Saturday, May 25, 2013

Today is the 106th Anniversary of My Grandfather's 3rd Death Sentence

For a reading today, I had coincidentally chosen a section about my grandfather's 3rd death sentence, not realizing that today was the anniversary of the date he was to be executed:

"...My advocate comforted me with the forecast that I was almost certain to be sentenced to death. Therefore, the only thing worth doing was pleading, in view of my military record and my obvious youthful ignorance, to be let off with ten years of hard labor.

"I can’t say I was charmed by his readiness to bury me alive, although in time I would learn that getting a 'tenner' was practically the equivalent of being found 'not guilty.' But from the moment the trial got under way, I could see that my lawyer had been, if anything, overoptimistic.

"My three judges put on their spectacles to study the charges. Wasting no time on what I might have had to say for myself, they retired to consider their verdict.

"After a leisurely five minutes, they returned and pronounced sentence.

"The blood raced in my ears, but I had no trouble hearing the words, 'firing squad.'

"Rather than dawdle about it for months or years as the courts did in Columbus’ Country, the appeal my lawyer had wisely prepared in advance was already scheduled to be heard the following day.

"Late the next morning, I was marched back into the courtroom, this time attached to three other prisoners who were also appealing their death sentences. Not a good sign.

"One look at the bench and my heart sank. Th e judges who would rule on my appeal were the same three antiques who, only yesterday, had sentenced me to death. It would have surprised me very much if, overnight, each of them had had a miraculous change of heart.

"What’s more, there was no sign of my lawyer. Instead, I was furnished with a military advocate, a pudgy-handed captain whose middle bulged like a pregnant barmaid. Barely glancing in my direction, he explained to the judges that he had not had time to study my file and asked for a recess for a quick consultation with me.

"He took me to the adjacent room where he favored me with a well-fed smile, and said, “To defend you against these terrible accusations, I must have the full truth, you understand?”

"Since I had no idea who this man was or which side he was working for, I was not quite ready to take him at his word.

"'How many men have you killed?'

"I did not find this a very encouraging question. Still, I answered as best I could. 'Probably dozens.' His eyes brightened. 'In combat,' I added, 'it’s difficult to keep an accurate count.'

"'Fool, I meant in Warsaw. On orders from the Party.'

"'What ‘Party?’'

"He raised his voice. 'Do you or don’t you want me to defend you?'

"'Against what?'

"'Don’t you know you’ve been sentenced to death?'

"'What has that to do with you?'

"'I’m your lawyer. I want the truth. All of it.'

"'I told the truth. Yesterday. And look at where it got me.'

"'You’re a damned Jew-faced liar!'

"This, I confess, provoked me. 'I want nothing to do with you. If they won’t let me have a proper lawyer, I’ll defend myself.'

"My defender sucked in his breath and apologized for having, perhaps, expressed himself a little too heartily. What he would not do was admit that his only job was to extract a confession from me so that the judges
could put away my comrades, too.

"Sulking, he delivered me back into the courtroom where things had begun without us. Of the prisoners to whom I had been chained, two had already had their death sentences confirmed and were weeping. My turn
was next.

"The clerk read the charges against me once more. This time I listened more attentively to his monotonic recital of killings, robberies and such, each listed according to date and location. 

"It took me some moments to realize that nearly all of these charges dealt with crimes committed long before I arrived in Warsaw. I tried to interrupt and point this out, but the clerk told me to be silent.

"It was my lawyer’s job to speak for me. I looked at my defender, who was goggling at a fly that had settled on his briefcase.

"I called out to the court, 'I don’t accept the man you have assigned to me. I want a civilian lawyer.'

"'This is a military court. Here you can only be defended by an officer.'

"'What happened to the lawyer I had yesterday?'

"'That was a mistake. The man had no right to defend you. He will be severely punished for misrepresenting himself.'

"While my doomed fellow prisoners looked greatly impressed by the depth of my depravity, my alleged lawyer went through the motions of pleading with the court to show some leniency to a man who had, in battle, repeatedly proven his love for, and loyalty to, the Czar.

"True, he admitted in the same breath, I might have murdered some people in Warsaw, although perhaps not as many as the honorable Court had been led to believe. But surely the real criminals were the Party leaders
who distorted my young mind and sent me out to commit these deeds without my fully understanding their seriousness.

"He driveled on like this for I don’t know how long while the judges listened with all the patience of old men whose bladders were about to burst. The moment he was done, they scurried out to confer.

"A few eternal minutes later, about as long as it would have taken each one to have had his turn at the urinal, they were back. The general, himself, read the verdict. It confirmed yesterday’s sentence – death by firing squad – to be carried out on the twenty-fifth of May, 1907, a date that has somehow stuck in my memory.

"Much as I hated to give them the satisfaction, I staggered for a moment and nearly lost consciousness."

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