The Holocaust in Belarus

The Holocaust in Byelorussia

Before the Second World War the population of Belarus was about 10,500,000 people, of whom about 1,000,000 were Jewish.  The Jewish inhabitants fell into one of three categories:

1. Jews who came from the eastern Byelorussian oblasts of Minsk; Gomel; and Mogilev.  These Jews had been Sovietized by intermarrying and abandoning traditional shtetl life under the pressures that Communism exerted against religious people of all creeds.  The Jews were eager to adapt to the new environment and many opted to forego teaching their children Yiddish and instead chose Russian.  They also moved away from shtetl life and headed towards the urban population centers, which was a good strategic move considering that the heart of the Bolshevik revolution lay within the industrial working class.  This rush to assimilate was particularly fervent amongst the younger generation who began to gain positions in the military; government administration; and universities. They began to see Jewishness and the life on the shtetl as a distant symbol of the convoluted past where people were segregated based on religion. Despite all of this disassociation from their heritage, there still remained a sense of knowing who was Jewish and who was not, and the customary traditions of Jewishness were still there for anyone who sought it out.

2. Jews who lived in western Byelorussia (Bialystok, Novogrudek and Polessie) and enjoyed freedom of religion and a vibrant cultural life until 1941 – though they were occupied by the Soviets in 1939, it was a slow transformation into obedience that hadn’t fully taken form yet.  These Jews were Yiddish speaking and not very well integrated with the local population. They leaved simple lives as artisans and agricultural workers and there were very few who intermarried or got an education.

3. The third category of Jews were the refugees coming from the other areas of Poland that were occupied by Nazis starting in 1939.  There were close to 100,000 of said refugees, though the number will never be truly accurate due to the lack of official routes which Jews entered into the Soviet side of the territory.  What we do know, however, is that these Jews did not fare very well when the population was forced to move into the ghettos.  They would be the first to die because they already had nothing; they had given away everything in the early days of the nightmare of the Holocaust and hence would have nothing to trade for food in the starving ghetto.

Weimar Republic American Embassy

The Tec Family in pre-war Belorussian town of Baranovichi

Belarus as we know it today did not exist prior to the conclusion of World War II.  Its basic territorial progression looks like this: after World War I the territory was split, with Poland getting the western end and the Soviet Union getting the eastern area; In 1939 Poland was invaded by the Germans, who then placed the area under Soviet control via the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact; finally, the Germans invaded the USSR in 1941 and occupied all of the territory, both west and east.   As in the rest of Europe, Jews were mainly coagulated in the cities of Belarus: Minsk; Vitebsk; and Smolensk were all major hubs of Jewish life.

The Jews of Western Belarus during the Holocaust
These are the Jews living in the territory that was only added to the Soviet Union in 1939 (as opposed to the eastern areas that had been Soviet run for a generation already.) On the eve of the German invasion of the USSR, in 1941, there were over 1,000,000 Jews living in the entire territory, with close to 700,000 in Western Belorussia.  The Germans would control all of the area by the end of July 1941.  They took the less-assimilated Yiddish-speaking Jews of the western portion of the territory by surprise and the consequences were deadly.  There were some initial pogroms in Western Belorussia; in towns such as Grodno, Novogrudok, and Ivje, lootings of Jewish property occurred.  Following that, from the months of July through December, 1941, the Einsatzgruppen swept through and killed about 40% of the population of Jews during their first aktionen.  They took a break for winter but when they came back in spring, 1942, they continued murdering people until there were just 30,000 Jews left in the western region (excluding the greater Bialystok region, which the Germans had annexed to the Reich) by the end of that year. Western Belorussian Jews had been unable to flee with the Soviets because they were the first ones to be attacked and they were caught off-guard.  The chance for retreating with the Soviets was more unlikely in the unassimilated western region, however, the likelihood of survival after the invasion was higher in Western Belorussia. This is because they had a strong sense of camaraderie that the communist Eastern Belarusian Jews lacked. One of the most famous partisan groups, the Bielski brothers, operated in Western Belorussia during this time.
Major Cities of Western Belarus:

  • Antopol
  • Brest
  • Baranavichy
  • Glubokoye
  • Grodno
  • Ivje
  • Kamyanyets
  • Lakhva
  • Lida
  • Novogrudok
  • Pinsk
  • Slonim
Major Cities of Eastern Belarus:

  • Babyrusk
  • Berazino
  • Brahin
  • Chavusy
  • Gomel
  • Mogilev
  • Turov
  • Vitebsk
The Jews of Eastern Belarus during the Holocaust

These Jews had a much higher level of assimilation and as many as 120,000 were able to escape by evacuating to the Soviet Union with the Red Army. Eastern Belarusian Jewry was less insular and more assimilated, which could sometimes work to an individual’s advantage. For instance, intermarriage had created a blurred line between Jews and non-Jews who were now related by blood and thereby more likely to hide their vulnerable relatives. These Jews were also more inclined to be Russian-Speaking and the local population was not as anti-Semitic after living through a generation of the Soviet policy of “friendship between nations.”  The Jews of Eastern Belarus were also more likely to have retreated with the Soviets, not only because of kinship and familiarity, but also because they simply were further away from the German army and had more time.  However, the assimilation was also a detrimental thing to Jews who ended up in the ghetto because they lacked a sense of peoplehood.  The lack of community was caused by communism and assimilation – they simply did not feel the same camaraderie as the Jews of Western Belarus did.  The Jews of Eastern Belarus were, for instance, less likely to form resistance movements or have social functions in the ghetto.

Image of a street in the Shtetl of Lakhva, Belorussia; pre-war.

Lakhva was occupied by the Germans on July 7 or 8, 1941. Only a few of its inhabitants fled eastwards and the population was intact.

On August 16 and 18, 1941, the Jews of Lakhva were forced to dig trenches. They soon became apprehensive about their future, but the chairman of the Jewish Council, Dov Lopatin, managed to bribe the Nazis with gold in order to save the Jews. They then created a ghetto on 1 April, 1942.

On 3 September, 1942, a riot broke out in the Lakhva ghetto after the Germans were seen preparing to commit mass-murder. The Germans surrounded the ghetto, and told Lopatin that they were going to liquidate the ghetto and only his family would be allowed to stay alive.  When Lopatin heard this he went back to the ghetto and he gave an order to set the houses on fire. That signaled the time for ghetto inmates to escape. The Jews ran out. Around 1,000 people broke out of the ghetto, with about 600 of them managing to reach the swamps of the Pripyat River. Eventually many of the escapees were caught and murdered, but still about 150 of the Lakhva escapees managed to reach safety in the forest.
Lakhva was liberated by the Red Army on 2 July, 1944. Only 90 Jews survived.

June 28, 1941: Minsk is taken over by the Nazis as the Wehrmacht occupies the fallen city.

July 3, 1941: 2,000 members of the intelligentsia were called forward and brought to a forest, where they were shot.

July 8, 1941: 100 more Jews murdered.

July 15, 1941: Registration of all Jewish people and property is completed by the local Jewish Council of Minsk.

July 20, 1941: The Minsk Ghetto is established and Jews from all over the region are sent there.  This causes the population to swell to over 100,000 people crowded into a place that left them with just 1.5 meters per person. 

August 15, 1941: Himmler visits to watch the execution of 100 Jews and he is sick to his stomach upon seeing the murder. This is crucial to Holocaust historiography because it was what first inspired Himmler to find a less personal way to execute these prisoners: gas.

November 7, 1941: 12,000 Jews in the ghetto are murdered in order to make room for the German Jews who are being deported to the Minsk Ghetto shortly. The new Jews from Germany (‘Hamburg Jews’) will be in a separate, segregated ghetto completely – they had the Reich Ghetto, whereas the regular Minsk Ghetto continued to operate almost without any contact with the Reich Ghetto,F

February 1942: Eliyahu Myshkin had been the head of the Jewish Council. He was also very friendly towards the resistance movement in the Ghetto, but during this month [February] in 1942 he was betrayed and hung.  The impact would be detrimental to the Minsk community, who suddenly lacked such a strong leader.

March 2, 1942:  The ghetto’s nursery or orphanage was “liquidated”; the children were buried alive in a pit after the murderers had tossed them candy.

May 7-8, 1942: Maly Trostinec is opened 12 km away from the Ghetto in Minsk.  It is equipped with gas vans.  Between July 1942, and October 1943, virtually all Jews living in Minsk will be murdered there.

October 21, 1943:  Ghetto is liquidated and most people are exterminated.