The soldier stated that during the confusion, he and Yakov escaped the carnage after which they both buried their military identifications and put on civilian clothes. After they reached the banks of a lake, Yakov told the other soldier to keep on going, insisting that he needed to stay behind and rest. Information in an official letter chronicling the investigation strongly suggested that Yakov willingly surrendered to the Germans, though it is unclear to this day as to whether he was captured or surrendered.
Regardless of how he became a prisoner, Stalin’s first born son was in the custody of the Nazi war apparatus and his miserable fate, though still two years away, was sealed. Nazi leadership immediately understood how important Stalin’s son was as a propaganda tool and as a possible bargaining chip. Very soon, the Germans began dropping ominous leaflets stating: “If Stalin’s son has saved himself, then you are not obliged to sacrifice yourself either!” Later, when Friedrich Paulus, an important German Field Marshall, surrendered at Stalingrad, Nazi leadership attempted to exchange him for Yakov, thinking that Stalin would want his son back. Stalin heartlessly replied: “I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant.”
Once it became obvious that Stalin was not interested in bargaining for his son’s life, and the Germans concluded that Yakov was unwilling to cooperate with them for propaganda purposes, his treatment worsened. He was sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1943 where his mental state rapidly deteriorated. Shortly afterwards Yakov learned of the Katyn Forest Massacre, in which as many as 22,000 Polish nationals, many of them officers and state officials, were the victims of a series of executions, buried in mass graves during 1940.
When the German army found the mass graves years later, the incident was used as a powerful propaganda tool for the Nazi cause. Taunted by a guard who showed him a newspaper with details of the massacre, the guard stated: “Look what you bastards did to these men. What kind of people are you?”
Confronted with the pitiless nature of his father’s murderous decisions, Yakov began to refuse food and his mental state further degraded. This coupled with Yakov’s belief that his father would never attempt to bring him home led to a deep despondency. After learning that Stalin said: “There are no prisoners of war, there are only traitors” he began to lose any hope he had left. About a month later, Yakov had a violent confrontation with a British prisoner of war, reportedly over Soviet atrocities.
The next day, Yakov could take no more. Burdened and despairing, he jumped from a barrack window and rushed towards an electrified fence. A guard shouted at him to stop, but he did not. Some accounts state that he yelled: “corporal, corporal, shoot me…don’t be a coward!” He continued his walk to the fence, extended his hand and touched the device that would finally take his life. The guard then shot him, as per orders. An autopsy found that he was probably dead by the time the bullets entered his body, though his remains were shortly thereafter cremated barring further examinations.
Some do not believe that Yakov committed suicide. Others do not believe he surrendered willingly to the Germans. Still others refuse to believe he was captured at all. Imaginative and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories surround these events, despite hundreds of official, declassified documents to the contrary from both Soviet and Nazi sources. But one last episode from Yakov’s woebegone life lends credence to the view that Yakov possessed the necessary determination to take his own life, as he nearly succeeded in doing so many years prior.
When Yakov was 18, he brought a girl to his father’s country home declaring his intent to marry her. Stalin flew into such a rage, the 16 year old girl ran out of the house in terror. Dejected and at his wit’s end, young Yakov found a pistol and shot himself in the chest. The bullet barely missed his heart, piercing his lung instead. Yakov narrowly survived mortal would.
Instead of feeling sympathy for his own son, Stalin inconceivably remarked: “He can’t even shoot straight.” Later, Stalin had the nerve to write: “Tell Yasha that I think he behaved like a thug and an extortionist, someone with whom I no longer have anything in common and with whom I no longer want a relationship”.
Thug? Extortionist? One cannot help but wonder if Stalin felt any sense of irony when writing these pitiless words. Though maligned and maltreated throughout his life, in every way that counts, Yakov Dzhugashvili remains a greater and more honorable man than the criminal who was his father.