1975: Lex Aronson, aid worker

Add comment December 15th, 2019 Headsman

Dutch Jewish aid worker (A)Lex Aronson was hanged on this date in 1975 in Iraq.

Aronson (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) had survived Bergen-Belsen as a child* — his grandfather was not so fortunate — and gone on to a peripatetic career in global relief work that took him to Israel, Syria, Gabon, Nigeria, India, Bangladesh, and points beyond.

The last point beyond was Kurdish northern Iraq, during the terrible Iraqi-Kurdish war there of 1974-1975.

By the accounts of his friends, Aronson was a free spirit, a man of idealism and wanderlust. By the account of the Iraqi government that arrested him, Aronson was an Israeli spy.

There’s a published collection of his correspondence; in a letter to his mother dated March 13, 1975 — the last he would post before his arrest 11 days on — achingly shows him eschewing a judicious evacuation in order to press onward into the teeth of a devastating offensive Iraq had launched on March 7.

the political bosses here have decided that all foreigners should be evacuated. By foreigners, they are referring to a few press photographers, the team of five English from “Save the Children,” and yours truly. The hospitality is so extensive here that at the first sign of a threat, they are stepping out of their way to secure the safety of their guests. The local bosses mean well. However, what daddy has in his head, he doesn’t have in his arse… by which I mean that whatever I have set my mind to, I don’t give up easily.

I was determined to go to Badinan. I went from one political office to another, pestering all the leaders save for Barzani himself. Finally, I was rewarded with a letter of introduction to all the Kurdish military commanders requesting that they give me the help necessary for me to reach my goal.

A subsequent letter by a Save Our Children doctor to Aronson’s father in early 1976 explained something of the circumstances in the following days that led to his capture,

I saw your son on 20 March 1975. He was breakfasting with me at the home of the leader of the Barzan community, Sheikh Abdullah, in preparation for a journey to Badinan. He was taking medicine and other equipment with him so that he could set up a surgery to treat the inhabitants of a single community somewhere in that area. He had bought a donkey to convey these items, but unfortunately this had got lost between Senidan and Sideka, over the pass to the east of Hassanbeg Mountain with the snow so deep that no donkey could traverse it.

The donkey was under the control of two Pesh Merga (Kurdish Freedom Fighters). Apparently they became separated from your son and he had no idea of the [whereabouts of?] this medicine or his passport and money. He was travelling against the advice of the Kurds in the border area who were keen (at that time) that all foreigners should get out as quickly as possible. For this reason, he retraced his steps to try to find the donkey, yet wanted to press on towards Amadiyah. He had spent a day or so looking. He asked me to look for the animal. I made inquiries in both Sideka and Semilan, but I could not find it. However, as at that stage there was total chaos in these villages, it was not at all surprising that I was so unsuccessful. I must explain that he was in danger, as he had no identification papers with him when I saw him.

A confusing and, for his loved ones, anguishing period ensued his arrest. The Iraqi News Agency announced his execution on November 3, only to retract that announcement shortly afterward and clarify that he remained alive, still facing execution. His parents for months thereafter received notes scribbled on cigarette packages which meandered through smuggling channels at indifferent speeds, but with the irresistible implication that their son yet drew breath — and so they kept up their struggle to save him via appeals and publicity well into 1976, when the Iraqi embassy in March 1976 finally notified them that he was long since hanged.

“Nobody can imagine how we feel now,” his father told the press. “All hopes smashed at once. There is nothing left to fight for. Now we can only try not to get too depressed.”

* He was a passenger on the “Lost Transport”, a train of inmates evacuated from Bergen-Belsen that ended up with no destination as the Reich collapsed, and were eventually liberated by the Red Army.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Iraq,Jews,Kurdistan

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1915: Nurse Edith Cavell, “patriotism is not enough”

2 comments October 12th, 2008 Headsman

Early this morning in 1915, the German military occupying Belgium shot aid worker Edith Cavell at Brussels for aiding the British war effort.

The matronly nurse had been condemned only the day before by a German military court for helping Allied soldiers escape from behind German lines — charges Cavell readily admitted. The British chaplain who attended her the night before her death reported her saying (not actually her last words, but recalled as her parting sentiment, as it were):

But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward any one.

So naturally, she immediately became the Entente’s bloody banner of the barbarous Hun, helping dramatically ramp up recruitment for the other team’s set of moral cretins.

The thing is, the Germans actually had a point. Cavell ran a nursing school in Brussels, and courageously stuck around when the Germans smashed through Belgium as World War I opened. She’s sometimes remembered as getting in hot water for treating the wounded regardless of nationality, but she did a lot more than that: she got involved with an underground railroad funneling Allied soldiers back to enemy countries.

It was one of those impossible trials of conscience that wartime brings: Cavell, whose hospital was subsumed by the Red Cross during the war, should technically have remained neutral; her actions did bring material aid to Germany’s foes.

However, Belgian, French and English troops caught behind lines by the Germans’ lightning advance were in danger themselves of summary execution, as were civilians who harbored them. Neutrally treating them and handing them over as POWs might have been tantamount to killing many of them, especially in the first few months of the war. Though Edith Cavell said that “I am happy to die for my country,” her actions look more humanitarian than nationalistic — the best choice to be made when no good ones are available. Patriotism of a higher order, if you like.

Probably Cavell’s was a case tailor-made for executive clemency, but Germany was keen to send one of those proverbial messages: civilians in occupied countries had best stay out of the war. Despite the frantic lobbying of England’s ambassadors (and, ominously for Germany, those of the United States), the sentence was carried out on both Cavell and a fellow-traveler in her network, Belgian Philippe Baucq.

Clumsy propagandists, the Kaiser’s boys badly misjudged the message so sent.

In the face of intense international outcry, Germany soon found itself defending its actions (.pdf), and then commuting the sentences (.pdf again) of Cavell’s other collaborators.

None of this abated Cavell’s stupendous propaganda value to Germany’s enemies. And — holy wow, the graying 49-year-old gets made over into quite the heartbreaker in most of these.

The nurse’s repute — and she was said to have struck a Joan of Arc-like chord in those parts — caused a renaissance for the name “Edith” among French and Belgian newborns, most notably singer Edith Piaf (born in December 1915). While Cavell’s sacrifice did nothing to stem her name’s declining Anglo (or at least American) popularity, there is a Mount Edith Cavell named for her in Canada, and a plethora of monuments and public spaces dedicated to her throughout the Allied powers’ lands. (Here are just a handful.) And she still packs enough symbolic punch for the current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to deploy her in the propagandist’s subtler modern arts.

There’s plenty more about her online, but world headquarters (with information about the Cavell Festival) is edithcavell.org.uk. There’s also a stupendous collection of text and images (several already used in this post) at the sometimes slow-loading but endlessly fascinating site The Great War in a Different Light.

Dutch speakers might enjoy this podcast:

[audio:http://veertienachttien.web-log.nl/mijn_weblog/files/068_va_edith_cavell.mp3]

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Germany,History,Language,Martyrs,Military Crimes,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Religious Figures,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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