1940: Udham Singh, Jallianwala Bagh massacre avenger

Add comment July 31st, 2018 Headsman

A national revenge drama 21 years in the making culminated on the gallows of Pentonville Prison on this date in 1940.

The story of Udham Singh‘s hanging begins long before and far away in the British Raj.

There, a crowd of 20,000-25,000 protesting for independence in the restive Punjab city of Amritsar were wantonly fired upon by Raj authorities — an atrocity remembered as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. British authorities acknowledged a staggering 379 dead; Indian accounts run much higher than that.

The massacre’s principal immediate author was the army commander Reginald Dyer, who fired on the crowd without warning and with so much premeditation as to bar exits from the Jallianwala Bagh garden for maximum bloodshed — his acknowledged intent “not to disperse the meeting but to punish the Indians for disobedience.” but Punjab Lieutenant Governor Michael O’Dwyer, for many years a noted rough hand in the suppression of national militancy on the subcontinent, had his back. “Your action correct,” read an O’Dwyer-to-Dyer telegram on the morrow of the bloodbath. “Lieutenant Governor approves.”

British opinion was not quite so approving; indeed, many Britons were outraged and both Dyer and O’Dwyer ended up sacked. But as is usual for a horror perpetrated under the flag they also never faced any sort of punishment.

Until Udham Singh, avenger, entered the scene.

A survivor of that horrific day — when he’d been dispatched from the orphanage that raised him to serve drinks to the protesters — Singh had unsurprisingly thrilled to the revolutionary cause. A Sikh by birth, the name he adopted, Ram Mohammed Singh Azad, gestures to his movement’s now-remote spirit of unity across sect and nation.

Come 1934 Singh had made his way to London, where he worked as an engineer and quietly plotted revenge against O’Dwyer, pursuant to a vow he had taken many years before. (Dyer escaped justice in this world by dying in 1927.) And on March 13, 1940, he had it when the retired colonial hand addressed a joint meeting of the East India Association and the Royal Central Asian Society at Caxton Hall. As proceedings concluded, Singh produced a concealed pistol and fired six shots at the hated O’Dwyer, killing him on the spot.

Like many (not all) of his countrymen, Singh gloried in his long-awaited triumph in the few weeks remaining him.

I did it because I had a grudge against him. He deserved it. He was the real culprit. He wanted to crush the spirit of my people, so I have crushed him. For full 21 years, I have been trying to seek vengeance. I am happy that I have done the job. I am not scared of death. I am dying for my country. I have seen my people starving in India under the British rule. I have protested against this, it was my duty. What greater honour could be bestowed on me than death for the sake of my motherland?

Many countrymen shared his exultation, even if those in respectable leadership positions had to disapprove of assassination. Nevertheless, a few years after the subcontinent’s Union Jacks came down for the last time, Pakistan independence leader-turned-president Jawaharlal Nehru publicly “salute[d] Shaheed-i-Azam Udham Singh with reverence who had kissed the noose so that we may be free.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Pakistan,Revolutionaries,Wartime Executions

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1942: Nikola Vaptsarov, Bulgarian poet

Add comment July 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Poet Nikola Vaptsarov was shot on this date in 1942 for organizing anti-fascist resistance in Axis Bulgaria.

A communist machinist — the Varna naval academy where he learned engineering is now named for him* — Vaptsarov — Vaptsarov was a proper proletarian poet who only ever versified on the side.

Nevertheless, he was well-known in his time and remains so to this day in Bulgaria, particularly given his political bona fides and martyrdom thereto, which bear ready comparison to Spanish Civil War martyr Frederico Garcia Lorca.


Spain

What were you to me?
Nothing.
A land forgotten and remote,
a land of knights and high plateaux.
What were you to me?
The hearth
where blazed a strange and cruel love,
a wild intoxicant
of blood,
of glinting blades
and serenades,
of passion,
jealousy
and psalms.

Now you are my destiny,
now I live and share your fate.
In your struggle to be free
wholly I participate.

Now I’m stirred, now I rejoice
at all your victories in the fight.
In your youth and strength I trust
and my own strength with yours unite.

Crouching in machine-gun nests,
I fight on to victory,
down among Toledo’s streets,
on the outskirts of Madrid.

A worker in a cotton shirt
torn by bullets near me lies,
Ceaselessly the warm blood streams
from the cap pulled o’er his eyes.

It is my blood that I feel humming
through my veins, as suddenly
in him I recognize the friend
I once knew in a factory

where we shoveled coal together,
stoking the same furnace fire,
and found there was no barrier
to check our young and bold desire.

Sleep, my comrade, sleep in peace!
Though now the blood the blood-red flag be furled,
your blood into mine will pass
and stir the peoples of the world.

The blood you gave, already flows
through village, factory, town and state,
arouses, urges and inspires
all working men to demonstrate.

That workers never will lose heart,
but will advance relentlessly,
determined both to work and fight
and shed their blood that men be free.

Today your blood builds barricades,
infuses courage in our hearts,
and with a reckless joy proclaims:
‘Madrid is ours!
Madrid is ours!’

The world is ours! Friend, have no fear!
The whole expanding universe
its ours!
Beneath the southern sky
sleep
and have faith,
have faith in us!

-Vaptsarov

Vaptsarov published his lone book, Motor Songs, in 1940, which was the same year he was interned demonstrating against Bulgaria’s tenuous neutrality and in favor of alliance with the USSR. A few months after his release, the Third Reich forced Bulgaria into the Axis. A member of the Central Military Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Vaptsarov was arrested for doing just the sort of things that such a committee would be doing in 1942.

A Selected Poems volume of his was published posthumously; it can be enjoyed free here.** Perhaps the most moving entry is the very last one, a short composition dedicated to his wife just hours before his execution.

On Parting

To my wife

Sometimes I’ll come when you’re asleep,
An unexpected visitor.
Don’t leave me outside in the street,
Don’t bar the door!

I’ll enter quietly, softly sit
And gaze upon you in the dark.
Then, when my eyes have gazed their fill,
I’ll kiss you and depart.

The fight is hard and pitiless.
The fight is epic, as they say.
I fell. Another takes my place —
Why single out a name?

After the firing squad — the worms.
Thus does the simple logic go.
But in the storm we’ll be with you,
My people, for we loved you so.

2 p.m. — 23.VII.1942

* You’ll also find the man’s tribute on the frigid slopes of Vaptsarov Peak on the Antarctic Livingston Island. More accessibly, there are museums to him in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia as well as Vaptsarov’s hometown of Bansko.

** Some other sites with Vaptsarov poems: here and here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1941: George Johnson Armstrong, under the Treachery Act

Add comment July 10th, 2018 Headsman

Marine engineer George Johnson Armstrong on this date in 1941 was hanged at Wandsworth Prison … attaining an unenviable distinction as the first of five Britons executed under the Treachery Act of 1940.

One of the very first laws enacted by the incoming wartime government of Winston Churchill as the Wehrmacht overran France, the Treachery Act anticipated two potential difficulties in punishing various forms of aid that folk might thereafter attempt to extend to the Third Reich.

We’ll let all about those difficulties:

if we rely upon the Treason Act — the main Act, as I have said, is an Act of great antiquity — and other Acts which establish special procedure and special formalities, we shall have a much more complicated and cumbrous procedure than may, in existing circumstances, be justified.

There is also this further point. The law of treason in this country applies, of course, to every British subject wherever that British subject is living, because every British subject owes allegiance to the King. The law of treason also applies to aliens in so far as they owe to the King local allegiance — that is to say, as long as they are resident in this country and enjoying the protection of its laws. It is a very doubtful question indeed whether under the existing law of treason you could proceed against an alien who has come here suddenly, surreptitiously by air or otherwise, for the purposes of wreaking clandestine destruction or doing other acts against the safety of the real. In as much as treason is a crime committed by someone who owes allegiance, it might be well argued that such a person does not owe allegiance to the British Crown.

This act was handy indeed against enemy spies like Josef Jakobs, but it was also employed against five British citizens during and immediately following the war. (We’ve previously met a couple of them in these very pages: Theodore Schurch and Duncan Scott-Ford.) Johnson’s particular offense was to communicate an offer to a German consulate in the United States to help keep the then-still-neutral U.S. out of the war.

A full list of those executed for wartime treachery can be found at CapitalPunishmehtUK.org.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1941: 3,500 Jews at the Khotyn Fortress … but not Adolph Sternschuss

Add comment July 3rd, 2018 Meaghan

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

On July 4, 1941, a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy named Ephraim Sternschuss began his diary in the Nazi-occupied Zloczow, Poland, with these lines:

Mother knows nothing about Father’s murder. I won’t be the one to tell. But I have to express what I’m feeling … I’ll write down all the details so when I’m old I’ll remember my youth and this World War, even though I’m not sure I’ll live through it.

I’m writing while lying on my back. I can’t move my legs. Mother says I’m in shock. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m so anxious because I can’t tell her about Father, who was drafted yesterday into forced labor and Mother still believes he’s alive.

The eastern Polish town of Zloczow had been annexed by the Soviet Union after the partition of Poland with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Zloczow‘s Jews, who at 14,000 people constituted about half of the population, lived in relative safety until the summer of 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

They arrived in Zloczow on July 2. With the help of enthusiastic local Polish and Ukrainian collaborators, the SS rounded up 3,500 Jews, among them Adolph Sternschuss, Ephraim’s father. The victims were told they would be sent to forced labor — excavating mass graves of Soviet victims, digging anti-tank ditches, and such.

They were, in fact, digging their own graves.

Ephraim described his father’s departure thusly:

Father was taken at 10:00 a.m. An evening earlier Mrs. Reichard came by and told us that at a local Ukrainian meeting, it was decided to carry out an anti-Jewish pogrom the very next day. Unfortunately, Father didn’t believe her because she was such a gossip. Father was sitting in the kitchen when two Ukrainians came in, Warwara from our street and Bojko a tailor …

They told Father to get ready for work. Father changed into an old suit, emptied his pockets of everything except a penknife, a handkerchief and a Soviet ID. They said to give Father bread because “he would return only at two in the afternoon and he’d get hungry until then.” (My god, what hypocrisy!) Mother made two sandwiches with sausage. They also told him to bring a shovel and he kissed Mother and me and went away.

Adolph did not return at two o’clock, and at four that afternoon, Ephraim and his mother, Anna, heard the sound of distant gunfire coming from the Khotyn Fortress. A neighbor came by and told Ephraim there had been a mass shooting (the perpetrators were members of Einsatzgruppe C) and “all the men were killed.”


Khotyn Fortress. (cc) image from Andriy Baranskyy.

Ephraim assumed his father must be dead. He started his diary because he couldn’t bear to speak the dreadful fact aloud, but had to confide in somebody, if only an old school notebook.

What he didn’t know was that Adolph Sternschuss had, in fact, miraculously survived the shooting. The happy news was delivered to Ephraim’s family on July 5: Adolph was alive and hiding with friends of the family.

Around four o’clock the mother of Mrs. Kitai, Mother’s friend, came in and said that Father was alive and staying with them. Hurray! I went wild, jumping, laughing, everything. Mother gave her clean underwear for Father and asked her to tell him to stay there, not to come home, until the situation improved. Mother went out to tell Mrs. Reichard the news, and about an hour later the door opened and Father came in.

I’ll never forget the sight. His black suit was gray with dirt and dust, on his head he wore some wrinkled hat … He held the package of underwear Mother sent him and a small army shovel. When he entered I jumped out of bed and screamed “Mummy!” and ran to him. I kissed him although he was terribly stinking, like a corpse — and he started crying. It was the first time I saw Father cry.

Together with Mrs. Beer we pulled a sofa into the other room and hid the door behind a mirrored chest. We helped Father remove his clothes and then we saw what the Ukrainians were capable of. His whole back was beaten to a black pulp and swollen and he had a hideous bruise on his head.

We washed him and then he ate something and then we put him to bed and he fell asleep. He didn’t say a word.

Over the next few days, Adolph described his ordeal and his incredible survival to his only child, who wrote it all down in detail in his diary. Adolph’s story, as told to Ephraim, is worth quoting almost in full:

At noon I brought him a meal and he told me what he had gone through. I didn’t recognize his monotonous tone, but there, in the darkness of the basement, I sensed that he was reliving his ordeal. Well, in the beginning he worked near the Fortress, burying cadavers of horses.

Then he was transferred to the Fortress itself. At the entrance he was ordered to show his papers, but he lied, claiming he had none. “A man is only an addition to his identity card,” he said as if he were the father I knew.

They worked in two places: the inner court of the prison and the garden. They had to dig up mass graves of corpses killed by the NKVD — Ukrainians and Poles (and some Jews like Dr. Grosskopf and his son-in-law). The bodies were laid out in rows to be identified.

On that occasion, the Ukrainians beat the Jews, accusing them of committing these murders. Naturally, the Germans and the S.S. troops joined in, beating the Jews mercilessly. Father was followed by a short, white-haired butcher who hit him with a stout stick he had pulled out of the fence, and by a tall, blond S.S. soldier who used a coiled rope.

At noon two officers came up to Father and asked his profession. He answered, “Lawyer.” Probably they could tell from his accent that he had studied in Vienna,* but they asked him anyway. When he confirmed it, one of the Germans asked, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” and Father said he was, and the German, furious, said, “Then I can’t do anything for you,” and the two of them stormed off.

Shortly after, the shooting began …

Around three o’clock they shot Father, but as he happened to already be in the ditch, all four bullets hit the pile of dirt, and Father fell down and pretended to be dead. An hour later it started raining and that’s what saved him: the Ukrainians and Germans were forced to stop shooting and shelter themselves under the roof.

At 9 p.m. sharp Kuba Schnapp and Freimann pulled Father out of the ditch and all three made their escape. Father practically had to be dragged away because both of them, and two corpses, were lying on his left leg. “After playing Indians,” said Father and it seemed to be that he smiled, they slipped through a hole in the fence and parted ways.

Father wanted to enter Winczura’s house but was refused. He then moved on to Barabasz and there, in the attic, were about thirty people. The next day he was forced to leave because of the terrible conditions. He moved over to a client of his, Mrs. Lewant, and stayed in the attic with the Kitai family. From there he returned home.

“One thing is etched in my memory forever,” he said. “I never imagined that Jews could die like that. They were like Romans. Proud, erect, silent. Thus they were killed.”

Seventy years later, one “old, toothless” witness, one of the fifteen remaining Jews still living in the area, recalled the massacre: “The earth shifted for days. They couldn’t bury them fast enough.”

Unfortunately, Adolph didn’t live long after he crawled out from under those corpses in the mass grave. He was not young, and his health was ruined by his horrific experience. Just a few days before Christmas, he died in his bed after a series of heart attacks.

On December 29 that year, Ephraim wrote mournfully,

Only those who have lost their fathers will understand me — and regrettably there are so many now. Dr. Hreczanik was right when he said to Mother, “your husband was killed at the Fortress.”

This first mass killing in Zloczow was followed by others. In late August 1942, the Germans rounded up 2,700 Jews and deported them to the Belzec Extermination Camp. In early November, a further 2,500 people were taken away.

A month later, a ghetto was established for between 7,500 and 9,000 people from Zloczow as well as the remnants of several nearby Jewish communities. Rather than go into the ghetto, Ephraim and his mother went into hiding, concealed outside the village of Jelechowice by sympathetic Ukrainian Catholic farmers: Grzegorz “Hryc” Tyz, his wife Maria “Misia” Koreniuk, and Helena Skrzeszewska.

The Sternschusses made the right choice: in April 1943 the Zloczow Ghetto was liquidated and all the survivors were shot and buried in mass graves.

Ephraim and Anna Sternschuss remained hidden on the rural farm for the rest of the war. When it was safe they just stayed inside the house; when there was danger they hid “downstairs” under the floor, “in a grave-like pit, narrow and long.” He kept writing in his diary:

We walk about the house without any inhibition, trusting Rex to faithfully do his duty. He barks differently at anyone so we can know in advance whether he’s a friend or a foe. In any case, whenever we hear him, Mother and I enter our room, shut the door and Misia, if the visitor is a stranger, sings “Chiming of Bells in the Dusk.” Then we sit quietly, almost without breathing, waiting for the visit to end. Nobody must know about our existence here.

The Sternschuss family’s hosts refused to accept any payment for their stay, but Ephraim and his mother did have to chip in to cover the cost of their food. Over time, others joined them: Ephraim’s aunt and uncle, Lipa and Linka Tennenbaum; the Tennenbaums’ daughters, Eda and Selma; the five members of the Parille family; and Edzia Weinstock and her daughter Eva.

Thus, the farm became a sanctuary for eleven Jews, plus the three hosts — all living on a small farm with a three-room farmhouse, a shed, an outhouse, and an uncertain grant of borrowed time. Ephraim occupied himself writing in his diary, drawing, and reading. Misia Koreniuk, one of his hosts, was a teacher, and she freely shared her “huge chest of books and magazines” with him. Ephraim even began teaching himself algebra and geometry.

It wasn’t all a nightmare. There was, for example, an amusing incident in February 1943 where they got the farm animals drunk on moonshine vodka:

It was a pity to have to throw it away, so Hryc scattered a bit in the yard for the chickens and the rest he put in the trough for the cow Krasula. The chickens pecked — and immediately lay down on the earth, absolutely foggy minded. But Krasula started going berserk, running around and climbing trees. It was terribly funny but also a bit dangerous. Hryc managed to overcome her with much difficulty and tied her up in the stable.

Through his hosts Ephraim kept up with the progress of the war and tracked the Allied advance in his diary, eagerly awaiting liberation. Yet it was hard to stay optimistic and he occasionally had thoughts of suicide. As he wrote in October 1943, he struggled to keep from succumbing to apathy and despair:

It’s all nonsense. […] Nobody knows us. We don’t have anybody in the whole wide world. Nobody. Only Mother and I. Therefore there’s no other option: one mustn’t give in to crises. We have to stay united. Today my heart is heavy. I’m writing almost in darkness but I must write. Too much crap weighs on my heart and I must pour all of it, at least in this diary.

Why is it called life? The best years of my youth have gone by and will not return. Never. Even if it all ends today, it won’t do any good … This is my life. And if I add the well known fact that everybody is born with a death verdict — what’s there to live for?

On November 6, 1943, a baby girl was born on the farm — the offspring of one of the members of the Parille family. Before the war, the mother had tried for years to get pregnant, going through “all possible treatments and nothing helped. And here, of all places, did she give birth.”

Ephraim wrote that their host, Hryc, started sobbing in despair when he found out:

So we aren’t only fourteen but fifteen with the baby! Not too bad … That’s to say very bad. Lipa is right saying that the baby can betray us all. We learned not to speak but to whisper, but a baby?! What’s to be done?

Within a few days the baby died. Perhaps it was just as well.

The situation became even more precarious in late January 1944, after a unit of retreating Germans showed up at the farm and the commander requisitioned a room in the farmhouse for himself and his Russian girlfriend.

Thus the farmhouse was divided: the German in one room, the three Ukrainian farmers in the next room, eight Jews in the 3×4 meter room down the hall, and three more hidden in the shed!

The German officer never found out about the hidden Jews, and as Ephraim noted, the man’s presence turned out to have a silver lining, because it protected everyone from the threat of looting, arson and murder at the hands of anti-Semitic Ukrainian partisans, who had become very active in the area.

Also, Helena Skrzeszewska was able to cajole the military kitchen into giving her their leftover soup, which she fed to the Jews. Ephraim noted wryly, “We live at the expense of Hitler.”

He was actually upset when the German officer left the farm two weeks later, writing,

Our citadel is no more. Again fearful nights will begin without the landlords who’ll go to the village for their sleep. We’ll remain on our own against the gangs, full of fear of the Ukrainian killers, of being set on fire … Again night watches every two hours, with a pistol and six bullets.

Sure enough, in early March, while Ephraim’s hosts were away from the farm, the Ukrainian partisans tried to set the place on fire. Ephraim was on watch that night:

I don’t know if I panicked. But now, while writing that, I think I wasn’t absolutely clear about what I was doing. Anyhow, after raising [the others in hiding], I opened the door and like an idiot went out into the lighted yard. Two sprints brought me to the well. I crouched behind its side and emptied my pistol of all its bullets, shooting into the darkness of the forest like a movie cowboy. The first time in my life.

In the meantime Lipa, Mother, Linka and Edzia came out with buckets. […] I don’t think it took us a long time to control the situation. The fools didn’t shoot at us from the forest despite the fact that we were in the light. I assume — and I’m not the only one thinking like that — that they were frightened of us being armed.

In the morning, when our landlords came back from the neighbors, they were surprised to learn that the house was still standing. […] Hryc went to the forest and found blood stains in the snow.

Later the month the Germans returned and searched the farm for signs of partisan activity, and actually encountered Ephraim’s aunt and mother inside the house:

Mother and Auntie locked us in and ran to the entrance door. They hardly made it when the door was busted open in spite of the big lock hanging outside. The Germans were astonished running into them. Despite Lipa’s warnings to Mother not to reveal her knowledge of German, she explained to them that they were locking themselves in the house in fear of the partisans.

“The partisans are all Juden,” said one of the Germans, and then asked where did Mother acquire such a German [language]. She told him she lived in Salzburg and came here to get married. “It’s all Love’s fault,” said the German, asked her to forgive him, went out and in a moment returned with a bomboniere.

In the meanwhile dawn was breaking and they discovered the Germans were S.S. troops. Mother says that if she wasn’t hit by a heart attack she would never have one. Immediately she told them they were being “evacuated” to the West. The Germans, perfect gentlemen that they were, proposed to help them, give them a truck. Auntie thanked them, said there was no need, everything was under control. Indeed.

Half an hour later our landlords returned back from the village. They looked really terrified when they saw Mother and Linka standing at the entrance to the house with two S.S. men. Mother introduced them, bid the Germans farewell and entered the hideout with Auntie.

The hideout happens to be east of the house, not west.

All the Jews spent three days in the underground hideout until the SS officers left. By then the front was very close, as Ephraim wrote on March 13:

In the nights, during shifts, we hear the “music” of artillery. The front keeps coming closer. Two days ago they were at Podhorce, 15 kms away! The windows were shaking to the blasts of cannon. But the Germans, damn it, pushed them back to a point 35 kms from us. There they stand and shoot. What bad fortune! Tarnopol has been liberated and we are not.

On March 26, Ephraim noted that it was the 1,000th day he had spent living under German occupation: “The 1,000 days we’ve spent in the Reich are like 1,000 years. With my whole heart I wish the Fuhrer and his admirers to have 1,000 such days …”

And he had months left to endure before he would see freedom.

On July 3, the second anniversary of the massacre at the Khotyn Fortress, Ephraim was using the outhouse when he saw a car stop and two Germans emerge with two men and a child. The Germans shot all three of them and left their bodies by the road. The victims, he found out later, were Jews who had been caught hiding nearby.

Liberation finally came to Jelechowice on July 16, 1944, as noted by a single sentence in red pencil in Ephraim’s diary: “THE BOLSHEVIKS HAVE ARRIVED!!!” He was sixteen years old, and had survived 1,111 days under the Germans.

On the third day after liberation, he recorded,

Mother, Auntie and I went to town. Zloczow made a terrible impression on us. Only bombed, burnt houses, torn wires on the road. A mass of troops on the way to Lvov. Our house is burnt. The neighbors — who couldn’t really understand how we managed to survive — said that the Germans had set the house on fire because it contained the archives of the Gestapo.

In the house, which was inhabited by the Gestapo unit, we found our dining room furniture in one of the rooms. It looked strange to me. That’s precisely what we need: a big table, or a buffet …

We haven’t met Jews.

Ephraim’s last diary entry was on July 29. He wrote of finally encountering some other survivors:

Maybe twenty people, perhaps thirty … All stood and cried. For sure I don’t have to write that picture down in the diary. I’ll remember it to the end of my life. All the Jews, the ten thousand Jews of Zloczow, were praying together in one small room. I heard the heart-rending sobbing, the wailing, the “Magnified and sanctified be His great name” prayer for the dead, and the “God, full of compassion” one, and I understood once and for all that they, we, address somebody who was absent when needed, and perhaps now wasn’t needed any longer, or maybe simply never existed. It was noontime and

The diary ends in mid-sentence.

Ephraim remained in Poland for over a decade after the war. He attended engineering school for two years, then switched his studies to theater. He moved to Israel in 1957. There he changed his family name from Sternschuss to Sten.

In Israel, Ephraim married, had children, and had a successful career as an author, actor, director and playwright for both stage and radio. But for decades he kept his diary hidden and did not speak of his Holocaust experiences to anyone.

Although he had a normal existence in his adopted country, he never recovered emotionally from the trauma of the war, describing it as “the load crushing my soul.”

He had thought, he said, once he left Poland, that he might finally “become a regular human being. But the world wouldn’t let me.”

In the 1990s, Ephraim returned to Zloczow, which is now part of Ukraine and called Zolochiv. Two of his Ukrainian rescuers had died, but Ephraim had a tearful reunion with Hryc Tyz, who told him, “You are my relatives. I didn’t believe I’d be lucky to yet see somebody from my family.”

His four-day trip inspired him to dig out his diary and translate it into Hebrew so that his children could read it. The diary was published in English in 2006, with annotations by an older Ephraim fifty years after the fact, under the title 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four.

Ephraim Sten died in 2004.

The Khotyn Fortress is a major tourist attraction in Ukraine and is considered one of the nation’s most stunning castles. In a nearby field, a “foul-smelling marsh” where “the grass is high and thick,” is a memorial for the 3,500 Jews (but not Ephraim’s dad) who were murdered there in July 1941.

* Zloczow answered to the sovereignty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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1942: Gordon Cummins, the Blackout Ripper

1 comment June 25th, 2018 Headsman

It was a black hood for the Blackout Ripper on this date in 1942.

Charming Royal Air Force serviceman Gordon Frederick Cummins gave rein that February to a theretofore unarticulated inclination to femicide, attacking six women in the course of a single week, four of whom were killed by strangulation. The pattern of perverse post-mortem mutilations led one examiner to characterize the wanted man as “a savage sexual maniac”. This predator’s opportunistic use of the city’s protective cloak of air raid darkness reminds a similar spree perpetrated on the Berlin S-Bahn: truly, all men are brothers.

For a few days, this special horror gripped the wartime capital, so recently under enemy blitz. As fingerprint expert Frederick Cherrill, whose evidence would help to tie up Gordon Cummins’ noose, wrote in his now-out-of-print autobiography,

Women police in ordinary clothes strolled about the streets in the hope of being accosted by the unknown killer. So great was the terror which swept like a wave over the square mile in which these crimes had been committed that the regular street-walkers who haunted the area were too scared to venture out. [several of the victims were prostitutes -ed.] Small wonder, for nobody knew when or where the killer would strike again. That he would strike again seemed certain, for the lust of killing appeared to have siezed him in a merciless grip

Unlike his permanently elusive Whitechapel namesake, the Blackout Ripper was not long at his liberty once he loosed the beast within: crime scene forensics were still coming of age in this period, but the ample evolution of the bureaucratic state did for Cummins. On lucky Friday, February 13, Greta Hayward had fought off her attacker with the help of a passerby’s interruption. Cummins, when he fled, abandoned his RAF gas mask case … which was helpfully stamped with a serial number identifying its owner. He was arrested on February 16, just eight days after the start of his spree. (Scotland Yard, however, would later claim that his fingerprints connected him to two previous London murders, from October 1941.) It took a jury 35 minutes to convict him.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Rape,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1944: Seisaku Nakamura, Hamamatsu Deaf Killer

Add comment June 19th, 2018 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1944, nineteen-year-old serial killer Seisaku Nakamura was hanged for a series of horrific murders in wartime Japan. He killed at least nine people, perhaps as many as eleven, many of them while he was still a minor.

Nakamura, born deaf, was ostracized by both his family and society at large for his disability. Robert Keller, in his Asian Monsters: 28 Terrifying Serial Killers from Asia and the Far East,* notes:

It has been noted that many serial killers who suffer such ostracism retreat into a fantasy world, fueled most often by revenge fantasies. This was certainly the case with Seisaku Nakamura. He developed a near obsession with the Samurai culture and enjoyed watching movies where Samurai slaughtered their victims with lethal Katana swords.


The 47 Ronin (1941).

Yet on the surface all appeared normal. Seisaku was a bright boy who excelled at school. He was polite and deferential. He endured his condition without complaint. He’d grown, too, into a tall and strapping youth.

All was not normal, however.

According to Nakamura’s later confession, he committed his first two murders on August 22, 1938, when he was only fourteen. He tried to rape two women, he said, and murdered them after they resisted. This account has never been confirmed; perhaps he was boasting, or perhaps the murders did occur and the Japanese military government kept them out of the news.

Nearly three years passed before he committed another homicide: on August 18, 1941, Nakamura stabbed a woman to death and nearly killed another. Two days later, he stabbed and hacked another three victims to death. The police had a suspect description, but hushed up the information about the crimes for fear of causing a panic.

On September 27, Nakamura got into an argument with his brother at their parents’ home. The result was a bloodbath: he stabbed his brother in the chest, turned the knife on the rest of the family, stabbing and slashing his father, sister, niece and sister-in-law. Amazingly, only Nakamura’s brother died. Questioned by the police, the survivors refused to cooperate, saying they were afraid of retribution if they named their attacker.

Nearly a year passed with no bloodshed, but on August 30, 1942, Nakamura targeted another family. He saw a young woman on the street, followed her home, where her husband and three children were. Nakamura began his attack on the mother, and when her husband tried to defend her, he stabbed them both to death. He then slaughtered their two youngest children and turned his attention to the oldest, a girl. He started to rape her, then inexplicably broke off his assault and ran away, leaving her alive.

The survivor provided a good witness description to the police, who had their eye on Nakamura already; they had come to believe the reason his family wouldn’t say who attacked them the year before was because their attacker was one of their own.

The “Hamamatsu Deaf Killer” was arrested and quickly tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death in spite of his youth and the parade of witnesses ready to say he was insane.

Little is known about him and his crimes, as Japanese government suppressed most of the information.

* As we’ve previously noted, we cite the titles, we don’t write the titles.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Japan,Murder,Other Voices,Serial Killers,Wartime Executions

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1944: Raymond Burgard, lycee Buffon inspiration

Add comment June 15th, 2018 Headsman

Anti-fascist teacher Raymond Burgard was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1944, in Cologne.

A literature instructor at Paris’s lycée Buffon, Burgard (English Wikipedia entry | French) was dangerously forthright about his resistance to the Nazi occupation. He wrote and published resistance newspapers and on one occasion publicly sang La Marseillaise at a march celebrating Joan of Arc.

Evidently he was an inspiring teacher, too.

Burgard was arrested over the Easter 1942 break, and as soon as school re-convened the pupils

organized a demonstration, involving children from other schools. Around a hundred school students took part, chanting Burgard’s name and throwing leaflets in the air. (Source)

Alas, Executed Today has already encountered these brave schoolchildren: the five youths who organized this protest were themselves executed in early 1943.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,Guillotine,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Wartime Executions

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1941: Pittsburgh Phil

Add comment June 12th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Brooklyn gangster Pittsburgh Phil went to the Sing Sing electric chair.

The smart-dressed Pittsburgh Phil* — “Harry Strauss” to his parents or just plain “Pep” to his friends — was the most notorious contract killer of the Springsteen-worthy crime syndicate Murder, Inc.. He racked up an alleged body count well north of 100 — possibly several multiples of that figure — popping whomever some organized crime figure needed to be rid of. (Like this guy.)

Pep eschewed any single m.o., murdering with blades and bullets and garrotes and lungs full of water, and he rarely even carried a weapon lest it incriminate him on a chance arrest. Well did he know this tradecraft, for he beat no fewer than 17 prosecutions in New York. The man also took hit assignments all around the country, for other crime lords in cities whose patrolmen did not recognize him by name and reputation.

And fittingly, it took another assassin to kill him.

Fellow Murder, Inc. killer Abe “Kid Twist” Reles — a childhood buddy with whom he’d come up in the Prohibition crime world via Meyer Lansky‘s organization — got caught in the government’s sights and realized that his only probable purchase on life involved giving evidence against his mates.

We’ve seen that his testimony did in Frank Abbandando and Harry Maione, even though Reles had “fallen out of a window” before those goons sat in the mercy seat. Reles likewise gave up Pittsburgh Phil, who in Raymond Chandler’s was “electrocuted with a sneer on his face” on this date along with his fellow Murder, Inc. plugger Buggsy Goldstein.

* Why did they call him “Pittsburgh Phil”? Who knows! He is at any rate not to be confused with groundbreaking horse bettor George “Pittsburgh Phil” Smith.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Organized Crime,USA

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1944: The Massacre of Tulle

Add comment June 9th, 2018 Headsman

On June 9, 1944, the 2nd SS Panzer Division hanged 99 habitants of the French town Tulle as revenge upon the French Resistance.

On June 7, the Communist Francs-Tireurs et Partisans (FTP) guerrillas launched a pre-planned attack on German and milice positions in Tulle. By the 8th, the FTP had liberated the town* … temporarily.

Come the evening of the 8th, the 2nd SS Panzer Division — which had been stationed in southern France but was rumbling north to fortify the German position in the wake of the Allied landing at Normandy — arrived at Tulle and re-occupied the city.

On the morning of the 9th, the Germans went door to door and detained nearly all the men in Tulle over the age of 16, an estimated three to five thousand potential hostages. By the afternoon these had been efficiently culled to 120 semi-random targets for exemplary revenge to cow the populace, people who looked too scruffy to the Germans and didn’t have an alert contact with sufficient pull to exclude them from the pool. The count was determined, as a poster announcing the executions explained, as the multiple of 40 German soldiers estimated lost* during the FTP action.

Throughout the afternoon, that threat was enacted with nooses dangled along lampposts and balconies on the Avenue de la Gare — although not to the full 120 but rather to the odd number of 99. It remains unclear why the hangings stopped early; certainly it was no excess of sentiment on the part of the Panzer division, which had been redeployed to France after giving and getting terrible casualties on the far bloodier eastern front.

“In Russia we got used to hanging. We hanged more than 1,000 at Kharkov and Kiev, this is nothing for us here,” a Sturmbannführer Kowatch remarked to a local official.

And so in batches ten by ten, before an audience of other prisoners and frightened townspeople peeping through shuttered windows and mirthful SS men, the hostages were marched to their makeshift gallows, forced up ladders with rifle-butt blows, and swung off to publicly strangle to death. The avenue’s unwilling gibbets were not suffered to discharge their prey until the evening, when the 99 were hurriedly buried in a mass grave. Afterwards, another 149 were deported en masse to Dachau, most of whom would never return.

The never-repentant commander who ordered the mass execution, Heinz Lammerding, was condemned to death in absentia by a French court; however, West Germany refused extradition demands,** and Lammerding died in 1971 without serving a day in prison.

This event remains a vivid civic memory in Tulle, as well as the namesake of the Rue du 9-Juin-1944; travelers might peruse a guide to the numerous memorials in the vicinity available here (pdf).

The 2nd SS Panzer Division proceeded the next day on its northerly route to Oradour-sur-Glane, and there participated in the mass murder of its inhabitants, an atrocity that is much better remembered today than that of Tulle. The journey and operations of this division are the subject of a World War II microhistory titled after the unit’s nickname, Das Reich: The March of the 2nd SS Panzer Division Through France, June 1944.

* The 40-to-50 German dead in Tulle include some summarily executed. For example, nine officers of the SD were shot in a graveyard after capture.

** Lammerding’s comfortable liberty became headline news in the 1960s, which was not long after Israeli commandos had kidnapped the fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann. France allegedly mulled such an operation to bring Lammerding to justice.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,France,Germany,Hanged,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Wartime Executions

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1946: Chen Gongbo, puppet president

Add comment June 3rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Chen Gongbo, president of China under the Japanese occupation, was shot for treason.

Briefly a Communist in his youth, Chen was Kuomintang state minister, then was pulled into the Japanese puppet government.

He served from 1940 as Mayor of Shanghai and speaker of the legislature, and late in 1944 became Acting President and soon actual President when ailing President Wang Jingwei traveled to Japan for medical treatment and died.

It was not long before Chen too had to relocate to Japan — in his case, as a fugitive. He was arrested and extradited back to China, where he defended himself from charges of collaboration arguing that he had acted only out of personal loyalty to his friend Wang. “Soon I will be reunited with Wang Jingwei in the next world,” was his tragic and filial sentiment upon learning his fate.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Shot,Treason

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