Posts filed under 'Jews'

1902: Hirsh Lekert, Jewish assassin

Add comment June 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.

The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.

As was the style at the time, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.

And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.

This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.

For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.

Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.

Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:

And from the hellish Vilna Ghetto under Nazi occupation, the great poet of the Holocaust Abraham Sutzkever depicted his “Teacher Mira” trying to keep her students’ heads up by reminding them of the Vilna cobbler who fought back.

Her skin, a windowpane in stains of dusk,
Mira must not reveal the darkness thus.
She bites her lip, of courage she will tell:
About Hirsh Lekert, how he fought and fell.

* Koppel Pinson, “Arkady Kremer, Vladimir Medem, and the Ideology of the Jewish ‘Bund’”, Jewish Social Studies July 1945.

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1624: Antonio Homem, at the hands of the Portuguese Inquisition

Add comment May 5th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1624, Coimbra University theologian Antonio Homem was burned at the stake in a Lisbon auto de fe.

Homem came from a “neo-Christian” family, Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. Considering the compulsion, one could fairly question the piety of such “Christians”; in a great moment in damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t, the Spanish Inquisition fired up to probe the potential un-Christian activity of neo-Christians.

Neighboring Portugal was just a beat behind Spain in all this; Spain expelled its Jews — the ones who weren’t willing to convert — in 1492, and Portugal did so in 1497. The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1536 and, like Spain’s, took conversos as a primary focus.*

Homem’s family’s response was to be more Catholic than the Pope and have Antonio trained for the clergy; he became canon of the Cathedral of Coimbra and a doctor at the University of Coimbra.

Homem was in his fifties when it became known among his colleagues that he was of New Christian stock, and this circumstance soon attracted unwanted attention — and eventually, his denunciation for allegedly leading a secret Judaic cell. Homem, it is said, “often took the part of priest”; The Other Within: The Marranos, Split Identity and Emerging Modernity describes a Kippur ceremony from the Inquisition records.

The public, all fasting and dressed in white, used the Christian Bible (the Vulgate) to recite Latin Psalms that expressed a Jewish-Marrano sentiment (Psalms such as “When Israel came out of Egypt,” “On the rivers of Babylon,” and “From the Abyss I called you, O God”). In those ancient Jewish poems the Marranos expressed their own, specific sense of exile and yearning for redemption. A few “priests of the Law of Moses,” replicating a Catholic ceremony, dressed Homem in a long elegant garment and put “a sort of miter” on his head, decorated with golden plaque. There was an altar there, and incense, and painted images of Moses and of a Marrano martyr or saint “who had been … burned as a Jew.”

The inner life of the converso is a great riddle from our distance of time and context. It is immediately tempting to perceive religious martyrs here, people who were forced underground but still kept what they could of the faith of their fathers at risk of life and limb.

Such a reading paradoxically allies us with their persecutors, for it is by the Inquisition’s hand that we have the evidence — and this is a source whose evidence we greet very skeptically when it, for instance, charges conversos with murdering Christian children. Inquisitors all around Europe were after all involved in these very years in scaring up secret witches’ covens to incinerate, and it was not unknown for the deadly judicial apparatus to be borrowed here and there from restraining the minions of Hell in order to service business opportunities, political aspirations, or private grudges of the personal or professional variety. Try asking a present-day academic how easy they’d sleep knowing their colleagues on the tenure committee also had a few buddies in the Holy Inquisition.

Antonio Jose Saraiva’s The Marrano Factory: The Portuguese Inquisition and Its New Christians 1536-1765** contends that most “Judaizing” Christians were just plain Christians — caught up like accused witches and warlocks could be in some specious neighborhood rumor that became a self-fulfilling accusation. “Inevitably,” says Saraiva, “a family quarrel or a commercial intrigue would lead to several series of denunciations, followed by arrests. Arrests led to trials which spiraled into new rounds of arrests and trials.” Saraiva argues that Homem’s recently-exposed Jewish heritage probably just made him a ready target when a commercial dispute of some sort led the Inquisition’s Coimbra tribunal to seize “scores of merchants engaged in the triangular commerce between Brazil, Oporto and Amsterdam.”

Whether Homem really did head a covert cult with 100-plus adherents reading Old Testament verses from the Latin Bible — or whether this was what an inquisitor goaded by Homem’s enemies supposed a secret Jew might do — he was left to rot in prison several years† after his 1619 condemnation while the Inquisition investigated dozens of his alleged adherents. These included other cathedral canons, professors and students at the university, nuns from four nearby convents, and other persons of some stature. (Homem, to his credit, refused to accuse anyone else.)

Homem was eventually among eight burned (Portuguese link) at an auto this date at the Ribeira de Lisboa, and his house was torn down to be replaced with a pillar inscribed “Praeceptor infelix”. Prior to their destruction they were favored with the preachings of Friar Antonio de Sousa who railed against the insidious Semitic threat to homeland security.

For our sins of the last years people of quality have been cross-breeding with these perverse Jews to whom I am referring. They became corrupted by their contact with them and have become Jews like they are. Just a few years ago only low-class, trashy Jews were paraded at the autos-da-fe. See what now appears for sentencing in the autos-da-fe and in this very one at which I am preaching: ecclesiastical personnel, friars, nuns, holders of master’s degrees, licentiates, doctors and professors with family connections to the nobility, people only half of New Christian origin, or a quarter, or an eighth, all confessing and convicted of Judaism. (Translated excerpt via Saraiva)

Readers with Portuguese proficiency can find more on this case in this 1999 book exploring the Inquisition’s Coimbra archives, or in Antonio Homem e a inquisição.

* For the setting of this post, the 1620s, Spain and Portugal are under the personal union of a common monarch, Philip IV.

** We’ve mentioned it before.

† One of the great (and eventually fatal) inefficiencies of the auto-de-fe system was its tendency to leave its future exhibits to languish for years in prisons before the prescribed spectacle could be properly arranged.

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1493: Peter Dane, in the Sternberger Hostienschänderprozess

Add comment March 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1493, Peter Dane was burned at the stake in the Baltic city of Rostock.

Dane, the vicar of the church at the small town of Sternberg, allegedly sold consecrated communion Host to a Jew named Eleazar, who proceeded to destroy the pieces in a weird Jewish ceremony because Jews. From this imputation came the mass burning of 27 Jews at Sternberg in October 1492. (Eleazar himself, however, got away.)


Illustration of the burning of the Sternberg Jews, from Hartmann Schedel‘s Weltchronik (1493)

Those Jews not put to death were expelled from the Duchy of Mecklenburg, leading rabbis to pronounce a reciprocal ban against any of their people settling in Mecklenburg — a ban not lifted until the mid-18th century.

Dane enjoyed a more ceremonial expulsion from this mortal coil, beginning with expulsion from the clergy at the hands of the Rostock bishop. Duly relaxed to the secular authorities, Dane too died by fire.

But the story of his sacrilege did not die.

Thanks to Johannes Gutenberg‘s hot new communications technology, pamphlets and broadsides rolled off Europe’s printing presses about the Sternberger Hostienschänderprozess — and the miracles attributed to the outraged Host, like spurting blood and killing Eleazar’s wife in her tracks.*

The very Host said to have been offended by Dane and Eleazar was duly produced, blood and all, and Sternberg became a pilgrimage destination for faithful seeking the bread’s miracle-working powers. A tourist boom came with it.

Miracles were reported, both healings and resurrections; important pilgrims, including Danish royalty and a Spanish princess, came. By March 1494 the bishop of Schwerin had established a division of the pilgrim revenues: a third to the pastor at Sternberg, a third to the bishop of Schwerin, and a third to the cathedral chapter of Schwerin (with some provision for the neighboring chapter at Rostock). Initially all the revenues were to go to Sternberg for building the blood chapel, which was completed by 1496. Six priests were delegated to pray the Hours of Christ’s passion and a seventh to show to the faithful twice daily the martyred, wonder-working hosts. In a competition for revenues that is reflected in the legend itself (the host supposedly resisted a move from court to church), the duke built a chapel on the finding site, where, before 1500, more miracles were worked; finally, against the opposition of both the bishop of Schwerin and the pastor at Sternberg, he managed to extract a portion of the pilgrim income to finance a cloister of Augustinian hermits on the site in 1510. (Source)

That killjoy Martin Luther broke up the hustle.

In his seminal 1520 Address To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther specifically names Sternberg (among other locales) in the course of denouncing the pilgrimage racket:

The country chapels and churches must be destroyed, such as those to which the new pilgrimages have been set on foot: Wilsnack, Sternberg, Treves, the Grimmenthal, and now Ratisbon, and many others. Oh, what a reckoning there will be for those bishops that allow these inventions of the devil and make a profit out of them! They should be the first to stop it; they think that it is a godly, holy thing, and do not see that the devil does this to strengthen covetousness, to teach false beliefs, to weaken parish churches, to increase drunkenness and debauchery, to waste money and labour, and simply to lead the poor people by the nose.

Every man thinks only how he may get up such a pilgrimage in his own district, not caring whether the people believe and live rightly. The rulers are like the people: blind leaders of the blind.

In the case of Sternberg, and of Mecklenburg generally, rulers and people alike — so recently blind with covetousness — went hard for Luther’s reform preaching very early on.

Sternberg’s lucrative traffic in pilgrims dried up abruptly in the 1520s, though the capital improvements they funded live on … and Peter Dane’s onetime parish church still bears a few markers of its bygone fame.

* Latin readers can get a taste of it with this Google Books scan of Mons Stellarum, a humanist review of events dating to the 1510s.

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1481: Diego Suson, by his daughter’s hand

Add comment February 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1481, Spain’s first auto-da-fe under the recently established Spanish Inquisition saw six burned at the stake in Seville.

These pageants of orthodox Catholic authority, with parades of heretics publicly confessing their error and being received back into the community on penitential terms, while others more contumacious were consigned to the flames, would soon become one of the signature features of Inquisition Spain. Some 700 people were executed at such events over the decade to come.

But here in the early 1480s, the terrifying powers of the Holy Office for the Propagation of Faith (the Inquisition’s business-card title) were, well … unexpected.


/Mandatory

Don Diego Suson, one of the six put to death this date, was the wealthy patriarch of a marrano family — Jews, who had converted a century prior. The Inquisition’s whole founding spirit was the sense of characters like Torquemada that as such conversions had generally been obtained under duress, the families in question were still secretly maintaining their Semitic rites. That would make them apostates (since they were baptized and supposedly Christian), and it would implicate them in God knows what other malignancy (since they were malignant Jews).

Spain, you’ll recall, is at this point about 11 years away from expelling all its Jews full stop.

This made it especially dicey for Suson that he was also a rabbi to an underground community of still-practicing “converted” Jews. (Spanish source) Torquemada was on to a real thing here.

Unfortunately his daughter — so the legend says — didn’t quite grasp what the Inquisitors had coming and lightly betrayed the fact to her Christian lover. In no time at all, the guys with the racks and thumbscrews had the terrible family secret in hand.

It’s said that the beautiful (of course) daughter was so riven with grief and shame for the careless destruction of her father that she shut herself up in a convent … and arranged that when she died her guilt-stricken head should be hung up at her former home.

The location of this macabre monument is still marked in Seville today; once known as the Calle de la Muerte, it is now called the Calle Susona.

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1941: The massacre at Skede in Liepaja

1 comment December 15th, 2013 Headsman

The World War II occupation of the Latvian town of Liepaja (Libau, to the Germans) produced mass executions throughout 1941.

This date in 1941 commenced one of the largest such actions: over 2,700 Jews as well as 23 Communists forced over the course of two-plus days to strip on the freezing Skede dunes overlooking the Baltic and there shot by German and Latvian teams into a vast pit. It’s one of the most recognizable Holocaust atrocities because it was extensively photographed.*

As one can see from the pictures, the victims here were mostly women.


Some of the women in this photographs can be identified by name (pdf). Left to right: (1) Sorella Epstein; (2) presumably Rosa Epstein, her mother; (3) unknown; (4) Mia Epstein; (5) unknown. Alternate identification makes Mia Epstein (5) instead of (4), and (2) Pauline Goldman.

Almost all of Liepaja’s Jews perished during the war.

* Germany’s Bundesarchiv (search on Libau 1941) confirms the precise December 15 dating for these images; it also has some other photographs of atrocities in Liepaja/Libau on other occasions.

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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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1803: Joseph Samuel survives three hangings

Add comment September 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1803, Joseph Samuel just wouldn’t hang.

Transported to Australia in 1801 for theft, Joseph Samuel was part of a cohort of Sydney Cove convicts who, on the night of August 25-26, burgled a house.

The band was surprised by constable Joseph Luker, himself a former convict. One or more of the thieves battered him to death on the spot with whatever was at hand: recovered with Luker’s broken body at morning’s light were a bloodied wheelbarrow wheel, and the hilt of Luker’s own cutlass, buried in his brains. Luker was the first policeman killed on duty in Australia, and his name can be found on the country’s National Police Memorial.

But the order of the day in 1803 was a different sort of memorial. “Avenging Heaven directs the Hand of Justice, and the Manes of the Deceased inspires us with Indignation and Resentment,” the Sydney Gazette fulminated. The need to cut a deal for crown’s evidence with one of Samuel’s compatriots eventually meant that Samuel was the only one to bear the vengeance of Luker’s Manes. (A third man, Isaac Simmonds, was acquitted at trial, but he was so heavily suspected that he was made to attend the execution.)

We’ll pick up the narration of the Sydney Gazette (Oct. 2, 1803):

James Hardwicke were brought, in pursuance of the sentence passed upon them on the preceding Friday.

Both prisoners conducted themselves with becoming decency; and when the Reverend Mr. MARSDEN had performed the duties of his function, and quitted Hardwicke, he turned to Samuels (who being a Jew, was prepared by a person of his own profession) and questioning him on the subject of the murder of Luker, he solemnly declared, that during the interval of his confinement in the cell with Isacc [sic] Simmonds, nicknamed Hikey Bull, they in the Hebrew tongue exchanged an oath, by which they bound themselves to secrecy and silence in whatever they might then disclose.

Conjured by that GOD before whom he was shortly to appear, not to advance any thing in his latter moments that would endanger his salvation, he now repeated with an air of firmness what he had before declared ; and appearing deeply imprest with a becoming sense of his approaching end, appealed to Heaven to bear him testimony that Simmonds had, under the influence of the oath by which they were reciprocally bound, acknowledged to him that Luker had accidentally surprised him … and that he, in consequence thereof, had “knocked him down, and given him a topper for luck!” … [and] that he would hang 500 Christians to save himself.

Simmonds, as we’ve noted, was right there in forced attendance at the public hanging, and as Samuel’s accusations started the audience murmuring, Simmonds tried to interject his denials. The very fact that the words were spoken by a man on the brink of death and presumably in fear for his soul made Samuel a credible accuser in the eyes of the populace, “in whose breasts a sentiment of abhorrence was universally awakened … and the feelings of the multitude burst forth into invective.” Yikes.

While the gendarmes moved to protect Simmonds from the possible wrath of his neighbors, and Hardwicke received a last-minute pardon,* Samuel commenced the inadvertently superlative finishing act of his persuasive performance.

at length the signal was given, and the cart drove from under him; but by the concussion the suspending cord was separated about the centre, and the culprit fell to the ground, on which he remained motionless with his face downwards. The cart returned, and the criminal was supported on each side until another rope was applied in lieu of the former: he was again launched off, but the line unrove, and, continued to flip until the legs of the sufferer trailed along the ground, the body being only half suspended.

All that beheld were also moved at his protracted sufferings; nor did some hesitate to declare that the invisible hand of Providence was at work in the behalf of him who had revealed the circumstances above related. To every appearance lifeless, the body was now raised, and supported on men’s shoulders, while the executioner prepared anew the work of death. The body was gently lowered, but when left alone, again fell prostrate to the earth, this rope having also snapped short, close to the neck.

Compassion could no longer bear restraint; winged with humanity, the Provost Marshal sped to His EXCELLENCY‘S presence, in which the success of his mission overcame him; A Reprieve was announced — and if Mercy be a fault, it is the dearest attribute of GOD, and surely in Heaven it may find extenuation!

Samuells when the Provost Marshal arrived with the tidings which diffused gladness throughout every heart, was incapable of participating in the general satisfaction. By what he had endured his reasonable faculties were totally impaired; and when his nerves recovered somewhat from their feebleness, he uttered many incoherences, and was alone ignorant of what had past. Surgical assistance has since restored him; And MAY THE GRATEFUL REMEMBRANCE OF THESE EVENTS DIRECT HIS FUTURE COURSES!

It didn’t.

In 1806, Samuel made an escape attempt with some other convicts by boat. It was swept away in a tempest, with all presumed lost at sea.

* A number of sources claim that Hardwicke did hang successfully while Samuel’s rope repeatedly broke. We think the eyewitness newspaper report days after the execution to the effect that Hardwicke was reprieved is by far the more credible report.

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1942: Henryk Landsberg, Lvov Judenrat

Add comment September 1st, 2013 Headsman

[Adolf Eichmann] did not expect the Jews to share the general enthusiasm over their destruction, but he did expect more than compliance, he expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — their cooperation. This was “of course the very cornerstone” of everything he did … Without Jewish help in administrative and police work — the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police — there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower …

To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.

-Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem

Among the many horrors of the Holocaust were the Judenräte, Jewish administrative councils set up under the aegis of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe.

Typically recruited from local elites and granted special privileges by the Germans, these collaborators managed the day-to-day operations of the ghettos, up to and including the horrible sharp end of Final Solution: confiscating Jewish property for the Germans, registering and organizing Jews destined for slave labor or extermination, and even managing deportations with the desperate hope that willingly engaging a sacrifice they could never prevent might enable them to save some others. Once all the deportations were done, the Judenrat itself would be executed or deported: Faust had nothing on this bargain.

Chaim Rumkowski, perhaps the most (in)famous Judenrat administrator, issued posterity the definitive howl of a collaborator’s agony when he was forced by the imminent Lodz Ghetto children’s action to implore Lodz’s families to peaceably surrender their young people to certain death: “I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”

Rumkowski, a deeply checkered figure who fended off liquidation of his ghetto until the very late date of 1944, well knew that Judenrat personnel were entirely disposable. After all, he delivered this plaintive speech on September 4, 1942 — just three days after his counterpart in the Lvov Ghetto had been publicly strung up on a balcony.


Six Jews (including Henryk Landsberg) hanged in the Lvov Ghetto, September 1, 1942 (via). The US Holocaust Memorial Museum also identifies this clearly distinct execution as a picture of Lvov Jewish Council members being hanged in September 1942.

The city of Lwow/Lvov (or to use its present-day Ukrainian spelling, Lviv) had had a centuries-old Jewish population when the Soviet Union seized it from Poland in consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That population almost immediately doubled as Jewish refugees fleeing the half of Poland that Germany got in the deal poured into the city.

Practically on the frontier of the German/Soviet border, Lvov was captured in the opening days of Germany’s June 1941 surprise invasion of the USSR. In November-December 1941, the 100,000-plus Jews* still surviving in Lvov (after several post-conquest massacres) were crammed cheek to jowl into the new Lvov Ghetto. There they endured the usual litany of privations for World War II ghettos: starvation rations, routine humiliation, periodic murders. forced labor at the nearby Janowska concentration camp.

The ghetto’s first chairman, Dr. Josef Parnas, didn’t live to see 1942 before he was killed in prison for non-cooperation. Dr. Adolf Rotfeld followed him, and died of “natural” causes in office a few months later.

Dr. Henryk Landsberg, a lawyer, succeeded Rotfeld. He had been a respected community figure before the war, but was disposable to the Nazis as his predecessors; during a large-scale Aktion to cull the camp and further reduce its boundaries, a Jewish butcher resisting the SS killed one of his persecutors. Landsberg and a number of the Jewish policemen employed by the Judenrat were summarily put to death.

“I have gladly accepted the nomination,” Landsberg’s successor remarked. “Maybe they will shoot me soon.” He was indeed shot (or perhaps committed suicide to avoid that fate) in the first week of January 1943. (All this from Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation)

The Lvov Ghetto was liquidated June 1, 1943; a bare handful of its former inmates escaped into the sewers or managed to avoid death in the camps before the war ended. After the Red Army took back the city, a 1945 survey of the Jewish Provisional Committee in Lvov tallied just 823 Jews. Today, there are all of 5,000.

* Among the Lvov Ghetto residents was Simon Wiesenthal.

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1941: 534 Lithuanian Jewish intellectuals

2 comments August 18th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, 534 Jewish intellectuals were lured out of the Nazi ghetto in the city of Kovno, Lithuania (also known as Kaunas), taken to Ninth Fort, and shot to death.

Over 5,000 Jews would die there during the Nazi occupation.

The Nazis had captured these people using a very clever ruse: on August 14, they had advertised for 500 Jews to help sort out the archives at City Hall, which were in disarray due to the chaos that followed the Germans’ conquering the city in June.

The workers had to be intelligent, educated types and fluent in German and Russian. They would be treated well and given three solid meals a day, in order that they could do the work properly and make no mistakes.

Most of the other jobs available for Jews at that moment involved manual labor under brutal conditions, on starvation-level rations.

More than the requested 500 showed up. The Nazis happily took them all.

Vilius “Vulik” Mishelski (later anglicized to William Mishell), who was 22 and had studied engineering in Vytautas Magnus University [Lithuanian link], was nearly victim no. 535. His mother told him about the job offer, because it upset her when he home from working at the airfield, “my clothes torn, my face covered with dust and sweat, my fingers bleeding, and I myself so exhausted I could hardly speak.” The archives job seemed like a gift from heaven to her.

Vulik wasn’t so sure.

Why, he asked, had the archives not been sorted out sooner? After all, the Germans had conquered Kovno a full two months earlier.

And why not get Lithuanians to do the job? It certainly wasn’t necessary to employ Jews.

He debated with himself for the next four days, then finally decided to go. Many of his friends were going, he wrote later on, and “this put me at ease. All of them could not be crazy.”

When he actually arrived at the gate, however, what he saw made him profoundly uneasy. The size of the guard was unusually large, and he witnessed Jewish police and Lithuanian partisans mistreating and beating people. Because it was taking long for the quota of 500 people to arrive, the Lithuanians started dragging people from their homes by force.

This struck me as odd. This was supposed to be a job where we were to be treated in a civilized manner; was this the treatment awaiting us? Oh, no, I would not be caught in this mess! Without hesitation, I turned around and rushed back home.

My mother was astounded. “What happened, why are you back?” she asked.

“Don’t ask questions,” I said, “move the cabinet, I’m going into hiding.”

Vulik was right not to trust the Nazis’ promises. He stayed in his hideout, a little cubbyhole behind the kitchen cabinet, all day.

The chosen 534 didn’t return that night, or the next night either, and no one believed the assurances that the work was taking longer than they thought, and they had spent the night at City Hall. Before long, the truth leaked out.

That same day, the men had been lead away in several smaller groups to an area containing deeply excavated holes in the ground. Then the Lithuanian guard, known as the Third Operational Group, had shot them all. Several men who tried to escape were killed on the run. Almost the entire intelligentsia of Jewish Kovno had thus been liquidated in one mass execution.

Mishelski stayed in the Kovno Ghetto until 1944, when he was sent to Dachau. He survived the war: 95% of the Lithuanian Jews, including most of his family, did not.

Mishelski moved to America, changed his name to William Mishell, got a master’s degree in engineering from New York University, and settled in Chicago. Following his retirement in the 1980s, he wrote a memoir titled Kaddish for Kovno: Life and Death in a Lithuanian Ghetto, 1941 – 1945. Mishelski died in 1994, aged 75.

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1949: Jacob Bokai, the first Israeli spy executed

Add comment August 3rd, 2013 Headsman

On this day in 1949, Jordan hanged Jacob Bokai. The Syrian Jew was the first Israeli intelligence agent put to death in service of the infant state. (At least, the first that’s been publicly acknowledged.)

The flight of Palestinians displaced by the Arab-Israeli War gave Israel a convenient means to insert its agents into its neighboring countries: just disguise them as refugees.

Posing as a Palestinian named Najib Ibrahim Hamuda, Bokai’s mission to infiltrate Jordan started at a Palestinian refugee camp in Jaffa, where he was abused by the guards to establish his credentials. Those beatings went for naught, however, as Bokai never made it past the checkpoint: he was arrested immediately upon passing the Mandelbaum Gate into Jordan on 4 May 1949. Since he refused to cop to his mission or his Jewish identity, he was given a Muslim burial after hanging for espionage.

That charge was indeed well-founded: Bokai is now openly honored at a memorial to Israeli agents opened in 1985.

According to the story related by a former Mossad chief who gave a tour of this place to Tom Friedman back when the latter was the Times‘ Middle East scribe and not its leading nutter columnist — just mind the source is what I’m saying here — the doomed “Mr. Hamuda” still managed to get a message back to his Israeli handlers reassuring them that the enhanced interrogation he enjoyed in Jordan prior to execution had not compromised whatever operations he was privy to: “I did not commit treason.”

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