1995: Boris Dekanidze, the last in Lithuania

Add comment July 12th, 2016 Headsman

Lithuania conducted its last execution on this date in 1995, distinguishing Vilnius crimelord Boris Dekanidze with the milestone.

Dekanidze was born in Georgia, but had no citizenship anywhere. His father Georgy cashed in on the collapse of Soviet rule with businesses that, to survive and thrive in the 1990s, would be mobbed-up practically by definition. “When you have a collapse of government and total incompetence, people appear who can organize themselves and influence the lives of others,” Georgy said in this Newsweek report. “I can’t say if this is good or bad.” Georgy ran the Hotel Vilnius, an apt metaphor for the era.

The dapper son was convicted of ordering the murder of investigative reporter Vitas Lingys, founder of the still-extant Lithuanian newspaper Respublia* — a conviction sustained on the evidence given by the admitted gunman, Igor Akhremov.

“The collapse of government and total incompetence” was a much more nettlesome foe than this or that murderer, however. The single bullet fired into Dekanidze’s head on the morning of July 12, 1995 crippled his own criminal syndicate, the “Vilnius Brigade” — but it was not long before new gangs emerged to replace it.

Lithuania abolished the death penalty in 1998.

* Despite the punishment meted out in this one case, a wave of 1990s journalist assassinations around the former Soviet Union during the 1990s went mostly unsolved.

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1902: Hirsh Lekert, Jewish assassin

Add comment June 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.

The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.

As was the style at the time, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.

And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.

This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.

For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.

Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.

Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:

And from the hellish Vilna Ghetto under Nazi occupation, the great poet of the Holocaust Abraham Sutzkever depicted his “Teacher Mira” trying to keep her students’ heads up by reminding them of the Vilna cobbler who fought back.

Her skin, a windowpane in stains of dusk,
Mira must not reveal the darkness thus.
She bites her lip, of courage she will tell:
About Hirsh Lekert, how he fought and fell.

* Koppel Pinson, “Arkady Kremer, Vladimir Medem, and the Ideology of the Jewish ‘Bund'”, Jewish Social Studies July 1945.

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1943: Yitskhok Rudahevski and family

Add comment October 6th, 2013 Meaghan

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

Sometime in early October 1943, fifteen-year-old Yitskhok Rudashevski and his entire family were rousted out of their hiding place in the Vilna Ghetto, taken to nearby Ponary, shot to death and buried in a mass grave.

The Rudashevski family were among the last remnants of a once-vibrant Jewish community in the city once known as “the Jerusalem of the north” for its culture and scholarship. People came there from as far away as the United States to study in its highly regarded yeshivas.

After the start of World War II, Vilna was annexed by the Soviet Union. It became a sanctuary to Jews fleeing from the Nazis, who occupied western Poland.

All of that changed on June 22, 1941, when Operation Barbarossa began. On the day Germany invaded the USSR, there were approximately 80,000 Jews living in Vilna, many of them refugees from the Nazi terror. By the time the Red Army arrived and kicked the Nazis out three years later, Vilna’s Jewish population had been reduced –through starvation, disease, deportation and executions — to zero.

Yitskhok (also spelled Yitzhak, Yitzak, etc., or anglicized to Isaac), was thirteen years old at the time his city was occupied by the Germans.

An only child, he was the son of a typesetter and a seamstress. Talented in writing, history and languages, he was also a faithful Communist and a member of the Pioneers, the Communist youth organization.

From June 1941 to April 1943 he kept a diary in Yiddish. Yitskhok had a sense of the significance of his account; at one point he wrote, “I consider that everything must be recorded and noted down, even the most gory, because everything will be taken into account.”

He not only wrote about his own life and his family and friends, but about the wider community events and the devastation the Germans wrought on his people. The historian Allan Gerald Levine called him “an astute and passionate observer of the times,” and compared him to Anne Frank.

Nor was the diary Yitskhok’s only writing project.

When one of his teachers, a beloved figure in the ghetto, died, he wrote a eulogy for the man and read it out before a large audience. He was a member of a literary group and was also attached to the ghetto’s history project, for which he interviewed ghetto residents about their lives:

I got a taste of the historian’s task. I sit at the table and ask questions and record the greatest sufferings with cold objectivity. I write, I probe into details, and I do not realize at all that I am probing into wounds … And this horror, this tragedy is formulated by me … coldly and dryly. I become absorbed in thought, and the words stare out of the paper crimson with blood.

The Vilna Ghetto, whose population initially numbered 40,000, had a rich cultural life, just like prewar Jewish Vilna had. There were theaters, cabarets, the symphony, art exhibits, a library, public lectures, and underground schools for both children and adults.

Vilna Jews saw art, music, literature and the pursuit of knowledge as a form of resistance. As Jacob Gens, head of the “ghetto’s Judenrat, put it, cultural activity gave a person “the opportunity to free himself from the ghetto for a few hours … We are passing through dark and difficult days. Our bodies are in the ghetto, but our spirit has not been enslaved.”

Reality intruded, however, and in the final analysis the Vilna Jews were doomed to extinction.

Yitskhok’s final diary entry was dated April 7, 1943, two days after five thousand Vilna Jews had been rounded up and shot at Ponary. He was understandably in a very grim mood. His prophetic last line was, “We may be fated for the worst.”

On September 23, 1943, the Nazis began the final liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, which had by then been reduced to about 10,000 people. After a selection, those who could work were sent off to labor camps in Estonia and Latvia, where almost all of them died due to the brutal conditions there.

Children, the elderly, and the sick were shot at Ponary or sent to the extermination camp Sobibor and gassed.

Yitskhok, his parents and his uncle’s family chose to go into hiding rather than take their chances at the selection. In hiding he sank into apathy and said very little. After about two weeks in the hideout, they were discovered and taken to their deaths.

The only surviving member of Yitskhok’s family was his teenage cousin, Sarah “Sore” Voloshin. Somewhere on the route to Ponary she was able to escape. She joined a partisan group in the forest and survived until the Red Army liberated the area in the summer of 1944. After the war was over, she returned to the family’s hiding place and found Yitskhok’s diary. As of 2010, Sore Voloshin was still alive in Israel.

And the diary she retrieved had become one of the major sources on day-to-day life in the Vilna Ghetto.

Yitskhok Rudashevski suffered and died in just the same way as hundreds of thousands of others, but unlike them he did not remain anonymous: he is one of the ghetto’s most famous inhabitants. His writings have been published in their original Yiddish and in Hebrew, German and English translations. Extracts of his diary can be found in several anthologies, and it’s available in its entirety under the title The Diary of the Vilna Ghetto.

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1943: The Zalkind family

5 comments November 13th, 2012 Meaghan

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

Sometime in the autumn of 1943, a refined actor had a family of Vilna/Vilnius Jews summarily hanged on a public gallows.

Vilna* was one of the major Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe.

Noted for its rich cultural life, the Vilna Ghetto, which at its peak contained approximately 40,000 people, lasted from September 6, 1941 to September 24, 1943. By the end of its existence, however, through starvation, overwork, disease, and bullets, the ghetto’s population had been reduced by three-quarters.

In late September 1943, the ghetto was liquidated. Most of the inhabitants were taken to the nearby forest in Ponar and shot, or sent to extermination camps in Poland or work camps in Estonia, where almost all of them died.

The convivial Bruno Kittel

The liquidation was supervised by German Oberscharführer Bruno Kittel. (He is not to be confused with Otto “Bruno” Kittel, the Luftwaffe flying ace.)

Kittel was an actor. He graduated from the theater school in Berlin and from the plundering school in Frankfurt. On Sundays he played songs on his saxophone at the Vilna radio station. Kittel was not only the youngest of his colleagues; he was the most zealous … [His] reputation extended from Riga to Lodz to Warsaw.

At first glance, you would never guess that Kittel was an executioner. Constantly smiling with his dazzling white teeth, he was perfumed, elegant, polite, and refined.

After the ghetto was no more, a few skilled craftsmen and artisans whose work was essential to the war effort remained within the city at one of three labor camps.

Karl Plagge, a German major in charge of the HKP 562 camp, was sympathetic to the plight of his workers and worked to save their lives, albeit without much success. For this, he would later be honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem.

During the liquidation, in an attempt to avoid capture, many of the Vilna Jews concealed themselves in hiding places and bunkers, called “malines” or “malinas”. Sadly, the Nazis caught almost all of them, but a few were able to wait out the carnage and then escape.

The Zalkind family were among the fortunate people who were able to remain in hiding throughout the liquidation.

But they did not survive for very long afterwards.

Their final days are described in The Complete Black Book of Russian Jewry, a collection of accounts of atrocities in the Soviet Union from which the observation about Kittel above is also drawn.

Journalists and historians began gathering eyewitness statements before the war was even over, and Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman assembled and edited the accounts and finished the Black Book in 1946. It was the first major documentary work on the Holocaust. However, Stalin refused to allow its publication and had the type-plates and galley proofs destroyed in 1948.

A few copies survived, and the book was finally published in Russian in 1993. The English translation came out in 2002.

The full names of the Mr. and Mrs. Zalkind and their son are not recorded. Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names lists a Masha Zalkind, age 34, a store manager who was married to Moshe, and Hone Khona Zalkind, 2, whose parents were Masha and Moshe. Both lived in Vilna during the war and were killed in 1943; they might well be the mother and son from this story.

There are several Moshe Zalkinds listed. One, a tailor who was born in 1907, lived in Vilna and was married to Masha. He’s the closest match, but it says he was in Estonia during the war and was killed in 1944.

In any case, the Zalkinds were on the Aryan side of Vilna, probably posing as Christians with forged identity papers, when they were spotted in the street by Bruno Kittel. The Black Book records::

Suspecting they were Jews, Kittel stopped them and had them sent to the concentration camp [at 37 Suboch Street], where he determined that their name was Zalkind and that up until now they had been hiding in a malina. He ordered a gallows to be erected in the middle of the yard and summoned sixty SS men from the Gestapo. When everything was ready and the yard was full of SS surrounding the doomed Zalkinds — husband, wife and child — Kittel said:

“For having violated my order and hiding in the city, you will now be hanged in front of everyone.”

Kittel went over to the gallows to be sure that the rope was strong; then he began the execution process. The child was the first to be hanged. Then the mother. When the noose was tightened around the father’s neck, the rope broke.

Kittel ordered a new noose to be made. But as soon as Zalkind was hanging from it, the rope broke again.

Kittel was simply amused by it all.

“If the rope should break a hundred times, I’ll hang you a hundred times,” he said. And he ordered the hangman to prepare another rope.

Following the rule of collective responsibility, after Mr. Zalkind finally died, Kittel randomly selected fifty inmates of the camp, loaded them into a van and hauled them off to their deaths at Ponar.

Only a few hundred of the Vilna Ghetto’s Jews, mostly those assisted by Major Plagge, survived the Nazi era. Some of the Germans who helped wipe out this city’s once-vibrant Jewish community were apprehended after the war and prosecuted.

Bruno Kittel, however, disappeared without a trace and was never found at all.

* At the time, Vilna was part of Poland. Vilna was its Yiddish name; the Polish name was Wilnow. The city is now the capital of Lithuania and called Vilnius.

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1481: Michal Olelkowicz and Iwan Holszanski, Lithuanian princes

Add comment August 30th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1481, two Lithuanian princes were beheaded in Vilnius for plotting the assassination of the Polish-Lithuanian king.

This late 15th century was a heady time for Poland under the Jagiellon dynasty, and one of this dynasty’s going projects was keeping the adjacent realms of Poland and Lithuania linked together. In time, they would become formally joined, but at this point they were independent entities “united” only by the personal union of the Jagiellon monarch himself.

That monarch in the late 15th century was the redoubtable Casimir IV (Kazimierz IV): Grand Duke of Lithuania since 1440, King of Poland since 1447. Casimir’s family hailed from Lithuania; indeed, as that place had been last European place to Christianize, Casimir’s own father had been born a pagan.

Casimir IV’s eponymous son is St. Casimir, patron saint of both Lithuania and Poland; both actively honor his feast date of March 4.
Lithuania agonistes

Lithuania had a strong independent streak (pdf), and its boyars did not necessarily see eye to eye with the Grand Duke. Casimir was keen on centralizing Lithuania’s administration and checking the potential rivalry of the most powerful Lithuanian families, the classic seeds of crown-vs-nobility conflict the world over.

And both watched with a wary eye the growth of Muscovy under the energetic leadership of Ivan III, aka Ivan the Great.

That expanding state in the 1470s gobbled up the buffer city-state of Novgorod; Ivan III’s newly-minted honorific Tsar of all the Rus(sians) openly announced his designs on Lithuania’s own historically Slavic Ruthenian territory. “The gatherer of the Russian lands,” Ivan is known as … and Lithuania (much larger then than it is now) stood to be the gatheree.

The Great Stand on the River Ugra

Come 1480, Casimir was allied against Moscow with the Mongol Horde, the famous “Tatar yoke” that had been collecting Russian tribute for two-plus centuries. In Russian historiography this is the crucial moment when that yoke is thrown off, and the Muscovites accomplished that in part by crossing up the Lithuanians.

The Horde, having marched through Lithuanian territory, assembled on the banks of the Ugra River, opposite a waiting Muscovite army. Neither army attacked. Instead, they waited … and waited … and waited some more.

The Horde, for its part, was waiting for reinforcements from its Lithuanian ally. But those reinforcements never arrived, thanks in part to Russia’s alliance with Crimean khan Mengli Giray, who seems to have absorbed Casimir’s attention in the fall of 1480 with a vexing combination of raids into southern Lithuania and dilatory ceasefire diplomacy. Distracted by the homeland threat, Lithuania never got around to supporting the Horde … and the Horde, after freezing itself on the banks of the Ugra for a couple of months, simply marched away in frustration.

Moscow never again paid it tribute … and its Crimean ally destroyed the Great Horde utterly in 1502.

Chop

This was the context, back in Lithuania, for the attempt on Casimir’s life that would cost two princes their heads. Notwithstanding his unhelpful alliance with the Great Horde, it seems apparent that Casimir himself espoused a fundamentally western policy: the Jagiellon dynasty had branches in Hungary, Bohemia, Germany, and Casimir had more taste for meddling in these realms than dealing with Russia. One could imagine how a Lithuanian magnate out his lucrative Novgorod trade would feel like the head man didn’t really have his eye on the ball; in 1478, a Lithuanian delegation even requested that Casimir appoint a Lithuanian governor to look after the interests of the Grand Duchy. (Casimir refused.)

And these nobles were getting it at both ends, since Casimir’s state-centralization project meant that they were being cut down to size in terms of their internal political power, too.

Apparently with the support of Moscow itself (whose expansionary interest is self-evident) Iwan Holszanski and Fedor Bielski hatched a plan to murder the Grand Duke and his sons on Palm Sunday, 1481 — which was also the occasion of Fedor Bielski’s wedding. The idea was to replace him with Michal Olelkowicz (Mikhail Olelkevich), who had been Novgorod’s elected prince-ruler in the late 1460s; it’s not clear to me if Olelkowicz himself was actually in on the scheme.

Casimir, at any rate, caught wind of the plot. Legend has it that a servant decorating a room ran across the conspirators’ weapons niches and reported it; it’s alternately alleged that the assassins meant to jump Casimir while out on his favorite pastime, hunting.

However it was supposed to go down, it didn’t work. Bielski was able to flee to Moscow (ditching his newlywed bride), but left Holszanski and the coup’s prospective beneficiary Olelkowicz to suffer beheading this date upon evidence “brighter than the sun” of their treason.

Sources:

This webcache page.

The Polish-Lithuanian State 1386-1795, by Daniel Stone.

Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800, by Michael Khodarkovsky.

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1942: Anton Schmid

5 comments April 13th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, Sergeant Anton Schmid was executed for high treason. His crime: saving the lives of Jews in Nazi-occupied Vilna, Poland (now part of Lithuania and called Vilnius).

Schmid was born in Vienna and owned a radio shop there before he was drafted into the German Army following the Anschluss in 1938.

After Germany’s invasion of Russia in mid-1941, Schmid was put in charge of a unit in Vilna, tasked with collecting and reassigning soldiers who had been separated from their units. He witnessed the sufferings of the Jewish population in the Vilna Ghetto and was so horrified, he decided to take action.

Schmid used his position in the military to help Jews by employing them as workers for his unit, forging papers to get them out of prison and out of the ghetto, and using Army trucks to escort them away from the city.

At great personal risk, he would go into the ghetto to hand out food and warn the inhabitants when the Germans were planning roundups. In dire situations he would even hide people in his own apartment to protect them from the Nazis. He maintained close contact with Jewish resistance organizations and assisted their activities in a variety of ways.

According to one account by a Jewish woman who was herself killed later in 1942,

[Schmid] would mock the Jews and say how easily they could be fooled, and at the same time tried to find out what the Germans were planning. As soon as he learned something new, he would tell his Jews and order them to tell their friends so that they could hide until the situation stabilized … He negotiated on their behalf like a dedicated father, without fear of being punished if he was found out. He put them in his working place and provided them with food and drink. He gave them soup and bread. In short, in those chaotic days of massacres he managed to save dozens of Jews …

Although the Jewish Underground warned Schmid that his activities had become too widely known and he was in great danger, he refused to put a stop to his effort to save the Vilna Jews. In response to their concerns he reportedly said that if given a choice between “living as a murderer and dying as a rescuer,” he would choose to die.

He saved an estimated 250 to 300 people before his arrest in January or February 1942.

At his court-marshal, his attorney tried to say Schmid had taken the Jews out of the Vilna Ghetto because he thought they could better serve the Reich elsewhere. Schmid refused to allow this, however, openly proclaiming that he had been trying to save Jewish lives. He was convicted on February 25 and sentenced to die.

In a letter to his wife and daughter, just days before his death, he tried to explain himself:

Here there were a great many Jews who were being rounded up by the Lithuanian militia and shot to death in a meadow outside the city, groups of 2-3,000 at a time. On the way there, they were smashing children against trees and such like. You can imagine how I felt … You know how I am with my soft heart. I couldn’t think otherwise and helped them… This is a heavy blow for us, but please forgive me. I was just behaving like a human being and didn’t want to hurt anyone.

In 1967, twenty-five years after his death, Schmid was honored as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem. His widow attended the ceremony on his behalf and accepted a medal reading “Whoever saves one life, saves the entire world.”

A street in Vienna and a military base in Germany are named after him.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Lithuania,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Soldiers,Spies,Treason,Wartime Executions

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