Posts filed under 'Concentration Camps'

1943: 1,196 Jewish children from Bialystok

3 comments October 5th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1943, a special transport of 1,196 children and 53 adults arrived at Auschwitz and were gassed shortly thereafter. Thus ended one of the lesser-known tragedies of the Holocaust.

The children were very nearly the last survivors of the Bialystok Ghetto, which had been liquidated in August 1943. Almost all of the inhabitants of the ghetto wound up being sent to the Treblinka Extermination Camp and killed, but over a thousand children were mysteriously separated from their parents and taken away for some as-yet-unknown purpose. (The transport list can be found here.)

At the time, there were tentative negotiations between the Red Cross and the Nazis to trade Jewish children for either German prisoners of war or cold, hard cash. The exact details are unclear, and there’s a great deal of contradictory information about the entire event.

In any case, the Germans selected children from Bialystok, one of the few places in Nazi Europe where there were any Jewish children left alive.

The children, all of them under 16, spoke only Yiddish and Polish. They were in terrible shape, both mentally and physically. One witness later described them:

Suddenly, a column of bedraggled children appeared, hundreds of them … holding each other’s hands. The older ones helped the small ones, their little bodies moving along in the pouring rain. A column of marching ghosts, with wet rags clinging to their emaciated bodies, accompanied by a large number of SS men …

The children, looking like scarecrows, refused to undress. They held on to their dirty clothing, the older stepping in front of the young ones, protecting them with their bodies, clutching their hands and comforting those that were crying. Their clothing permeated with lice, their bodies full of sores, these children refused to wash.

Their first stop was Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia, the so-called “model ghetto” which was used by the Nazis as a propaganda tool to show that they weren’t mistreating their Jews.

Theresienstadt was in fact a horribly overcrowded, disease-ridden city and its inhabitants were all dying of starvation, but it was the best there was available. There were no gas chambers there, and the Theresienstadters knew nothing about the kinds of horrors the Bialystok children had been through.

To keep knowledge of said horrors from leaking out, once in Theresienstadt the children were placed in isolation and weren’t allowed to leave their barracks. 53 doctors and nurses were recruited from the local population to take care of them, and they were locked up with the children.

In spite of these security measures, some of the adults were able to make contact with people from the outside. Theresienstadt youth leader Fredy Hirsch got caught making an unauthorized visit to the children’s barracks, for example, and as punishment he was sent to Auschwitz on the next train.

A child thought to be Deborah Klementynowska, possibly the only surviving photo of one of these lost Bialystok children.

The adults — one of whom was Franz Kafka‘s sister, Ottilie — didn’t know what to make of the children’s behavior at first.

For instance, why, when they were invited to take a shower, did they start crying and screaming about gas? The children started to talk about their experiences, and their caregivers were horrified by their stories.

The Nazis intended to quite literally fatten up the children before they were sent off into the world, so the group was treated very well. Everyone got enough to eat, and they were given baths, clean clothes, medical treatment and even toys. Anyone who got seriously ill was taken away “to the hospital” and, ahem, never returned.

Slowly, assisted by their kind caregivers, the children got their equilibrium and began to act like normal kids again.

Meanwhile, negotiations continued …

The Allies wanted to send the children to British Mandate Palestine. The Germans, however, were against this plan because they didn’t want the children growing up there, strengthening the Palestinian Jewish community and possibly establishing a Jewish state someday. (The Mufti of Jerusalem, whom the Nazis were quite friendly with, didn’t like the idea either.)

The Germans wanted the children sent to Great Britain instead.

The UK, however, had already accepted many Jewish refugees, including 10,000 German, Austrian and Czech children with the Kindertransport, and were unwilling to take in any more.

And there was another problem, relating to the prospect of exchanging the children for money.

This money would have to be provided by the American Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish welfare agencies, and they flat-out refused to give anything to the people who had promised to wipe them off the face of the earth.

In the end, the negotiations collapsed, through what one witness later called “an ill-applied sense of ‘correctness'” on the part of the Allies. Of course, given the Nazis’ track record, one wonders if they ever seriously intended to release the children no matter what they were given in return.

The plan was discarded and the Germans were left with 1,196 useless Jewish children on their hands. They dealt with them in the usual manner.

None of the Bialystok group or their caregivers had any idea what was coming up for them when they were sent away from Theresienstadt. They’d been told the negotiations had been successful and they were on their way to Switzerland, and thence to Palestine. They were told to take off their yellow stars and the adults had to sign a statement promising not to say anything bad about the Germans.

The transport set off in high spirits, rejoicing at their upcoming freedom.

But their train went not to Switzerland but to Poland, marked for “special treatment” on arrival at its destination. Apart from a few of the adults who were selected to work, there were no survivors.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Children,Concentration Camps,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Gassed,Germany,Guest Writers,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Other Voices,Wartime Executions

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1945: The children of Bullenhuser Damm

4 comments April 20th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1945, as Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday within a Red Army cordon, one of the Second World War’s more tear-jerking little crimes against humanity happened in Hamburg.

Bullenhuser Dammstill to be found today — was a former Hamburg school which fell out of use as World War II progressed, owing to the devastation Allied bombings wrought on the surrounding area.

The school itself sustained little damage, however, which eventually facilitated its appropriation as a satellite building for the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp.

Over at Neuengamme, the SS doctor Kurt Heissmeyer had been conducting a litany of horror medical experiments on 20 Jewish children — mostly from Poland — culled from the concentration camps, seeking medical evidence for Nazi racial theories further to a cushy professorship. But as April 1945 was obviously endgame for the Third Reich, thoughts naturally turned to disposing of evidence of indictable offenses.


Photos of the eventual Bullenhuser Damm victims showing their surgical scars after Heissmeyer injected them with tuberculosis.

Bullenhuser Damm was just the place for disposal.

On April 20, the 20 kids were loaded up on trucks with their four adult caretakers — two French, two Dutch — plus six Soviet prisoners of war.

At Bullenhuser Damm, the kids were parked in a room and hung out, blissfully ignorant of their danger. “They had all their things with them — some food, some toys they had made themselves, etc,” physician Alfred Trzebinski later recalled at his own trial. “They sat on the benches and were happy that they had gotten out. They didn’t suspect a thing.”

In the next room, the 10 adults were being hanged.

According to Admitting the Holocaust, Trzebinski was impressed with his own compassionate use of this bit of down time: he generously gave the children morphine shots to sedate them before their own executions. Or rather, their murders … since the doctor could not but agree that “you cannot execute children, you can only murder them.”

I must say that in general the children’s condition was very good, except for one twelve-year-old boy who was in bad shape; he therefore fell asleep very quickly. Six or eight of the children were still awake — the others were already sleeping … Frahm [an orderly] lifted the twelve-year-old boy and said to the others that he was taking him to bed. He took him to a room that was maybe six or eight yards away, and there I saw a rope already attached to a hook. Frahm put the sleeping boy into the noose and with all his weight pulled down on the body of the boy so that the noose would tighten. (Trzebinski, again)

The other 19 children were disposed of in like manner, and then all 30 corpses cremated overnight … just in time for what must have been a much-needed 5 a.m. coffee.

After the war, the facility went back to use as an actual (creepy!) school, but it was eventually renamed Janusz Korczak School, for a Polish-Jewish educator gassed with his young charges at Treblinka. There’s a permanent exhibition (German) at the site, as well as a memorial rose garden with a variety of plaques commemorating the victims of Bullenhuser Damm.

Trzebinski’s take on his conduct this horrible night might have been good enough for his conscience, but it didn’t pass muster with his judges: he was hanged on a war crimes rap prominently including Bullenhuser Damm on October 8, 1946. Kurt Heissmeyer, however, avoided detection until 1959 and only received a long prison sentence in 1966, shortly before his death.

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1943: Toralf Berg, Norwegian resistance member

Add comment February 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1943, Norwegian resistance member Toralf Berg was executed at Falstad concentration camp in Quisling Norway.

Information about this courageous outdoorsman is difficult to come by; try this Norwegian page for a bit of background.

The Gestapo captured him in August 1942, tortured him horribly, and had him shot. Later, Berg’s torture and execution would be one of numerous World War II brutalities charged in the war crimes indictment (PDF | HTML) against German Obersturmbannführer Gerhard Flesch.

Flesch was himself executed on these charges on February 28, 1948.


Memorial for Falstad forest, where many of the camp’s executions took place. (cc) image from the Municipal Archives of Trondheim.

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1944: Noor Inayat Khan, SOE operative

4 comments September 13th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On either September 12 or (as we’re going with here) the early hours of September 13* in 1944, 30-year-old French spy Noor Inayat Khan (also known as Nora Baker, or by her code name Madeleine) was executed at Dachau for her activities on the behalf of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France.

Noor, the first woman radio operator to be sent into France, came from a rather unusual background: her father was a Sufi religious leader descended from Indian royalty, and her mother an American from New Mexico.

Born in Russia, raised in England and France, Noor studied psychology and wrote poetry and a book of Buddhist-inspired short stories before the war intervened and her she and her family fled to England.

Although Noor had strong pacifist leanings, she decided to join in against Nazi Germany. Because she was fluent in French and English and was a good radio operator, they decided to send her to France. She went in June 1943.

Many of those who had trained her had grave doubts about her suitability as a spy. As part of her Sufi upbringing she had been taught that lying was the worst of all sins. Leo Marks, who taught her cryptography, later wrote his initial impressions of her in his book Between Silk and Cyanide:

She was cycling towards her ‘safe-house’ to practice transmitting when a policeman stopped her and asked what she was doing.

“I’m training to be an agent,” she said, “here’s my radio — want me to show it to you?” She then removed it from its hiding place and invited him to try it. […]

She’d been so startled by an unexpected pistol-shot that she’d gone into a Sufi-like trance for several hours, and finally emerged from it to consult a Bible.

Once in France, however, she displayed lion-like courage.

Even when the Nazis were making mass arrests of the French agents she associated with and the British forces offered to let her come home, she refused to desert her post.

After three and a half months she was betrayed, and pacifism notwithstanding she fought so furiously on arrest that her Nazi guards were afraid of her. In spite of considerable pressure (and we know what that means) she refused to provide them with any information about herself or her Resistance colleagues. On top of all that, she also made two escape attempts.

They decided to send her to Germany to better keep an eye on her.

Noor spent the rest of 1943 and most of 1944 in prison in KahrsruleKarlsruhe, subject to repeated interrogations by the Gestapo. She never gave anything away. In September 1944 she was sent to Dachau and shot to death with three other female agentsYolande Beekman, Madeleine Damerment, and Eliane Plewman — their bodies cremated.

Her last word? “Liberté.”

After her death she was awarded with the French Croix De Guerre and the British George Cross, and made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Shrabani Basu published her biography, Spy Princess, in 2007 … and there’s a memorial in the works for her for London’s Gordon Square.

* Not everyone buys these dates or the story of these SOE agents’ execution.

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1942: Ten for Meir Berliner’s murder of a Treblinka officer

5 comments September 11th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On September 11, 1942, Meir Berliner, an inmate of the Treblinka Extermination Camp, stabbed Unterscharführer Max Bialas to death with a penknife during evening roll-call. The Nizkor Project summarizes:

Max Bialas

At the evening roll-call of the prisoners, Max Bialas instructed those who had arrived that same day to line up on the side. It was not clear who was to be liquidated — the new arrivals or those who had arrived earlier. At that moment Berliner jumped out from the ranks of the prisoners, lurched toward Bialas and stabbed him with a knife. A great commotion followed. The Ukranian guards opened fire. Berliner was killed on the spot. and in the course of the shooting more than ten other prisoners were killed and others were wounded. When the tumult subsided the prisoners were lined up again for roll-call. Christian Wirth, who was in Treblinka at the time, arrived on the scene accompanied by Kurt Franz, the second in command of the camp. Ten men were removed from the ranks and shot on the spot in full view of all the others. On the following day, during the morning roll-call, another 150 men were taken out, brought to the Lazarett [the so-called “hospital” which was in fact an execution site] and shot there.

Little is known about Berliner.

According to the testimony of fellow-inmate Abraham Krzepicki, he was a middle-aged Jewish citizen of Argentina who had lived in that country for many years.

He and his wife and young daughter traveled to Poland on vacation in the summer of 1939. They could have picked a better time: when Germany invaded on September 1, 1939, the Berliners were unable to return home. Their Argentine passports should have protected them, but they ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto and were transported to Treblinka. Berliner’s wife and child were gassed immediately, but he was spared to work.

This reprieve would be expected to last days, or a few weeks at the most before he too would go to the gas chamber. Berliner became consumed with rage and the thirst for revenge, supposedly saying, “When the oppressors give me two choices, I always take the third.”

And so he took the first opportunity he could to kill one of his tormentors. As Yitzhak Arad said in his book Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps*: “His was an individual act of heroism and despair.”

As he must have known he would, Berliner died a horrible death — according to Krzepicki, he was beaten to death with a shovel.

Ironically, following Bialas’s murder, conditions for prisoners at Treblinka actually improved.

This was strictly for pragmatic reasons, as Arad noted: “The Jews selected for temporary work were a danger to the Germans, and the Berliner incident had proved it … When people knew they had nothing to lose, an act of despair like that of Meir Berliner could happen again and again.”

Rather than constantly killing and replacing their workers, the Nazis in charge of the camp decided to create a permanent staff of prisoner-workers and treat them with relative humanity. In this way, they hoped to prevent further acts of suicidal violence on the part of the Jews.

The existence of a permanent cadre of workers made it possible to plan and organize a revolt and mass escape from the camp. In August 1943, after months of conspiring and gathering the necessary weapons, the inmates killed most of the guards and made a run for it. About 300 or so actually made it outside of camp; of those, approximately 60 would survive the war.

* Operation Reinhard is presumably named for Reinhard Heydrich.

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1942: Irene Nemirovsky, Catholic Jewish writer

1 comment August 17th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, 39-year-old French/Ukrainian novelist Irene Nemirovsky was gassed at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.

She was a victim of the Nazis’ racial laws: anyone with even one Jewish grandparent, even if they themselves did not practice the Jewish religion, could be considered a Jew. Nemirovsky, born to a wealthy Russian-Jewish family in what is now the Ukraine, had converted to Catholicism in 1939 — sincerely, insofar as anyone can discern.

Irene Nemirovsky fled Russian territory after the Bolshevik Revolution and spent a short time in exile in Finland and Sweden before eventually settling in France. There she married a banker, had two daughters, and published her first novel in 1930.

The book, called David Golder, was about a ruthless businessman (described by modern readers as “a Bernie Madoff of her time”) who in old age and poor health begins to regret the way he lived his life. It was a success and was made into a 1930 film.

Her second novel, Le Bal, also hit the silver screen. She penned several other books as well: Dimanche and Other Stories, Jezebel, The Dogs and the Wolves, The Courilof Affair, and more.

Although she was widely acclaimed as a writer in France, even by anti-Semites, she was denied citizenship in 1938. By then she had lived in the country for twenty years.

Following the German invasion of France in 1940, Nemirovsky’s books were pulled off the presses and she was required to wear the yellow star. If she and her family had succeeded in obtaining French citizenship, this would have provided some protection; the French were reluctant to deport their own Jews, filling the cattle cars with foreigners instead. Irene was instead classified as a “stateless person of Jewish descent” and the high-ranking Nazi official Ernst Kaltenbrunner called her a “degenerate artist of deluded Jewish hegemony.”

The “stateless” Irene was arrested on July 13, 1942. She had time to write a letter to her family, asking them not to worry about her, before she was deported to Auschwitz four days later.

Although she survived the initial selection and was tattooed with a prisoner number, it was reported a month later that she had died of typhus, a common and deadly disease in the concentration camps. However, later investigation showed she had in fact been sent to the gas chamber. Her husband was also gassed in Auschwitz in November of that year, but their two children survived the war.

One of Nemirovsky’s books, All Our Worldly Goods, was posthumously published in France in 1947. However, for sixty years following the war this once-famous author was largely forgotten.

In 2004, however, she became a literary sensation when a previously undiscovered manuscript, Suite Francaise, hit the press. The “suite” consisted of two books out of a projected five, titled “Storm in June” and “Dolce”. Irene had written them while in hiding in 1940. When she was arrested she gave the manuscripts in a suitcase to her daughter Denise, who safeguarded them all those years.

The book was received to great acclaim and became a bestseller, and publishers blew the dust off her novels from the 1930s and brought them back into print. In 2007, another of Nemirovsky’s works, Fire in the Blood, was published. The book was a companion to Suite Francaise — and like Suite, Nemirovsky had worked on it while in hiding during the Nazi occupation.

Nemirovsky never escaped controversy, in her life or after her death. Several critics and scholars have accused her of being an anti-Semite, a “self-hating Jew,” as detailed in this article from the Australian publication The Age.

Novelist Paul LaFarge charged her as “a Jew who disliked other Jews.” Primo Levi‘s biographer wrote of her, “She has taken on board the idea that Jews belong to a different, less worthy ‘race’, and that their exterior signs are easily recognizable: frizzy hair, hooked noses, moist palms, swarthy complexions, thick black ringlets, crooked teeth…”

There is evidence to support this assertion.

Some of her books were serialized in anti-Semitic magazines, and during the occupation Irene also wrote a letter to Marshal Petain, head of France’s collaborationist Vichy government, to say she disliked Jews and shouldn’t be classified as a Jew, racial laws notwithstanding. Her husband wrote a similar letter to the German ambassador after her arrest, saying his wife “did not speak of the Jews with any affection whatsoever.” The ambassador never bothered to reply.

Irene, however, also has her defenders in this matter: “She didn’t dislike Jews,” said one. “She disliked some Jews. Big difference.” Patrick Marnham, who wrote the introduction to the reprinted David Golder, argued that, “Her choice of an unsympathetic Jewish character [in the book] does not make Nemirovsky anti-Semitic; any more than Robert Louis Stevenson was anti-Scottish because he created the diabolical figure of Ebenezer in Kidnapped.”

You could argue that if she appeared to be anti-Semitic it was because she was trying to conceal her own Jewish origins and thereby protect her family from the deadly consequences. Her daughters believed this was the reason for her assertions that she hated Jews.

In any case, whatever Irene may have said or thought about her religious origin did not save her life. She was just one of many thousands of Christian converts who fell victim to Nazi Germany’s madness.

Irene’s younger daughter, Elisabeth Gille, who died in 1996, wrote a novel titled Shadows of a Childhood which was based on her parents’ disappearance. She had only been five years old when Irene was arrested. In 2010, Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt published the first major biography of Irene, The Life of Irene Nemirovsky, 1903-1942.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Concentration Camps,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,France,Gassed,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Wartime Executions,Women

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1945: Sigmund Rascher, feared science

12 comments April 26th, 2012 Headsman

It’s on this date in 1945 that Sigmund Rascher is supposed to have been summarily executed in Dachau.

If that’s what happened, it’s no more than Rascher (English Wikipedia page | German) deserved.

This doctor made his Nazi bones by forging a relationship with Heinrich Himmler (he married Himmler’s ex-mistress), and joining Himmler’s SS.

Rascher was doing cancer-cure experiments on animals, but once he had Himmler in his Rolodex he graduated to research on homo sapiens.

From 1941 to 1944, Rascher conducted some of the textbook ethical trespasses of Berlin’s human experimentation regime, using Dachau prisoners in:

  • high-altitude experiments to help fighter pilots, tested by subjecting prisoners to rapid de- and re-pressurization;
  • freezing experiments, tested by subjecting prisoners to freezing water or outdoor exposure, and then attempting by various methods to restore body warmth;
  • blood clotting experiments, tested by giving prisoners major gunshot wounds or other grievous bodily injuries, then monitoring how well a new drug slowed the bleeding.

Class act all the way. Rascher did publish some papers and deliver some conference presentations on aspects of his horrifying science, but in one of those little contradictions of the evil security state, the man was foiled in his bid for an advanced academic credential because much of the research was too secret for his peers to review.

In the end it was a much more mundane breach of ethics that did him in: Rascher and wife were arrested in 1944 for having actually kidnapped the children they claimed were their own.

They were stashed away in separate camps. For unclear reasons — perhaps because Rascher connected all this atrocious research back to Himmler, who was vainly trying to cut a peace deal with the West at this point, or maybe simply because Himmler was annoyed at the embarrassment his protege’s misconduct had given him — the bad doctor was summarily shot in his cell as the Allies bore down on Dachau.

(We will note in passing this argument, and this, disputing that story as well as this execution date. Executed Today is not in a position to contribute to that conversation.)


Elsewhere …


Caption: Polish and Russian forced laborers shot by the SS after they had collapsed from exhaustion during a death march. Wisenfeld, Germany, April 26, 1945.

— National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md. Via the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1945: Johann Georg Elser, dogged assassin

17 comments April 9th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1945, in the dying days of the Third Reich, 42-year-old Johann Georg Elser was executed by gunshot in the German concentration camp Dachau. He died for a failed attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life more than five years before.

It goes without saying that, had he been successful, he would have changed history immeasurably.

Elser, who went by his middle name, didn’t fit the profile of someone who would try to kill Hitler.

He wasn’t a Jew, a Communist or a member of any of the other minority groups the Nazis persecuted. He wasn’t political at all, in fact.

A carpenter by trade, with one illegitimate son, his hobbies included playing the zither and the double bass.

He was the kind of ordinary, working-class German the National Socialists tried to reach out to. But from the very start, he made it clear how much he despised them and all that they stood for.

British historian Roger Moorhouse, in his book Killing Hitler: The Plots, the Assassins, and the Dictator Who Cheated Death, summed it up very nicely when he said Elser harbored a “deep and personal hatred for Hitler.”

He was a practical man at heart and was not interested in political discussions. He had no desire to change other people’s minds, but he steadfastly refused to make any accommodation to the new regime. When Hitler’s speeches were broadcast, he would silently leave the room… In May 1938, a Nazi parade threaded its way through his hometown of Königsbronn. Elser, like many others, turned out to watch, but as those around him gave the Hitler salute, he refused to do likewise. When a colleague reminded him that it might be sensible to conform, he replied curtly, “You can kiss my ass.” He then ostentatiously turned about and started whistling to himself.

How Elser’s silent, passive resistance turned into action is unclear, but by the autumn of 1938 he had made up his mind to kill the Führer.

Unsure how to accomplish this, he traveled to Munich to get some ideas. Every year on “Die Neunte Elfte”, the November 8-9 anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler came to the Bürgerbräukeller and gave a speech to the old guard.

That day in 1938, actually just hours before another would-be assassin tried to kill Hitler, Elser slipped into the beer hall pretending to be an ordinary customer and “noted the layout of the room, the position of the lectern and the patent lack of effective security measures.”

He had found his place and his time: he decided that the following year, he would plant a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller, timed to go off right in the middle of Hitler’s big anniversary speech and kill him and as many Nazis as possble.

Elser’s meticulous planning and preparations over the next twelve months were nothing short of amazing. He stole a fuse and some gunpowder, and got a job at a quarry specifically so he could acquire some explosives. Knowing nothing about bombs, he made countless prototypes and tested them in empty fields in the countryside.

In the spring of 1939, he went back to Munich and the Bürgerbräukeller to make some detailed sketches of the building and find an appropriate place to hide the bomb. He chose a thick stone pillar behind the lectern, which supported a balcony. In August, he brought his tools and bomb-making materals to Munich to set about with his final phase of the plan.

The fastidious assassin’s modus operandi was shockingly simple, and shockingly bold.

He would visit the Bürgerbräukeller every night at around 9:00 to take his evening meal. An hour or so later, he would sneak up to the gallery of the function room, where he would hide in a storeroom until the bar closed and the building was locked.

Thereafter, he was free to work by flashlight until the bar staff returned at around 7:30 a.m., when he could sneak out of a back entrance.

His first priority was to chip out a cavity in the stone pillar to hold the bomb. But, finding the pillar was now dressed with wooden cladding, Elser was forced to spend three nights sawing a hole in the wooden surround.

Every sound had to be muffled, every speck of sawdust collected and disposed of: he could afford to leave no evidence of his presence. Even the sawn wooden panel was fashioned into a flush-fitting secret door.

Good thing he was a carpenter.

Having accessed the pillar, he could now begin to dig out a recess for the bomb. Using a hand drill and a hammer and chisel, he spent most of the following month loosening mortar and prising out bricks — all of which, of course, had to be meticulously tied and removed from the scene in a cloth sack.

Progress was painfully slow.

In the cavernous hall, every hammer blow he struck echoed like a gunshot, and to escape detection he had to time his blows to coincide with external sounds, such as the passing of a tram or the automatic flush of toilets. Working by night preparing the pillar in the Bürgerbräukeller, he labored by day putting the finishing touches to his bomb and, of course, the elaborate timing mechanism.

It all took two months.

On November 2, six days before the Big Day, Elser finally concealed his bomb, which had been put in a wooden box lined with cork to muffle the ticking sound of the timing mechanism, in its hidey-hole. Hitler’s speech was scheduled to start at 9:00 p.m. on November 8 and would last for an hour. The bomb was set to go off at 9:20.

It did so, right on time, with a spectacular explosion that smashed the stone pillar, brought down the overhead balcony and ceiling, shattered windows, blasted out doors, killed eight people and injured 67 more.

The only problem was, Hitler wasn’t among the dead or wounded. In fact, he wasn’t even there.

He had pressing business in Berlin and wanted to get back that same night, so he had rescheduled his speech for 8:00 p.m. instead of nine. He finished and left the building at 9:07, thirteen minutes before the big reception Elser had prepared for him. By the time the bomb went off, Hitler was already on the train back to Berlin.

That Elser failed was through no fault of his own: it was just sheer, terrible, rotten luck.

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Assassination has never changed the history of the world.” Perhaps he is right in most cases, but it’s hard to believe that statement is true when it comes to Hitler. In this case, thirteen minutes substantially altered the history of Europe for the rest of the century.

Getting back to Elser: ever the careful planner, he knew what to do to protect himself once the bomb went off. He was miles away from Munich at the time, trying to sneak over the border into Switzerland. Unfortunately, he was caught by German border guards.

At first they thought it was a routine arrest, but then they saw the contents of his pockets, which included a postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller and sketches of his bomb design. The guards didn’t yet know about the assassination attempt, of course, but what they saw made them suspicious and they turned him over to the Gestapo.

On November 13, Elser confessed everything. When a flabbergasted Hitler read the preliminary investigative report which supported Elser’s lone-bomber story, he demanded, “What idiot conducted this investigation?”

He couldn’t wrap his mind around it, and neither could anyone else.

In the wake of the assassination, mass arrests were made: anyone who seemed unusually interested in the Munich speech, or didn’t express sufficient enthusiasm for the Nazi Party, could fall under suspicion of being part of the plot.


At Munich’s Feldherrnhalle on Nov. 11, Hitler conducts a memorial ceremony for the victims of Elser’s assassination bid.

As Moorhouse explains,

To many Nazis, Elser was simply an enigma. He was an ordinary German. He exhibited none of the typical signs of “degeneracy” that they claimed to be combating: apart from his brief flirtation with Communism, he was a virtual teetotaler, not promiscuous, did not consort with Jews, and was not close to the Church. In fact, he was exactly the sort of solid, upstanding, working-class German that they thought they had won over — and, indeed, that had become the backbone of the Nazi Party.

Unable to believe Elser’s claims of full responsibility, the Nazis concluded he must have been “led astray” at the very least, perhaps by agents of British intelligence. In spite of beatings, torture, and other coercion, however, Elser stuck to his story, even building another bomb, identical to the first, right in front of his interrogators to prove he could do it by himself.

He never managed to fully convince them; in fact, for decades after the war, historians and other scholars theorized about who else was in on his plan. Some speculated that the attack was even engineered by Hitler himself, to gain support for his cause and to create an excuse to crack down on dissidents.

It wasn’t until 1970 that two German historians who studied the matter announced there was no evidence that Elser had acted in concert with anyone else or even told anyone about his plans.

It may seem surprising that Elser managed to live for four and a half years after his attempt on Hitler’s life, but there was a explanation perfectly reasonable from the standpoint of a totalitarian bureaucracy.

After his confession, Elser was sent to the the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He was given enough to eat, and two rooms, and even allowed to play the zither again, but he was kept in solitary confinement all those years. The Nazis — still operating on the theory that the British were ultimately behind the assassination attempt — stashed Elser away as a witness in a show trial against British leaders after the German invasion of the British Isles. Talk about hubris.

Of course, this invasion never happened, and as the tide of war turned against the Germans it became clear that Elser had outlived whatever usefulness he might have had. In February 1945, he was transferred from Sachsenhausen to Dachau.

He met his end quietly, taken outside his cell by a young SS officer and shot in the back of the neck. A week later, it was reported that he had been killed in an Allied bombing. By the end of the month, Dachau was in Allied hands.

At least six cities in Germany, including Königsbronn and Stuttgart, have places named after him, or monuments or plaques erected in his memory.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Other Voices,Power,Shot,Terrorists,Treason

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1942: Icchok Malmed

3 comments February 8th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, Icchok Malmed* was hanged on Kupiecka Street in the Bialystok Ghetto for throwing acid in a Nazi’s face and blinding him.

Zchor tells the story:

When the Nazis attacked the house at 29 Kupiecka Street, rounding up all of its residents into the street, a bold young man, Izchok Malmed, whipped out a jar of acid from his pocket, hurling it in the face of a Nazi soldier, who was blinded at once. Seeking revenge, the sightless Nazi fired his revolver several times, hitting another Nazi soldier and instantly killing him. In the melee, Malmed vanished.

Commandant Friedl, after learning what had happened, ordered that one hundred men, women and children living in the area where the incident occurred be rounded up and force-marched to a nearby garden, where they were lined up against the wall of an adjacent bet hamidrash and shot with machine guns.

Afterward Nazi soldiers captured another group of Jews, forcing them to dig a large pit for the bodies of the one hundred martyrs. A thin layer of earth covered them. Some were still alive, their hands groping upward through the earth.

The Nazi soldier accidentally shot by his colleague whom Malmed had blinded was carried to the Judenrat building, and his body was placed on [Judenrat Chairman Efraim] Barasz’s desk. Friedl then proclaimed to Barasz, “See what your Jewish criminals have done. Now we shall take revenge. You shall see what we can do.” Friedl issued an ultimatum for the perpetrator of the crime to surrender within twenty-four hours. Failing that, the entire ghetto would be destroyed with everyone in it.

Barasz knew the Nazis meant what they said. He sent word to Malmed to give himself up and thereby save thousands of Jewish lives. As soon as Malmed heard, he surrendered himself to the Nazis.

Tamarof’s diary described in detail Malmed’s courage. Asked why he killed the Nazi soldier, he replied: “I hate you. I regret I only killed one. Before my eyes my parents were murdered. Ten thousand Jews in Slonim were liquidated before me. I have no regrets.” Tamarof tried to slip poison to Malmed but failed. Even the police could not get near the prisoner.

The next morning, Izchok Malmed, a hero of the ghetto, was hanged in the square where he had performed his act of courage. Despite the horrible torture to which he had been subjected, Malmed cursed the Nazi murderers. After several minutes of hanging on the gallows, the rope broke and the body fell to the earth. Instantaneously, the Nazis riddled Malmed’s corpse with bullets and re-hanged the body for another forty-eight hours.

Kupiecka Street was renamed Malmed Street after the war. Near the site of Malmed’s execution is a plaque reading, in Polish and in Hebrew, “Icchok Malmed, the hero and fighter of the Bialystok Ghetto, was killed here by the Nazi murderers on 8 February 1943. In his honor.”

* The Zchor account spells his name “Izchok” but on the memorial plaque it says “Icchok”. It’s a form of the name Isaac.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Jews,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Public Executions,Shot,Terrorists,Torture,Volunteers,Wartime Executions

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1942: Three Bialystok Jews

1 comment December 31st, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, three anonymous Jewish residents of the Bialystok Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland were hung in the public square across the street from the Judenrat (Jewish Council) building. The three worked at the ghetto’s oil factory, and had been caught smuggling sunflower seeds.

The residents of the ghetto paid little attention to the execution, accepting it with resignation. It was hardly remarked on.

But this event was yet another small indication of dire events looming in the near future. Compared to those in other Nazi ghettos, such as those at Warsaw and Lodz, the Bialystok Jews had it pretty good. The ghetto, noted Sara Bender in her 2008 book The Jews of Bialystok During World War II and the Holocaust, was “organized, industrious, and even prosperous. Unlike other ghettos, it never experienced starvation or abject poverty.”

And it was seen as relatively safe. This day’s sort of vicious, arbitrary executions for minor rule infractions, which were so common elsewhere, were not at all frequent in Bialystok. Neither were the mass deportations that had by late 1942 decimated almost all the other ghettos.

Well, Bialystok’s turn was coming.

Unbeknownst to the Bialystokers, just as the sunflower seed smugglers were meeting their end, the powers that be in Berlin were debating the future of the ghetto. The Nazis in immediate charge of the ghetto wanted to keep it, and had logical reasons for doing so: namely, that it was a center of great industry, producing all kinds of goods for the German Army at almost no cost.

Killing off tens of thousands of hardworking slaves during wartime makes about as much sense as hanging three people over sunflower seeds, but this is what Berlin decided to do.

In early- to mid-February 1943, there was a surprise Aktion in the ghetto: 2,000 were killed and a further 10,000 deported to the Treblinka Extermination Camp. About 30,000 remained.

Once it was over, most of the surviving Bialystokers breathed a sigh of relief and hoped against hope that the worst was over — while a small underground group quietly organized an uprising for when the time came.

The rebellion, however, never really had time to get off the ground. When the final deportation occurred in August 1943, almost everyone went quietly in shock to their deaths. A cell of less than 100 fighters put up a few days’ struggle, enough to earn a footnote in history, before the last of the ghetto blew away with the ashes.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Jews,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Public Executions,Slaves,Summary Executions,Theft,Wartime Executions

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