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.
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 Gazettefulminated. 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.)
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!
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.”
One of the original Apostles (literally, he and his brother John are the first two whom Jesus calls in the Gospels), James also had the distinction of apparently being the first Apostle to die for Christ.** His execution at the hands of Herod Agrippa† is reported in Acts 12:2;‡ it’s the only apostolic execution in the New Testament.
This, of course, occurred on the southeastern fringe of the Mediterranean, so it’s a wonder that James’s bones came to repose at a Spanish city literally situated on Finisterre, the far western edge of the world as far as Europeans saw it. The Lord works in mysterious ways.
It’s certainly plausible — though impossible to substantiate — that James evangelized in Spain prior to his execution. The whole Mediterranean was a Roman lake. More towards the outlandish is the patriotic story (pdf) that James’s relics were miraculously discovered there in 813 at the moment when Muslim expansion into Iberia gave the hard-pressed Christian kingdoms the greatest possible need for a morale boost.§
“A knight of Christ’s squadrons,” Cervantes wrote. “St. James the moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had, and that now the heavens have … this great knight with the vermilion cross has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”
James’s martial prowess is entirely posthumous: when the Son of God recruits him, he’s a humble piscator at labor mending his nets (there are some less-bellicose present-day churches going under the name “Saint James the Fisherman”). Gibbon could not but marvel at the “stupendous metamorphosis [that] was performed in the ninth century, when from a peaceful fisherman of the Lake of Gennesareth, the apostle James was transformed into a valorous knight, who charged at the head of Spanish chivalry in battles against the Moors. The gravest historians have celebrated his exploits; the miraculous shrine of Compostella displayed his power; and the sword of a military order, assisted by the terrors of the inquisition, was sufficient to remove every objection of profane criticism.”
But mythmaking exercises a historicity all its own, and the James legends offered a rallying-point for Spain’s Christians. He stands to this day the patron of Spain as well as a number of places colonized by Spain.
Pilgrims have ever since that stupendous metamorphosis of the 9th century made the journey to the apostle’s purported resting-place; this Way of St. James, actually comprising several different possible routes covering hundreds of kilometers on foot, has in recent years emerged as a major tourist draw. The Way terminates, of course, at Santiago de Compostela and the enormous cathedral there where repose James’s relics.
Saint James’s Day, 25 July, is its celebratory culmination.
James so overawes July 25 on the liturgical calendar that it’s a mere footnote to add that this same day also pays homage to Saint Christopher, a historically dubious Christian martyr from the third or early fourth century Roman Empire.
Christopher is rather nifty, because he’s sometimes depicted in iconography as cynocephalic — that is, having the head of a dog. At least the rest of him is human, unlike Saint Guinefort the Greyhound. (No lie. It’s a doggie saint, albeit of the distinctly unofficial variety. To stamp out folk veneration, an incensed preacher “had the dead dog disinterred, and the sacred wood [where it received offerings] cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog.”)
* The name “Santiago” derives from our saint’s name in Latin, Sanctu Iacobu. This is also the source, and James the intended honorary, for other places on the map named Santiago, such as Santiago, Chile.
† Herod Agrippa is not to be confused with his grandfather Herod the Great — the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents guy — nor with his uncle Herod Antipas — the guy who punted Jesus’s prosecution back to Pontius Pilate. Three different Herods; three different New Testament heavies.
‡ James’s death in Acts 12 is followed immediately by Saint Peter staging a supernatural jailbreak out of the same prison. The latter goes on to evangelize for another 20-odd years.
June 29, 1944, saw several noteworthy mass executions around Axis western Europe.
France: Seven Jewish hostages for the assassination of Philippe Henriot
Poet and journalist Philippe Henriot (English Wikipedia entry | French), the “French Goebbels”, was the Vichy government’s able chief propagandist.
On June 28, 1944, Henriot was assassinated by Maquis operatives disguised as milice paramlitaries.
Incensed, the real milice this morning gathered seven Jews already held in prison as hostages at Rillieux, drove them to the cemetery, and shot them one by one.
(Paul Touvier, who orchestrated this retaliatory execution, managed to stay underground until 1989. At his 1994 war crimes trial, he claimed that the Germans wanted 30 hostages killed, and therefore what he actually did was “save 23 human lives.” Touvier was convicted on the charge of crimes against humanity.)
Italy: Massacres in San Pancrazio, Cornia, and Civitella
As dawn broke this date, German soldiers retreating from liberated Rome fell upon several Tuscan villages.
German columns had been beset by partisans on the way, and standard operating procedure was to retaliate against partisans indirectly, by killing civilians — as in the notorious massacre in the Ardeatine caves. This vengeance was visited on the three towns: over 200 civilians were summarily executed on June 29, 1944.
“My mother later said she went to speak to my father,” remembered one San Pancrazio man. “A soldier turned her back and told her they were taking him to be tortured. She and my father both cried.” The father and those taken with him were shot in the basement of a farmhouse.
Caution: Graphic video.
The towns themselves have kept this date in remembrance, but the massacres were swept under the rug in the postwar settlement as Italy, Germany, and their former western enemies realigned for the Cold War. Only in the 21st century have they come to wider attention, when the discovery of secret archives documenting the atrocities enabled an Italian court to convict an aged German soldier in absentia.
There’s a CNN documentary on these events focusing particularly on San Pancrazio. Called “Terror in Tuscany”, it may be viewable here or here, depending on your location.
On this date in 1475, four members of Trent, Italy’s small Jewish community were burned at the stake outside St. Martin’s Gate for the ritual murder of a Christian child.
One of early modern Europe’s most outstanding “blood libel” instances, the Trent case proceeded from the widespread (among Christians) suspicion that Jews used Christian blood in their blasphemous rituals.
Latent under normal circumstances, belief in the blood libel was, er, liable to actuate a violent anti-Semitic outbreak if a Christian child disappeared in a spot where elites didn’t protect Jews. And in the 15th century, this was an increasingly likely situation.
This transformation began at the Good Friday service in 1475, when Master Andreas Unferdorben approached the celebrant, Trent’s Prince-Bishop Johannes Hinderbach. Master Unferdorben hadn’t seen his two-year-old son since last night and searches had turned up nothing. He must have been frantic.
Hinderbach ordered the news, and a description of the lost child, promulgated throughout the city. But when that didn’t turn up any new leads, Unferdorben appealed to the podesta to “send his servants to search the houses of the Jews, and see whether it [the lost child] could be found because he had heard in many places in the city that during these holy feast days the Jews want to kidnap Christian children secretly and kill them.” In fact, it was not such a general suspicion as that. Andreas Unferdorben had been specifically advised to look in the Jews’ houses by a shady character named der Schweizer, the Swiss.*
Trent was a mixed city of Italians and German immigrants, and both languages could be heard in the streets. (Both were used by various different parties in the Simon of Trent investigation.) Its Jewish population, however, consisted of a mere three households — the extended families of Samuel, Tobias, and Engel. Samuel, an emigrant moneylender from Nuremberg, had the largest Jewish household with nine family members ranging in age from toddlerhood to 80, plus two family servants.
On the request of the lost boy’s father, these three homes were searched by the municipal authorities. There was no trace of Simon.
But on Easter night, Samuel’s family cook ducked into the cellar to draw some water for dinner and made a horrifying discovery: the body of the missing little boy, in the water of a bath.
After what must have been a fearful consultation, Samuel and the other two heads-of-households Tobias and Engel reported the find — strictly forbidding anyone to succumb to the entirely reasonable temptation to blow town, lest one flight incriminate all. Nevertheless, every one of Trent’s Jews realized that Simon’s appearance among them could easily trigger pogroms, expulsion, forced conversions … or worse. Much, much worse.
Now, it should be said that a ditch communicating with the outside fed Samuel’s cellar cistern. In the absence of indoor plumbing, it was possible for someone to literally throw a body into a home from the outside; the Trent Jews, in fact, reported discussing this possibility when news of Simon started making the rounds on Good Friday, and made sure to lock up their cellar windows to prevent someone dumping the body from the streets. But the remains of a very small child could also, perhaps, be entrusted to the flow of the public ditch to wash into a house.
This sort of thing might also explain why the child’s penis was gashed. Maybe, maybe not.
Of course, since the hypothesis of freaky Semitic blood rite was already “out there” and then the body went and turned up in a Jewish house, the presence of a gash on the sex organ was always going to be interpreted in a different vein …
During the evening of Easter, the arrest of Trent’s Jews began. A pitiless judicial process which almost immediately became committed to the notion of a blood sacrifice soon began grinding these now-powerless people into dust.
The only other actual evidence touching Simon himself here — besides the admittedly powerful appearance of the body in the basement — was a Christian woman’s recollection that she had been near Samuel’s house on Good Friday and happened to hear an unseen child sobbing … somewhere. She thought it might have sounded like the lost boy.
But they’d soon be pointing fingers at one another.
Subjected one by one — the men, at least — to drops on the excrutiating strappado (“letting the prisoner jump,” in the words of the manuscript that forms the principal primary source about this event), they started to break down.
Tobias provided the critical (though not the first) crack. Looking “senseless or ruined” (in his interrogators’ records) after his strappado session, Tobias
spun this tale of murder, duly recorded and perhaps elaborated by the scribe: on the eve of Passover, Samuel suggested they should get a child; the task fell upon Tobias. He enticed Simon with sweet words to come with him and handed the sacrificial victim over to Samuel. On the day of Passover, Old Moses covered the boy’s mouth while the others stuck the child with pins and tore out his flesh; his blood was collected and distributed. Later, the dead child was thrown into the water by Samuel and Isaac. Tobias was not present at the killing, only rabbis possessed the knowledge of the rituals. In the minds of the prosecuting magistrates, Tobias’s confession established the scenario of the “real crime.” … With details embellished by the moral indignation of the Christians, this fantastic tale would become in time the history of the Trent ritual murder.
For the investigators, they were unraveling an obstinate criminal conspiracy while also attempting to document an arcane ritual. The present-day reader is likelier to see what amounts to a collaborative storytelling process in which torturers and prisoners reciprocally cued one another to the evolving needs of the script. “Tell me what I should say and I will say it,” one household servant at his wits’ end told his judges. This stuff still happens today.
they persisted in asking details of the Seder, trying to reconstruct every shade of meaning of blood symbolism, and recording with great care every Hebrew word associated with the imagined killing rite …
Some of the Jews held out, repeating their innocence over the screams of torment and stern questions; others broke down, blaming themselves and others in this grotesque elaboration of the fictive murder ritual. Still others retracted their confessions during moments of lucidity and respite from the rope, only to be tortured more severely into retracting their retractions. A few wanted to confess but could not anticipate the murder script written in the minds of the magistrates and, thus, continued to suffer; a handful, who desperately held onto reality, tried to incriminate themselves while excusing their loved one and subordinates from the charge, willing victims in a coercive sacrifice that demanded live offerings.
All these quotes, again, are R. Po-Chia Hsia, whose book handles all the horrible details of who copped to which story on what particular day, for the two-plus months of investigation, eventually coalescing into an official version that became the myth of the boy-martyr “Simonino”.**
In the end, nine of Trent’s male Jews were condemned to the stake for June 21-22 in Simon’s blasphemous murder: the three heads of households, plus all the male Jews in Samuel’s own house. The 80-year-old guy we mentioned before had also been tortured in the interrogation and was also among the condemned … but he blessedly committed suicide in prison before they could execute the sentence.
This first date was the turn of the household heads plus Israel, Samuel’s 25-year-old son — and like his father, one of the longest holdouts against the torture. They only broke at the end.
The remaining four were all to die on June 22. Two requested baptism, however, which bought them an extra day of life, plus the easier end of beheading on June 23.
* Der Schweizer, a known personal enemy of Samuel, was suspected by a follow-up apostolic investigation of himself murdering Simon and dumping the body to bring suspicion upon the Jews.
** Rome had long been nonplussed by the blood libel story, and the contemporary-to-Simon curia shut down Bishop Hinderbach’s Trent proceedings. But a century later, Pope Sixtus V promoted Simon of Trent to the official Catholic martyrology. Simon was only stripped of his official martyrs’ laurels, and his cult suppressed, in 1965.
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.
There he became involved in the Strasserite anti-Hitler “Black Front”. To Hirsch’s grief, this organization had been thoroughly penetrated by pro-Hitler spies.
In December 1936, Hirsch embarked on a train. His mission was to bomb something in Germany. The details of the plan remain murky to this day; Hirsch’s subsequent trial was held in secret and his worried family only learned the whereabouts of their son three months missing when they heard a radio broadcast in March announcing his condemnation for “preparation of high treason and criminal use of explosives endangering the public.”
It seems that Hirsch was supposed to have disembarked in Nuremberg and there picked up some left luggage deposited by a fellow conspirator; he may have been meant to deliver this payload Nazi party headquarters in Nuremberg, or perhaps to the offices of Julius Streicher’s propaganda sheet Der Stürmer.
The young would-be terrorist would tell his family in prison letters that he had instead bypassed Nuremberg and kept going all the way to Stuttgart to meet a friend, hoping the latter would talk him out of his wavering commitment to the plot. Instead, he was arrested that night by the Gestapo.
This case made news in the United States during the spring of ’37 because Hirsch’s father, Siegfried, was a naturalized American. That made Helmut a U.S. citizen, too, even though the son had never set foot in the United States.* U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the American ambassador to Germany William Dodd lobbied the Nazi government to spare Hirsch** — but to no avail.
Hirsch’s sister Kaete Hirsch Sugarman later donated her brother’s papers — letters, photos, architectural drawings — to Brandeis University, which maintains them as the Helmut Hirsch Collection. They include this touching final letter the young man wrote to his family on the eve of his execution.
Dear Mother, dear Father,
I have just been told that my appeal for clemency was turned down. I must die then.
We need not say anything any more to each other. You know that in these last months I have really found the way to myself and to life. Real beauty must stand before unswerving honesty. You know that I have lived every moment fervently and that I have remained true to myself until the end. You must live on. There can be no giving up for you. No becoming soft or sentimental. In these days I have learned to say “yes” to life. Not only to endure it but to love life as it is. It is our own inner gravity, the force by which we have entered life.
It must help you in some way that I know I have finally reached my own inner image and feel complete. And in this feeling is much of our time and our world.
The only way I know how to thank you is by showing you until the last moment that I have used all your love and goodness towards becoming a whole being of my time and my heritage. Do not think of the unused possibilities, but take my life as a whole. A great search, a foolish error, but on its path to finding of final truth, final peace.
Please care for Vally [his girlfriend, Valerie Petrova] as for a child. I embrace you, dear mother and you, my father, once more for a long, long time. Only now have I realized how much I love you.
* Siegfried Hirsch was a naturalized American who had lived in the U.S. for a decade prior to World War I. Siegfried’s U.S. citizenship had been revoked in 1926 because he had left to live abroad, but when the matter came to prominence in 1937 it was reinstated and Helmut Hirsch explicitly acknowledged as a U.S. national.
** The shoe has been on the other foot for death-sentenced German nationals in the present-day U.S.