Posts filed under 'USSR'

1943: Leen Kullman, Soviet hero

Add comment March 6th, 2018 Headsman

Soviet spy Helene (“Leen”) Kullman was shot by the Germans on this date in 1943 … or was she?

Kullman (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Estonian) was just out of teaching school when the Germans occupied Estonia. She joined the Red Army and was eventually trained as an intelligence agent, infiltrated by parachute behind German lines in September 1942, and arrested by the Gestapo in January 1943.

This is where things get interesting.

According to the Soviet hagiography that resulted in her decoration as a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1965, Kullman defied her torturers and was shot by them on March 6, 1943: a standard Great Patriotic War martyr.

However, stories in post-Soviet, and heavily anti-Soviet, Estonia have circulated to the effect that Leen Kullman wasn’t killed in 1943 at all — that she cooperated with her captors and ended up dying peacefully in West Germany in 1978. One family member allegedly received a cryptic message in the 1960s, “Leen lives with the man who saved her life, and has two children. I’m not allowed to say more.”

Almost everything about her available online is in Estonian; readers with that particular proficiency might also enjoy this 1965 radio interview with her sister.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Espionage,Estonia,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Spies,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1938: Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko, Winter Palace stormer

1 comment February 10th, 2018 Headsman

Communist revolutionary and Soviet military leader Vladimir Antonov-Ovseyenko (or -Ovseenko) was purged on this date in 1938.

Portrait of Antonov-Ovseyenko by Yuri Annenkov.

The Ukrainian was a radical agitator from youth; he was expelled from military college in 1901 at age 17 for refusing to swear loyalty to Nicholas II and proceeded thereafter upon a cursus honorum of revolutionary tribulations — albeit, until World War I, as a Menshevik.

He stood in some danger of achieving these pages by the hand of the tsarist government rather than the Soviet one, on account of helping orchestrate the Sebastopol mutiny during the 1905 revolution, but his death sentence was commuted to hard labor.

Nothing chastised, Antonov-Ovseyenko escaped and returned to that life of militancy suitable to his badass underground nickname “Bayonet”, organizing workers and publishing illegal newspapers while dodging Stolypin‘s police. After several arrests, he finally fled for exile abroad.

According to Harold Walter Nelson’s Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, 1905-1917, it was in Paris writing for the red paper Nashe Slove (aka Golos) that the former cadet drew close to Trotsky, finding a common “conviction that the relationship between military events and the development of the revolution was critical,” and thereafter “Antonov-Ovseenko’s enthusiasm for columns on military topics opened the pages of Nashe Slovo to Trotsky’s articles” ultimately amounting to “several hundred pages of commentary on the war [World War I].” Ere long both figures would have opportunity to implement their doctrines on the battlefield.

Nashe Slovo was suppressed in 1916 after mutinying Russian soldiers were found to have read it, an event that also led to Trotsky’s being expelled from France to New York City.*

But the time for revolutionists’ exile was drawing to a close. Barely a year after the indignity of having his subversive exile ‘zine shuttered by the Third Republic, Antonov-Ovseenko — as secretary of the Petrograd Military Revolutionary Committee — led a posse of soldiers and sailors into the Winter Palace and arrested the Provisional Government, consummating the October Revolution.

Despite Sergei Eisenstein‘s epic re-creation in October: Ten Days That Shook the World, and the 1920 live re-enactment staged by Nikolai Evreinov, the Winter Palace was barely defended and Antonov-Ovseenko entered and found the Provisional Government without meeting resistance. He offered amnesty for the surrender of the remaining Winter Palace holdouts, and the offer was accepted.

Now a key military figure in the infant Communist state, Antonov-Ovseyenko helped clinch Soviet victory in the ensuing civil war, routing White armies in the Ukraine in 1918-1919 and putting down the Tambov Rebellion of peasant anti-Bolsheviks in 1920-1921.

Antonov-Ovseyenko (center) chills with Red Army officers.

By the later 1920s his Trotsky affiliation had significantly dimmed his star,** though he was still entrusted in the 1930s as a Soviet consul to several countries — the last of them the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War, before falling prey to the purges mere months after his return.

His son, the lately deceased Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko, survived 13 years in the Gulag to become a dissident historian; his The Time of Stalin, published abroad in 1981 after being smuggled out of the USSR by Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, was one of the milestones along the way toward the public reckoning with Stalinism. “An embattled personality and fearless” in Cohen’s estimation, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko died in 2013, still directing a Gulag museum in Moscow even though he had long since gone blind.

* Via Spain.

** In The Time of Stalin, Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko alleges that his father considered betting on the loyalty of the army in a coup against the Stalin faction, back when control of the post-Lenin state was still uncertain. “This cannot go on for long,” runs one letter the young Antonov-Ovseyenko quotes. “There remains one alternative — to appeal to the peasant masses dressed in Red Army greatcoats and call to order the leaders who have gone too far.” Trotsky also wrote in his memoir that such a coup was mooted within their circle.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,USSR

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1937: Georgy Pyatakov, Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist

Add comment January 30th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Georgy Pyatakov was condemned to death and shot in Moscow as a Trotskyist conspirator.

Pyatakov (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed Russian) was a young Bolshevik activist not long out of his schooling — and his de rigueur Siberian sentence — when the Russian Revolutions of 1917 overturned tsarism. He played an important role in the Communist revolution in Ukraine but his political opinions come the 1920s essentially aligned with Trotsky’s and we know where that will land a Bolshevik once Koba has the state in hand.

Pyatakov would die in the second of the so-called “Moscow Trials”, which was the third of the signal deadly show trials that would herald the frightful acme of Stalinism: preceding it was the First Moscow Trial or the Trial of the Sixteen in August 1936, in which Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev were executed as supposed Trotskysts; it was followed in November 1936 by the Kemerovo Trial in Western Siberia, in which a mining disaster was pinned not on shoddy industrial management but on a Trotskyist “wrecking” conspiracy to sabotage the Soviet economy.

Gleefully did these trials compound upon the web that Trotsky was spinning from exile in Mexico. In principle, Stalin could have chosen simply to purge Zinoviev and Kamenev as rival aspirants and have done with it: in practice, these were merely early stones of an avalanche. The Kemerovo trial expanded the grasp of the Trotskyist conspiracy to compass orchestrating terrorist cells among the whole populace; and even as arrests in locales throughout the USSR vindicated this theory, the Second Moscow Trial — our focus — made the next round of doomed elites the “reserve center” backing up the Zinoviev-Kamenev guys “in case the main center was arrested and destroyed.” It was this junior varsity that had been coordinating for several years “the main work of wrecking, which ruined much in our economy” in coordination not only with Trotsky but with insidious capitalist rulers. (The comments are from the report that secret police chief Yezhov prepared for them, as quoted in 1937: Stalin’s Year of Terror) Hey, Trotsky in his day had put together the Red Army on the fly: the man knew how to organize.

The progress of these official lines put any real or alleged opposition to Stalin on the same plane as treason against the state, the people, Communism, and with links reaching from the humblest disgruntled kulak all the way to a distant demon figure the parallel to Europe’s witch hunts is difficult to resist. The Soviet Union’s burning times would ensue with seasons of wild purging in 1937 and 1938.

The Second Moscow Trial — or, as you might have guessed it is also called, the trial of the “Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist Center” — unfolded from January 23 to 30 of 1937, and featured the entirely fictional tale that Pyatakov had secretly flown to Oslo to huddle with Trotsky on their wrecking strategy. Not everyone suffered Pyatakov’s summary fate at the end; the most famous defendant in this affair, Karl Radek, got a penal labor sentence and was later murdered in the camps.

The “Anti-Soviet Parallel Trotskyist Center” types were posthumously rehabilitated during the Mikhail Gorbachev era.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Power,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1957: Geza Szivos

Add comment January 4th, 2018 Headsman

From the London Times, Jan. 5, 1957:

VIENNA, Jan. 4 — Budapest radio said to-day that the Budapest military court had sentenced a 25-year-old Budapest transport worker, Geza Szivos, to death for illegal possession of arms. The sentence had immediately been carried out. The report said that Szivos had obtained a machine pistol on October 30 and with this had taken part in the attacks on the Budapest Communist Party headquarters. He had confessed to firing more than 100 rounds. As a result of the attacks several people were killed.

Szivos was said to have hidden the weapon, and others he had found, when the group was broken up. On December 18 he was betrayed to the police and arrested. The weapons were found in his house.

The radio also said that a summary tribunal at Debrecen had sentenced Gyoergy Tajko to 15 years in prison and Kalman Koris, aged 19, to 10 years. They were said to have been carrying loaded pistols and ammunition when stopped by a street patrol.

The Government newspaper Nep Szabadsag said to-day that the Hungarian police had seized “great quantities” of arms at Var Palota, in west Hungary, and were searching for a band of “blackmailers.” The arms were hidden near a pit shaft entrance and included sub-machine guns, rifles, hand grenades, and about 500 cartridges.

The newspaper also reported that small armed groups had caused disturbances in Transdanubia, in west Hungary, after the Hungarian rising. -Reuters

From the Monroe (Louisiana) News-Star, Jan. 4, 1957:

VIENNA (AP) — Budapest Radio reported today that a 25-year-old Hungarian rebel against the Communist regime was executed for hiding arms.

This brought the admitted number of rebels executed to six, although the actual number is believed to be much higher.

The broadcast said Geza Szivos, a teamster, was convicted and sentenced by a military court in Budapest. The Red radio gave these details:

Szivos got hold of an automatic pistol Oct. 30 and joined the rebel group which stormed the Communist party headquarters in Budapest.

He admitted having fired 100 shots at the building, and “several persons were killed in the building.”

On Nov. 4, the day of the Russian assault on Budapest, Szivos obtained two more automatic pistols, ammunition, eight hand grenades and two incendiary bombs. Tenants in the house where he lived informed on him to the police, and he was arrested Dec. 18. The arms were found in his quarters the next day.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Hungary,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,USSR

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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!

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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Mass Executions,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Russia,Shot,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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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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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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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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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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1942: Six aspiring escapees from Dulag-205

1 comment December 18th, 2016 Headsman

On about the 18th December 1942 a group of about 6 prisoners intended to escape but were betrayed by somebody. All six prisoners were led out ofthe camp beyond the wire, taken about 20 metres to a pit and shot without any hearing. Before the execution the interpreter told the prisoners that the 6 men had wanted to escape from the camp and for that they would be executed. This would happen to anyone who tried to escape from the camp. The surnames of those who died are not known to me.

This is the testimony of Konstantin Krupachenko, a Red Army prisoner-of-war retrieved from the Germans’ “Dulag-205″ camp — a transit facility behind German lines at Stalingrad which was liberated as the Soviets overran the encircled German position.

Krupachenko’s testimony was part of the evidence prepared against six Wehrmacht officers taken prisoner at that camp and ultimately executed, men whose case we have previously detailed.

Though not well-known and hardly by scale a major contributor to the ghastly death toll among Soviet POWs, Dulag-205 was horror aplenty for those who survived it. Starvation rations gave way to no rations at all in the dead of winter, and the skeletal inmates cannibalized the dead. Harassment by guard-dogs, capricious beatings, and the usual regimen of dawn-to-dusk forced labor were the lot of the lucky ones.

The less fortunate, well …

On about the 25th November 1942 while working on a road which led to Gumrak three kilometres from the camp a group of prisoners of about 50-60 was levelling and clearing the road. One prisoner whose name I don’t know collapsed from tiredness and exhaustion and couldn’t work. The guard tried to force the exhausted man to stand and work but the prisoner couldn’t get up. Then the guard shot the prisoner dead with a sub-machine gun and ordered that he be buried in a ditch at the side ofthe road. (Krupachenko again)

There were public executions in the camp. In January 1943 on about the lOth-llth a former senior Lieutenant of the Red Army, his surname I don’t know, was executed for allegedly organising an escape attempt. (Anatoly Alexeev)

In all cases the Germans would shoot prisoners without any warnings at all. In the month of October 1942 I personally saw up to 30 prisoners shot. They shot people every day for falling behind to and from work, and sometimes for breaking ranks. I am unable to give the surnames of the prisoners shot by the Germans. Moreover, when we were herded from the Alekseevka camp to the area of Karpovka village, then several prisoners were shot dead by German officers for the fact that when we were working we were bombarded by Soviet troops and several prisoners took cover. After the firing had stopped the officers came out of their trench dug-outs and shot them on the spot. Three prisoners were shot dead for taking some tobacco while working on a dump. (Ivan Kosinov)

As one of the Germans on trial for these abuses agreed (Otto Mäder was trying to throw blame onto the camp commanders),

[t]here was no trial of any kind, they [prisoners] were shot without any trial on the order of [Dulag-205 commandant] Colonel Korpert. I am a lawyer by education and I understand perfectly that this these shootings were illegal, simply murder in fact.

All these quotations are via Frank Ellis’s “Dulag-205: The German Army’s Death Camp for Soviet Prisoners at Stalingrad” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2006),

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