> Holocaust Studies > People

The Execution

May 8, 2009 | by David Sussman

An eyewitness account of a public hanging carried out by the Nazis.

My wife's grandfather was a very private person. Twenty years ago, shortly after his passing, his family was shocked to discover that he had kept a journal for almost four decades, unbeknownst to even his closest family members. The journal, written in Hebrew in a flawless penmanship, opened an unexpected window into his past. Narratives of events dating back as early as 1947, most of which were written immediately after they occurred, allowed the family to vicariously experience the events of his life.

But with regard to one of the most important chapters of "Zeidy's" life, the journal was largely silent. Zeidy was born in the town of Shavli (Siauliai), Lithuania, in 1927. At the young age of 14, he was imprisoned in a ghetto, along with most of his family and the other residents of his town. For the next four years, first in the ghetto and then in a concentration camp, he was subjected to the abysmal living conditions imposed upon them by the Nazis, and undoubtedly witnessed numerous acts of unspeakable brutality. Upon his liberation in 1945, he found his way to Sweden, where he remained for a couple of years before ultimately making his way to America, where he settled down to raise a family.

The journal, which he began during his time in Sweden, makes few references to his wartime experiences. However, it leaves the reader with the impression that most of the tribulations he underwent were not recorded. Translating the journal into English, I recently found one of the few episodes that Zeidy had witnessed during the war. The entry of June 6, 1949, commemorates one particularly striking -- and horrifying -- event that had taken place in the ghetto exactly six years before, on June 6, 1943: the public execution of a young man for the "crime" of possessing a small amount of money.

The following is a translation of Zeidy's eyewitness account of the incident.

* * *

Today, the sixth of June, is a day the Jews of Shavli can never forget. We will forever be haunted by the memories of that awful day, six years ago, when Betzalel M., of blessed memory, was brought from his six-day imprisonment to be publicly murdered in the ghetto.

Just a few days earlier, the Nazis had been searching for a victim from the ghetto's populace. After all, in all the other ghettos in Europe, there had already been public hangings; ours had the "distinction" of being the only ghetto where no one had been murdered yet. (What the Nazis had done, however, was transfer thousands of our brethren to "another place," from which they were never to return. Those places are all too familiar to us. Most of the Jews of Shavli were shot and buried in a mass grave located in a forest 12 kilometers from the city. And although they had promised to transfer the orphanage to the ghetto, instead, they raided the facility one evening in the middle of supper, casting all of its residents, young and old alike, into waiting trucks. They were taken to a nearby forest and murdered, their young lives viciously cut short.)

Two days later, a rumor began to spread that Betzalel had been sentenced to a public hanging.

Betzalel was returning home from work when the Nazis searched him and found a small amount of money in his pocket. This was viewed as a serious infraction, since nothing was permitted to be brought into the ghetto, and we were not allowed to possess any money. We received everything "for free," and so were forced to work without a salary. We were only given food cards, which we used at the store to receive portions of food without payment.

Upon discovering the money in Betzalel's possession, the Nazis beat him severely, then threw him into the trunk of a car and brought him to jail. They then waited at the gate of the ghetto to search the pockets of everyone else who was entering. Several people were caught with a few pieces of bread in their pockets. They, too, endured brutal blows from the Nazis and then were arrested and taken to jail.

Two days later, a rumor began to spread that Betzalel had been sentenced to a public hanging. Although the Jewish council pleaded with the authorities to relent, their entreaties were to no avail. The decision remained in place.

On Shabbos, the gallows had already been constructed, and huge notices had been posted announcing that the execution would take place on Sunday. Everyone was required to be present, and all the residents of the other ghetto would be brought to our ghetto, as well, for a few hours. An air of great sadness and fear gripped all the residents of the ghetto. We still clung to the hope that the execution would not actually take place. Although the gallows were already erected, we believed it was merely a tactic to frighten us, so that we would never again violate their "sacred" law not to bring food into the ghetto.

On Sunday morning, all the residents of the ghetto were brought to the square. Lithuanian policemen raced through the ghetto, screaming at everyone to leave their houses and come to watch the execution. The crowd at the gallows was surrounded by police with their guns ready to meet any resistance. At about a quarter to eleven, a car pulled up at the ghetto's gate. An SS officer emerged first, and then Betzalel came out. His face was pale but his posture was straight. His eyes were dark from starvation, but they were full of courage. A small smile played across his lips. His hands were shackled behind his back. Another car pulled up and discharged several SS officers carrying small automatic guns. Upon seeing them, Betzalel asked the officer beside him if they were going to shoot him.

"No, they are going to hang you," the officer replied.

"It's the same thing," was Betzalel's response.

The order was given to bring him to the gallows. Betzalel walked with an erect posture. When he arrived, he turned to face us, seeming to be looking for something that he could not find. His wife and daughter had been transferred to a different ghetto that morning. He asked for permission to address the crowd, but his request was refused. He did manage to say a few words to the head of the Jewish police: ""Do not be afraid. In the end, the redemption will come for you. The end is not far away now."

It was a terrible day, a day of great fear and confusion, a day of great mourning.

The command was given for him to be placed on the gallows. Two Jews were forced to bring a table and then a chair, on which Betzalel was made to stand. The rope was placed around his neck. His brother fell to his knees pleading for mercy, but the Nazis cruelly ordered for him to be removed from the scene.

And then, as the rope was pulled, Betzalel leapt from the chair to his death.

After several minutes, the Nazis ordered a Jewish doctor to examine him and determine whether or not he was alive. The doctor looked into Betzalel's eyes, placed his stethoscope on his heart, and listened for a heartbeat, but could hear none. They ordered him to check again. The doctor again looked into his eyes, listened to his chest, and took his pulse, and determined that he was dead.

The Nazis looked at the clock; it was 11:15. They ordered that his body remain hanging until 12:00, and then they left.

The cries in the ghetto that day pierced the heavens. It was a terrible day, a day of great fear and confusion, a day of great mourning. No one could eat a thing that entire day; the experience weighed heavily on our hearts for days afterwards. Betzalel was the sacrifice for 4500 Jews. After his death, there was a brief period of quiet. . . .


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