This Day in History – April 8th

1945 – In the final weeks of World War II in Europe, hundreds of concentration camp prisoners are massacred in Northern Germany – On this date in 1945, almost 3,000 prisoners stationed at the Drütte camp, a subcamp of the massive Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg, were forced into freight cars at the Celle train yard to be sent to another infamous camp, Bergen-Belsen. The prisoners included people from many nations including Ukraine, Russia, Poland, France and the Netherlands. There were already about 1,000 other inmates on these cars, bringing the total of men and women crowded onto them to around 4,000. Just then, an Allied air raid struck the train yard, blowing up a train carrying ammunition and tearing through the nearby transports. In the ensuing chaos, many prisoners who were not harmed in the explosion fled into the nearby town or woods, while being pursued and fired upon by SS troops, local members of the Nazi Party and the Gestapo. Some 300 fleeing prisoners were killed in what became known as the Celle Massacre, while the remaining prisoners were then forced to march to Bergen-Belsen. Fewer than 500 survived the trip, with many dying along the way of exhaustion and malnutrition. They arrived at Bergen-Belsen on April 10, five days before the camp was liberated by British and Canadian forces. Fourteen men were tried by a British military court for their actions during the Celle Massacre. Seven were acquitted, and none of the others spent more than five years in prison. No charges were brought against anyone for killing or neglecting prisoners on their way to Bergen-Belsen. Between 1938 and 1945, an estimated 106,000 prisoners were held at Neuengamme and its subcamps. More than half of them perished there. Towards the end of the war, in the winters of 1944 and 1945, 1,700 people died each month at Neuengamme – more than 50,000 in total


1973 – World-renowned Spanish artist Pablo Picasso dies at the age of 91 – Pablo Picasso, the surrealist master and perhaps one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century, died on this date in 1973 at his home near Cannes in the French Riviera at the age of 91. His wife Jacqueline and his son Paolo were at his side, as they had been entertaining guests at a dinner party. He had been battling the flu the previous winter, but despite illness and his advanced age, he had been in the process of planning an exhibition of over 200 pieces of his work to be shown at an art museum in Avignon the following month. In 1972, to mark his 90th birthday, the Louvre Museum in Paris had staged a Picasso retrospective – marking the first time the work of a living artist had been exhibited. Contemporary British sculptor Henry Moore called Picasso, probably one of the most “naturally gifted” artists since Raphael. Born in 1881 in Spain, the son of an art teacher, Picasso exhibited his first paintings in Barcelona at the age of 12. During his lifetime he is said to have produced approximately 20,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings. Arguably his best known painting was Guernica, inspired by his outrage at the destruction of a small Basque town during the Spanish civil war. It was exhibited at the Paris World Fair in 1937. He’s also remembered for his “Blue Period” (1901-1904) and for his pioneering work with “cubism.” A lifelong Communist, Picasso supported the government that was defeated Francisco Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and never returned to his homeland after Franco’s victory. He left his personal art collection to the Louvre Museum in Paris. In 1980, more than one million people visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York to view an exhibition of his work. May 11 last year, his painting Women of Algiers set the record for the highest price ever paid for a painting when the former Prime Minister of Qatar bought it at auction for $179.3 million at Christie’s in New York.

1994 – Alternative rock legend Kurt Cobain of Nirvana is found dead – On this date in 1994, Kurt Cobain, the lead-singer and guitarist for the Seattle-based rock band Nirvana, was found dead in his home. Cobain, 27, had been dead for over two days when he was discovered by an electrician who had come to do some repairs at the house. A later coroner examination found he had died April 5. The cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head. There have been numerous conspiracy theories suggesting it may not have been self-inflicted, however a suicide note was found nearby. Cobain formed Nirvana with bassist Krist Novoselic in Aberdeen, Washington, in 1985 and soon the rock trio, with drummer Dave Grohl, established themselves as part of the Seattle music scene and burgeoning grunge genre. A BBC article from the period describes the genre Cobain helped pioneer as “combining a violent rock sound with lyrics expressing vulnerability and anguish.” Nirvana’s debut album Bleach was released in 1989, and they achieved global fame with the release of their album Nevermind in 1991, which has since been described as one of the most influential rock albums of all time. Probably the most famous “grunge” song is “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” from that album, which at the time of Cobain’s death had sold eight million copies worldwide. But Cobain’s coronation as “the spokesperson of Generation X” weighed mightily on him. A month before he was found dead, Cobain had survived falling into a drug and alcohol-induced coma while in Rome. Cobain’s widow, Courtney Love – lead singer of the rock group Hole – later sold the rights to her dead husband’s journals, which were published in November 2002. They revealed his personal battles with mental illness, depression and heroin addiction. Cobain and Love had a daughter together, Frances Bean, who was just 18 months old when he died. Dying at 27, Cobain joined a number of other rock stars – including Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin – to have “lived fast and died young” before reaching 28. Cobain was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, along with his Nirvana bandmates, in their first year of eligibility.

2006 – The bodies of eight members of the Toronto branch of the Bandidos motorcycle gang are found in a field near Shedden, Ontario – Rounding out this week’s rather depressing “This Day in History” section, on this date in 2006, four vehicles containing the bodies of eight men were discovered by a farmer five kilometres north of the village of Shedden. The victims, who had been held captive in a barn before being dispatched one-at-a-time “execution style,” ranged in age from 28 to 52 years old and mainly hailed from the Toronto area. All but two were found to be fully-initiated and active members of the “Bandidos” motorcycle gang – an American outlaw motorcycle gang started in Texas in 1966, which has since grown to include chapters around the world. One of the victims, John Muscedere, had been president of the organization in Canada. The next day, police surrounded the nearby home of biker Wayne Kellestine, and, on April 10, charged he and four other people with first-degree murder. A common-law couple from Monkton later had their charges reduced to “accessories after the fact.” Meanwhile, suspicion grew that members of the gang’s Winnipeg chapter had been involved – but it wasn’t until June 2009 when three men from Winnipeg were arrested in connection with the crimes. They were transported to St. Thomas for a court appearance that same afternoon. At their 2009 murder trial in London, the six defendants, including Kellestine, the three men from Winnipeg and two others each entered pleas of not guilty on eight counts of first-degree murder. On Oct. 29, 2009, after 18 hours of deliberation, the jury returned 44 guilty verdicts for first degree murder and four for manslaughter. It is believed to be the largest number of murder convictions ever produced from a single criminal proceeding in Canada.

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