On this date in 1942,* a middle-aged man was hanged in the Lodz Ghetto in front of an audience of twenty thousand. His name was Max Hertz, son of Salli Hertz and Helena Hertz née Abraham. He was from Germany.
His death was recorded in heartbreaking detail by Oskar Rosenfeld, a resident of the ghetto. Rosenfeld was an Austrian-Jewish writer and translator who’d published six novels before the war. After the Anschulss in 1938, he and his wife emigrated to Prague in Czechoslovkia to escape Nazi aggression. Nazi aggression followed them, however, and the couple made plans to move to England.
Mrs. Rosenfeld left in 1939 and her husband was supposed to come later, but the war started and Rosenfeld found himself trapped in Prague.
Deported to the Lodz Ghetto in 1941, within a few months he secured a relatively cushy position as an archivist with the ghetto administration. He helped write the official Lodz Ghetto Chronicle, a diary of the day-to-day events of the ghetto.
Behind closed doors, Oskar Rosenfeld was keeping his own, personal diary, accumulating twenty-one notebooks in all. Sixty years later, the director of the Yad Vashem libraries described his style as “riveting. At times he is philosophical and literary, at others he is spare and raw. Often instead of full sentences, Rosenfeld writes strings of words words so packed with meaning that normal sentence structure is superfluous.”
The diary was mostly in German, with occasional parts in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.
Rosenfeld employed a simple, fairly transparent code to avoid trouble if his notebooks should come into the wrong hands. He refered to the Nazis, for example, as “Ashkenes.” When he wrote “Germans,” he meant only German Jews. The Ghetto Chairman, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, designated Eldest of the Jews, was often called “Praeses.” The words “Gestapo” and “Kripo” were written using the Greek alphabet.
His entries described in painstaking detail the grotesque land in which he was imprisoned: the religious and cultural life of the ghetto, the residents’ attitude toward the administration, the rumors flying around about the war front, the deportations, and above all everyone’s struggle to survive from day to day.
Starvation, overwork, disease and despair wore away at the Lodz Jews, like sand castles crumbling. The Nazis’ Jewish problem, Rosenfeld noted wryly, was being solved “in installments.”
During the frigid Polish winters—unusually harsh in those years—the coal ration was pitiful, and people chopped up their own furniture for firewood. When that was gone, they turned to the streets and stole whatever they could get their hands on: fences, even sheds and outhouses were dismantled for burning. In spite of this hundreds of people froze to death.
A bigger problem was food. Or rather, lack of food.
“According to German scientific findings,” Rosenfeld wrote,
the consumption of calories in normal times was 3,640 calories with 93 grams of albumen [protein] per person. The allocated ration in the fall of 1941 was 1,300 calories and 36 grams of albumen. Since the fall of 1941, the ghetto — with the minor exception of the workers in the factories — received a mere 900 calories and 25 grams of albumen per person. Not taking into account the lack of vitamins. This was no longer nutrition, this was a prescription for a slow death.
People traded everything they had, literally the clothes off their backs, for a few turnips or some sausage. During times when food was particularly scarce, a diamond necklace or a good pair of shoes might fetch a single loaf of bread. And sometimes one loaf was all a person could expect to get for an entire week.
When someone died — and there were deaths in nearly every family — their surviving relatives would often wait several days to report it, so they could claim the dead person’s rations. There were even reports of cannibalism, which Rosenfeld dutifully recorded.
The Lodz Ghetto was a work camp, not a death camp, and was designed to squeeze all the labor it could out of the inhabitants. People who were just too sick or weak to keep up were likely to find themselves on the next list for deportation to mysterious “labor camps in the East.”
Nobody knew for sure where the deportees were going, but the ghetto residents had reason to be suspicious and fearful and most of them did everything they could to stay out of the transports. No one who was deported ever returned to the ghetto. These were supposed to be long journeys and deportees were advised to pack several days’ worth of food, but like as not, the trains would come back empty the very next day.
In fact, the deportation transports usually traveled no more than forty miles outside of Lodz.
Their destination was Chelmno, the Germans’ first death camp. There they used gas vans to asphyxiate their victims. These were relatively primitive and inefficient; it wasn’t until later that they came up with the idea of gas chambers instead of vehicles.
The Lodz Ghetto had its own police force staffed by Jewish volunteers (who were universally despised as collaborators by the others) and a court that presided over criminal trials.
Violent crime, and for that matter most crimes against other persons, was rare: most of the court cases involved crime against the ghetto community as a whole. (Demolishing public fences and buildings for fuel, for example. See above.)
The rules were harsh. Kitchen workers caught sneaking even a spoonful of soup or some half-rotted beets were subject to prosecution. A carpenter could be brought up on charges of sabotage if he took some scrap wood home to burn. Jozef Zelkowicz, another employee in the Ghetto Archives, wrote about one case where a tailor forgot he’d draped a length of of thread over his shoulder for easy access during his work. After leaving at the end of his shift, he was arrested for “stealing” the thread.
Offenders usually got a short jail term of a few weeks or months. That was the least of the punishment, however: when they got out, they were often banned from working again and their families were banned from receiving welfare, essentially a death sentence. Convicted criminals and their families also had priority for deportation, however, and tended to get shipped out before they starved to death.
Not this time, however. For whatever reason, the Nazis decided to make a public example of Max Hertz.
It was the very first public execution in the ghetto. In fact, Rosenfeld said, they’d constructed the gallows just for this occasion:
At 5 p.m. on Friday, the building department had received the order for a gallows to be erected on Fischplatz by 7 a.m. the next morning. Precise specifications were given: wooden beams, heavy iron hooks, bent to a shape just this long and that wide. A man from Germany was entrusted with the job. He worked hard and long, and got it done on time. This worker was, it turned out, an intimate friend of the condemned man.
The Nazis were so pleased with the craftsmanship that they placed another for a set of gallows designed to hang twelve people at once.
Rosenfeld’s description of the execution is worth of being quoted almost in full:
Friday, collective, six o’clock in the evening, impersonal declaration to all members of the collective… Meet at nine o’clock at the Fish Market. Rumors: military parade, directives from the German military, the Eldest to speak. –Afterward some reported that they knew… The sick had express dispensation from attending the meeting. Shabbat from nine o’clock on a queue of men and women being led by room commandant through the almost empty streets across the “little bridge” at the Old Market Place between the ghetto and the city, past Hamburgerstrasse to the Fish Market. Along the way local passersby asked what was going on… Nobody had the answer. Frost. Clear. Biting wind. Terribly uncomfortable in the open air. The closerto the square, the clearer that something terrible was about to happen. The streets usually teeming with people on Shabbat — empty…
The rumor of the true drama seems to have gained credence in the ghetto, none of the local inhabitants want to risk being forced to participate and therefore remained at home.
Goaded by the sharp commands of the Jewish police, took their places, men in the front, women in the back, similar queues were streaming toward the square from other directions. It didn’t take long. Shortly before nine o’clock, Fish Square was filled with a human wall, was encircled, a horrifying silence, a few locals out of curiosity.
Finally the masses begin to understand. Sense of foreboding during the march that they were to attend an execution scene (or a witch burning); in the square, many for the first time, gallows. It had been erected early in the morning by the Jewish police. Several women fainted at the sight, others fell into convulsive sobbing; several of the men managed to send some of the women back home or took them (secretly!) to nearby apartments. Those who wanted to go back later found the street blocked off; then order to seal off the surrounding area of Fish Square.
Quite low on three steps, small podium, to the left across from the post office for newly settled rectangular trapdoor; above the trapdoor a vertical balcony, at the upper end a horizontal beam with a hemp cord.
A cold shudder went through the onlookers… No more ilusions, no dream, raw reality, for everybody knew who was Ashkenes.
Several well-fed, field-gray SS officers. At the corner of the square, soldiers with mounted machine guns to keep the crowd in check. Nobody had the courage to flee. The transport leader warned of the most severe consequence for anybody who tried to leave. A few managed to get to the collective. An Ashkenes car was parked not far from the square.
Word making the round: cause and candidate. Cause: Jewish star; another variant: a Communist wanted for a long time, flight only a pretext. Left wife and child to take better care of them from Germany (name: Herz [sic], Cologne). The wife is said to be among the onlookers, unaware of what’s happening.
Men quite numb. Some of the women somewhat worried. The Ashkenes men are in a good mood, well fed, smoking, looking cheerfully at the crowd.
Almost an hour and a half. Cold is intensifying…rubbing to generate warmth, with hands on the knees. About ten-thirty suddenly complete silences. From the direction of Zgierz, probably from the Baluter Ring (Gestapo Headquarters, office of the Praeses — government square), appears a man without a hat, flanked right and left by field-gray soldiers, his gray hair in the wind, no collar, open neck, moving closer slowly, in a short winter jacket…directly to the gallows. Most onlookers, especially the women, avert their eyes, others turn their backs to the square; many look nevertheless sideways to the spot where the scene is to unfold. (Tragic irony…joke, perhaps to be released again!!!) Most of them after all witnessing for the first time such business and desire for sensationalism. Since none had ever attended a witch burning or torture or pillory, they didn’t know how to behave, didn’t find the right style; tugged embarrassed on their clothing, clenched the fists, and waited for a sign that was to tell them what it was they should do. Suddenly the silence was so horrifying that the healthy voices of the field-gray Ashkenes could clearly be heard in the square. A man of more than eighty suddenly remembered hearing from his room a strong voice by the wire around midnight, a song that began with la-la and ended with “and if the world were full of devils,” and began to make, quite unexpectedly, his own observations about this. Yes, this old man even rolled up the torn gloves for a moment to make sure that his fingernails were clean. A women her lipstick —
Not a word was heard. Silence. The candidate shivered in the cold. The field-grays in furs. His overcoat was taken from him. He folded his hands. Saw the entire scene, the crowd. Implacable. Mounted the steps to the podium. There was met by two Jewish policemen and a third man who busied himself callously with the cord.
It was said that a Jewish policeman, a well-known Communist, had been ordered to assist in this execution — as a deterrent. Completely dull expression of the crowd, who didn’t like to see Ben Israel [son of Israel] under the gallows. Sensationalism won out over disgust, women there with handkerchiefs over their faces but peering nevertheless, men completely dispassionate. The symbolism — a people pilloried — did not enter their conciousness. The bareheaded man shivered, folded his hands. Something was wrong with the cord. The Jewish policeman handled it very clumsily. The field gray standing next to him straightened it out, busied himself; the Jewish policemen in their excitement had made a wrong move, not well familiar with the executioner’s tool, more used to tefellin [phylacteries] (observation of an onlooker). The moment came when the crowd thought something was going to happen, a declaration or reading of the sentence or some other matter. But nothing. Continued silence. When the man saw that there was no escape, he again folded his hands and suddenly, with a lamenting voice: “Why don’t you let me live…”
A hanging (not necessarily this one) in Lodz Ghetto.
Many expected instead of this plea some kind of demonstration as a legacy from the crowd, some inspiring motto. But nothing of the sort. He was no hero in our sense. Now eyes averted from the gallows, dull thumping was heard of heavy material and wood, a few seconds for the convulsing body, dangling. The crowd was even able to look at it for some time—seconds (counting to thirteen). The corpse softly in the wind. Rigid features, rigid limbs.
The field grays gave a sign, Jewish police gave a sign, and the crowd quickly began to disperse, going home, the wife of the delinquent was present…
The body remained hanging the entire Shabbat. The Jews avoided the place.
The Lodz Ghetto Chronicle includes an entry on this execution, noting it took place in a large square at Bazarna and Lutomierska Streets. According to the chronicle, Max Hertz had escaped the ghetto and spent several days in Lodz proper. He was arrested at the train station when he tried to buy a ticket to Cologne. This was about three weeks before his execution.
The Polish writer and child Holocaust survivor Henryk Grynberg later honored him in a fragment of poetry:
Max Hertz brought from Cologne
on October 23, 1941
went back to the station
but when paying for his ticket
a star fell out of his pocket
right into the ticket clerk’s eye
and he hung over the bazaar
showing the shortest way back
The spectacle of Max Hertz’s death had indeed left an unforgettable impression on its audience, just as the Nazis intended.
As for Oskar Rosenfeld: he continued working in the Ghetto Archives up until August 1944. His final diary entry was on July 28 of that year. He was well aware that the fate of the ghetto hung in the balance:
We are facing either apocalypse or redemption… There are plenty of skeptics, nigglers, who don’t want to believe it and still have doubts about that which they have been long and waiting for years… After so much suffering and terror, after so many disappointments, it is hardly surprising that they are not willing to give themselves over to anticipatory rejoicing. The heart is marred with scars, the brain encrusted with dashed hopes.
It turned out to be apocalypse: in August, before the Red Army liberated Lodz, the ghetto was liquidated and almost all of its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz. Like most of the others, Rosenfeld was gassed on arrival. He was sixty years old. But his notebooks survived him, and ultimately ended up in the custody of Yad Vashem. His diary was published in English for the first time in 2003, under the title In the Beginning was the Ghetto: Notebooks From Lodz.
* Rosenfeld places the date of the execution on Friday, February 20. All other sources, including the Lodz Ghetto Chronicle and Max Hertz’s Yad Vashem page of testimony, place it as Saturday, February 21, but I’m sure Rosenfeld is right. The execution seems to have taken place at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath is on Saturday, but to religious Jews it actually starts after sunset on Friday; Rosenfeld writes that the body “remained hanging the entire Sabbath” which implies it hung for some time. If it hung “for the entire Sabbath” starting Saturday night, that would have been for less than two hours.
The moral panic (and torture-aided interrogation) that broke out when Trent’s Jews were suspected of having killed a Christian child led to a batch of executions in June 1475. But that was only the first act of a drama that would reach all the way to the courts of popes and emperors in the subsequent months … a conflict that would not end even when the last “murderer”, Israel, was broken on the wheel on January 19, 1476.
Trent lay at the southern fringe of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire,* literally halfway from Vienna to Rome … and Trent’s ambitious prince-bishop Johannes Hinderbach was likewise beholden to both those poles of authority.
The sitting pope, Sixtus IV, was pretty sympathetic to Jews in general and very definitely not okay with Hinderbach’s theater of torture and execution. Sixtus was certainly also feeling plenty of pushback from other Jewish communities in Europe to make sure Trent wouldn’t be a precedent for similar freakouts in the future, and from Christian elites who didn’t want muddleheaded fanatics running around.
In Trent, “the Jews” meant literally three households — a tiny handful of people. By contrast, in cosmopolitan, humanist Rome, Jews were prominent among the intelligentsia and their presence taken for granted. Sixtus had Jewish “advisors and physicians in the papal court. They were teachers of music, theater, and science. Rome was a center of Hebrew literature and publishing … Sixtus IV, like most of his predecessors, took his role as a defender of Jews from violence more or less for granted.”**
But Hinderbach and the Trentini refused to cooperate (Italian link) with the investigation. Hinderbach, for his part, was all-in on the Simonino story: just like today, nobody on the hook for a wrongful execution is going to advance his career by acknowledging that fact.
Resentfully, Hinderbach put his unwelcome papal visitor Battista Dei Guidici up in a crappy room, and “many people, moved more by furor than reason, temerity than devotion, threatened to kill the commissioner in the streets of the city, if he did not confirm the miracles and the asserted martyrdom” of little Simon. If anyone in Trent thought otherwise, he did not dare make it known to the closely-watched investigator.
Trent still had Jews in prison at this point, but Hinderbach resolutely prevented the pope’s agent from interviewing with them. “It was to be feared,” Hinderbach said, “that if he talked to them, he or his men could give some sign to the Jews, who would be rendered more obstinate, since they were always saying, ‘A man will come to free us.'”
After having bribed a servant to deliver word to the imprisoned Jewish women that they had an advocate, Dei Guidici relocated to nearby Venetian territory — “where innocent people are not killed, where Christians do not plunder Jews, as it was in Trent” — and papers started flying.
Dei Guidici appealed to — and eventually ordered — Hinderbach to release the remaining Jews in his custody, while the pope sent out directives quashing any preaching on Simon’s “martyrdom.” Italian Jews poured into Dei Guidici’s offices appealing for their fellows and attesting that they could not travel through Trent for fear of mob violence.† A verse from a Veronese rabbi dating to late 1475 curses the nearby city: “Hills of Trent, may you not have rain or dew / Seven times may you fall and not rise.”
Hinderbach, for his part, sent his own envoys to German cities that had persecuted Jews for ritual murder in the past to get his own paper trail establishing that, yes, the Hebrew liked a good drink of Christian blood. More significantly, as a prince-bishop, Hinderbach also sent his own appeals up the Holy Roman Empire’s secular chain of command, objecting to the ecclesiastical meddling.
Hinderbach’s only concession to his apostolic scold was to release the children he had in custody. In October 1475, his political machinations with the Habsburgs yielded authorization from the powerful Tirolean Archduke Sigismund to resume judicial proceedings against “the Jewish men and women you have in prison” and “render justice as it should be, and let the death sentences be carried out.”
Interrogations for six Jewish men still in custody resumed on October 25, again with the aid of the horrible strappado to confirm and elaborate upon the already-determined official story of Simon’s martyrdom.
Denial — or even confessing, but guessing the wrong detail to “admit” — was not an option, as this October 26 interrogation record indicates.
He was asked whether he saw the murdered boy.
JOAFF [one of the Jewish households’ servants]: In the ditch.
He was ordered stripped, tied by the rope, and hoisted up.
JOAFF: Let me down, I’ll speak the truth.
PODESTA: Speak it on the ropes.
JOAFF: I have never done anything evil.
He was hoisted up and dropped.
This continues until Joaff has been dropped enough times to agree that he saw Simon’s body on Saturday night, on a bench in the synagogue. They knew that was the truth because it confirmed what they already wanted to hear.
This would be the end of Trent’s Jewish men in January 1476.
Israel, a 23-year-old copyist, was the last to die, and his fate is particularly poignant.
He had half-escaped the pall of death by accepting baptism the previous spring, and lived freely during the following months under the name Wolfgang. Dei Guidici interviewed him, one of the few productive sessions the pope’s man was able to arrange in Trent, and learned thereby of the details of Hinderbach’s interrogations.
Once Dei Guidici withdrew to Venetian soil, Jews of that principality would begin reaching out to “Wolfgang” in their efforts to communicate with the remaining imprisoned Jews.
This skullduggery came came apart when the persecution fired back up in October, and Israel was re-arrested, and put again and repeatedly to the rope. He was a man bound to be crushed by the legal machinery arrayed against him, but it was not only that. As Israel was well-traveled, he was tortured for information about ritual murders in other German cities; his forced denunciation of 14 named Jews in Regensburg initiated a blood-libel proceeding in that city that was only aborted by intervention from the Emperor himself.
And while Israel struggled to portray himself as a faithful convert and appeal to little Simon for an exculpatory miracle that never came, he at least once threw aside the mask to give his tormenters a piece of his mind.
PODESTA: What did he think of the Christian faith?
ISRAEL: He wants to say the truth. He does not believe in anything of the Christian faith … It is a joke to say that God came down from heaven to earth, walked around and lived among men. He believes only in God and nothing more. He believes also that the Jewish faith is right and holy.
PODESTA: Does he believe that it is right, according to Jewish law, that Jews kill Christian children and drink and eat their blood as he himself had said.
ISAREL: He believes firmly that it is right that Jews kill Christian children and eat their blood. He wants to have Christian blood at Easter, even now that he is baptized he wants to die a Jew.
Four other Jews from Trent died by hanging earlier in January 1476. The last one put to death was Israel on January 19 — “thief, eater and drinker of Christian blood, poisoner, blasphemer, traitor, and an enemy of Christ and Godly majesty.”
Even his death did not finally put a stop to the affair, for the women of the Jewish community were still in prison, and still being tortured as late as March. They would eventually accept baptism as the price of their release.
Meanwhile, Hinderbach and Dei Guidici carried their scrap to the curia. Hinderbach’s dogged advocacy of his burgeoning cult of Simon — and the odd ad hominem against his foe here and there — won some allies against Dei Guidici’s protests against “the peril which would be incumbent on the Christian religion, on account of the dealings in Trent, and the lies that would reach the ignorant.”
In the end, the Church decided it on political grounds. It could not encourage more Trents; neither could it invite the scandal of disavowing the one that had already taken place. It upheld Hinderbach’s conduct while also reiterating standing prohibitions against blood-libel trials or oppressing the Jews.
Hinderbach very naturally took this as vindication and spent the balance of his life propagating the Simonino cult. Artwork throughout northern Italy, some of it still visible in situ today in its original public monuments and chapel frescoes, attested to his success.
In the dungeons of these buildings, where once a synagogue stood, and now a shrine, the blessed martyr Simon of Trent, in his 29th month of life, was killed with excruciating pain by the Jews in the deep of the night of April 10, 1475 A.D.
The Simon of Trent cult — never the face of Christianity that the institutional church really wanted to feature — was only officially suppressed in the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council.
* Trent’s position on the frontier of the Italian and German worlds is also the reason the next century’s major anti-Reformation Council of Trent was held there.
** Sixtus wasn’t all good news for Jews. More from political necessity than affirmative desire, he also authorized the Spanish Inquisition and appointed Torquemada.
† During this time, Dei Guidici also managed to extract a Trent resident named Anzelino Austoch. Under Dei Guidici’s torture, Austoch accused the man named der Schweizer, “the Swiss” — the very man who had suggested that the Jewish homes be searched for Simon’s body — of committing the murder. Dei Guidici clearly believed that either the Schweizer, or Austoch, or both, had actually killed Simon and intentionally framed the city’s Jews.
‡ Trent does not, of course, still avow the legitimacy of these proceedings; the city has elsewhere put up plaques apologizing for it.
On an unspecified Saturday afternoon in September 1944, a Dutch Jew was hanged before a crowd of thousands in Blechhammer, a Nazi forced-labor camp that was a subcamp of Monowitz, which was in turn a subcamp of Auschwitz.
Witness Israel J. Rosengarten, describing the event forty-five years later, identified the executed man as “Raphaelson” and described him as “about twenty-four years old … a very capable carpenter.”
Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names includes an entry for a Rudolf Israel Raphaelsohn that seems to fit: he was born in Berlin in 1922, spent the war in the Netherlands, and perished in Blechhammer in 1944. His individual page of testimony describes his occupation as “sawmill owner.” This is probably, but not definitely, our man.
Rosengarten wrote about Raphaelson’s execution in his book Survival: The Story of a Sixteen-Year-Old Jewish Boy, published in 1999. According to him, Raphaelson was a Kapo, meaning he had certain privileges and a position of leadership over other Jews in the camp, sort of like a prison trusty.
He met his death through sheer bad luck.
By 1944, Blechhammer was being bombed by the Americans on a regular basis. As Rosengarten records,
This Kapo had seen a bomb lying on the ground, which had not exploded. It was split open, but the mechanism had not detonated. The Kapo saw a yellow powder lying in the middle of the split bomb. He obviously did not realize it was dynamite. Because we had no washing powder in the camp, he got the idea of smuggling some of that yellow powder into the camp in a parcel to see if it could be used as a washing powder.
While he was busy taking the powder in, he was caught by an SS man. He was whipped until he fell down. Next, when he came into the camp he was sent to the Politische Abteilung. The SS of the political department drew up a protocol in which it was stated that Raphaelson … had “plundered” the dynamite and that he had done it with the intention of committing “sabotage.” His deed was stamped as a “terror against the Third Reich.” Raphaelson was then forced to sign the statement.
And then … the SS let him go.
He was not relieved of his position as Kapo. He was not transferred to a punishment detail. A whole four weeks passed by and the incident was never mentioned, and the inmates, who had enough to worry about in their difficult day-to-day existence, forgot all about it.
Raphaelson’s execution took everyone completely by surprise. Everyone came back to camp after a hard day’s work and noticed the SS were all in dress uniform and parading them around as if some important holiday was being celebrated.
The inmates weren’t allowed to go to their barracks as normal. Instead they were assembled in the center of camp, where a gallows had been set up.
It turned out the confession Raphaelson had been signed had been sent all the way up to the leadership of Auschwitz for them to decide what to do about it, and they had taken their time. Only now, a month later, had the SS in Blechhammer gotten their answer, and now the “saboteur” had to pay the price for his “crime.”
“The whole thing,” Rosengarten noted sardonically, “had the appearance of a lawful trial and a truly democratic tribunal.” He happened to be standing in the front row, so had an intimate view of the proceedings:
After a very long wait, the stool was pushed away from under his feet with a firm kick. A panicked chill passed through us as if time were falling away. But then it seemed the rope was not holding. Suddenly, it broke in two. Raphaelson fell unhurt to the ground. Everybody present stood amazed.
We all hoped now that Raphaelson would be given mercy because of that unusual event. But such a thing was, of course, unthinkable for the SS. The rope was repaired and once again the boy was placed on the stool. Again it was kicked away. But the unbelieveable happened again! The rope broke in two a second time!
A sort of providence seemed to have insinuated itself. Everything we saw was so unusual, so unreal! But the Nazis did not give up. For the third time, the Kapo was placed upon the stool, and the noose was put around his neck. Because of what had happened, Raphaelson came more and more to his senses. He seemed to be more clearly aware of what was going on. All of the sudden he yelled, “Friends! Do not lose courage! Those who today want to murder us will themselves soon be kaput!” The two SS who stood next to him could not believe what they were hearing. “Hold your beak, you!” they shouted. Quickly they again kicked the stool away. And then Raphaelson sank down. For a couple of long minutes we had to look him in the eyes. After that, he was no longer among the living.
After Raphaelson finally expired, the six thousand prisoners were required to stand there another fifteen minutes, then march around the scaffold so everyone could see him. “Only after this,” Rosengarten recorded, “were we allowed to crawl quietly and dejectedly to our barracks.”
Israel Rosengarten survived several concentration camps and death marches before he was liberated in Buchenwald on April 11, 1945. By then, he was near death from starvation and exhaustion.
After he recovered his health he went home to Belgium and discovered he was, at eighteen years of age, the sole survivor of his large family.
On this date in 1911,* Dmitry Bogrov was hanged in Kiev for assassinating Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin.
Many could diagnose the long-advancing rot of the Russian state, but few had the physic to abate it. Stolypin, a resolute conservative landowner, might have been tsarism’s last, best hope.
During the cataclysmic 1905 revolution, Stolypin was governor of Saratov and kept his province notably free from disturbances.
That earned him a kick upstairs in 1906 in hopes that he could work the same magic on the turbulent country. To a greater extent than most, he did: Stolypin was tsarist Russia’s last great statesman, notably introducing capitalistic land reforms in an effort to germinate a new rural middle class of small, freeholding landowners with skin in the Romanov dynasty. To break liberal obstruction, he also mounted a coup to weight the Duma in favor of propertied classes. “Give me 20 years of peace,” he vowed, “and you won’t recognize Russia.”
It’s left to the speculation of posterity whether he could have pulled the trick: in the event, Stolypin did not get 20 years and Russia did not get peace.
For some, like Solzhenitsyn, Stolypin is the lost chance for a Russia without either despotism or revolution: “He brought light to the world and the world rejected him.” For many others, that Great Man theory is a bitmuch. Russia’s issues with class and governance were a pretty long-term concern.
One of its long-term products was Russia’s energetic radical underground, and this Stolypin harried Russia’s revolutionaries from pillar to post, greatly intensifying police surveillance and infiltration of agitators’ circles to prevent a repeat of 1905. His secret courts meted out punishment with a greater regard for swiftness than certainty; a staggering 3,000 radicals were hanged for alleged involvement in terrorism from 1906 to 1909, generating worldwide condemnation and causing the phrase “Stolypin’s necktie” to enter the lexicon as a synonym for the noose.
Of course, there was plenty of real terrorism, no small part of it directed at Stolypin himself. He survived or avoided several assassination attempts, including a bomb that took the life of his daughter. In turn-of-the-century Russia, though, there was always a next man or woman up when it came to the propaganda of the deed.
The (obviously non-operatic) cartoon adaptation of The Tale of Tsar Saltan; the source material for both opera and cartoon is a Pushkin poem.
As the third intermission drew to a close, a young bourgeois approached Stolypin, drew a Browning pistol, and shot the Prime Minister. Legend has it that Stolypin opened his bloodied waistcoat and addressed the close-enough-to-witness-it sovereign with the words, “I am happy to die for the tsar.” The prime minister would linger on and die a few days later; his murderer did not long outlive him.
Despite Stolypin’s reputation as public enemy no. 1 for revolutionaries, the reason for Dmitry Bogrov to commit this particular murder has long remained murky. (pdf)
Bogrov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a revolutionary, but he was also an informer for the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police whose augmentation had been a key Stolypin priority. Just where Bogrov stood at any given time in the vast foggy marches between compromised true believer and agent provocateur is difficult to pinpoint.
The Kiev opera on the night Bogrov shot Stolypin was thick with military personnel, but nobody at all stood watch on the oft-targeted politician — even though there was specific intelligence of a possible threat, issued in his capacity as an informer by the Janus-faced Bogrov himself. The eventual assassin was admitted to the theater that night on a ticket provided by his police handlers.
Considering Bogrov’s very swift execution, and the fact that the tsar suspiciously shut down the investigation (Russian link), many believe that elements of the state security apparatus were the true authors of Stolypin’s death, whether or not Bogrov himself realized it. Russia’s great landholders, never noted for farsightedness, widely opposed the reductions of their estates demanded by Stolypin’s agricultural reforms and rightly saw him as about the only man with the clout to move policy against their considerable opposition. They weren’t sorry to see him go.
As for Bogrov, his departure was a mere footnote. He asked for a rabbi before his hanging, but when he found out that this presumably confessional meeting would be monitored by the public prosecutor, he withdrew the request. (London Times, September 26, 1911) He reportedly died almost indifferently, his last words a disarmingly casual inquiry to the executioner about how best to position his head within his Stolypin’s necktie.
* September 12 by the local Julian calendar; September 25 by the Gregorian calendar.
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 thestyleatthetime, 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:
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 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.)
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)
† 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.
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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.