On this date in 1957, Jorge Villanueva Torres was shot in Lima, Peru as the notorious “Monstruo de Armendáriz”.
Except Jorge Villanueva Torres wasn’t actually the monster. His case is well-known in Peru but less so beyond, and all links in this post are to Spanish pages.
Villanueva’s hasty transmogrification began on the ninth of September 1954, when headlines announcing the discovery of a dead three-year-old child near Lima commenced a national crime hysteria. Authorities surmised that the little boy had been raped, too.
Vague eyewitness fixing on the suspect’s height and dark skin* brought many arrests of people fitting these loose criteria. Villanueva, a career petty criminal, fit that bill; when police announced him as the suspect, he became the object of his countrymen’s hatred.
Convicted in an atmosphere of prejudicial hysteria on the strength of eyewitness testimony loosely matching him to someone who might have given the victim a sweet to lure him off, Villanueva a href=”http://murderpedia.org/male.V/v/villanueva-torres-jorge.htm”>exploded with rage, even attempting to attack the judge. Naturally this only served to further implicate him as an uncontrollable beast — not as a falsely accused man pitiably near the breaking-point seeing his life sworn away after two years as a nation’s scapegoat.
Villanueva asserted his innocence all the way to the fatal stake.
Those futile protestations are today widely accepted as true. There was little firm evidence against him and even the contemporary autopsy ruled against the incendiary child-rape allegation. Later forensic investigations have suggested that the poor child might simply have been the victim of a hit-and-run car accident. The mingled torments of guilt and relief in such a motorist as the matter played out must have been profound.
This case remains in present-day Peru a standing warning against occasional attempts to reintroduce the death penalty in response to the outrageous crime du jour. (Peru abolished the death penalty for all peacetime offenses in 1979.)
The Peruvian band Nosequien and Nosecuantos muses on the injustice in a single that shares its title with Villanueva — “Monstruo de Armendáriz”.
Whomever was the true “monster” — and whatever that person’s true measure of monstrosity — has never been known.
* Racism in Peru against black skin was then and remains today endemic.
November 25, 1881, was the day after Thanksgiving. And that date was a true “Black Friday” on the American gallows: four distinct murderers, all African-American men, were hanged in four different cities on this date in 1881.
We’re cadging entirely from the New York Herald of Nov. 26, and all quotes (as well as the pictured headline) source to that journal.
Richard James (South Carolina)
Richard James hanged in Marion, South Carolina for the previous year’s murder of a local shopkeep, David M. Harrell.
James insisted on his innocence, and even “turned upon the preacher with indignation” at in his cell on his last day when importuned to unburden himself of his sin. He “swore by all that was holy that he knew nothing of the crime, and was ready to face his Maker with this oath on his lips.”
James, “a light colored negro about thirty two years old” who “looked capable of committing any crime” and had a bad reputation in town, had been tried with his two brothers, Benjamin and Lewis for having waylaid the Harrell on his way home from closing the store.
A mixed-race jury (nine whites, three blacks) convicted the first two but acquitted Lewis. Benjamin had already been executed some weeks previously.
Henry Johnson (South Carolina)
Shortly afternoon that same day, Henry Johnson hanged in the jail in Sumter while “the housetops and fences near the jailyard were crowded with negroes, who heightened the scene by melancholy exclamations.”
Johnson, who converted to Catholicism the week before his death, occupied his last morning writing to a sweetheart in Port Royal, S.C. (He sent her some wooden buttons to remember him by, and demanded that she never marry.)
While he went mildly, his crime was “one of the most cold-blooded and unparalleled murders ever known in South Carolina.” (Of course, newspapers say this about every crime.)
John Davis, a good and hard working colored man was going through Hope Swamp on his way to the forest, where he was employed to cut cross ties for the railroad [but] he was followed by one Henry Johnson, also colored, who shrouded himself from view by the thick undergrowth. Thus, Indian like, he thirsted for his victim’s blood, and followed David step for step with the greed of a hungry panther until they arrived at a point where the depth and loneliness of the swamp was best suited for the tragedy that was enacted. The desired spot having been reached, Johnson, without uttering a word, raised his gun and fired, shooting John Davis in the middle of the back. Davis dropped dead in his tracks instantly. Johnson then caught him by his heels and dragged him to a hollow log, in which he placed Davis and then covered the log all over with … straw and leaves.
And then Johnson went to Davis’s house, where he knew he would get a good reception since Davis’s wife fancied him.
Explaining that Davis had had to go into town on business and would not be back for a day or three, Johnson made himself “not only lord of Davis’ house, but his much beloved wife.” He tried to lay the blame on a local fellow named Orange Isaacs whom Johnson by all appearances sincerely believed to be a sorcerer.
Joseph Harris (Tennesee)
In Rogersville, Tenn., Joseph Harris hanged for slaying two men in November 1880 in a crime that aroused so much local hatred that he was stashed away in Nashville until two days prior to the execution to prevent the appearance of lynch law.
Unlike the South Carolina condemned, Harris’s hanging was fully public, and a fair concourse of onlookers braved freezing temperatures to satisfy themselves with the course of justice.
Harris had targeted the outgoing proprietor of a country farm called Marble Hall. John Brown, having sold the estate, had sent his family on to their next lodgings in Bristol while he remained at Marble Hall with a 17-year-old stable hand named Heck to sell off the remaining livestock and close up affairs.
Those affairs were closed for good on November 23, when the room that Brown and Heck occupied was discovered on fire, its inhabitants having had their brains bashed in. $500 Brown had recently pocketed from the sale of his hogs was missing.
Sang Armor (Georgia)
Sang Armor not only had the most unusual name of November 25′s grim harvest, but was distinguished as the first-ever public execution (or execution of any kind) in Taliaferro county, Georgia. Taliaferro is currently (circa 2010 census) the least populous county east of the Mississippi with a population of just 1,717.
Armor was egged on by the crowd at his gallows to give up the names of accomplices whom he had previously implied had aided him in the murder of an elderly white man, but he remained “sullenly silent on the subject and talked only on religious matters.” The scaffold was erected in Ellington meadow, on the land of his victim, Amos Ellington.
“The feeling against Armor was very strong,” concludes the report, “especially among the colored men, several of whom he tried to implicate in the crime.”
Not Squire Clark (South Carolina)
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Squire Clark, who was supposed to hang in Lexington, S.C., was respited until December 23.
Clark, sentenced to be die in a strange case where a body was found on a railroad tracks, mutilated by passing trains, had been convicted circumstantially for having killed the fellow before dumping his remains on the tracks. Convicted, overturned on appeal, convicted again, and ultimately commuted to a penal sentence, Clark never made it into the executioners annals.
The estate of his victim later sued the railroad for negligence in having run over the remains of W.S. Hook no fewer than three times.
On this date in 1797, two French slaves were hanged in Charleston for plotting rebellion.
This plot was the product of the liberation-minded aftermath of the Haitian Revolution … although whether the product was in the minds of the slaves, or those of the paranoid slaveowners, is still up for debate.
As the great slave revolution unfolded, many of Saint Domingue’s white planters had fled abroad. Charleston, South Carolina was a major destination, one of several Atlantic cities in the U.S. that received these refugees in quantity* — lugging along as many slaves as they could. “My Fellow-Citizens know your goodness,” said one of their number in an address to the South Carolina legislature, “and anticipate the Share you are about to take in their Calamities.” The state government accordingly granted relief money to these put-upon immigrants; the British themselves are thought to have been kicking into the relief kitties in Charleston as part of 18th century covert ops to check the spread of Jacobinism.
With the Haitian Revolution and its beneficiaries aligned (for the moment) with the French Revolution,** these French exiles fit right in with pro-British federalists to a continental reactionary backlash.
Yet the very flight of Saint Domingue planters also brought like a contagion the idea and experience of successful revolt in the breast of those refugees’ own chattel slaves … and in the midnight terrors of those slaves’ owners. As early as August 1793, rumor gripped Charleston that a slave revolt was in the offing. Jittery Southern states began passing laws to restrict slave imports from the West Indies who might be carriers of the virulent dream of liberty.
These several Negroes denied the plot, for a while.
Eventually, and surely encouraged by what me might today dignify “enhanced” interrogation, one of them turned state’s evidence. This “Figaro the Younger” — there were two named Figaro arrested for this same plot‡ — was the property of one Jacques Delaire, one of the Dominguan community’s more belligerent aristocratic grandees. Figaro the Younger’s evidence, though only a “partial confession” was enough to doom two of his fellows.
After the condemnation of Jean Louis, he turned to the two Figaros and said, “I do not blame the whites, though I suffer, they have done right, but it is you who have brought me to this trouble.”
(A French freedman named Mercredi hanged for the same affair a week later.)
For testifying against his mates, Figaro the Younger saved his own life and was sentenced to be transported to Suriname. En route, the pressure of his leg irons caused “a swelling about the ankles which turn’d into a sore & … a mortification of the flesh ensuing his toes rotted & one of his feet drop’d of[f] entirely.”
The southern anti-slavery cause was soon crippled, too.
Especially after the 1800 Gabriel Prosser revolt, any dalliance with emancipation, republicanism, revolution, became practically unutterable, as if to speak the words would conjure up the flames of Cap-Francais. “Beyond a reasoned fear of domestic insurrection seems to have lain a desire to banish the reality of St. Domingo,” as Winthrop Jordanput it.
But the threat and the example of Haiti long stalked the imagination of those caught in the toils of the South’s peculiar institution. And more literally than that, as Robert J. Alderson notes,
Captain Joseph Vesey … was [one] of the dispensers of [refugee relief] aid, [and] many Domingan refugees made calls on him. When the Domingan planters visited, their slaves had a chance to speak with one of Captain Vesey’s slaves, Denmark Vesey.
* For example, see Gary Nash, “Reverberations of Haiti in the American North: Black Saint Dominguans in Philadelphia” in Pennsylvania History, Vol. 65 (1998). Philadelphia was at the time still the U.S. capital.
** Said alignment between revolutionary Haiti and the mother country was, of course, tenuous and not permanent.
† There’s a report in the Paris archives from this period of the French consulate’s low opinion of Charleston’s Dominguans: “tricky people, at the end of their resources that vengeance towards their country and despair may lead to anything. Among the French whom we have here, there are some very good patriots who know what the hospitality of the country demands of their gratitude, but the number is small.”
‡ The Figaro plays and some of their operatic adaptations were culturally current in the 1780s and 1790s. That includes Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro but not yet Rossini’s Barber of Seville with its definitive Figaro aria … although such would be very poor excuse not to post the latter.
On this day in 2011, multi-filicide Reginald Brooks was executed in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.* He was the fifth man executed that year and, at 66, the oldest since 1999.
Brooks (top) and the children he murdered.
Although his guilt was never in question, he had spent close to thirty years on death row while his appeals wound their way through the system.
On March 6, 1982, just days after his wife filed for divorce, Brooks shot their three sleeping sons: Reginald Jr., 17, Vaughn, 15, and Niarchos, 11. He then bought a bus ticket to Las Vegas, taking the gun with him in his suitcase, as well as his birth certificate and high school diploma. The police caught up with him in Utah.
Brooks had some history of domestic violence, but his only prior arrest had been for grand theft. His aunt, when asking the appeals board for clemency, said he had a normal, loving relationship with his children. Before shooting them all in their sleep, that is.
His attorneys argued that his crimes were motivated by mental illness, namely paranoid schizophrenia. Brooks had a normal childhood and young adulthood, but started to fall apart in the years prior to the murders. He quit his job in the 1970s because he thought his coworkers were trying to poison him. (He never worked again and his wife had to support their family.)
Beginning around 1980, he began isolating himself from friends and family, and accused his wife of committing incest with Reginald Jr. The family tried to get psychiatric help for him, to no avail.
In spite of overwhelming evidence, Brooks never admitted to his crime and suggested various bizarre theories as to what had really happened. A psychiatrist who evaluated him in 2010 and 2011 believed Brooks genuinely could not remember shooting his sons.
There was, however, clear evidence of premeditation: Brooks had purchased the murder weapon nine days before the murders, lying on his application form where it asked if he’d ever been convicted of a felony. He also turned on the stereo in his apartment and left the music blaring loudly, presumably to drown out the sound of the gunshots. Then, after the murders, Brooks immediately left town, taking documents he would need to start a new life — clearly suggesting cognizance of guilt.
The prosecution conceded Brooks did have schizophrenia, but argued that his illness was not so severe as to make him incompetent or legally insane, and that he was lying when he said he couldn’t remember committing the murders. Attorneys for the state suggested he murdered his children to spite his wife, “through a twisted sense of jealousy, hatred, or despair.”
Brooks’s ex-wife, Beverly, witnessed his execution. He had no last words, but he did give a message: glaring at the glass behind which the witnesses were standing, he stuck out the middle fingers of both hands. And as he slowly lost consciousness and breathed his last, his middle fingers still stood erect.
He shot a guard to get into the plant. The guard survived, but four others were not so fortunate as Wise stalked through his former employer’s halls screaming and firing. Police later recovered four empty eight-round magazines.
The human resources director who had fired him was the first Wise killed.
Two men in the tool and die area who had jobs that Wise had once sought unsuccessfully were the next.
A young woman in a job Wise had sought promotion to was wounded with shots to the back and leg, then finished off execution-style.
Wise took to firing almost indiscriminately and wounded a few others, but the body count still might have been higher. Some others Wise saw and could have murdered, but did not — some possibly saved by happenstance, others whom Wise said in court that he declined to shoot because he used to get along with them as coworkers. The whole rampage was calculated to such an extent that Wise took a 9,000-mile road trip to California and Texas to tick a few items off his bucket list first.
Wise always intended to check out at the end of his spree; the SWAT team found him on the floor suffering from a swallow of insecticide that turned out to be non-fatal. The judicial process was the slow train, but the destination remained the same.
“I don’t have much to say except that I did not wish to take advantage of the court as far as asking mercy,” Wise said to the court at his sentencing. “It’s a fair trial. I committed the crimes.”
As good as his word, Wise voluntarily dropped his appeals and went quickly from his 2001 conviction to execution, declining to make any final statement.
ST. LOUIS, May 26. — Philip Pfarr, a German, living on what is known as the Skinker road, several miles from this city, was murdered about half-past 9 o’clock last night, by a negro, name unknown, and his wife, who was about to become a mother, ravished. It appears that a negro man, about twenty-five years old, called at Pfarr’s house, about 5 o’clock last evening, and asked for work.
Mrs. Pfarr told him they wanted no help.
He called again about 7 o’clock, after Mr. Pfarr had returned from his labor in the field, and was again told no help was wanted.
About half-past 9 at night Pfarr and his family were aroused by a noise in the yard, and by the barking of their dog.
Pfarr went out to see what was the matter, and was met by the negro who visited the house in the evening, and struck a violent blow on the head, apparently with some blunt instrument, and his skull fractured.
Mrs. Pfarr, who followed her husband to the door, was then savagely seized by the negro, forced to give up what money was in the house, and afterward brutally ravished.
After the negro had fled, Mrs. Pfarr dragged her insensible husband to the house and aroused her neighbors, and everything possible was done for him, but he remained unconscious until noon to-day, when he died.
Intense excitement prevails in the neighborhood, and twenty mounted policemen have been scouring the woods and fields all day, but at last accounts had found no trace of the fiendish murderer.
Cincinnati Daily Gazette, May 29, 1875.
ST. LOUIS, May 28. — Mrs. Pfarr, whose husband was murdered last Tuesday night at her home, a few miles from this city, was brought to town, to-day, by the police authorities, and promptly and fully identified the negro, Henry Brown, who was arrested last evening, as the man who killed her husband and violated her own person.
Aside from this identification, Capt. Fox, of the mounted police force, has worked the case up to such a point that there is no doubt whatever but that the man under arrest is the one who committed the atrocious deed.
Cincinnati Enquirer, Oct. 23, 1875.
ST. LOUIS, MO., October 22. — About 2,500 specators were present at the execution of Henry Brown, who was hanged to-day in the jail-yard of this country, for the murder of Philip Pfarr, and the rape and robbery of Mrs. Pfarr.
All the forenoon the doomed man was melancholy and uncommunicative. At 11 a.m. his two sisters called on him and bade him farewell.
At 1 p.m. he was led to the scaffold, which he mounted with a ready, fearless step, It was evident that he had been liberally plied with whisky.
He made a rambling speech, twenty minutes long, and was so tedious in its delivery that he had to be reminded that his time was up. His harangue was incoherent and disconnected, such as any drunken man would make. He persistently denied the rape of Mrs. Pfarr, and asserted that he only struck Pfarr in self-defense.
His death was almost instantaneous, the neck having been broken. Eight minutes after the drop fell he was pronounced dead. His body was lowered into a rude coffin and carted off to the bone-yard.
Was of a peculiarly atrocious character, involving, as it did, murder, rape and robbery. The scene of this triple deed was a small farm in this county, three miles from the city limits, on which lived a well-known German farmer named Philip Pfarr and his wife. The place is somewhat secluded, no one living nearer than one-quarter of a mile.
According to Mrs. Pfarr’s statement, a negro man, who was subsequently identified as Henry Brown, came to the house on the afternoon of May 26th and asked for work. Mr. Pfarr informed him that he had no work to give him.
The negro continued to loiter around the gate, and Mrs. Pfarr was so suspicious of danger that she would not permit her husband to return to the field to work that afternoon.
About nine o’clock that night Mr. and Mrs. Pfarr were awakened by the loud barking of their dogs. Pfarr went outside to ascertain the cause, and Mrs. Pfarr got up and stood in the doorway.
She heard her husband ask, “What do you want?” and immediately thereafter she heard a heavy blow struck, and saw her husband stagger and fall.
Before she had time to get out of the doorway the assassin, who was none other than Brown, rushed upon her, and throwing her violently upon the floor ravished her before she recovered from the stunning shock of the fall.
To complete his brutality, he struck her a severe blow on the head and demanded what money she had in the house. She delivered her purse, which contained only seventy-fie cents. Taking this he disappeared in the darkness.
The unfortunate woman was at that time in the last stages of pregnancy, and her injuries were so serious that she could scarcely walk. But she managed to go to her husband, whom she found lying at the gate breathing heavily. He was still able to move, and with her assistance reached the door.
She laid him down upon the floor, placing a pillow under his head and covering him with a quilt.
He immediately became insensible, and did not speak again. His skull had been crushed in with a heavy piece of wagon timber, which was found at the gate.
After thus caring for her husband Mrs. Pfarr alarmed the neighbors, who gathered in crowds. When she told her pitiful story the excitement became intense.
Old man Pfarr died at midnight.
By daylight next morning numerous parties had been organized, and the country for miles around was scoured.
More than twenty negroes were arrested and carried into the presence of Mrs. Pfarr, but she failed to identify any of them as the criminal who assaulted her. The excited populace came near lynching two or three suspected individuals, in spite of the declaration of the outraged woman that the right man had not yet been caught.
THE FATAL BELT.
The detection of Brown was brought about by one little circumstance.
In retreating from the room, the ravisher dropped a leather belt from his waist. A police officer took this belt and showed it to a number of people, among whom was a colored woman living near by, who instantly recognized it as the property of her son, Henry Brown.
The entire police and detective force were put on the watch for Brown, who had suddenly and mysteriously disappeared.
The next day his arrest was effected and Mrs. Pfarr was brought to the jail for the purpose of
IDENTIFYING THE ACCUSED.
She had previously failed to identify at least twenty-five colored men, promptly exculpating each as they were produced, but as soon as Brown was brought into her presence she exclaimed, in broken English, that he was the man who had killed her husband, and ravished and robbed her.
In reply to her reproaches, the prisoner hung his head and confusedly said that he did not know what the woman was talking about.
Brown at first bitterly denied all connection with the crime, and alleged that he was not in the neighborhood on the fatal night. The next day, however,
That he was walking past Pfarr’s place on the night in question when Praff came out and set his dog on him, at the same time throwing a heavy stick at him.
He caught the stick in his hands and threw it back, striking Pfarr and knocking him down. He persistently denied the assault upon Mrs. Pfarr.
He was tried September 15th, the jury, on the testimony of Mrs. Pfarr, promptly finding him guilty of murder in the first degree.
His attorneys were untiring in their efforts to save his neck. The Supreme Court refused a writ of supersedeas and the Governor declined to interfere. There was nothing left for the doomed African but the halter and the cap.
AN INTERVIEW WITH BROWN.
Your correspondent called upon the doomed man Wednesday afternoon.
At first he refused to talk, answering questions in profane and vituperative monosyllables.
After a brief time, however, he became more communicative. He bitterly denied the assault on Mrs. Pfarr and alleged that the blow he struck Pfarr was in self-defense.
He made a special request that his body should not be given to the dissectors, and asked his attorney to make a speech for him on the scaffold. His attorney promised him that both requests should be complied with.
Brown’s personal appearance was extremely brutal.
His forehead was low and narrow, his nose flat and his lips thick and projecting. His color was of that black and shiny hue so peculiar to the pale African. His look was diabolic. Nature seems to have stamped him as an assassin and cut-throat. His muscular development was something wonderful, and his strength must have been prodigious. Despite his protestations of justification and innocence, the community feels that his fate was just and well deserved.
(Line breaks have been added to all the above stories for readability relative to their solid-wall-of-text 19th century originals.)
“Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.
On this date in 1940, Catalan president Lluis Companys was shot by the Spanish fascists.
Companys had held that notional office for mere hours six years before — but he’s still the last to hold it in any form at all.
Political exile was no unfamiliar terrain for Companys. As a young lawyer, his activism in the first two decades of the century had seen him incarcerated over a dozen times; in fact, his path to political respectability had entailed getting out of a Menorca prison in 1920 courtesy of the parliamentary immunity conferred by winning an election.
And he’d drawn a long sentence for an attempted 1934 rising against a center-right government — the occasion when he had become the President of the Catalan Republic on October 6, and been dispossessed of both office and state by the very next day.
That prison sentence’s reversal by the new republican government in 1936 was a bit of Pyrrhic victory for Companys’s left-wing politics — inasmuch as said republicans’ ascent was also the trigger for the nationalist revolt that resulted in the Spanish Civil War and a military dictatorship lasting until the 1970s.
As the virtual personification of Catalan national aspirations, Companys remained head of the Generalitat de Catalunya from 1933 until his death — in prison, in exile, wherever Companys went he bore along the Catalan cause.
As such, he was in the thick of the civil war’s scrap for control of Barcelona: not only against the fascists but among the left parties whose fractious alliance tore apart in 1937.
It was truly a case of riding the tiger. Companys struggled to maintain the cooperation of his alliance even while the republicans’ Soviet sponsors excommunicated anarchist and anti-Stalinist elements internally. The dreadful spectacle of internecine street fighting among the anti-fascists in May 1937 fills the final tragic pages of Orwell’s Homage, decided by the inescapable materialist circumstances: “the Government could not afford to offend the Communist Party while the Russians were supplying arms.”
Few sources direct much personal blame at Companys for what followed. Under Soviet pressure, he accepted the Communist police raids that had set off the street fighting, accepted the purges and the press censorsip, sacked anti-Stalinist minister Andres Nin from the government. (Nin was later “disappeared” and murdered.)
Who knows but that even these evil days were not still the best that could be made of a bad circumstance: whatever they were, they were not enough for republican Spain or for Catalonia.
When those dreams fell under the fascist advance little more than a year later, Companys couldn’t flee Franco far enough for safety. Soon after his 1939 escape to France, that country was overrun by militaristic rightists from the other direction — and the German occupiers happily handed Companys back to Spain as soon as they got their hands on him.
Spain, where questions of Catalan sovereignty and the Franco years are both sensitive subjects, has never reversed the judgment (Spanish link) against Companys. However, a Barcelona promenade is named in Companys’s honor, as is a major stadium — actually the arena where the anti-fascist 1936 People’s Olympiad in opposition to the notorious master race spectacle of Berlin was to have taken place, before that whole Civil War unpleasantness.
Sometime in early October 1943, fifteen-year-old Yitskhok Rudashevski and his entire family were rousted out of their hiding place in the Vilna Ghetto, taken to nearby Ponary, shot to death and buried in a mass grave.
The Rudashevski family were among the last remnants of a once-vibrant Jewish community in the city once known as “the Jerusalem of the north” for its culture and scholarship. People came there from as far away as the United States to study in its highly regarded yeshivas.
After the start of World War II, Vilna was annexed by the Soviet Union. It became a sanctuary to Jews fleeing from the Nazis, who occupied western Poland.
All of that changed on June 22, 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began. On the day Germany invaded the USSR, there were approximately 80,000 Jews living in Vilna, many of them refugees from the Nazi terror. By the time the Red Army arrived and kicked the Nazis out three years later, Vilna’s Jewish population had been reduced –through starvation, disease, deportation and executions — to zero.
Yitskhok (also spelled Yitzhak, Yitzak, etc., or anglicized to Isaac), was thirteen years old at the time his city was occupied by the Germans.
An only child, he was the son of a typesetter and a seamstress. Talented in writing, history and languages, he was also a faithful Communist and a member of the Pioneers, the Communist youth organization.
From June 1941 to April 1943 he kept a diary in Yiddish. Yitskhok had a sense of the significance of his account; at one point he wrote, “I consider that everything must be recorded and noted down, even the most gory, because everything will be taken into account.”
He not only wrote about his own life and his family and friends, but about the wider community events and the devastation the Germans wrought on his people. The historian Allan Gerald Levine called him “an astute and passionate observer of the times,” and compared him to Anne Frank.
Nor was the diary Yitskhok’s only writing project.
When one of his teachers, a beloved figure in the ghetto, died, he wrote a eulogy for the man and read it out before a large audience. He was a member of a literary group and was also attached to the ghetto’s history project, for which he interviewed ghetto residents about their lives:
I got a taste of the historian’s task. I sit at the table and ask questions and record the greatest sufferings with cold objectivity. I write, I probe into details, and I do not realize at all that I am probing into wounds … And this horror, this tragedy is formulated by me … coldly and dryly. I become absorbed in thought, and the words stare out of the paper crimson with blood.
The Vilna Ghetto, whose population initially numbered 40,000, had a rich cultural life, just like prewar Jewish Vilna had. There were theaters, cabarets, the symphony, art exhibits, a library, public lectures, and underground schools for both children and adults.
Vilna Jews saw art, music, literature and the pursuit of knowledge as a form of resistance. As Jacob Gens, head of the “ghetto’s Judenrat, put it, cultural activity gave a person “the opportunity to free himself from the ghetto for a few hours … We are passing through dark and difficult days. Our bodies are in the ghetto, but our spirit has not been enslaved.”
Reality intruded, however, and in the final analysis the Vilna Jews were doomed to extinction.
Yitskhok’s final diary entry was dated April 7, 1943, two days after five thousand Vilna Jews had been rounded up and shot at Ponary. He was understandably in a very grim mood. His prophetic last line was, “We may be fated for the worst.”
On September 23, 1943, the Nazis began the final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, which had by then been reduced to about 10,000 people. After a selection, those who could work were sent off to labor camps in Estonia and Latvia, where almost all of them died due to the brutal conditions there.
Children, the elderly, and the sick were shot at Ponary or sent to the extermination camp Sobibor and gassed.
Yitskhok, his parents and his uncle’s family chose to go into hiding rather than take their chances at the selection. In hiding he sank into apathy and said very little. After about two weeks in the hideout, they were discovered and taken to their deaths.
The only surviving member of Yitskhok’s family was his teenage cousin, Sarah “Sore” Voloshin. Somewhere on the route to Ponary she was able to escape. She joined a partisan group in the forest and survived until the Red Army liberated the area in the summer of 1944. After the war was over, she returned to the family’s hiding place and found Yitskhok’s diary. As of 2010, Sore Voloshin was still alive in Israel.
And the diary she retrieved had become one of the major sources on day-to-day life in the Vilna Ghetto.
Yitskhok Rudashevski suffered and died in just the same way as hundreds of thousands of others, but unlike them he did not remain anonymous: he is one of the ghetto’s most famous inhabitants. His writings have been published in their original Yiddish and in Hebrew, German and English translations. Extracts of his diary can be found in several anthologies, and it’s available in its entirety under the title The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto.
My initial plan for the operation, which I always adhered to, was to encircle the masses of Hereros at Waterberg, and to annihilate these masses with a simultaneous blow, then to establish various stations to hunt down and disarm the splinter groups who escaped, later to lay hands on the captains by putting prize money on their heads and finally to sentence them to death.
On this date in 1904, von Trotha did a little of that executing bit, further to doing a whole lot of genocide. It was the very day after von Trotha’s Vernichtungsbefehl, or extermination order, against the Herero people.
Pocketed by the desert and the German patrols the Herero chiefs and their followers congregated along the Eiseb river. Around the first of October 1904, General Lothar von Trotha, who was actively taking part in the pursuit, and his retinue had reached the waterhole Osombo-Windimbe. During the afternoon of the following day, Sunday 2 October 1904, after the holding of a field service, General von Trotha, addressed his officers. In his address Trotha declared that the war against the Herero would be continued in all earnestness, and read out the following proclamation:
I the great General of the German troops send this letter to the Herero people.
The Herero are no longer German subjects. They have murdered and stolen, they have cut off the ears, noses and other bodyparts of wounded soldiers, now out of cowardice they no longer wish to fight. I say to the people anyone who delivers a captain will receive 1000 Mark, whoever delivers Samuel will receive 5000 Mark. The Herero people must however leave the land. If the populace does not do this I will force them with the Groot Rohr [cannon]. Within the German borders everyHerero, with or without a gun, with or without cattle, will be shot. I will no longer accept women and children, I will drive them back to their people or I will let them be shot at.* These are my words to the Herero people.
At dawn the following morning, Herero prisoners, who had been sentenced to death by a field court-martial, were hung in the presence of about 30 Herero prisoners, women and children amongst them. After the hanging, Trotha’s proclamation was read out to the prisoners in Otjiherero. Printed copies of the text in Otjiherero were distributed amongst the Herero prisoners. The prisoners were then turned loose and driven out into the Omaheke. [i.e., the western Kalahari desert -ed.]
For me, it is merely a question of how to end the war with the Herero. My opinion is completely opposite to that of the governor and some “old Africans.” They have wanted to negotiate for a long time and describe the Herero nation as a necessary labor force for the future use of the colony. I am of an entirely different opinion. I believe that the nation mustbe destroyed as such, or since this was not possible using tactical blows, it must be expelled from the land operatively …
Because I neither can treat with these people, nor do I want to, without the express direction of His Majesty, a certain rigorous treatment of all parts of the nation is absolutely necessary, a treatment that I have for the present taken and executed on my own responsibility, and from which, as long as I have command, I shall not detour without a direct order. My detailed knowledge of many Central African tribes, Bantu and others, has taught me the convincing certainty that Negroes never submit to a contract but only to raw force. Yesterday before my departure, I had the warriors who were captured in the last several days [and who were] condemned by court-martial, hanged, and I have chased all the women and children who had gathered here back into the desert, taking with them the proclamation to the Herero people. This proclamation (enclosed), which will unavoidably bcome known, will be attacked … accepting women and children, who are mostly ill, is an eminent danger to the troops, and taking care of them is impossible. Therefore, I think it better that the nation perish rather than infect our troops and affect our water and food. In addition, the Herero would interpret any kindness on my side as weakness.They must now die in the desert or try to cross the Bechuanaland border. This uprising is and remains he beginning of a race war, which I already predicted in 1897 in my reports to the chancellor on East Africa … Whether this uprising was caused by poor treatment [of the Africans] remains irrelevant to its suppression.
Gewald also quotes one of von Trotha’s subalterns, undisguisedly revolted at what he was involved in.
Cattle which had died of thirst lay scattered around the wells. These cattle had reached the wells but there had not been enough time to water them. The Herero led ahead of us into the Sandveld. Again and again this terrible scene kept repeating itself … the water became ever sparser, and wells evermore rare. They fled from one well to the next and lost virtually all their cattle and a large number of their people. The people shrunk into small remnants who continually fell into our hands, sections of the people escaped now and later throug the Sandveld into English territory. It was a policy which was equally gruesome as senseless, to hammer the people so much, we could have still saved many of them and their rich herds, if we had pardoned and taken them up again, they had been punished enough. I suggested this to General von Trotha but he wanted their total extermination.
Technically, complete destruction of the Herero was reversed as German policy a few months after von Trotha began implementing it, and the general himself recalled from South West Africa before the end of 1905 — leaving only a “softer” genocide of disease-ridden concentration camps through 1908. Although firm numbers are hard to come by, it’s thought that well over half the Herero population died during this period.
Yet neither was von Trotha a lone butcher. Diary entries of settlers and regular soldiers well before the extermination order record many instances (pdf) of the most cavalier slaying of Herero prisoners and noncombatants, abuses which continued long after von Trotha’s departure.
It’s difficult not to see in the racial ideology and the eliminationist military doctrine prefiguring (pdf) later and better-publicized brutalities. Indeed, even some of the personnel are the same:
Hermann Goering‘s father Heinrich was Germany’s first Reichskommissar in South West Africa, plopping his home down right on a Herero burial site.
Eugen Fischer, a eugenicist who availed the Namibian concentration camps’ ready supply of subjects to produce career-making research that would influence German race law and make Fischer a big brain in Nazi intellectual circles
Franz Ritter von Epp, one of von Trotha’s officers, formed in the aftermath of World War I one of the far-right Freikorps paramilitaries, with many subsequently-influential Nazis among its membership, including Ernst Roehm (who may have cribbed the SA “brown shirt” look from colonial Schutztruppe khakis) and Adolf Hitler himself
* He meant, shooting over their heads to run them off. “I assume absolutely that this proclamation will result in taking no more male prisoners, but will not degenerate into atrocities against women and children,” Lothar explained. “The latter will run away if one shoots at them a couple of times. The troops will remain conscious of the good reputation of the German soldier.”
Five Murderers Executed In Public at Mt. Vernon, Georgia
Three Killed a Merchant, the Fourth a Child and the Fifth a Companion.
Mt. Vernon, Ga., Sept. 29. — Five murderers were executed upon one scaffold at this place at 2:05 p.m. today. They were Hiram Jacobs, Hiram Brewington, Lucien Manuel, Purse Strickland and Weldon Gordon. All were commonly called negroes, but the first four named were descendants of the Crowatan Indians of North Carolina, and locally were known as “Scuffletonians,” from the name of the community from which they came. Three of them murdered Alexander Peterson, a rich merchant, last July, the fourth killed a five-year-old child and the fifth murdered a negro companion.
Over ten thousand people, white and black, witnessed the executions. Every incoming train deposited its load of human freight and steamboats on the Oconce and Attamba rivers ran a daily schedule. Thousands of women viewed the spectacle without a shudder.
The condemned men spent their last night on earth without any perceptible dread. This morning in the jail several colored ministers offered prayer for their spiritual salvation, exhorting them to be firm and courageous. At 1:30 p.m. the march to the scaffold was begun. The sheriff and prisoners were seated in a hack surrounded by a score of armed guards. They stood side by side on the scaffold. They were requested to make a statement if they desired.
Manuel said: “I have every reason to believe that I am going to meet the angels above. I fear nothing, my sins are forgiven and I shall go to heaven. I tell you my friends, to put your trust in God — good-bye.”
The others followed in the same strain. Strickland shed tears, while the vast throng sang, “A Charge to Keep I Have.” The Rev. Mr. Ross, a colored minister, prayed fervently. Then Sheriff Dunham adjusted the black caps and a photographer took their pictures.
Image from here, which appears to misdate the execution.
At this moment Sheriff Dunham bid them farewell, shaking each other by the hand, saying: “May God have mercy on your souls.”
At 2:05 p.m. the trap was sprung. There were no signs of a struggle, and the bodies hung straight and motionless. Half an hour later the bodies were cut down and deposited in pine coffins.