On this day in 1941, seventeen-year-old Shaya “Shaike” Iwensky came within seconds of being shot by the Einsatzgruppen outside the city of Daugavpils, Latvian SSR. Sheer dumb luck — and a slight miscalculation by the Germans — saved his life.
Shaike was born and raised in Jonava, Lithuania and fled to Daugavpils with his brother when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. On June 29, he was arrested along with the other Jewish male adults in town. His brother, who was fifteen years old, was arrested alongside him, but released the same day because of his age.
For the next week and a half, Shaike was held in a crowded prison cell, fed almost nothing, and forced to work during the day.
On July 8, he noted “a change for the worse in our guards, an extraordinary meanness … In my worst fears, I could not have conjured up the kind of hell in which I now found myself.”
That day he and his comrades were stuck in a truly Sisyphean ordeal: forced to roll rocks up a hill, three men to a rock. They kept losing their grip and the rocks would slide back.
That night some other prisoners told him they had been forced to dig huge ditches, which were covered in chlorine.
The next day, the eighteenth day of Operation Barbarossa, Shaike found out what the ditches were for:
A series of shots … a short interruption and again shots … and again … It wasn’t long before we got the confirmation of what we’d been suspecting all along. One of the men in a neighboring cell stuck his head in the doorway, and said, “They are killing Jews. From the washroom window someone saw people lined up in the yard. They are from the first floor.”
Though this testimony specifically concerns a different massacre, in November of 1941, it gives a sense of the environment.
A couple of hours later, Shaike and the others from his part of the prison were ordered to leave and take all their belongings. They were marched down to the basement and made to empty their pockets into the “knee-deep rows of wallets, documents, pictures, watches, trinkets worthless to anyone else.” Then they were marched into the yard and formed into groups of twenty. Hoping to at least die with people he knew, Shaike stuck together with his old friends from Jonava.
The blue sky was almost clear, with only here and there a wisp of cloud. I looked up, and the thought hit me hard: I will never see the sky again.
It is said that, when a person faces death, his whole life flashes before him. But my thoughts were disjointed, disorderly; they tumbled through my mind rather like the flimsy clouds above, forming, changing shape, disappearing and reappearing … Catching myself picking at a hangnail, I thought, How silly. In a few minutes it will make no difference at all …
It occurred to me that reality was often quite unlike what we expect it to be. People standing in line to be killed didn’t look very different from those waiting to buy bread. Their faces, their eyes betray nothing of what is going on in their minds. People stand in line under the hot sun, they move ahead, then their times comes to die, and it is over.
Shaike and his friends waited in line for over two hours in the heat. He had not thrown out his handkerchief and was glad to have it to wipe the sweat from his face. Finally he and his group of twenty arrived at the gate … but when the soldiers came out, they didn’t escort them to the ditches. Instead they ordered everyone to turn around and march back to the prison.
That evening, the prisoners were ordered out again and taken to the killing ground, and then they realized what had happened: the Nazis had spared them because they had run out of ditches. The Jews had to cover the mass graves with earth, stamping down on the bodies and packing them together, and also to dig new trenches, presumably for themselves, until evening when they were sent back to the prison again.
That night, Shaike and some of his friends hid in an empty cell under blankets. The Nazis didn’t find them the next morning when they ordered the survivors out to get shot. They hid in the cell for two days before they were caught. Fortunately the Latvian guards who found them didn’t realize who they were, and merely beat them and tossed them in with some prisoners who’d arrived that same day.
Eventually, Shaike was released from the prison and taken to the Daugavpils Ghetto. He would eventually escape from there and spent some time living in the woods with a Soviet partisan detachment, going back and forth between there and the ghetto. Finally he was captured and taken first to the Stutthof Concentration Camp, then to Dachau. There he was liberated by Americans on April 29, 1945. At twenty years old, he was the sole survivor of his family.
On this date in 1945 — morning after a devastating U.S. air raid that destroyed much of Fukuoka — eight previously-captured American airmen* were summarily executed there in retaliation.
In a precedent that dated back to the Doolittle raids, Japan officially considered as a prospective war criminal any enemy airman who could be connected to indiscriminate bombing. Tokyo didn’t follow this logic to the point of executing all downed Americans — indeed, late in the war, beleaguered Japanese civilians became increasingly hostile towards the government for allowing excess legalism to stand in the way of exacting some satisfying revenge for the cities burning under American bombs — but it did execute some, and it had sanctioned legal theorems that could have accommodated quite a bit more bloodletting.
Finding Tokyo short of prison space, the government ordered on May 1, 1945, that the various armies should no longer send to the capital any downed airmen they captured. In the chaos of the war’s last months, this would create the context for local commanders at the Western Military District in Fukuoka to put those legal theorems to seriously nasty use.
Four captured airmen held in Fukuoka were stuck in an indeterminate judicial process which the army realized was going nowhere slowly. The others were just plain underfoot. Over the period of May-June, between a couple of ambiguously-worded orders and the officers’ annoyance at having to divert scarce resources to these captives, an understanding formed if “the air raids increased and conditions became more chaotic, the prisoners would be executed without a trial.”
About 3,000 tons of … incendiary bombs … were released by the B-24s from low level starting about three a.m. … The three cities [Fukuoka, Toyotashi and Shizuoka] were tasting for the first time the bitter flames of war, roaring over factories, shops and thousands of congested homes.
Timothy Lang Francis, whose “‘To Dispose of the Prisoners’: The Japanese Executions of American Aircrew at Fukuoka, Japan, during 1945″ from the November 1997 Pacific Historical Review traces the confluence of factors that made possible this day’s executions, describes the fate that was unfolding for Fukuoka’s eight captive airmen at about the same time those words were going to press.
All were blindfolded and had their hands tied in front. Several swords were obtained from the Legal Section. [Yusei] Wako** then told the twenty or so assembled Japanese that, “in compliance with the Commanding General†’s orders, we were going to execute the plane crash survivors.” One officer, Lt. Michio Ikeda of the Medical Section, volunteered himself, and Wako ordered Probationary Officer Tamotsu Onishi, since he was skilled in kendo, to assist him as a third executioner. Sato watched the proceedings from one side.
The first flyer was brought to the edge of the pit and made to sit on his haunches. Wako then ritually washed one of the swords and stood behind the prisoner, slightly to the left. Raising the sword above his right shoulder with both hands, Wako brought it down on the flyer’s neck. “Both the body and head fell into the pit,” remembered Wako; “I washed my sword and ordered the guard to bring another flyer to the pit. I killed this flyer exactly the same way I had killed the first one.” Onishi then executed a third prisoner in the same manner.
In the pause that followed, Lt. Kentaro Toji, an officer attached to Western Army Headquarters, approached Sato. According to his pretrial affidavit, Toji said to Sato, “My mother was killed in the air raid on Fukuoka this morning, and I think it would be fitting that I be the one who execute these American flyers.” Sato told him to wait while Wako ordered Ikeda to execute the fourth flyer. Toji, after borrowing a sword from Onishi, beheaded the last four prisoners. The pit was then filled with dirt.
This is all well and good, but Tokyo’s orders to its armies had been to do the juridical legwork on these cases themselves — and not just to summarily kill prisoners. So, in a bit of ex post facto bureaucratic butt-covering, the Western District Army’s legal section proceeded to close the matter by shipping the central government a report saying that all these prisoners had been killed during the previous night’s air raid. Problem solved!
No known direct connection to this particular atrocity, but there’s a recent documentary about an elderly Japanese man who used to serve at Fukuoka that looks worth the watching.
* Six of the eight were Robert J. Aspinall, Merlin R. Calvin, Jack V. Dengler, Otto W. Baumgarten, Edgar L. McElfresh, and Ralph S. Romines. The other two remain unidentified. These eight were, maybe, the lucky ones: Fukuoka had had 16 prisoners from downed bombers, but the other eight weren’t around to be beheaded because they’d previously been given over to the local hospital to suffer ghastly deaths in vivisection experiments.
** A Judge Advocate who had also been involved in the Doolittle trials.
† Gen. Isamu Yokoyama. When he’d been briefed prior to the June 19 raid that the army was fixing to just dispose of its prisoners if it came to that, Yokoyama had done the Pontius Pilate act and informed Wako, “I have decided to concern myself only with the decisive battle and hereafter do not bother me with the problem of the flyers.”
Throughout the last days of the Third Reich, it ruthlessly forced its desperate conscripts by threat of summary execution into service to slow the overwhelming Soviet army.
Borrowing a page from Gen. Ferdinand Schoerner‘s no-mercy demonstrative hangings of any “straggler” found behind front lines without orders, Goebbels
issued a radio proclamation to the trapped troops [of Berlin]: “Any man found not doing his duty will be hanged from a lamp post after a summary judgment. Moreover, placards will be attached to the corpses stating: ‘I have been hanged here because I am too cowardly to defend the capital of the Reich. I have been hanged because I did not believe in the Fuhrer. I am a deserter and for this reason I shall not see this turning point in history.
SS members, aware that they would be in for the worst of it after the war (and that their mandatory blood-type tattoos would make them easy to identify) were the ones sufficiently motivated to impose this policy. One German in the city at the time recalled the horror of seeing
boys who were found hiding were hanged as traitors by the SS as a warning that, ‘he who was not brave enough to fight had to die.’ When trees were not available, people were strung up on lamp posts. They were hanging everywhere, military and civilian, men and women, ordinary citizens who had been executed by a small group of fanatics.
Although it’s not specifically an execution story, the horrifying consequences of this lethal paranoia under siege are the theme of the West German film Die Brücke, in which a rare veteran sergeant looking after some child-conscripts is shot by a patrol when he can’t produce orders … leaving the children alone to be butchered pointlessly defending a bridge.
“This event occurred on April 27, 1945,” the film concludes about its (fictional) plot. “It was so unimportant that it was never mentioned in any war communique.”
In the German installment of the Massaker von Treuenbrietzen, the army led 131 Italian internees taken prisoner after that erstwhile ally had gone over to the Allies in 1943 out to a gravel pit, and gunned them all down. (Stone markers now label the site.)
Only four men survived the mass execution.
“I can not explain this miracle,” said Edo Magnalardo, an Italian who played dead until the heap of corpses was buried, and then climbed out and found some Russians to surrender to/be liberated by. This German article records Magnalardo’s recollections of events, and the long and fruitless struggle for an official investigation.
For Germans in Treuenbrietzen, surrendering to the Red Army was a much less liberating experience … not that anybody had a choice in the matter.
Beginning on this date, Soviet soldiers carried out a horrifying rampage that left upwards of a thousand Treuenbrietzen men dead.
Apparently provoked when a Russian officer celebrating the village’s capture had been shot dead during a brief German reconquest, Soviet troops shot an estimated 270 or so civilians at the edge of the nearby forest on April 23. Over the next two weeks, they kept shooting: some 800 to 1,000 men (mostly) are believed to have been killed in this way by the end of the war. As for the women … there would soon be a need to set up a gynecological station in a local office, and require that all report for VD testing.
Since Treuenbrietzen ended up in communist East Germany after the war, this part of the massacre was seriously downplayed for a long time.
But no matter how officially favored the winning side in the war, the grim fate of so many noncombatants in Treuenbrietzen surely shames those who participated in it. As one survivor put it in the German press, “He who takes revenge can not be celebrated as a liberator, even though he has helped to end this disastrous war.”
This date is locally commemorated in Treuenbrietzen for both massacres, and both Italian and Russian diplomats have participated in memorial ceremonies.
On this date in 1098, Antioch’s besieged Muslim defenders martyred a Crusader knight who refused to secure a ransom for himself.
The armies of the First Crusade had pressed their way through Anatolia and had laid to siege these past five months the ancient Syrian city of Antioch. (It’s in modern Turkey now, where it’s known as Antakya.)
the Turks led to the top of an Antiochian wall a noble knight, Rainald Porchet [alternatively, Rainaud or Reynaud Porquet], whom they had imprisoned in a foul dungeon. They then told him that he should inquire from the Christian pilgrims how much they would pay for his ransom before he lost his head.
To the shock of the garrison, Porchet went all clash-of-civilizations on this routine diplomacy.
From the heights of the wall Rainald addressed the leaders: “My lords, it matters not if I die, and I pray you, my brothers, that you pay no ransom for me. But be certain in the faith of Christ and the Holy Sepulchre that God is with you and shall be forever. You have slain all the leaders and the bravest men of Antioch; namely, twelve emirs and fifteen thousand noblemen, and no one remains to give battle with you or to defend the city.”
The Turks asked what Rainald had said. The interpreter replied: “Nothing good concerning you was said.”
The emir, Yaghi Siyan, immediately ordered him to descend from the wall and spoke to him through an interpreter: “Rainald, do you wish to enjoy life honorably with us?”
Rainald replied: “How can I live honorably with you without sinning?”
The emir answered: “Deny your God, whom you worship and believe, and accept Mohammed and our other gods. If you do so we shall give to you all that you desire such as gold, horses, mules, and many other worldly goods which you wish, as well as wives and inheritances; and we shall enrich you with great lands.”
Yaghi Siyan was obliged to make this proposition of apostasy to his prisoner as a prelude to executing him.
Rainald replied to the emir: “Give me time for consideration;” and the emir gladly agreed. Rainald with clasped hands knelt in prayer to the east; humbly he asked God that He come to his aid and transport with dignity his soul to the bosom of Abraham.
When the emir saw Rainald in prayer, he called his interpreter and said to him: “What was Rainald’s answer?”
The interpreter then said: “He completely denies your god. He also refuses your worldly goods and your gods.”
After hearing this report, the emir was extremely irritated and ordered the immediate beheading of Rainald, and so the Turks with great pleasure chopped off his head: Swiftly the angels, joyfully singing the Psalms of David, bore his soul and lifted it before the sight of God for Whose love he had undergone martyrdom.
Rainald got himself a starring role in the Chanson d’Antioche, an epic poem celebrating the Crusade, for this pious self-sacrifice. We can only presume that his name- and numberless compatriots in the dungeons, who also paid the price for Rainald’s obstinacy, were satisfied with suffering the same fate but only getting a role in the chorus.
Then the emir, in a towering rage because he could not make Rainald turn apostate, at once ordered all the pilgrims in Antioch to be brought before him with their hands bound bend their backs. When they had come before him; he ordered them stripped stark naked, and as they stood in the nude he commanded that they be bound with ropes in a circle. He then had chaff, firewood, and hay piled around them, and finally as enemies of God he ordered them put to the torch.
The Christians, those knights of Christ, shrieked and screamed so that their voices resounded in heaven to God for whose love their flesh and bones were cremated; and so they all entered martyrdom on this day wearing in heaven their white stoles before the Lord, for Whom they had so loyally suffered in the reign of our Lord Jesus Christ, to Whom is the honor and glory now and throughout eternity. Amen.
In these heady early months of the Crusades, when the enterprise stumbled from near-disaster to miraculous success, the renown of Porchet et al was clinched by the siege’s success in early June — just days ahead of the arrival of a Turkish relief force which thereafter had to content itself with besieging the now-Crusader-held city.
When this second siege was repelled with the help of the Christians’ convenient — staged, one might think — “discovery” of the Holy Lance of Antioch, everyone had to know that the Big Guy was truly on their side.
In the diary of that remarkable man, Gen. Patrick Gordon, who left Scotland in 1651 a poor, unfriended wanderer, and, when he died, in 1699, had his eyes closed by the affectionate hands of his sorrowing master, the Czar Peter the Great, the following entry is to be found, under date Hamburg, March 22, 1686:
This day, a man and a woman, a burgher of the towne being the womans master, for murthering, were carted from the prisone to the house where the murder was committed; and there before this house, with hotte pinsers, the flesh was torren out of their armes, and from thence were carted to the place of justice without the towne, and there broken and layed on wheeles.
But Kuchma was keen on integrating with Europe, and that meant appeasing western Europe’s human rights sensibilities.
Ukraine joined the Council of Europe in 1995, a move that required it to abolish the death penalty. But executions — by means of the old Soviet method, a single gunshot to the back of the head — were ragingly popular during a decade of economic collapse and spiraling crime.
According to When the State No Longer Kills, which has an entire chapter devoted to the Ukrainian abolition experience, Ukraine’s annual count of reported murders shot up from 2,016 in 1988 to 4,896 by 1996, with 4,000-plus per annum every year from 1993 on.
“The country’s crime rate does not allow for cancelling the death penalty,” Ukraine’s Parliamentary chair told COE observers in November 1996.
He was in for a surprise.
To Europe’s chagrin, some 167 people were indeed put to death in 1996 alone. The Council Of Europe pointedly threatened sanctions against the Ukrainian delegation in January 1997 … and Kiev chickened out.
Its last executions were thirteen conducted in the first 70 days of 1997 — executions which were not announced publicly beforehand or even afterwards, and only wrung as admissions out of the government months afterward when the prisoners’ respective contacts realized they hadn’t heard from them in a suspiciously long period of time. Between this up-front secrecy and Ukraine’s practice of dumping its executed bodies in unmarked graves, nobody ever seems to have been able to document who exactly died when, and who really was last. (We assume the incriminating paper does exist somewhere in the bowels of the bureaucracy.)
By the same token, there was no public indication when the sun came up on March 12 that anything had changed. Ukraine kept information about its death row prisoners close to the vest; the Council of Europe continued to press it for a moratorium until very late in 1997, when Kiev announced that it had in fact been observing a de facto moratorium since March 11. I guess we have no choice but to take their word for it.
Just like that, this impossible dream had been accomplished.
Two years later, the country’s high court barred the death penalty, followed quickly by parliamentary action to remove it from the statutes full stop.
The nameless dead man or woman of this date is actually not only the last executed in Ukraine, but the last in the entire 47 countries of the Council of Europe — a zone that still excludes Ukraine’s neighbor Belarus, which as of writing is the last redoubt of capital punishment in Europe.
“Annamites” — a term that will not get you a warm welcome in Southeast Asia today — were residents of the French protectorate of Annam. It, along with Tonkin to its north and Cochinchina to its south, comprise present-day Vietnam: “Annamite” was also sometimes generalized as a colonialist synonym for all Vietnamese. (Here’s a 1947 Life magazine article by William Bullitt that does just that in its warning about the burgeoning war wherein “Annamites — half starved and weakened by malaria, gentle by nature but courageous” had started “kill[ing] every Frenchman they can.”)
Detail view (click for the full image) of a mounted Charles the Bold under a forest of hanged men.
Charles — less generously known as “Charles the Rash” or “Charles the Terrible” — was the Duke of Burgundy, an ancient territory whose warlike inhabitants were celebrated back to The Nibelungenlied
Upon his single person the sword-strokes fell thick and fast. The wife of many a hero must later mourn for this. Higher he raised his shield, the thong he lowered; the rings of many an armor he made to drip with blood … Then men saw the warrior walk forth in full lordly wise. As the strife-weary man sprang from the house, how many added swords rang on his helmet! Those that had not seen what wonders his hand had wrought sprang towards the hero of the Burgundian land. (XXXII)
In the 15th century, the swords ringing on Burgundian helmets were those of the French and the Habsburgs, who squeezed the mighty duchy on either side.
Charles the Bold fought the expansionist Burgundian Wars as a project to strengthen his duchy’s independence. But it would have the exact opposite effect.
The Swiss had been pulled into the anti-Burgundian league, and taken the city of Grandson, inducing an irritated Charles to put it to a fearful bombardment that threatened to overrun the place in short order.
Sources vary by partisan affiliation as to whether the besieged garrison surrendered at its antagonist’s discretion (Burgundian version) or on a pledge of mercy (Swiss version). But in the actual event, no mercy at all was given. To a man, the prisoners were strung up on trees and drowned in the adjacent Lake of Neuchatel — a warning to the Swiss not to mess with Burgundy.
It was bluster that Charles’s men could not back up when their opponents fought back … and after this, who was going to surrender?
A couple days later, the Swiss relief force arrived too late to bail out the garrison. Instead, it trounced the Burgundians in battle, sending them fleeing “without looking back, helter-skelter” as Charles, “exasperated beyond measure by the stupid cowardice of his troops, rode amongst them with drawn sword, striking them furiously, in the vain effort to bring them to a standstill.”
There were found sadly the honorable men still freshly hanging on the trees in front of the castle whom the tyrant had hanged. It was a wretched, pitiable sight. There were hung ten or twenty men on one bough. The trees were bent down and were completely full. There hanged a father and a son next to each other, there two brothers or other friends. And there came the honorable men who knew them; who were their friends, cousins and brothers, who found them miserably hanging. There was first anger and distress in crying and bewailing.
Charles was plenty distressed himself at his embarrassing reversal, and boldly (or rashly) regrouped, marched on the Swiss again — and had Burgundian power decisively shattered at the Battle of Murten that June. The following January, a dispirited Charles died in another losing battle, leading the once-imperious realm of Burgundy to settle into French hands, where it remains today.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 homosexuals may have been incarcerated in the camps, Dr. [Klaus] Mulller said, out of approximately 100,000 men who were arrested under Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which called for the imprisonment of any “male who commits lewd and lascivious acts with another male.” (The law was silent on lesbianism, although individual instances of persecutions of lesbians have been recorded.)
Perhaps 60 percent of those in the camps died, Dr. Muller said, meaning that even in 1945, there may have been only 4,000 survivors. Today, Dr. Mliller knows of fewer than 15.
Their travails did not end at liberation. They were still officially regarded as criminals, rather than as political prisoners, since Paragraph 175 remained in force in West Germany until 1969. They were denied reparations and the years they spent in the camps were deducted from their pensions. Some survivors were even jailed again.
Old enough to be grandfathers and great-grandfathers, the survivors scarcely courted attention as homosexuals, having learned all too well the perils of notoriety. “It is not easy to tell a story you were forced to hide for 50 years,” Dr. Mullers said.
One of the first men to break his silence was the anonymous “Prisoner X. Y.,” who furnished a vividly detailed account of life as a homosexual inmate in the 1972 book, The Men With the Pink Triangle, by Heinz Heger, which was reissued last year by Alyson Publications.
By a coincidence that still astonishes him, Dr. Muller said, Prisoner X. Y. — “the best documented homosexual inmate of a camp” — turned out to be Mr. [Josef] Kohout.
After his arrest in 1939, Mr. Kohout was taken to the Sachsenhausen camp and served at the Klinker brickworks, which he called “the ‘Auschwitz’ for homosexuals.” Prisoners who were not beaten to death could easily be killed by heavy carts barreling down the steep incline of the clay pits.
In 1940, he was transferred to Flossenburg. On Christmas Eve 1941 inmates were made to sing carols in front at a 30-foot-high Christmas tree on the parade ground. Flanking it were gallows from which eight Russian prisoners had been hanging since morning. “Whenever I hear a carol sung –no matter how beautifully — I remember the Christmas tree at Flossenburg with its grisly ‘decorations,’ ” he wrote.