05 February 2012

Red Cushing and the Many Deaths of Yakov Stalin

Here's one from the Poor Mouth's vaults. Normal service will resume shortly 

It was my good fortune to wander into the bookshop in the departure lounge at Cork Airport. Otherwise I would not have picked up a copy of Terence O’Reilly’s Hitler’s Irishmen.

Hitler’s Irishmen is mainly concerned with the fortunes of “James Brady” (a pseudonym – we do not know his true identity) and Frank Stringer, two soldiers who were imprisoned in Jersey at the time of the German occupation and who became the only Irishmen to join the Waffen SS. It also provides a detailed account of the farcical attempt to raise an “Irish Brigade” from the POW population. Roger Casement had tried the same thing during WWI with little success – his Irish Brigade numbered just over 50 men. This attempt attracted a mere handful; and some of them had no intention of serving the Reich. Brady and Stinger and the Friesack Camp are for another day though.

By 1942 the Germans realised that four of the recruits (William Murphy, Patrick O'Brien, Andrew Walsh and our old friend Thomas “Red” Cushing) were not quite as loyal to the Reich as originally thought. The four were sent to a segregation unit in Saschenhausen concentration camp.

Born in 1907 Yakov Iosifovich Dzhugashvili (I will use Stalin rather than Dzhugashvili)was Joseph Stalin’s oldest child. An artillery lieutenant, he was taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht at Smolensk in July 1941. By 1942 he too was in Saschenhausen sharing accommodation Vasili Korkorin, the nephew of Vyacheslav Molotov , Murphy, O’Brian, Walsh and Red Cushing.

Yakov Stalin died in Saschenhausen in April 1943. The general consensus seems to be that he effectively committed suicide either with or without the help of a German bullet. However, more than one reason has been put forward for his suicide.

Cause 1: Abandonment

According to a Time article from 1 March 1968 Yakov, devastated by his father’s refusal of a German offer to exchange him for Field Marshall Von Paulus (who had surrendered at Stalingrad in January), picked his way through a maze of trip wires to the camp fence. He then called to a nearby SS guard: "Don't be a coward. Shoot, shoot." When the prisoner made a grab for the fence, the guard obliged, firing a single bullet which killed him in instantly.

Cause 2: Shame over the Katyn massacres

In June 2001, however, the Daily Telegraph carried an article which purported to provide the definitive answer to Yakov’s end. Already dispirited by his father’s rejection of an exchange for Von Paulus, Stalin was so overcome by shame at the news of his father's massacre of 15,000 Poles at Katyn in 1940 that he committed suicide by flinging himself on to the camp's electric fence.

According to professor John Erickson, (an authority on the Great Patriotic War who died in 2002) "It is clear that Yakov, who had become close friends with the Poles and had made two abortive escape attempts with them, was so distraught when goaded with the news of his father's massacre of the Polish officers, which was revealed in German newspapers in 1943, that he took his life. Driven to despair by the horrific conditions in the camp - he was emaciated and on the point of starvation - and the strain of the propaganda campaign the Germans had involved him in, the news that his father had sanctioned the Poles' murder was the final straw."

To be continued

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