1638: Stepan Ostryanin, Cossack hetman

Add comment October 14th, 2015 Headsman

(Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for research, translation, and background information touching this post. -ed.)

October 14 (October 1 O.S.) is a liturgical feast celebrating the protective intercession of the Virgin Mary, a date of particular significance in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos [i.e., Mary] on the Moat, just one of many Orthodox churches so named.

Also known as Pokrov — a quaint Slavic term for covering, denoting safeguarding — the holiday celebrates an incident from 10th century Byzantium when a saint beheld Mary descend through the dome of the church, then spread her garment protectively over the entire congregation.

It is of special significance in Ukraine where the ecclesiastical celebration pulls double duty as the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. And it is in honor of Pokrov that we dedicate this post.


17th century icon of the Madonna’s broad cloak protecting Ukrainians.

On an unspecified date in 1638, a Cossack named Ostryanin was broken on the wheel in Warsaw … maybe.

The Ostryanin Uprising of 1638 was one of the ongoing cycle of Cossack disturbances in the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire — modern-day Ukraine. Like many of these, it was a short-lived affair considered on its own, but the pattern of disaffected Cossacks struggling against the Polish crown for some combination of recognition, largesse, and autonomy was an ongoing pattern in the 17th century — and by the 1650s it would begin tearing apart the formerly mighty Polish-Lithuanian realm and transferring Ukrainian territory from Polish to Russian domination.

Tradition held that after the rising was stamped out in the summer of 1638, Stepan Ostryanin himself was treacherously seized and taken to Warsaw for execution. A late 18th century chronicle* of a distinctly patriotic bent called Istoriya Russov embroiders upon that death by breaking-wheel with racist gusto:

in accord with their treachery, insidious and duplicitous, having learned through their Jew spies that hetman Ostryanin’s would travel unguarded … the Lyakhs [term for “Poles”; it’s derogatory in present-day Russian but may have been less so at the time -ed.] surrounded him in Kanev monastery with a host of men. They, having tied the hetman and his men, altogether thirty seven people, … prepared an execution for them in Warsaw unprecedented in its cruelty, which posterity will scarcely believe to be true, because it would not occur to even the most barbarous and ferocious Japanese (!) and the reality of which would terrify the very beasts and monsters.

On the other hand, a Cossack named Yakiv Ostryanin was to be found on Russian soil in the subsequent years, until he was murdered in 1641. Some historians think that he was the very same namesake Cossack rebel escaped from Polish vengeance, and the story about him being broken on the wheel in Poland is pure sentimental folklore; alternatively, Stepan and Yakiv might have just been two different Cossacks named Ostryanin who met two different fates.

Quite a difference for our supposed Stepan Ostryanin, but a minor mystery from this distance in time. Nevertheless, our man, whoever he was, had a posthumous contribution yet to make to the letters of his Slavic brethren.

Polish historian Szymon Okolski rode along with the Polish commander Mikolaj Potocki in Potocki’s successful campaign of the spring-summer 1638 to suppress this rebellion. Okolski’s field diaries of the campaign are a key historical source on the Cossacks and are thought to have been used extensively by the Cossack-descended writer Nikolai Gogol in composing his short story Taras Bulba.

A product of Gogol’s youth, Taras Bulba has a rough romanticism — and a romanticism for the Cossack (read: national Ukrainian) cause specifically that nonplussed Russian authorities at the time. (And probably now, too.)

Taras Bulba‘s title character is a mature Cossack patriot who with his two sons joins the Cossack risings against Poland. Its location in time is indeterminate, not unlike the unending cycle of risings themselves. Taras Bulba is a nearly eternal character, almost a fixture of nature, because his war seemed eternal too.

And of course it contains some cracking execution scenes. The execution by breaking-wheel of Taras Bulba’s son might have been inspired by the Istoriya Russov‘s outraged account of that full Japanese barbarism. The excerpt below hails from this public-domain English translation.


Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. Grief overpowered him. He pulled off and tore in pieces the bandages from his wounds, and threw them far from him; he tried to say something, but only articulated some incoherent words. Fever and delirium seized upon him afresh, and he uttered wild and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood beside him, scolding and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him without stint. Finally, he seized him by the arms and legs, wrapped him up like a child, arranged all his bandages, rolled him in an ox-hide, bound him with bast, and, fastening him with ropes to his saddle, rode with him again at full speed along the road.

“I’ll get you there, even if it be not alive! I will not abandon your body for the Lyakhs to make merry over you, and cut your body in twain and fling it into the water. Let the eagle tear out your eyes if it must be so; but let it be our eagle of the steppe and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I will bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraine!”

Thus spoke his faithful companion. He rode without drawing rein, day and night, and brought Taras still insensible into the Zaporozhian Setch itself. There he undertook to cure him, with unswerving care, by the aid of herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilled Jewess, who made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at length he improved. Whether it was owing to the medicine or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at all events, in six weeks he was on his feet. His wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how deeply injured the old Cossack had been. But he was markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles engraved themselves upon his brow and never more departed thence. Then he looked around him. All was new in the Setch; all his old companions were dead. Not one was left of those who had stood up for the right, for faith and brotherhood. And those who had gone forth with the Koschevoi in pursuit of the Tatars, they also had long since disappeared. All had perished. One had lost his head in battle; another had died for lack of food, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had fallen in captivity and been unable to survive the disgrace. Their former Koschevoi was no longer living, nor any of his old companions, and the grass was growing over those once alert with power. He felt as one who had given a feast, a great noisy feast. All the dishes had been smashed in pieces; not a drop of wine was left anywhere; the guests and servants had all stolen valuable cups and platters; and he, like the master of the house, stood sadly thinking that it would have been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired guitar-players come by twos and threes to glorify his Cossack deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, with inappeasable grief printed on his stolid face; and said softly, as he drooped his head, “My son, my Ostap!”

The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were thronging thither from all quarters. In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of their bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. “Ah, what tortures!” many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk’s heads, to get a better view. Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as “Gossip,” because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses. In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya, and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word. “All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,” he said, “have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will despatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will still be alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.” Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.

The upper stories of the houses were filled with people. From the windows in the roof peered strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath shady awnings, sat the aristocracy. The hands of smiling young ladies, brilliant as white sugar, rested on the railings. Portly nobles looked on with dignity. Servants in rich garb, with flowing sleeves, handed round various refreshments. Sometimes a black-eyed young rogue would take her cake or fruit and fling it among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The crowd of hungry gentles held up their caps to receive it; and some tall noble, whose head rose amid the throng, with his faded red jacket and discoloured gold braid, and who was the first to catch it with the aid of his long arms, would kiss his booty, press it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. The hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a golden cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and with one foot raised, he, too, watched the people attentively. But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread, “They are coming! they are coming! the Cossacks!”

They were bare-headed, with their long locks floating in the air. Their beards had grown, and their once handsome garments were worn out, and hung about them in tatters. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain pride, neither looking at nor bowing to the people. At the head of all came Ostap.

What were old Taras’s feelings when thus he beheld his Ostap? What filled his heart then? He gazed at him from amid the crowd, and lost not a single movement of his. They reached the place of execution. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: “God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, the unclean dogs, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word.” After this he ascended the scaffold.

“Well done, son! well done!” said Bulba, softly, and bent his grey head.

The executioner tore off his old rags; they fastened his hands and feet in stocks prepared expressly, and—We will not pain the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the outcome of that coarse, wild age, when men still led a life of warfare which hardened their souls until no sense of humanity was left in them. In vain did some, not many, in that age make a stand against such terrible measures. In vain did the king and many nobles, enlightened in mind and spirit, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could but fan the flame of vengeance in the Cossack nation. But the power of the king, and the opinion of the wise, was as nothing before the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom, who, by their thoughtlessness and unconquerable lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and miserable pride, converted the Diet into the mockery of a government. Ostap endured the torture like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan, was heard. Even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when, amid the death-like stillness of the crowd, the horrible cracking was audible to the most distant spectators; when even his tormentors turned aside their eyes, nothing like a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; and, raising his eyes proudly at that moment, he said, approvingly, “Well done, boy! well done!”

But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were failing. He cast his eyes around.

O God! all strangers, all unknown faces! If only some of his relatives had been present at his death! He would not have cared to hear the sobs and anguish of his poor, weak mother, nor the unreasoning cries of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast; but he would have liked to see a strong man who might refresh him with a word of wisdom, and cheer his end. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the weakness of his soul, “Father! where are you? do you hear?”

“I hear!” rang through the universal silence, and those thousands of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of cavalry hastened to search through the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen had got within a short distance of him, turned round in terror to look for Taras; but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.


Despite his cunning escape on this occasion, Taras Bulba himself is also in the end put to death: the story ends with him going to the stake as his soul summons the brethren he can still see in the distance to resume the fight, again and again.


[A] band of Lyakhs suddenly rushed up, and seized him by the shoulders. He struggled with all might; but he could not scatter on the earth, as he had been wont to do, the heydukes who had seized him. “Oh, old age, old age!” he exclaimed: and the stout old Cossack wept. But his age was not to blame: nearly thirty men were clinging to his arms and legs.

“The raven is caught!” yelled the Lyakhs. “We must think how we can show him the most honour, the dog!” They decided, with the permission of the hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of all. There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot. But Taras did not look at the wood, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to roast him: he gazed anxiously in the direction whence his Cossacks were firing. From his high point of observation he could see everything as in the palm of his hand.

“Farewell, comrades!” he shouted to them from above; “remember me, and come hither again next spring and make merry in the same fashion! What! cursed Lyakhs, have ye caught me? Think ye there is anything in the world that a Cossack fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A czar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!” But fire had already risen from the fagots; it lapped his feet, and the flame spread to the tree…. But can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?

Broad is the river Dniester, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, clear shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams, filled with the melodious plaint of the swan, the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and snipe, red-throated ruffs, and other birds are to be found among the reeds and along the banks. The Cossacks rowed swiftly on in the narrow double-ruddered boats—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the sand bars, and cleaving the ranks of the birds, which took wing—rowed, and talked of their hetman.

* The Istoriya Russov had a great influence on young writers in the early 19th century. The text can be read as advancing a nationalism of all the Russias, or as speaking in a more specifically Ukrainian voice. See The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires.

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1941: Twenty-one hostages for Igo Sym

Add comment March 11th, 2015 Headsman


Igo Sym tickles the ivories in Zona i nie zona (Wife and No Wife) … his last role.

On this date in 1941, the Germans occupying Poland took revenge for the loss of an artist.

Handsome Austrian-born silver screen luminary Igo Sym, whose silent film credits included roles opposite Marlene Dietrich and Lillian Harvey, had become a prominent fixture of the Warsaw stage when the Germans overran Poland in 1939.

Sym (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) collaborated with the German occupation: he worked manicured hand in glove with the Gestapo, even helping to entrap a former co-star.

This attracted the hostility of the Polish underground, which secretly condemned him to death — and executed that sentence on the morning of March 7, 1941, with a knock at Sym’s apartment door and a sudden 9 mm pistol.

In punishment for this gesture of national defiance, all of Warsaw was clapped under a harsh curfew and dozens of hostages seized as surety for the public’s promptly rendering the actor’s murderers for punishment. But the assassins were not so delivered: in revenge, the Germans executed 21 hostages at the nearby village of Palmiry.* Two University of Warsaw professors were among those hostages, biologist Stefan Kopec and historian Kazimierz Zakrzewski.

* Palmiry had the sorrow to host numerous similar mass-executions during the German occupation of Warsaw. Over 2,000 bodies have been recovered from the site.


Polish hostages (not necessarily those of March 11, 1941) being readied for execution at Palmiry. This photo (and others) via the Polish Wikipedia page on war crimes in Palmiry.

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1923: Eligiusz Niewiadomski, assassin-artist

1 comment January 31st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Polish nationalist painter Eligiusz Niewiadomski was executed for assassinating Poland’s first president.

After more than a century under German, Austrian, and (most especially hated) Russian domination, Poland had established itself an independent republic in the first world war’s imperial wreckage.

Niewiadomski (English Wikipedia entry | Polish), whose father had taken part in the 19th century’s anti-Russian January Uprising, was a talented painter with a serious nationalist streak.

And that was really the done thing for his time and generation: his painting career from the 1890’s into the early 20th century maps the Young Poland movement of up-and-coming artists experimenting with new forms and celebrating romantic attachment to their prostrate homeland.


“The conscience of Polish literature,” Young Poland writer Stefan Zeromski, as depicted by Niewiadomski.

When not promoting patriotic appreciation of the Tatra Mountains, Niewiadomski enjoyed supporting Polish National Democracy, a right-wing movement raging against the Cossack yoke.

Niewiadomski was a true enough believer to serve time in a tsarist prison, but he was far from the leading light of either the artistic or political movements. By the time Poland attained independence (Niewiadomski worked for Polish intelligence during World War I, and even finagled a cameo on the front lines), he was in his fifties and seemingly settling in for a slow moulder into obsolescence in bureaucratic posts and artistic monographs.

(Of course, had he done so, the next decades would have brought him their own surprises.)

Instead, the 1922 election for President of the Polish Republic, which was decided in that country’s National Assembly, saw parliamentary horsetrading elevate an engineer on the strength of the left parties’ votes — a shock victory over Niewiadomski’s preferred right-wing candidate Count Maurycy Klemens Zamoyski, the infant republic’s Bush v. Gore.

It came to street disturbances, to assaulting members of parliament, to demonstrations “for” and “against.” There were casualties. Lumps of dirty snow were thrown at the carriage of the president-elect as it drove across the town. Newspapers dreamt of “a lump of snow that will change into an avalanche” and about removal of that man-“hindrance,” that man-“obstacle.” … The infamous ride through the streets of Warsaw was a ride down death’s lane. Someone hit the first president of the republic in the head with a stick, someone else waved brass knuckles in his face …

-Anna Bojarska in From the Polish Underground

So, five days into Gabriel Narutowicz‘s term, Niewiadomski did what any violent, disaffected patriot would do: he gunned down the new Polish president at the Zacheta art gallery. It’s always great to see artists participating in the political dialogue.

This event is the subject of the 1977 Polish film Smierc prezydenta (Death of a President).

The shots by Niewiadomski marked an end to the week of hatred. Poland suffered a shock — even the Right did. National reconciliation bloomed like a thousand flowers. The president’s funeral became an occasion for a deeply disturbed society to demonstrate. Half a million people walked in the funeral procession!

-Bojarska, again

Less than seven weeks later, Niewiadomski christened that national reconciliation with his blood … at a fortress the Russians had once used to garrison his country, Warsaw Citadel.

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1969: Joseph Blösche, Der SS-Mann

2 comments July 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1969, Joseph Blösche was executed in Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, for his part in the Holocaust.


Blösche (far right) chills out at the Warsaw Ghetto with, among others, Jurgen Stroop (fourth from right, in profile).

Blösche (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an SS Rottenführer and a Nazi Party member whose particular contribution to deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka was fitting in some opportunistic rape, typically followed with summary murder. The ghetto’s wards called him “Frankenstein”.

Blösche was eventually captured by the Red Army, which you’d think might augur ill for his survival prospects. However, with the aid of a horrible accident he suffered in a postwar labor camp that helpfully disfigured his face, Blösche managed to fade quietly into East German society, wed, and raise a family.

He would need that facial anonymity, because the un-disfigured version is there full-frontal gazing over his submachine gun in one of the war’s most iconic and chilling images — snapped for the benefit of the Stroop report documenting the ghetto’s liquidation.


An SS trooper, eventually identified as Joseph Blösche, looms over a frightened Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto. (The child might be one of Artur Dab Siemiatek, Levi Zelinwarger, Israel Rondel, or Tsvi Nussbaum)

This photo was published in the U.S. in Life magazine on November 28, 1960. The terrible image haunted Holocaust survivor Peter Fischl into writing his poem “The Little Polish Boy”.

Blösche’s luck ran out when his name came up in a West German war crimes trial in 1961; East Germany’s follow-up eventually zeroed in on the man, and he was convicted in April 1969 for directly killing up to 2,000 people, and participating in deportations that killed 300,000 more. He was executed in Leipzig with a single shot to the neck.

Joseph Blösche is the subject of the German documentary Der SS-Mann (there’s also a book of the same title).

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1942: Janusz Korczak and his orphans

10 comments August 6th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On August 6, 1942, in the Warsaw Ghetto, Polish/Jewish hero Janusz Korczak marched with his orphans to the death trains and into legend.

The man, his activities in the ghetto, and above all his famed final walk to the Umschlagplatz, are mentioned in many books and memoirs about the ghetto.

The story of his final days also has been told many times in books for children such as The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak, A Hero and the Holocaust: The Story of Janusz Korczak and his Children, and Janusz Korczak’s Children.

However, one of the former residents of his orphanage said, “I don’t want to talk about the dead Korczak, but the living one.”

The living Korczak’s story is told in Betty Lifton’s award-winning biography The King of Children: The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak.

Korczak’s real name was Henryk Goldschmidt. He took the name Janusz Korczak (pronounced “ya-nish kor-chok”) for his writing and it wound up taking over his entire life, a la Mark Twain.

Born in an observant Jewish household in Warsaw (which was then Russian Territory) in either 1878 or 1879,* he became man of the house after his father suffered a nervous breakdown in 1889 and eventually had to be hospitalized.

By thirteen, bored by school, he was writing poetry and learning foreign languages by himself. He went to medical school and served as a military doctor with the Russian Army in the Sino-Japanese War of 1905-1906. Eventually he was promoted to the rank of major.

Korczak’s true calling wasn’t in medicine, however, but in writing and in working with children. He found himself drawn to neglected and abused youngsters, and believed in treating every child with honesty and respect.

While he was in China with the military, his first book, Child of the Drawing Room, became famous in Poland. He didn’t realize he was a celebrity until he returned home.

He tried to distance himself from his writing and his fame and be an ordinary pediatrician, but people wanted to see him, to the extent that they would pretend their children were sick in order to entice him to their homes.

Korczak wrote later that one woman claimed her sons had the flu and, when he made a house call, insisted on serving him tea.

“Have you been writing anything lately?” she asked.

“Prescriptions,” he replied, and left, realizing he’d been had.

In 1910, he gave up his medical practice to start an orphanage for Jewish children age seven to fourteen. His institution was very different from most of that time and place, for Korczak had very democratic ideas: the children wrote their own newspaper and had their own parliament and court system.

If one child had a falling-out with another, the urchin could “sue” and bring a case to be decided before the orphanage court, which met once a week. (Even teachers and other staff members could be sued.) The orphanage court also held trials for children accused of violating one of the home’s rules.

Children were rewarded for good behavior, and spanked only as a last resort. Every child had a private, lockable drawer to hold their most precious belongings. Korczak carefully monitored the children’s health and also acted as a sort of informal therapist, encouraging them — most of them orphans from backgrounds of desperate poverty and abuse — to talk about their feelings. The children called him Pan (“Mister”) Doctor.

When World War I broke out, Korczak left the orphanage to serve in the Army again. He left it in good hands, however, in the care of teachers and staff he had trained himself.

“All the world is submerged in blood and fire, in tears and mourning,” he wrote sadly of his war experiences.

It was while in the trenches on the Eastern Front that he began writing a book on child development, titled For The Love of a Child. In 1918, the war finally ended, Poland became a free and independent nation, and Korczak returned to his orphans in Warsaw.

He stayed busy, setting up a second orphanage in 1919, and afterwards writing King Matt the First. The novel, a children’s story about a young boy who becomes king and puts the country’s children in charge, became a bestseller throughout the country in the wake of the calamity lately unleashed by the grown-ups. The sequel, King Matt on the Desert Island, was also a commercial success.

Korczak continued to work for his children, however; he consulted at Warsaw’s juvenile court, and in 1928 founded third orphanage, called Our Home, which had attached dormitories for teachers-in-training and was intended for Catholic children.

In 1925, Korczak wrote another book called When I Am Little Again, told from the point of view of a middle-aged teacher and meant to be read by both children and adults.

He started a children’s newspaper, the Little Review, in 1926. Saying he wanted to “defend children” in his new paper, he invited children from all over Poland to write and tell him the stories of their lives. The newspaper lasted until 1939.

He also hosted a hugely popular radio show, using the name “Old Doctor.” The program was terminated in 1937, however, after only a couple of years; Korczak’s employers with the radio station were reluctant to keep a Jew on the air. When his identity became known, the right-wing press castigated him, saying that as Jew he could never be a real Pole and shouldn’t be allowed to educate Polish children.

Like any public figure, Korczak had his critics. Anti-Semites called Our Home “a new nest of Masonry and potential Communism erected in the heart of the capital.” Communists said his institutions weren’t Communist enough; Zionists criticized him for not directing the children towards a life in Palestine; religious Jews said there wasn’t enough religion in the orphanages while assimilationist Jews said there was too much.

Yet Korczak’s methods worked.

In a follow-up study he conducted of all the former residents 21 years after the first of his institutions was opened, he found that only a few had turned to crime or prostitution as adults. The same could not be said for children who graduated from other children’s homes in Poland.

During the 1930s, many of Korczak’s friends encouraged him to move to Palestine to escape the growing problems in Poland. He actually visited a kibbutz there, but he couldn’t make up his mind whether or to go; he had trouble leaning Hebrew and wasn’t sure a man of his age could start a whole new life.

“I don’t have forty years to spend in the desert,” he wrote to a friend.

Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 settled the question for him; leaving the country was no longer an option. Korczak volunteered for the Army again, but was turned down due to his age.

As the Nazis tightened their strangehold around Poland and Poland’s Jews, Korczak did the best he could to shied his orphans from the chaos, suffering and bigotry around them.

He turned his pen to appeals for funds for the children. As a protest against the occupation, he walked around the city openly in his old Polish Army uniform as well as the required Star of David armband.

The uniform proved surprisingly useful: he told a friend that when he went door to door asking for money for the children, “Some people are generous, but not everyone. If they’re difficult, I just undo my coat and reveal my Polish uniform. They get so nervous about having someone in uniform in their place that they give me something just to make me leave.”

The Warsaw Ghetto opened in 1940, and the orphanage was outside its boundaries, so they had to move. (Later, the Germans reduced the size of the ghetto, and Korczak’s orphanage had to relocate again.)

The Warsaw Ghetto was a kind of hell for Jews; allotted rations of only 800 calories a day — if they could get that — people died in droves of starvation and related diseases, including typhus and tuberculosis, as well as deliberate murder by the Nazis and their collaborators.

As recorded in Betty Lifton’s biography, a gentile friend, Igor Newerly, offered to help Korczak escape this fate:

“Everyone’s worried about your going into the ghetto with the children,” Newerly told him. “Just say the word and we’ll get you false identity papers to live on our side.”

“And the children?”

“We’ll try to hide as many as we can in monasteries and private homes.”

Korczak put down his cigarette, took off his glasses in their cheap round metal frames, and began wiping them with his handkerchief as he always did when he was stalling for time.

Finally, he asked: “Do you realize how difficult it would be to hide one hundred and seventy Jewish children — that’s that’s how many we have now.”

“We’d try,” Newerlv repeated.

“But can you guarantee me that every child will be safe?”

Newerly shook his head sadly: “I’m afraid that’s impossible. We can’t guarantee anything” — he
paused — “even for ourselves.”

Korczak thanked his friend, but turned him down. He would take his chances in the ghetto. His decision was sensible for the time — the “Final Solution” had not been conceived of, and no one knew what the eventual fate of the ghetto residents would be.

Lifton records:

On the day they were scheduled to depart, November 29, the children lined up in the courtyard as rehearsed, while Korczak made a final inspection of the wagons filled with the coal and potatoes that he had so arduously procured on his daily rounds. The children waved goodbye sadly to the Polish janitor, Piotr Zalewski, who was staying behind to care for the house. His face was swollen almost beyond recognition from the beating he had received the day before when he and the laundress had applied to the Nazi police for permission to go into the ghetto with the orphans. The Germans had thrown the laundress out, but detained Zalewski for questioning. Didn’t he know that Aryans were no longer allowed to work for Jews? When the janitor replied that after twenty years of service he considered the orphanage his home, the Germans thrashed him with whips and rifle butts.

[…]

The orphans tried to sing as they marched out of the courtyard and into the street, clutching their few possessions. The green flag of King Matt, with a Jewish star on one side, flew over the little parade as it made its way through the teeming streets the short distance to 33 Chlodna Street. When they reached the place where the wall cut along Chlodna, slicing its “Aryan” half off from the ghetto, they found German and Polish police at the gate demanding identification, as if they were crossing a foreign border.

Within the ghetto, Korczak continued his activities for children’s welfare.

He tirelessly solicited aid for the orphanage to keep the children clothed and fed. He and others held benefit concerts and poetry readings, and put posters all around the ghetto saying “OUR CHILDREN MUST LIVE” and “A CHILD IS THE HOLIEST OF BEINGS.”

He took the job as director of a hopelessly underfunded shelter that housed a thousand children; in spite of his efforts, the mortality rate there was sixty percent.

Everywhere children were dying of starvation and disease on the streets or in filthy, overcrowded hovels; Korczak lobbied for the creation of a sort of hospice where they could at least breathe their last in clean, quiet surroundings.

For himself he functioned mostly on pure willpower. It was hard for him to eat when he knew the children were hungry. Five shots of pure alcohol a day, mixed with water, provided precious calories.

Yet his health was failing. His friends noticed how emaciated he had become: “ill, wasted and stooped.” He had a persistent cough and a doctor who examined him diagnosed him with pulmonary edema. Nightmares interrupted his sleep. “How hard it is to live,” he wrote, “how easy to die!”

Yet he carried on.

In the summer of 1942, it became increasingly apparent that the ghetto would be liquidated. Igor Newerly approached Korczak again and offered to help save whoever he could.

Korczak declined his offer again, but gave him his diary for safekeeping — a sign that Korczak, too, knew the end was coming. He had decided to throw his lot in with the children.

In July, the Nazis announced that there were “too many Jews” and they were sending away the children, the old, the sick and anyone else who could not work. Orphans, of course, would be at the top of the list. Resettlement meant death, and many of the ghetto residents knew it, although a substantial number clung to the hope that they would be placed in work camps and find someway of surviving a little longer.

Adam Czerniaków, the Warsaw Ghetto Chairman and Korczak’s personal friend, took his own life rather than supervise the deportations.

For the next few weeks, people were marched or dragged to the death trains, packed inside and driven off to the Treblinka Extermination Camp for gassing.

Many people tried to hide, for the most part unsuccessfully, to escape being deported. Some of the ghetto residents were so hungry that they volunteered to go, because the Nazis promised bread and marmalade to anyone who reported of their own accord.

Korczak’s orphanage’s turn came on August 6. He and the staff had made up their minds earlier: all of them would go together. And they would go quietly, in an orderly fashion, so as not to frighten the children.

Their walk to the death trains, witnessed by thousands, has passed into Holocaust legend.

Lipton records:

The Germans had taken a roll call: one hundred and ninety-two children and ten adults. Korczak was at the head of this little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children’s republic. He held five-year-old Romcia in one arm, and perhaps Szymonek Jakubowicz…

Stefa followed a little way back with the nine- to twelve year-olds. There were Giena, with sad, dark eyes like her mother’s; Eva Mandelblatt, whose brother had been in the orphanage before her. Halinka Pinchonson, who chose to go with Korczak rather than stay behind with her mother. There were Jakub, who wrote the poem about Moses; Leon with his polished box; Mietek with his dead brother’s prayer book; and Abus, who had stayed too long on the toilet.

There were Zygmus, Sami, Hanka, and Aronek, who had signed the petition to play in the church garden; Hella, who was always restless; big Hanna, who had asthma; and little Hanna with her pale, tubercular smile; Mendelek, who had the bad dream; and the agitated boy who had not wanted to leave his dying mother. There were Abrasha, who had played Amal, with his violin; Jerzyk, the fakir. Chaimek, the doctor; Adek, the lord mayor. , and the rest of the cast of The Post Office, all following their own Pan Doctor on their way to meet the Messiah King. One of the older boys carried the green flag of King Matt, the blue Star of David set against a field of white on one side. The older children took turns carrying the flag during the course of their two-mile walk…

The young protagonist of Jerry Spinelli’s novel Milkweed described it this way:

The orphans were going by. They were marching. Their heads were high and they were singing the song I had learned. I sang along with them. Not one was dressed in rags. Everyone wore shoes. Doctor Korczak lead the way…

“The very stones of the street,” wrote Yehoshue Perle, another chronicler, “wept at the sight of the procession.”

As the group waited for the trains to leave, Korczak’s many friends were seeking out anyone with influence, desperately trying to get them out of Umschlagplatz and back to the orphanage to die another day.

It was said that a German officer, who had been a fan Korczak’s King Matt books as a child, offered him the chance to leave — without the children. Korczak refused.

His presence kept the children calm; if he left them they might panic. He knew what was coming, and he knew he could not force the children to face death alone. The fact that he was in such poor health and probably would not have survived the war in any case does not make his sacrifice any less.

Eventually the orphans and the staff boarded the train and were hauled away. There were no survivors. His name is listed on a memorial stone at the site where Treblinka once stood — the only such stone with a name on it.

Korczak’s books were translated into many different languages, including English, and some are still in print: his children’s novel King Matt the First, which was a best-seller in Poland when it first came out; Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents; When I Am Little Again and The Child’s Right to Respect, two books in one; and his final piece of writing, his Ghetto Diary. The editor Sandra Josephs also put together the compilation of his works called A Voice for the Child: The Inspirational Words of Janusz Korczak.

Korczak’s legacy is not just in books; his name and image have been used in a lot of memorabilia over the years, and have appeared on stamps in Poland, Israel and Germany. In 1991, Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda made a film about Korczak and his last march. There are four statues of him in Warsaw, and a school for street children in Thailand is named after him.


From Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak.

* His year of birth is uncertain; Korczak himself may not have known it.

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1794: Four members of the Targowica Confederation

3 comments May 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1794, four members of Poland’s pro-Russia Targowica Confederation were convicted of treason by a revolutionary court, and promptly hanged before a jeering mob in Warsaw.


The Hanging of traitors at Warsaw’s Old Town Market Square, by Jean-Pierre Norblin de La Gourdaine

This spectacle unfolds in a revolutionary age, which finds the first constitution in Europe* written … in Polish?

There was good reason.

The once-proud empire had been reduced to a pliable rump state under a sclerotic aristocracy.

The Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791 aimed for national rebirth with a constitutional monarchy and circumscribed nobility. This nationalist ferment was opposed equally by the Russian monarch Catherine the Great, and by a league of those circumscribed, sclerotic nobles which constituted itself the Targowica Confederation and immediately “invited” Russia to invade. Russia was happy to oblige.

This launched the countries into a war whose predictable outcome further reduced Polish territory in 1793.

There’d be one more hurrah for independent Poland, however: a 1794 national uprising under the leadership of war hero** Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

In Warsaw, that uprising drove the Polish King Stanislaw August Poniatowski† into Warsaw Castle as it overwhelmed the Russian garrison.

On May 9, four prominent Targowica supporters who had the misfortune to be trapped in the city — Jozef Ankwicz, Piotr Ozarowski, Jozef Zabiello and the Bishop of Livonia Jozef Kossakowski — were tried and demonstratively hanged.

Unfortunately for the Kosciuszko Uprising, the next day would mark Prussia’s entry into the fray, on the side of Russia, exacerbating the already dire balance-of-forces situation.

By the next year, defeated Poland ceased to exist altogether, partitioned among its stronger neighbors Russia, Prussia and Austria.

The historical legacy, nevertheless, is pretty clear. Kosciuszko has monuments in every Polish city, while targowiczanin remains an epithet for “traitor” in the Polish tongue to the present day.

* Except the Corsican Constitution.

** Kosciuszko was already an old hand at the revolution game: he’d crossed the Atlantic to fight for George Washington in the American Revolution.

† Catherine the Great’s former lover.

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1597: Severyn Nalyvaiko

3 comments April 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1597, Cossack Severyn Nalyvaiko was publicly quartered in Warsaw.

Nalyvaiko organized “unregistered” Cossacks in Poland’s eastern realms, modern-day Belarus and Ukraine, into what became a significant rebellion. (Poland’s efforts to “register” and thereby control Cossacks would continue to cause tension in the years ahead.)

The Poles outmuscled him, and here he is.

However, because longer-term historical trends were not so favorable to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Nalyvaiko rates a place as an early independence martyr for (east) Slavic resistance to Warsaw’s Polish imperialism.

Not only does he get a spot on present-day Ukrainian coinage (as pictured); 19th century Russian poet Kondraty Ryleyev, who would himself be executed for his part in the Decembrist plot, lyricized Nalyvaiko’s death as heroic national sacrifice … and simultaneously elevated the poet’s own prophesied fate for himself.

“In Ryleyev’s poetry, fate — romantic fate — is not simply personal and individual,” writes Lauren Leighton. “The fate of his heroes, and so his own fate, is raised to the level of national-historical tragedy. By welcoming his fate and dying for his land, Nalivayko ennobles his people.”


“Nalyvaiko”

Say not, thou holy man, again
That this is sin, thy words are vain,
Be it a fearful mortal sin
Worse than all crimes that e’er have been,
I care not — for could I but see
My native land at liberty,
Could I but see my race restored
To freedom from the foreign horde,
All sins would I upon me take
Without one sigh for Russia’s sake. —
The crimes of all the Tartar race,
The apostates Uniates‘ treason base,
The sins of every Jew and Pole —
All would I take upon my soul.
Try not with threats my mind to shake,
Persuasive words no change can make,
For hell to me is to have viewed
My loved Ukraine in servitude;
To see my fatherland set free,
This, this alone, is heaven for me!

E’en from the cradle was my breast
With love of liberty possessed;
My mother sang me glorious lays
Of those long-past historic days,
Whose memory yet lives ‘mongst men,
For no fear seized on Russians then,
None cringed before the haughty Pole;
The iron of a foreign yoke
Weighed upon no free Russian’s soul,
None cowered beneath a stranger’s stroke;
Cossacks were then the Pole’s allies,
Bound each to each in equal ties,
Such as free men would well beseem —
Now all is vanished like a dream.
Cossacks long since had learned to know
How into tyrants friends may grow;
The Lithuanian, and the Jew,
The Pole, and all the Uniate crew,
Like ravening crows around their prey
Seize us, and tear our limbs away.
The voice of law no more is heard
In Warsaw’s city, none are stirred
At hearing all a nation’s wail,
Our mourning voices nought avail,
And now within me burns a flame
Of hatred for the Polish name —
A fierce hot flame of raging fire —
My look is wild with passion dire
And frenzied wrath; the soul in me
Sickens for love of liberty.
One thought have I by night and day,
Which like a shadow haunts my way,
E’en where the steppes lie silent, bare,
Unresting it pursues me there;
E’en in the soldier’s camp, and when
The battle’s whirl, and tramp of men,
Around me roar with maddening rush,
I hear it still, and in the hush
Of the still church’s vaulted gloom,
Sound in my ears the words of doom
“‘Tis time,” the holy accents say,
“‘Tis time to sweep the foes away,
“O’er the Ukraine who bear their sway.”
I know full well the direful fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate — but say
When, when has freedom won her way
Without the blood of martyrs shed,
When none for liberty have bled?
My coming doom I feel and know
And bless the stroke which lays me low
And, father, now with joy I meet
My death, to me such end is sweet.

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1944: Bronislav Kaminski, Waffen SS collaborator

3 comments August 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Gestapo eliminated more-trouble-than-he-was-worth Russian SS man Bronislav Kaminski.

The St. Petersburg-born Kaminski was Soviet by citizenship, but not Russian by nationality. Half-German and half-Polish, he’d done time twice for his questionable loyalties during the paranoid 1920’s and 30’s.

Turns out the commissars were on to something … or maybe, to paraphrase the old saying, that a Nazi is a Communist who’s been to the gulag.

Either way, when the front swept past Belarus where Kaminski was serving his post-release internal exile, the engineer jumped on an opportunity to join a classmate with the Russian National Liberation Army (RONA, or ROA). Kaminski soon rose to command the anti-partisan “army,” and earned an Iron Cross and the rank of Major General when it was incorporated into the Waffen-SS.

Unfortunately for Kaminski — and more so for anyone who happened to be in his unit’s vicinity — the 29th Waffen Grenadier Division was much better at roughing up partisans and their presumed civilian sympathizers than conducting disciplined military operations.

Little more than a roving band of armed thugs,* it was completely ineffective in the Siege of Warsaw earlier in August 1944, spending its time raping and looting instead.

That, evidently, was enough for Himmler, who had Kaminski eliminated** in punishment for his own looting (the booty was supposed to belong to the Reich), and the alleged rape-murder of German women along with all the expendables in Warsaw.

The exact trigger for this execution (for the juridical machinery always veils acts of discretion and intentionality; certainly, this is evident in a state like Nazi Germany) has never been completely clear; it may have been that between Kaminski and turncoat Red Army general Andrei Vlasov, the shrinking Reich had room enough for only one Russian commander.

Devil knows what he was commanding, anyway.

When, post-Kaminski, Vlasov assigned the remains of the RONA to Ukrainian collaborator Sergei Bunyachenko, the latter fumed, “So that’s what you’re giving me, bandits, robbers and thieves! You’ll let me have what you can no longer use!” … and soon bailed on his “patrons” by switching sides in the war yet again.

* It had some operations with the notorious Dirlewanger Battallion.

** The official announcement was that Kaminski had been killed in a partisan ambush; crazy conspiracy theorists refused to buy it.

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1864: Romuald Traugutt and the January Uprising leaders

Add comment August 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the leadership of Poland-Lithuania’s abortive January Uprising against the Russian tsar was hanged before 30,000 at Warsaw Citadel.


Romuald Traugutt depicted (somewhat ironically) on the 20-zloty note of Soviet bloc Poland.

Romuald Traugutt (English Wikipedia link | Polish) had been a decorated Lieutenant Colonel in the Tsarist army, and a heretofore apolitical man — but he resigned shortly after the outbreak of the doomed national uprising to take up sides against Russia.

This installment of the venerable Russians vs. Poles series was characteristically nasty.

In 1863 – Polonia by Jan Matejko, an allegory for the Polish nation is manacled by the Russians.

And it ended the way these affairs have ended these last 400 years or so: Russian victory.

The fallout was severe.

In addition to this day’s batch — Traugutt along with (all Polish Wikipedia links) Rafal Krajewski, Jozef Toczyski, Roman Zulinski and Jan Jezioranski — a further 391 were put to death after the war; tens of thousands were deported to Siberia or otherwise scattered in the vast Romanov empire; a war indemnity tax was imposed; and over three thousand estates in Poland and Lithuania were confiscated.

Traugutt has gained some latter-day support in the Catholic Church for beatification.

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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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