1946: Gen. Leopold Okulicki murdered in Soviet prison

1 comment December 24th, 2015 Headsman

The fate of the last Commander in Chief of Home Army General Leopold Okulicki “Niedzwiadka”, imprisoned in Moscow and murdered there, symbolize the postwar fate of the Home Army and of Poland.

-2012 resolution of the Polish parliament

On this date in 1946, Polish Home Army General Leopold Okulicki was murdered by the NKVD in a Moscow prison.

Okulicki (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Polish) embarked his military career at the tender age of 16, when he ditched school in favor of an Austrian legion on the eastern front of World War I — then segued directly into newly independent Poland‘s subsequent war against the Soviets.

Already a veteran soldier, Okulicki proceeded to the Warsaw military academy and made soldiering his career. He had advanced to the brass by the time Hitler and Stalin destroyed Poland in 1939. Okulicki had the tragic honor to maintain the hopeless defense of Warsaw, but went underground thereafter with the remains of the Polish state — hunted by Germans and Soviets alike.

The NKVD caught him in January 1941, but his residence in the discomfiting environs of Lubyanka prison was ended by the Soviet Union’s arrangement with Poland following Operation Barbarossa. Paroled back into the field, he played a leading part for the Polish Home Army for the balance of the war — finally becoming its supreme commander in the last weeks of the war.

Now that the Nazis were no longer knocking on the gates of Moscow, the Soviets renewed their interest in detaining Okulicki, which was again effected with relative ease. (Comparing German and Soviet secret police, Okulicki would say that the NKVD made the Gestapo look like child’s play.) Sentenced “only” to a 10-year prison term at the Russians’ postwar show trial of Polish leadership, Okulicki disappeared into Soviet detention and was never seen again.

In the Khrushchev era, the USSR revealed that Okulicki had died on Christmas eve of 1946 at Butyrka prison; subsequent revelations of the medical records there revealed that he had succumbed to organ damage suggestive of having been beaten to death — perhaps as punishment for hunger-striking.

The post-Communist Russian state has posthumously exonerated Okulicki of his show-trial conviction; he is, of course, an honored figure in post-Communist Poland where many streets and squares bear his name.


Plaque honoring Gen. Okulicki in Warsaw. (cc) image from Tadeusz Rudzki.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bludgeoned,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Posthumous Exonerations,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,USSR

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1946: Public Execution in Debica

1 comment July 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1946, market day in the southeastern Polish town of Debica, three captured fighters* from the anti-communist Freedom and Independence (WiN) movement were publicly hanged.

This salutary, and surprise, hanging was a nasty public message during the dirty post-war war to consolidate communist authority in Poland.

The message, however, was not exactly meant for a world wider than Poland itself, so the fact that it was captured in a grainy photograph snapped by WiN agent Józef Stec and subsequently smuggled out to the West was not at all to the liking of Polish authorities.

According to a WiN eyewitness report also presumed to have been filed by Stec,

First the MO [local militia], the UB, and the military occupied the execution square holding their machine guns ready to fire. Then, a car came with uniformed individuals who placed the noose on the hook. After a short time the same car brought three condemned men in white shirts. Their hands and legs were tied with barbed wire. A Jewish prosecutor read the sentence and passed the condemned into the hands of the executioner. Before the execution, one of the condemned yelled: “Long live the Home Army. Long live General Anders and General Bor-Komorowski. Down with the commies. Brothers persevere or you’ll die like us. I swear before God that I have never been a bandit [as communist authorities designated them]. I am dying for the Motherland. Lord forgive them [the executioners] because they know not what they are doing.

* The victims were Józef Grebosz, Józef Kozlowski, and Franciszek Noster, according to the 2003 monograph After the Holocaust: Polish-Jewish conflict in the wake of World War II, by Marek Jan Chodakiewicz. This monograph is also the source for Stec’s quoted report on the hanging.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions

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1948: Witold Pilecki, Auschwitz infiltrator

6 comments May 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1948, Polish resistance hero Witold Pilecki was shot by Poland’s Communist government for a variety of subversions.



Witold Pilecki as an officer (top), imprisoned in Auschwitz (middle), and at his fatal trial (bottom).

A former cavalry officer turned Home Army figure,* Pilecki authored one of the Great War’s most daring (and oddly obscure) covert escapades. In 1940, he volunteered to infiltrate Auschwitz — whose operations were then largely opaque to the Polish resistance — and allowed himself to be rounded up by the Gestapo.

Pilecki spent 31 months in the notorious concentration camp, organizing an inmate resistance network and shipping intelligence about the camp’s operations to the Polish resistance and (through them) the western Allies.

Though his pleas for a raid to liberate Auschwitz were in vain, Pilecki’s report catalogued the today-familiar horrors of the camp.

One bit, as it turned out, was a bit of foreshadowing.

The fourth and most heavy kind of punishment was an execution by shooting: death effected quickly, how much more humane and desired by those undergoing torture. “Execution” is not the right term; the right one would be “shooting dead,” or just “killing.” … The butcher Palitsch** — a handsome boy, who did not used to beat anybody in the camp, as it was not his style, was the main author of macabre scenes in the courtyard. Those doomed stood naked in a row against the Black Wall, and he put a small calibre rifle under the skull in the back of their heads, and put an end to their lives.†

Pilecki escaped Auschwitz in 1943, rejoined the Home Army, and had the good fortune to wind up in Italy at war’s end.

Instead of retiring to write his memoirs, he slipped back into Poland to spy on the postwar Communist government … but the man who had lived through Nazi internment couldn’t pull the same trick on the reds, who were in the process of rooting out anti-Communist resistance elements.

Polish Prime Minister (and fellow Auschwitz survivor) Jozef Cyrankiewicz provided testimony against Pilecki in his show trial (Polish link) on espionage and arms charges.

Pilecki was executed May 25, 1948, at Warsaw’s Mokotow Prison just as he had seen so many killed at the Black Wall — with a single shot to the back of the head.

Pilecki was posthumously rehabilitated by the post-Cold War Polish government, and honored with the country’s highest decoration

* Pilecki co-founded an early resistance organization, the Secret Polish Army (Tajna Armia Polska, or TAP), subsequently absorbed by the Home Army.

** Gerhard Palitsch — or Palitzsch — was a notorious SS roll-call man thought to have personally executed some 20,000 people in the manner described by Pilecki.


An illustration of Gerhard Palitsch executing prisoners at the Black Wall, by Polish inmate Jan Komski

Disliked by camp commandant Rudolph Hoess, Palitsch’s proclivity for taking inmate mistresses eventually got him busted for race defilement, whereupon he himself landed in the camp’s confinement, obliged to “[beg] inmates who used to tremble before him for bread.” (People In Auschwitz)

He was not for the ovens or the Nuremberg trials, however, and instead found himself mustered to the eastern front, eventually dying in action against the Red Army in Hungary. This page (in Polish) assembles various inmate recollections of Gerhard Palitsch.

† As the translation in the cited source is a tad uneven, I’ve taken the liberty of cleaning it up a bit.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Poland,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Torture,Treason

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1944: Twenty-two or more Poles

3 comments February 11th, 2009 Headsman

The demonstrative public hanging this day in 1944 of Poles in the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto* was little more than an everyday atrocity in Nazi-occupied Poland — although, ten days after the gauleiter responsible for previous mass executions had himself been assassinated by the Polish Home Army, it presumably had an extra bit of meaning for the city’s denizens.

According to Gregor Dallas’s 1945: The War That Never Ended,

Nazi terror reached new heights for the non-Jewish population of Warsaw in the winter of 1943-4. People were seized at random in the streets and executed on the spot; between October and February some 270 to 300 men and women were publicly hanged or shot each week — the kind of atrocities the French commemorate in Tulle and Oradour were, in Warsaw, a part of daily life. ‘On my way to Leszno Church today,’ Julian Kulski, a young soldier of the Home Army, recorded on 11 February 1944, ‘I saw a crowd of people standing in front of the Wall. They were gazing at something above the Wall, on the Ghetto side of it. As I got closer, I could see for myself — hanged from the upper-storey balconies of what had been an apartment house were the bodies of twenty-two of our Freedom Fighters.’ Kulski, at any rate, took them for Freedom Fighters.


This blurry photo dated to the same day and location was taken from a moving tram.

This mass execution may also be one alluded to by Jewish resistance fighter Yizhak “Antek” Zuckerman,** who survived the war in Warsaw with false papers identifying him as a Pole. His A Surplus of Memory: Chronicle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising remembers such an execution occurring while they lived on Leszno Street after the ghetto’s destruction — and that it greatly upset his wife, Zivia Lubetkin, because Zuckerman was so late arriving home that day.

One day the Germans hanged fifty Poles on street lamps, something they often did. This time it was on Leszno Street, in retaliation for harassing Germans. In such a case, they would take fifty Poles from their “stock” in Pawiak, publish their names, add the crime for which they were being murdered, and hang them in the city on electric poles. In this case, they also strung people up on the outside walls of the ghetto, where there was still a wall, even though there was no longer a ghetto.

* Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto had been liquidated the previous spring; at this point, it was rubble behind the still-standing wall.

** Zuckerman also appeared as a witness in the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Hostages,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Wartime Executions

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