1942: Six German saboteurs

Add comment August 8th, 2017 Headsman

Seventy-five years ago today, six German saboteurs were electrocuted in a Washington, D.C. jail … a failed World War II operation that bequeathed its target nation a controversial legal landmark.

On June 13 of 1942 — just eight weeks before they faced the electric chair — Herbert Hans Haupt, Heinrich Heinck, Edward Kerling, Herman Neubauer, Richard Quirin and Werner Thiel, all of them German nationals who had returned to the Fatherland after previous emigration to the U.S., were dropped by U-Boats along with two other men, Ernest Peter Burger and George John Dasch, in two quartets on the eastern fringe of Long Island and the Florida coast.

“Operation Pastorius” to sabotage war industries on the U.S. mainland would never even have time to get its land legs; spied in Long Island by a Coast Guard watchman whom they clumsily attempted to bribe, the agents scattered themselves to New York and Chicago. Burger and Dasch — who for this reason were not in the end electrocuted* — had their reservations about the Third Reich to begin with and guessed after the Coast Guard encounter where this fiasco was heading. They rang up the gobsmacked FBI to shop themselves and their comrades, enabling the feds to pick up the other six men in short order.

The eventual fate of the Nazi saboteurs is no surprise, but the means to obtain it was controversial then and remains so to this day.

On a substantive level, the Germans had landed in uniform for the explicit purpose of asserting POW status were they to be apprehended immediately; this didn’t cut much ice since all had then discarded their uniforms and attempted to melt away in the U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle successfully cited the American Revolution precedent of John Andre, whom patriots hanged as a spy after detaining him out of uniform behind their lines. That they hadn’t yet done anything yet was a bit beside the point.**

Much thornier was U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s order to try the Germans using a seven-member military tribunal that he conjured for this purpose, and seemingly with the objective of assuring the harshest possible sentence. (Bear in mind that these events transpired only months after Pearl Harbor.) Such a commission is explicitly anticipated by the U.S. Articles of War† whose 81st and 82nd provisions the saboteurs were charged with violating:

ART. 81. RELIEVING, CORRESPONDENCE WITH, OR AIDING THE ENEMY. — Whosoever relieves or attempts to relieve the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other thing, or knowingly harbors or protects or holds correspondence with or gives intelligence to the enemy, either directly or indirectly, shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.

ART. 82. SPIES. — Any person who in time of war shall be found lurking or acting as a spy in or about any of the fortifications, posts, quarters, or encampments of any of the armies of the United States, or elsewhere, shall be tried by a general court-martial or by a military commission, and shall, on conviction thereof, suffer death.

However, the military commission did not seem very well in keeping with the American preference for regular jurisdictions as expressed by Ex parte Milligan, the post-Civil War decision forbidding the use of military courts anywhere that civilian courts are functioning.‡ The signal Milligan precedent formed the basis of a furious objection by Army defense lawyer (and future Secretary of War) Kenneth Royall, who fought his clients’ hopeless corner so vigorously that the doomed men signed a letter praising his efforts. (“unbiased, better than we could expect and probably risking the indignation of public opinion.”)

Already recessed for the summer, the Supreme Court hastily reconvened to cut this Gordian knot: the only forum of judicial review the case would ever receive. Its decision, Ex parte Quirin — titled after one of the defendants — spurned Royall’s Milligan claim and upheld Roosevelt’s statutory authority to determine this case for a military tribunal by a unanimous vote.

The court’s common front concealed a variety of stances on the reach of executive authority. While the whole court agreed that “Congress has explicitly provided … that military tribunals shall have jurisdiction to try offenses against the law of war in appropriate cases,” a concurring memorandum by Justice Robert H. Jackson — later famous for his role prosecuting the Nuremberg trials — proposed to carry the argument well beyond this point. Jackson claimed in a concurrence that he would eventually withdraw that “the Court’s decision of the question whether it complied with the Articles of War is uncalled for … it is well within the war powers of the President to create a non-statutory military tribunal of the sort here in question.” This was by no means the consensus of his colleagues.

The later publication of a “Soliloquy” memorandum by one such colleague, Felix Frankfurter, throws a less than dispassionate light on deliberations. Writing to smooth over internal disputes between the blackrobes, Justice Frankfurter shows himself personally hostile to the Germans — “You’ve done enough mischief already without leaving the seeds of a bitter conflict involving the President, the courts and Congress after your bodies will be rotting in lime,” he chides them in his own voice. “That disposes of you scoundrels.” In the end, the court took his advice to sidestep the potentially deep jurisdictional question.

But that question has not been left rotting in footnotes (they never are). Quirin in general and Jackson’s expansive claims of executive power in particular have been relied upon by 21st century Presidents to justify muscular and controversial innovations like the Guantanamo Bay prison and the drone war.

A few books about Operation Pastorius and Ex parte Quirin

Pierce O’Donnell, author of In Time of War: Hitler’s Terrorist Attack on America, discussed his book on C-SPAN here.

Jurisprudence is not the only artifact of the Nazi saboteurs’ failed infiltration.

Bizarrely, a tributary slab “in memory of agents of the German Abwehr” was discovered in 2006 illicitly placed on National Park Service land in southeast Washington DC, the same vicinity where the saboteurs had been secretly buried after their electrocution. There it had seemingly reposed some twenty-odd years, unknown but to its devotees … who if the stone’s carvings are to be credited must consist of the heirs of the (defunct since 1983) National Socialist White People’s Party, also known as the American Nazi Party.

* They would be condemned to death along with the rest, but Roosevelt commuted their sentences: a fine boon but far short of the outright pardons they had been promised for their cooperation. In 1948, President Truman had Burger and Dasch deported to Germany, where many saw them as traitors.

** After unsuccessfully attempting to trade Andre for Benedict Arnold, whose defection Andre had facilitated, and whom the American revolutionaries would have much preferred to Andre for a hanging.

† Enacted by Congress in 1920, these Articles of War are no longer operative in the U.S.: they were replaced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951.

‡ Haupt and Burger were also U.S. citizens, further complicating the commission’s suspension of their constitutional habeas corpus rights.

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1942: Jacques Decour

Add comment May 30th, 2017 Headsman

The last letter of French Resistance fighter Jacques Decour (an alias for Daniel Decourdemanche) to his family on the morning of his execution, May 30, 1942. (From here.)

Saturday, May 30, 1942 — 6:45 am

My dear parents,

You have been expecting a letter from me for a long time. You did not expect to receive this one. I, too, hoped I would not cause you this grief. Say that I have remained up to the very end worthy of you, of our country, which we love.

You see, I might very well have died in war, or even in the bombardment of that night. So I do not regret having given meaning to this end. You know very well that I have committed no crime, you have no reason to blush at me, I have done my duty as a Frenchman. I do not think that my death is a catastrophe; remember that at this moment thousands of soldiers from all countries die every day, swept along, in a great wind that carries me away too. You know that I had been expecting this morning for two months, so I had time to prepare myself, but since I have no religion, I did not fall into the Meditation of death; I consider myself a little like a leaf that falls from the tree to make potting soil. The quality of the soil will depend on the quality of the leaves. I speak of the French youth, in whom I place all my hope.

My beloved parents, I shall doubtless be at Suresnes; you can if you wish request my transfer to Montmartre. You must forgive me for this sorrow. My only concern for three months has been your anxiety. At this moment, it is to leave you thus without your son, who has caused you more sorrows than joys. You see he is content, however, with the life he has lived, which has been very beautiful.

And now here are some commissions. I would send word to the one I love. If you see her, soon I hope, give her your affection, it is my dearest wish. I would also like you to take care of her parents who are in trouble. Excuse me for leaving them thus; I console myself by thinking that you will want to replace their “guardian angel”. Give them things that belong to me and belong to their daughter: the Pleiades editions, the Fables of La Fontaine, Tristan, the 4 Seasons, the little chickens, the two watercolors (Vernon and Issoire) the map of the 4 Paves du Roy. I would like my friend Michel to have my personal belongings (pen, pencil, wallets, watch, lighter). Embrace them all for me.

I have imagined, lately, the good meals we would share when I was released. You will have them without me, as a family, but not sadly, I beg of you. I do not want your thoughts to dwell on the beautiful things that could have happened, but on all those we have experienced. I have been reborn during these two months of isolation, without reading, without all my travels, all my experiences, all my meals. I even planned a novel. Thoughts of you have not left me, and I wish you much patience and courage, and especially no rancor. Give all my affection to my sisters, to the indefatigable Denise, who has devoted herself so much to me, and to the pretty mother of Michael and Denis. I had a great dinner with Sylvain on February 17, I often thought of it with pleasure as well as the famous meal of New Year’s Eve with Pierre and Renée. It was because the question of food had become more important! Give Sylvain and Pierre all my affection and also to Jean Bailly, my best comrade, say that I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows how I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years …

That I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows if I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years … That I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows if I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years …

If you have the opportunity, have my students in Première* tell my substitute that I thought of the last scene of Egmont and the letter of Th. Körner to his father under any reserve of modesty. .. All my friendships to my colleagues and friend for whom I translated Goethe without betraying.

It is eight o’clock, it will be time to leave. I ate, smoked, drank coffee. I do not see any business to settle. If there are objects belonging to Madame Politzer, 170 bis, rue de Grenelle, (books, especially those of the lycee, phono, etc.) try to recover them. There is also your Memorial of St. Helena.

My dear parents, I embrace you with all my heart. I am near you and thoughts of you do not leave me.

Your Daniel

My beloved little Brigitte

Your daddy has not seen you much for some time but he has thought of you. Tell your mom that I trust her to make you a good, firm, cheerful girl who stands strong on her own two legs. Work hard and try to become a good pianist. Often think of your father and friend and all the good times we have shared together.

I embrace you with all my heart as I love you and embrace your mother.

Your Daniel

* The school he taught at — which, after the war, was renamed College-lycee Jacques-Decour.

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1942: The massacre at the Pit

Add comment March 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.

The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)


All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.

Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.

* It was not the only place in the Reich’s occupation to mark Purim with blood.

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1942: Six aspiring escapees from Dulag-205

1 comment December 18th, 2016 Headsman

On about the 18th December 1942 a group of about 6 prisoners intended to escape but were betrayed by somebody. All six prisoners were led out ofthe camp beyond the wire, taken about 20 metres to a pit and shot without any hearing. Before the execution the interpreter told the prisoners that the 6 men had wanted to escape from the camp and for that they would be executed. This would happen to anyone who tried to escape from the camp. The surnames of those who died are not known to me.

This is the testimony of Konstantin Krupachenko, a Red Army prisoner-of-war retrieved from the Germans’ “Dulag-205” camp — a transit facility behind German lines at Stalingrad which was liberated as the Soviets overran the encircled German position.

Krupachenko’s testimony was part of the evidence prepared against six Wehrmacht officers taken prisoner at that camp and ultimately executed, men whose case we have previously detailed.

Though not well-known and hardly by scale a major contributor to the ghastly death toll among Soviet POWs, Dulag-205 was horror aplenty for those who survived it. Starvation rations gave way to no rations at all in the dead of winter, and the skeletal inmates cannibalized the dead. Harassment by guard-dogs, capricious beatings, and the usual regimen of dawn-to-dusk forced labor were the lot of the lucky ones.

The less fortunate, well …

On about the 25th November 1942 while working on a road which led to Gumrak three kilometres from the camp a group of prisoners of about 50-60 was levelling and clearing the road. One prisoner whose name I don’t know collapsed from tiredness and exhaustion and couldn’t work. The guard tried to force the exhausted man to stand and work but the prisoner couldn’t get up. Then the guard shot the prisoner dead with a sub-machine gun and ordered that he be buried in a ditch at the side ofthe road. (Krupachenko again)


There were public executions in the camp. In January 1943 on about the lOth-llth a former senior Lieutenant of the Red Army, his surname I don’t know, was executed for allegedly organising an escape attempt. (Anatoly Alexeev)


In all cases the Germans would shoot prisoners without any warnings at all. In the month of October 1942 I personally saw up to 30 prisoners shot. They shot people every day for falling behind to and from work, and sometimes for breaking ranks. I am unable to give the surnames of the prisoners shot by the Germans. Moreover, when we were herded from the Alekseevka camp to the area of Karpovka village, then several prisoners were shot dead by German officers for the fact that when we were working we were bombarded by Soviet troops and several prisoners took cover. After the firing had stopped the officers came out of their trench dug-outs and shot them on the spot. Three prisoners were shot dead for taking some tobacco while working on a dump. (Ivan Kosinov)


As one of the Germans on trial for these abuses agreed (Otto Mäder was trying to throw blame onto the camp commanders),

[t]here was no trial of any kind, they [prisoners] were shot without any trial on the order of [Dulag-205 commandant] Colonel Korpert. I am a lawyer by education and I understand perfectly that this these shootings were illegal, simply murder in fact.

All these quotations are via Frank Ellis’s “Dulag-205: The German Army’s Death Camp for Soviet Prisoners at Stalingrad” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2006),

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1942: Evzen Rosicky, athlete

2 comments June 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Czech athlete and resistance figure Evzen Rosicky was shot with his father at Prague’s Kobyliske shooting grounds.

His country’s former champion in the 800 meters and 400 meter hurdles, Rosicky had the honor of representing Czechoslovakia at the 1936 Olympics … Hitler’s Berlin showcase.

Three years later, it was the Czechs unwillingly playing host to the Germans. By then, Rosicky was a journalist of left-wing proclivities (he was a card-carrying Communist) and he naturally segued right into anti-occupation resistance.

Arrested and shot along with his father, Jaroslav, Evzen Rosicky is the namesake of Prague’s Stadion Evzena Rosickeho.


(cc) image of Stadion Evzena Rosickeho by Honza Záruba.

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1942: Robert “Rattlesnake” James, the last man hanged by California

1 comment May 1st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, red-haired Robert S. James became the last man judicially hanged in the state of California. He’d earned the noose three times over. The press called him “the Diamondback Killer” or “Rattlesnake James”.

“Robert James,” records Robert Keller in his book 50 American Serial Killers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, Volume Five, “must rank as one of the most creative killers in the annals of American crime. Not content with such mundane methods as shooting, stabbing or strangling, James resorted to such inventive devices as auto wrecks, drowning and rattlesnake bites.”

James’s cunning homicides and his proclivity for cross-country travel meant his crimes went unnoticed for years.

Born Major Raymond Lisenba in 1895, he seemed destined to a hardscrabble life of Alabama sharecropping like his parents until his brother-in-law paid for him to go to Birmingham and attend barbering school.

In 1921, at age 26, Lisenba married. His wife quickly left him, however, and filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty. James moved to Kansas and married again, and began an affair with a young local girl. He made her pregnant, and after her father showed up at his barbershop with a shotgun, Lisenba skipped town and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, abandoning wife no. 2. He also changed his name.

From here on out, he goes by Robert S. James.

In 1932, “Robert” married Winona Wallace and took out a life insurance policy on her. After three months of wedded bliss, they went on an outing to climb Pike’s Peak. During the journey, though, the couple was in a single-car accident and Winona sustained a serious head injury, while her husband was completely unharmed: he had jumped out of the out-of-control vehicle just before impact.

The police who responded for some reason thought nothing of the bloodstained hammer they noted in the car’s back seat.

Although Winona’s head wound was grave, she pulled through, and was discharged from the hospital after two weeks, with no memory of the accident. She never recovered that memory because shortly after arriving home she drowned in her own bathtub. Her husband suggested she had still been suffering vertigo from the head injury.

James collected on Winona’s $14,000 life insurance policy, moved back to Alabama and married again. He found he was unable to take out a policy on the new wife, however, and filed for an annulment on the very day of their wedding.

Undaunted, James turned his attention to his nephew, Cornelius Wright. He insured the young man, with double indemnity in case of accidental death, then invited him over to visit. During the visit, James lent Cornelius his car. Cornelius drove it off a cliff and was killed.

The insurers paid.

Curiously, James sent a telegram to his sister informing her of her son’s death before it actually happened.

James moved to Los Angeles and married a fifth time. It was wife #5, Mary Busch, who proved to be his undoing.

In 1935, James conspired with an acquaintance named Charles Hope to murder Mary. They decided to use rattlesnakes, and Hope obtained two large Colorado diamondbacks to do the job. The snakes had names: Lethal and Lightning. They performed well in field tests on chickens.

Mary was pregnant at the time, and James convinced her to get a home abortion. To this end, she allowed herself to be tied to a chair, blindfolded and gagged for the procedure. Her husband then forced whiskey down her throat to quiet her, and he and Hope shoved her bare foot into a box containing the rattlers.

They left her there to die, but when they returned later, Mary was still alive, although had been bitten three times. James dragged her into the bathroom and drowned her in the tub, then he and his accomplice threw her body into an ornamental fish pond on his property.

Then James called the police to report the tragic accident.

Authorities who arrived at the scene found Mary lying in very shallow water. Her grieving widower mentioned she had dizzy spells quite often and would fall down. The police speculated she might have been bitten by a rattlesnake and then, in shock, stumbled into the pond. They did a search of the property and did find something strange: a bottle containing black widow spiders, hidden in a corner of the garage. But what did that have to do with anything?

Mary’s death was ruled accidental and James collected yet another insurance payout.

He appeared to have gotten away with it again.

However, several months later, it came undone.

A sharp insurance investigator found out about James’s previous wives and the fact that one of them had drowned after being heavily insured. The investigator informed the police, who bugged James’s house and discovered he was committing incest with his niece.

This was a crime in California, although she was a legal adult. The police hauled him in for questioning. “Interrogation techniques,” remarks Keller, “were somewhat more brutal than they are today and under questioning, James let something slip about Mary’s death. Investigators immediately seized on this and eventually extracted a confession.”

Charles Hope’s role in the crime came out — he’d been paid $100 for his assistance in the murder — and he turned state’s evidence and was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Lethal and Lightning were presented as evidence, and Lethal caused a bit of a stir in the courtroom when it escaped during lunch.


Star witness.

The Los Angeles Times notes, “Columnist Walter Winchell dropped by the courtroom; so did actor Peter Lorre, who studied James’ impassive face and beady eyes for one of those psychotic killer roles he often played.”

James was inevitably convicted of Mary’s murder and sentenced to death, but prolonged his life with a few years of appeals. In Lisenba v. California, the Supreme Court upheld his confession in spite of the third-degree methods by which it was obtained.

The lag from trial to execution caused by Rattlesnake’s judicial review, however, made him by the time of his hanging the last convict whose death sentence predated California’s adoption of the gas chamber. California was executing in volume at this period, and almost all by gas: everyone knew as Robert James went to the gallows that he was to be the last to die on that anachronistic device.

And the executioner — who to be fair was probably out of practice — underscored the reason for that shift by botching the job, leaving his prey to strangle to death for ten ghastly minutes. San Quentin‘s warden, Clinton Duffy, an opponent of the death penalty described the hanging to reporters but his story was deemed too graphic to be printable. In this more permissive age we can use it with impunity … but it’s liable to put you off your appetite.

The man hit bottom, and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated and the droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible. I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up. It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die.

When he was finally dead enough to cut him down, “big hunks of flesh were torn off” James’s purple face; “his eyes were popped,” and his tongue “swollen and hanging from his mouth.” (source)

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1943: Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American in the German Resistance

1 comment February 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the Milwaukee-born translator and historian Mildred Fish-Harnack was beheaded at Plotzensee Prison — the only American woman executed by Hitler’s order.

A graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,* she met German jurist Arvid Harnack when the latter was a visiting scholar at the university’s sister campus in Madison.

In 1929, the couple moved to Germany where they worked as academics: Mildred, a teacher of language and literature; Arvid, of economics and foreign policy.

Both watched the rise of Third Reich with growing horror, and soon began converting their circles of academics, artists, and expats into a hive of opposition doing what they could to aid the many classes of excommunicate humans Berlin was busily proscribing. As the Nazi enterprise intensified, that opposition demanded ever more dangerous — more treasonable — extremities.

Good friends with American diplomats, the Harnacks for a time used Arvid’s placement in the Reich economic ministry to pass information to the United States. In 1940, they made contact with Soviet intelligence and from that time until the Gestapo snatched them in September 1942 the so-called** Red Orchestra sent furtive coded radio transmissions to Moscow reporting war preparations, economic data, and whatever else their circle could lay hands on among their various posts.

We have treated the fate of the Red Orchestra elsewhere in these pages; Mildred Harnack did not go to the meathook-nooses with her husband Arvid and others on December 22 because she was sentenced initially only to a term of years. These judgments came down at just the same time as the USSR was drowning the Wehrmacht in blood at Stalingrad, so there might have been a bit of personal pique when the Fuhrer personally quashed Mildred’s lenient sentence and demanded a, ah, reconsideration.

“And I have loved Germany so much,” she murmured as she was thrown under the fallbeil.

There’s a Mildred-Harnack-Schule in Berlin (also a Mildred-Harnack-Straße); her birthday, September 16, is observed every year in Wisconsin schools — although Mildred’s red associations meant that widespread recognition in her native country had to await the end of the Cold War.


Trailer for a Wisconsin Public Television documentary that can be viewed in full here.

* Then known as the Milwaukee State Normal School.

** Though this is the name history remembers them by, Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) was conferred by the German intelligence working to stop them. Confusingly, the name was applied to multiple different, and unrelated, spy networks.

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1942: Max Hertz, chronicled by Oskar Rosenfeld

3 comments February 20th, 2015 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942,* a middle-aged man was hanged in the Lodz Ghetto in front of an audience of twenty thousand. His name was Max Hertz, son of Salli Hertz and Helena Hertz née Abraham. He was from Germany.

His death was recorded in heartbreaking detail by Oskar Rosenfeld, a resident of the ghetto. Rosenfeld was an Austrian-Jewish writer and translator who’d published six novels before the war. After the Anschluss in 1938, he and his wife emigrated to Prague in Czechoslovkia to escape Nazi aggression. Nazi aggression followed them, however, and the couple made plans to move to England.

Mrs. Rosenfeld left in 1939 and her husband was supposed to come later, but the war started and Rosenfeld found himself trapped in Prague.

Deported to the Lodz Ghetto in 1941, within a few months he secured a relatively cushy position as an archivist with the ghetto administration. He helped write the official Lodz Ghetto Chronicle, a diary of the day-to-day events of the ghetto.

Oskar Rosenfeld

Behind closed doors, Oskar Rosenfeld was keeping his own, personal diary, accumulating twenty-one notebooks in all. Sixty years later, the director of the Yad Vashem libraries described his style as “riveting. At times he is philosophical and literary, at others he is spare and raw. Often instead of full sentences, Rosenfeld writes strings of words words so packed with meaning that normal sentence structure is superfluous.”

The diary was mostly in German, with occasional parts in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

Rosenfeld employed a simple, fairly transparent code to avoid trouble if his notebooks should come into the wrong hands. He refered to the Nazis, for example, as “Ashkenes.” When he wrote “Germans,” he meant only German Jews. The Ghetto Chairman, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, designated Eldest of the Jews, was often called “Praeses.” The words “Gestapo” and “Kripo” were written using the Greek alphabet.

His entries described in painstaking detail the grotesque land in which he was imprisoned: the religious and cultural life of the ghetto, the residents’ attitude toward the administration, the rumors flying around about the war front, the deportations, and above all everyone’s struggle to survive from day to day.

Starvation, overwork, disease and despair wore away at the Lodz Jews, like sand castles crumbling. The Nazis’ Jewish problem, Rosenfeld noted wryly, was being solved “in installments.”

During the frigid Polish winters—unusually harsh in those years—the coal ration was pitiful, and people chopped up their own furniture for firewood. When that was gone, they turned to the streets and stole whatever they could get their hands on: fences, even sheds and outhouses were dismantled for burning. In spite of this hundreds of people froze to death.

A bigger problem was food. Or rather, lack of food.

“According to German scientific findings,” Rosenfeld wrote,

the consumption of calories in normal times was 3,640 calories with 93 grams of albumen [protein] per person. The allocated ration in the fall of 1941 was 1,300 calories and 36 grams of albumen. Since the fall of 1941, the ghetto — with the minor exception of the workers in the factories — received a mere 900 calories and 25 grams of albumen per person. Not taking into account the lack of vitamins. This was no longer nutrition, this was a prescription for a slow death.

People traded everything they had, literally the clothes off their backs, for a few turnips or some sausage. During times when food was particularly scarce, a diamond necklace or a good pair of shoes might fetch a single loaf of bread. And sometimes one loaf was all a person could expect to get for an entire week.

When someone died — and there were deaths in nearly every family — their surviving relatives would often wait several days to report it, so they could claim the dead person’s rations. There were even reports of cannibalism, which Rosenfeld dutifully recorded.

The Lodz Ghetto was a work camp, not a death camp, and was designed to squeeze all the labor it could out of the inhabitants. People who were just too sick or weak to keep up were likely to find themselves on the next list for deportation to mysterious “labor camps in the East.”

Nobody knew for sure where the deportees were going, but the ghetto residents had reason to be suspicious and fearful and most of them did everything they could to stay out of the transports. No one who was deported ever returned to the ghetto. These were supposed to be long journeys and deportees were advised to pack several days’ worth of food, but like as not, the trains would come back empty the very next day.

In fact, the deportation transports usually traveled no more than forty miles outside of Lodz.

Their destination was Chelmno, the Germans’ first death camp. There they used gas vans to asphyxiate their victims. These were relatively primitive and inefficient; it wasn’t until later that they came up with the idea of gas chambers instead of vehicles.

The Lodz Ghetto had its own police force staffed by Jewish volunteers (who were universally despised as collaborators by the others) and a court that presided over criminal trials.

Violent crime, and for that matter most crimes against other persons, was rare: most of the court cases involved crime against the ghetto community as a whole. (Demolishing public fences and buildings for fuel, for example. See above.)

The rules were harsh. Kitchen workers caught sneaking even a spoonful of soup or some half-rotted beets were subject to prosecution. A carpenter could be brought up on charges of sabotage if he took some scrap wood home to burn. Jozef Zelkowicz, another employee in the Ghetto Archives, wrote about one case where a tailor forgot he’d draped a length of of thread over his shoulder for easy access during his work. After leaving at the end of his shift, he was arrested for “stealing” the thread.

Offenders usually got a short jail term of a few weeks or months. That was the least of the punishment, however: when they got out, they were often banned from working again and their families were banned from receiving welfare, essentially a death sentence. Convicted criminals and their families also had priority for deportation, however, and tended to get shipped out before they starved to death.

Not this time, however. For whatever reason, the Nazis decided to make a public example of Max Hertz.

It was the very first public execution in the ghetto. In fact, Rosenfeld said, they’d constructed the gallows just for this occasion:

At 5 p.m. on Friday, the building department had received the order for a gallows to be erected on Fischplatz by 7 a.m. the next morning. Precise specifications were given: wooden beams, heavy iron hooks, bent to a shape just this long and that wide. A man from Germany was entrusted with the job. He worked hard and long, and got it done on time. This worker was, it turned out, an intimate friend of the condemned man.

The Nazis were so pleased with the craftsmanship that they placed another for a set of gallows designed to hang twelve people at once.

Rosenfeld’s description of the execution is worth of being quoted almost in full:

Friday, collective, six o’clock in the evening, impersonal declaration to all members of the collective… Meet at nine o’clock at the Fish Market. Rumors: military parade, directives from the German military, the Eldest to speak. –Afterward some reported that they knew… The sick had express dispensation from attending the meeting. Shabbat from nine o’clock on a queue of men and women being led by room commandant through the almost empty streets across the “little bridge” at the Old Market Place between the ghetto and the city, past Hamburgerstrasse to the Fish Market. Along the way local passersby asked what was going on… Nobody had the answer. Frost. Clear. Biting wind. Terribly uncomfortable in the open air. The closerto the square, the clearer that something terrible was about to happen. The streets usually teeming with people on Shabbat — empty…

The rumor of the true drama seems to have gained credence in the ghetto, none of the local inhabitants want to risk being forced to participate and therefore remained at home.

Goaded by the sharp commands of the Jewish police, took their places, men in the front, women in the back, similar queues were streaming toward the square from other directions. It didn’t take long. Shortly before nine o’clock, Fish Square was filled with a human wall, was encircled, a horrifying silence, a few locals out of curiosity.

Finally the masses begin to understand. Sense of foreboding during the march that they were to attend an execution scene (or a witch burning); in the square, many for the first time, gallows. It had been erected early in the morning by the Jewish police. Several women fainted at the sight, others fell into convulsive sobbing; several of the men managed to send some of the women back home or took them (secretly!) to nearby apartments. Those who wanted to go back later found the street blocked off; then order to seal off the surrounding area of Fish Square.

Quite low on three steps, small podium, to the left across from the post office for newly settled rectangular trapdoor; above the trapdoor a vertical balcony, at the upper end a horizontal beam with a hemp cord.

A cold shudder went through the onlookers… No more illusions, no dream, raw reality, for everybody knew who was Ashkenes.

Several well-fed, field-gray SS officers. At the corner of the square, soldiers with mounted machine guns to keep the crowd in check. Nobody had the courage to flee. The transport leader warned of the most severe consequence for anybody who tried to leave. A few managed to get to the collective. An Ashkenes car was parked not far from the square.

Word making the round: cause and candidate. Cause: Jewish star; another variant: a Communist wanted for a long time, flight only a pretext. Left wife and child to take better care of them from Germany (name: Herz [sic], Cologne). The wife is said to be among the onlookers, unaware of what’s happening.

Men quite numb. Some of the women somewhat worried. The Ashkenes men are in a good mood, well fed, smoking, looking cheerfully at the crowd.

Almost an hour and a half. Cold is intensifying…rubbing to generate warmth, with hands on the knees. About ten-thirty suddenly complete silences. From the direction of Zgierz, probably from the Baluter Ring (Gestapo Headquarters, office of the Praeses — government square), appears a man without a hat, flanked right and left by field-gray soldiers, his gray hair in the wind, no collar, open neck, moving closer slowly, in a short winter jacket…directly to the gallows. Most onlookers, especially the women, avert their eyes, others turn their backs to the square; many look nevertheless sideways to the spot where the scene is to unfold. (Tragic irony…joke, perhaps to be released again!!!) Most of them after all witnessing for the first time such business and desire for sensationalism. Since none had ever attended a witch burning or torture or pillory, they didn’t know how to behave, didn’t find the right style; tugged embarrassed on their clothing, clenched the fists, and waited for a sign that was to tell them what it was they should do. Suddenly the silence was so horrifying that the healthy voices of the field-gray Ashkenes could clearly be heard in the square. A man of more than eighty suddenly remembered hearing from his room a strong voice by the wire around midnight, a song that began with la-la and ended with “and if the world were full of devils,” and began to make, quite unexpectedly, his own observations about this. Yes, this old man even rolled up the torn gloves for a moment to make sure that his fingernails were clean. A women her lipstick —

Not a word was heard. Silence. The candidate shivered in the cold. The field-grays in furs. His overcoat was taken from him. He folded his hands. Saw the entire scene, the crowd. Implacable. Mounted the steps to the podium. There was met by two Jewish policemen and a third man who busied himself callously with the cord.

It was said that a Jewish policeman, a well-known Communist, had been ordered to assist in this execution — as a deterrent. Completely dull expression of the crowd, who didn’t like to see Ben Israel [son of Israel] under the gallows. Sensationalism won out over disgust, women there with handkerchiefs over their faces but peering nevertheless, men completely dispassionate. The symbolism — a people pilloried — did not enter their consciousness. The bareheaded man shivered, folded his hands. Something was wrong with the cord. The Jewish policeman handled it very clumsily. The field gray standing next to him straightened it out, busied himself; the Jewish policemen in their excitement had made a wrong move, not well familiar with the executioner’s tool, more used to tefellin [phylacteries] (observation of an onlooker). The moment came when the crowd thought something was going to happen, a declaration or reading of the sentence or some other matter. But nothing. Continued silence. When the man saw that there was no escape, he again folded his hands and suddenly, with a lamenting voice: “Why don’t you let me live…”


A hanging (not necessarily this one) in Lodz Ghetto.

Many expected instead of this plea some kind of demonstration as a legacy from the crowd, some inspiring motto. But nothing of the sort. He was no hero in our sense. Now eyes averted from the gallows, dull thumping was heard of heavy material and wood, a few seconds for the convulsing body, dangling. The crowd was even able to look at it for some time—seconds (counting to thirteen). The corpse softly in the wind. Rigid features, rigid limbs.

The field grays gave a sign, Jewish police gave a sign, and the crowd quickly began to disperse, going home, the wife of the delinquent was present…

The body remained hanging the entire Shabbat. The Jews avoided the place.

The Lodz Ghetto Chronicle includes an entry on this execution, noting it took place in a large square at Bazarna and Lutomierska Streets. According to the chronicle, Max Hertz had escaped the ghetto and spent several days in Lodz proper. He was arrested at the train station when he tried to buy a ticket to Cologne. This was about three weeks before his execution.

The Polish writer and child Holocaust survivor Henryk Grynberg later honored him in a fragment of poetry:

Max Hertz brought from Cologne
on October 23, 1941
went back to the station
but when paying for his ticket
a star fell out of his pocket
right into the ticket clerk’s eye
and he hung over the bazaar
showing the shortest way back
to Europe

The spectacle of Max Hertz’s death had indeed left an unforgettable impression on its audience, just as the Nazis intended.

As for Oskar Rosenfeld: he continued working in the Ghetto Archives up until August 1944. His final diary entry was on July 28 of that year. He was well aware that the fate of the ghetto hung in the balance:

We are facing either apocalypse or redemption… There are plenty of skeptics, nigglers, who don’t want to believe it and still have doubts about that which they have been long and waiting for years… After so much suffering and terror, after so many disappointments, it is hardly surprising that they are not willing to give themselves over to anticipatory rejoicing. The heart is marred with scars, the brain encrusted with dashed hopes.

It turned out to be apocalypse: in August, before the Red Army liberated Lodz, the ghetto was liquidated and almost all of its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz. Like most of the others, Rosenfeld was gassed on arrival. He was sixty years old. But his notebooks survived him, and ultimately ended up in the custody of Yad Vashem. His diary was published in English for the first time in 2003, under the title In the Beginning was the Ghetto: Notebooks From Lodz.

* Rosenfeld places the date of the execution on Friday, February 20. All other sources, including the Lodz Ghetto Chronicle and Max Hertz’s Yad Vashem page of testimony, place it as Saturday, February 21, but I’m sure Rosenfeld is right. The execution seems to have taken place at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath is on Saturday, but to religious Jews it actually starts after sunset on Friday; Rosenfeld writes that the body “remained hanging the entire Sabbath” which implies it hung for some time. If it hung “for the entire Sabbath” starting Saturday night, that would have been for less than two hours.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Jews,Poland,Public Executions,Theft

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1942: Matvey Kuzmin, modern-day Ivan Susanin

Add comment February 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1942, German troops in Russia’s Pskov Oblast summarily executed 83-year-old peasant Matvey Kuzmin for leading them into an ambush.

World War II’s real-life Ivan Susanin was conscripted as a guide for the occupying Wehrmacht intending to approach a Soviet position at the village of Makino.

Kuzmin cunningly sent his son ahead to Malkino to alert his countrymen of the attack while guiding the Germans circuitously. By the time Kuzmin et al reached the outskirts, a Soviet ambush was waiting for them.

An enraged German officer shot Kuzmin during the ensuing firefight.

Since Kuzmin’s feat of resistance was not at all anonymous, he was transmuted into a parable of national heroism almost immediately. Kuzmin was posthumously honored as a Hero of the Soviet Union; the Moscow visitor to this day can behold his statuary’s valorous stance at the Partizanskaya metro station, opposite the martyred guerrilla Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Russia,Shot,Summary Executions,USSR,Volunteers,Wartime Executions

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1942: Coastwatchers on Tarawa

1 comment October 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Japanese military occupying the atoll of Tarawa beheaded 17 New Zealand Coastwatchers, along with five civilians.

Tarawa, a fishhook-shaped atoll that belongs to the Republic of Kiribati, was one of many specks of South Pacific land to which Australia and New Zealand deployed World War II Coastwatchers.

These small teams of mixed civilian and service personnel, as well as locals, kept up 24-hour watch for Japanese naval movements.* The tips provided by coastwatchers in the Solomon Islands during the Guadalcanal campaign led Vice Admiral William Halsey to exclaim that “the coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”

But their lonely forward positions also potentially exposed coastwatchers to considerable danger.

Even as Guadalcanal was unfolding in August and September in 1942, Japan was fortifying the occupied Gilbert Islands** (present-day Kiribati) in the wake of the Makin Island raid. Seventeen coastwatchers in the Gilberts were swept up in the process, and transferred to Tarawa along with five civilians (three British, one Australian, and one New Zealander). There they were held at the atoll’s old lunatic asylum, on the islet of Betio.

On Oct. 15, Allied planes bombed Tarawa. One of the captives got loose and ran onto the beach, frantically trying to signal the bombers. Instead, the Japanese — who fretted prisoners on their occupied islands becoming a fifth column in the event of an attack — summarily executed not only the signaler but all their captives.

“I saw the Europeans sitting in line,” one Tarawa local remembered later.

One Japanese started to kill the Europeans. He cut off the head of the first European, then the second, then the third, then I did not see any more because I fainted. When I came to, I saw the Japanese carrying the dead bodies to two pits.

In November 1943, a U.S. amphibious invasion took back the island at the bloody Battle of Tarawa. Twelve hundred Americans, and several times that many of the island’s Japanese defenders and Korean war slaves, were slain.

Old gun emplacements from that battle — as well as a monument to the New Zealand coastwatchers — can still be found on Tarawa.†

Catch these sights while they last. The average height above sea level for Kiribati is two meters, making global climate change liable to send the nation’s scattered islands to Atlantis. Kiribati residents have already begun turning up in Australia and New Zealand as climate change refugees.


(cc) image from Nick Hobgood.

* When the occasion arose, coastwatchers also rescued stranded Allied servicemen. After LTJG John F. Kennedy’s torpedo boat was rammed by a Japanese aircraft carrier in August 1942, it was a pair of Solomon Island natives dispatched by an Australian coastwatcher who found the future U.S. President and his surviving crew.

** Seven other coastwatchers besides those beheaded this date had been captured in the Gilberts when Japan first (but lightly) occupied it following Pearl Harbor. They survived the war as POWs in mainland Japan.

† There was a monument to the dead coastwatchers from shortly after the war. The remains of the seventeen, however, were long neglected by the New Zealand government, and have only recently been turned up … by Americans scouring Betio for casualties from the Battle of Tarawa.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Kiribati,Mass Executions,New Zealand,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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