amid the death-like stillness of the crowd, the horrible cracking was audible to the most distant spectators; when even his tormentors turned aside their eyes, nothing like a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; and, raising his eyes proudly at that moment, he said, approvingly, “Well done, boy! well done!”

But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were failing. He cast his eyes around.

O God! all strangers, all unknown faces! If only some of his relatives had been present at his death! He would not have cared to hear the sobs and anguish of his poor, weak mother, nor the unreasoning cries of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast; but he would have liked to see a strong man who might refresh him with a word of wisdom, and cheer his end. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the weakness of his soul, “Father! where are you? do you hear?”

“I hear!” rang through the universal silence, and those thousands of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of cavalry hastened to search through the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen had got within a short distance of him, turned round in terror to look for Taras; but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.


Despite his cunning escape on this occasion, Taras Bulba himself is also in the end put to death: the story ends with him going to the stake as his soul summons the brethren he can still see in the distance to resume the fight, again and again.


[A] band of Lyakhs suddenly rushed up, and seized him by the shoulders. He struggled with all might; but he could not scatter on the earth, as he had been wont to do, the heydukes who had seized him. “Oh, old age, old age!” he exclaimed: and the stout old Cossack wept. But his age was not to blame: nearly thirty men were clinging to his arms and legs.

“The raven is caught!” yelled the Lyakhs. “We must think how we can show him the most honour, the dog!” They decided, with the permission of the hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of all. There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot. But Taras did not look at the wood, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to roast him: he gazed anxiously in the direction whence his Cossacks were firing. From his high point of observation he could see everything as in the palm of his hand.

“Farewell, comrades!” he shouted to them from above; “remember me, and come hither again next spring and make merry in the same fashion! What! cursed Lyakhs, have ye caught me? Think ye there is anything in the world that a Cossack fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A czar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!” But fire had already risen from the fagots; it lapped his feet, and the flame spread to the tree…. But can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?

Broad is the river Dniester, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, clear shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams, filled with the melodious plaint of the swan, the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and snipe, red-throated ruffs, and other birds are to be found among the reeds and along the banks. The Cossacks rowed swiftly on in the narrow double-ruddered boats—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the sand bars, and cleaving the ranks of the birds, which took wing—rowed, and talked of their hetman.

* The Istoriya Russov had a great influence on young writers in the early 19th century. The text can be read as advancing a nationalism of all the Russias, or as speaking in a more specifically Ukrainian voice. See The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Russia,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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