1945: The Rüsselsheim Massacre perpetrators

6 comments November 10th, 2018 Headsman

The U.S. Army hanged five German civilians as war criminals at Bruchsal Prison on this date in 1945. Their crime: lynching the crew of a downed American bomber, the day after Allied bombing raids devastated the manufacturing town of Rüsselsheim.

The lynching is known as the Rüsselsheim Massacre, and it claimed the lives of six of the nine flyers of a B-24 Liberator cheekily christened Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma’m!. One of their number survived thanks to his shrapnel wounds, which saw him safely to hospital while his comrades were being transported.

The other two were simply lucky to survive the beatings administered by a mob of enraged civilians who caught sight of the Americans under the escort of only two German soldiers. On the night of August 25-26, Britain’s Royal Air Force had dumped more than 1,600 tons of explosives on Rüsselsheim to destroy the Opel factory and rail lines there. It was only the latest, and ultimately the largest, of several raids on the town dating back to July. A later U.S. study reckoned 315 Opel workers killed and 277 injured during the July-August raids, to say nothing of the devastation on other townspeople and on Opel’s slave labor.* A POW, Frenchman Pierre Cuillier, recorded of the August 25-26 attack that “a bomb fell on the dug-out for Russian women. We hear of 119 victims, a number that in reality is surely much higher.”

Under the circumstances, the good folk of Rüsselsheim were not pleased on the morning of the 26th to see Allied airmen in their town being marched to a train transfer … even if, and surely the distinction must fail to impress amid the smoldering rubble of one’s own hometown, this particular American crew had not been part of this particular British bombing. (The Americans had been shot down two days earlier en route to do a similar thing to Hanover.)

“There are the terror flyers. Tear them to pieces! Beat them to death! They have destroyed our houses!” cried Margarete Witzler and Käthe Reinhardt. As the Americans protested, the crowd overpowered the guards and took its rough revenge with whatever bludgeons were ready to hand.

At last, Joseph Hartgen, an air raid warden, finished them off with his pistol … or at least, finished off six before his chamber went empty.


Spoiler alert: it will not go well for Herr Hartgen.

Somehow the two un-shot men, Sgt. William M. Adams, and Sgt. Sidney E. Brown, still drew enough breath by the end of the ordeal to sneak away when they were being dumped into a mass grave. Captured again a few days later, they survived the war in a POW camp.**

Eleven Rüsselsheimers stood trial in Darmstadt for these Lynchmorde by July, when war was still raging in the Pacific: it was the very first war crimes proceeding under U.S. occupation.

The defendants tried out a pre-Nuremberg version of the “only following orders” defense, blaming Nazi propaganda against bomber crews for inciting the murders. The U.S. prosecutor† scoffed: “They were all grown men and women. If they are called on to commit the murder and they do, they are just as responsible as any other murderers.”

Harten and six others of the 11 caught death sentences, but the two women — Witzler and Reinhardt — both had their sentences reduced.

Warning: Although not graphic, this is a video of actual hangings.

* Quotes and figures from Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany During the Second World War, which is topical because Opel was a General Motors subsidiary.

** Brown lived long enough to return to Rüsselsheim at official invitation in 2001 for a formal apology. However, at the time of the trial, it was still mysterious how there came to be only six exhumed bodies from eight lynched airmen: Adams and Brown only emerged out of the mass of returning POWs after convictions had already been secured.

† The army prosecutor at the proceeding was one Lt. Col. Leon Jaworski, but he’s better known for hunting larger game later in his career as the special prosecutor during the Watergate investigations. (Jaworski is the guy embattled President Richard Nixon appointed after firing Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre.) Jaworski’s eventual legal victory over the White House in United States v. Nixon obtained the incriminating Watergate tapes in late July of 1974, forcing Nixon’s resignation just days afterwards, on August 9, 1974.

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1944: Werner Seelenbinder, communist grappler

Add comment October 24th, 2018 Headsman

Left-wing athlete Werner Seelenbinder was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1944.

An Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, Seelenbinder’s plan to scandalize patriots by refusing to make the Nazi salute from the podium at the 1936 Berlin games was scratched when he came in fourth in the event.

Nevertheless, Seelenbinder (English Wikipedia entry | German) had already by then given more material aid to Hitler’s foes by using his sportsman’s travel itinerary as cover to act the courier for the banned Communist party.

Arrested in 1942 during the smash-up of the Robert Uhrig resistance ring, Seelenbinder was tortured horrifically in prison but died with courage — as he had pledged in a last letter to his father.

The time has now come for me to say goodbye. In the time of my imprisonment I must have gone through every type of torture a man can possibly endure. Ill health and physical and mental agony, I have been spared nothing. I would have liked to have experienced the delights and comforts of life, which I now appreciate twice as much, with you all, with my friends and fellow sportsmen, after the war. The times I had with you were great, and I lived on them during my incarceration, and wished back that wonderful time. Sadly fate has now decided differently, after a long time of suffering. But I know that I have found a place in all your hearts and in the hearts of many sports followers, a place where I will always hold my ground. This knowledge makes me proud and strong and will not let me be weak in my last moments.

As a visible public person who died in resistance to fascism, Seelenbinder made for ready national-icon material in postwar Germany … but because of his red affiliations he was honored in this fashion mostly in East Germany. (Indeed, even a sports club that had been named for him weeks after the war’s end, in the American-occupied sector, stripped his name right off a few years later to keep with the times. The stadium was reverted to its Seelenbinder christening in 2004.)


East Berlin’s Werner-Seelenbinder-Halle was demolished in 1993 and replaced by the Velodrom.

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1943: Mao Zemin, brother of Mao Zedong

Add comment September 27th, 2018 Headsman

Mao Zemin, younger brother of Communist leader Mao Zedong, was executed on this date in 1943.

A party cadre since 1921, the non-chairman Mao served a variety of economic leadership posts for the Red Army.

As of early 1941, Mao (English Wikipedia entry | the far more voluminous Chinese was detailed to the western province of Xinjiang, where the warlord Sheng Shicai maintained friendly relations with the neighboring Soviet Union.

To Mao’s grief, this “King of Xinjiang” saw in the unfolding global war an opportunity to realign.

After the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, Sheng boldly flipped his affiliation from Moscow to the nationalist Kuomintang government with which he had theretofore maintained only the frostiest of relations. Crackdowns on Communists ensued too, and both Mao Zemin and Chen Tanqiu were both arrested, tortured, and executed as a result.

Needless to say this KMT-Xinjiang axis did not hold the Celestial Empire’s destiny and the whole decision to fade Moscow looks pretty dumb in retrospect. Sheng, however, surely did not much regret the gambit since he was able to follow the nationalists to Taiwan and spend a comfortable retirement writing memoirs like Sinkiang: Pawn or Pivot?

Mao’s son Mao Yuanxin, a still-living pensioner as of this writing, was a political figure in the 1970s who was jailed post-Gang of Four.

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1941: Viggo Hasteen and Rolf Wickstrom, for the Milk Strike

Add comment September 10th, 2018 Headsman

On September 10, 1941, the German authorities occupying Norway martyred two labor activists.

The Third Reich occupied Norway in the spring of 1940, adding their puppet ruler’s surname to the world’s lexicon.


Rations queue in Oslo, 1941.

Besides the obvious consequences — national humiliation, political executions — the occupation brought terrible economic hardship to ordinary Norwegians. Most of Norway’s western-facing trading relationships were severed by the wartime takeover, and the lion’s share of national output was appropriated by Berlin. Norway’s GDP fell by nearly half during the war years.

“There was a real risk of famine,” Wikipedia advises us. “Many, if not most, Norwegians started growing their own crops and keeping their own livestock. City parks were divided among inhabitants, who grew potatoes, cabbage, and other hardy vegetables. People kept pigs, rabbits, chicken and other poultry in their houses and out-buildings. Fishing and hunting became more widespread.”

And people got more and more pissed off.

On September 8, shipyard workers protesting the withdrawal of their milk rations triggered a large, but brief, labor disturbance. The Milk Strike was violently quashed by September 10 with a declaration of martial law in Oslo and nearby Aker and the arrests of a number of labor leaders, five of whom were condemned to death.

Two of those five sentences were actually carried out:* those of lawyer and Communist Viggo Hansteen (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian), and labor activist Rolf Wickstrom (English | Norwegian).

They’re honored today in Oslo with a monumental joint tombstone and a memorial.

* Generous commutations awarded to Ludvik Buland and Harry Vestli permitted them to die in prison before the war was out. Their comrade Josef Larsson survived the war and chaired the Norwegian Union of Iron and Metalworkers until 1958.

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1943: Jarmila Zivcova, correspondent

1 comment September 9th, 2018 Headsman

In the early morning hours on this date in 1943, Jarmila Zivcova, her husband Vaclav Zivec, and their friend Ruzena Kodadova were beheaded in Berlin. These Czechoslovakians had been condemned for complicity in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

Their deaths were part of the mass of executions ordered by the Reich after Allied bombing damaged Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison, but we notice them via this thread on the information-dense Axis History Forum, thanks to the unusual circumstance of having their “last letters to their families” — a palliative exercise whose product was often destroyed rather than delivered — rescued by Karel Rameš. In his Zaluji: Pankracka Kalvarie, he gives the text of Jarmila Zivcova’s heartbreaking last missives, as translated by a forum poster:

9 September 1943:

Dear Mrs Taskova:

We are here with Ruzena in the preparation cell and at 4:30 we will be executed – us two, and my husband. We believed till the last moment that this would not happen, but unfortunately this morning we had to hear the awful truth that we must die. You were deceived if they promised you that we will be saved. Ruzena is very devastated, her hands shake, so she cannot even…

… and, scrawled on the back of a photograph of Vaclav and Jarmila’s son:

9/9/43, from your mom and dad:

My dear Jiri, keep this picture, kissed thousand times, in memory of your mother who found solace in it even in the saddest moments.

These aren’t names rich with search hits, but a German volume called Berufswunsch Henker contributes this letter from friends on the harrowing experience of proximity to the fallbeil:

We have seen our best friends go — Rosa Kodakova, Jarmila Zivcova, and many others. We can hear the severed heads crash onto the floor. We hear every detail in the vicinity of our cell. We hear the gate of the preparation cell open, then the executioner’s footsteps to the door; we hear his helpers grab the victim, shove her on the wooden bench, and cut off the head. Then they carry the body away without a head. They place the body in a rough coffin, their chopped-off head thrown between the dead man’s legs. The whole thing is then transported away somewhere for burning. By now we all know the whole story by heart.

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1941: Henri Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves, the first martyr of Free France

Add comment August 29th, 2018 Headsman

Henri Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves, the “first martyr of Free France”, fell to German guns at the Fort du Mont Valerien on this date in 1941, along with two companions.

A Catholic nationalist naval officer, d’Estienne d’Orves found himself in Egypt in June 1940, when his government capitulated to the devastating German blitz.

Eschewing the accommodationist crowd, d’Estienne d’Orves made his way first to a fleet in Somaliland, and then around the Cape of Good Hope and up to London, to link arms with de Gaulle’s Free French government-in-exile. By December of 1940, he’d infiltrated himself into German-occupied France to set up a spy network. By January of 1941, most of the network had been arrested by the Gestapo.

He and eight others were death-sentenced on May 13 and although the German brass entertained the possibility of clemency as their tribute to an honorable fellow-troop, the growth of partisan attacks against the Reich throughout that summer* eventually dictated a more punitive course. D’Estienne d’Orves, Maurice Barlier, and Jan Doornik were fusilladed together, disdaining blindfolds.


Proclamation in German and French announcing the August 29, 1941 executions of Henri Louis Honore d’Estiennes d’Orves, Maurice Charles Emile Barlier, and Jan Louis-Guilleaume Doornik.

* Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941 forced European Communist parties — and very notably the formerly reticent French Communists — into violent anti-Nazi resistance.

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1942: Nikola Vaptsarov, Bulgarian poet

Add comment July 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Poet Nikola Vaptsarov was shot on this date in 1942 for organizing anti-fascist resistance in Axis Bulgaria.

A communist machinist — the Varna naval academy where he learned engineering is now named for him* — Vaptsarov — Vaptsarov was a proper proletarian poet who only ever versified on the side.

Nevertheless, he was well-known in his time and remains so to this day in Bulgaria, particularly given his political bona fides and martyrdom thereto, which bear ready comparison to Spanish Civil War martyr Frederico Garcia Lorca.

Spain

What were you to me?
Nothing.
A land forgotten and remote,
a land of knights and high plateaux.
What were you to me?
The hearth
where blazed a strange and cruel love,
a wild intoxicant
of blood,
of glinting blades
and serenades,
of passion,
jealousy
and psalms.

Now you are my destiny,
now I live and share your fate.
In your struggle to be free
wholly I participate.

Now I’m stirred, now I rejoice
at all your victories in the fight.
In your youth and strength I trust
and my own strength with yours unite.

Crouching in machine-gun nests,
I fight on to victory,
down among Toledo’s streets,
on the outskirts of Madrid.

A worker in a cotton shirt
torn by bullets near me lies,
Ceaselessly the warm blood streams
from the cap pulled o’er his eyes.

It is my blood that I feel humming
through my veins, as suddenly
in him I recognize the friend
I once knew in a factory

where we shoveled coal together,
stoking the same furnace fire,
and found there was no barrier
to check our young and bold desire.

Sleep, my comrade, sleep in peace!
Though now the blood the blood-red flag be furled,
your blood into mine will pass
and stir the peoples of the world.

The blood you gave, already flows
through village, factory, town and state,
arouses, urges and inspires
all working men to demonstrate.

That workers never will lose heart,
but will advance relentlessly,
determined both to work and fight
and shed their blood that men be free.

Today your blood builds barricades,
infuses courage in our hearts,
and with a reckless joy proclaims:
‘Madrid is ours!
Madrid is ours!’

The world is ours! Friend, have no fear!
The whole expanding universe
its ours!
Beneath the southern sky
sleep
and have faith,
have faith in us!

-Vaptsarov

Vaptsarov published his lone book, Motor Songs, in 1940, which was the same year he was interned demonstrating against Bulgaria’s tenuous neutrality and in favor of alliance with the USSR. A few months after his release, the Third Reich forced Bulgaria into the Axis. A member of the Central Military Committee of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Vaptsarov was arrested for doing just the sort of things that such a committee would be doing in 1942.

A Selected Poems volume of his was published posthumously; it can be enjoyed free here.** Perhaps the most moving entry is the very last one, a short composition dedicated to his wife just hours before his execution.

On Parting

To my wife

Sometimes I’ll come when you’re asleep,
An unexpected visitor.
Don’t leave me outside in the street,
Don’t bar the door!

I’ll enter quietly, softly sit
And gaze upon you in the dark.
Then, when my eyes have gazed their fill,
I’ll kiss you and depart.

The fight is hard and pitiless.
The fight is epic, as they say.
I fell. Another takes my place —
Why single out a name?

After the firing squad — the worms.
Thus does the simple logic go.
But in the storm we’ll be with you,
My people, for we loved you so.

2 p.m. — 23.VII.1942

* You’ll also find the man’s tribute on the frigid slopes of Vaptsarov Peak on the Antarctic Livingston Island. More accessibly, there are museums to him in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia as well as Vaptsarov’s hometown of Bansko.

** Some other sites with Vaptsarov poems: here and here.

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1941: George Johnson Armstrong, under the Treachery Act

Add comment July 10th, 2018 Headsman

Marine engineer George Johnson Armstrong on this date in 1941 was hanged at Wandsworth Prison … attaining an unenviable distinction as the first of five Britons executed under the Treachery Act of 1940.

One of the very first laws enacted by the incoming wartime government of Winston Churchill as the Wehrmacht overran France, the Treachery Act anticipated two potential difficulties in punishing various forms of aid that folk might thereafter attempt to extend to the Third Reich.

We’ll let all about those difficulties:

if we rely upon the Treason Act — the main Act, as I have said, is an Act of great antiquity — and other Acts which establish special procedure and special formalities, we shall have a much more complicated and cumbrous procedure than may, in existing circumstances, be justified.

There is also this further point. The law of treason in this country applies, of course, to every British subject wherever that British subject is living, because every British subject owes allegiance to the King. The law of treason also applies to aliens in so far as they owe to the King local allegiance — that is to say, as long as they are resident in this country and enjoying the protection of its laws. It is a very doubtful question indeed whether under the existing law of treason you could proceed against an alien who has come here suddenly, surreptitiously by air or otherwise, for the purposes of wreaking clandestine destruction or doing other acts against the safety of the real. In as much as treason is a crime committed by someone who owes allegiance, it might be well argued that such a person does not owe allegiance to the British Crown.

This act was handy indeed against enemy spies like Josef Jakobs, but it was also employed against five British citizens during and immediately following the war. (We’ve previously met a couple of them in these very pages: Theodore Schurch and Duncan Scott-Ford.) Johnson’s particular offense was to communicate an offer to a German consulate in the United States to help keep the then-still-neutral U.S. out of the war.

A full list of those executed for wartime treachery can be found at CapitalPunishmehtUK.org.

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1941: 3,500 Jews at the Khotyn Fortress … but not Adolph Sternschuss

Add comment July 3rd, 2018 Meaghan

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

On July 4, 1941, a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy named Ephraim Sternschuss began his diary in the Nazi-occupied Zloczow, Poland, with these lines:

Mother knows nothing about Father’s murder. I won’t be the one to tell. But I have to express what I’m feeling … I’ll write down all the details so when I’m old I’ll remember my youth and this World War, even though I’m not sure I’ll live through it.

I’m writing while lying on my back. I can’t move my legs. Mother says I’m in shock. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m so anxious because I can’t tell her about Father, who was drafted yesterday into forced labor and Mother still believes he’s alive.

The eastern Polish town of Zloczow had been annexed by the Soviet Union after the partition of Poland with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Zloczow‘s Jews, who at 14,000 people constituted about half of the population, lived in relative safety until the summer of 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

They arrived in Zloczow on July 2. With the help of enthusiastic local Polish and Ukrainian collaborators, the SS rounded up 3,500 Jews, among them Adolph Sternschuss, Ephraim’s father. The victims were told they would be sent to forced labor — excavating mass graves of Soviet victims, digging anti-tank ditches, and such.

They were, in fact, digging their own graves.

Ephraim described his father’s departure thusly:

Father was taken at 10:00 a.m. An evening earlier Mrs. Reichard came by and told us that at a local Ukrainian meeting, it was decided to carry out an anti-Jewish pogrom the very next day. Unfortunately, Father didn’t believe her because she was such a gossip. Father was sitting in the kitchen when two Ukrainians came in, Warwara from our street and Bojko a tailor …

They told Father to get ready for work. Father changed into an old suit, emptied his pockets of everything except a penknife, a handkerchief and a Soviet ID. They said to give Father bread because “he would return only at two in the afternoon and he’d get hungry until then.” (My god, what hypocrisy!) Mother made two sandwiches with sausage. They also told him to bring a shovel and he kissed Mother and me and went away.

Adolph did not return at two o’clock, and at four that afternoon, Ephraim and his mother, Anna, heard the sound of distant gunfire coming from the Khotyn Fortress. A neighbor came by and told Ephraim there had been a mass shooting (the perpetrators were members of Einsatzgruppe C) and “all the men were killed.”


Khotyn Fortress. (cc) image from Andriy Baranskyy.

Ephraim assumed his father must be dead. He started his diary because he couldn’t bear to speak the dreadful fact aloud, but had to confide in somebody, if only an old school notebook.

What he didn’t know was that Adolph Sternschuss had, in fact, miraculously survived the shooting. The happy news was delivered to Ephraim’s family on July 5: Adolph was alive and hiding with friends of the family.

Around four o’clock the mother of Mrs. Kitai, Mother’s friend, came in and said that Father was alive and staying with them. Hurray! I went wild, jumping, laughing, everything. Mother gave her clean underwear for Father and asked her to tell him to stay there, not to come home, until the situation improved. Mother went out to tell Mrs. Reichard the news, and about an hour later the door opened and Father came in.

I’ll never forget the sight. His black suit was gray with dirt and dust, on his head he wore some wrinkled hat … He held the package of underwear Mother sent him and a small army shovel. When he entered I jumped out of bed and screamed “Mummy!” and ran to him. I kissed him although he was terribly stinking, like a corpse — and he started crying. It was the first time I saw Father cry.

Together with Mrs. Beer we pulled a sofa into the other room and hid the door behind a mirrored chest. We helped Father remove his clothes and then we saw what the Ukrainians were capable of. His whole back was beaten to a black pulp and swollen and he had a hideous bruise on his head.

We washed him and then he ate something and then we put him to bed and he fell asleep. He didn’t say a word.

Over the next few days, Adolph described his ordeal and his incredible survival to his only child, who wrote it all down in detail in his diary. Adolph’s story, as told to Ephraim, is worth quoting almost in full:

At noon I brought him a meal and he told me what he had gone through. I didn’t recognize his monotonous tone, but there, in the darkness of the basement, I sensed that he was reliving his ordeal. Well, in the beginning he worked near the Fortress, burying cadavers of horses.

Then he was transferred to the Fortress itself. At the entrance he was ordered to show his papers, but he lied, claiming he had none. “A man is only an addition to his identity card,” he said as if he were the father I knew.

They worked in two places: the inner court of the prison and the garden. They had to dig up mass graves of corpses killed by the NKVD — Ukrainians and Poles (and some Jews like Dr. Grosskopf and his son-in-law). The bodies were laid out in rows to be identified.

On that occasion, the Ukrainians beat the Jews, accusing them of committing these murders. Naturally, the Germans and the S.S. troops joined in, beating the Jews mercilessly. Father was followed by a short, white-haired butcher who hit him with a stout stick he had pulled out of the fence, and by a tall, blond S.S. soldier who used a coiled rope.

At noon two officers came up to Father and asked his profession. He answered, “Lawyer.” Probably they could tell from his accent that he had studied in Vienna,* but they asked him anyway. When he confirmed it, one of the Germans asked, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” and Father said he was, and the German, furious, said, “Then I can’t do anything for you,” and the two of them stormed off.

Shortly after, the shooting began …

Around three o’clock they shot Father, but as he happened to already be in the ditch, all four bullets hit the pile of dirt, and Father fell down and pretended to be dead. An hour later it started raining and that’s what saved him: the Ukrainians and Germans were forced to stop shooting and shelter themselves under the roof.

At 9 p.m. sharp Kuba Schnapp and Freimann pulled Father out of the ditch and all three made their escape. Father practically had to be dragged away because both of them, and two corpses, were lying on his left leg. “After playing Indians,” said Father and it seemed to be that he smiled, they slipped through a hole in the fence and parted ways.

Father wanted to enter Winczura’s house but was refused. He then moved on to Barabasz and there, in the attic, were about thirty people. The next day he was forced to leave because of the terrible conditions. He moved over to a client of his, Mrs. Lewant, and stayed in the attic with the Kitai family. From there he returned home.

“One thing is etched in my memory forever,” he said. “I never imagined that Jews could die like that. They were like Romans. Proud, erect, silent. Thus they were killed.”

Seventy years later, one “old, toothless” witness, one of the fifteen remaining Jews still living in the area, recalled the massacre: “The earth shifted for days. They couldn’t bury them fast enough.”

Unfortunately, Adolph didn’t live long after he crawled out from under those corpses in the mass grave. He was not young, and his health was ruined by his horrific experience. Just a few days before Christmas, he died in his bed after a series of heart attacks.

On December 29 that year, Ephraim wrote mournfully,

Only those who have lost their fathers will understand me — and regrettably there are so many now. Dr. Hreczanik was right when he said to Mother, “your husband was killed at the Fortress.”

This first mass killing in Zloczow was followed by others. In late August 1942, the Germans rounded up 2,700 Jews and deported them to the Belzec Extermination Camp. In early November, a further 2,500 people were taken away.

A month later, a ghetto was established for between 7,500 and 9,000 people from Zloczow as well as the remnants of several nearby Jewish communities. Rather than go into the ghetto, Ephraim and his mother went into hiding, concealed outside the village of Jelechowice by sympathetic Ukrainian Catholic farmers: Grzegorz “Hryc” Tyz, his wife Maria “Misia” Koreniuk, and Helena Skrzeszewska.

The Sternschusses made the right choice: in April 1943 the Zloczow Ghetto was liquidated and all the survivors were shot and buried in mass graves.

Ephraim and Anna Sternschuss remained hidden on the rural farm for the rest of the war. When it was safe they just stayed inside the house; when there was danger they hid “downstairs” under the floor, “in a grave-like pit, narrow and long.” He kept writing in his diary:

We walk about the house without any inhibition, trusting Rex to faithfully do his duty. He barks differently at anyone so we can know in advance whether he’s a friend or a foe. In any case, whenever we hear him, Mother and I enter our room, shut the door and Misia, if the visitor is a stranger, sings “Chiming of Bells in the Dusk.” Then we sit quietly, almost without breathing, waiting for the visit to end. Nobody must know about our existence here.

The Sternschuss family’s hosts refused to accept any payment for their stay, but Ephraim and his mother did have to chip in to cover the cost of their food. Over time, others joined them: Ephraim’s aunt and uncle, Lipa and Linka Tennenbaum; the Tennenbaums’ daughters, Eda and Selma; the five members of the Parille family; and Edzia Weinstock and her daughter Eva.

Thus, the farm became a sanctuary for eleven Jews, plus the three hosts — all living on a small farm with a three-room farmhouse, a shed, an outhouse, and an uncertain grant of borrowed time. Ephraim occupied himself writing in his diary, drawing, and reading. Misia Koreniuk, one of his hosts, was a teacher, and she freely shared her “huge chest of books and magazines” with him. Ephraim even began teaching himself algebra and geometry.

It wasn’t all a nightmare. There was, for example, an amusing incident in February 1943 where they got the farm animals drunk on moonshine vodka:

It was a pity to have to throw it away, so Hryc scattered a bit in the yard for the chickens and the rest he put in the trough for the cow Krasula. The chickens pecked — and immediately lay down on the earth, absolutely foggy minded. But Krasula started going berserk, running around and climbing trees. It was terribly funny but also a bit dangerous. Hryc managed to overcome her with much difficulty and tied her up in the stable.

Through his hosts Ephraim kept up with the progress of the war and tracked the Allied advance in his diary, eagerly awaiting liberation. Yet it was hard to stay optimistic and he occasionally had thoughts of suicide. As he wrote in October 1943, he struggled to keep from succumbing to apathy and despair:

It’s all nonsense. […] Nobody knows us. We don’t have anybody in the whole wide world. Nobody. Only Mother and I. Therefore there’s no other option: one mustn’t give in to crises. We have to stay united. Today my heart is heavy. I’m writing almost in darkness but I must write. Too much crap weighs on my heart and I must pour all of it, at least in this diary.

Why is it called life? The best years of my youth have gone by and will not return. Never. Even if it all ends today, it won’t do any good … This is my life. And if I add the well known fact that everybody is born with a death verdict — what’s there to live for?

On November 6, 1943, a baby girl was born on the farm — the offspring of one of the members of the Parille family. Before the war, the mother had tried for years to get pregnant, going through “all possible treatments and nothing helped. And here, of all places, did she give birth.”

Ephraim wrote that their host, Hryc, started sobbing in despair when he found out:

So we aren’t only fourteen but fifteen with the baby! Not too bad … That’s to say very bad. Lipa is right saying that the baby can betray us all. We learned not to speak but to whisper, but a baby?! What’s to be done?

Within a few days the baby died. Perhaps it was just as well.

The situation became even more precarious in late January 1944, after a unit of retreating Germans showed up at the farm and the commander requisitioned a room in the farmhouse for himself and his Russian girlfriend.

Thus the farmhouse was divided: the German in one room, the three Ukrainian farmers in the next room, eight Jews in the 3×4 meter room down the hall, and three more hidden in the shed!

The German officer never found out about the hidden Jews, and as Ephraim noted, the man’s presence turned out to have a silver lining, because it protected everyone from the threat of looting, arson and murder at the hands of anti-Semitic Ukrainian partisans, who had become very active in the area.

Also, Helena Skrzeszewska was able to cajole the military kitchen into giving her their leftover soup, which she fed to the Jews. Ephraim noted wryly, “We live at the expense of Hitler.”

He was actually upset when the German officer left the farm two weeks later, writing,

Our citadel is no more. Again fearful nights will begin without the landlords who’ll go to the village for their sleep. We’ll remain on our own against the gangs, full of fear of the Ukrainian killers, of being set on fire … Again night watches every two hours, with a pistol and six bullets.

Sure enough, in early March, while Ephraim’s hosts were away from the farm, the Ukrainian partisans tried to set the place on fire. Ephraim was on watch that night:

I don’t know if I panicked. But now, while writing that, I think I wasn’t absolutely clear about what I was doing. Anyhow, after raising [the others in hiding], I opened the door and like an idiot went out into the lighted yard. Two sprints brought me to the well. I crouched behind its side and emptied my pistol of all its bullets, shooting into the darkness of the forest like a movie cowboy. The first time in my life.

In the meantime Lipa, Mother, Linka and Edzia came out with buckets. […] I don’t think it took us a long time to control the situation. The fools didn’t shoot at us from the forest despite the fact that we were in the light. I assume — and I’m not the only one thinking like that — that they were frightened of us being armed.

In the morning, when our landlords came back from the neighbors, they were surprised to learn that the house was still standing. […] Hryc went to the forest and found blood stains in the snow.

Later the month the Germans returned and searched the farm for signs of partisan activity, and actually encountered Ephraim’s aunt and mother inside the house:

Mother and Auntie locked us in and ran to the entrance door. They hardly made it when the door was busted open in spite of the big lock hanging outside. The Germans were astonished running into them. Despite Lipa’s warnings to Mother not to reveal her knowledge of German, she explained to them that they were locking themselves in the house in fear of the partisans.

“The partisans are all Juden,” said one of the Germans, and then asked where did Mother acquire such a German [language]. She told him she lived in Salzburg and came here to get married. “It’s all Love’s fault,” said the German, asked her to forgive him, went out and in a moment returned with a bomboniere.

In the meanwhile dawn was breaking and they discovered the Germans were S.S. troops. Mother says that if she wasn’t hit by a heart attack she would never have one. Immediately she told them they were being “evacuated” to the West. The Germans, perfect gentlemen that they were, proposed to help them, give them a truck. Auntie thanked them, said there was no need, everything was under control. Indeed.

Half an hour later our landlords returned back from the village. They looked really terrified when they saw Mother and Linka standing at the entrance to the house with two S.S. men. Mother introduced them, bid the Germans farewell and entered the hideout with Auntie.

The hideout happens to be east of the house, not west.

All the Jews spent three days in the underground hideout until the SS officers left. By then the front was very close, as Ephraim wrote on March 13:

In the nights, during shifts, we hear the “music” of artillery. The front keeps coming closer. Two days ago they were at Podhorce, 15 kms away! The windows were shaking to the blasts of cannon. But the Germans, damn it, pushed them back to a point 35 kms from us. There they stand and shoot. What bad fortune! Tarnopol has been liberated and we are not.

On March 26, Ephraim noted that it was the 1,000th day he had spent living under German occupation: “The 1,000 days we’ve spent in the Reich are like 1,000 years. With my whole heart I wish the Fuhrer and his admirers to have 1,000 such days …”

And he had months left to endure before he would see freedom.

On July 3, the second anniversary of the massacre at the Khotyn Fortress, Ephraim was using the outhouse when he saw a car stop and two Germans emerge with two men and a child. The Germans shot all three of them and left their bodies by the road. The victims, he found out later, were Jews who had been caught hiding nearby.

Liberation finally came to Jelechowice on July 16, 1944, as noted by a single sentence in red pencil in Ephraim’s diary: “THE BOLSHEVIKS HAVE ARRIVED!!!” He was sixteen years old, and had survived 1,111 days under the Germans.

On the third day after liberation, he recorded,

Mother, Auntie and I went to town. Zloczow made a terrible impression on us. Only bombed, burnt houses, torn wires on the road. A mass of troops on the way to Lvov. Our house is burnt. The neighbors — who couldn’t really understand how we managed to survive — said that the Germans had set the house on fire because it contained the archives of the Gestapo.

In the house, which was inhabited by the Gestapo unit, we found our dining room furniture in one of the rooms. It looked strange to me. That’s precisely what we need: a big table, or a buffet …

We haven’t met Jews.

Ephraim’s last diary entry was on July 29. He wrote of finally encountering some other survivors:

Maybe twenty people, perhaps thirty … All stood and cried. For sure I don’t have to write that picture down in the diary. I’ll remember it to the end of my life. All the Jews, the ten thousand Jews of Zloczow, were praying together in one small room. I heard the heart-rending sobbing, the wailing, the “Magnified and sanctified be His great name” prayer for the dead, and the “God, full of compassion” one, and I understood once and for all that they, we, address somebody who was absent when needed, and perhaps now wasn’t needed any longer, or maybe simply never existed. It was noontime and

The diary ends in mid-sentence.

Ephraim remained in Poland for over a decade after the war. He attended engineering school for two years, then switched his studies to theater. He moved to Israel in 1957. There he changed his family name from Sternschuss to Sten.

In Israel, Ephraim married, had children, and had a successful career as an author, actor, director and playwright for both stage and radio. But for decades he kept his diary hidden and did not speak of his Holocaust experiences to anyone.

Although he had a normal existence in his adopted country, he never recovered emotionally from the trauma of the war, describing it as “the load crushing my soul.”

He had thought, he said, once he left Poland, that he might finally “become a regular human being. But the world wouldn’t let me.”

In the 1990s, Ephraim returned to Zloczow, which is now part of Ukraine and called Zolochiv. Two of his Ukrainian rescuers had died, but Ephraim had a tearful reunion with Hryc Tyz, who told him, “You are my relatives. I didn’t believe I’d be lucky to yet see somebody from my family.”

His four-day trip inspired him to dig out his diary and translate it into Hebrew so that his children could read it. The diary was published in English in 2006, with annotations by an older Ephraim fifty years after the fact, under the title 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four.

Ephraim Sten died in 2004.

The Khotyn Fortress is a major tourist attraction in Ukraine and is considered one of the nation’s most stunning castles. In a nearby field, a “foul-smelling marsh” where “the grass is high and thick,” is a memorial for the 3,500 Jews (but not Ephraim’s dad) who were murdered there in July 1941.

* Zloczow answered to the sovereignty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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1942: Gordon Cummins, the Blackout Ripper

1 comment June 25th, 2018 Headsman

It was a black hood for the Blackout Ripper on this date in 1942.

Charming Royal Air Force serviceman Gordon Frederick Cummins gave rein that February to a theretofore unarticulated inclination to femicide, attacking six women in the course of a single week, four of whom were killed by strangulation. The pattern of perverse post-mortem mutilations led one examiner to characterize the wanted man as “a savage sexual maniac”. This predator’s opportunistic use of the city’s protective cloak of air raid darkness reminds a similar spree perpetrated on the Berlin S-Bahn: truly, all men are brothers.

For a few days, this special horror gripped the wartime capital, so recently under enemy blitz. As fingerprint expert Frederick Cherrill, whose evidence would help to tie up Gordon Cummins’ noose, wrote in his now-out-of-print autobiography,

Women police in ordinary clothes strolled about the streets in the hope of being accosted by the unknown killer. So great was the terror which swept like a wave over the square mile in which these crimes had been committed that the regular street-walkers who haunted the area were too scared to venture out. [several of the victims were prostitutes -ed.] Small wonder, for nobody knew when or where the killer would strike again. That he would strike again seemed certain, for the lust of killing appeared to have siezed him in a merciless grip

Unlike his permanently elusive Whitechapel namesake, the Blackout Ripper was not long at his liberty once he loosed the beast within: crime scene forensics were still coming of age in this period, but the ample evolution of the bureaucratic state did for Cummins. On lucky Friday, February 13, Greta Hayward had fought off her attacker with the help of a passerby’s interruption. Cummins, when he fled, abandoned his RAF gas mask case … which was helpfully stamped with a serial number identifying its owner. He was arrested on February 16, just eight days after the start of his spree. (Scotland Yard, however, would later claim that his fingerprints connected him to two previous London murders, from October 1941.) It took a jury 35 minutes to convict him.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Rape,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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