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.

On this day..

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.

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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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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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1941: Harry Gleeson, posthumously exonerated

Add comment April 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Harry Gleeson hanged for murder in Ireland — wrongly, the government admitted in 2015.

Gleeson was the nephew and farmhand of a man called John Caesar, whose County Tipperary property abutted a cottage inhabited by a local prostitute called Moll McCarthy. On November 21, 1940, Gleeson found Moll McCarthy dead on a farm field. Her face had been destroyed by a gunshot; her murder orphaned seven children, many of them the illegitimate progeny of local married men.

Nine days later, Irish police arrested a surprised Gleeson for the murder. He hotly denied their theory that he had availed himself of the victim’s services, and then slain her to prevent his uncle finding out about it.

It was, the Irish Times says in a review of one of the several books about the case, “a definitively Irish murder case: the prosecution claimed that ‘Gleeson was meeting Moll at the field pump, away from prying eyes, and arranging to give her potatoes in exchange for sex.'”

As a criminal case, it involved that brew of tunnel vision preoccupation with the wrong guy and outright cheating to nail him that frequently characterizes errant convictions. But there may have been a political undercurrent besides.

Gleeson was defended by former Irish Republican Army chief of staff Sean MacBride,* and it’s been hypothesized that the barrister’s political affiliations critically unbalanced the case for at least a couple of important reasons:

  • A prejudicial court and jury perhaps gave their verdict as much against MacBride as against Gleeson. (The jury issued its conviction alongside an unsuccessful application for clemency.)
  • MacBride himself might have pulled some punches from the defense bar in view of the possibility — as charged by Kieran Fagan in The Framing of Harry Gleeson — that McCarthy was actually murdered for informing on IRA men.
A few books about Mary MacCarthy and Harry Gleeson

* MacBride’s father John “Foxy Jack” MacBride hanged in 1916 for his role in the Easter Rising.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Innocent Bystanders,Ireland,Murder,Notable Participants,Ripped from the Headlines,Sex,Wrongful Executions

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1941: Sheyna Gram and the Jews of Preili

Add comment August 9th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, less than two months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, fifteen-year-old Sheyna Gram and her parents and younger brother were murdered, together with approximately 1,500 Jewish people from the town of Preili in the occupied Latvian SSR. Nearly the entire Jewish population of Preili was wiped out by the ever-diligent Einsatzgruppen.

During World War II the Nazi death squads moved from town to town in Poland and Eastern Europe. They had one job and they performed it very well, slaughtering Jews and other “undesirables” by their thousands, most notably at Babi Yar outside of Kiev in Ukraine, where 33,771 people were killed in two days.

Preili, one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Latvia, was a much smaller community than Kiev; when the German invasion began, it had a population of less than two thousand, around half of whom were Jewish.

Latvia as a whole had a prewar Jewish population of just under 100,000. Only a few thousand of them survived, mostly those who were evacuated deep into Soviet territory and beyond the reach of the Wehrmacht. Of all the Jews in Preili, only six survived the war.

Preili was no different than any of the other Soviet Jewish communities wiped out in the Holocaust, but we know details about what happened there because Sheyna Gram left a diary behind. She chronicled the day-to-day events of the German occupation from June 22, the day the Nazis invaded the USSR, until August 8, the day before she and her family were killed.

Shortly after the war, noted Soviet journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman traveled all around the USSR, interviewing people and collecting eyewitness testimonies, letters, diaries, and other documents to bear witness to the Soviet Jewish experience during the German occupation. The result, titled The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, was the first major documentary work on the Holocaust. However, it wasn’t actually published until 1993, and even then it was nowhere near “complete.” In 2008, Indiana University Press translated and published The Unknown Black Book: The Holocaust in the German-Occupied Soviet Territories, which consists of accounts and documents that didn’t make it into the first Black Book; the second book is nearly as long as the first.

Among the documents included in the second volume is Sheyna Gram’s diary, translated from Yiddish. It somehow survived the war even though its author had not, and even seventy-plus years later, Sheyna has not been forgotten. Several books about the Holocaust in Latvia have referenced her diary, comparing its writer to Anne Frank, and at least one play based on the diary was performed in Latvia in around 2012.

Per The Unknown Black Book, the Gram family consisted of Itzik, a 60-year-old tailor, his 52-year-old wife, and their four children: sons Gutman, 18, and Leyba, 12, and daughters Freya, 20, and Sheyna. Evidence in the diary suggests they were not a particularly observant Jewish family.

The Unknown Black Book reports that Gutman survived the war, serving in the Red Army, but Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims has a page of testimony for him stating he was killed in military service. Although Mrs. Gram is unnamed in The Unknown Black Book, a search of the Database of Shoah Victims turns up a Sara Gram née Zangvil who lived in Preili and was the right age. The same person, Shmuel Latvinskiy, submitted Sara and Gutman Gram’s testimonies, and Sheyna’s as well; he names himself as Sara Gram’s nephew, Gutman’s cousin, and Sheyna’s relative, making it all but certain that Sara Gram was Sheyna’s mother.

What little information is available about Sheyna indicates she was an ordinary enough teenager. She was a good student, “an intelligent girl of good spiritual development,” and had just finished the sixth grade at school when war broke out. She started her diary that very day with a few sentences, and wrote entries regularly until her death:

June 22. At twelve o’clock, the radio announced, “Germany has declared war on the USSR. At four o’clock this morning, German aircraft bombed several Russian cities.”

Toward evening, I went to Ribenishki [seven kilometers from Preili]. I sit by the radio all the time until midnight. They tell you how to protect yourself from an air raid.

The next day, Sheyna recorded that Daugavpils* had been bombed and “a state of siege has been declared.” Wanting to do her part to help with the war effort, she signed herself up for first aid lessons. “New people are coming into town all the time,” she wrote. “Each person has something new to report. The Germans are successfully advancing.” Over the following days there was an 8:00 p.m. curfew and various new rules: radios were confiscated, freedom of assembly was curtailed, and windows had to be covered.

By July 2, the Germans had arrived in Preili. The following day Sheyna wrote,

The first day went quietly. On the second day, the Germans smashed the shops and looted everything. They broke into the synagogue, hauled out the Torah scrolls, and trampled on them. In other streets, they go on various sorts of rampages. […] We are living in a state of great fear. Many Germans have stopped in our town. There are some proper gentlemen among them as well. They keep on reassuring us that they are not going to touch the workers. A decree is published that Jews and Russians do not have the right to fly their national flags. Walking on the street is permitted until 10:00 p.m., but no one dares poke their head out the door.

As per standard operating procedure, the Nazis ordered Jews to wear a six-pointed yellow star, “twelve centimeters wide and long. Men are to wear it on their backs, their chests, and their legs, just above the knee. Women will wear them on their chests and on their backs.” For the rest of the month, Jews were regularly rounded up for forced labor. Sheyna was assigned to a work party cutting peat; roll call was at five in the morning and work didn’t stop until 7:00 p.m.

Except when she was working, she didn’t leave home. She whiled away the empty hours sleeping, studying Russian, reading back issues of the Jewish magazine Yidishe bilder, and writing in her diary.

On July 27, she wrote:

This is a bloody Sunday for the Latvian Jewish people.

Morning. All the Jews in Dvinskaya Street are ordered to put on their best clothes, take some provisions with them, and go out into the street. Searches of the homes are carried out. At twelve o’clock, all the Jews are herded into the synagogue. One group of young Jews is sent to dig graves behind the cemetery. Then the Jews of two more streets are driven into the synagogue.

It is 3:30 in the afternoon. All the Jews are chased out beyond the cemetery and shot there. All 250 Jews: men, women, and children.

This is terrible. We did not expect things to end this way. The handful of survivors expects death at any moment.

Iossif Rotchko’s untranslated book about the Holocaust in Latvia describes in detail what happened that terrible day. According to his account, the killers were not German but Latvian, local collaborators, and he names names:

The unfortunate [Jews] were ordered to stop at a stone quarry. They were ordered to take off their clothes and remain in underclothes, then they were led to the edge of the pit by groups of 8-10 persons. The executioners killed them by firing at their backs, as if they were afraid to look in their eyes a final time. After all, they were neighbors. The killers were conducted to the killing ground by carts driven by the farmers I. Prikulis, J. Litaunieks, as well as others…

Whomever the perpetrators were, this was the first such massacre Sheyna was personally affected by, although she’d probably heard rumors of others. One of her friends had been among the victims, and she was understandably terrified. “We look at each other,” she wrote, “and are amazed that we are still alive.”

On July 30, she reported that the Germans had said “they are not going to touch the Jews again. They are satisfied with the 250.” She was skeptical, however, writing the next day:

Every day there are new persecutions, and there is no end in sight. We have lived this long, but we do not know whether or not we will manage to survive. They send Jewish girls to clean freed-up Jewish apartments for those who have been killing them. They do not take me. But when they clean out the apartment of my murdered friend Mery Plagova, which they are preparing for a police officer, I go. I gather up her photos and keep them with me. I cannot believe that my friends the Plagovas are dead.

The Jewish holiday of Tisha B’av on August 3 found the young diarist still contemplative.

I have never fasted on this day or ever fasted at all. Today, however, a week after the great catastrophe, after that bloody Sunday, when so many innocent victims fell, I have decided, keeping it a secret from the authorities, of course, to fast the entire day. At 1:30, they come to see me and register me for the peat work. Mama orders me to eat something, otherwise I will not be able to work. I obey her. Then they change the list and send my little brother instead of me.

Three days later the Gram family was ordered out of their apartment, but “there are no apartments to move to. It is as though we are living up in the air … Yet another commission comes and decides that we can stay where we are.”

August 8 was her last entry:

The peasants say that lots of airplanes flew over during the night. At seven o’clock we go to wash the floors of the police station. The boss is in a bad mood today. It rains the entire time. At twelve o’clock they arrest three Jewish representatives. They demand that they send thirty people out to work. Twenty-one turn up, leaving nine short. The commandant demands the nine; otherwise things will go badly. The nine have hidden themselves. We are all dreadfully worried.

Rain the entire day. They want to select nine other Jews, but he insists only on the ones from before. From the moment, the representatives are under arrest. No one knows when our sufferings will end. I feel as though the next awful thing is getting closer and closer to me.

Her intuition was right: the next day, the 1,500 Jews from Preili and the surrounding area were murdered in the Jewish cemetery, among them Sheyna, Itzik, Sara and Leyba Gram. The Unknown Black Book notes that Freya Gram survived for another week: she was “kept back after work that day by the commandant, who, when he had had his fill of her, had her killed on August 16.”

A memorial with Latvian, Hebrew and English text, marks the spot where the Preili Jews died. It was funded by David Silberman, a Holocaust survivor from Preili, and dedicated on August 8, 2004, sixty years almost to the day after the massacre. The central obelisk has a quote from Sheyna Gram’s diary, and buried beneath it is an urn with a list of the names of the victims, pieced together by the aforementioned Shmuel Latvinskiy, who wrote pages of testimony for the Gram family. Additional photos of the memorial can be seen at the bottom of this page.

* Sheyna calls this city by its Yiddish name, Dvinsk. An 832-page list of Jewish people from Daugavpils who died in the Holocaust can be found here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Latvia,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Shot,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1941: Francisco Escribano, for supplying the Spanish Maquis

Add comment July 1st, 2017 Headsman

My name is Francisco Escribano. They accused me of stealing for the men in the mountains two sacks of chickpeas, a blanket, a pair of scissors, six socks, six handkerchiefs and 10 pesetas. For this crime they executed me on 1 July 1941. For that same crime, my father, two uncles and my cousin died with me.

-Actor Javier Bardem voicing a victim of Franco’s Spain, for Pedro Almodovar‘s documentary short. We’ve previously encountered this film in our entry on the very first execution of the Spanish Civil War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Shot,Spain,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1941: Francisc Panet

Add comment November 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1941, “the Romanian Einstein” Francisc Panet was shot with his wife Lili and three other Communists at a forest near Jilava.

A chemical engineer by training, Panet or Paneth (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) was fascinated by the theoretical research then revolutionizing physics.

While studying in Czechoslovakia, his work on elementary particles brought him to Einstein’s attention, and the two met in 1932 and corresponded thereafter. Panet’s advocates claim that Einstein foresaw for him a brilliant future.

But back in a Romania dominated by fascism, his scientific gifts would be required for more urgent and less exalted purposes: cooking homemade explosives in his bathroom for Communist saboteurs.

Eventually the secret police traced the munitions back to Panet, and he and his wife were arrested in a Halloween raid. Condemned to death in a two-hour court martial on November 5, they allegedly went before the fascists’ guns with the Internationale on their lips.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Romania,Shot,Terrorists,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1941: Ben Zion bar Shlomo Halberstam, the second Bobever Rebbe

1 comment July 28th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, less than two months after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, they executed the Hassidic Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam along with his son, Rabbi Moshe Aaron, three of his sons-in-law, and a number of other Jews.

Born in Galicia in 1874, Ben Zion was the son of Grand Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam in the village of Bobov. After the father’s death in 1905, the Chassidim elected the son Grand Rabbi in his place.

During World War I, the Bobever Rebbe fled to Austria, but he returned to Poland once hostilities ceased and founded a highly regarded yeshiva. During the mid-thirties he lived in the town of Trzebinia in south central Poland, and developed a following of thousands of disciples.

He was a farsighted man and in 1938, when Germany expelled its Polish-Jewish minority, he wrote an open letter to the Jews of Poland explaining the terrible situation and asking them to help their displaced brethren. After the Nazis invaded Poland, Haberstam fled to Lvov,* which was under Soviet control and relatively safer. He hid there in a disciple’s house, and his followers tried and failed to get him papers to travel to the United States.

In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. By June 30 they’d reached Lvov, and by July 25, Rabbi Halberstam and several other members of his family were placed under arrest and marched to the Gestapo prison.

As Yad Vashem records,

Rabbi Ben Zion [he was 67 years old by then] was weak, and could not keep up with the fast pace of the march. When he fell to the back of the column, the policemen whipped him and shouted at him to move faster. The march continued until the prisoners arrived at the Gestapo headquarters. Rabbi Ben Zion’s family tried everything to win their release, but after three days, he was executed at the Yanover forest together with his son, three sons-in-law and the other prisoners.

They were a mere 19 kilometers from the future site of Auschwitz.**

Although the Halberstam family suffered significant losses during the Holocaust, at least one of Ben Zion’s sons survived, and so their dynasty did not die out. There exists today a community of Bobover Hassidim in Borough Park, Brooklyn.


Rabbi Ben Zion Halberstam in the center, pictured during his time in Trzebinia. The bare-faced youth directly over the rabbi’s shoulder is Moshe Aaron Halberstam, the son who would eventually be shot at the rabbi’s side.

* Called Lviv in Ukrainian, Lvov in Russian, Lwow in Polish and Lemberg in German; the city is at the heart of Galicia, and has changed hands repeatedly between these countries. Right now it’s Lviv.

** Although the smaller Auschwitz I camp for political prisoners existed from 1940, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the Reich’s metonymical extermination facility, was constructed towards the end of 1941.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Religious Figures,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1941: Numberless Poles and Jews by Felix Landau’s Einsatzkommando

Add comment July 4th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1941, near the city of Lvov in eastern Poland (now called Lviv and part of Ukraine), an Einsatzgruppe—mobile Nazi killing squad—shot an unknown number of Poles and Jews. We know a little bit about what happened because of Felix Landau, a young SS Hauptscharführer of Austrian origin, who kept a diary of his experiences in the Einsatzkommando.

The diary has been translated and published in several anthologies; this version of it comes from “The Good Old Days”: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders, edited by Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen and Volker Riess.

Landau was a Nazi of the Old Guard who’d been involved in National Socialist activities since the age of fifteen, served time in prison for his role in the assassination of Engelbert Dollfuss, and ultimately became a naturalized German citizen. He volunteered for the Einsatzkommando on June 30, 1941 — the same day the Wehrmacht arrived in Lvov — and went right to work.

It should be emphasized that Landau was not, by SS standards, a particularly vicious man. He rapidly became disillusioned with the kommando, writing that he preferred “good honest open combat.” In his first diary entry he referred to “scum” who “did not even draw the line at children” and also wrote, “I have little inclination to shoot defenseless people — even if they are only Jews.”

Yet shoot them he did, and he described it in his diary in a flat, matter-of-fact way.

Often he simply put down the dry numbers, as on July 22: “Twenty Jews were finished off.”

Other times, Landau recounted his gruesome work in chilling detail. And so it was on July 4, when over 300 people were killed. His entry describing that day is worth quoting at length:

One of the Poles tried to put up some resistance. He tried to snatch the carbine out of the hands of one of the men but did not succeed. A few seconds later there was a crack of gunfire and it was all over. A few minutes later after a short interrogation a second one was finished off. I was just taking over the watch when a Kommando reported that just a few streets away from us a guard from the Wehrmacht had been discovered shot dead.

One hour later, at 5 in the morning, a further thirty-two Poles, members of the intelligentsia and the Resistance, were shot about two hundred meters from our quarters after they had dug their own grave. One of them simply would not die. The first layer of sand had already been thrown on the first group when a hand emerged from out of the sand, waved and pointed to a place, presumably his heart. A couple more shots ran out, then someone shouted — in fact the Pole himself — “shoot faster” What is a human being? […]

The stench of corpses if all pervasive when you pass the burnt-out houses… During the afternoon some three hundred more Jews and Poles were finished off. In the evening we went into town for an hour. There we saw things that are almost impossible to describe… At a street corner we saw some Jews covered in sand from head to foot. We looked at one another. We were all thinking the same thing. These Jews must have crawled out of the grave where the executed are buried. We stopped a Jew who was unsteady on his feet. We were wrong. The Ukrainians had taken some Jews up to the former GPU citadel. These Jews had apparently helped the GPU persecute the Ukrainians and the Germans. They had rounded up 800 Jews there, who were supposed to be shot by us tomorrow. They had released them.

We continued along the road. There were hundreds of Jews walking along the street with blood pouring from their faces, holes in their heads, their hands broken and their eyes hanging out of their sockets. They were covered in blood. Some of them were carrying others who had collapsed. We went to the citadel; there we saw things that few people had ever seen. […] The Jews were pouring out of the entrance. There were rows of Jews lying one on top of the other like pigs whimpering horribly. We stopped and tried to see who was in charge of the Kommando. “Nobody.” Someone had let the Jews go. They were just being hit out of rage and hatred.

Nothing against that — only they should not let the Jews walk about in such a state.

Writing on July 6, Landau described himself as “psychologically shattered” — not due to what he had just seen and done, but because he was homesick and especially missed his girlfriend Trude. He complained of not being able to find stationery to compose a letter to her. (Landau was forever fretting when they weren’t able to write to each other, constantly worried she would leave him.)

He was, however, able to find “a lovely big traveling bag” for only 3.80 reichmarks.

Just another day on the job.

It is often said that the reason the Nazis stopped using the Einsatzgruppen to kill Jews and started using gas chambers was because it was more efficient: they could kill more people in less time using gas. This isn’t true. The Einsatzgruppen’s shooting at Babi Yar, for example, killed more than 33,000 people in two days. Gas chambers could not have done better than that.

In fact, the reason for the switch to the quieter, cleaner method of gassing had more to do with the effect the shootings were having on the Einsatzkommando men themselves. Men would rapidly develop what, in the modern parlance, would be called post-traumatic stress disorder; many were ruined for life. Given the conditions Landau described in his diary, it’s no wonder.

August Becker, a gas van inspector, later stated, “The men in charge of the Einsatzgruppen in the East were increasingly complaining that the firing squads could not cope with the psychological and moral stress of the mass shootings indefinitely. I know that a number of members of these squads were themselves committed to mental asylums and for this reason a new and better method of killing had to be found.”

The first gas vans wouldn’t be created until December 1941, however, and gas chambers came later still. In the meantime, the Einsatzgruppen traveled from town to town, massacring civilians everywhere they went.

As for Felix Landau: in late 1941 he moved in with Trude, and they married in 1943 after Landau divorced his first wife. He and Trude divorced in 1946, though, and that same year he was recognized and arrested for war crimes. Escaping from an American prison camp, he adopted an alias name and lived in plain sight as an interior decorator.

In 1959 he was arrested again and ultimately sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killings, but pardoned in 1973. Felix Landau died a free man in 1983, at the age of 73.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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1941: Twenty-one hostages for Igo Sym

Add comment March 11th, 2015 Headsman


Igo Sym tickles the ivories in Zona i nie zona (Wife and No Wife) … his last role.

On this date in 1941, the Germans occupying Poland took revenge for the loss of an artist.

Handsome Austrian-born silver screen luminary Igo Sym, whose silent film credits included roles opposite Marlene Dietrich and Lillian Harvey, had become a prominent fixture of the Warsaw stage when the Germans overran Poland in 1939.

Sym (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) collaborated with the German occupation: he worked manicured hand in glove with the Gestapo, even helping to entrap a former co-star.

This attracted the hostility of the Polish underground, which secretly condemned him to death — and executed that sentence on the morning of March 7, 1941, with a knock at Sym’s apartment door and a sudden 9 mm pistol.

In punishment for this gesture of national defiance, all of Warsaw was clapped under a harsh curfew and dozens of hostages seized as surety for the public’s promptly rendering the actor’s murderers for punishment. But the assassins were not so delivered: in revenge, the Germans executed 21 hostages at the nearby village of Palmiry.* Two University of Warsaw professors were among those hostages, biologist Stefan Kopec and historian Kazimierz Zakrzewski.

* Palmiry had the sorrow to host numerous similar mass-executions during the German occupation of Warsaw. Over 2,000 bodies have been recovered from the site.


Polish hostages (not necessarily those of March 11, 1941) being readied for execution at Palmiry. This photo (and others) via the Polish Wikipedia page on war crimes in Palmiry.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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