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).
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.
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.
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 otherleaders 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.
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.
On this date in 1886, thirteen Catholic men and boys, as well as nine Anglican Christians, were burned alive in Buganda, a kingdom in modern-day Uganda. Most of them pages at the royal court, they had been martyred for their faith.
The kingdom of Buganda came in contact with Europeans in the 1860s; Arab traders had been doing business there a few decades before that. Christian missionaries arrived in Buganda in 1879. In the next few years many court officials converted.
King Muteesa I tolerated Muslims, Catholics and Protestants and played them off against other for political gain, but his sixteen-year-old son, Mwanga II, who ascended the throne in 1884, was a different story altogether. He saw Christianity as a serious threat to his authority and cracked down on its influence.
Mwanga expelled many missionaries ordered converts to renounce their faith on pain of death. He had James Hannington, the Anglican Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, executed in October 1885.
Between 1885 and 1887, Mwanga ordered the deaths of 45 Christian men (22 Catholics and 23 Anglicans). Collectively they are known as the Martyrs of Uganda. Most of them were young. (One of the boys who would die on this day was all of fourteen years old.)
Joseph Mukasa was the first of the Martyrs to die. A page and personal attendant to King Muteesa, he became majordomo after Mwanga took the throne, and had permission to criticize the king. He had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1882. Mukasa had strongly urged Mwanga to spare Bishop Hannington’s life.
For his pains, Mukasa was himself executed and his body burned only two weeks after Hannington. The chief page, Charles Lwanga, became majordomo in his place.
The following day, the king assembled all the pages and demanded under pain of death that they confess their Christian allegiance. All of them, Catholic and Anglican, except for three, did so. Mwanga was baffled by the solidarity and constancy of the young Christians, but hesitated to carry out his threat to kill them all. Several times in early December the king attempted to intimidate his pages, in spite of visits from the Catholic and Anglican missionaries. On one occasion, Lwanga exclaimed that, so far from helping the white men to take over the kingdom, he was ready to lay down his life for the king.
After the fire in the royal palace on February 22, 1886, Mwanga moved the court temporarily to his hunting lodge at Munyonyo on the shore of Lake Victoria. Here Lwanga continued to protect the pages … and to prepare them for possible martyrdom. By this time, Mwanga had obtained the consent of his chiefs for a massacre of the Christians. Meanwhile, Lwanga himself baptized five of the most promising catechumens. On May 26 … the pages entered the royal courtyard to receive judgement. Once again, they were called upon to confess their faith. This they did, declaring that they were ready to die rather than to deny it. Mwanga ordered them all, sixteen Catholics and ten Anglicans, to be burnt alive at Namugongo.
Several of the condemned were killed before the main event. The oldest, Matthias Kalema, aged about fifty, was dismembered alive and pieces of him were roasted before his eyes. He died slowly and horribly over the course of three days, finally expiring on May 30. Three others collapsed during the march to the execution site in Namugongo and were killed on the spot.
One of them, however, was inexplicably spared at the last possible moment. Denis Kamyuka was pulled away from the fire by some of the soldiers. It’s worth noting that Kamyuka appears to have been among the youngest of the group, around thirteen or fourteen; perhaps his executioners took pity on him for this reason. It is from his testimony that we know the details of what happened to his friends.
Everyone prayed and recited the catechism on the way to their deaths. Each of the pages were bound and wrapped up in reeds before being placed alive in the bonfire. The exception was Mbaaga Tuzinde, the son of the chief executioner; his father, who had pleaded for him to renounce his religion and offered to hide him, ordered that he be clubbed to death before being put into the flames.
Charles Lwanga, their leader, was burned separately from the others and was allowed to arrange his own pyre. As the executioners taunted him he said, “It is as if you are pouring water on me.”
In 1888, Christian and Muslim converts deposed King Mwanga in a British-backed uprising and put his brother on the throne in his place. Mwanga got his crown back in 1889 after he agreed to turn partial control of Buganda to the British East Africa Company. In 1897, however, he declared war on the British and attacked them. Trounced within weeks, Mwanga fled the country and was deposed in absentia. He returned with an army, but was defeated again, this time for good, and exiled to the Seychelles. In the final years of his short life he converted to Anglicanism. He died in 1903, aged 35.
The 22 Catholic converts who were martyred in Uganda during Mwanga II’s reign were beatified in 1920. Denis Kamyuka was present at the ceremony.
The site where the Uganda Martyrs were burned is now a holy shrine, a 33-acre site marked by a distinctive conical building. Every year on this date, pilgrims come there to commemorate Uganda Martyrs Day.
On this date in 1872, a faltering John Presswood Jr., “nearly 18 years old,” was publicly hanged in Smithville, Tenn., for a still-infamous crime there. He’s the last person to suffer that fate in DeKalb County.
This image (click for a larger version) of the Presswood hanging — in which the gallows practically disappear into the scenery — comes from the Library of Congress.
It was all the way back in late 1870 that Presswood murdered 36-year-old Rachel Fowler Billings, a Civil War widow remarried to a man who unfortunately was away rafting the Caney Fork River. Presswood savagely axed the woman to death in her house, in the presence of her three children — and bashed 11-year-old Inez, the oldest of them, with the axe as well.
Inez survived, but hadn’t seen the attacker. Her three-year-old (!) half-sister provided the identification: “It was Bill Presswood.” While the assailant calmly cleaned himself up with the family water bucket, the traumatized kids comforted each other around the butchered corpse of their mother. (Later, other women of the community would shrink from the neighborly job of tidying up poor Rachel for burial — so horribly had she been mauled.) In the end, the badly injured Inez had to hoof it half a mile to the nearest neighbor to summon help.
An estimated 8,000 people crowded Smithville’s courthouse square for the execution. The sheriff charged with conducting it made sure to give them a pulse-pounding, excrutiating (especially for Presswood!) show.
Immediately following the sermon and reading of the confession, Sheriff Henry Blackburn put a hood over Presswood’s head, attached the rope tightly and stood back.
With his hand on the trip bar, he intoned, “Presswood, you have five minutes to Live.”
The crowd surged forward, and then relaxed.
Again Sheriff Blackburn said, “Presswood, you have four minutes to live.”
Beside the lonely figure in the hood, Sheriff Blackburn stood out in sharp contrast. He was a handsome figure, tall, well proportioned and filled with the dignity of his office. He was “High Sheriff” of Dekalb County.
After seemingly hours Sheriff Blackburn announced, “Presswood, you have three minutes to live.”
Occasionally a sob as if a heart were being torn from a body was heard, but there was no outburst from the crowd. The stillness of the May morning was again broken by the commanding voice of Sheriff Blackburn, “Presswood, you have two minutes to live.”
By now several persons in the crowd, no doubt from a pang of conscience, were shifting from one foot to another. Neighbors look guilty at neighbors and the calmest man of all was Sheriff Blackburn as he announced, “Presswood, you have one minute to live.”
Brave members of the crowd gazed intently, wonderingly as the still form with the hood on his head stood torically on the scaffold just a few feet above their heads.
Suddenly Sheriff Blackburn shouted, “Presswood, you die” and sprung the trap. The body jerked at the end of the rope, quivered slightly, and was still.
On this date in 1945, as Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday within a Red Army cordon, one of the Second World War’s more tear-jerking little crimes against humanity happened in Hamburg.
Bullenhuser Damm — still to be found today — was a former Hamburg school which fell out of use as World War II progressed, owing to the devastation Allied bombings wrought on the surrounding area.
The school itself sustained little damage, however, which eventually facilitated its appropriation as a satellite building for the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp.
Over at Neuengamme, the SS doctor Kurt Heissmeyer had been conducting a litany of horror medical experiments on 20 Jewish children — mostly from Poland — culled from the concentration camps, seeking medical evidence for Nazi racial theories further to a cushy professorship. But as April 1945 was obviously endgame for the Third Reich, thoughts naturally turned to disposing of evidence of indictable offenses.
Photos of the eventual Bullenhuser Damm victims showing their surgical scars after Heissmeyer injected them with tuberculosis.
Bullenhuser Damm was just the place for disposal.
On April 20, the 20 kids were loaded up on trucks with their four adult caretakers — two French, two Dutch — plus six Soviet prisoners of war.
At Bullenhuser Damm, the kids were parked in a room and hung out, blissfully ignorant of their danger. “They had all their things with them — some food, some toys they had made themselves, etc,” physician Alfred Trzebinski later recalled at his own trial. “They sat on the benches and were happy that they had gotten out. They didn’t suspect a thing.”
In the next room, the 10 adults were being hanged.
According to Admitting the Holocaust, Trzebinski was impressed with his own compassionate use of this bit of down time: he generously gave the children morphine shots to sedate them before their own executions. Or rather, their murders … since the doctor could not but agree that “you cannot execute children, you can only murder them.”
I must say that in general the children’s condition was very good, except for one twelve-year-old boy who was in bad shape; he therefore fell asleep very quickly. Six or eight of the children were still awake — the others were already sleeping … Frahm [an orderly] lifted the twelve-year-old boy and said to the others that he was taking him to bed. He took him to a room that was maybe six or eight yards away, and there I saw a rope already attached to a hook. Frahm put the sleeping boy into the noose and with all his weight pulled down on the body of the boy so that the noose would tighten. (Trzebinski, again)
The other 19 children were disposed of in like manner, and then all 30 corpses cremated overnight … just in time for what must have been a much-needed 5 a.m. coffee.
Trzebinski’s take on his conduct this horrible night might have been good enough for his conscience, but it didn’t pass muster with his judges: he was hanged on a war crimes rap prominently including Bullenhuser Damm on October 8, 1946. Kurt Heissmeyer, however, avoided detection until 1959 and only received a long prison sentence in 1966, shortly before his death.
Late this night in 1969, a platoon of seven Navy SEALs slipped into the Mekong Delta village of Thanh Phong.*
At their head was a 25-year-old lieutenant, the future United States Senator Bob Kerrey.
Thanh Phong was reportedly an official U.S. Army free fire zone. That meant that any Vietnamese civilians within it were presumptively enemies and could be slain at will — according to the U.S. Army, if not to any recognizable law of war.
In Thanh Phong, they were slain. Nearly every single person in the town.
Kerrey’s Raiders — the commando team’s comradely self-designation — were hunting a local National Liberation Front “general secretary” purported to be in Thanh Phong. By “hunting,” we mean they intended to murder him; given the nature and timing of the operation, it was presumably part of the brute-force assassination program Operation Speedy Express and/or its equally sinister CIA-run cousin, the Phoenix Program.
On this particular mission, Lt. Kerrey’s team first encountered an unexpected hut, not on their map. Fearing the people inhabiting it would blow their cover, they entered and killed the five inhabitants: quietly, intimately, at close quarters with their knives. It was an old man, a woman, and three young children. It’s a nasty business but it’s not what qualifies Thanh Phong as a potential execution … though it may explain the execution that followed.
After these unfortunate villagers were disposed of, the SEALs moved on towards the doomed hamlet. This same platoon had been to Thanh Phong two weeks before, and reported then that it held nothing but a few women. On February 25, they found much the same scene: no “general secretary.” Just 16 women and children.
Klann: We gathered everybody up, searched the place, searched everything.
Rather: What was the make-up of this group?
Klann: Probably a majority of em were kids. And women. And some younger women.
Rather: So you got all the people out of there.
Klann: We herded them together and in a group.
Rather: Were any of these people armed?
Klann: I don’t believe so.
Rather: Fair to say you didn’t see any weapons?
Klann: I didn’t see any.
Rather: Did you decide pretty quickly or not that the target of your mission, the Viet Cong leader, was not among them?
Klann: Yeah, we got together and we were, hey the guy ain’t here. Now we got these people, what do we do now?
Rather: What did you do then?
Klann: We killed them.
Rather: What do you mean, you killed em?
Klann: We shot them all.
Rather: Was an order given for that or was it more or less spontaneous?
Klann: I don’t think we would have acted spontaneously on something like that. There was an order given.
Rather: What was the order?
Klann: To kill them.
Klann: Cause we’d already compromised ourselves by killing the other group.
Rather: Whose responsibility, whose obligation as it to say that?
Klann: The ultimate responsibility fell on Bob Kerrey.
Rather: Do you remember him saying that?
Klann: I don’t remember his exact words, but he was the officer in charge. The call was his.
Rather: And then what happened?
Klann: We lined up, and we opened fire.
Rather: Individually or raked them with automatic weapons fire?
Klann: No. We, we just slaughtered them. It was automatic weapons fire. Rifle fire.
Rather: At roughly what range?
Klann: Six feet, ten feet, very close.
Rather: Then did the shooting stop?
Klann: Yeah, for a little bit.
Rather: Was it quiet?
Klann: It was dead quiet. It was dead quiet. Then you could just hear certain people, hear their moaning. So we would just fire into that area until it was silent there. And that was it. And, and until, we were sure that everybody was dead.
Rather: You said certain people were moaning or making noises. Were all those adults?
Klann: A few. I remember one baby still crying. That baby was probably the last one alive.
Rather: What happened to that baby?
Klann: Shot like the rest of em.
Klann’s testimony of a summary execution comports with that of a Vietnamese woman who says she hid on the outskirts of the tiny village and witnessed the slaughter.
Bob Kerrey has a different version of these events. The reader is invited to peruse the evidence available and conclude as desired; for me, Kerrey’s version is not very persuasive especially given the witness testimony to the contrary and the known normalization of atrocities in Indochina.
Kerrey agrees with Klann that the entire village ended up slaughtered together in a heap; a complaint against this atrocity was officially filed with the Army by Vietnamese locals within days of the incident, so there’s not much scope to deny the outcome. But Kerrey claims this happened when the SEAL team received incoming fire as they approached the village, then started shooting back wildly in the dark. Only after the bullets stopped flying did they find the civilians 50 to 100 yards further on.
Improbably — but much more consistent with an intentional, close-range massacre — all these women and children chanced to be huddled together, and all of them were stone dead from the crossfire. Not a one of these people accidentally winged in the night was wounded but alive, says Kerrey.
Kerrey’s commentary in Vistica’s initial story and its follow-ups suggests the judicious politician he had by that time become. In 2001 he had just retired from the Senate and was an elder statesman in government; he was said to be weighing a 2004 presidential bid. (His actual next gig, not anticipated at the time the story broke, was the 9/11 Commission.)
In interviews with Vistica and subsequently, Kerrey waffled and qualified cagily — shifting from a flat denial, to a weird acknowledgment that “it’s possible a slight version of that happened.” He wouldn’t commit to asserting that there really was incoming fire. He moved the conversation wherever possible to the abiding torments of conscience and the slipperiness of memory and perspective, as if this could span the distance from “summary execution” to “accidentally killed in the crossfire.” He maintained that there were only men in the first hut — that hut, alone among the village — but that this was only an indirect recollection since he didn’t enter it or participate in the killings.
“Please understand,” Kerrey emailed to Vistica in 2000, “that my memory of this event is clouded by the fog of the evening, age and desire.” Desire is a striking word to select.
For all their plausible deniability, Kerrey’s remarks on this matter markedly lacked indignation at bearing such a monstrous charge. Kerrey’s great and unfeigned sense of personal guilt was oddly mirrored by his inability to own a specifically culpable act. The Senator expressly declined to deny Gerhard Klann’s “memory.” (Klann said Kerrey urged him not to talk about Thanh Phong.)
Kerrey won a Bronze Star for Thanh Phong. “The net result of his patrol,” according to a citation Kerrey has acknowledged is fanciful, “was 21 Viet Cong killed, two hooches destroyed and two enemy weapons captured.”
Seventeen days after Thanh Phong, Kerrey’s service career came to an end when a grenade exploded at his feet during another assassination mission. Kerrey earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for continuing to direct fire while crippled by wounds on that day; by accounts, he spent the several years following mired deep in depression.
“I went out on a mission and after it was over I was so ashamed I wanted to die,” he said of Thanh Phong in 2001. “This is killing me. I’m tired of people describing me as a hero and holding this inside.”
It goes without saying that war crimes in Vietnam remain much too sensitive for the U.S. to grapple with formally. The story is out there now, but it’s been effectively reburied as far as the American public memory goes — another everyday horror in a horrible conflict. More information might oneday surface, but the matter will only be adjudicated between Gerhard Klann, Bob Kerrey, their comrades that night, and their Maker.
Not so in Vietnam where — with all due respect to the pangs that conscience can exact — the real victims lie.
A display of the sewer pipe where the three children killed at the first hut tried to hide, along with photographs and an explanatory placard describing the Thanh Phong massacre, at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. (cc) images by Schwede66.
* The only other member of the team who has spoken publicly, Mike Ambrose, backs Klann’s version of the hut narrative, and (mostly) Kerrey’s version of the (non-)execution. As Vistica’s initial investigation was going public, Kerrey convened a meeting of the other Raiders, their first since Vietnam; the group issued a statement denying that they had committed an execution of prisoners.
On this date in 1999, Sean Sellers became the last person put to death in the U.S. for a crime committed at the age of 16.
Sellers was just four months into his 17th year when he shot dead an Oklahoma City convenience store clerk in a haze of adolescent angst.
“When I was that person, that murderer, I felt superior,” he later wrote in a confession. “I looked down on people with the secret knowledge that I had killed and was capable of killing them too. When I was not that person I was just a confused teenager, going to school, working, learning to drive, still full of anger, and counting the days when I’d be 18 so I could move OUT of that house.”
Six months later, he moved OUT for good by killing his mother and stepfather as they slept. This killing did not stay secret.
But on trial for having avowedly killed as “an offering to Satan” during the height of the 1980s’ bizarre devil-worship panic, his age barely figured at all. A cash-strapped public defender tried to argue that he was possessed; later, a defense psychiatrist claimed that Sellers suffered from multiple personality disorder. It’s safe to say the young man wasn’t right in the head at some level, but this sort of thing is juridical grasping at straws.
Sellers later converted to Christianity, but this conversion wouldn’t help him any more than it had helped Karla Faye Tucker the year before. In Sellers’ case, quite a lot of people thought it was all more or less a scam — the manipulative killer’s ploy to avoid the needle.
One footnote to the much-hyped Satanism angle was the teenage Sellers’ interest in Dungeons & Dragons. (Just him and a few million other people.)
A guy like Sean Sellers magic missile-ing a beholder one day and then wasting his parents the next — that was pretty much the Platonic ideal of the anti-D&D campaign. People magazine said the hobby “fueled his darkening fantasies”. (For his part, Sellers disputed the connection.)
As an aside, this “rant” (author’s word) from a man whose ex-wife became involved in the Sellers clemency campaign is a pretty interesting snapshot of the prisoner himself, and of the relationships in close proximity to him.
On this day in 1828, a black slave named James Guild, also known as Little Jim, was hanged in Farmington, New Jersey.
His crime, though brutal, was commonplace enough. But his case was extraordinary for another reason: at the time of his offense, Little Jim was twelve years, five months and thirteen days old.
On September 24, 1827, Little Jim took a break from his work in his master’s cornfield and went to the home of Catherine Beakes, a white woman in her sixties who lived with her son and grandson. She was home alone at the time, and Jim wanted to borrow her rifle to go fowling.
Some time prior to this, someone had tampered with Mrs. Beakes’s livestock, releasing the pigs from their pen during the night and letting the chickens out of their coop. She believed the culprit was Little Jim and, though he denied this, she had told him to stay off her property or she would tell his master, Mr. Bunn.
So when he knocked on the door and asked for the gun, she refused to give it to him.
Jim was angry, he said later, that the “damned old bitch” had been “saucy” to him for no reason.
So, after Mrs. Beakes had her back turned and thought he was gone, he took up a metal horse yoke and sneaked up on her from behind. He bludgeoned her to death in her own house as she was tending the fire, crushing her skull, shattering her jaw and gouging out one of her eyes.
He left the gore-caked weapon next to her corpse.
Little Jim came under suspicion and confessed to the murder after someone told him liars went to hell. At his trial, he said he’d killed Mrs. Beakes because he was afraid she would inform on him to Mr. Bunn and get him in trouble.
It is an issue that remains highly controversial even now, nearly 200 years later.
The jury convicted James Guild of first-degree murder, which meant an automatic death sentence … but the judge was reluctant to execute a preteen. He referred the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court for sentencing, as Hearn records:
Special hearings were held to probe all aspects of Jim’s mentality. It was found that he knew right from wrong as well as the consequences of murder. He knew about the sanctity of an oath. It was also clear that Jim had had the wherewithal to confess what he had done based on his own rationale. Moreover, the appellate judges found what they considered to be ample precedent for condoning the execution of preteen felons — especially those of precocious acumen … The use of his tender age alone as a pretext for sparing his life under such circumstances would “be of dangerous consequence to the public … by propagating a notion that children might commit atrocious crimes with impunity. So the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Jim Guild was “a proper subject of capital punishment.”
Sometime in the autumn of 1943, a refined actor had a family of Vilna/Vilnius Jews summarily hanged on a public gallows.
Vilna* was one of the major Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.
Noted for its rich cultural life, the Vilna Ghetto, which at its peak contained approximately 40,000 people, lasted from September 6, 1941 to September 24, 1943. By the end of its existence, however, through starvation, overwork, disease, and bullets, the ghetto’s population had been reduced by three-quarters.
In late September 1943, the ghetto was liquidated. Most of the inhabitants were taken to the nearby forest in Ponar and shot, or sent to extermination camps in Poland or work camps in Estonia, where almost all of them died.
The convivial Bruno Kittel
The liquidation was supervised by German Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel. (He is not to be confused with Otto “Bruno” Kittel, the Luftwaffe flying ace.)
Kittel was an actor. He graduated from the theater school in Berlin and from the plundering school in Frankfurt. On Sundays he played songs on his saxophone at the Vilna radio station. Kittel was not only the youngest of his colleagues; he was the most zealous … [His] reputation extended from Riga to Lodz to Warsaw.
At first glance, you would never guess that Kittel was an executioner. Constantly smiling with his dazzling white teeth, he was perfumed, elegant, polite, and refined.
After the ghetto was no more, a few skilled craftsmen and artisans whose work was essential to the war effort remained within the city at one of three labor camps.
Karl Plagge, a German major in charge of the HKP 562 camp, was sympathetic to the plight of his workers and worked to save their lives, albeit without much success. For this, he would later be honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.
During the liquidation, in an attempt to avoid capture, many of the Vilna Jews concealed themselves in hiding places and bunkers, called “malines” or “malinas”. Sadly, the Nazis caught almost all of them, but a few were able to wait out the carnage and then escape.
The Zalkind family were among the fortunate people who were able to remain in hiding throughout the liquidation.
But they did not survive for very long afterwards.
Journalists and historians began gathering eyewitness statements before the war was even over, and Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman assembled and edited the accounts and finished the Black Book in 1946. It was the first major documentary work on the Holocaust. However, Stalin refused to allow its publication and had the type-plates and galley proofs destroyed in 1948.
A few copies survived, and the book was finally published in Russian in 1993. The English translation came out in 2002.
The full names of the Mr. and Mrs. Zalkind and their son are not recorded. Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names lists a Masha Zalkind, age 34, a store manager who was married to Moshe, and Hone Khona Zalkind, 2, whose parents were Masha and Moshe. Both lived in Vilna during the war and were killed in 1943; they might well be the mother and son from this story.
There are several Moshe Zalkinds listed. One, a tailor who was born in 1907, lived in Vilna and was married to Masha. He’s the closest match, but it says he was in Estonia during the war and was killed in 1944.
In any case, the Zalkinds were on the Aryan side of Vilna, probably posing as Christians with forged identity papers, when they were spotted in the street by Bruno Kittel. The Black Book records::
Suspecting they were Jews, Kittel stopped them and had them sent to the concentration camp [at 37 Suboch Street], where he determined that their name was Zalkind and that up until now they had been hiding in a malina. He ordered a gallows to be erected in the middle of the yard and summoned sixty SS men from the Gestapo. When everything was ready and the yard was full of SS surrounding the doomed Zalkinds — husband, wife and child — Kittel said:
“For having violated my order and hiding in the city, you will now be hanged in front of everyone.”
Kittel went over to the gallows to be sure that the rope was strong; then he began the execution process. The child was the first to be hanged. Then the mother. When the noose was tightened around the father’s neck, the rope broke.
Kittel ordered a new noose to be made. But as soon as Zalkind was hanging from it, the rope broke again.
Kittel was simply amused by it all.
“If the rope should break a hundred times, I’ll hang you a hundred times,” he said. And he ordered the hangman to prepare another rope.
Following the rule of collective responsibility, after Mr. Zalkind finally died, Kittel randomly selected fifty inmates of the camp, loaded them into a van and hauled them off to their deaths at Ponar.
Only a few hundred of the Vilna Ghetto’s Jews, mostly those assisted by Major Plagge, survived the Nazi era. Some of the Germans who helped wipe out this city’s once-vibrant Jewish community were apprehended after the war and prosecuted.
Bruno Kittel, however, disappeared without a trace and was never found at all.
* At the time, Vilna was part of Poland. Vilna was its Yiddish name; the Polish name was Wilnow. The city is now the capital of Lithuania and called Vilnius.