The World War II occupation of the Latvian town of Liepaja (Libau, to the Germans) produced mass executions throughout 1941.
This date in 1941 commenced one of the largest such actions: over 2,700 Jews as well as 23 Communists forced over the course of two-plus days to strip on the freezing Skede dunes overlooking the Baltic and there shot by German and Latvian teams into a vast pit. It’s one of the most recognizable Holocaust atrocities because it was extensively photographed.*
As one can see from the pictures, the victims here were mostly women.
Some of the women in this photographs can be identified by name (pdf). Left to right: (1) Sorella Epstein; (2) presumably Rosa Epstein, her mother; (3) unknown; (4) Mia Epstein; (5) unknown. Alternate identification makes Mia Epstein (5) instead of (4), and (2) Pauline Goldman.
Once recruitment in the German secret services was suspected, evidence was needed to carry out an arrest. The general rule was to delay arresting suspects so as to be able to tail them to find out who their contacts were and the exact nature of their activities. This is what happened with Alfredo Castoldi, an Italian working for the Germans. Castoldi made the acquaintance of someone named Perez in a bar and tried to convince him to provide military information. Perez pretended to accept but the next day he went to tell all to the local police chief. The police did not arrest Castoldi right away but asked Perez to maintain contact with him and to earn his trust and find out the nature of his intentions and his network. The evidence acquired in this way was so convincing that on 3 November 1941, at 7:30 in the morning, Castoldi was executed by a French army firing squad in Algiers.
Castoldi was not an outlier. Several dozen German spies may have been shot by Vichy France in the 1940-42 period. Kitson notes that it is
difficult to ascertain the exact number of German spies sentenced by Vichy military courts who were actually executed by the firing squads of the French army. [Paul] Paillole claims there were forty-two of them. In research for the present study, I found formal proof of eight such executions, but Paillole’s figure seems credible for two reasons. Firstly, during the postwar trial of Marshal Philippe Petain, Ernest Lagarde, the former director of political affairs in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, claimed there were about thirty such executions in 1941, which does not exclude a total of forty-two for the years 1940-42. Secondly, there is a register of Petain’s decisions concerning appeals for clemency from individuals condemned to death for activities ranging from Communism to army mutinies to espionage. In espionage cases, the registry does not specify for which country a particular spy was working, but it would seem that, after cross-checking the names listed with other sources used for the present study, there were twenty-seven confirmed cases of Axis spies having their appeal for clemency refused. A further twenty-three cases in which clemency was refused also appear to involve Axis spies. Of course, in a handful of instances where the appeal for clemency was rejected, executions may still not have been carried out as a result of the invasion of the southern zone by the Germans, which brought a sudden end to official executions. This registry nevertheless adds credibility to Paillole’s estimate.
Stalin was already a wanted Bolshevik revolutionary at this time, but so was Svanidze. Kato was a homebody with no known political interest, and sufficient piety to force her communist groom to say his vows in an Orthodox church. Afterwards, his priorities reasserted themselves.
While Stalin agitated, propagandized, and politicked against Menshevism in the wild oil boom city of Baku,** his pretty wife kept an empty apartment tidy and fretted the omnipresent danger of her husband’s arrest. “When he was involved, he forgot everything,” fellow-Bolshevik Mikheil Monoselidze remembered. Many revolutionaries’ wives walked similarly lonely roads.
Kato did not have to walk hers very long: she contracted a horrible stomach/bowel disease and wasted rapidly away late in 1907. Stalin’s own indifference might have been the ultimate cause, for when she was unwell the young cadre took her on a sweltering 13-hour train ride back to Tiflis that greatly worsened her condition — all so that her family could care for her, and free Stalin’s time for his plots. Kato died in Stalin’s arms, but only when he had been urgently summoned back from Baku with word that her condition had become dire.
Whatever his actions said about him as a family man, the future dictator really loved his neglected wife. He “was in such despair that his friends were worried about leaving him with his Mauser,” writes Simon Montefiore in Young Stalin.
“This creature,” [Stalin] gestured at the open coffin [at her funeral], “softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity.” He placed his hand over his heart: “It’s all so desolate here, so indescribably desolate.”
At the burial, Soso’s habitual control cracked. He threw himself into the grave with the coffin. The men had to haul him out. Kato was buried — but, just then, revolutionary konspiratsia disrupted family grief. Soso noticed some Okhrana agents sidling towards the funeral. He scarpered towards the back of the graveyard and vaulted over the fence, disappearing from his own wife’s funeral — an ironic comment on his marital negligence.
For two months, Stalin vanishes from the record. “Soso sank into deep grief,” says Monoselidze. “He barely spoke and nobody dared speak to him” … “He cried like a brat, hard as he was.”
Stalin’s deep grief did not change his life’s work. If anything, he would seem in later years almost too aghast by the whole experience (and his uncharacteristic bout of sentiment) to grapple with it. He abandoned little Yakov to the Svanidzes, and would curiously dislike his son so much that he eventually permitted Yakov to die as a German POW during World War II rather than exchange prisoners for his release.
By the time of the great purges, then, being Stalin’s brother-in-law was of little help to Alexander Svanidze. It might have been an outright detriment; certainly Svanidze’s own prominence — he had served as People’s Commissar for Finances of the Georgian SSR, and found a scholarly journal in his capacity as a historian — were of a kind with Old Bolsheviks who had also attracted denunciations.
In 1937, most of the beloved Kato’s family was arrested: Alexander Svanidze, but also Alexander’s wife Maria, and opera singer, and his sister Mariko. Svanidze defiantly refused NKVD blandishments to confess to spying for Berlin to save himself, perhaps realizing that such a deal would merely sell his pride for a mess of pottage. “Such aristocratic pride!” Stalin is supposed to have tutted upon hearing the way Svanidze went to his execution still insisting he had done nothing wrong. (Svanidze’s ancestors were petty nobility.)
* There are some other dates out there for Svanidze’s execution. I’ve had difficulty identifying a primary source for any of them, but am prepared to be corrected if an alternative possibility can be strongly documented.
† Revolutionary Russia produced a number of similarly curious neologisms on birth certificates, such as “Vladlen” (crudely blending “Vladimir Lenin”), and even the outlandish “Electralampochka” (“light bulb”, inspired by the Soviet electrification campaign).
On this date in 1941, 534 Jewish intellectuals were lured out of the Nazi ghetto in the city of Kovno, Lithuania (also known as Kaunas), taken to Ninth Fort, and shot to death.
Over 5,000 Jews would die there during the Nazi occupation.
The Nazis had captured these people using a very clever ruse: on August 14, they had advertised for 500 Jews to help sort out the archives at City Hall, which were in disarray due to the chaos that followed the Germans’ conquering the city in June.
The workers had to be intelligent, educated types and fluent in German and Russian. They would be treated well and given three solid meals a day, in order that they could do the work properly and make no mistakes.
Most of the other jobs available for Jews at that moment involved manual labor under brutal conditions, on starvation-level rations.
More than the requested 500 showed up. The Nazis happily took them all.
Vilius “Vulik” Mishelski (later anglicized to William Mishell), who was 22 and had studied engineering in Vytautas Magnus University [Lithuanian link], was nearly victim no. 535. His mother told him about the job offer, because it upset her when he home from working at the airfield, “my clothes torn, my face covered with dust and sweat, my fingers bleeding, and I myself so exhausted I could hardly speak.” The archives job seemed like a gift from heaven to her.
Vulik wasn’t so sure.
Why, he asked, had the archives not been sorted out sooner? After all, the Germans had conquered Kovno a full two months earlier.
And why not get Lithuanians to do the job? It certainly wasn’t necessary to employ Jews.
He debated with himself for the next four days, then finally decided to go. Many of his friends were going, he wrote later on, and “this put me at ease. All of them could not be crazy.”
When he actually arrived at the gate, however, what he saw made him profoundly uneasy. The size of the guard was unusually large, and he witnessed Jewish police and Lithuanian partisans mistreating and beating people. Because it was taking long for the quota of 500 people to arrive, the Lithuanians started dragging people from their homes by force.
This struck me as odd. This was supposed to be a job where we were to be treated in a civilized manner; was this the treatment awaiting us? Oh, no, I would not be caught in this mess! Without hesitation, I turned around and rushed back home.
My mother was astounded. “What happened, why are you back?” she asked.
“Don’t ask questions,” I said, “move the cabinet, I’m going into hiding.”
Vulik was right not to trust the Nazis’ promises. He stayed in his hideout, a little cubbyhole behind the kitchen cabinet, all day.
The chosen 534 didn’t return that night, or the next night either, and no one believed the assurances that the work was taking longer than they thought, and they had spent the night at City Hall. Before long, the truth leaked out.
That same day, the men had been lead away in several smaller groups to an area containing deeply excavated holes in the ground. Then the Lithuanian guard, known as the Third Operational Group, had shot them all. Several men who tried to escape were killed on the run. Almost the entire intelligentsia of Jewish Kovno had thus been liquidated in one mass execution.
Mishelski stayed in the Kovno Ghetto until 1944, when he was sent to Dachau. He survived the war: 95% of the Lithuanian Jews, including most of his family, did not.
In its day, the Tower of London has seen off with many an illustrioushead.*
Its last use as an execution grounds occurred, all but invisibly, on this date in 1941, with the shooting of German spy Josef Jakobs.
It’s safe to say that Jakobs won’t be competing with Anne Boleyn in the book sales department any time soon. He was, truth be told, barely a spy at all: parachuted into Huntingdonshire on January 31, 1941 with intent to reconnoiter, the guy was observed in his descent by (undoubtedly excited) local defense volunteers. They raced to the landing point but needn’t have: Jakobs was practically immobile, having broken his ankle upon landing. So that was the end of the espionage mission.
After a secret trial under the Treachery Act of 1940, Jakobs was shot at a small rifle range where a number of his countrymen and predecessors from the First World War had met their own ends.
To: The Constable of H.M. Tower of London. 13th August 1941.
I have the honour to acquaint you that JOSEF JAKOBS, an enemy alien, has been found guilty of an offence against the Treachery Act 1940 and has been sentenced to suffer death by being shot.
The said enemy alien has been attached to the Holding Battalion, Scots Guards for the purpose of punishment and the execution has been fixed to take place at H.M. Tower of London on Friday the 15th August 1941 at 7.15am.
* It should be added that the Tower’s bloody reputation correctly associates more with the doomed men and women it held than with actual executions: only a very few, mostly high-ranking, folk actually got the chop in the Tower prior to 20th century spies: people such as Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, and Monmouth were more commonly put to death at the adjacent (and public) Tower Hill.
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.
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.
On “a beautiful autumn day” this date in 1941, four dozen French leftists were executed by that country’s occupiers as punishment for the murder of a German officer.
On October 20, 1941 — sixteen months into the German occupation — a pair of Communist commandos assassinated the Feldkommandant of Nantes, Lt. Col. Karl Hotz (French link).
News of this crime went straight to Adolf Hitler himself, who personally ordered a fearful reprisal.
The list of the executed hostages as published Oct. 23 in L’oeuvre
Accordingly, the collaborationist Petain government was induced to select 50 persons from among the ranks of detained German political prisoners. Pierre Pucheu, who would later be executed himself,* intentionally selected Communist types in an effort to confine the retaliation to fellow-travelers.
In three different batches of nine, the 27 reds and trade unionists were fusilladed into the ranks of Gallic martyrdom. They remain among the most emblematic French martyrs of the occupation; there’s a cours des 50-Otages named for them in Nantes, and various streets that bear individual victims’ names — such as Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud in Paris. (Timbaud was a Communist steelworker.)
Monument to the martyrs of Chateaubriant. Image (c) Renaud Camus and used with permission.
“You who remain, be worthy of the 27 of us who are going to die!”
There’s a thorough roundup of the Oct. 22 executions (including poetic tribute) here.
* Vindicating Winston Churchill’s prophecy to the Times upon receiving news that “These cold-blooded executions of inocent people will only recoil upon the savages who order and execute them.” (Oct. 25, 1941, as cited in the The Churchill War Papers, vol. 3)
** Fifty more were supposed to be executed if the assassins weren’t promptly turned in, but that second batch never took place. (There was, however, a different batch of 50 executed on October 24 in retaliation for a different political assassination. Maybe they just all ran together.)
On this date in 1941, the U.S. state of Louisiana joined the 20th century (or at least the late 19th) with its first electrocution.
Louisiana’s electric chair did debut very late in the game. The great surge of adoption for this uniquely American way of death was the 1910s and 1920s. Louisiana was the last state to begin electrocuting prisoners save one — West Virginia.
But in 1940, the state legislature had finally joined the trend sweeping the South and voted for voltage.
Eugene Johnson, the next to die, has no purchase on death penalty annals but his accidental milestone as the first to die seated: a black man condemned for killing a white farmer is just about your standard-issue condemned man in the interwar South. (The more things change …)
Johnson’s death this date would inaugurate the nickel-and-dime execution solution that Baton Rouge came up with to keep its various parishes right in the thick of the retribution business: the portable electric chair soon christened Gruesome Gertie, which trucked around to the local jails and courthouses meting out motorized justice.
This particular chair, though a latecomer and a modest overall contributor by the standards of Louisiana’s neighbors, would make itself the subject of highest jurisprudence a few years later by not merely botching but failing the execution of one Willie Francis — and then again in the 1980s as the subject of another man’s near-miss legal challenge to the constitutionality of electrocution.
Having always found five friends on the high court, the illustrious furniture retired in 1991 with 87 souls to its electrodes (including that of Willie Francis the second time around: he lost his appeal). Gertie lives on adorning the set of the Angola Prison Museum — and the Academy Award-winning film Monster’s Ball.
Khai, the most famous of the Indochinese Wars’ vast ranks of women fighters, would marry fellow revolutionary Le Hong Phong, the chairman of the party, who died in prison in 1942. Khai’s sister’s marriage made Khai sister-in-law to the revolution’s military lion Vo Nguyen Giap.**
But her prominent position also made her a target.
Arrested by the French late in 1940, she was tortured and condemned to death. She was shot with other cadres, shouting last words that the decades yet to come would pretty well vindicate.
Long live the Communist party of Indochina. Long live the victorious Vietnamese revolution. (Source)
Readers whose Vietnamese is stronger than mine — i.e., extant in any form whatsoever — might get something out of this video:
As a national heroine, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai is the namesake of any number of public spaces in Vietnam, like schools and roads.
Paradoxical historiography: the street address visible to the right of the photo brands a revolutionary name onto an upscale coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City. (cc) image from Lawrence Sinclair.
* Some sources give an April 1941 execution date, particularly April 25. I believe this may actually be the date Khai was condemned. There are also some sources indicating a guillotine execution; though the guillotine was certainly available, the bulk of the sources seem to say that Khai was shot.
** Giap is still going strong after all these years; he just turned 100 a few days ago. Khai’s sister was not as lucky; she died in French custody at the prison American pilots would later refer to as the “Hanoi Hilton”.