Posts filed under 'Russia'

1942: The Jews of Trunovskoye

Add comment October 18th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, one year and four months after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, almost all of the Jews in the village of Trunovskoye in rural Russia were murdered and buried in a mass grave a few kilometers outside the town limits.

Several months later, after the Red Army had liberated the area, they had the locals disinter and re-bury the bodies.

This mass execution is somewhat unusual in that it didn’t happen via bullets, as at Babi Yar and many other places in the occupied Soviet Union, but via a mobile gassing chamber or gas van. These relatively primitive machines were actually invented by the Soviets and used by them as a form of execution before being adopted by the Nazis after the psychological impact of mass shootings was deemed too stressful on the perpetrators.

The gas vans had airtight compartments which could hold between 30 and 100 victims each. People were shoved inside and gassed with carbon monoxide until they died of suffocation. Gas vans were initially used by the Nazis’ mobile killing squads and at Chelmno, the first of the extermination camps. But they were slow and inefficient, and the screams of the dying disturbed and distressed those driving the vehicles. In time they were replaced by gas chambers, which could kill people more quickly and cleanly.

What we know about the mass murder in Trunovskoye comes from a letter written by sixteen-year-old Anna “Nyura” Rabinovits in 1943. She was one of the only Jewish survivors from the area; she lost most of her family. Originally from Kishinev (Chisinau), she was evacuated with her family to Trunovskoye in the summer of 1942.

After liberation, in January 1943, she wrote to Moshe “Misha” Shapira, a relative by marriage, to tell him of what had happened. Her letter, translated from the Russian, eventually found its way into the Yad Vashem archives and was published in the anthology After So Much Pain and Anguish: First Letters After Liberation, edited by Robert Rozett and Iael Nidam-Orvieto.

The letter is worth quoting in full, with paragraphs added for clarity. Note that Nyura twice erroneously cites the date “October 18, 1943″; the murders occurred on October 18, 1942. She also refers to the village of Trunovskoye as “Trunkova”.

Book CoverDear Aunt Liza and Uncle Misha,

Yesterday I received Misha’s postcard and today I received yours. As you can see, I’m rushing to respond. I am going to tell you about the end that befell our dear ones. I cannot understand how some of our people are till alive.

We were still living in Trunovka when the Nazis came. We were all evacuated along with the Grinberg family. Yevochka had a child, a boy who was one year old. What an end befell him! The Nazis caught us and made us return, but we did not return to the place where we had lived but stopped here, where I live now, 20 km from Trunovka. We lived here for two months under the Nazis and all of us worked on the kolkhoz. We lived in separate apartments but I went to work every day together with Yevochka and Adochka. Boris Isayevich was sick but when he recovered, he too went to work on the pig farm. Our only grandmother and Maria Naumovna remained at home. Yevochka’s grandmother had died back in Trunovka, after several days of a severe illness.

When we had been here for over a month, an order was issued for all the Jews to be registered. Then, several days later, a murder squad arrived and we were all ordered to appear at the commandant’s office with our belongings. We took our stuff and went. Two cars had arrived from Voroshilovsk [a short-lived Bolshevik name for the city that was reverted to Stavropol in 1943 -ed.] with six Germans. We were called into a room, each family separately, to be registered. Afterwards, they said, “Take your things and go home. When we need you, we will find you.” We were all very happy. We returned home and continued to work on the kolkhoz. The kolkhoz had sent me to work at the kolkhoz office.

On October 18, 1943, the murder squad returned. Our landlady said,

I myself did not see it. A cart with policemen arrived and ordered them to put all their things on the cart. Grandmother and Adochka were at home. They took everything and went to the Grinbergs, where they took Yevochka and her child and Marya Naumovna and all their things as well, and got onto the cart. They were taken to the police station, where there already 55 people. Dad and Boris Isayevich were out in the steppe, but they were brought in from there. [?] ordered them to take off their clothes and brought a truck to the door of the barn and told them to get in the truck, but they resisted. They cried and shouted, so the Germans started beating them with whips and pushed them into the truck. They left six men to have someone to bury them. The truck was made of iron and closed in. At first, when they got in, they shouted, but when the doors were closed, all the voices gradually became silent. They were taken two km from the village and then thrown like dogs into a pit, where they lay one on top of the other. People told me all this, but I didn’t believe it at the time. I hope that they might be alive and that I would yet hear something about them. But a long time passed and I heard nothing from them.


A section of Nyura’s original letter (click for larger image).

The Nazis retreated and the Red Army came and liberated us from those monsters. And on April 2, 1943, it was my lot to see a scene that I will not forget as long as I live. I suffered much after this. An order was given to take people from every kolkhoz to dig a mass grave. I was at the administration office and only heard about it on the morning of the second day when I went to look for the grave of my dear ones. I didn’t know exactly where they were buried and I didn’t know that we would be digging a grave. It was like someone said to me: “Just go ahead down that road.”

On the road I met many people from whom I found out that they were going to bury the Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis. When I heard this, I began crying, but then the superiors, including a head of the district executive, started chasing me away and wouldn’t let me come to the grave, but at this point I did not pay attention but kept going. People showed me exactly where the place of the grave was; it could be seen. When I arrived, I could see [parts of bodies] covered with earth: [?] hands, legs and heads. I cried a lot and when people came to move them, I had already calmed down and was able to do this. A huge grave was dug for them not far from there and they were placed in a line close to each other, and then they were covered with earth. When we started taking them out, on the top were lying [the bodies of] the men who had probably covered them with earth and then, themselves, had been shot with machine guns. Can you picture Dad having covered [the body of] his daughter Adochka knowing the end that was awaiting him?

Their faces had all decomposed. Only the bodies and the hair remained. For that reason I couldn’t be sure about identifying them, but I believe I recognized Yevochka and the child in Maria Naumovna’s arms. I also found Dad, Grandma and Adochka. I carried them myself on a stretcher to the new grave. People said that the Germans had killed them with gas, that those trucks had a special apparatus for poison gas to kill people … The best possessions had been taken while the rest had been divided among the kolkhoz members.

Now I will tell you how I survived. That should be of interest to you. Nevertheless, I cursed my fate many times for having survived under those circumstances. It was so hard for me to survive all alone among strangers. When they [our family members] were taken, I was at the kolkhoz office. I arrived on Saturday and we had the day off. I entered the [family’s] room. It was empty. There was no one there. The landlady told me they had been taken away.

I ran straight to the police and said to them, “Whatever you did to my people, do it to me too. I have nothing to live for.” They put me in jail, where I remained for about two hours until a German [?] truck came and they took me out of the jail. The German started swearing and forced me with a strap to get into the truck. There were two other girls my age in the truck. They [the Germans] said that they were going to take us a few kilometers from there and shoot us on the way and throw out [our bodies]. There were many things in the truck, including some of our belongings I recognized. However, the truck took us to a nearby village 12 kilometers away. There they asked for my documents, but Dad had my passport [i.e. identity card where ethnicity was indicated]. I had no documents at all, so I said that my mother was Russian and my father — Jewish.

They let us go and wrote to the local authorities not to bother us, me and the other two girls, anymore. But a month later, when the Jews were taken from this nearby village, they took us too. I could see them being taken and pushed into a truck but they let us go and gave us German documents stating we were not Jewish. I remained alone in an unfamiliar place, where I didn’t know anyone, with absolutely nothing, with no bread for the winter, and I had to go barefoot in the snow. I worked at [?], ate boiled wheat, I didn’t see any bread … Can you imagine, Aunt Liza, what I went through? I wept for my dear ones. I regretted that I was alive.

Now I work as an accountant at a transportation office. The food is not bad. There is as much bread as I want. The kolkhoz allotted me a hundred kilograms of wheat and I got myself some clothes. I bought myself a skirt, a blouse and a sheet, from which I am going to make four blouses for myself. In the course of the whole year, I amassed 450 “working days” but they give [?] bread. My brother Lyova sent me 800 rubles, but I have not yet bought anything with them. This winter, I think life will be easy for me.

I have written everything in detail, as you asked me to do. With this letter, I am responding to your postcard and to [Uncle] Misha’s letter. I am grateful to you for having written to me and for your having found out that some of our relatives are still alive. I get letters frequently from Lyova. He’s at the front now. Write me how you are, where your Lyova is and what Sarochka does for a living. Write me whether you have heard anything from Grisha or Fima. Write everything in detail.

The letter you sent took 20 days to reach me, while I expect you will receive mine by the anniversary of the murder of the members of our family, which took place on October 18, 1943, at 11 o’clock in the morning. What a tragic fate our family has had! I will visit their grave on that anniversary. By now, at the time that I am writing to you, I have been accustomed to the idea that they are gone. I don’t shed as many tears as I used to. Before, wherever I went, whatever I did, I saw them, lying there dead, and the tears in my eyes never ceased. I have now finished writing.

Goodbye. Kisses to you and warm embraces to Misha and Sara.

Write a lot, please!
Nyura

Little is known about Nyura; the Shapira family lost touch with her after the war. She ultimately married a man named Goncharov and returned to Kishinev. She was still living there as of 2009, when she submitted pages of testimony for her murdered sister, father and grandmother to Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.

As far as is known, there is no memorial at Trunovskoye for the Jews who died there.

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1815: St. Peter the Aleut, the martyr of San Francisco

Add comment September 24th, 2017 Headsman

September 24 is the feast date in the Orthodox Christian tradition of Peter the Aleut.

As one might infer from his sobriquet, Peter the Aleut* — Chukagnak, to call him by the name of his birth — was a North American indigene whose canonization story features cultural collision all the way down.

Originally from Kodiak Island, Peter’s soul was won for Christ via the Russian Empire’s eastward expansion across the Bering Strait to Alaska.

Come the early 19th century the Russian-American Company that was Moscow’s chartered vehicle in the colonization game had pressed south seeking more favorable climes** with a fort in northern California supplying a network of outposts that stretched far south as Bodega Bay,† near the present-day San Francisco area.

Russia’s southerly excursions would collide with Spanish exploration pressing north: in their intersection lies the context for Peter the Aleut’s martyrdom.

The story in a nutshell is that a party of Alaskan natives in California under Russian colors was caught out hunting seals or otters by Spanish soldiers who took them captive. Peter and another Alaskan native convert called Ivan Kiglay were eventually left imprisoned together in a Spanish mission and ordered to convert to Catholicism on pain of death. When they refused, Peter was indeed slain — horribly tortured to death by having his extremities cut away while living, before finally being disemboweled.

Ivan Kiglay is the eyewitness source of this information, spared from sharing Peter’s chalice for unclear reasons. The blog OrthodoxHistory.org has done yeoman coverage of this controversial event or “event” and its overview post “Is the St. Peter the Aleut Story True?” is well worth exploring.‡ In 2011, the same site posted a rare English translation of the original Russian-language Ivan Kiglay deposition, excerpted (lightly tidied) below:

Missioners and the leader of the named above mission (whose name he does not remember) made a request to all the Kodiak dwellers to convert to the Catholic religion, to which they replied that they have already converted to a Christian religion on Kodiak, and they do not want to convert to any other religion. In a short time, Tarasov and other Kodiak dwellers [i.e., all the other Alaskans] were transferred to Saint Barbara. Though he (Kiglay Ivan) and wounded Chukagnak, were left in the mentioned mission, were kept with Indian criminals in the prison for several days, without food and water.

[One night] the chief of the mission brought the order to convert but they did not comply, despite the critical situation that they faced. On the sunrise of the next day a religious clerk came to the prison, accompanied by betrayed Indians, and called them out of the prison; Indians surrounded them, and by order started to cut (chop) Chukagnak’s fingers by articulations, from both hands and [after that] arms, and in the end cut his stomach (abdomen), by that time, he was already dead. That should have happened also to Kiglay, but at that time to the priest was brought a paper (he does not know from where and from whom). After reading that, [the priest] ordered to bury the body of the dead Chukagnak from Kasguiatskovo in the same place, and he [Kiglay] was sent back to prison.

Ivan Kiglay himself only delivered this information in 1819, four years after the alleged events, because he had ultimately to escape from a period of Spanish enslavement. In 1820 the Russian-American Company official Symeon Ivanovich Yanovsky forwarded the same report to a monastery in the motherland along with his endorsement of Ivan’s credibility (“He is not the type who could think up things”).

Unless you’re cocking an eyebrow at the convenient and mysterious last-second reprieve, there’s no particular reason to doubt the sincerity of the original deposition or of Yanovsky as interlocutor. However, there’s also no apparent corroboration of the incident known from Catholic records and the forced conversion backed by such an outlandish murder seems at odds with Spanish behavior on this particular frontier. A much later sentimental embroidery by Yanovsky from 1865 blurs the Peter story into outright hagiography. The documentary trail is so thin and questionable that everything about Peter the Aleut down to his actual existence has been hotly debated since.

Russia’s probes of California came to naught, of course — and Spain’s too for that matter, considering the Mexican War of Independence already in progress in this decade. All this land, and Alaska too, were marked for a different empire rising on the far side of the continent … and Russia’s Alaskan evangels would not in the end extend the Third Rome into the New World, but instead form the germ of the Orthodox Church in America. Today, St. Peter the Aleut is honored by Orthodox communities throughout the United States as the “martyr of San Francisco” (although this proximity for the martyrdom is also uncertain).


Shrine to Peter the Aleut in Kodiak, Alaska. (cc) image by Jesuit anthropologist Raymond Bucko, SJ.

* The descriptor “Aleut” was applied indiscriminately here, but by now it has the blessing of tradition. A more discriminating ethnography would reckon Peter and his Kodiak origins not an Aleut (from the Aleutian Islands) but an Alutiiq.

** Apart from the events narrated in this post, the Russian-American Company also dropped a fortress on Hawaii and even attempted an ill-considered takeover.

† Arriving there long before Alfred Hitchcock.

Our grim site does not pretend an opinion on whether and how religions ought to enshrine their saints … but for those curious about how St. Peter’s questionable historicity plays vis-a-vis his canonization, OrthodoxHistory.org has you covered.

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1941: Sheyna Gram and the Jews of Preili

Add comment August 9th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, less than two months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, fifteen-year-old Sheyna Gram and her parents and younger brother were murdered, together with approximately 1,500 Jewish people from the town of Preili in the occupied Latvian SSR. Nearly the entire Jewish population of Preili was wiped out by the ever-diligent Einsatzgruppen.

During World War II the Nazi death squads moved from town to town in Poland and Eastern Europe. They had one job and they performed it very well, slaughtering Jews and other “undesirables” by their thousands, most notably at Babi Yar outside of Kiev in Ukraine, where 33,771 people were killed in two days.

Preili, one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Latvia, was a much smaller community than Kiev; when the German invasion began, it had a population of less than two thousand, around half of whom were Jewish.

Latvia as a whole had a prewar Jewish population of just under 100,000. Only a few thousand of them survived, mostly those who were evacuated deep into Soviet territory and beyond the reach of the Wehrmacht. Of all the Jews in Preili, only six survived the war.

Preili was no different than any of the other Soviet Jewish communities wiped out in the Holocaust, but we know details about what happened there because Sheyna Gram left a diary behind. She chronicled the day-to-day events of the German occupation from June 22, the day the Nazis invaded the USSR, until August 8, the day before she and her family were killed.

Shortly after the war, noted Soviet journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman traveled all around the USSR, interviewing people and collecting eyewitness testimonies, letters, diaries, and other documents to bear witness to the Soviet Jewish experience during the German occupation. The result, titled The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, was the first major documentary work on the Holocaust. However, it wasn’t actually published until 1993, and even then it was nowhere near “complete.” In 2008, Indiana University Press translated and published The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories, which consists of accounts and documents that didn’t make it into the first Black Book; the second book is nearly as long as the first.

Among the documents included in the second volume is Sheyna Gram’s diary, translated from Yiddish. It somehow survived the war even though its author had not, and even seventy-plus years later, Sheyna has not been forgotten. Several books about the Holocaust in Latvia have referenced her diary, comparing its writer to Anne Frank, and at least one play based on the diary was performed in Latvia in around 2012.

Per The Unknown Black Book, the Gram family consisted of Itzik, a 60-year-old tailor, his 52-year-old wife, and their four children: sons Gutman, 18, and Leyba, 12, and daughters Freya, 20, and Sheyna. Evidence in the diary suggests they were not a particularly observant Jewish family.

The Unknown Black Book reports that Gutman survived the war, serving in the Red Army, but Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims has a page of testimony for him stating he was killed in military service. Although Mrs. Gram is unnamed in The Unknown Black Book, a search of the Database of Shoah Victims turns up a Sara Gram née Zangvil who lived in Preili and was the right age. The same person, Shmuel Latvinskiy, submitted Sara and Gutman Gram’s testimonies, and Sheyna’s as well; he names himself as Sara Gram’s nephew, Gutman’s cousin, and Sheyna’s relative, making it all but certain that Sara Gram was Sheyna’s mother.

What little information is available about Sheyna indicates she was an ordinary enough teenager. She was a good student, “an intelligent girl of good spiritual development,” and had just finished the sixth grade at school when war broke out. She started her diary that very day with a few sentences, and wrote entries regularly until her death:

June 22. At twelve o’clock, the radio announced, “Germany has declared war on the USSR. At four o’clock this morning, German aircraft bombed several Russian cities.”

Toward evening, I went to Ribenishki [seven kilometers from Preili]. I sit by the radio all the time until midnight. They tell you how to protect yourself from an air raid.

The next day, Sheyna recorded that Daugavpils* had been bombed and “a state of siege has been declared.” Wanting to do her part to help with the war effort, she signed herself up for first aid lessons. “New people are coming into town all the time,” she wrote. “Each person has something new to report. The Germans are successfully advancing.” Over the following days there was an 8:00 p.m. curfew and various new rules: radios were confiscated, freedom of assembly was curtailed, and windows had to be covered.

By July 2, the Germans had arrived in Preili. The following day Sheyna wrote,

The first day went quietly. On the second day, the Germans smashed the shops and looted everything. They broke into the synagogue, hauled out the Torah scrolls, and trampled on them. In other streets, they go on various sorts of rampages. […] We are living in a state of great fear. Many Germans have stopped in our town. There are some proper gentlemen among them as well. They keep on reassuring us that they are not going to touch the workers. A decree is published that Jews and Russians do not have the right to fly their national flags. Walking on the street is permitted until 10:00 p.m., but no one dares poke their head out the door.

As per standard operating procedure, the Nazis ordered Jews to wear a six-pointed yellow star, “twelve centimeters wide and long. Men are to wear it on their backs, their chests, and their legs, just above the knee. Women will wear them on their chests and on their backs.” For the rest of the month, Jews were regularly rounded up for forced labor. Sheyna was assigned to a work party cutting peat; roll call was at five in the morning and work didn’t stop until 7:00 p.m.

Except when she was working, she didn’t leave home. She whiled away the empty hours sleeping, studying Russian, reading back issues of the Jewish magazine Yidishe bilder, and writing in her diary.

On July 27, she wrote:

This is a bloody Sunday for the Latvian Jewish people.

Morning. All the Jews in Dvinskaya Street are ordered to put on their best clothes, take some provisions with them, and go out into the street. Searches of the homes are carried out. At twelve o’clock, all the Jews are herded into the synagogue. One group of young Jews is sent to dig graves behind the cemetery. Then the Jews of two more streets are driven into the synagogue.

It is 3:30 in the afternoon. All the Jews are chased out beyond the cemetery and shot there. All 250 Jews: men, women, and children.

This is terrible. We did not expect things to end this way. The handful of survivors expects death at any moment.

Iossif Rotchko’s untranslated book about the Holocaust in Latvia describes in detail what happened that terrible day. According to his account, the killers were not German but Latvian, local collaborators, and he names names:

The unfortunate [Jews] were ordered to stop at a stone quarry. They were ordered to take off their clothes and remain in underclothes, then they were led to the edge of the pit by groups of 8-10 persons. The executioners killed them by firing at their backs, as if they were afraid to look in their eyes a final time. After all, they were neighbors. The killers were conducted to the killing ground by carts driven by the farmers I. Prikulis, J. Litaunieks, as well as others…

Whomever the perpetrators were, this was the first such massacre Sheyna was personally affected by, although she’d probably heard rumors of others. One of her friends had been among the victims, and she was understandably terrified. “We look at each other,” she wrote, “and are amazed that we are still alive.”

On July 30, she reported that the Germans had said “they are not going to touch the Jews again. They are satisfied with the 250.” She was skeptical, however, writing the next day:

Every day there are new persecutions, and there is no end in sight. We have lived this long, but we do not know whether or not we will manage to survive. They send Jewish girls to clean freed-up Jewish apartments for those who have been killing them. They do not take me. But when they clean out the apartment of my murdered friend Mery Plagova, which they are preparing for a police officer, I go. I gather up her photos and keep them with me. I cannot believe that my friends the Plagovas are dead.

The Jewish holiday of Tisha B’av on August 3 found the young diarist still contemplative.

I have never fasted on this day or ever fasted at all. Today, however, a week after the great catastrophe, after that bloody Sunday, when so many innocent victims fell, I have decided, keeping it a secret from the authorities, of course, to fast the entire day. At 1:30, they come to see me and register me for the peat work. Mama orders me to eat something, otherwise I will not be able to work. I obey her. Then they change the list and send my little brother instead of me.

Three days later the Gram family was ordered out of their apartment, but “there are no apartments to move to. It is as though we are living up in the air … Yet another commission comes and decides that we can stay where we are.”

August 8 was her last entry:

The peasants say that lots of airplanes flew over during the night. At seven o’clock we go to wash the floors of the police station. The boss is in a bad mood today. It rains the entire time. At twelve o’clock they arrest three Jewish representatives. They demand that they send thirty people out to work. Twenty-one turn up, leaving nine short. The commandant demands the nine; otherwise things will go badly. The nine have hidden themselves. We are all dreadfully worried.

Rain the entire day. They want to select nine other Jews, but he insists only on the ones from before. From the moment, the representatives are under arrest. No one knows when our sufferings will end. I feel as though the next awful thing is getting closer and closer to me.

Her intuition was right: the next day, the 1,500 Jews from Preili and the surrounding area were murdered in the Jewish cemetery, among them Sheyna, Itzik, Sara and Leyba Gram. The Unknown Black Book notes that Freya Gram survived for another week: she was “kept back after work that day by the commandant, who, when he had had his fill of her, had her killed on August 16.”

A memorial with Latvian, Hebrew and English text, marks the spot where the Preili Jews died. It was funded by David Silberman, a Holocaust survivor from Preili, and dedicated on August 8, 2004, sixty years almost to the day after the massacre. The central obelisk has a quote from Sheyna Gram’s diary, and buried beneath it is an urn with a list of the names of the victims, pieced together by the aforementioned Shmuel Latvinskiy, who wrote pages of testimony for the Gram family. Additional photos of the memorial can be seen at the bottom of this page.

* Sheyna calls this city by its Yiddish name, Dvinsk. An 832-page list of Jewish people from Daugavpils who died in the Holocaust can be found here.

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1738: Baruch Leibov and Alexander Voznitsyn, Jew and convert

Add comment July 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1738, the Jewish proselytizer Baruch Leibov was publicly burned in St. Petersburg along with a convert, retired Russian naval officer Alexander Voznitsyn. Most of the linked pages in this post are in Russian.

The nobleman Voznitsyn met the Smolensk merchant Leibov in Moscow and the two became friends and spiritual interlocutors. In 1737, Voznitsyn’s wife denounced him for Judaizing as she began to notice that he’d stopped wearing a cross, would pray facing the wall instead of Orthodox icons, and avoided eating certain foods. It emerged too that his Christian confessor had not heard from him in a very long time, and that he had ordered peasants on his estate to destroy some icons.

Both men denied the charges at first, but Voznitsyn’s genitalia confessed his apostasy and after an application of torture, so did Voznitsyn’s mouth.

The subsequent punishment was remarkably harsh even in contemporaries’ eyes — via the curious insistence of the Empress Anna upon severity.

A rarely-used edict from the pre-Petrine 17th century was invoked against Voznitsyn for blaspheming; in the case of Leibov, it was necessary in order to fit him into the statute to construe his having “seduced” Voznitsyn into the Abrahamic faith during the two men’s religious bull sessions. Since Voznitsyn was a seasoned and educated man with a known predilection for spiritual seeking, this finding negated the entire qualifier; if Voznitsyn was “lured” or “deceived” into Judaizing then it was officially impossible for anyone to Judaize absent deception.

But in practice, it was likely the convert’s exceptional qualities that attracted such a demonstrative punishment — “so that such ungodly deeds are discontinued, and such a blasphemer as Voznitsyn and converter to Judaism as Boruch do not dare to deceive others: for the sake of such blasphemous guilt … both to be executed and burned.”

They died together before a vast concourse of gawkers near St. Petersburg’s Admiralty building.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,History,Jews,Martyrs,Nobility,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Russia,Torture

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1943: Maria Kislyak, honeytrapper

Add comment June 18th, 2017 Headsman

Soviet resistance operatives Maria Kislyak, Fedor Roudenko and Vasily Bougrimenko hanged on this date in 1943 by Nazi occupation.

Kislyak, an 18-year-old from Kharkov, Ukraine who is esteemed a Hero of the Soviet Union,* is the best-known of them and made herself the poisoned honey in a trap for German officers.

As ferocious Eastern Front fighting raged near her city, Kislyak feigned affection for a German lieutenant and thereby lured him to a woodland rendezvous where her friend Roudenko ambushed him and bludgeoned him to death.

Kislyak endured German torture without admitting anything and was even released since the man’s comrades couldn’t be sure that the local flirt had anything to do with the murder. But when she and her friends pulled the trick a second time, the Germans forced the assassins to reveal themselves by threatening to shoot random hostages en masse.

* One of three women so honored for their service during World War II, all of whom have been featured in these grim annals; the others are Klava Nazarova and Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.

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1996: Yevgeny Rodionov, Chechen War martyr and folk saint

Add comment May 23rd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1996 — his 19th birthday — Russian hostage Yevgeny Rodionov was beheaded by his captors outside a village in Chechnya.

The young conscript was seized by guerrillas/terrorists/rebels along with three other comrades* during the horrible Chechen War.

Whatever ransom was demanded, the young man’s family could not pay it and in the end the the kidnappers sawed off his head. Searching for his remains at great personal peril his mother met a Chechen who claimed to be Yevgeny’s executioner, and was told by him that “your son had a choice to stay alive. He could have converted to Islam, but he did not agree to take his cross off.”

If it was meant as a taunt it backfired, for the story was later picked up by Russian media and, championed by his mother, the Rodionov has become elevated into a contemporary folk saint — icons and all.

From the standpoint of the Orthodox hierarchy, Rodionov’s cult is thoroughly unofficial, but when it comes to popular devotion people often vote with their feet. Rodionov’s martyrdom expresses themes of great importance to some Russians: the growing cultural currency of Orthodoxy after the fall of the irreligious Soviet Union; a muscular resistance to Islamic terrorism;** an intercessor for common people ground up in the tectonic shifts that have reshaped Russia.

Thy martyr, Yevgeny, O Lord, in his sufferings has received an incorruptible crown from thee, our God, for having thy strength he has brought down his torturers, has defeated the powerless insolence of demons. Through his prayers save our souls.

* The other three — Andrey Trusov, Igor Yakovlev and Alexander Zheleznov — were all likewise murdered by their kidnappers.

** Although the war that he died in ended for Moscow in humiliating futility, Rodionov only became widely visible in the early 2000s amid an upswing of Russian patriotism following the outrages of the Moscow apartment bombings. (And, a more successful re-run of Chechen hostilities.)

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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. As the German armies withdraw, we should take advantage of this convenient moment to exterminate the entire male population from 16 to 60 years of age,” 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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1718: Stepan Glebov, lover of the tsarina

1 comment March 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1718,* the vengeful tsar Peter the Great staged a horrible execution on Moscow’s Red Square.

Stepan Glebov was the collateral damage of Peter’s ferocious conflict with his ill-favored crown prince Tsarevich Alexei — the whelp who had only recently been repatriated to his glowering father after fleeing Russia altogether, to cap a lifetime of letting dad down. Alexei was back in Peter’s clutches, and a few months from the events in this post would be shockingly knouted to death at Peter’s orders.

This Freudian clash also mapped sharply onto Russia’s political schisms (and many of the links in this post are to Russian pages). Alexei was the son of Peter’s first wife, Eudoxia [or Evdokia] Feodorovna Lopukhina, a princess whom the teenage Peter had been required to wed as part of the political logrolling involved in overcoming the 1680s regency of his sister Sofia.

Peter had achieved that victory, definitively, and once it was secured it didn’t take him long to tire of both Eudoxia and of the stagnant boyar class she represented. Peter was all about westernizing the motherland; what better way to start than by immuring his Russian bride in a monastery** and grabbing a German merchant’s daughter for a mistress?


Out. (Painting by Evgeny Alexandrovich Demakov, from this Russian-language page)

The blows were borne together by Eudoxia, by her devout son Alexei, and by that part of traditional and Orthodox Russia horrified by Peter’s innovations. Resentments ran along the familiar channels, here to an immoderate fantasy of deliverance come Peter’s death and there to dangerous plans to immanentize same.

When exposed by to Peter’s hostile gaze little distance would there seem between these varietals.

When Alexei returned to face Peter’s investigation, the old man turned his harsh scrutiny on the ex, knowing her to be a locus of opposition. She was found living outside the monastery in secular garb, having taken an officer named Stepan Glebov as her lover. Their correspondence was ransacked by persecutors determined to discover indicia of treasonable scheming therein. Dozens of associates and monastery monks and nuns would be caught up in the affair, damned for anything from failing to prevent the former queen’s dalliance to plotting against the life of Tsar Peter. Most were stripped of rank and sent to exile with various forms of corporal punishment — whipping, severed nostrils, tongues sliced out — but several would be tortured to death or executed on the breaking-wheel including Dositheus, Bishop of Rostov, a confidante of Eudoxia who had allegedly prophesied Alexei’s triumph over his father, and Alexander Kikin, a mentor of Alexei’s who had helped to arrange his escape from Russia.

But upon Glebov, miserable man, Peter would give free rein to his amazing talent for cruelty: the lover to be impaled alive on a stake artfully inserted to miss all vital organs so as to maximize his suffering; some accounts even give it out that the naked Glebov was bundled in furs for the freezing winter’s execution, that he might endure his pains the longer.

Glebov survived impalement for over 14 hours, only dying after 7 a.m. on the morning of March 16. Folklore (it’s probably just that) has it that, importuned on that stake by the tsar to admit to the treasonable conspiracy, Glebov justifiably retorted that he had refused such a confession under unspeakable torment in Peter’s dungeons, so why would he break now? “Depart, and let me die in peace so that you may live without peace.”

Eudoxia’s brother Avram was also put to death in December 1718. She herself was shut up in Shlisselburg fortress for the balance of Peter’s life, but she would survive to see her grandson (Alexei’s son) take the throne in 1727 as Peter II.

* Julian date: it was March 26 on the Gregorian calendar.

** Suzdal‘s Pokrovsky Monastery.

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1942: The massacre at the Pit

Add comment March 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.

The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)


All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.

Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.

* It was not the only place in the Reich’s occupation to mark Purim with blood.

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1912: Sikat-ul-Islam, by the Russians occupying Tabriz

2 comments January 1st, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1912,* Russian troops in the northern Iran city of Tabriz publicly hanged eight men for resisting the tsarist occupation — including the city’s highest mullah, Sikat-ul-Islam.

Russia’s invasion of Tabriz the previous month brought a bloody curtain down on the Persian constitutional revolution of 1905-1911.

Persia shook in those years with a brave but doomed movement that was simultaneously constitutionalist and parliamentarian against the rotting Qajar dynasty, and nationalist against foreign intervention (specifically by Russia and Great Britain) — and thus was resisted by monarchists and foreign powers alike.

Constitutionalists had been able to march on Tehran in 1909 and chase the hated Shah Mohammad Ali into Russian exile, leaving the Qajar throne in the hands of his 11-year-old son.** But it was the imperial powers who maintained the true vigor of reaction. At this same time, Russia — which had throughout the 19th century periodically peeled Caucasus real estate away from the Qajars — occupied Tabriz in 1909 to force that capital of Iranian Azerbaijan to submit to a monarchist siege. Its troops were only ever withdrawn to the outskirts, poised for the next two years to intervene again against the precarious constitutionalist state at a moment’s notice.

That moment arrived in 1911 when Tehran, advised by American Morgan Shuster, provoked St. Petersburg by attempting to collect taxes in the northern Russian sphere and to expropriate the property of the Shah’s brother. The Russians struck back by seizing Tabriz to install the rule of a pro-Russian warlord, also exploiting the occasion for a wide purge of constitutionalists who were invariably slated with the crime of attempting or advocating resistance — or as Russia preferred to phrase it, “extermination of the Russians,” as if the tsar’s military interposed in a foreign city constituted a put-upon minority enclave.

Shuster, whose ouster the Russians demanded (and by their intervention effected), later wrote a book about his experience that’s now in the public domain, The Strangling of Persia.

Serious street fighting commenced [December 21st], and continued for several days. The Acting Governor reported that the Russian troops indulged in terrible brutality, killing women and children in the streets and hundreds of other non-combatants … The superior numbers and the artillery of the Eussians finally conquered, and there then ensued a period of terrorism during which no Persian’s life or honor was safe …

On New Year’s Day, which was the 10th of Muharram, a day of great mourning and held sacred in the Persian religious calendar, the Russian Military Governor, who had hoisted Russian flags over the Government buildings at Tabriz, hung the Sikutu’l-Islam, who was the chief priest of Tabriz, two other priests, and five others, among them several high officials of the Provincial Government. As one British journalist put it, the effect of this outrage on the Persians was that which would be produced on the English people by the hanging of the Archbishop of Canterbury on Good Friday. From this time on the Russians at Tabriz continued to hang or shoot any Persian whom they chose to consider guilty of the crime of being a “Constitutionalist.” When the fighting there was first reported a prominent official of the Foreign Office at St. Petersburg, in an interview to the press, made the statement that Russia would take vengeance into her own hands until the “revolutionary dregs” had been exterminated.

“True humanity requires cruelty,” Russia explained, Orwellianly.



Two views of the Jan. 1, 1912 hanging of eight Persian constitutionalists in Tabriz. The gallows is gaily painted with Russian white, blue and red stripes.

As Shuster indicates, the shocking eightfold hanging this date would be followed by many more executions in the weeks to come as Russia (together with Britain in the south) buried the constitutional era for good. Our Sikat-ul-Islam’s “crime” set the tone: he acknowledged writing a letter to a friend in another northern city noting with approval that Tabriz was resisting the Russians and others ought to do likewise.

Another western friend of the Persian constitutionalists, British Orientalist Edward Granville Browne, published a volume with photographs of many such atrocities, The Reign of Terror at Tabriz. Browne’s pamphlet identifies all eight executed people by name; besides the headline cleric, they were:†

  • Ziya-ul-Ulama, a scientist who was also the son-in-law of a prominent constitutionalist judge
  • Muhammad-Kuli Khan, Ziya-ul-Ulama’s uncle who was seized when he attempted to plead for his nephew
  • Sadiq-ul-Mulk, a military engineer
  • Agha Muhammad Ibrahim
  • Shaikh Salim, a cleric known for fighting for the poor
  • Hasan and Kadir, two teenage brothers whose crime was that their father (already deceased) had been a prominent constitutionalist

* Multiple western newspaper reports of the time (e.g., London Times, Jan. 4, 1912) place the event on January 1 per the Gregorian calendar. It’s also noted and denounced) for its impolitic occurrence on the Shi’ite sacred day of Ashura, the 10th day of the month of Muharram on the Islamic lunar calendar; unfortunately, this complicates rather than clarifies the chronology, as different Hijri calendar converters translate 10 Muharram to different Gregorian dates.

I’m going here with January 1 based on the period’s reportage as supported by Shuster (in an excerpt in the post) as well as by Browne in Letters from Tabriz: The Suppression of the Iranian Constitutional Movement. (e.g., the chapter title equating 3 January 1912 with 12 Muharram) However, one can also find knowledgeable citations attributing the executions to December 31 or January 2.

** The refugee Shah would try and fail to return with Russian backing in 1910-11. He ended up dying in exile in Italy.

† Some additional details about these people is drawn from The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911, by Janet Afary.

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