Posts filed under 'Children'

Feast Day of Saint Agnes

1 comment January 21st, 2014 Headsman

January 21 is the feast date and traditional martyrdom date (in the year 304) of Agnes of Rome, a 13-year-old put to death in the Diocletian persecutions who has the distinction of being among the seven women mentioned by name in the Catholic Canon of the Mass.

Agnes means “chaste” in Greek,* and this was precisely the problem.

As prosperous as she was pulchritudinous, she was pious even moreso and spurned the many suitors for her hand and bed. Eventually one or the other of them peevishly reported her as a Christian.

Upon arrest, the abstinent youth was allegedly subjected to an official program of sexual assault, including displaying her naked in public and forcing her into a brothel. It’s said that divine intervention prevented her violation in these ordeals. (The flowing locks in the Ribera portrait of her at right are part of that myth, supposed to have sprouted long enough to save her from her public shaming.)

Considering that her defining characteristic is her virginity, Agnes has quite the lurid legend — and that does not exclude her very martyrdom. Per the erotically-charged poetic account of the 4th-5th century Christian poet Prudentius,** Agnes rejoiced sensually in the executioner sent to to render her to her heavenly bridal-bed:

I rejoice that there comes a man like this,
A savage, cruel, and wild warrior,
Rather than a languid, soft,
Womanish youth fragrant with perfume,
Come to destroy my life with the death of my honor.

This lover, this one at last, I confess, pleases me.
I shall rush to his eager steps
And not demur from his hot ardor.
I shall welcome the entire length of
His blade into my bosom, drawing the sword-blow
To the depths of my breast.

-Original Latin here from Prudentius’s Liber Peristephanon (Crowns of Martyrdom)†

Agnes, whose purported relics are interred in the Roman church Sant’Agnese in Agone, is the patron saint of an entire pantheon of feminine sexual incipience: chastity, virgins, young women, and betrothed couples.‡

Little surprise, then, that the legend arose in Christendom that a maid could invoke the vision of her future husband by performing certain suggestive rituals — like lying supine and naked on her bed — on the eve of St. Agnes (that is, the night of January 20).

It’s upon this occasion that Keats pins his narrative poem The Eve of St. Agnes§ (full text here or here), in which a young woman performing these rites is in her dreamlike state deflowered by the desired suitor her family forbids — and then the two slip away by night “o’er the southern moors.”

Beyond a mortal man impassion’d far
At these voluptuous accents, he arose,
Ethereal, flush’d, and like a throbbing star
Seen mid the sapphire heaven’s deep repose;
Into her dream he melted, as the rose
Blendeth its odour with the violet,–
Solution sweet: meantime the frost-wind blows
Like Love’s alarum pattering the sharp sleet
Against the window-panes; St. Agnes’ moon hath set.


The Eve of St. Agnes, by John Everett Millais (1863) shows Keats’s Madeleine about to disrobe before taking to bed on that occasion. The Keats poem was very popular with Millais’s pre-Raphaelite crowd.

* It’s also similar to the Latin word for lamb, agnus; consequently, the lamb is Agnes’s usual iconographic symbol.

** Prudentius, best-known for his seminal allegorical verse Psychomachia, composed a number of hymnal poems. Some are still in use today — such as “Of the Father’s Love Begotten”.

† Translation has a few tweaks of my own but is primarily that of Colbert I. Nepaulsingh in “The Afrenta de Corpes and the Martyrological Tradition,” Hispanic Review, Spring, 1983.

‡ She’s also the patron saint of rape victims.

§ Tennyson later wrote a short poem of his own touching the same theme, “St. Agnes’ Eve”.

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2013: Rizana Nafeek, Sri Lankan maid

2 comments January 9th, 2014 Headsman

A year ago today, a blindfolded, white-clad Rizana Nafeek had her head chopped off in public in Dawadmy, near the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan, was among the numerous foreign laborers routinely imported to Saudi Arabia for domestic work. There are an estimated 1.5 million migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia from South Asia (especially Sri Lanka), Nepal, Indonesia, East Africa, and the Philippines. Most are employed via the kafala (“sponsorship”) system that places their host in an almost lord-like position of authority.

Such workers are excluded from Saudi Arabia’s labor protections, and as a result stand vulnerable to horrifying abuse.* Household heads often confiscate these workers’ passports, and in some cases have subjected their domestic employees to rape, horrifying physical abuse, wage confiscation, and work weeks of 100-plus hours. One Sri Lankan woman had nails driven into her hands when she complained about overwork.

Rizana Nafeek hardly had time to find out whether any of these perquisites were in store for her. Not long after she arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 hoping to make enough money as a domestic drudge to move her impoverished family into a house, she had bottle-feeding duties for her host family’s infant foisted upon her. Nafeek had no training in caring for infants.

In May 2005, child child began choking while in Rizana’s care, and her panicked shouts summoned the mother. By the time the mother arrived, the infant had fallen unconscious, and the upset family immediately handed over their maid to the police, accusing her of strangling the baby.

This was the victim for whom Nafeek was decapitated, and also perhaps an illustration of tunnel vision in law enforcement. It’s quite doubtful whether there was ever any objective basis for supposing a homicide, but the fact that this was the color the family gave to events in the horror of the moment set in motion all the ensuing events.

During the investigation leading up to her 2007 trial and condemnation, Nafeek confessed to smothering the child — but she would later claim this confession was tortured out of her, and that the baby simply started choking on its bottle. (There was never a post-mortem on the dead baby.)

Opaque as the Saudi Arabian criminal justice system is, it’s got ample reputation for obtaining confessions by violence, and for mistreating migrant workers. And the accused had scant legal representation and no translator when she was tried for her life in a Saudi court.

After her conviction, it would also emerge that, order to land her the gig, Nafeek’s Sri Lankan recruiting agency falsified her papers to bump her age up past the legal minimum of 21. Rizana Nafeek arrived in Saudi Arabia carrying a passport that said she was born in 1982, making her 23 years old when she committed the supposed murder … but her birth certificate said that she was born in 1988, and was still a minor when the “murder” took place.

As an international clemency push developed for the potentially-innocent underaged migrant worker, the Saudi government strongly rejected its critics’ charges.

Noting that the dead infant’s family refused repeated blandishments of “blood money” to exercise its right to grant clemency, Riyadh officially “deplore[d] the statements made” by Rizana’s supporters “over the execution of a Sri Lankan maid who had plotted and killed an infant by suffocating him to death, one week after she arrived in the kingdom.”

More sympathetic Saudis, undoubtedly meaning well, offered Rizana Nafeek’s family cash compensation after the young woman was beheaded. That money, too, was angrily refused.

“I will not accept any gifts from the Saudis or the Saudi government which murdered my daughter,” mother Saiyadu Farina told a Sri Lankan newspaper. That anger was widely shared in Sri Lanka; Colombo even recalled its Saudi ambassador in protest.

That’s as may be, but money is sure to carry the argument at the end of the day. Wage remittances by overseas laborers are a massive boon to the island nation, amounting to $6.3 billion in 2012 — 8.8% of the Sri Lankan economy. And Saudi Arabia remains the single largest employer (pdf) of Sri Lankans abroad.

As of the time of Rizana Nafeek’s execution, at least 45 other foreign domestics, most of them Indonesians, were also awaiting execution on Saudi Arabia’s death row.

* Ill treatment of migrant domestic workers is a phenomenon elsewhere in the Middle East, and elsewhere around the world.

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1980: Erdal Eren, leftist student

Add comment December 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1980, 17-year-old Turkish student radical Erdal Eren was hanged as a terrorist by the military regime.

Eren (Turkish Wikipedia link; most other links here are also in Turkish) was one of about 50 people executed following the military coup of September 12, 1980.

After a decade of bloody left-right civil strife, the Turkish generals toppled the civilian government on that date. Hundreds of thousands of arrests with rampant torture marked the period, but it did quell the endemic street fighting and terrorism of the 1970s.

Erdal Eren was actually arrested during the chaotic pre-coup period. February 1980 student protests after the murder of Sinan Suner, an activist of the communist Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Association, turned into a melee that resulted in an officer shot dead under confused circumstances. Eren was among 24 students rounded up.

Despite his youth, Eren was sentenced to die in a March 19 trial — but his appeals had legs until the post-coup military junta abruptly sent him to the gallows on December 13.

Eren went to his death with a brave step, gamely writing his family that he had witnessed so much torture in prison that death was a relief and not a terror.

He’s very warmly remembered today. A number of cultural artifacts pay tribute to the young martyr, including two different songs (“Two Children”, “Seventeen”) by Teoman, a relative of Erdal Eren’s.

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1982: Dos Erres massacre

Add comment December 7th, 2013 Headsman

On December 7, 1982, a unit of army commandos entered the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres.* There it authored one of the signature atrocities of the bloody Guatemalan Civil War.

This was the Guatemala of Efrain Rios Montt, once a junior officer during the CIA-backed 1954 coup that set in motion decades of civil strife.

Relative brutality in that conflict waxed and waned over the years. In 1982, the now-General Efrain Rios Montt overthrew another general and went full werewolf. “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine gun,” Rios Montt infamously remarked. And more than walk them: the general’s policy was a you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists hard line called Frijoles y Fusiles, “beans and shooting.” Campesinos who were with Rios Montt got the beans.

Shortly before this date’s atrocity, a column of Guatemalan soldiers were ambushed by leftist guerrillas, killing 21. Those guys were going to get the fusiles — them, or any convenient peasants who might hypothetically be on friendly terms with them.

Dos Erres, a remote jungle village of 60 families, was the settlement nearest where the rebels were thought to be operating. The little town had already drawn the ire of the army by resisting recruitment to civil defense patrols.

Late on the night of December 6, 1982, 20 members of Guatemala’s Kaibiles commandos set aside their special forces uniforms and disguised themselves as guerrillas, in green t-shirts and civilian trousers and red armbands. Ostensibly their mission was to recapture the rifles the rebels had seized from the ambushed convoy, which were supposed to be stashed in Dos Erres.

Hiking two hours into the jungle to reach their target, the commandos crept into the still-sleeping settlement at 2 in the morning. With the support of a 40-man regular army detachment to seal Dos Erres’s perimeter, the commandos stormed into residences and drug bewildered townspeople out, herding the men into a school and the women and children into a church.

That commenced an all-day litany of horrors for the residents of what was about to become the former village. Dos Erres was wiped off the map by the end of it.

One of the senior lieutenants on the mission raped a woman, and other commandos immediately availed themselves of the implied license to abuse women and girls. By the end of it, the last sobbing women and children were led out to the forest and machine-gunned en masse.

They were by then the last survivors, save for a little boy who managed to escape into the jungle. Throughout the course of the 7th of December, the Kaibiles brought villagers old and young to the edge of the town well. “As they were brought to the well, they were asked, ‘where are the rifles?’,” one of the participants later described. “They said nothing about rifles, and they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer, and thrown in the well.” Every commando had to participate, so that all were implicated.

Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.

The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well.

“Malditos!” the villagers screamed at their executioners. “Accursed ones.”

“Hijos de la gran puta, van a morir!” the soldiers yelled back. “Sons of the great whore, you are going to die!”

[Commando Cesar] Ibañez dumped a woman in the well. [Favio] Pinzón, the cook, dragged victims there alongside a sub-lieutenant named Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes. When the well was half-filled, a man who was still alive atop the pile of bodies managed to get his blindfold off. He shouted curses up at the commandos.

“Kill me!” the man said.

“Your mother,” Sosa retorted.

“Your mother, you son of the great whore!”

Pinzón watched as the infuriated Sosa shot the man with his rifle and, for good measure, threw a grenade into the pile. By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.

The commandos left town the next morning with six captives: the rebel who had been forced at gunpoint to guide the Kaibiles to Dos Erres in the first place (he would be executed in the field); three teenage girls (the soldiers that night would take turns raping them, then strangled them the next day); and two very small boys (these were returned to the Kaibiles base). A few days later, the army returned and razed the remains of the devastated town to the ground. Only recently has the site been excavated and its many victims’ remains cataloged for proper burial.

The tragedy of Dos Erres became public in the 1990s. Five soldiers who participated in the butchery have each been sentenced to 6,060 years in prison just for this one incident, but there were many more like it in Guatemala in those years — many more people who were put to Frijoles y Fusiles.

A 1990s truth commission after the war pegged the total number of civilians killed during the war above 200,000, mostly indigenous Mayans and (as was the case for most at Dos Erres) mestizos. “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented.”

The truth commission also found that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations.” Indeed, supporting death squads against leftists in Central American dirty wars was overt U.S. policy during the 1980s; just days before Dos Erres, U.S. President Ronald Reagan returned from a Latin American tour and told reporters that Rios Montt, whom he had just met, was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.”

“They’ve been getting a bum rap” from human rights nabobs, Reagan averred.

In the fullness of time that rap would eventually encompass Rios Montt’s own remarkable conviction for crimes against humanity and (since the Mayan population was targeted en masse) genocide in a landmark case that’s still being appealed as of this writing. (The May 2013 verdict against Rios Montt was immediately overturned; the case is obviously extremely politically sensitive.) In a separate case, he’s been charged specifically with responsibility for the Dos Erres massacre.

U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized for Washington’s role in Guatemala after the truth commission’s findings were issued in 1999.

The PBS radio program This American Life has an hour-long documentary about Dos Erres here; a companion ProPublica series has even richer (and more horrifying) detail.

* Named for its founders, two men named Ruano and Reyes, the name literally meant “two Rs”.

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2009: Behnoud Shojaee, Mohammad Mostafaei client

Add comment October 11th, 2013 Headsman

At dawn this date in 2009, Iran hanged Behnoud Shojaee in Tehran’s Evan Prison for a murder committed while he was still a juvenile.

His attorney, Mohammad Mostafaei, later had to flee Iran in the face of persecution over his own activism against the death penalty, and the juvenile death penalty in particular.

Mostafaei wrote a Farsi post detailing the harrowing moments leading up to the Shojaee’s hanging, complete with the young offender kneeling in front of the parents of his victim imploring them to exercise their power to spare his life. That post, excerpted below, was translated to English by the site Persian2English.com.

The plan was to get the parents of the victim to drop the case so he would be spared from execution. We could hear the prayers of the activists from outside the prison. After a few minutes we were admitted into another salon. Behnoud was there along with a few of the prison guards. When the parents of the victim entered the room, Behnoud kneeled in front of them and begged them to not execute him. The head of convictions prepared the conviction papers. A few of the prison guards, Mr. Oliyaifard, and I went to the parents of the victim and begged them to not go through with the execution. The mother of the victim replied, “I cannot think right now. I have to put the rope around his neck.” After a few minutes we heard the Call for Prayer. Behnoud walked to another room to say his last prayers. He went to ask God for forgiveness.

After the prayer we all went to the prison grounds. My entire body was shaking and I didn’t know what would become of this boy without a mother. When Behnoud kneeled in front of the parents of the victim, he told the mother, “I don’t have a mother. Please act as a mother and tell them to not execute me.” We all went to another room. In that room there was a metal stool and a blue plastic hanging rope suspended above it. The parents of the victim entered that room. Then they brought Behnoud into that horrible room where they carried out the executions. I had never heard of sole executions in Evin prison. I thought it strange that only Behnoud was being executed that night.

Maybe this was his unfortunate fate that took him to die all alone. The people present in the room asked the parents to forgive and to stop the execution. The mother said you have to put the rope around his neck. Behnoud stood on top of the stool and they put the rope around his neck. After only a few seconds the mother and father of the victim ran toward the stool and pulled it away.

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1943: Yitskhok Rudahevski and family

Add comment October 6th, 2013 Meaghan

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

Sometime in early October 1943, fifteen-year-old Yitskhok Rudashevski and his entire family were rousted out of their hiding place in the Vilna Ghetto, taken to nearby Ponary, shot to death and buried in a mass grave.

The Rudashevski family were among the last remnants of a once-vibrant Jewish community in the city once known as “the Jerusalem of the north” for its culture and scholarship. People came there from as far away as the United States to study in its highly regarded yeshivas.

After the start of World War II, Vilna was annexed by the Soviet Union. It became a sanctuary to Jews fleeing from the Nazis, who occupied western Poland.

All of that changed on June 22, 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began. On the day Germany invaded the USSR, there were approximately 80,000 Jews living in Vilna, many of them refugees from the Nazi terror. By the time the Red Army arrived and kicked the Nazis out three years later, Vilna’s Jewish population had been reduced –through starvation, disease, deportation and executions — to zero.

Yitskhok (also spelled Yitzhak, Yitzak, etc., or anglicized to Isaac), was thirteen years old at the time his city was occupied by the Germans.

An only child, he was the son of a typesetter and a seamstress. Talented in writing, history and languages, he was also a faithful Communist and a member of the Pioneers, the Communist youth organization.

From June 1941 to April 1943 he kept a diary in Yiddish. Yitskhok had a sense of the significance of his account; at one point he wrote, “I consider that everything must be recorded and noted down, even the most gory, because everything will be taken into account.”

He not only wrote about his own life and his family and friends, but about the wider community events and the devastation the Germans wrought on his people. The historian Allan Gerald Levine called him “an astute and passionate observer of the times,” and compared him to Anne Frank.

Nor was the diary Yitskhok’s only writing project.

When one of his teachers, a beloved figure in the ghetto, died, he wrote a eulogy for the man and read it out before a large audience. He was a member of a literary group and was also attached to the ghetto’s history project, for which he interviewed ghetto residents about their lives:

I got a taste of the historian’s task. I sit at the table and ask questions and record the greatest sufferings with cold objectivity. I write, I probe into details, and I do not realize at all that I am probing into wounds … And this horror, this tragedy is formulated by me … coldly and dryly. I become absorbed in thought, and the words stare out of the paper crimson with blood.

The Vilna Ghetto, whose population initially numbered 40,000, had a rich cultural life, just like prewar Jewish Vilna had. There were theaters, cabarets, the symphony, art exhibits, a library, public lectures, and underground schools for both children and adults.

Vilna Jews saw art, music, literature and the pursuit of knowledge as a form of resistance. As Jacob Gens, head of the “ghetto’s Judenrat, put it, cultural activity gave a person “the opportunity to free himself from the ghetto for a few hours … We are passing through dark and difficult days. Our bodies are in the ghetto, but our spirit has not been enslaved.”

Reality intruded, however, and in the final analysis the Vilna Jews were doomed to extinction.

Yitskhok’s final diary entry was dated April 7, 1943, two days after five thousand Vilna Jews had been rounded up and shot at Ponary. He was understandably in a very grim mood. His prophetic last line was, “We may be fated for the worst.”

On September 23, 1943, the Nazis began the final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, which had by then been reduced to about 10,000 people. After a selection, those who could work were sent off to labor camps in Estonia and Latvia, where almost all of them died due to the brutal conditions there.

Children, the elderly, and the sick were shot at Ponary or sent to the extermination camp Sobibor and gassed.

Yitskhok, his parents and his uncle’s family chose to go into hiding rather than take their chances at the selection. In hiding he sank into apathy and said very little. After about two weeks in the hideout, they were discovered and taken to their deaths.

The only surviving member of Yitskhok’s family was his teenage cousin, Sarah “Sore” Voloshin. Somewhere on the route to Ponary she was able to escape. She joined a partisan group in the forest and survived until the Red Army liberated the area in the summer of 1944. After the war was over, she returned to the family’s hiding place and found Yitskhok’s diary. As of 2010, Sore Voloshin was still alive in Israel.

And the diary she retrieved had become one of the major sources on day-to-day life in the Vilna Ghetto.

Yitskhok Rudashevski suffered and died in just the same way as hundreds of thousands of others, but unlike them he did not remain anonymous: he is one of the ghetto’s most famous inhabitants. His writings have been published in their original Yiddish and in Hebrew, German and English translations. Extracts of his diary can be found in several anthologies, and it’s available in its entirety under the title The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto.

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1943: 1,196 Jewish children from Bialystok

2 comments October 5th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1943, a special transport of 1,196 children and 53 adults arrived at Auschwitz and were gassed shortly thereafter. Thus ended one of the lesser-known tragedies of the Holocaust.

The children were very nearly the last survivors of the Bialystok Ghetto, which had been liquidated in August 1943. Almost all of the inhabitants of the ghetto wound up being sent to the Treblinka Extermination Camp and killed, but over a thousand children were mysteriously separated from their parents and taken away for some as-yet-unknown purpose. (The transport list can be found here.)

At the time, there were tentative negotiations between the Red Cross and the Nazis to trade Jewish children for either German prisoners of war or cold, hard cash. The exact details are unclear, and there’s a great deal of contradictory information about the entire event.

In any case, the Germans selected children from Bialystok, one of the few places in Nazi Europe where there were any Jewish children left alive.

The children, all of them under 16, spoke only Yiddish and Polish. They were in terrible shape, both mentally and physically. One witness later described them:

Suddenly, a column of bedraggled children appeared, hundreds of them … holding each other’s hands. The older ones helped the small ones, their little bodies moving along in the pouring rain. A column of marching ghosts, with wet rags clinging to their emaciated bodies, accompanied by a large number of SS men …

The children, looking like scarecrows, refused to undress. They held on to their dirty clothing, the older stepping in front of the young ones, protecting them with their bodies, clutching their hands and comforting those that were crying. Their clothing permeated with lice, their bodies full of sores, these children refused to wash.

Their first stop was Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, the so-called “model ghetto” which was used by the Nazis as a propaganda tool to show that they weren’t mistreating their Jews.

Theresienstadt was in fact a horribly overcrowded, disease-ridden city and its inhabitants were all dying of starvation, but it was the best there was available. There were no gas chambers there, and the Theresienstadters knew nothing about the kinds of horrors the Bialystok children had been through.

To keep knowledge of said horrors from leaking out, once in Theresienstadt the children were placed in isolation and weren’t allowed to leave their barracks. 53 doctors and nurses were recruited from the local population to take care of them, and they were locked up with the children.

In spite of these security measures, some of the adults were able to make contact with people from the outside. Theresienstadt youth leader Fredy Hirsch got caught making an unauthorized visit to the children’s barracks, for example, and as punishment he was sent to Auschwitz on the next train.

A child thought to be Deborah Klementynowska, possibly the only surviving photo of one of these lost Bialystok children.

The adults — one of whom was Franz Kafka‘s sister, Ottilie — didn’t know what to make of the children’s behavior at first.

For instance, why, when they were invited to take a shower, did they start crying and screaming about gas? The children started to talk about their experiences, and their caregivers were horrified by their stories.

The Nazis intended to quite literally fatten up the children before they were sent off into the world, so the group was treated very well. Everyone got enough to eat, and they were given baths, clean clothes, medical treatment and even toys. Anyone who got seriously ill was taken away “to the hospital” and, ahem, never returned.

Slowly, assisted by their kind caregivers, the children got their equilibrium and began to act like normal kids again.

Meanwhile, negotiations continued …

The Allies wanted to send the children to British Mandate Palestine. The Germans, however, were against this plan because they didn’t want the children growing up there, strengthening the Palestinian Jewish community and possibly establishing a Jewish state someday. (The Mufti of Jerusalem, whom the Nazis were quite friendly with, didn’t like the idea either.)

The Germans wanted the children sent to Great Britain instead.

The UK, however, had already accepted many Jewish refugees, including 10,000 German, Austrian and Czech children with the Kindertransport, and were unwilling to take in any more.

And there was another problem, relating to the prospect of exchanging the children for money.

This money would have to be provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish welfare agencies, and they flat-out refused to give anything to the people who had promised to wipe them off the face of the earth.

In the end, the negotiations collapsed, through what one witness later called “an ill-applied sense of ‘correctness'” on the part of the Allies. Of course, given the Nazis’ track record, one wonders if they ever seriously intended to release the children no matter what they were given in return.

The plan was discarded and the Germans were left with 1,196 useless Jewish children on their hands. They dealt with them in the usual manner.

None of the Bialystok group or their caregivers had any idea what was coming up for them when they were sent away from Theresienstadt. They’d been told the negotiations had been successful and they were on their way to Switzerland, and thence to Palestine. They were told to take off their yellow stars and the adults had to sign a statement promising not to say anything bad about the Germans.

The transport set off in high spirits, rejoicing at their upcoming freedom.

But their train went not to Switzerland but to Poland, marked for “special treatment” on arrival at its destination. Apart from a few of the adults who were selected to work, there were no survivors.

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1876: Jesse Pomeroy’s sentence commuted

Add comment August 31st, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1876, serial killer Jesse Pomeroy was reprieved by a 5-3 vote of the Governor’s Council of Massachusetts. Rather than hanging him, they elected to bury him alive instead.

With a “mere” two deaths to his name, at first glance Jesse Pomeroy may not seem like much of a serial killer. In fact, according to some definitions that require a higher body count, he wasn’t a serial killer at all. But give the kid some credit: he was only fourteen years old when he was caught. What’s more, his two murders were committed in a most brutal, sadistic manner.

Jesse was born in Massachusetts in 1860, the son of a violent and abusive father and a doting mother. He’d always been considered a “difficult” child and had tortured the family pets, but his known criminal career didn’t begin until he was twelve years old.

Over the course of nine months, he lured eight young boys between five and eight years old to remote areas and attacked them, beating them badly with a stick, a belt or his hands. In his later attacks he took to biting, and started using a knife as well. He tried to stick a needle into one child’s eyes, another boy, age six, was stabbed between the shoulders and had his penis nearly half cut off. Eventually Jesse would let his victims go, leaving them physically and mentally scarred for life.

Each attack was worse than the last, and each time the intervals between them got shorter. There were three months between the first assault and the second, and only five days between the seventh incident and the eighth (which was the last).

In his biography of Pomeroy, Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer, Harold Schechter described the assaults vividly:

The seventh attack occurred … on Wednesday, September 11. This time the “boy torturer” lured a seven-year-old named Joseph Kennedy to a vacant boathouse near the salt marshes of South Boston bay. Once inside the building, he slammed his victim’s head against the wall, stripped him naked, and administered a ferocious beating, breaking the little boy’s nose and knocking out several of his teeth. Then, pulling out his pocketknife, he forced the seven-year-old to kneel and ordered him to recite a profane travesty of the Lord’s Prayer, in which obscenities were substituted for Scripture.

When young Joseph refused to commit this blasphemy, his tormentor slashed him on his face, his back, his thighs. Then he dragged the bleeding child down to the marsh and — laughing delightedly at the little boy’s suffering — doused his wounds with salt water.

Most serial killers have a basically normal appearance, and some are downright handsome.

Jesse, however, actually did look pretty creepy. His head was too large for his body, he was blind in his right eye and the eyeball was covered by a whitish film that was deeply unsettling to look at. One of the boys he attacked said the eye looked like a “milkie,” a white marble. After that, the press often referred to the unknown assailant as “The Boy with the Marble Eye.”

On the day of his arrest on September 20, 1872, the police brought Joseph Kennedy, one of Pomeroy’s victims, around to various local schools to see if the child could find his attacker in the classrooms.

When little Joseph entered Jesse’s classroom, Jesse lifted his head when the teacher told him to but kept his gaze directed down at his desk. Joseph couldn’t see his deformed eye and didn’t recognize him. That afternoon, however, for some reason Jesse decided to pop in to the local police station on the way home from school. The boy was there and this time he recognized him.

Arrested and subjected to several hours of grilling, Jesse quickly confessed to his crimes, saying he “could not help himself” and wasn’t sure why he’d done such terrible things.

His victims identified him as the boy who had hurt them, and five of them testified against him in juvenile court. Jesse was sent off to the Lyman School for Boys, a juvenile reformatory.

The authorities were supposed to keep him locked up until he turned 18, but Pomeroy, who was no fool, read the fine print in his sentencing and discovered that if he “reformed,” he would be released early.

He immediately set about becoming an absolutely angelic inmate. He obeyed all the rules, did all the work assigned to him and didn’t talk back to the staff. When the other boys tried to bully him, he ignored them.

Before long, he was awarded the coveted position of dormitory monitor, with some responsibility over the other boys. On the outside, his devoted mom, who never believed in his guilt, kept up a letter-writing campaign, asking anyone with influence to help get her son released.

Jesse’s good behavior was rewarded and he was paroled to his mother’s custody in February 1874. He had been in custody for less than a year and a half. By then, his mother had left his father and was running a small store in South Boston.

On March 18 that year, six weeks after Jesse was released from the reformatory, ten-year-old Katie Curran disappeared. She was last seen when she went into the Pomeroy family’s store to buy a notebook for school. A neighbor boy saw her go into the store, where Jesse was manning the counter, but no one ever saw her come out.

Shockingly, in spite of his antecedents, the police at the time didn’t consider him a suspect in Katie’s disappearance, didn’t thoroughly search the store, and accepted his story that he hadn’t seen Katie at all that day.

This may have been because Jesse had never been known to attack little girls. In any case, over the ensuing six weeks the search instead concentrated on the Boston Wharf, on the theory that she’d accidentally fallen off a dock and drowned. Another theory was that she had been kidnapped.

The investigation went nowhere.

On April 22, Jesse accosted four-year-old Horace Millen while the child was on the way to the bakery with a few pennies to buy a sweet. Numerous witnesses saw them together, hand in hand, walking to the harbor; most of them assumed they were brothers out for an adventure.

What happened next is unprintable.

Suffice it to say that at 4:00 p.m., Horace’s body was found beyond a hill in a remote area near the shore. He’d been stabbed eighteen times in the chest, his throat was cut, and his face and genitals were mutilated. His fists were still clenched, the nails biting into his palms, indicating he’d been conscious during the attack and died in considerable pain.

As the police began their murder investigation, someone remarked that Horace’s injuries were remarkably similar to the attacks Jesse Pomeroy had committed before he was locked up two years ago.

As soon as the cops discovered Jesse was in fact on parole, they rushed to his house and took him into custody. His boots were caked with mud and grass was stuck to the soles, his face was scratched and his pocketknife was bloodstained.

At first, Jesse denied having done anything wrong. But when he was confronted with Horace Millen’s corpse, he cracked and started sobbing. “Please don’t tell my mother,” he pleaded. “Put me somewhere, so I can’t do such things.”

Unaccountably, more than a month passed from the time Jesse was arrested until Katie Curran’s body was found, and it was located by accident. Jesse’s mother and brother had to move out of their store in the wake of the murders. A new tenant moved in to the building and decided to refurbish the basement. Workers found Katie’s body. Her throat had been cut and her genitals mutilated.

When confronted with the news about Katie, Jesse denied any knowledge of her death and seemed indignant. “After all,” Harold Schechter noted, “aside from the fact that he was already in custody for child-murder and the little girl’s decomposed corpse had been found in the cellar of his family’s store, there was no reason in the world suspect him.”

Jesse ultimately confessed to killing the girl as well. He said he’d lured Katie down into the basement by saying there were some notebooks down there for her to look at. As soon as they reached the bottom of the steps, he took hold of her and cut her throat. He hadn’t even concealed her body very well, just tossing it in the ash heap.

The police search of the Pomeroys’ store must have been perfunctory indeed to have missed it.

(Jesse would later retract both confessions and claimed, to the end of his days, that he had never harmed a child in his life and was the victim of circumstances, coercive tactics by the police and a deliberate frame up.)

At his trial, his defense was one of insanity.

Three psychiatrists, or “alienists” as they were known in those days, examined him, one for the defense and two for the prosecution. Jesse told them he would get “a sudden feeling” that prompted his violence to small children and “I could not help doing it.”


Jesse Pomeroy, young and old.

The doctors noted his lack of remorse or any sympathy for his victims. They believed Jesse would always be dangerous to society. His attorney argued that he should be found not guilty by reason of insanity and then locked away in a mental institution for good.

In the end, the jury convicted him of first-degree murder, for which the mandatory penalty was hanging. However, they issued a recommendation of mercy on account of his youth.

Although juveniles had been executed in the United States before and would be again, the state of Massachusetts had never hanged a boy of fourteen. On the other hand, Jesse had committed no ordinary crimes. By any standard he was a monster. His case was extremely controversial and the governor, William Gaston, was besieged with petitions both for and against clemency.

Gaston didn’t want to hang Jesse Pomeroy and stalled on the issue for as long as he could. It may well have cost him re-election. But his successor, Alexander Rice, didn’t want to hang Jesse either, campaign promises to the contrary.

So in August 1876, two years after Jesse’s murder conviction, by which time the furor in the press had died down, Rice commuted the now-sixteen-year-old’s sentence to life in prison. But there was a catch: the sentence had to be served in solitary confinement.

He would spend 41 years in a tiny cell, isolated from the world. His mother visited him once a month until her death. The only other people he saw were the guards. He was allowed to exercise alone in the prison yard and was allowed to read books. He wrote some bad poetry. Most of his efforts, however, were concentrated on escape. Schechter records:

Nothing — no amount of time locked in a dungeon, no beatings administered with a brass-tipped cane, no efforts at reinforcing his cell — discouraged Jesse for long. When plates of boiler-iron were bolted to his walls to keep him from digging at the stones, he set to work prying loose the bolts. When the walls were painted with a white preparation that would make even a pin-scratch conspicuous, he turned his attention to the floor, cutting loose one of the heavy boards, then digging at the ground underneath … Over the course of fifty years, virtually everything that fell into his hands became a potential implement of escape … He managed, over the decades, to fashion an amazing assortment of tools: awls, chisels, saws, drills, files, pry bars.

He never even came close to breaching the prison walls and his escape attempts mainly just made him a pain in the prison’s collective ass. Then again, a man needs a hobby.

In 1887, his ninth year in the solitary cell, he caused an explosion that blasted a hole in the ceiling and temporarily blinded him but didn’t get him anywhere. Only in 1912 was he ever able to actually make it out of the cell, something that took three years of work to accomplish — and he was caught within minutes. By then he was fifty-two.

His sentence was relaxed in 1917 and he was allowed into the general population. By then, Jesse’s health was failing, and his crimes were passing out of local memory. New inmates to the prison no longer recognized his name, something that deeply upset him. In 1929, he was transferred to the prison farm at Bridgewater. He took a car to get there, his very first automobile ride, but didn’t he didn’t seem interested in his surroundings. One reporter described him as “a deadened creature gazing with lusterless eyes upon a world that means nothing to him.”

He died at the Bridgewater Prison Farm on September 29, 1932, having spent sixty of his seventy-two years behind bars.

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1944: Jakob Edelstein and family

Add comment June 20th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1944, Jakob Edelstein, his wife Miriam, their twelve-year-son Arieh and his mother-in-law Mrs. Olliner were shot to death at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland. They had been inmates in Auschwitz since the previous December; Jakob had been in an isolation cell the whole time while the others stayed in the so-called “Family Camp.”

For two years prior they’d lived in Theresienstadt (also known by its Czech name, Terezin), a the former Czech fortress town that had been turned into a city just for Jews. Jakob Edelstein was named Eldest of the Jews and was nominally in charge of the place, but in practice he had no choice but to cater to the whims of the Nazis. He was assisted by a deputy and a council of twelve.

Edelstein, a Czech Jew born in 1903, had been a leader within the Jewish community in Prague and had had papers for himself and his family to emigrate to Palestine. But when the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, Edelstein and the other Zionist leaders decided it was their duty to stay and do what they could for the community during this time of crisis.

He became a liaison between the Germans the Jewish community and tried to facilitate immigration to Palestine. From 1939 to 1941 he made several trips back and forth between Czechoslovakia and Palestine, with permission from the Germans, trying to find ways for more Jews to emigrate.

Theresienstadt was a strange place: neither concentration camp nor ghetto but something in-between, it was billed as a “paradise” and a “gift” from Hitler to the Jewish people.

Elderly Jews were sent there, as well as Jews who were “prominent” for some reason or had Aryan connections (such as Jews who had a non-Jewish spouse). It was advertised as a luxurious resort community where they could live out the rest of their lives in ease and plenty.

Residents were allowed to receive food packages from the outside, and send postcards (one per month, limited to 30 words, and censored).

Many people believed the propaganda and were persuaded to go there voluntarily, signing all their possessions and assets to the German government in exchange for what they thought would be a comfortable and peaceful retirement.

The 500-ish Danish Jews who weren’t evacuated to Sweden by the Danish Underground right after the Nazi invasion of Denmark were ultimately sent to Theresienstadt. Many talented artists, actors, musicians and scholars lived there. The Nazis would ultimately make a propaganda film about how wonderful life was in Theresienstadt, and a Red Cross delegation toured the place and came away satisfied.

As you might have guessed, living conditions within the fortress city didn’t exactly live up to what it said in the brochures.

It’s true that it was possible to survive in Theresienstadt for an extended time period, even for the duration of the war. There were no gas chambers and relatively few executions. Certainly it was worlds apart from, say, Auschwitz or Treblinka. But that was as close to “paradise” as it got.

Theresienstadt was, as George E. Berkley says in his book Hitler’s Gift: The Story of Theresienstadt, “a joke hatched in hell.”

Yes, there were stores, more than a dozen of them, but their stock consisted of “goods the Nazis had originally confiscated from the residents and later found they didn’t need or want.”

Theresienstadt, like the Lodz Ghetto, had a bank and its own money, but there was nothing to spend it on. “The ghetto crowns,” Berkley says, “were used mostly like Monopoly money in playing cards and other games. Still, the bank staff kept themselves busy balancing their books, and auditors arrived regularly from Berlin to ensure the accuracy of the bank’s essentially fictitious accounts.”

Theresienstadt’s population, at its peak, was 58,497, in a town which before the war had a population of less than 10,000. Nearly everyone had lice, toilets and taps were scarce, and disease was rampant.

Families were separated, with husbands, wives and children each residing in different barracks.

“Horrendous as Theresienstadt housing conditions may have been,” Berkley says, “they were not the residents’ chief source of daily suffering. Food, or rather, the lack of it, weighed on them much more heavily.” The menu, he explains,

consisted chiefly of bread, potatoes, and a watery soup. Some margarine and sugar — about two ounces a week of the former and less than one and one-half ounces of the latter — were sometimes included. The residents were also to receive up to four ounces of meat, mostly horseflesh, and up to eight ounces of skim milk a week, though many a week would see less or none of those foodstuffs available. No fruits were ever officially distributed, and turnips were the only vegetable to show up with any regularity.

Estimates of total per capita calories provided daily ranged from 1300 or less, to 1800, with the lower figure being more frequently mentioned. This should be compared with the “Special Regime” given the worst offenders in the Soviet labor camps which provided about 2,000 calories.

According to modern nutritional guidelines, to maintain a healthy weight, the average adult with an average level of physical activity needs 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day. At Theresienstadt all inmates between age 14 and 70 had to work long hours, many of them at strenuous jobs. In addition to being calorie-deficient, the Theresienstadt rations lacked essential vitamins and minerals. It’s no wonder that one survivor later recalled, “After three months in Theresienstadt, there was only one feeling left in my body: hunger.”

Six months after his arrival, Edelstein and the Council of Elders made a difficult decision about the food problem, as Berkley records:

It became apparent that an even distribution of the food supply would not allow the ghetto to survive. Those doing heavy work needed more than those doing normal work, and the latter needed more than nonworkers. In addition, children required extra rations, for they represented the Jewish future…

Thus, heavy workers … began to receive a little over 2,000 calories of food a day. Children were to get 1,800 and regular workers a little over 1,500. But the daily intake for nonworkers, which included most of the elderly, fell to less than 1,000 calories.

This terrible choice, however necessary to the population’s long-term survival, consigned thousands of people to death.

But even though starvation and disease took many lives, the most deadly aspect of life in Theresienstadt was deportation.

Contrary to what the propaganda messages said about people living out their lives in Theresienstadt, it was largely a transit camp. Most people who arrived would be sent on “to the east” sooner or later; some of them lasted only a few days in the fortress city before being deported.

Although certain classes of people, such as decorated World War I veterans, “prominent” people and those over 65, were in theory exempted from deportation, in practice anyone could be sent away and just about everyone ultimately was.

Approximately 145,000 denizens passed through Theresienstadt during the course of its existence, most of them from Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria. About a quarter of these inmates died within Theresienstadt itself. Another 88,000 were deported to Auschwitz and other camps in the East, almost all of them dying there. Out of about 15,000 children who passed through Theresienstadt, less than 2,000 survived, and some estimates put the number in the low hundreds.

When the camp was liberated, it had a population of about 17,000, and most of those had arrived in the during the final months of the war.

Jakob Edelstein didn’t know about the gas chambers when he became Eldest of the Jews at Theresienstadt in December 1941, but he knew that conditions in the East were very bad and realized that, in order for the community to sustain itself, as many people as possible had to remain within Czechoslovakia.

As a committed Zionist, he hoped that the young people in the camp would survive and go on to colonize Israel. Like most other leaders of Jewish communities throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, he made the decision to cooperate with the occupiers in hopes of saving lives.

And as far as that goes, he failed, as the numbers quoted above indicate. But if he failed, so did everyone else.

Unlike many Jewish officials in the Nazi ghettos, he wasn’t corrupt and he wasn’t a toady to the Germans. It’s worth noting that he had many opportunities to flee the country with his family, even after the war started: all he had to do was not come back to Europe after one of his trips overseas.

But he stayed, because he felt he had a responsibility to his beleaguered people.

Edelstein did the best he could with what he had to work with, which is all you can say for anybody. He worked tirelessly, making himself available at all hours, and under his leadership the camp developed a welfare system as well as many cultural and sports activities.

His job as Eldest of the Jews in Theresienstadt, trying to play the balancing act between advocating for his people and not pissing off the Germans, was always extremely stressful, difficult and dangerous.

But things really started to go downhill for him after the city’s first commandant, Siegfried Siedl, got reassigned to Bergen-Belsen in July 1943.

Siedl’s replacement, Anton Burger, hated Czechs and took an immediate dislike to Edelstein as a result. He replaced Edelstein with Paul Eppstein [German language link, as is the next], a German, and demoted Edelstein to first deputy to Eppstein. Benjamin Murmelstein, an Austrian, became second deputy.

This wasn’t enough for Burger, however, as George Berkley records:

As leader of the Czech Jews, [Edelstein] naturally bore the brunt of Burger’s hatred for them. The new commandant had not only deported many of his countrymen and his chief aide … but had also moved Germans and Austrians into key positions formerly held by Czechs. Burger had apparently also stirred up his own superiors against him for during the fall some bakery workers, looking out the window, saw and heard Eichmann sharply dressing down Edelstein and even threatening to have him shot.

The incident alarmed Edelstein’s many loyal followers and the next day the leaders of Hechalutz, the largest Zionist organization in the camp, met with him to urge him to flee. They said they could help him escape … But though he suspected a Nazi scheme to get rid of him, Edelstein refused to run away.

In the end, the Nazis didn’t need to trump up any charges of insubordination or sabotage against their former Eldest of the Jews: they found some real “crimes.” It seems that Edelstein had been saving people from deportation by allowing them to remain in Theresienstadt, off the books, and adding the names of dead people to the transport lists to make the numbers match up.

He was immediately arrested. It was November 9, 1943, the fifth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Edelstein was kept in custody in Theresienstadt until December 18, when he and his mother-in-law, his wife, and his young son were sent to Auschwitz with a transport of 2,500 others. The transport became part of the Auschwitz “Family Camp”, joining 5,000 Czech Jews who’d arrived there from Theresienstadt in September.

Edelstein’s family was allowed to join the Family Camp. Edelstein himself was put in the punishment block and subjected to interrogation although not, apparently, tortured. He gave nothing away.

In March 1944, the residents of the Family Camp who’d arrived in September were gassed. The December group was allowed to stay alive for the time being.

On June 20, an SS officer went to Edelstein’s cell and told him he’d been sentenced to death. While the condemned man (who’d become quite popular in jail) was taking leave of his fellow inmates, the SS officer got impatient and snapped, “quickly, quickly.”

Edelstein replied, “I am the master of my last movements.”

He was driven to the execution site and then the car went away to fetch Miriam, Ariah and Mrs. Olliner. Miriam had measles and had to be brought on a stretcher. The Nazis forced Jakob Edelstein to watch as his wife, child and mother-in-law were shot to death. He was the last of them to die.

The remaining residents of the family camp were gassed in early July 1944.

Paul Eppstein was executed in Theresienstadt in September. Murmelstein became Eldest of the Jews in his place and actually managed to survive the war. Because he had lived, he spent the rest of his life under a cloud of distrust and suspicion as a possible collaborator.

Siegfried Siedl was hanged for war crimes in 1947. Anton Burger escaped Allied custody (twice) after the war, assumed a new identity and died of natural causes in Essen in 1991. His true identity wasn’t discovered for years after his death.

After the war, the city of Theresienstadt reverted to its former name of Terezin, and the fortress became an internment camp for ethnic Germans, who found themselves quite unpopular in the newly liberated Czechoslovakia and were expelled from the country in droves. The internment camp closed in 1948.

The modern town of Terezin has a population of 3,500 and is noted for its manufacture of knitwork and furniture. Tourists from all over the world come to learn about its important role in one of the most tragic events in modern history.

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1944: Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane

26 comments June 10th, 2013 Meaghan


(cc) image from fintbo.

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

On this date in 1944, four days after the Allied invasion of Normandy, an SS battalion from the 2nd SS Panzer Division massacred almost the entire village of Oradour-sur-Glane in west central France, slaughtering in all 642 people.

You can read all about this hecatomb and its aftermath on this very thorough and impressive website dedicated to the atrocity, from which much of the information in this account is drawn.

The tiny village, which you could walk through in all of ten minutes, had been the victim of mistaken identity.

Twenty miles away was a somewhat larger town with a similar name, Oradour-sur-Vayres, which was known for its Resistance activity. Adolf Diekmann, commander of the SS battalion, had been informed that the French Resistance had captured an SS officer (possibly the kidnapped Waffen-SS Sturmbahnfuhrer Helmut Kampfe, who had been executed by the Resistance earlier that same day) in Oradour-sur-Vayres and decided reprisals were needed, but he got the two villages mixed up and went to Oradour-sur-Glane instead.

When the SS arrived in the village at lunchtime, they ordered all the inhabitants to assemble in the fairground to have their papers checked. Everyone had to come, including children and the sick. Six people who were not residents but happened to be in the village at the time were also sent to the fairground.

Twenty villagers who had some compelling reason to avoid the Nazis, or merely had a bad feeling about the whole thing, hid or left the village as soon as the SS division showed up. These twenty survived. One seven-year-old boy, Roger Godfrin, was spotted and shot at, but survived by playing dead. He was the only survivor in his family, and the youngest survivor from the town.

The women and children were locked in the village church, and the men were lead to barns and sheds where the machine guns were set up. They were shot in their lower bodies and legs, in order to prolong their deaths. One of the men, who’d lost a leg in World War I, supposedly cried out, “Those bastards! They have cut my other leg off!”

After the shooting, as the men of Oradour-sur-Glane lay helpless, the SS men locked the sheds and set them on fire.

Only six men were able to escape. They hid in some rabbit hutches for several hours before attempting to escape the village. Five of them made it, but Pierre-Henri Poutaraud was spotted later that day and shot dead. The SS man who shot him then tethered a horse to Poutaraud’s outstretched hand.

In all, 190 men were killed.

The SS division then went back to the church, set off a smoke bomb inside it, and set the building on fire. Anyone who tried to get out of the church was machine-gunned. One woman cried out that she was German, not French, and begged to be released, but the SS shoved her back into the flames.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche was able to slip out the back window, and another woman followed her with her seven-month-old baby, but all three of them were shot and only Marguerite survived, hiding in a garden for more than 24 hours until help arrived. Her two daughters were killed. (Marguerite refused to leave Oradour after the massacre. She remained there for the rest of her ninety-one years and is now buried in the village cemetery.)

The church fire and shootings claimed the lives of 247 children and 205 women.


Children from the village’s girl’s school, in the 1942-1943 school year. All of these girls were killed in the massacre.

Unbeknownst to the Nazis, there were several Jews living in the village, among them five children between the ages of eight and fifteen. Twelve of them were killed. In the case of a Jewish family called Pinede, the parents decided to present themselves for inspection but told their three children to hide. The children survived; their parents did not. One of those three Jewish survivors was still alive as of 2004.

Several days passed for the 26 survivors were permitted to bury their dead. Only 52 of the bodies could be identified; the other ones were burned too badly to be recognizable.

Collective punishment in reprisal for the actions of others was par for the course in Nazi-occupied Europe, and Adolf Diekmann had directed his unit to commit a number of mass shootings. Even so, he didn’t have authorization for the bloody events at Oradour-sur-Glane and his commanding officer requested for a court-martial, saying, “I cannot allow the regiment to be charged with something like this.” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel supposedly volunteered to preside over the court-martial himself.

But before that could happen, the war took care of Diekmann: he was killed on the Normandy front on June 19, hit in the head with shrapnel, a mere nine days after his last atrocity. The front, in fact, took care of most of his unit: only 65 of the 200 members survived the war.

In 1953 in Bordeaux, a military tribunal convened to hear the case against the surviving members of the 2nd Panzer Division. Only 22 of them were present in the courtroom; the others were in East Germany, which refused to extradite them. All but one said they’d been conscripted into the SS; one of them admitted he’d joined voluntarily to fight Communism.

To further complicate matters, 15 of the defendants present were actually French nationals of German descent, from Alsace-Moselle, and 14 of them claimed they’d been drafted against their wishes.

(After they conquered France, Germany declared inhabitants of Alsace to be German citizens whether they wanted to be or not, and drafted the region’s men. The conscripts were known in France as Malgre-nous, meaning literally “despite ourselves.”)

In addition, eight of the French defendants had been under the age of 18 when they were drafted into the SS, making them minors under French law. Many French people, including some of the survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane, viewed the Alsatian conscripts as fellow-victims of Nazi Germany and didn’t believe they should be held responsible for their actions.

Most of the defendants were cagey.

They implicated each other, but not themselves, admitting to some specific offenses but denying other, far more serious ones. One man, for example, said he’d been part of an execution squad that shot 20 men, but insisted he’d only helped load the machine guns and hadn’t personally shot anyone. Another said he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane at all, but was stationed as a sentry outside the village to prevent escapes. Only one of the defendants had admitted to killing anyone at all prior to the trial.

Twelve members of the victims’ families came to watch the trial proceedings, including an eight-year-old girl whose father and grandfather had been killed. Marguerite Rouffanche was ill at the time of the trial and very weak, but she showed up anyway and testify about her experience. Roger Godfrin, the little boy who played dead, also testified.

The tribunal’s judge demanded the defendants view photographs of the charred corpses of the victims, saying, “Let them look at the glorious work of the valiant Third Company of Der Führer Regiment.”

When the prosecutor summed up the case, he referred to the defendants’ evasive statements and said, “You might as well say despite the heaps of ashes and ruins, that the massacre never took place. But the people of Oradour are dead.”

The tribunal deliberated for thirty-two hours before returning its verdicts. One of the defendants was able to prove he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane the day of the killings, and was acquitted. The rest were convicted.

The 46 members of the SS unit who hadn’t shown up for trial were sentenced to death in absentia, as was one of the German nationals and one of the French. The others got various prison sentences, mostly between five and eight years, none exceeding twelve years. The Germans tended to get longer prison terms than the French. In addition, the Germans were prohibited from residing in France for at least twenty years.


Survivors of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre.

No one in France was happy with the tribunal’s ruling: some said the sentences were too harsh, others, too lenient. In the face of widespread protests from the Alsace area and threats to secede from France, the French National Assembly passed a bill granting amnesty to all Malgre-nous (at a vote of 319 to 211, with a whopping 83 abstentions) and 13 of the 14 Frenchmen were released only eight days after the verdict was rendered. (One of them, the one who had volunteered for the SS, got no sympathy from anyone and no such leniency.)

Germany was upset, saying it was unfair to pardon the French SS but not the Germans. But within five years, everyone had been freed. No one was actually executed.

In 1981, East German authorities tracked down Heinz Barth, a second lieutenant in the 2nd Panzer Division, and put him on trial in their country for his role in the Oradour-sur-Glane Massacre.

He never tried to deny his participation in the attack, and used the old “just following orders” defense, saying, “In war one acts harshly and with the means available.” Barth admitted he helped round up the village men and personally shot fifteen times into the crowd. He also acknowledged responsibility for the deaths of nearly 100 people in Czechoslovakia.

Barth was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison. In 1991, still behind bars, he was awarded a pension as a “war victim” because he’d been wounded in Normandy in August 1944 and lost a leg. The resulting howls of protest led the government of a newly reunited Germany to pass a law stripping convicted war criminals of their pensions.

Barth was released from prison in 1997, and managed to finagle his war pension back somehow. He died of cancer ten years later, at the age of 86.

Marguerite Rouffanche died in 1988. Her fellow-survivor Roger Godfrin died in 2004.

The survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane created a new village after the war, but the burned-out ruins of the old village remain, with rusted cars, sewing machines, bicycles and other personal items lying in plain sight on the street, a grim testimony to what happened there nearly seventy years ago.


The ruins of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane today. (cc) image from Olivier Lepicier.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Children,Execution,France,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women

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