1942: Ernst Schrämli, Swiss traitor

1 comment November 11th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Swiss artillerist Ernst Schrämli was shot for treason.

The dogged independence of Switzerland during World War II presented an going irritant to a Third Reich that had swallowed the rest of Europe, enabling von Trapps to escape and idealistic students to cogitate potshots at the Führer. Switzerland had to maintain her place delicately, here with a pragmatic concession to the fascist powers and there with a deterring mountain fortification. The American jouranlist Walter Lippmann celebrated that doughty Alpine confederation’s pluck in a 1943 New York Herald Tribune article (via):

The Swiss nation which is entirely surrounded by the Axis armies, beyond reach of any help from the democracies, that Switzerland which cannot live without trading with the surrounding Axis countries, still is an independent democracy. The “engulfing sea of 125,000,000 hostile neighbors” has not yet engulfed the Swiss.

That is the remarkable thing about Switzerland. The real news is not that her factories make munitions for Germany but that the Swiss have an army which stands guard against invasion, that their frontiers are defended, that their free institutions continue to exist and that there has been no Swiss Quisling, and no Swiss Laval. The Swiss remained true to themselves even in the darkest days of 1940 and 1941, when it seemed that nothing but the valor of the British and the blind faith of free men elsewhere stood between Hitler and the creation of a totalitarian new order in Europe. Surely, if ever the honor of a people was put to the test, the honor of the Swiss was tested and proved then and there … no ordinary worldly material calculation can account for the behavior of the Swiss.

Compared to neighboring countries, Switzerland’s domestic fascist movement was pretty minor, but that ferocious independence could not brook fifth columnists be they ever so tiny. Schrämli, a somewhat disordered soldier, delivered a few grenades and some inaccurate sketches of some Swiss bunkers to a German agent. Though ineffectual, it was treason.

He’s the subject of a notable 1976 documentary The Shooting of the Traitor Ernst S., which finds that the man’s motivation was psychological weakness rather than ideological commitment and confers the epitaph De Chliner hanget ehnder als der Grösser (“The small hang instead of the great”). German speakers can take in the entire film:

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1942: The Jews of Trunovskoye

Add comment October 18th, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, one year and four months after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, almost all of the Jews in the village of Trunovskoye in rural Russia were murdered and buried in a mass grave a few kilometers outside the town limits.

Several months later, after the Red Army had liberated the area, they had the locals disinter and re-bury the bodies.

This mass execution is somewhat unusual in that it didn’t happen via bullets, as at Babi Yar and many other places in the occupied Soviet Union, but via a mobile gassing chamber or gas van. These relatively primitive machines were actually invented by the Soviets and used by them as a form of execution before being adopted by the Nazis after the psychological impact of mass shootings was deemed too stressful on the perpetrators.

The gas vans had airtight compartments which could hold between 30 and 100 victims each. People were shoved inside and gassed with carbon monoxide until they died of suffocation. Gas vans were initially used by the Nazis’ mobile killing squads and at Chelmno, the first of the extermination camps. But they were slow and inefficient, and the screams of the dying disturbed and distressed those driving the vehicles. In time they were replaced by gas chambers, which could kill people more quickly and cleanly.

What we know about the mass murder in Trunovskoye comes from a letter written by sixteen-year-old Anna “Nyura” Rabinovits in 1943. She was one of the only Jewish survivors from the area; she lost most of her family. Originally from Kishinev (Chisinau), she was evacuated with her family to Trunovskoye in the summer of 1942.

After liberation, in January 1943, she wrote to Moshe “Misha” Shapira, a relative by marriage, to tell him of what had happened. Her letter, translated from the Russian, eventually found its way into the Yad Vashem archives and was published in the anthology After So Much Pain and Anguish: First Letters After Liberation, edited by Robert Rozett and Iael Nidam-Orvieto.

The letter is worth quoting in full, with paragraphs added for clarity. Note that Nyura twice erroneously cites the date “October 18, 1943”; the murders occurred on October 18, 1942. She also refers to the village of Trunovskoye as “Trunkova”.

Book CoverDear Aunt Liza and Uncle Misha,

Yesterday I received Misha’s postcard and today I received yours. As you can see, I’m rushing to respond. I am going to tell you about the end that befell our dear ones. I cannot understand how some of our people are till alive.

We were still living in Trunovka when the Nazis came. We were all evacuated along with the Grinberg family. Yevochka had a child, a boy who was one year old. What an end befell him! The Nazis caught us and made us return, but we did not return to the place where we had lived but stopped here, where I live now, 20 km from Trunovka. We lived here for two months under the Nazis and all of us worked on the kolkhoz. We lived in separate apartments but I went to work every day together with Yevochka and Adochka. Boris Isayevich was sick but when he recovered, he too went to work on the pig farm. Our only grandmother and Maria Naumovna remained at home. Yevochka’s grandmother had died back in Trunovka, after several days of a severe illness.

When we had been here for over a month, an order was issued for all the Jews to be registered. Then, several days later, a murder squad arrived and we were all ordered to appear at the commandant’s office with our belongings. We took our stuff and went. Two cars had arrived from Voroshilovsk [a short-lived Bolshevik name for the city that was reverted to Stavropol in 1943 -ed.] with six Germans. We were called into a room, each family separately, to be registered. Afterwards, they said, “Take your things and go home. When we need you, we will find you.” We were all very happy. We returned home and continued to work on the kolkhoz. The kolkhoz had sent me to work at the kolkhoz office.

On October 18, 1943, the murder squad returned. Our landlady said,

I myself did not see it. A cart with policemen arrived and ordered them to put all their things on the cart. Grandmother and Adochka were at home. They took everything and went to the Grinbergs, where they took Yevochka and her child and Marya Naumovna and all their things as well, and got onto the cart. They were taken to the police station, where there already 55 people. Dad and Boris Isayevich were out in the steppe, but they were brought in from there. [?] ordered them to take off their clothes and brought a truck to the door of the barn and told them to get in the truck, but they resisted. They cried and shouted, so the Germans started beating them with whips and pushed them into the truck. They left six men to have someone to bury them. The truck was made of iron and closed in. At first, when they got in, they shouted, but when the doors were closed, all the voices gradually became silent. They were taken two km from the village and then thrown like dogs into a pit, where they lay one on top of the other. People told me all this, but I didn’t believe it at the time. I hope that they might be alive and that I would yet hear something about them. But a long time passed and I heard nothing from them.


A section of Nyura’s original letter (click for larger image).

The Nazis retreated and the Red Army came and liberated us from those monsters. And on April 2, 1943, it was my lot to see a scene that I will not forget as long as I live. I suffered much after this. An order was given to take people from every kolkhoz to dig a mass grave. I was at the administration office and only heard about it on the morning of the second day when I went to look for the grave of my dear ones. I didn’t know exactly where they were buried and I didn’t know that we would be digging a grave. It was like someone said to me: “Just go ahead down that road.”

On the road I met many people from whom I found out that they were going to bury the Jews who had been murdered by the Nazis. When I heard this, I began crying, but then the superiors, including a head of the district executive, started chasing me away and wouldn’t let me come to the grave, but at this point I did not pay attention but kept going. People showed me exactly where the place of the grave was; it could be seen. When I arrived, I could see [parts of bodies] covered with earth: [?] hands, legs and heads. I cried a lot and when people came to move them, I had already calmed down and was able to do this. A huge grave was dug for them not far from there and they were placed in a line close to each other, and then they were covered with earth. When we started taking them out, on the top were lying [the bodies of] the men who had probably covered them with earth and then, themselves, had been shot with machine guns. Can you picture Dad having covered [the body of] his daughter Adochka knowing the end that was awaiting him?

Their faces had all decomposed. Only the bodies and the hair remained. For that reason I couldn’t be sure about identifying them, but I believe I recognized Yevochka and the child in Maria Naumovna’s arms. I also found Dad, Grandma and Adochka. I carried them myself on a stretcher to the new grave. People said that the Germans had killed them with gas, that those trucks had a special apparatus for poison gas to kill people … The best possessions had been taken while the rest had been divided among the kolkhoz members.

Now I will tell you how I survived. That should be of interest to you. Nevertheless, I cursed my fate many times for having survived under those circumstances. It was so hard for me to survive all alone among strangers. When they [our family members] were taken, I was at the kolkhoz office. I arrived on Saturday and we had the day off. I entered the [family’s] room. It was empty. There was no one there. The landlady told me they had been taken away.

I ran straight to the police and said to them, “Whatever you did to my people, do it to me too. I have nothing to live for.” They put me in jail, where I remained for about two hours until a German [?] truck came and they took me out of the jail. The German started swearing and forced me with a strap to get into the truck. There were two other girls my age in the truck. They [the Germans] said that they were going to take us a few kilometers from there and shoot us on the way and throw out [our bodies]. There were many things in the truck, including some of our belongings I recognized. However, the truck took us to a nearby village 12 kilometers away. There they asked for my documents, but Dad had my passport [i.e. identity card where ethnicity was indicated]. I had no documents at all, so I said that my mother was Russian and my father — Jewish.

They let us go and wrote to the local authorities not to bother us, me and the other two girls, anymore. But a month later, when the Jews were taken from this nearby village, they took us too. I could see them being taken and pushed into a truck but they let us go and gave us German documents stating we were not Jewish. I remained alone in an unfamiliar place, where I didn’t know anyone, with absolutely nothing, with no bread for the winter, and I had to go barefoot in the snow. I worked at [?], ate boiled wheat, I didn’t see any bread … Can you imagine, Aunt Liza, what I went through? I wept for my dear ones. I regretted that I was alive.

Now I work as an accountant at a transportation office. The food is not bad. There is as much bread as I want. The kolkhoz allotted me a hundred kilograms of wheat and I got myself some clothes. I bought myself a skirt, a blouse and a sheet, from which I am going to make four blouses for myself. In the course of the whole year, I amassed 450 “working days” but they give [?] bread. My brother Lyova sent me 800 rubles, but I have not yet bought anything with them. This winter, I think life will be easy for me.

I have written everything in detail, as you asked me to do. With this letter, I am responding to your postcard and to [Uncle] Misha’s letter. I am grateful to you for having written to me and for your having found out that some of our relatives are still alive. I get letters frequently from Lyova. He’s at the front now. Write me how you are, where your Lyova is and what Sarochka does for a living. Write me whether you have heard anything from Grisha or Fima. Write everything in detail.

The letter you sent took 20 days to reach me, while I expect you will receive mine by the anniversary of the murder of the members of our family, which took place on October 18, 1943, at 11 o’clock in the morning. What a tragic fate our family has had! I will visit their grave on that anniversary. By now, at the time that I am writing to you, I have been accustomed to the idea that they are gone. I don’t shed as many tears as I used to. Before, wherever I went, whatever I did, I saw them, lying there dead, and the tears in my eyes never ceased. I have now finished writing.

Goodbye. Kisses to you and warm embraces to Misha and Sara.

Write a lot, please!
Nyura

Little is known about Nyura; the Shapira family lost touch with her after the war. She ultimately married a man named Goncharov and returned to Kishinev. She was still living there as of 2009, when she submitted pages of testimony for her murdered sister, father and grandmother to Yad Vashem’s Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names.

As far as is known, there is no memorial at Trunovskoye for the Jews who died there.

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1942: Tom Williams, IRA martyr

3 comments September 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Irish revolutionary Tom Williams was hanged at Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol on this date in 1942.

A plaque at 46 Bombay Street in Belfast marks the home Tom Williams shared with his grandmother.

The 19-year-old Belfast Catholic had been the chief of a six-man Irish Republican Army team that mounted an Easter Sunday attack intended to divert Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary from preventing Republican marches to commemorate the Easter Rising. The attack killed an RUC officer, and all six IRA men were arrested and sentenced to death.

As the acknowledged leader, Williams alone paid that forfeit; the five others all had their sentences commuted. (Notably, their number included 21-year-old Joe Cahill, who was destined for an illustrious career in the movement; he would go on to co-found the Provisional IRA in 1969, and to become a prominent exponent of the peace process in the 1990s.)

“Tom Williams walked to that scaffold without a tremor in his body. The only people who were shaking were us and the hangman,” his priest said later that day. “I’ve one other thing to say to you. Don’t pray for Tom Williams, pray to him, for at this moment Tom is a saint in heaven.”

That’s about the size of Williams’s place in the Republican memory. After the prison was closed, Williams was reburied with honors (Gerry Adams attended) in 2000. He’s commemorated in a ballad.

Tom Williams (Irish republican) from REBELS OF IRELAND on Vimeo.

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1942: Six German saboteurs

Add comment August 8th, 2017 Headsman

Seventy-five years ago today, six German saboteurs were electrocuted in a Washington, D.C. jail … a failed World War II operation that bequeathed its target nation a controversial legal landmark.

On June 13 of 1942 — just eight weeks before they faced the electric chair — Herbert Hans Haupt, Heinrich Heinck, Edward Kerling, Herman Neubauer, Richard Quirin and Werner Thiel, all of them German nationals who had returned to the Fatherland after previous emigration to the U.S., were dropped by U-Boats along with two other men, Ernest Peter Burger and George John Dasch, in two quartets on the eastern fringe of Long Island and the Florida coast.

“Operation Pastorius” to sabotage war industries on the U.S. mainland would never even have time to get its land legs; spied in Long Island by a Coast Guard watchman whom they clumsily attempted to bribe, the agents scattered themselves to New York and Chicago. Burger and Dasch — who for this reason were not in the end electrocuted* — had their reservations about the Third Reich to begin with and guessed after the Coast Guard encounter where this fiasco was heading. They rang up the gobsmacked FBI to shop themselves and their comrades, enabling the feds to pick up the other six men in short order.

The eventual fate of the Nazi saboteurs is no surprise, but the means to obtain it was controversial then and remains so to this day.

On a substantive level, the Germans had landed in uniform for the explicit purpose of asserting POW status were they to be apprehended immediately; this didn’t cut much ice since all had then discarded their uniforms and attempted to melt away in the U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle successfully cited the American Revolution precedent of John Andre, whom patriots hanged as a spy after detaining him out of uniform behind their lines. That they hadn’t yet done anything yet was a bit beside the point.**

Much thornier was U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s order to try the Germans using a seven-member military tribunal that he conjured for this purpose, and seemingly with the objective of assuring the harshest possible sentence. (Bear in mind that these events transpired only months after Pearl Harbor.) Such a commission is explicitly anticipated by the U.S. Articles of War† whose 81st and 82nd provisions the saboteurs were charged with violating:

ART. 81. RELIEVING, CORRESPONDENCE WITH, OR AIDING THE ENEMY. — Whosoever relieves or attempts to relieve the enemy with arms, ammunition, supplies, money, or other thing, or knowingly harbors or protects or holds correspondence with or gives intelligence to the enemy, either directly or indirectly, shall suffer death or such other punishment as a court-martial or military commission may direct.

ART. 82. SPIES. — Any person who in time of war shall be found lurking or acting as a spy in or about any of the fortifications, posts, quarters, or encampments of any of the armies of the United States, or elsewhere, shall be tried by a general court-martial or by a military commission, and shall, on conviction thereof, suffer death.

However, the military commission did not seem very well in keeping with the American preference for regular jurisdictions as expressed by Ex parte Milligan, the post-Civil War decision forbidding the use of military courts anywhere that civilian courts are functioning.‡ The signal Milligan precedent formed the basis of a furious objection by Army defense lawyer (and future Secretary of War) Kenneth Royall, who fought his clients’ hopeless corner so vigorously that the doomed men signed a letter praising his efforts. (“unbiased, better than we could expect and probably risking the indignation of public opinion.”)

Already recessed for the summer, the Supreme Court hastily reconvened to cut this Gordian knot: the only forum of judicial review the case would ever receive. Its decision, Ex parte Quirin — titled after one of the defendants — spurned Royall’s Milligan claim and upheld Roosevelt’s statutory authority to determine this case for a military tribunal by a unanimous vote.

The court’s common front concealed a variety of stances on the reach of executive authority. While the whole court agreed that “Congress has explicitly provided … that military tribunals shall have jurisdiction to try offenses against the law of war in appropriate cases,” a concurring memorandum by Justice Robert H. Jackson — later famous for his role prosecuting the Nuremberg trials — proposed to carry the argument well beyond this point. Jackson claimed in a concurrence that he would eventually withdraw that “the Court’s decision of the question whether it complied with the Articles of War is uncalled for … it is well within the war powers of the President to create a non-statutory military tribunal of the sort here in question.” This was by no means the consensus of his colleagues.

The later publication of a “Soliloquy” memorandum by one such colleague, Felix Frankfurter, throws a less than dispassionate light on deliberations. Writing to smooth over internal disputes between the blackrobes, Justice Frankfurter shows himself personally hostile to the Germans — “You’ve done enough mischief already without leaving the seeds of a bitter conflict involving the President, the courts and Congress after your bodies will be rotting in lime,” he chides them in his own voice. “That disposes of you scoundrels.” In the end, the court took his advice to sidestep the potentially deep jurisdictional question.

But that question has not been left rotting in footnotes (they never are). Quirin in general and Jackson’s expansive claims of executive power in particular have been relied upon by 21st century Presidents to justify muscular and controversial innovations like the Guantanamo Bay prison and the drone war.

A few books about Operation Pastorius and Ex parte Quirin

Pierce O’Donnell, author of In Time of War: Hitler’s Terrorist Attack on America, discussed his book on C-SPAN here.

Jurisprudence is not the only artifact of the Nazi saboteurs’ failed infiltration.

Bizarrely, a tributary slab “in memory of agents of the German Abwehr” was discovered in 2006 illicitly placed on National Park Service land in southeast Washington DC, the same vicinity where the saboteurs had been secretly buried after their electrocution. There it had seemingly reposed some twenty-odd years, unknown but to its devotees … who if the stone’s carvings are to be credited must consist of the heirs of the (defunct since 1983) National Socialist White People’s Party, also known as the American Nazi Party.

* They would be condemned to death along with the rest, but Roosevelt commuted their sentences: a fine boon but far short of the outright pardons they had been promised for their cooperation. In 1948, President Truman had Burger and Dasch deported to Germany, where many saw them as traitors.

** After unsuccessfully attempting to trade Andre for Benedict Arnold, whose defection Andre had facilitated, and whom the American revolutionaries would have much preferred to Andre for a hanging.

† Enacted by Congress in 1920, these Articles of War are no longer operative in the U.S.: they were replaced by the Uniform Code of Military Justice in 1951.

‡ Haupt and Burger were also U.S. citizens, further complicating the commission’s suspension of their constitutional habeas corpus rights.

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1942: Jacques Decour

Add comment May 30th, 2017 Headsman

The last letter of French Resistance fighter Jacques Decour (an alias for Daniel Decourdemanche) to his family on the morning of his execution, May 30, 1942. (From here.)

Saturday, May 30, 1942 — 6:45 am

My dear parents,

You have been expecting a letter from me for a long time. You did not expect to receive this one. I, too, hoped I would not cause you this grief. Say that I have remained up to the very end worthy of you, of our country, which we love.

You see, I might very well have died in war, or even in the bombardment of that night. So I do not regret having given meaning to this end. You know very well that I have committed no crime, you have no reason to blush at me, I have done my duty as a Frenchman. I do not think that my death is a catastrophe; remember that at this moment thousands of soldiers from all countries die every day, swept along, in a great wind that carries me away too. You know that I had been expecting this morning for two months, so I had time to prepare myself, but since I have no religion, I did not fall into the Meditation of death; I consider myself a little like a leaf that falls from the tree to make potting soil. The quality of the soil will depend on the quality of the leaves. I speak of the French youth, in whom I place all my hope.

My beloved parents, I shall doubtless be at Suresnes; you can if you wish request my transfer to Montmartre. You must forgive me for this sorrow. My only concern for three months has been your anxiety. At this moment, it is to leave you thus without your son, who has caused you more sorrows than joys. You see he is content, however, with the life he has lived, which has been very beautiful.

And now here are some commissions. I would send word to the one I love. If you see her, soon I hope, give her your affection, it is my dearest wish. I would also like you to take care of her parents who are in trouble. Excuse me for leaving them thus; I console myself by thinking that you will want to replace their “guardian angel”. Give them things that belong to me and belong to their daughter: the Pleiades editions, the Fables of La Fontaine, Tristan, the 4 Seasons, the little chickens, the two watercolors (Vernon and Issoire) the map of the 4 Paves du Roy. I would like my friend Michel to have my personal belongings (pen, pencil, wallets, watch, lighter). Embrace them all for me.

I have imagined, lately, the good meals we would share when I was released. You will have them without me, as a family, but not sadly, I beg of you. I do not want your thoughts to dwell on the beautiful things that could have happened, but on all those we have experienced. I have been reborn during these two months of isolation, without reading, without all my travels, all my experiences, all my meals. I even planned a novel. Thoughts of you have not left me, and I wish you much patience and courage, and especially no rancor. Give all my affection to my sisters, to the indefatigable Denise, who has devoted herself so much to me, and to the pretty mother of Michael and Denis. I had a great dinner with Sylvain on February 17, I often thought of it with pleasure as well as the famous meal of New Year’s Eve with Pierre and Renée. It was because the question of food had become more important! Give Sylvain and Pierre all my affection and also to Jean Bailly, my best comrade, say that I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows how I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years …

That I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows if I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years … That I thank him very much for all the good times I have spent with him. If I had gone home on the evening of the 17th, I would have ended up arriving here, so there is no regret. I will write a note for Brigitte at the end of this letter, you will copy it to her. God knows if I thought of her. She has not seen her dad for two years …

If you have the opportunity, have my students in Première* tell my substitute that I thought of the last scene of Egmont and the letter of Th. Körner to his father under any reserve of modesty. .. All my friendships to my colleagues and friend for whom I translated Goethe without betraying.

It is eight o’clock, it will be time to leave. I ate, smoked, drank coffee. I do not see any business to settle. If there are objects belonging to Madame Politzer, 170 bis, rue de Grenelle, (books, especially those of the lycee, phono, etc.) try to recover them. There is also your Memorial of St. Helena.

My dear parents, I embrace you with all my heart. I am near you and thoughts of you do not leave me.

Your Daniel

My beloved little Brigitte

Your daddy has not seen you much for some time but he has thought of you. Tell your mom that I trust her to make you a good, firm, cheerful girl who stands strong on her own two legs. Work hard and try to become a good pianist. Often think of your father and friend and all the good times we have shared together.

I embrace you with all my heart as I love you and embrace your mother.

Your Daniel

* The school he taught at — which, after the war, was renamed College-lycee Jacques-Decour.

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1942: The massacre at the Pit

Add comment March 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the start of Purim,* Nazi forces occupying Minsk massacred approximately 5,000 Jews from the Minsk Ghetto at a site known simply as Yama, “the Pit”.

The site, which hosts memorial events every March 2, was marked with a somber obelisk in the immediate postwar years; unusually for a Stalin-era monument, it is overt about the Jewish character of the victims — for Soviet propaganda often obfuscated this with a technically-correct formulation such as “Russian citizens”. In this case, the 1940s memorial obelisk remarkably had a Yiddish inscription to mirror its Russian one. (The sculpture of a column of faceless people tragically descending the slope into the pit was added in the post-Soviet period.)


All images (cc) Dennis Jarvis.

Minsk’s pre-war Jewish population of more than 50,000 was almost entirely annihilated during World War II.

* It was not the only place in the Reich’s occupation to mark Purim with blood.

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1942: Six aspiring escapees from Dulag-205

1 comment December 18th, 2016 Headsman

On about the 18th December 1942 a group of about 6 prisoners intended to escape but were betrayed by somebody. All six prisoners were led out ofthe camp beyond the wire, taken about 20 metres to a pit and shot without any hearing. Before the execution the interpreter told the prisoners that the 6 men had wanted to escape from the camp and for that they would be executed. This would happen to anyone who tried to escape from the camp. The surnames of those who died are not known to me.

This is the testimony of Konstantin Krupachenko, a Red Army prisoner-of-war retrieved from the Germans’ “Dulag-205” camp — a transit facility behind German lines at Stalingrad which was liberated as the Soviets overran the encircled German position.

Krupachenko’s testimony was part of the evidence prepared against six Wehrmacht officers taken prisoner at that camp and ultimately executed, men whose case we have previously detailed.

Though not well-known and hardly by scale a major contributor to the ghastly death toll among Soviet POWs, Dulag-205 was horror aplenty for those who survived it. Starvation rations gave way to no rations at all in the dead of winter, and the skeletal inmates cannibalized the dead. Harassment by guard-dogs, capricious beatings, and the usual regimen of dawn-to-dusk forced labor were the lot of the lucky ones.

The less fortunate, well …

On about the 25th November 1942 while working on a road which led to Gumrak three kilometres from the camp a group of prisoners of about 50-60 was levelling and clearing the road. One prisoner whose name I don’t know collapsed from tiredness and exhaustion and couldn’t work. The guard tried to force the exhausted man to stand and work but the prisoner couldn’t get up. Then the guard shot the prisoner dead with a sub-machine gun and ordered that he be buried in a ditch at the side ofthe road. (Krupachenko again)


There were public executions in the camp. In January 1943 on about the lOth-llth a former senior Lieutenant of the Red Army, his surname I don’t know, was executed for allegedly organising an escape attempt. (Anatoly Alexeev)


In all cases the Germans would shoot prisoners without any warnings at all. In the month of October 1942 I personally saw up to 30 prisoners shot. They shot people every day for falling behind to and from work, and sometimes for breaking ranks. I am unable to give the surnames of the prisoners shot by the Germans. Moreover, when we were herded from the Alekseevka camp to the area of Karpovka village, then several prisoners were shot dead by German officers for the fact that when we were working we were bombarded by Soviet troops and several prisoners took cover. After the firing had stopped the officers came out of their trench dug-outs and shot them on the spot. Three prisoners were shot dead for taking some tobacco while working on a dump. (Ivan Kosinov)


As one of the Germans on trial for these abuses agreed (Otto Mäder was trying to throw blame onto the camp commanders),

[t]here was no trial of any kind, they [prisoners] were shot without any trial on the order of [Dulag-205 commandant] Colonel Korpert. I am a lawyer by education and I understand perfectly that this these shootings were illegal, simply murder in fact.

All these quotations are via Frank Ellis’s “Dulag-205: The German Army’s Death Camp for Soviet Prisoners at Stalingrad” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2006),

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1942: Evzen Rosicky, athlete

2 comments June 25th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Czech athlete and resistance figure Evzen Rosicky was shot with his father at Prague’s Kobyliske shooting grounds.

His country’s former champion in the 800 meters and 400 meter hurdles, Rosicky had the honor of representing Czechoslovakia at the 1936 Olympics … Hitler’s Berlin showcase.

Three years later, it was the Czechs unwillingly playing host to the Germans. By then, Rosicky was a journalist of left-wing proclivities (he was a card-carrying Communist) and he naturally segued right into anti-occupation resistance.

Arrested and shot along with his father, Jaroslav, Evzen Rosicky is the namesake of Prague’s Stadion Evzena Rosickeho.


(cc) image of Stadion Evzena Rosickeho by Honza Záruba.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1942: Robert “Rattlesnake” James, the last man hanged by California

1 comment May 1st, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1942, red-haired Robert S. James became the last man judicially hanged in the state of California. He’d earned the noose three times over. The press called him “the Diamondback Killer” or “Rattlesnake James”.

“Robert James,” records Robert Keller in his book 50 American Serial Killers You’ve Probably Never Heard Of, Volume Five, “must rank as one of the most creative killers in the annals of American crime. Not content with such mundane methods as shooting, stabbing or strangling, James resorted to such inventive devices as auto wrecks, drowning and rattlesnake bites.”

James’s cunning homicides and his proclivity for cross-country travel meant his crimes went unnoticed for years.

Born Major Raymond Lisenba in 1895, he seemed destined to a hardscrabble life of Alabama sharecropping like his parents until his brother-in-law paid for him to go to Birmingham and attend barbering school.

In 1921, at age 26, Lisenba married. His wife quickly left him, however, and filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty. James moved to Kansas and married again, and began an affair with a young local girl. He made her pregnant, and after her father showed up at his barbershop with a shotgun, Lisenba skipped town and moved to Fargo, North Dakota, abandoning wife no. 2. He also changed his name.

From here on out, he goes by Robert S. James.

In 1932, “Robert” married Winona Wallace and took out a life insurance policy on her. After three months of wedded bliss, they went on an outing to climb Pike’s Peak. During the journey, though, the couple was in a single-car accident and Winona sustained a serious head injury, while her husband was completely unharmed: he had jumped out of the out-of-control vehicle just before impact.

The police who responded for some reason thought nothing of the bloodstained hammer they noted in the car’s back seat.

Although Winona’s head wound was grave, she pulled through, and was discharged from the hospital after two weeks, with no memory of the accident. She never recovered that memory because shortly after arriving home she drowned in her own bathtub. Her husband suggested she had still been suffering vertigo from the head injury.

James collected on Winona’s $14,000 life insurance policy, moved back to Alabama and married again. He found he was unable to take out a policy on the new wife, however, and filed for an annulment on the very day of their wedding.

Undaunted, James turned his attention to his nephew, Cornelius Wright. He insured the young man, with double indemnity in case of accidental death, then invited him over to visit. During the visit, James lent Cornelius his car. Cornelius drove it off a cliff and was killed.

The insurers paid.

Curiously, James sent a telegram to his sister informing her of her son’s death before it actually happened.

James moved to Los Angeles and married a fifth time. It was wife #5, Mary Busch, who proved to be his undoing.

In 1935, James conspired with an acquaintance named Charles Hope to murder Mary. They decided to use rattlesnakes, and Hope obtained two large Colorado diamondbacks to do the job. The snakes had names: Lethal and Lightning. They performed well in field tests on chickens.

Mary was pregnant at the time, and James convinced her to get a home abortion. To this end, she allowed herself to be tied to a chair, blindfolded and gagged for the procedure. Her husband then forced whiskey down her throat to quiet her, and he and Hope shoved her bare foot into a box containing the rattlers.

They left her there to die, but when they returned later, Mary was still alive, although had been bitten three times. James dragged her into the bathroom and drowned her in the tub, then he and his accomplice threw her body into an ornamental fish pond on his property.

Then James called the police to report the tragic accident.

Authorities who arrived at the scene found Mary lying in very shallow water. Her grieving widower mentioned she had dizzy spells quite often and would fall down. The police speculated she might have been bitten by a rattlesnake and then, in shock, stumbled into the pond. They did a search of the property and did find something strange: a bottle containing black widow spiders, hidden in a corner of the garage. But what did that have to do with anything?

Mary’s death was ruled accidental and James collected yet another insurance payout.

He appeared to have gotten away with it again.

However, several months later, it came undone.

A sharp insurance investigator found out about James’s previous wives and the fact that one of them had drowned after being heavily insured. The investigator informed the police, who bugged James’s house and discovered he was committing incest with his niece.

This was a crime in California, although she was a legal adult. The police hauled him in for questioning. “Interrogation techniques,” remarks Keller, “were somewhat more brutal than they are today and under questioning, James let something slip about Mary’s death. Investigators immediately seized on this and eventually extracted a confession.”

Charles Hope’s role in the crime came out — he’d been paid $100 for his assistance in the murder — and he turned state’s evidence and was sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Lethal and Lightning were presented as evidence, and Lethal caused a bit of a stir in the courtroom when it escaped during lunch.


Star witness.

The Los Angeles Times notes, “Columnist Walter Winchell dropped by the courtroom; so did actor Peter Lorre, who studied James’ impassive face and beady eyes for one of those psychotic killer roles he often played.”

James was inevitably convicted of Mary’s murder and sentenced to death, but prolonged his life with a few years of appeals. In Lisenba v. California, the Supreme Court upheld his confession in spite of the third-degree methods by which it was obtained.

The lag from trial to execution caused by Rattlesnake’s judicial review, however, made him by the time of his hanging the last convict whose death sentence predated California’s adoption of the gas chamber. California was executing in volume at this period, and almost all by gas: everyone knew as Robert James went to the gallows that he was to be the last to die on that anachronistic device.

And the executioner — who to be fair was probably out of practice — underscored the reason for that shift by botching the job, leaving his prey to strangle to death for ten ghastly minutes. San Quentin‘s warden, Clinton Duffy, an opponent of the death penalty described the hanging to reporters but his story was deemed too graphic to be printable. In this more permissive age we can use it with impunity … but it’s liable to put you off your appetite.

The man hit bottom, and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated and the droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible. I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up. It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die.

When he was finally dead enough to cut him down, “big hunks of flesh were torn off” James’s purple face; “his eyes were popped,” and his tongue “swollen and hanging from his mouth.” (source)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Torture,USA

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1943: Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American in the German Resistance

1 comment February 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the Milwaukee-born translator and historian Mildred Fish-Harnack was beheaded at Plotzensee Prison — the only American woman executed by Hitler’s order.

A graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,* she met German jurist Arvid Harnack when the latter was a visiting scholar at the university’s sister campus in Madison.

In 1929, the couple moved to Germany where they worked as academics: Mildred, a teacher of language and literature; Arvid, of economics and foreign policy.

Both watched the rise of Third Reich with growing horror, and soon began converting their circles of academics, artists, and expats into a hive of opposition doing what they could to aid the many classes of excommunicate humans Berlin was busily proscribing. As the Nazi enterprise intensified, that opposition demanded ever more dangerous — more treasonable — extremities.

Good friends with American diplomats, the Harnacks for a time used Arvid’s placement in the Reich economic ministry to pass information to the United States. In 1940, they made contact with Soviet intelligence and from that time until the Gestapo snatched them in September 1942 the so-called** Red Orchestra sent furtive coded radio transmissions to Moscow reporting war preparations, economic data, and whatever else their circle could lay hands on among their various posts.

We have treated the fate of the Red Orchestra elsewhere in these pages; Mildred Harnack did not go to the meathook-nooses with her husband Arvid and others on December 22 because she was sentenced initially only to a term of years. These judgments came down at just the same time as the USSR was drowning the Wehrmacht in blood at Stalingrad, so there might have been a bit of personal pique when the Fuhrer personally quashed Mildred’s lenient sentence and demanded a, ah, reconsideration.

“And I have loved Germany so much,” she murmured as she was thrown under the fallbeil.

There’s a Mildred-Harnack-Schule in Berlin (also a Mildred-Harnack-Straße); her birthday, September 16, is observed every year in Wisconsin schools — although Mildred’s red associations meant that widespread recognition in her native country had to await the end of the Cold War.


Trailer for a Wisconsin Public Television documentary that can be viewed in full here.

* Then known as the Milwaukee State Normal School.

** Though this is the name history remembers them by, Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) was conferred by the German intelligence working to stop them. Confusingly, the name was applied to multiple different, and unrelated, spy networks.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Spies,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions,Wisconsin

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