August 12

1952

Night of the Murdered Poets

On August 12, 1952, thirteen major Soviet Jewish figures were executed. Their alleged crimes included espionage, bourgeois nationalism, “lack of true Soviet spirit,” and treason, including a plot to hand the Crimea over to American and Zionist imperialists.  In the group were famous writers such as Peretz Markish (above, winner of the Stalin Prize) , David Bergelson, and Itsik Fefer—which is why the date has come to be marked annually as the Night of the Murdered Poets—but the murdered also included an actor, a former deputy foreign minister, a scientist, and a general.  A fourteenth defendant died during the four years the group suffered in Moscow’s dreaded Lubyanka prison, and a fifteenth was merely sentenced to exile.

Though Jews such as Trotsky, Zinoviev, and Kamenev had featured prominently in the leadership of the Bolshevik Revolution, the fate of Judaism in the Soviet Union was not a happy one, especially during the Purges of the 1930s. During World War II when Stalin needed the help of the West, members of the Jewish Antifascist Committee, were sent to the United States to raise money and awareness. After the war this connection to international Judaism was perceived as a threat. In 1948 a series of murders and arrests by the secret police took a toll among the Jewish intelligentsia. In the grim cells of the Lubyanka Prison went former artistic luminaries, including men like Fefer who had loyally toed the Party line and informed on his fellows. They suffered years of torture to produce false confessions and were finally put on trial in 1952 when Stalin’s anti-Semitism was increasingly unchecked.

Following a cursory, secret trial, the thirteen were executed. After Stalin’s death in 1953 the new Soviet government reexamined their cases and declared them posthumously rehabilitated.

August 8

1827

Death of Prime Minister George Canning

There is a certain moral grandeur popularly ascribed to the doctrinaire which is denied to the statesman. There are few politicians who receive the unreserved admiration accorded to those who have done nothing but write books, or yielded their lives to the advocacy of a single cause. The doctrinaire—the propounder of a fixed set of opinions— advises mankind, but does not under-take to manage them. Through a long series of years he may publish his convictions with pertinacious uniformity, without hindrance and without responsibility. Such consistency is sometimes contrasted with the wavering tactics of the statesman, to the unfair disadvantage of the latter. A statesman sets himself to lead a people, and is less careful to entertain them with his private convictions than to discover what principles they are inclined to accept and to commit to practice. The doctrinaire’s business is to proclaim what is true, whether men hear or reject; the statesman’s is to ascertain and recommend what is practicable.

The statesman is often compelled to defer his private judgment to popular prejudice, and to rest content with bending what cannot be broken. Sir Robert Peel was a free-trader long before free-trade was possible. These reserves are inseparable from statesmanship, nor need they involve dissimulation. A statesman, being a practical man, regards all speech as lost labour which is not likely to be reproduced in action. There is, as all know, a base statesmanship, which does not aspire to lead from good to better, but which panders to popular folly for selfish ends. Of this we do not speak. We merely note the f act, that the consistency of the doctrinaire is an easy virtue compared with the statesman’s arduous art: the first tells what is right; the other persuades millions to do it. A statesman who has led with any credit a free people, has necessarily encountered difficulties and temptations of which the solitary student has had no experience, and possibly no conception.

George Canning, whilst one of the ablest European statesmen of the present century, was not doctrinally far in advance of his generation; yet for England he did much worthy service, and through his genius English principles acquired new influence the world over. He was born in Marylebone, London, on the 11th of April 1770. His father was a young gentleman, whose family had cast him off for making a poor marriage; and, while Canning was an infant, he died, it is said, of a broken heart. His mother commenced school-keeping for her support, but it did not pay, and then she tried the stage, but with little better success. An uncle meanwhile intervened, and sent Canning to Eton, where he quickly made his mark by his aptitude for learning.

From Eton he passed to Oxford, and thence to Lincoln’s Inn, with the intention of studying for the bar; but such was his readiness in debate, that his friends persuaded him that politics were his true vocation. At this time he was on familiar terms with Sheridan and Fox, and other leading Whigs, but to their disappointment he sought alliance with Pitt, and under his auspices he entered parliament in 1793. As soon as by trial Pitt had tested the quality of his young recruit, he placed him on active service, and left him to bear the brunt of some formidable attacks. Canning enjoyed and grew under this discipline, and found wit and eloquence equal to all demands. With the Anti-Jacobin periodical—begun in 1797 and concluded in 1798, to resist and ridicule democratic opinions—he was largely concerned, and its best verses and jeux dèsprit were written by him. His Needy Knife-Grinder, a burlesque of a poem by Southey, is known to everybody, being a stock-piece in all collections of humorous poetry.

In 1800, Canning was married to Joan Scott, a daughter of General Scott, who brought with her a dowry of £100,000. Canning’s life, from 1793 to 1827, is inwrought with the parliamentary history of England, sometimes in office, and sometimes in opposition. He was a steady enemy of the French Revolution and of Napoleon; he advocated the Irish union, the abolition of the slave trade, and Catholic emancipation; but resisted parliamentary reform, and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. As secretary of state for foreign affairs, he was peculiarly distinguished. His sympathies were heartily liberal; and the assertion of Lord Holland, that Canning had ‘the finest logical intellect in Europe,’ seemed to find justification in his state-papers and correspondence, which were models of lucid and spirited composition. Against the craft of the Holy Alliance he set his face steadily, and was always ready to afford counsel and help to those who were struggling after constitutional freedom. With real joy he recognised the republics formed from the dissolution of Spanish dominion in America, and one of his last public acts was the treaty which led to the deliverance of Greece from the Turks.

Canning was only prime minister during a few months preceding his death. On the resignation of the Earl of Liverpool, through illness, Canning, in April 1827, succeeded him as premier; and as a consequence of his known favour for the Catholics, Lord Eldon, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, and other Tories threw up their places. Canning had, therefore, to look for support to the Whigs, and with much anxiety and in weak health he fought bravely through the session to its close in July, when he retired to the Duke of Devonshire’s villa at Chiswick, and there died on the 8th of August 1827.

August 6

 

1623

The death of Anne Hathaway

Obscure as are many of the points in Shakespeare’s life, it is known that his wife’s maiden name was Anne Hathaway, and that her father was a substantial yeoman at Shottery, near Stratford-on-Avon. Shakespeare was barely nineteen, and his bride about six-and-twenty, when they married. The marriage-bond has been brought to light, dated November 1582. Singularly little is known of their domestic life; and it is only by putting together a number of small indications that the various editors of Shakespeare’s works have arrived at any definite conclusions concerning the family. One circumstance seems rather to tell against the supposition of strong affection on his side: Shakespeare drew out his whole will without once mentioning his wife, and then put in a few words interlined. The will points out what shall be bequeathed to his daughter Judith (Mrs. Quiney), his daughter Susanna (Mrs. Hall), his sister Joan Hart, her three sons, William, and Thomas, and Michael, and a considerable number of friends and acquaintances at Stratford; but the sole mention of Anne Shakespeare is in the item: ‘I give unto my wife my second-best bed, with the furniture.’ Malone accepted this interlined bequest as a proof that Shakspeare had, in making his will, forgot his wife, and then only remembered her with what was equivalent to an insult. On the other hand, Mrs. Shakespeare would, by law, have a third part of her husband’s means; so that there was presumably the less reason to remember her with special gifts of affection. She died on the 6th of August 1623, and was buried on the 8th, in Stratford church.

Her gravestone is next to the stone with the doggrel inscription, but nearer to the north wall, upon which Shakspeare’s monument is placed. The stone has a brass-plate, with the following inscription:

‘Heere lyeth interred the body of Anne, wife of William Shakespeare, who dep.ted this Life the 6th day of Avgv. 1623, being of the age of 67 Yeares.

Ubera tu mater, tu lac vitamque dedisti;
Vae mihi! pro tanto munere saxa dabo.
Quam mallem amoveat lapidem bonus Angelus ore’,
Exeat [ut] Christi corpus, imago tua;
Sed nil vota valent, venias cito, Christe, resurget,
Clausa licet tumulo, mater, et astra petet.’

Translated, this reads: “Breasts, O mother, milk and life thou didst give. Woe is me – for how great a boon shall I give stones? How much rather would I pray that the good angel should move the stone so that, like Christ’s body, thine image might come forth! But my prayers are unavailing. Come quickly, Christ, that my mother, though shut within this tomb may rise again and reach the stars.”

This appears to be strong evidence of the love in which Shakspeare’s wife was regarded by her daughter, with whom she lived during her latter years.

 

 

August 2

1100

Death of William II aka Rufus

William II, nicknamed Rufus because of his red hair, was a son of William the Conqueror and became King of England after his father’s death in 1087. The chief event of his reign was his disastrous naming of Anselm of Bec as his Archbishop of Canterbury. Anselm was a man of integrity, interested in reforming the church and opposing royal meddling; he soon quarrelled with Rufus and went into exile. Anselm became a saint and Rufus died a strange and somewhat ironic death, recounted here by Chambers with particular reference to forest law. The Normans after their 1066 conquest of England fenced off huge tracts of the countryside and dedicated them to royal hunting. A whole set of laws was dedicated to policing these territories and punishing any commoner who entered. 

Few Englishmen of the nineteenth century can realize a correct idea of the miseries endured by their forefathers, from the game-laws, under despotic princes. Constant encroachments upon private property, cruel punishments—such as tearing out the offender’s eyes, or mutilating his limbs—inflicted for the infraction of forest law; extravagant payments in the shape of heavy tolls levied by the rangers on all merchandise passing within the purlieus of a royal chase; frequent and arbitrary changes of boundary, in order to bring offences within the forest jurisdiction, were only a portion of the evils submitted to by the victims of feudal tyranny. No dogs, however valuable or dear to their owners—except mastiffs for household defence —were allowed to exist within miles of the outskirts, and even the poor watch-dog, by a ‘Court of Regard’ held for that special purpose every three years, was crippled by the amputation of three claws of the forefeet close to the skin—an operation, in woodland parlance, termed expeditation, intended to render impossible the chasing or otherwise incommoding the deer in their coverts.

Of all our monarchs of Norman race, none more rigorously enforced these tyrannous game-laws than William Rufus; none so remorselessly punished his English subjects for their infraction. Even the Conqueror himself, who introduced them, was more indulgent. No man of Saxon descent dared to approach the royal preserves, except at the peril of his life with the trespasser hung up to the nearest convenient tree with his own bowstring.

The poor Saxons, thus worried, adopted the impotent revenge of nicknaming Rufus ‘Wood-keeper,’ and ‘Herdsmen of wild beasts.’ Their minds, too, were possessed with a rude and not unnatural superstition, that the devil in various shapes, and under the most appalling circumstances, appeared to their persecutors when chasing the deer in these newly-formed hunting -grounds. Chance had made the English forests—the New Forest especially—fatal to no less than three descendants of their Norman invader, and the popular belief in these demon visitations received additional confirmation from each recurring catastrophe; Richard, the Conqueror’s eldest son, hunting there, was gored to death by a stag; the son of Duke Robert, and nephew of Rufus, lost his life by being dashed against a tree by his unruly horse; and we shall now shew how Rufus himself died by a hunting casualty in the same place.

Near Chormingham, and close to the turnpike-road leading from Lymington to Salisbury, there is a lovely secluded dell, into which the western sun alone shines brightly, for heavy masses of foliage encircle it on every other side. It is, indeed, a popular saying of the neighbourhood: that in ancient days a squirrel might be hunted for the distance of six miles, without coming to the ground; and a traveller journey through a long July day without seeing the sun. On this day in 100 the king and friends went hunting. Some of the party had dispersed to various coverts, and there remained alone with Rufus, Sir Walter Tyrrel, a French knight, whose unrivalled adroitness in archery raised him high in the Norman Nimrod’s favour. That morning, a workman had brought to the palace six cross-bow quarrels of superior manufacture, and keenly pointed, as an offering to his prince. They pleased him well, and after presenting to the fellow a suitable reward, he handed three of the arrows to Tyrrel—saying, jocosely, ‘Bon archer, bonnes flèches.’

The Red King and his accomplished attendant now separated, each stationing himself, still on horseback, in some leafy covert, but nearly opposite; their cross-bows bent, and with an arrow upon the nut. The deep mellow cry of a stag hound, mingled with the shouts of attendant foresters, comes freshening on the breeze. There is a crash amongst the underwood, and out bounds ‘a stag of ten,’ that after listening and gazing about him, as deer are wont to do, commenced feeding behind the stem of a tall oak. Rufus drew the trigger of his weapon, but, owing to the string breaking, his arrow fell short. Enraged at this, and fearful the animal would escape, he exclaimed, Tirez done, Walter! tirez done! si mĕme cètoit le diablé—Shoot, Walter! shoot! even were it the devil. His behest was too well obeyed; for the arrow glancing off from the tree at an angle, flew towards the spot where Rufus was concealed. A good arrow, and moreover a royal gift, is always worth the trouble of searching for, and the archer went to look for his. The king’s horse, grazing at large, first attracted attention; then the hounds cowering over their prostrate master; the fallen cross-bow; and, last of all, the king himself prone upon his face, still struggling with the arrow, which he had broken off short in the wound. Terrified at the accident, the unintentional homicide spurred his horse to the shore, embarked for France, and joined the Crusade then just setting for the East.

About sun-down, one Purkiss, a charcoal-burner, driving homewards with his cart, discovered a gentleman lying weltering in blood, with an arrow driven deep into his breast. The peasant knew him not, but conjecturing him to be one of the royal train, he lifted the body into his vehicle, and proceeded towards Winchester Palace, the blood all the way oozing out between the boards, and leaving its traces upon the road. 

More than one historian has suggested that this might have been a murder instigated by Rufus’s younger brother Henry who was in the hunting party and who instantly seized the crown.

July 31

St Germanus

Those readers who were unfortunate enough to see the 2005 Antoine Fuqua film King Arthur might think they have seen a glimpse of the real St Germanus in the guise of the character “Bishop Germanius”. In this wretched movie, Germanius (like the real Germanus) is an opponent of Pelagianism which is presented as a form of political democracy (which it most assuredly was not). He, like all other Christians in the film, is a Bad Guy. The real Germanus was much more interesting than this cartoon villain.

Germanus, also known as St. Germain, (380-448) was born into a wealthy and well-connected family at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. As a brilliant lawyer he came to the attention of the imperial court and was named a Duke (a post combining military and administrative responsibilities) in charge of provinces in Gaul. He was based at Auxerre in what is now central France and would have dealt with the invading Germanic barbarians as well as trying to keep civilization going in a time of chaos. Like many Roman administrators of the time he left the civil service and joined the Church where he was made bishop of Auxerre. Around 429 he was sent across the Channel into Britain, a province abandoned by the Roman army and beset by raiders from all sides. The island was also the home of the dangerous Pelagian heresy which denied Original Sin and insisted on the ability of the free human will to perfect itself. Germanus was sent to Britain to confront the supporters of this idea and reassert orthodoxy, which he seems to have done successfully. A 20th-century poem by Hilaire Belloc says:

And then with his stout Episcopal staff
So thoroughly whacked and banged
The heretics all, both short and tall,
They rather had been hanged.

While in Britain he learned of a combined attack by northern tribes known as Picts and Germans. He led an ambush of the invaders known as the “Alleluia Victory” after the Christian battle cry. Germanus also seems to have played a role in the establishment of the cult of St Alban, British Christianity’s first martyr. Back in Gaul he continued his battles against barbarians. He died at Ravenna, the imperial capital  where he had gone to try and convince the worthless emperor Honorius to call off his barbarian mercenaries, but he is buried in Auxerre where his relics were venerated until his tomb was destroyed by Protestants in the 16th century.

July 30

1718 The death of William Penns

William Penn, born in London in 1644, was the son of a prominent English admiral. He became a convert to Quakerism, a sect which in the 17th century was infamous for its threats to conventional society and theology. Chambers’ Book of Days gives an account of his life and accomplishments.

His father had bequeathed him a claim on the government of £16,000 for arrears of pay and cash advanced to the navy. Penn very well knew that such a sum was irrecoverable from Charles II; he had long dreamed of founding a colony where peace and righteousness might dwell together; and he decided to compound his debt for a tract of country in North America. The block of land he selected lay to the north of the Catholic province of Maryland, owned by Lord Baltimore; its length was nearly 300 miles, its width about 160, and its area little less than the whole of England. Objections were raised; but Charles was only too glad to get rid of a debt on such easy terms. At the council, where the charter was granted, Penn stood in the royal presence, it is said, with his hat on. The king thereupon took off his; at which Penn observed, ‘Friend Charles, why dost thou not keep on thy hat?’ to which his majesty replied, laughing: ‘It is the custom of this place for only one person to remain covered at a time.’ The name which Penn had fixed on for his province was New Wales; but Secretary Blathwayte, a Welshman, objected to have the Quaker-country called after his land. He then proposed Sylvania, and to this the king added Penn, in honour of the admiral.

The fine country thus secured became the resort of large numbers of Quakers, who, to their desire for the free profession of their faith, united a spirit of enterprise; and very quickly Pennsylvania rose to high importance among the American plantations. Its political constitution was drawn up by Penn, aided by Algernon Sidney, on extreme democratic principles. Perfect toleration to all sects was accorded. ‘Whoever is right,’ Penn used to say, ‘the persecutor must be wrong.’ The world thought him a visionary; but his resolution to treat the Indians as friends, and not as vermin to be extirpated, seemed that of a madman. So far as he could prevent, no instrument of war was allowed to appear in Pennsylvania. He met the Indians, spoke kindly to them, promised to pay a fair price for whatever land he and his friends might occupy, and assured them of his good-will. If offences should unhappily arise, a jury of six Indians and six Englishmen should decide upon them.

The Indians met Penn in his own spirit. No oaths, no seals, no official mummeries were used; the treaty was ratified on both sides with a yea, yea—the only one, says Voltaire, “that the world has known, never sworn to, and never broken.” A strong evidence of Penn’s sagacity is the fact, that not one drop of Quaker blood was ever shed by an Indian; and forty years elapsed from the date of the treaty, ere a red man was slain by a white in Pennsylvania. The murder was an atrocious one, but the Indians themselves prayed that the murderer’s life might be spared. It was spared; but he died in a very short time, and they then said, the Great Spirit had avenged their brother.

It will be thought that Penn made a capital bargain, in the purchase of Pennsylvania for £16,000; but in his lifetime, he drew little but trouble from his investment. The settlers withheld his dues, disobeyed his orders, and invaded his rights; and he was kept in constant disquiet by intrigues for the nullification of his charter. Distracted by these cares, he left his English property to the care of a steward, who plundered him mercilessly; and his later years were saddened with severe pecuniary distress. He was twice married, and in both cases to admirable women. His eldest son, a promising youth, he lost just as he verged on manhood; and a second son, by riotous living, brought himself to an early grave, trying Penn’s fatherly heart with many sorrows. Multiplied afflictions did not, however, sour his noble nature, nor weaken his settled faith in truth and goodness.

Penn’s intimacy with James II exposed him, in his own day, to much suspicion, which yet survives. It ought to be remembered, that Admiral Penn and James were friends; that the admiral, at death, consigned his son William to his guardianship; and that between James and his ward there sprung up feelings apparently amounting to affection. While James was king, Penn sometimes visited him daily, and persuaded him to acts of clemency, otherwise unattainable. Penn scorned as a Quaker, James hated as a Catholic, could sympathise as brothers in adversity. Penn, by nature, was kindly, and abounding in that charity which thinketh no evil; and taking the worst view of James’s character, it is in nowise surprising that Penn should have been the victim of his duplicity. It is well known that rogues could do little mischief, if it were not so easy to make good men their tools.

There was very little of that asceticism about Penn which is thought to belong to—at least early —Quakerism. The furniture of his houses was equal in ornament and comfort to that of any gentleman of his time. His table abounded in every real luxury. He was fond of fine horses, and had a passion for boating. The ladies of his household dressed like gentlewomen—wore caps and buckles, silk gowns and golden ornaments. Penn had no less than four wigs in America, all purchased the same year, at a cost of nearly £20. To innocent dances and country fairs he not only made no objection, but patronised them with his own and his family’s presence.

William Penn, after a lingering illness of three or four years, in which his mind suffered, but not painfully, died at Ruscombe on the 30th July 1718, and was buried at the secluded village of Jordans, in Buckinghamshire. No stone marks the spot, although many a pilgrim visits the grave.

July 27

1890

Vincent van Gogh shoots himself

If there were a contest for the world’s best-loved artist, it would probably be won by Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). His universally appealing art, his lack of success in his lifetime, and his self-destructive final years add up to a romantic and tragic tale of an unjustly-neglected genius.

Van Gogh was born into a well-to-do Dutch family who arranged for Vincent to be trained as an art dealer but after initial success in that field, he grew disenchanted and left the art world to become, first, a teacher, and then a Protestant minister. Neither profession suited Vincent whose bouts of depression and instability made him unemployable and caused his family worry. At the suggestion of his brother Theo, he took up art and spent the last ten years of his life exploring various techniques before settling on the bold post-Impressionist style that he made his own.

Though Van Gogh was attracting admiration from his fellow artists, his work was not commercially successful; his poverty would have prevented his painting had he not been supported by Theo. His greatest pieces came out of his last two years, after a move to Arles in the south of France. He worked quickly producing over 200 paintings and over 100 drawings and pastels. During this time he associated with Paul Gauguin and in the turbulence of this relationship, in December 1889, van Gogh cut his ear off and sent it to a prostitute. This was followed by a stay in a mental asylum which allowed him studio space and there he produced his gorgeous Starry Night. In May 1890 he left the asylum and moved to Auvers-sur-Oise to be treated by a homeopath, Dr Paul Gachet. His deep-seated mental illness, however, never left him and on July 27 he shot himself in the chest. It took him two days to die; he succumbed in the presence of his brother Theo who recorded Vincent’s last words as “The sadness will last forever”.

July 21

1899 Birth of Hart Crane

What is it about poets? Their lives seem so much more troubled and eventful than ordinary mortals. Ovid dies in exile; François Villon is tortured and banished; Christopher Marlowe is stabbed to death in a bar fight; adulterous, incestuous Byron dies in a civil war; Shelley dies at sea; Thomas Chatterton and John Keats die poor and young; Christopher Smart and Ezra Pound spend years in an insane asylum; Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and John  McCrae perish in the trenches of World War I; Anne Sexton, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sylvia Plath commit suicide; Garcia Lorca is murdered; Dylan Thomas drinks himself to death. And then there is Hart Crane.

Born into a prosperous family, the son of the inventor of Life-Saver candy, Crane dropped out of high school to become a writer. He soon attracted a supportive readership — his unhappiness was not caused by an unfeeling world. Since few poets have ever managed to feed and clothe themselves from the financial rewards of their art (Rod McKuen is a dishonourable exception), he relied on handouts, generous patrons, and long-suffering friends as he laboured to complete The Great American Poem, his answer to Virgil’s Aeniad or Eliot’s “The Waste Land”.

His homosexuality, which sought relief at the hands of sailors and other rough trade, brought him beatings rather than joy. His alcoholism and belligerence as a drunk earned him a spell in a Parisian jail. Crane’s one heterosexual excursion with painter Peggy Cowley ended unhappily and soon after that period, in April 1932, clothed in his pyjamas and a top coat, he threw himself off the railing of a ship on the Atlantic. His last words were “Goodbye, everybody!”

My favourite poem of this unhappy fellow is “My Grandmother’s Love Letters”.

There are no stars tonight

But those of memory.

Yet how much room for memory there is

In the loose girdle of soft rain.


There is even room enough

For the letters of my mother’s mother,

Elizabeth,

That have been pressed so long

Into a corner of the roof

That they are brown and soft,

And liable to melt as snow.


Over the greatness of such space

Steps must be gentle.

It is all hung by an invisible white hair.

It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.


And I ask myself:


"Are your fingers long enough to play

Old keys that are but echoes:

Is the silence strong enough

To carry back the music to its source

And back to you again

As though to her?"


Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand

Through much of what she would not understand;

And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof

With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

July 16

1942

The Vel’ d’Hiv’ Roundup

Early in 1942, the German government decided on a policy of exterminating Jews in the territories under their control by shipping them to death camps in eastern Europe. To do so in  France required the permission of the puppet French government in Vichy, which agreed that the German occupying forces could arrest foreign Jews, while French Jews would be scooped up by local police. After securing the agreement of the Vichy government, German officials and French police conducted roundups of Jews in both the occupied and unoccupied zones of France throughout the summer of 1942. The Vél d’Hiv was part of a series of roundups codenamed Opération Vent printanier (Operation Spring Wind) that took place across the country in spring and summer of 1942.

Preparations for the Roundup

Planning for the Vél d’Hiv roundup took place among René Bousquet, secretary general of the French national police; Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, Commissioner for Jewish Affairs under the Vichy Régime; SS-Hauptsturmführer Theodor Dannecker, head of Adolf Eichmann’s Judenreferat [Jewish Section] in France; and SS-Oberstürmführer Helmut Knochen, head of the German Security Police in France.

The Director of the local Paris Municipal Police, Emile Hennequin, sent precise expectations for the roundup to the police prefecture three days before the event. The roundup was originally set to take place from July 13–15, which included Bastille Day, the French national holiday. The holiday was not celebrated in the occupied zones of France, and in order to preclude local rioting, Nazi officials allowed French officials to delay the operation until July 16–17.

The German goal was that French police would round up 28,000 foreign and stateless Jews in the greater Paris area. They were to exempt “sensitive cases” such as British or American Jews. Although German authorities had originally agreed to exempt children under the age of 16, French Prime Minister Pierre Laval suggested for “humanitarian” reasons that children be arrested with their parents, unless a family member remained behind to care for them. Four thousand children were among those arrested in Paris.

In order to maintain a detailed record of the roundup, the police were to report the number of people they arrested each hour to their local prefecture.

July 16–17

Beginning in the early hours of July 16, French police rounded up thousands of men, women, and children throughout Paris. By the end of the day, the police had taken 2,573 men, 5,165 women, and 3,625 children from their homes. The roundup continued the following day, but with a much smaller number of arrests.

Approximately 6,000 of those rounded up were immediately transported to Drancy, in the northern suburbs of Paris. Drancy was at that point a transit camp for Jews being deported from France. The rest of the arrestees were detained at the Vélodrome d’Hiver (Winter Cycling Track), an indoor sporting arena in Paris’s fifteenth arrondissement.

Officials could have held few illusions of the unsuitability of the “Vél d’Hiv” for holding such a large population indefinitely. Early in the war, it had been used to intern German nationals, mainly refugees. In 1940 it housed interned foreign women. In both instances, conditions were deplorable.

Following the roundup of Jews in greater Paris, some 7,000 Jews, among them almost 4,000 children, were crowded together in the sports arena. There was scarcely space to lie down and the incarcerated Jews faced appalling circumstances. No arrangements had been made for food, water, or sanitary facilities. Only two physicians a shift were allowed in to treat the internees. The glass ceiling of the arena contributed to a stifling environment by day, as all ventilation had been sealed to prevent escape, and led to chilly temperatures at night. Parisian Quakers came to bring food and water.

Aftermath

After five days, Jews incarcerated at the Vél d’Hiv were transferred to other transit camps outside Paris. At Drancy, Pithiviers, and Beaune-la-Rolande, French police guarded these men, women, and children until transport to concentration camps and killing centers in the east. At the end of July, the remaining adults were separated from their children and deported to Auschwitz. Over 3,000 children remained interned without their parents until they were deported, among adult strangers, to Auschwitz as well.

German authorities continued the deportations of Jews from French soil until August 1944. In all, some 77,000 Jews living on French territory perished, the overwhelming majority of them at Auschwitz.

Postwar Trials

For his prominent role in the deportation of Jews from France, Pierre Laval, formerly the French Prime Minister, was arrested and tried after the liberation of France. He was shot by firing squad on 15 October 1945.

The fate of two German officials most involved in the Vél d’Hiv mirrored the common fates of high-ranking SS administrators. Theodor Dannecker was arrested by American officials in Bad Tölz, Bavaria, in December 1945, and committed suicide while in custody. Helmut Knochen, sentenced by a British court to 21 years in prison for a separate offense, was sentenced to death by a French court in 1954. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and Knochen was released on orders of French President Charles de Gaulle in November 1962.

In 1949, René Bousquet, secretary general of the French police, was found guilty for his role in the complicit Vichy government, but his sentence was immediately commuted for “having actively and sustainably participated in the resistance against the occupier.” In 1991, French justice authorities in Paris indicted Bousquet for his participation in the deportation of Jews from France. Christian Didier, a mentally ill individual, assassinated Bousquet in his home in Paris on June 8, 1993, before proceedings could take place.

Acknowledging the Role of the State and Police

On July 16, 1995, on the fifty-third anniversary of the Vél d’Hiv roundup, French President Jacques Chirac acknowledged the role the state and its police had played in the persecution of Jews and other victims of the German occupation. “France,” Chirac said, “land of the Enlightenment and of Human Rights, land of hospitality and asylum, France, on that day, committed an irreparable act. It failed to keep its word and delivered those under its protection to their executioners.”

This post is taken from the Holocaust Museum’s excellent website. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10008213

 

 

July 9

1441

Death of Jan van Eyck

The explosion of artistic genius in the Netherlands in the 15th and 16th centuries is often referred to as part of the “Northern Renaissance” but I would categorize it as “Late Gothic”; there is not in the works of painters such as van Eyck, Bosch or Brueghel much of the contemporary Italian fascination with pagan mythology, sexually-charged topics, or obsession with perspective.

Jan van Eyck was born sometime before 1390 and reached the height of his talent in the decade before his death. He was often patronized by the Duke of Burgundy who ruled much of the Netherlands and who offered van Eyck both artistic and diplomatic commissions. Van Eyck was an early master of oil painting, so much so that a century later Giorgio Vasari credited him with inventing the technique.

Some of his masterpieces are:

The Arnolfini Portrait

The Virgin of Chancellor Rollin

The Ghent Altarpiece

A critic has said of van Eyck  that “from the fifteenth century onward, commentators have expressed their awe and astonishment at his ability to mimic reality and, in particular, to re-create the effects of light on different surfaces, from dull reflections on opaque surfaces to luminous, shifting highlights on metal or glass … Through his understanding of the effects of light and rigorous scrutiny of detail, Van Eyck is able to construct a convincingly unified and logical pictorial world, suffusing the absolute stillness of the scene with scintillating energy.”