Here, in tribute to the late Shaun Downey, aka Jams O’Donnell, I continue his story of Red Cushing. In the first installment, Cushing joined the International Brigade. By the end of the second installment, he had wound up in Sachsenhausen concentration camp, alongside Stalin’s son. Read on:
Red Cushing’s first account of his encounter with Yakov Stalin appears in his autobiography “Soldier for Hire” (pp166):
“The first newcomer to arrive was posted to our hut. He introduced himself clicking his heels and uttering a Russian name that meant nothing to any of us… He explained later that it was the family name of Joseph Stalin and that he was the son of the Russian dictator. While serving as a lieutenant in an anti tank battery, he had been captured near Smolensk.
“Right from the first his behaviour struck me as distinctly odd. I often caught him pacing up and down our hut as if he had something on our mind…. For all his political moonshine, Jacob (Yakov) had many likeable qualities… and in time we may have become firm friends. One evening, however, at the end of an unusually long brooding spell, he suddenly rushed outside, sprinted across the compound, scrambled up the wall and attempted to crawl to the perimeter wire. A shot rang out, followed by a blinding flash, and poor Jacob hung there his body horribly burned and twisted. . We heard afterwards that the sentry’s bullet had got him fractionally before he was electrocuted”.
Cause 3: A fight over fa dirty toilet
18 years later in 1980 Cushing, then in retirement in County Cork, gave a second, slightly expanded account in a Sunday Times article (as with my earlier posts on Red Cushing, I am extremely grateful to Ciaran Crossey’s magnificent website Ireland and the Spanish Civil War). Here is an edited extract:
Joseph Stalin died in 1953 with one abiding regret: he had been unable to discover the fate of his eldest son, Jakov. All Stalin knew was that he had been captured by the Germans at the Siege of Smolensk in 1941, and held in a prisoner of war camp. Rumours that he had died there conflicted with stories that he had escaped. The Russian leader was unable to establish the truth, and though towards the end of this life, he offered a reward of a million roubles, no information was forthcoming.
The story was well known to his erstwhile American and British allies: In July 1945 an Anglo-American team sifting through German unearthed the full details of the story. Realising the implications the British Foreign Office reacted quickly, and on July 27, 1945, Michael Vyyyan, a senior Foreign Office official, wrote to his opposite number in the American State Department. “Our own inclination here is to recommend that the idea of communicating to Marshal Stalin should be dropped…It would naturally be distasteful to draw attention to the Anglo-Russian quarrels which preceded the death of his son.”
According to these records, Jakov Stalin committed suicide in a particularly horrifying manner, in the bleak surroundings of Sachsenhausen Camp. The only surviving witness to the incident Thomas ‘Red’ Cushing, still talks of the extraordinary pressures which drove Stalin to his death ‘I remember it as if it were yesterday,’ said Cushing. ‘It was one of the saddest events of my life.’
Yakov Dzugashvili Stalin arrived towards the end of 1942 and billeted with Molotov’s nephew, Cushing and the other Irish POWs. Relations between the Russian and Irish prisoners deteriorated quickly in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the camp. The Irish suspected Kokorin, a small self-centred man anxious to curry favour with the German guards, of passing information to the Gestapo. They were equally contemptuous of Jakov. Unlike Kokorin, he became increasingly aggressive in his defence of Russian communism, continually ‘shouting bolshevist propaganda’, according to a statement Cushing made. There was a constant barrage of accusations between the two sides.
In early 1943, the atmosphere was poisonous. Small events sparked off violent quarrels. There were rows over the distribution of Red Cross parcels, and petty disputes about national habits. The incident that triggered off the final tragedy of Jakov Stalin was typical: it concerned the latrines.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 14, 1943, in a particularly heated exchange, Cushing accused Stalin’s son of refusing to flush the lavatory and of deliberately fouling the wooden seat. The row spread quickly to the other prisoners. Murphy accused Jakov of the same behaviour. Outside the hut, O’Brien confronted Kokorin with the allegation that he defecated on the ground and fouled the latrine used by the British soldiers. O’Brien called Kokorin ‘a bolshevist shit’; Kokorin called O’Brien ‘an English shit.’ A fight broke out and O’Brien hit Kokorin.
The precise role-played in these exchanges by Jakov Stalin, and indeed his responsibility for them, remains unclear. What does seem certain, however, is that the accumulated effect of constant bickering, rows, accusations – and finally the fight – broke the spirit of a man already suffering from confused emotions about his loyalties, his background and his future.
That evening, at curfew, Jakov refused to go back into the hut. He demanded to see the camp commandant, claiming he was being insulted by the British prisoners, and when his request was turned down, he appears to have gone berserk.Wildly waving a piece of wood, he ran about the area of the camp, shouting in broken German, to the SS guards on duty, ‘shoot me, shoot me’. Then, in what appears to have been a clear desire to kill himself, he turned and ran towards the three-stage electrified fencing-surrounding perimeter.
Cushing himself saw what happened: “I saw Jakov running about as if he were insane. He just ran straight onto the wire. There was a huge flash and all the searchlights suddenly went on. I knew that was the end of him… Afterwards the Germans tried to make me take him off the wire and wrap his body in a blanket. It was the first time I felt sorry for the poor bastard.”
Once again make of this what you will. There is no doubt that Yakov Stalin died in Sachsenhausen in 1943. There is also no doubt that Cushing, Walsh, O’Brian and Murphy were there at the same time. Languishing in a concentration camp, it’s no surprise that his mental state was at a low ebb. As for the last straw? I would not be surprised if it was a fight over a toilet rather than the Katyn massacre but then again what do I know….
We’ll go back later to his other war-time escapades, but you might also want to read another of Shaun’s posts: about Yakov’s son, Yevgeny Dzhugashvili, and his denial of Stalin’s murderousness, nicely entitled “Polishing turds in Moscow court rooms“.