Thursday, January 30, 2014

From the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft

If you want to make your own necropants (literally; nábrók) you have to get permission from a living man to use his skin after his dead.
After he has been buried you must dig up his body and flay the skin of the corpse in one piece from the waist down. As soon as you step into the pants they will stick to your own skin. A coin must be stolen from a poor widow and placed in the scrotum along with the magical sign, nábrókarstafur, written on a piece of paper. Consequently the coin will draw money into the scrotum so it will never be empty, as long as the original coin is not removed. To ensure salvation the owner has to convince someone else to overtake the  pants and step into each leg as soon as he gets out of it. The necropants will thus keep the money-gathering nature for generations.

More fun fact (hopefully true) at the museum site

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Osowiec - Part II, a little background information

Chlorine Gas

Chlorine reacts with water and water vapor to produce hydrochloric acid, which when it comes in contact with the human body leads to irritation and burns of the eyes, nose and throat as well as spasms of the chest. With prolonged inhalation, the hydrochloric acid collects in the lungs and consequently eats away at the tissues, leading to death from asphyxia. The most affected by chlorine are:
  1. Those closest to the ground (wounded on stretchers, soldiers in trenches) as chloriene is heavier than air and collects near the ground and in low places.
  2. Those trying to run away from the cloud mainly due to the heavier and more rapid breathing done by running men.

The beauty of technicalities

All the Allies, including Russia were completely unprepared for the use of chemical warfare. Since the use of chemical shells was prohibited by the Hague Convention of 1899, all chemical mask design and manufacturing was stopped as it was seen to be a waste of money. By 1915, both sides were still trying to at least formally hold to the Hague Convention agreements. However, Germany found a loophole by using gas canisters instead of shells, as the pre-war resolutions did not prohibit their use.  Fortuitously for Germany, it had a huge supply of chlorine, which was a byproduct of the manufacturing of chemical dyes, one of Germany's leading industries.

How to make a bad situation even worse

After the first gas attacks, all countries began to manufacture defenses at a feverish rate.  In Russia, the manufacturing was done by a variety of volunteer organizations.  As nobody knew how to make a gas mask, the quality of the first batches of masks was poor.  They did not lie close to the face and were too thin, at best protecting from gas for just the first few minutes.  Very few protected the eyes.  A more serious error was the choice of pure solution of hyposulfite to soak the masks.  Hyposulfite does actively consume chlorine per the formula:
    Na2S2O3 • 5H2O + 4Cl2 → Na2SO4 + H2SO4 + 8HCl
However, following the chain reaction, it produces toxic sulfur dioxide gas:
    Na2S2O3 + 2HCl → 2NaCl + 2H2O + SO2
    Na2S2O3 + H2SO4 → Na2SO4 + H2O + SO2 + S
Therefore, ignorance of basic high school chemistry lead to the situation that the first party of gas masks sent to the front in the spring and summer of 1915 not only did not protect from chlorine, but lead to a secondary poisoning from sulfur dioxide, further strengthening the effectiveness of the gas attack.  The mistake was realized quite quickly and consequently baking soda was added to the mixture to neutralize the solfur dioxide.  However, at that point, the soldiers lost faith in the masks.  Often they would either throw them away or even mockingly hang them on trees as decorations.

[information paraphrased from the Russian wikipedia article on the Osowiec gas attack]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Osowiec - Part I

On February 3, 1915, German forces initiated a second attempt to storm the fortress. A difficult, prolonged battle ensued for the first line of the Russian advanced field positions. Russian forces under these difficult conditions held their opponents in shallow trenches for 5 days. Under the pressure of the superior forces of the enemy, by the decision of the command of the garrison, on the night of February 9, the fortress infantry was moved back to the second line of field reinforcements which were better prepared.

For the duration of the next two days, despite more intensified attacks, the Russian troops held their defense. However, the retreat of the Russians from the first lines of defense allowed the German artillery by February 13 to once again begin shelling the forts with heave siege weaponry of 100-420mm caliber. Firing was done with volleys of 360 shells, with a volley every four minutes. After a week of shelling the fortress, 200-250 thousand heavy shells were expended.

Furthermore, especially for the shelling of the fortress, the Germans set up four 305mm siege "Skoda" mortars . German airplanes bombed the fortress from above.

The European press wrote in those days - "Terrifying was the appearance of the fortress. The whole fortress was enveloped in smoke, through which, in one place or the other, enormous tongues of fire from the shell explosions would escape. Columns of dirt, water and whole trees flew into the air. The earth shook and it seemed that nothing could withstand such a hurricane of fire. The impression was such that no one could come out from this hurricane of fire and iron."

The General Headquarters command, believing that they were asking the impossible, asked the commander of the garrison to hold out at least 48 hours. The fortress held another half a year.

Despite the large losses as a result of the artillery shelling, which was most intnse 14-16 of February, 25th of February - 5th of March 1915, an which led to numerous fires inside the fortress, the Russian defenses held. Further more, Russian batteries destroyed a number of siege weapons, including two "Big Berthas". After this, as several large caliber mortars were damanged, the German command moved these weapons outside the reach of the defenders of the fortress.

The second line of the advance Russian positions also held out. This failure forced the command of the German army to switch this section of the front to positional actions which continued until the beginning of July.

[My translation of the Russian wikipedia article]

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Winter is back

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Apropos Rabbit Hunts

For once, these are not Jews...

In the night hours of February 2, 1945, some 500 "K" prisoners, mostly Soviet officers from barracks 20, known as the "death barracks" (Todesblock) made an attempt to escape Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Using fire extinguishers from the barracks and blankets and boards as projectiles, one group attacked and occupied a watch tower while a second group used wet blankets and bits of clothing to cause a short circuit in the electrified fence. The prisoners then climbed over the fence.

Of those 500, 419 prisoners did manage to leave the camp grounds but many escapees were already too weakened from starvation to reach the woods and collapsed in the snow outside the camp, where they were shot that night by SS machine guns. All who failed to reach the woods and another 75 prisoners in the barracks who had remained behind because they were too sick to follow, were executed that night. Over 300 prisoners did manage to reach the woods that first night.

The SS camp commandant immediately called a major search, asking help from the local population. In addition to pursuit by the SS, the escapees were hunted down by SA divisions, the gendarmerie, the Wehrmacht, the Volkssturm and the Hitler Youth. Local citizens were also incited to take part. The SS camp commandant ordered the gendarmerie "not to bring anyone back alive". No one was forced to participate in the manhunt, they did it willingly.

The majority of the escapees were apprehended and most were shot or beaten to death on the spot. Some 40 murdered prisoners' bodies were taken to Ried in der Riedmark, where the search was based, and stacked in a pile of corpses, "just like the bag at an autumn hunt", as one former gendarme, Otto Gabriel, put it. Members of the Volkssturm who brought prisoners back to Mauthausen were berated for not having beaten them to death instead. Of the 300 who did survive the escape that first night, 57 were returned to the camp.

The Linz criminal investigations department later reported to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, "Of the 419 fugitives [who managed to leave the camp] [...], in and around Mauthausen, Gallneukirchen, Wartberg, Pregarten, Schwertberg and Perg, over 300 were taken again, including 57 alive."
Just 11 officers are known to have survived the manhunt till the end of World War II. In spite of the extremely high risk, a few farm families and civilian forced laborers hid escapees or brought food to those hiding in the woods. After three months, the war ended and the fugitives were safe.


Pinhas Rutenberg

Another name which I hadn't heard before.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Bloody Sunday

Jan 9th, 1905 - After an all-city strike in St. Petersburg, almost 150 thousand workers and their families march to the Winter Palace to personally deliver to Czar Nicholas II a petition to improve their lives.

The authorities, worried that this march will turn into a riot, bring in troops to block their path to the palace.  The workers ignore the soldiers.  Shots are fired.  Hundreds of people are killed and wounded.

Hilarious sentence from the report of A. Lopukhin, the director of the police department to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky:

"After the soldiers put their firearms to use, the mob of workers began to show extreme hostility to the police and the military"

Who would have thought - those ungrateful workers not wanting to get shot!

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Eunich and the Golden Cockerel

When I was a kid, I really enjoyed reading Pushkin's "Tale of the Golden Cockerel".  It's a great story, but it was not until last week that I read some very interesting, puzzling facts about it.

The story line is about an old king who is attacked on all sides by his neighbors.  A wizard astrologer gives him a Golden Cockerel who crows before an enemy attack, turning in the direction of trouble.  All is well again, until one day the cockerel crows - an army headed by one of the king's sons is dispatched, but never heard from.  The cockerel crows a second time, another son is dispatched with a second army, and also disappears.  Finally at the third crowing, the king himself goes to investigate.  He finds a mysterious tent with a beautiful maiden in it, the Princess of Shemakha.  Both sons are lying dead inside the tent, which itself is surrounded by the corpses of the two armies.  The king falls for the princess and after an extended feast takes her back home.  As his chariot enters the gates of his city, the old wizard approaches and asks for a reward - the maiden.  The king offers him riches and land instead, but the old mage stubbornly asks for the girl.  Finally, the enraged king strikes him dead with his scepter, at which point the cockerel flies down and pecks the king on the forehead, killing him instantly.

What I never realized is that the old wizard is described as a skopetz, a member of the odd Russian castrating sect, and Shemakha was a town in what is now Azerbaijan, where skoptzy were exiled by the czarist government.  Which brings up the truly puzzling question - what would a castrated Christian sectarian want with a beautiful maiden?

Another odd bit of information - apparently the plot of this story comes from a story in Washington Irving's "Tales of the Alhambra".  I never knew this, but Irving spent quite a bit of time in Spain, writing a biography of Christopher Columbus.  Furthermore, the origins of the story seem to go back to the ancient Copts, translated into french by Pierre Vattier.