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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Poland,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,USSR,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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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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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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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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1942: Partisans by the Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger

6 comments November 21st, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date in November 1942, this photograph of an SS unit executing anti-Nazi partisans in Belarus was taken.

Behind this striking but all too typical image of brutal field executions on the eastern front lies the sordid story of one of the strangest military formations in the Nazi service.

The Dirlewanger brigade was formed under a man whose fortuitous early enrollment in the NSDAP had enabled him to pull strings to get himself out of Dachau, where he had been sent after his second molestation conviction, and where unfolding events could have easily seen him on the other end of the firing squad.

Instead, Oskar Dirlewanger formed a unit of criminals and reprobates: poachers at first, and eventually, as it grew into the SS-Sonderbatallion Dirlewanger, men culled from the camps or soldiers condemned by the army, some literally trading the likelihood of execution themselves for service under one of the most disreputable commanders in the field.

Oh, and, just incidentally — it stuck them into a lawless environment where they could probably practice and refine their pathologies unchecked. Some “rehabilitation.”

As of this relatively early date, the convict floodgates weren’t yet entirely open, and the existing German volunteers were supplemented by a goodly portion of Soviet citizens recruited in the occupied territories. From 1942 to 1944, they hung around Belarus hunting guerrillas and doing to them — well, you know. (The original notion of using poachers was to exploit their ranger-like woodsman talents for anti-partisan warfare.)

Oh, and civilians. Tens of thousands of civilians. That almost goes without saying.

Sadly for Dr. Dirlewanger, events further south were undoing all his bloody work, for it was also in the November 1942 that the Red Army decisively turned the tide of the war with its counterattack at Stalingrad — in fact, it was this very date in 1942 that it completed its encirclement, stranding a quarter-million freezing Wehrmacht regulars on the banks of the Volga, only a handful ever to see Germany again.

The Dirlewanger brigade would have its own turn being minced by the Soviet war machine, though not before it had a notorious hand in drowning the Warsaw Uprising in blood.

Dirlewanger himself was tortured to death by Polish guards a few weeks after the war ended.

Part of the Themed Set: The “Ex” Stands For “Extrajudicial”.

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1944: Emanuel Ringelblum, historian of the Warsaw Ghetto

4 comments March 9th, 2008 Headsman

It was not only the destroyers of the Warsaw ghetto who left their testimony.

Emanuel Ringelblum, a Polish-Jewish historian and social worker, was among the 450,000 trapped in the ghetto.*

Ringelblum organized a monumental project to document its life — the “Oyneg Shabbos”. Ringelblum’s ring cast a network throughout the ghetto, systematically collecting its written history: public proclamations, ration cards and identity papers, and most precious of all, personal diaries and memoirs of hundreds of inhabitants, testament to the gathering madness encircling Warsaw’s Jews. Ringelblum sat up nights, sifting and categorizing a stupendous trove — over 25,000 surviving sheets — that was still never equal to his vision:

“To our great regret, however, only part of the plan was carried out … We lacked the necessary tranquillity for a plan of such scope and volume.” (Source)

Shortly before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Ringelblum and his family were spirited out of the Jewish quarter and into the protection of friendly Poles. There, they outlived the ghetto by nearly a year.

But on March 7, tipped by a neighborhood teenager who would himself receive a death sentence after the war for the act, the Gestapo captured both Ringelblum’s family and that of his protectors. Around this date — just a few days after their arrest — they would be summarily shot with other fugitives in the ruins of the community he chronicled. Ringelblum reportedly spurned a rescue attempt, preferring to swallow the same draught as his wife and son.

A few years before, another writer living under another dictator scratched in his secret novel — still secret at the time of Ringelblum’s death — words that would become a signature of literary integrity in a totalitarian age:

Manuscripts don’t burn.

While Ringelblum himself fell victim at last, like most of Warsaw’s Jews, to the Holocaust, the burning — his manuscripts did not. Shortly before capture, the diligent historian had secreted them in buried coffee tins. Years after the war, many of those tins were recovered.

Their contents form the basis for Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, one of the most moving and penetrating first-person Holocaust histories.

An interesting interview with Samuel Kassow, author of Who Will Write Our History?, is available from the New Books In History podcast.

This French-language page on an exhibition of Ringelblum’s archives covers some of its history, with a number of photographs. This site collects a number of Yiddish poems from the Ringelblum archive.

* This Time magazine article claims that Ringelblum was safe in Switzerland as of 1939, but voluntarily returned to Poland to witness and share his fellows’ fate. Noble if true, but I have been unable to find corroboration of this elsewhere.

Part of the Themed Set: The Written Word.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Disfavored Minorities,Germany,Intellectuals,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1635: Ivan Sulyma

4 comments December 12th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1635, Cossack commander Ivan Sulyma was put to death in Warsaw for razing the Kodak Fortress on the Dnieper River.

Sulyma‘s death, a footnote historically, unfolded in the rising action of Zaporozhian Cossacks‘ conflict with the Polish-Lithuanian empire then at the peak of its power.

Those famed corsairs of the steppes made their way in the world by plunder. The European powers at play around the Black Sea domains of the Zaporozhian host — Poland, Russia and the Ottoman Empire — each struggled to exploit Cossack raiders for their own ends of statecraft.

The Zaporozhian Cossacks, as portrayed by Ilya Repin

It was perhaps the misfortune of Poland to claim suzerainty during this unruly horde’s upswinging arc. The Poles endeavored to gather the Cossacks into the formal apparatus of the state, “registering” an elite corps of Cossacks inducted into the armed forces while reducing the remainder to peasantry.

The registry’s size and privileges became a permanent bone of contention, driving a cycle of uprisings through the 1620’s and 30’s that sapped Cossacks’ loyalty to the Polish crown.

Sulyma was a partisan of the militant unregistered Cossacks, fresh from war against the Ottomans. He returned to find that Poland had thrown up a fortress controlling the Dnieper, with an eye both to checking Cossack provocations against the now-peacable Turks, and to controlling internal Cossack disturbances.

Sulyma sacked the fortress, slaughtering its 200 inhabitants, but the disturbance was quickly put down and loyal registered Cossacks handed over the rebel. By the late 1630’s, Poland had imposed a peace of arms on the region … but hardly a secure one. As historian Orest Subtelny notes:

[E]ach successive uprising reflected the growing strength and military sophistication of the rebels. Their numbers grew, their tactics improved, and Cossack identification with the plight of the peasantry and the defense of Orthodoxy deepened. The decade-long Golden Peace merely masked a problem that was waiting to explode again.

It exploded in 1648. Where Sulyma had failed, Bohdan Khmelnytsky would succeed — breaking the Cossack lands permanently free of Poland.

Remembered to the modern state of Ukraine as a father of the country, Khmelnytsky’s immediate achievement was to rearrange the balance of power in Eastern Europe. Poland, ravaged by invading Swedes just as the Cossacks slipped away, fell into permanent decline — leaving a vacuum filled by Russia, which soon pulled the Cossacks into its orbit.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine

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