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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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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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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1942: Vladislav Vancura, “Marketa Lazarova” author

Add comment June 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, leftist Czech novelist Vladislav Vancura was executed at Prague’s Kobylisy shooting range.

An “unsung giant” of European letters, the Bohemian doctor burst onto the literary scene in the 1920s with Pekar Jan Marhoul (Baker Jan Marhoul) and Pole orná a válecná (Fields to Plough, Fields of War). But he was notable for a remarkable perspicacity in style, genre, and artistic perspective throughout his career. He’s often referred to as a poet in prose, and maybe for this reason was equally keen on writing for and directing cinema.

Milan Kundera credited Vancura with “probably the richest vocabulary that any Czech writer has ever had; a vocabulary in which the language of every era is preserved, in which words from the Bible of Kralice [the first complete translation of the Bible into Czech] stand humbly side by side with modern argot.”

His greatest commercial success and possibly his crowning achievement was Marketa Lazarova, a short novel (120 pages in the original Czech) set amid a feud of nobles in he Middle Ages. Only tranlated into English in 2013, it “does for Czech literature something akin to what James Joyce did for English-language literature with Ulysses: breaking with the realism that previously dominated to open up a new frontier in the realm of style.”

Here’s an excerpt (via):

Folly scatters without rhyme or reason. Lend an ear to this tale of a place in the county of Mladá Boleslav, in the time of the disturbances, when the king strove for the safety of the highways, having cruel troubles with the nobles, who conducted themselves downright thievishly, and what is worse, who shed blood practically laughing out loud. You have become truly too sensitive from musing upon our nation’s nobility and fair manners, and when you drink, you waste the cook’s water, spilling it ‘cross the table, but the men of whom I speak were an unruly and devilish lot. A rabble which I cannot compare to anything else than stallions. Precious little cared they of that which you account as important. Comb and soap! Why, they did not heed even the Lord’s commandments.

‘Tis said that there were countless such ruffians, but this story concerns itself with none save the family whose name most surely calls to mind Václav unjustly. Shifty nobles they were! The eldest amidst this bloody time was baptized with a graceful name, but forgot it and called himself Kozlík till the time of his beastly death.

Vancura’s death was plenty beastly too, albeit not particularly surprising: Communist avant-garde artists in German-occupied Slavic countries didn’t usually fare the best during the war years, and Vancura compounded his risk by taking active part in the resistance. He was among hundreds of Czechs arrested, tortured, and executed in the bloody German crackdown that followed the May 27, 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

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1942: Senitsa Vershovsky, Mayor of Kremenchuk

1 comment January 16th, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, Senitsa Vershovsky was shot in the city of Kremenchuk in the Soviet Union, in what is now the Ukraine.

Vershovsky was the mayor of Kremenchuk and was also a major in the Red Army. His executioners were members of Einsatzgruppe A, one of Nazi Germany’s mobile killing squads: they killed Vershovsky for “carry[ing] out his duties in gross defiance of German orders … [and] sabotaging the handling of the Jewish problem by having a great number of Jews baptized in order to remove them from German control.”

Approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Kremenchuk, constituting 40% of the city’s population and they had good cause to remove themselves as far as possible from German control. The Einsatzgruppen, as they did in countless other cities throughout the Soviet Union, rounded up the Jewish population, forced them to dig their own graves, and machine-gunned them by the thousands.

Vershovsky’s attempts to help the Jews under his charge, futile though his efforts may have been, nevertheless deserve a footnote in history. For, as historian Raul Hilberg noted, in all the situation reports filed by the Einsatzgruppen during their 22 months of operation,

This incident appears to be the only one of its kind. The counterpressure was evidently too great. Whoever attempted to aid the Jews acted alone and exposed himself as well as his family to the possibility of a death sentence from a German Kommando. There was no encouragement for a man with an awakened conscience.

In a time of great adversity, Senitsa Vershovsky showed himself to be a courageous and fundamentally decent human being, and he paid for it with his life. The least we can do is remember him.

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1942: Eddie Leonski, the Brownout Strangler

3 comments November 9th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, a boyishly handsome G.I. named Edward Joseph “Eddie” Leonski was hanged at Pentridge Prison in Melbourne, Australia.

Although his crimes were committed in Australia and were not war-related, he was court-martialed and sentenced to die under American military law.

This was the first and last time a foreign national who committed crimes in Australia was tried and sentenced under the laws of their own country. Eddie was only the second U.S. serviceman to be executed in World War II. (The first, James Rowe, had been convicted of murdering another soldier and was hanged in Arizona just three weeks earlier.)

Known as the “Brownout Strangler” due to his penchant for attacking women at night on Melbourne’s dimly lit streets, Leonski killed three people and assaulted several others of the course of just over two weeks, from May 3 to May 18, 1942. He said he was fascinated by women’s singing and killed his victims to “get at their voices.”

Leonski was born in New Jersey in 1917, the sixth child of Polish/Russian immigrant parents, and grew up in New York City. Crime historian Harold Schechter notes he had the kind of unstable childhood, dysfunctional family background and mommy issues typical of serial killers:

Both [parents were] confirmed alcoholics. He was seven when his father abandoned the family. Not long afterward, his mother, Amelia, took up with another drunkard. She herself suffered at least two mental breakdowns, severe enough to land her in Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with both manic-depression and incipient schizophrenia. From an early age, three of his brothers were chronic troublemakers, eventually racking up lengthy rap sheets. One of them ended up in a state institution, where he lived out his life.

According to all accounts, Eddie was the apple of his unstable mother’s eye. He, in turn, had the kind of deeply disturbing attachment to her found in other homicidal mama’s boys.

On the surface Eddie seemed to have risen above his origins. He began weight-lifting in adolescence and eventually developed an impressive physique. Following high school he took a three-year stenography course and graduated in the top ten percent of his class. He was a promising employee at a Manhattan supermarket chain before he was drafted into the Army in 1941.

Leonski didn’t do nearly so well in the military: although he was reliable and charming when sober, he drank heavily and was unstable and aggressive when under the influence. As a result, he was always in some minor trouble or another.

But there was a war on and the United States was not in a position to be picky about who would serve. Eddie was sent to Australia in early 1942.

Only weeks after his arrival, he began attacking women and trying to choke them. The first few times, he was interrupted and had to flee before he could accomplish his purpose. Then his crime spree was interrupted in the last week of March after he went AWOL on a six-day bender and was thrown into the brig for a month. As soon as he got out he began stalking women again.

At 2:00 a.m. on May 3, an extremely intoxicated Leonski encountered 40-year-old Ivy Violet McLeod waiting for a streetcar near a dry cleaner’s. He strangled her to death and ripped off her clothing, but was scared away when he heard footsteps.

McLeod’s body was found several hours later: “legs wide apart and feet tucked under her thighs, with genitals exposed.” Her killer had not had time to rape her.

A week later, Eddie was in a restaurant when he struck up a conversation with 31-year-old Pauline Buchan Thompson, a policeman’s wife and mother of two. They went to a bar after dinner and spent several hours talking and drinking.

Close to midnight, Eddie offered to escort her home. On the way, Mrs. Thompson started drunkenly singing.

“She had a nice voice,” he said in his confession. He got angry when she stopped: “I got mad and then tore at her, I tore her apart.”

A few hours later a night watchman found her body on the very steps of her boardinghouse. Like Mrs. McLeod, she was nearly nude with her legs splayed, but had not been raped.

Hours later, a hung-over Eddie Leonski was nursing the hair of the dog that bit him when he told a fellow soldier what he’d done. He made more statements about the two murders over the next few days, but his friend didn’t believe him and told no one what Leonski was saying — time during which Leonski made three more unsuccessful assaults on women.

Eddie’s friend finally took him seriously on the morning of May 19, after the body of 41-year-old Gladys Lillian Hosking was found sprawled in a patch of yellow mud outside Camp Pell, where the American soldiers were stationed.

The previous night, Eddie had come in after midnight, slathered head to toe in the same yellow mud. Too drunk to clean himself up (he’d consumed an incredible thirty beers and seven whiskeys that day), he just shed his soiled clothes and collapsed into bed.

Leonski’s friend finally went to the cops.

When he was arrested, Eddie made no pretense of innocence: he quickly confessed, and various witnesses to his aborted attacks identified him. (That said, Ivan Chapman’s out-of-print book on Leonski makes the point that the evidence against him might not really have held up without those confessions: 1940s forensics techniques would not have yielded a positive match to a victim from his bloodstained trousers, and the yellow mud could easily have been picked up innocently by any drunken G.I. who stumbled traversing the trench.)

Fredric Wertham, a noted forensic psychiatrist who never met Leonski, believed he was insane and the murders were prompted by his twisted relationship with his mother:

That his three victims were all women considerably older than he was is psychiatrically most significant. He unconsciously linked their voices with his mother. The whole psychological explosion occurred in a period of deprivation when he was away from home and separated from his mother — but not from her dominating image. The deeds constituted symbolic matricide.

Very Norman Batesian.

Army psychiatrists, however, believed that while Eddie Leonski was certainly a psychopath, he was not psychotic and was fully aware of the wrongfulness of his acts. Douglas MacArthur personally signed the death warrant.

Eddie maintained a positive, chipper attitude awaiting execution. He spent his time memorizing Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, and converted to Catholicism, and went to the gallows singing a popular song that was called, ironically, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.”

His remains were moved several times before finally finding a permanent grave in a military cemetery in Hawaii. The Australian modernist artist Albert Tucker made a painting titled “Memory of Leonski.” The film Death of a Soldier is based on his crimes.

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1942: Henryk Landsberg, Lvov Judenrat

Add comment September 1st, 2013 Headsman

[Adolf Eichmann] did not expect the Jews to share the general enthusiasm over their destruction, but he did expect more than compliance, he expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — their cooperation. This was “of course the very cornerstone” of everything he did … Without Jewish help in administrative and police work — the final rounding up of Jews in Berlin was, as I have mentioned, done entirely by Jewish police — there would have been either complete chaos or an impossibly severe drain on German manpower …

To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story.

-Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem

Among the many horrors of the Holocaust were the Judenräte, Jewish administrative councils set up under the aegis of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Eastern Europe.

Typically recruited from local elites and granted special privileges by the Germans, these collaborators managed the day-to-day operations of the ghettos, up to and including the horrible sharp end of Final Solution: confiscating Jewish property for the Germans, registering and organizing Jews destined for slave labor or extermination, and even managing deportations with the desperate hope that willingly engaging a sacrifice they could never prevent might enable them to save some others. Once all the deportations were done, the Judenrat itself would be executed or deported: Faust had nothing on this bargain.

Chaim Rumkowski, perhaps the most (in)famous Judenrat administrator, issued posterity the definitive howl of a collaborator’s agony when he was forced by the imminent Lodz Ghetto children’s action to implore Lodz’s families to peaceably surrender their young people to certain death: “I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”

Rumkowski, a deeply checkered figure who fended off liquidation of his ghetto until the very late date of 1944, well knew that Judenrat personnel were entirely disposable. After all, he delivered this plaintive speech on September 4, 1942 — just three days after his counterpart in the Lvov Ghetto had been publicly strung up on a balcony.


Six Jews (including Henryk Landsberg) hanged in the Lvov Ghetto, September 1, 1942 (via). The US Holocaust Memorial Museum also identifies this clearly distinct execution as a picture of Lvov Jewish Council members being hanged in September 1942.

The city of Lwow/Lvov (or to use its present-day Ukrainian spelling, Lviv) had had a centuries-old Jewish population when the Soviet Union seized it from Poland in consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. That population almost immediately doubled as Jewish refugees fleeing the half of Poland that Germany got in the deal poured into the city.

Practically on the frontier of the German/Soviet border, Lvov was captured in the opening days of Germany’s June 1941 surprise invasion of the USSR. In November-December 1941, the 100,000-plus Jews* still surviving in Lvov (after several post-conquest massacres) were crammed cheek to jowl into the new Lvov Ghetto. There they endured the usual litany of privations for World War II ghettos: starvation rations, routine humiliation, periodic murders. forced labor at the nearby Janowska concentration camp.

The ghetto’s first chairman, Dr. Josef Parnas, didn’t live to see 1942 before he was killed in prison for non-cooperation. Dr. Adolf Rotfeld followed him, and died of “natural” causes in office a few months later.

Dr. Henryk Landsberg, a lawyer, succeeded Rotfeld. He had been a respected community figure before the war, but was disposable to the Nazis as his predecessors; during a large-scale Aktion to cull the camp and further reduce its boundaries, a Jewish butcher resisting the SS killed one of his persecutors. Landsberg and a number of the Jewish policemen employed by the Judenrat were summarily put to death.

“I have gladly accepted the nomination,” Landsberg’s successor remarked. “Maybe they will shoot me soon.” He was indeed shot (or perhaps committed suicide to avoid that fate) in the first week of January 1943. (All this from Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe Under Nazi Occupation)

The Lvov Ghetto was liquidated June 1, 1943; a bare handful of its former inmates escaped into the sewers or managed to avoid death in the camps before the war ended. After the Red Army took back the city, a 1945 survey of the Jewish Provisional Committee in Lvov tallied just 823 Jews. Today, there are all of 5,000.

* Among the Lvov Ghetto residents was Simon Wiesenthal.

On this day..

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1942: Stjepan Filipovic, “death to fascism, freedom to the people!”

2 comments May 22nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1942, this happened:

The young man striking the dramatic pose is Stjepan Filipovic, an anti-fascist partisan hanged in the city of Valjevo by the Serbian State Guard, a collaborationist force working with the Axis occupation of Yugoslavia.

Filipovic is shouting “Death to fascism, freedom to the people!” — a pre-existing Communist slogan that Filipovic’s martyrdom would help to popularize. Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu! … or you can just abbreviate it SFSN!

In the city where Filipovic died, which is in present-day Serbia, there’s a monumental statue in his honor replicating that Y-shaped pose — an artistically classic look just like our favorite Goya painting, poised between death and victory.


(cc) image from Maduixa.

Filipovic was a Communist so we’re guessing that he would not have had a lot of truck with the ethnic particularism that’s latterly consumed the Balkans. Times being what they are, however, the national hero to Tito’s Yugoslavia has become a post-Communist nationalist football.

That Valjevo monument — it’s in Serbia, remember — calls him Stevan Filipovic, which is the Serbian variant of his given name. But as Serbia is the heir to Yugoslavia, he at least remains there a legitimate subject for a public memorial. Filipovic himself was Croatian, but his legacy in that present-day state is a bit more problematic: in his native town outside Dubrovnik, a statue that once commemorated Filipovic was torn down in 1991 by Croat nationalists; its vacant plinth still stands sadly in Opuzen. (Opuzen’s film festival, however, awards its honorees a statuette replicating the destroyed monument.)

On this day..

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1942: Vasily Klubkov, Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya’s betrayer

2 comments April 16th, 2013 Headsman

We’ve touched in these pages — one of our earliest posts, in fact — on Soviet war heroine Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya, a teenager executed by the advancing German army in November 1941 for conducting partisan attacks behind enemy lines.

Zoya’s story became known after the Red Army recaptured village of Petrishchevo, where she was hanged. A January 27, 1942 Pravda article recounted the gallows defiance of the young guerrilla, whom villagers knew only by her nom de guerre, “Tanya”. She had withstood German torture, refused to give them any information, and at her hanging incited her countrymen and -women to resist the invaders. She’s still to this day a beloved national martyr in Russia, which is why she’s also an Ace in our execution playing cards.

The young woman on the gallows, and in the ghastly post-mortem pictures with her left breast mutilated swiftly became propaganda grist for Moscow.

Zoya’s instant Joan of Arc-like legend invited investigation of the precise circumstances of her capture and death … and this in turn meant extremely dangerous scrutiny for any Soviet citizen in her environs whose behavior in those last days could be held to be in any way sub-heroic.

This brings us to today’s unfortunate entry, Vasily Klubkov, a humble mail-sorter before the war whose picture belongs in the dictionary next to “poor luckless sod.” Just him, Zoya, and everyone else on the terrible Eastern Front.

It was on this date* in 1942 that Klubkov paid the penalty for Zoya’s sacrifice.

Vasily Klubkov and Boris Krainov were other partisans who had been detailed along with Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya to torch some enemy assets on the same mission around Petrishchevo. Practically children all, they each acted independently from the others; long story short, Zoya and Vasily Klubkov were both captured.

Zoya fiercely endured every torture the Germans could throw at her, but Klubkov was made of softer stuff. When an officer pointed a gun at his head and demanded some answers, Klubkov started talking.

“I was a coward,” he later admitted. “I was scared I would be shot.”

Now, this admission very much against his own safety was made to the NKVD in March 1942, and since we already know that Vasily Klubkov was the sort to fold under torture, we can well imagine that the NKVD also got whatever it wanted out of the misfortunate young man. Considering the politicized quality of the trial and the circumstances of the “confession,” it has to be treated with caveats.

Under NKVD pressure, Klubkov signed off on a version of events that just so happened to mesh beautifully with the iconography already forming around the hanged “Tanya”: namely, that he was brought face-to-face with his fellow-prisoner and confirmed her identity, whereas she refused to breathe a word to her captors; that he saw her stripped naked and bashed with truncheons for hours and still summon the fortitude to refuse her interrogators the least satisfaction. Pavel Klubkov gave posterity firsthand evidence of Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya’s heroism in captivity.

“Klubkov may have been telling the truth, since it’s easy to imagine a terrified teenager on his first mission agreeing to his German captors’ demands,” notes Andrew Nagorski in The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II. “But there’s no way of knowing for sure how he really behaved, since he surely was just as terrified when he was interrogated by the NKVD. Or how much of what he said about Zoya was accurate, since the NKVD may already have been preparing the transcript with the idea of her elevation to mythic status.”

Heck, the reason the NKVD even had Klubkov to interrogate was that he escaped German custody, another big character red flag as far as the Soviets were concerned. That he escaped from the same custody that martyred Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya probably sealed his fate before he received his first pistol-whipping. NKVD records paint a kid who has already given up.

Well he might have. The verdict of the court was surely ordained from the start, but it was formally delivered on April 3: “Execution by shooting, without confiscation of property due to its absence.”

* Though there are some cites for April 3 out there, it appears that April 3 was the date of his conviction by a military tribunal and April 16 his execution date. This is a bit of a protracted delay by wartime Soviet tribunal standards, but then, Klubkov would have been a person of relevance to the state itself. The highest-ranking official who thought he could approve Klubkov’s execution without asking anyone else might have been a little further up the food chain than for your run-of-the-mill deserter.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1942: Four Jews from Bedzin and Sosnowiec

1 comment April 13th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, two Jewish men were hanged in the city of Sosnowiec (pronounced sos-no-vitz) in Nazi-occupied Poland, and two more were hanged in the nearby city of Bedzin (pronounced ben-jin).

These executions were witnessed by thousands of people and carefully choreographed, as historian Mary Fulbrook records in her book A Small Town Near Auschwitz:*

The hangings in Bedzin and Sosnowiec had been orchestrated in advance, in meticulous detail, by the Police President in Sosnowiec. The execution in Bedzin was to take place one hour later than the one in Sosnowiec. As much thought was given by the police authorities to questions of security and seating arrangements as might be appropriate for a modern open-air musical concert: this was not to be a simple punishment for an individual offense, as had happened innumerable times, but rather a mass spectacle, intended to have a major impact on the audience…

The identities of the executed Jews in Bedzin have been lost to history. (Correction: Per Yad Vashem, they were Jehuda Warman and “Feffer” (no first name).) They were hanged at the old Jewish cemetery on the corner of Zawale Street, before a crowd of about 5,000, at 5:00 p.m. Jewish workers in the Bedzin Ghetto had their work identity cards confiscated that day and were let out of work early, at 4:00 p.m., and ordered to watch the hangings. Only after they witnessed the executions did they get their work cards back. The bodies remained hanging on the scaffold until 7:30 p.m.

The condemned men in Sosnowiec were 30-year-old Mayer Kohn and his father, Nachun or Nahum.

Nachun (left, with wife) and Mayer.

They’d been caught trading on the black market, probably trying to feed their families, as no one could live long on the official rations. But as Fulbrook points out, the actual offense didn’t matter much to the Nazis:

These coordinated public spectacles of mass hangings do not seem … to have been in direct response to a particular crime; it seems there was a policy of ‘any Jew will do’, although infringements of German rules (including not only black market dealings but also very trivial ‘offenses’) were adduced as the ostensible ‘reason’ for these executions.

Thousands of people, both Jews and Germans, watched Mayer and Nachun Kohn die, then quietly went home.

Although virtually the entire Kohn family perished at the hands of the Nazis, Mayer and Nachun Kohn can claim a bit of immortality by virtue of being mentioned in Maus, Art Spiegelman’s famous graphic novel about the Holocaust: the author’s father, Vladek, hailed from Sosnowiec.

* The author of A Small Town Near Auschwitz is interviewed in this New Books In History podcast.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Jews,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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