1942: Michael Kitzelmann

Add comment June 11th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Wehrmacht lieutenant Michael Kitzelmann was executed for his stubborn conscious. The last diary entry in this post is going to show a June 12 date which I would ordinarily take as a preeminent source. Because June 11 is so universally described as the execution date, including in a public memorial plaque, I’m warily bowing to that date myself and putting the diary translation down to a botch of some kind. Whether or not this is correctly adjudicated on my part, it’s another reminder that everyone is aggravatingly slipshod when it comes to dates.

An aspiring Catholic priest, Kitzelmann (English Wikipedia entry | German) embarked his mandatory military service in 1937, foreseeing two boring years.

“For two years I must endure this terrible yoke of dreary, ridiculous military drills,” he wrote to a friend. The yoke would grow more terrible, and less ridiculous: Germany was at war before Kitzelmann’s conscription expired. Holy Orders would have to wait.

The young man proved a capable soldier (Iron Cross, second class) as well as a dutiful correspondent to parents and friends — his letters showing proud his own advancement in the ranks but also troubled by the horrors of war. Over time, he was increasingly troubled by the horrors his own side inflicted.

By the last months of 1941, his conscience and his piety could no longer reconcile the atrocities of the terrible eastern front, and he made bold in both letters home and loose talk with comrades to voice his disgust with his own side. “At home they tear the crosses from the schools,” he mused of the regime’s contempt for earnest Christianity. “Here we are made to fight against godless Bolshevism.”

While convalescing from an illness in March 1942, Kitzelmann was denounced for his seditious opinions by a zealous fellow troop. He had seen enough that he should have known that his fulfillment of military obligation would not protect him.

On 11 April 1942, I walked into the military prison of the fortress of Orel. The fortress, a huge squat building, distempered pink, with massive round turrets at each corner, lies to the north of the town on the steep banks of the river Oka. There is a dark stone passage on the upper floor where the air is dank and chill; and here I was handed over to the prison guards.

My cell is in the north-east turret and is about 14 feet wide and the same height. It has a wooden floor and a vaulted brick ceiling. To the west an arched window pierces the wall, which is over three feet thick, and across the window there are strong iron bars, let into the wall. In the evening and then only, a few golden sunrays briefly penetrate to my dreary solitude. A massive oak door, reinforced by heavy iron-work, shuts out the world. Darkness and terror paralyse my being. The stillness is unbearable. Helpless and abandoned I am left to myself, alone, sentenced to death. . .! Now I know the full fury of these Military Laws. Overnight I was branded as a criminal just for making a few derogatory remarks about the government. And for that apparently I must lose my life, my honour, my friends and my place in human society. How could all this happen? I had a good enough reputation up to now, and so far as I know I was regarded as a decent man with a normal sense of duty. What are right and justice in this world? Haven’t I served my country honourably for four years? I was at the front for two years, took part in three campaigns and proved my loyalty often enough. Is this the thanks I get from my country?

Apart from all that I am beginning to be afraid for my family at home. Letters have been taken from my trunk, and others from the post, and confiscated by the Court, letters from my father and mother and from friends. What will happen to them? Will the law get on to them too? That would be terrible. But I suppose there is nothing to be done and . . . events must take their course. I am so much afraid: my fears follow me day and night like horrifying ghosts, and all the time this awful loneliness, this claustrophobia, this oppressive silence. For hours on end I pace up and down my cell, just to hear my own footsteps. I light a fire in the stove just to hear it’s crackling. I pray aloud to hear my own voice; and I call upon Heaven, asking God to help me in my agony.

He sought comfort in his faith:

I pray to Jesus the Crucified, who has led the way through the most bitter pain. And He answers me: “If you will be My disciple, take up your cross and follow me!”

But I appeal to Him: “Lord, I am still so young, too young for such a heavy cross; I have not lived my life, all my hopes, plans and aims are unfulfilled.” And he says : “Behold, I too was young, I had yet to live my life, and as a young man I carried the cross and sacrificed my young life.”

Again my soul complains: “Behold my bitter home-sickness, the sufferings of my family. Let me return to life and let me not hurt their love.”

But Jesus replies: “If you cannot leave your belongings and all your earthly love, you cannot be my disciple. Follow me!”

Again my soul rebels: “O Lord, the burden is too heavy; relieve me of this terrible yoke; shorten my sufferings and dry my tears!”

Lovingly He speaks: “My son, be brave and do not despair! I have suffered so greatly for humanity, and for you too; I have opened Heaven for you. And I shall remain with you until the end.”

I answer my Saviour: “Thank you a thousand times for your endless love, my Redeemer! I shall be your disciple and I will carry your cross after you. So take me by the hand and lead me to my blessed end in all eternity.”

And at last — here’s that date — he closed his diary with this momentous note:

On 11 June 1942, at 5 p.m., I was told that my petition for mercy had been rejected and that the sentence would be carried out on 12 June 1942 at S a.m. Lord, Thy will be done. In the evening I knew great joy. Dear, good Pastor Schmitter has come back and wants to stay with me during my last hours on earth. He was here till after midnight. I told him my final wishes, asked him to give my love to my people at home and talked over with him what would happen at the end. He has promised to return punctually at 6 a.m. Then I will confess once more, for my whole life. We shall celebrate Nfass and take Communion together. . . .

God has granted me great joy, for the hour of my death is a merciful one

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Soldiers,Treason

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1942: Julius “Babe” Hoffmeister, alcoholic POW

Add comment May 10th, 2019 Headsman

An American Morris-Knudsen civilian contractor captured when the Japanese forces seized Wake Island during World War II was executed on this date in 1942.

Julius “Babe” Hoffmeister’s essential offense was alcoholism; this indeed was the reason for his presence on Wake in the first place, as he’d signed up for this remote hitch in an effort to force himself to cold-turkey detox. Thereafter finding himself in a war zone did no favors for his illness.

During the December 1941 Japanese bombardment of Wake, Hoffmeister looted alcohol from the hospital and stashed it around the atoll, stealing back to them periodically in the subsequent months of slave labor for the occupiers to self-medicate against the misery of his situation. By May those stockpiles had been exhausted, forcing Hoffmeister to more desperate ventures.

We catch a glimpse of this unfortunate man his countrymen’s diaries.

One of those observers was an officer named Leal Henderson Russell, whose rank entitled him to milder treatment and a degree of cordiality with his Japanese opposite numbers. On May 8th, Russell’s journal (self-published in 1987 and hard to come by) recorded

Wakened by guards on coming into the barracks. They went inside and I could hear them questioning someone. After breakfast I found that they had arrested Babe Hoffmeister who was out of the compound during the night. Okazaki told me later he had broken into the canteen. They called several of the men in to question them concerning it but I think he was alone at the time. I also heard he was drunk. It is apt to go very hard on Babe as he had been repeatedly warned.

Two days afterwards, it did go very hard.

May 10th — Julius ‘Babe’ Hoffmeister was murdered this morning. Nearly all foremen and dept. superintendents were called to witness it. Possibly it will serve as a warning to some who still feel that they have some rights here.

A different prisoner, Logan Kay, noted well the warning

The Japs made Hoffmeister crouch on his hands and knees. A Jap officer took his sword, laid the blade on his neck, brought it back like a golf club and then down on his neck, severing his head with a single blow.

Far more extensive horrors awaited the prisoners of Wake as the war progressed.

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1942: Ewald Schlitt, performative cruelty

Add comment April 2nd, 2019 Headsman

From Hitler’s Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany:

Despite the unprecedented legal terror [inside Germany], he [Hitler] continued to attack the legal apparatus as slow and formalistic, comparing it unfavourably with the unrestrained actions of the police. … In the autumn of 1941, he complained repeatedly in his private circle that the German judges passed too lenient sentences … In May 1941, he complained to Goebbels that inmates could emerge from prison ‘fresh and unused’, ready to act once more against the state — a statement which showed Hitler’s disregard for the brutal realities inside penal institutions. He had made a similar point a few months earlier to Himmler, telling him that criminals knew that inside penitentiaries ‘everything is nice, hygienic, nobody will do one any harm, the Minister of Justice vouches for that’.

Hitler’s simmering hostility towards the legal system blew up in spectacular fashion in the spring of 1941. The spark was yet another supposedly lenient court sentence. On 14 March 1942, the district court in Oldenburg found the engineer Ewald Schlitt guilty of having abused his wife so badly that she eventually died. However, the judges decided that Schlitt had not acted in cold blood but was liable to sudden violent fits of temper. Rather than condemning him to death as a ‘violent criminal’, the court sentenced Schlitt to five years in a penitentiary. When Hitler heard about this case, he exploded with rage. Ignorant of the details, he demanded that Schlitt be executed and took the court’s sentence as confirmation of the impotence of the judiciary. If there were any more such sentences, Hitler fumed in his private circle on Sunday 22 March 1942, he would ‘send the Justice Ministry to hell through a Reichstag law’. Hitler made no secret of his fury. On the very same day, he berated the acting Minister of Justice Schlegelberger on the telephone. Highly agitated, Hitler exclaimed that he could not understand why criminals were treated so leniently at a time when the ‘best’ German soldiers were dying at the front. Hitler threatened Schlegelberger with very serious consequences should the legal system fail to change.

The Reich Ministry of Justice immediately engaged in damage limitation, following Hitler’s outburst. Two days after his phone call, Schlegelberger wrote to Hitler to reassure him about the ruthlessness of the legal system: ‘My Fuhrer, I share your desire for the harshest punishment of criminal elements with the greatest conviction.’ To prove his point, Schlegelberger informed Hitler that the Schlitt case would be taken up by the Reich Court. The court duly delivered the desired result. On 31 March 1942, it quashed the original sentence against Schlitt and instead sentenced him to death, a decision which was immediately relayed to Hitler. Ewald Schlitt was guillotined two days later. Schlegelberger did not let the case rest here. He was concerned enough to inform the general state prosecutors, in a meeting on the day of Schlitt’s retrial, about Hitler’s threats. …

In previous protests by Hitler against court sentence he considered too ‘mild’, the file had been closed after the execution of the offender. But not this time. One of the reasons why Hitler did not let matters rest was his growing concern about the home front. In March 1942, the Nazi leadership knew that rations would have to be cut and evidently feared a backlash among the population … The Nazi leaders were convinced that the legal system would be unable to deal with any unrest. Thus, after Hitler had discussed the forthcoming cuts in rations with Goebbels on 19 March 1942, the two men went on to complain about the failures of the judiciary and to talk about the need for tougher measures on the home front. It was at this point that Hitler floated the idea of convening the Reichstag to give himself special powers against ‘evil-doers’, an idea he returned to after the Schlitt case. The cut in rations, the most serious during the entire war, was finally introduced on 6 April 1942, and caused great disquiet. Hitler’s apparent concern about this was betrayed in an extraordinary outburst at dinner on the very next day. Inevitably, his thoughts circled around the 1918 revolution and, with unprecedented ferocity, he vented his homicidal determination to prevent another ‘stab in the back’:

If a mutiny broke out somewhere in the Reich today, then he would answer it with immediate measures. To start with, he would:

a) have all leading men of an oppositional tendency … arrested at home and executed, on the day of the first report;

b) he would have all inmates in concentration camps shot dead within three days;

c) he would also have all criminal elements rounded up for execution within three days on the basis of the available lists, irrespective of whether they were in prison or at liberty at the time.

The shooting of this scum, which comprised a few hundred thousand people, would make other measures appear unnecessary, as the mutiny would break down by itself due to a lack of mutinous elements and fellow-travellers.

Only two weeks later, Hitler rang Goebbels and instructed him to take the very unusual step of summoning the Reichstag.

I also expect that the German jurisprudence understands that the nation is not there for them but they for the nation. That not the entire world is allowed to perish, in which also Germany is included, so that there is a formal right, but that Germany has to live, notwithstanding the formal interpretation of justice.

I have no understanding for it, just to mention an example, that for instance a criminal who married in 1937 and then mistreated his wife that she became mentally deranged and who then died of the results of his last mistreatment, is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor in a moment when 10,000 brave German men have to die in order to save the homeland from Bolshevism, that means to protect their wives and children.

I will take a hand in these cases from now on and direct the order to the judges that they recognize that as right what I order.

What German soldiers, German workers, peasants, our women in city and country and millions of our middle-class etc. do and sacrifice all only with the one thought of victory in their minds, then one can ask a congenial attitude for them who have been called by the people themselves to take care of their interests.

At present there are no self-styled saints with well-earned rights, but we all are only obedient servants in the interests of our people.

-From Hitler’s April 26, 1942 address to the Reichstag

On 26 April 1942, the Reichstag deputies assembled in Berlin, curious as to the purpose of the meeting. … The legal system, Hitler warned [in his address], must have only one thought: German victory. It was high time, he continued, that the legal system realised that it did not exist for its own sake, but for the nation. As an illustration of the inane approach of the judiciary, Hitler pointed to the Schlitt case. … The deputies cheered loudly, broke into chants of ‘Heil’ and then passed a resolution that explicitly exempted Hitler from ‘existing statutes of law’, giving him the right to remove from office and punish anyone ‘failing their duties’. Hitler was officially above the law.

Hitler’s attack in the Reichstag on 26 April 1942 received a mixed reception from the German public. Many Germans, it seems, supported Hitler’s views. But conservatives and members of the bourgeoisie started to voice some concerns about the threat to the rule of law. The German legal officials themselves were stunned … One senior judge exclaimed in private: ‘Out of shame, each judge has to hide his face from the public’. The officials feared that the attack would destroy public confidence int he independence of the judiciary and provide further incentives for the police to interfere in the legal process. To discuss measures which would increase Hitler’s confidence in the judiciary, the Reich Ministry of Justice held two meetings with senior regional officials in early May 1942 in Berlin. The meeting on 6 May was chaired by State Secretary Freisler. Hitler’s speech, he acknowledged, had hit the legal system like a ‘thunderstorm’. Freisler reminded the officials of the lessons which needed to be drawn: the legal officials had to become harder, focusing even more on retribution …

Hitler continued to complain in private about the weakness of the legal system. On 22 July, for example, he once more ranted at length about the judiciary, concluding that nobody resembled the jurist more closely than the criminal.

The Nazi leaders made sure that legal officials knew that Hitler was still unhappy. On the same day as Hitler’s latest private outburst, on 22 July 1942, Goebbels made an explicit speech to the officials at the People’s Courtk outlining the Nazi leaders’ criticism of the judiciary. Goebbels’s comments had special significance because, as he informed his listeners, Hitler had personally approved them. Goebbels began by complaining that many judges still had the wrong attitude, derived in large measure from their legalistic training. After referring in detail to several ‘unbearable’ sentences, Goebbels made crystal clear what was required from the judiciary. During the war, it was not important whether a judgment was fair or unfair; rather, it had to protect the state by eradicating the ‘inner enemies’: ‘The starting point is not the law, but the decision [that] this man has to disappear’.

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1942: The Laha Massacre

Add comment February 20th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, 200-plus Australian and Dutch prisoners captured after the Battle of Ambon earlier that same year were summarily executed near Laha Airfield on present-day Maluku, Indonesia. It was the last and the largest of a series of POW executions in the days following the February 3 conclusion of the battle; collectively, they’re known as the Laha Massacre.*

The individual incidents, timelines, and body counts of the several incidents are reported with a good deal of variance and conflation in the sites describing these horrible days, but the evening of February 20 as the consummating atrocity appears to me solidly attested — as does the destruction of a Japanese minesweeper during the battle (by this time, an event that was a couple of weeks past) as one of the motivations. The Japanese officer tasked with conducting the butchery, a Captain Nakagawa, recorded the event in a grim diary entry. (According to Ambon: The Truth About One of the Most Brutal POW Camps in World War II and the Triumph of the Aussie Spirit, Nakagawa did not approve of the executions, but he obeyed his orders.)

The prisoners of war were brought by truck from the barracks to the detachment headquarters, and marched from there to the plantation. The same way of killing was adopted as before, i.e. they were made to kneel down with their eyes bandaged and they were killed with sword or bayonet. The poor victims numbered about two hundred and twenty in all, including some Australian officers.

The whole affair took from 6 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. Most of the corpses were buried in one hole, but because the hole turned out not to be big enough to accommodate all the bodies an adjacent dug-out was also used as a grave.

LOS NEGROS, March 9 (A.A.P.-Reuter) — The Australian War Crimes Court here yesterday heard how Japanese sailors beheaded, bayoneted and shot 200 Australian war prisoners at Ambon in February, 1942.

The massacre lasted four hours.

The prosecutor, Major Alex Mackay, of Perth, told the Court, “The Australians were killed in a spirit of revenge.

They were all killed, so no one could live to tell the story of the massacre.

The Japanese sailors whipped themselves into a frenzy and shouted the names of dead comrades during the killings.

THREE CHARGED

Before the Court are Navy Sub-Lieutenant Takahiko Tsuaki, Warrant-Officer Keigo Kanamoto, and Seaman Shikao Nakamura — all charged with having murdered Australian prisoners.

The names of other former men of the Japanese Navy appear on the charge sheet, but these men have evaded arrest.

Major Mackay said the prisoners were not blindfolded.

They did not know they were going to be executed until they arrived at the side of prepared mass graves.

They had been told they were going swimming.

AFTER SHIP SANK

Major Mackay said the massacre occurred soon after a Japanese minesweeper had struck a mine and sunk in Ambon Bay.

About 20 Japanese were killed.

Survivors of the ship’s company took part in the execution.

One Australian, an officer, managed to loosen his bonds and to seize a rifle from a Japanese, said Major Mackay.

He levelled the rifle at one of his captors and pulled the trigger. But the rifle was not loaded.

Another executioner shot and killed the officer.

“LENT MY SWORD”

In a sworn statement, one of the accused, Kanamoto, said:

Every executioner, without exception, shouted names of fallen comrades and cried ‘in revenge of so-and-so’ as he swung his sword.

Kanamoto denied having executed anyone. He said he lent his sword to a friend so he could take part in the execution.

“Brandishing the naked blade, he let out a yell and brought the sword down,” said Kanamoto.

A head rolled into a prepared pit.

He then beheaded another victim. This time the sword cut too well. The blade, in full swing as it cut off the prisoner’s head, almost touched and wounded my leg.

“MADE TO KNEEL”

In his sworn statement, Tsuaki, another of the accused, said some of the victims were made to kneel facing the grave, and then were bayoneted from the back through the heart.

Another witness said he looked into a grave and saw the bodies of about 20 executed prisoners-of-war.

“I heard some faint moans from inside the grave.”

The trial is expected to last a week.

Tsuaki admitted conducting an execution, “to set a good example to others”: “Observing all the rules of Japanese swordsmanship, I beheaded the victim with one stroke.” He and Kanamoto were both convicted; Kanamoto caught a prison sentence, while Tsuaki was one of five Japanese hanged as war criminals and then buried at sea on June 11, 1951.

These five were the last death sentences of Australia’s controversial post-World War II war crimes proceedings.

* This massacre on Ambon is not to be confused with the 17th century Amboyna Massacre at the same island.

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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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1942: Gordon Cummins, the Blackout Ripper

2 comments 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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1942: Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon, academics in resistance

Add comment May 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Left-wing intellectuals Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon were shot at Fort Mont-Valerien on this date in 1942 for their exertions in the French Resistance.

Both numbered among interwar France’s great radical intellectuals: Politzer, a Hungarian Jew nicknamed the “red-headed philosopher” and and Solomon, a Parisian physicist, both numbered among interwar France’s great radical scholars.

The red-headed philosopher hung with the likes of Sartre, taught Marxism at the Workers University of Paris, and critiqued psychology. (A few of his works can be perused here.) Solomon, son-in-law of physicist Paul Langevin, made early contributions to the emerging field of quantum mechanics.

Politically both were Communists and supporters of the anti-fascist Popular Front; with the onset of German occupation, they carried their activism into the French Resistance.

They were arrested (separately) in March 1942 and executed (together) with other Resistance hostages on the outskirts of Paris.

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1942: Ernst Schrämli, Swiss traitor

1 comment November 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Swiss artillerist Ernst Schrämli was shot for treason.

The dogged independence of Switzerland during World War II presented an going irritant to a Third Reich that had swallowed the rest of Europe, enabling von Trapps to escape and idealistic students to cogitate potshots at the Führer. Switzerland had to maintain her place delicately, here with a pragmatic concession to the fascist powers and there with a deterring mountain fortification. The American jouranlist Walter Lippmann celebrated that doughty Alpine confederation’s pluck in a 1943 New York Herald Tribune article (via):

The Swiss nation which is entirely surrounded by the Axis armies, beyond reach of any help from the democracies, that Switzerland which cannot live without trading with the surrounding Axis countries, still is an independent democracy. The “engulfing sea of 125,000,000 hostile neighbors” has not yet engulfed the Swiss.

That is the remarkable thing about Switzerland. The real news is not that her factories make munitions for Germany but that the Swiss have an army which stands guard against invasion, that their frontiers are defended, that their free institutions continue to exist and that there has been no Swiss Quisling, and no Swiss Laval. The Swiss remained true to themselves even in the darkest days of 1940 and 1941, when it seemed that nothing but the valor of the British and the blind faith of free men elsewhere stood between Hitler and the creation of a totalitarian new order in Europe. Surely, if ever the honor of a people was put to the test, the honor of the Swiss was tested and proved then and there … no ordinary worldly material calculation can account for the behavior of the Swiss.

Compared to neighboring countries, Switzerland’s domestic fascist movement was pretty minor, but that ferocious independence could not brook fifth columnists be they ever so minor. Schrämli, a somewhat disordered soldier, delivered a few grenades and some inaccurate sketches of some Swiss bunkers to a German agent. Though ineffectual, it was treason.

He’s the subject of a notable 1976 documentary The Shooting of the Traitor Ernst S., which finds that the man’s motivation was psychological weakness rather than ideological commitment and confers the epitaph De Chliner hanget ehnder als der Grösser (“The small hang instead of the great”). German speakers can take in the entire film:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Switzerland,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1942: The Jews of Trunovskoye

Add comment October 18th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, one year and four months after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, almost all of the Jews in the village of Trunovskoye in rural Russia were murdered and buried in a mass grave a few kilometers outside the town limits.

Several months later, after the Red Army had liberated the area, they had the locals disinter and re-bury the bodies.

This mass execution is somewhat unusual in that it didn’t happen via bullets, as at Babi Yar and many other places in the occupied Soviet Union, but via a mobile gassing chamber or gas van. These relatively primitive machines were actually invented by the Soviets and used by them as a form of execution before being adopted by the Nazis after the psychological impact of mass shootings was deemed too stressful on the perpetrators.

The gas vans had airtight compartments which could hold between 30 and 100 victims each. People were shoved inside and gassed with carbon monoxide until they died of suffocation. Gas vans were initially used by the Nazis’ mobile killing squads and at Chelmno, the first of the extermination camps. But they were slow and inefficient, and the screams of the dying disturbed and distressed those driving the vehicles. In time they were replaced by gas chambers, which could kill people more quickly and cleanly.

What we know about the mass murder in Trunovskoye comes from a letter written by sixteen-year-old Anna “Nyura” Rabinovits in 1943. She was one of the only Jewish survivors from the area; she lost most of her family. Originally from Kishinev (Chisinau), she was evacuated with her family to Trunovskoye in the summer of 1942.

After liberation, in January 1943, she wrote to Moshe “Misha” Shapira, a relative by marriage, to tell him of what had happened. Her letter, translated from the Russian, eventually found its way into the Yad Vashem archives and was published in the anthology After So Much Pain and Anguish: First Letters After Liberation, edited by Robert Rozett and Iael Nidam-Orvieto.

The letter is worth quoting in full, with paragraphs added for clarity. Note that Nyura twice erroneously cites the date “October 18, 1943”; the murders occurred on October 18, 1942. She also refers to the village of Trunovskoye as “Trunkova”.

Book CoverDear Aunt Liza and Uncle Misha,

Yesterday I received Misha’s postcard and today I received yours. As you can see, I’m rushing to respond. I am going to tell you about the end that befell our dear ones. I cannot understand how some of our people are till alive.

We were still living in Trunovka when the Nazis came. We were all evacuated along with the Grinberg family. Yevochka had a child, a boy who was one year old. What an end befell him! The Nazis caught us and made us return, but we did not return to the place where we had lived but stopped here, where I live now, 20 km from Trunovka. We lived here for two months under the Nazis and all of us worked on the kolkhoz. We lived in separate apartments but I went to work every day together with Yevochka and Adochka. Boris Isayevich was sick but when he recovered, he too went to work on the pig farm. Our only grandmother and Maria Naumovna remained at home. Yevochka’s grandmother had died back in Trunovka, after several days of a severe illness.

When we had been here for over a month, an order was issued for all the Jews to be registered. Then, several days later, a murder squad arrived and we were all ordered to appear at the commandant’s office with our belongings. We took our stuff and went. Two cars had arrived from Voroshilovsk [a short-lived Bolshevik name for the city that was reverted to Stavropol in 1943 -ed.] with six Germans. We were called into a room, each family separately, to be registered. Afterwards, they said, “Take your things and go home. When we need you, we will find you.” We were all very happy. We returned home and continued to work on the kolkhoz. The kolkhoz had sent me to work at the kolkhoz office.

On October 18, 1943, the murder squad returned. Our landlady said,

I myself did not see it. A cart with policemen arrived and ordered them to put all their things on the cart. Grandmother and Adochka were at home. They took everything and went to the Grinbergs, where they took Yevochka and her child and Marya Naumovna and all their things as well, and got onto the cart. They were taken to the police station, where there already 55 people. Dad and Boris Isayevich were out in the steppe, but they were brought in from there. [?] ordered them to take off their clothes and brought a truck to the door of the barn and told them to get in the truck, but they resisted. They cried and shouted, so the Germans started beating them with whips and pushed them into the truck. They left six men to have someone to bury them. The truck was made of iron and closed in. At first, when they got in, they shouted, but when the doors were closed, all the voices gradually became silent. They were taken two km from the village and then thrown like dogs into a pit, where they lay one on top of the other. People told me all this, but I didn’t believe it at the time. I hope that they might be alive and that I would yet hear something about them. But a long time passed and I heard nothing from them.


A section of Nyura’s original letter (click for larger image).

The Nazis retreated and the Red Army came and liberated us from those monsters. And on April 2, 1943, it was my lot to see a scene that I will not forget as long as I live. I suffered much after this. An order was given to take people from every kolkhoz to dig a mass grave. I was at the administration office and only heard about it on the morning of the second day when I went to look for the grave of my dear ones. I didn’t know exactly where they were buried and I didn’t know that we would be digging a grave. It was like someone said to me: “Just go ahead down that road.”

On the road I met many people from whom I found out that they were going to bury the Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis. When I heard this, I began crying, but then the superiors, including a head of the district executive, started chasing me away and wouldn’t let me come to the grave, but at this point I did not pay attention but kept going. People showed me exactly where the place of the grave was; it could be seen. When I arrived, I could see [parts of bodies] covered with earth: [?] hands, legs and heads. I cried a lot and when people came to move them, I had already calmed down and was able to do this. A huge grave was dug for them not far from there and they were placed in a line close to each other, and then they were covered with earth. When we started taking them out, on the top were lying [the bodies of] the men who had probably covered them with earth and then, themselves, had been shot with machine guns. Can you picture Dad having covered [the body of] his daughter Adochka knowing the end that was awaiting him?

Their faces had all decomposed. Only the bodies and the hair remained. For that reason I couldn’t be sure about identifying them, but I believe I recognized Yevochka and the child in Maria Naumovna’s arms. I also found Dad, Grandma and Adochka. I carried them myself on a stretcher to the new grave. People said that the Germans had killed them with gas, that those trucks had a special apparatus for poison gas to kill people … The best possessions had been taken while the rest had been divided among the kolkhoz members.

Now I will tell you how I survived. That should be of interest to you. Nevertheless, I cursed my fate many times for having survived under those circumstances. It was so hard for me to survive all alone among strangers. When they [our family members] were taken, I was at the kolkhoz office. I arrived on Saturday and we had the day off. I entered the [family’s] room. It was empty. There was no one there. The landlady told me they had been taken away.

I ran straight to the police and said to them, “Whatever you did to my people, do it to me too. I have nothing to live for.” They put me in jail, where I remained for about two hours until a German [?] truck came and they took me out of the jail. The German started swearing and forced me with a strap to get into the truck. There were two other girls my age in the truck. They [the Germans] said that they were going to take us a few kilometers from there and shoot us on the way and throw out [our bodies]. There were many things in the truck, including some of our belongings I recognized. However, the truck took us to a nearby village 12 kilometers away. There they asked for my documents, but Dad had my passport [i.e. identity card where ethnicity was indicated]. I had no documents at all, so I said that my mother was Russian and my father — Jewish.

They let us go and wrote to the local authorities not to bother us, me and the other two girls, anymore. But a month later, when the Jews were taken from this nearby village, they took us too. I could see them being taken and pushed into a truck but they let us go and gave us German documents stating we were not Jewish. I remained alone in an unfamiliar place, where I didn’t know anyone, with absolutely nothing, with no bread for the winter, and I had to go barefoot in the snow. I worked at [?], ate boiled wheat, I didn’t see any bread … Can you imagine, Aunt Liza, what I went through? I wept for my dear ones. I regretted that I was alive.

Now I work as an accountant at a transportation office. The food is not bad. There is as much bread as I want. The kolkhoz allotted me a hundred kilograms of wheat and I got myself some clothes. I bought myself a skirt, a blouse and a sheet, from which I am going to make four blouses for myself. In the course of the whole year, I amassed 450 “working days” but they give [?] bread. My brother Lyova sent me 800 rubles, but I have not yet bought anything with them. This winter, I think life will be easy for me.

I have written everything in detail, as you asked me to do. With this letter, I am responding to your postcard and to [Uncle] Misha’s letter. I am grateful to you for having written to me and for your having found out that some of our relatives are still alive. I get letters frequently from Lyova. He’s at the front now. Write me how you are, where your Lyova is and what Sarochka does for a living. Write me whether you have heard anything from Grisha or Fima. Write everything in detail.

The letter you sent took 20 days to reach me, while I expect you will receive mine by the anniversary of the murder of the members of our family, which took place on October 18, 1943, at 11 o’clock in the morning. What a tragic fate our family has had! I will visit their grave on that anniversary. By now, at the time that I am writing to you, I have been accustomed to the idea that they are gone. I don’t shed as many tears as I used to. Before, wherever I went, whatever I did, I saw them, lying there dead, and the tears in my eyes never ceased. I have now finished writing.

Goodbye. Kisses to you and warm embraces to Misha and Sara.

Write a lot, please!
Nyura

Little is known about Nyura; the Shapira family lost touch with her after the war. She ultimately married a man named Goncharov and returned to Kishinev. She was still living there as of 2009, when she submitted pages of testimony for her murdered sister, father and grandmother to Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.

As far as is known, there is no memorial at Trunovskoye for the Jews who died there.

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

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1942: Tom Williams, IRA martyr

2 comments September 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Irish revolutionary Tom Williams was hanged at Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol on this date in 1942.

A plaque at 46 Bombay Street in Belfast marks the home Tom Williams shared with his grandmother.

The 19-year-old Belfast Catholic had been the chief of a six-man Irish Republican Army team that mounted an Easter Sunday attack intended to divert Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary from preventing Republican marches to commemorate the Easter Rising. The attack killed an RUC officer, and all six IRA men were arrested and sentenced to death.

As the acknowledged leader, Williams alone paid that forfeit; the five others all had their sentences commuted. (Notably, their number included 21-year-old Joe Cahill, who was destined for an illustrious career in the movement; he would go on to co-found the Provisional IRA in 1969, and to become a prominent exponent of the peace process in the 1990s.)

“Tom Williams walked to that scaffold without a tremor in his body. The only people who were shaking were us and the hangman,” his priest said later that day. “I’ve one other thing to say to you. Don’t pray for Tom Williams, pray to him, for at this moment Tom is a saint in heaven.”

That’s about the size of Williams’s place in the Republican memory. After the prison was closed, Williams was reburied with honors (Gerry Adams attended) in 2000. He’s commemorated in a ballad.

Tom Williams (Irish republican) from REBELS OF IRELAND on Vimeo.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Soldiers,Terrorists

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