The Holocaust in Belarus
The Holocaust in Belarus in general terms refers to the Nazi crimes committed during World War II on the territory of Belarus against Jews, ethnic Belarusians as well as other peoples deemed unworthy of life. The borders of Belarus however, shifted dramatically following the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, which has been the source of confusion especially in the Soviet era as far as the scope of the Holocaust in Belarus is concerned.
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Before World War II began with the September 1, 1939 attack on Poland by Nazi Germany, sovereign Belarus of today did not exist yet. The Nazi-Soviet Pact signed in secrecy led to the parallel Soviet invasion of Poland from the east on September 17, 1939 and the forcible annexation of eastern half of prewar Poland into the Soviet Belarus and the Soviet Ukraine in the atmosphere of terror. The cities were renamed in Russian, the new Oblasts created, and the citizens of Poland turned into new Soviet subjects. Meanwhile, the Holocaust perpetrated by the Third Reich in the territory of Soviet Belarus began in 1941, during the German attack on the Soviet positions in Operation Barbarossa.
It is estimated that Belarus lost a quarter of its prewar population in World War II, including most of its intellectual elite and 90% of the country’s Jewish population. Following encirclement battles of Operation Barbarossa, by the end of August 1941 all modern-day Belarus was occupied by Nazi Germany. The Nazis imposed a brutal regime, deporting to Germany some 380,000 young people for slave labour, and killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. At least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were destroyed and their inhabitants killed (out of 9,200 settlements that were burned or otherwise destroyed in Belarus during World War II). 243 Belarusian villages were burned down twice, 83 villages three times, and 22 villages were burned down four or more times in the Vitebsk region. 92 villages were burned down twice, 40 villages three times, nine villages four times, and six villages five or more times in the Mińsk region. More than 600 villages like Khatyn were burned with their entire population. More than 209 cities and towns (out of 270 total) were destroyed. Himmler had pronounced a plan according to which ¾ of Belarusian population was designated for "eradication" and ¼ of racially cleaner population (blue eyes, light hair) would be allowed to serve Germans as slaves. Lucy Dawidowicz estimated that out of approximately 375,000 Jews living in the Belarusian SSR, 245,000 (65%) died in the Holocaust.
Upon the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, in Operation Barbarossa, Minsk came immediately under attack. The city was bombed on the first day of the war and taken over by Germans four days later. Many entire factories and museums, and thousands of civilians were evacuated East. The Nazis made Minsk the administrative centre of Reichskomissariat Ostland and repressed the local population. Communists and their sympathisers were killed or imprisoned; thousands were forced into slave labour, both locally and in Germany. Homes were expropriated to house German occupying forces. Thousands of residents starved as rations were expropriated and paid work was scarce.
At the same time, some residents supported the Germans, especially in the earlier years. Some Belarusian nationalists hoped for formation of a Belarusian national state under the German protectorate. As a result, the city was divided.
By 1942, Minsk became a major centre of the Soviet partisan resistance movement against the Occupation of Belarus by Nazi Germany. Minsk was the site of one of the largest Nazi-run ghettos in World War II, the Minsk Ghetto, which held over 100,000 Jews. A living space of 1.5 square meters was allotted for each person, with none for children.
On the morning of 7 November[when?] the Germans rounded up thousands of Jews from the Minsk ghetto, forcing them to wear their best clothes in mockery of the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. They formed the captives into columns, gave them Soviet flags and ordered them to march and sing revolutionary songs. People were forced to smile for the cameras that were filming the scene. Once beyond Minsk, these 6,624 Jews were taken in trucks to the nearby village of Tukhinka and shot.
Southern part of the Homel Voblast (currently Pietrykaŭ, Zhytkavichy, Rechytsa, Svetlahorsk, Turau, Mazyr, and several others) was annexed to the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, and was subordinate to the Żytomierz general district. After occupying a territory (small town, city, or village), the Germans attempted to determine, precisely, who exactly was Jewish. Usually, for this purpose, they arranged a registration of the remaining Jewish population. In other cases, they issued special decrees. The District Kommissar in Mozyrz explained to the regional Kommissar in Kalinkowicze, that it was necessary to consider anyone who was born to a Jewish parent a Jew. It was more precisely determined that a Christian baptism did not change matters, and baptizing Jews or half-Jews was categorically forbidden. The next stage was separating the Jews and establishing a ghetto. Twenty ghettos were established in the Homel Voblast, in which no less than 21,000 people were imprisoned. There were four ghettos in the city of Homel, two in Żłobin, two in Korma, and one in Rohaczew, Brahiń, Chojniki, Rzeczyca, and several other places. In Homel, the main ghetto was located in the Monastyrek district, to which the Nazis drove the residents (800 Jews) in the central part of town. The second ghetto was on Nowo-Ljubenskaja Street and housed 500 Jews, including 97 Jews brought to Homel from Loyew. The third ghetto was on Bychowskaja Street. Jews who lived in Nowo-Belica, on the left bank of the Soż River, were placed in a different ghetto. In September 1941, 200 ghetto residents were transferred to Monastyrek. Ghetto prisoners were doomed, but a temporary exception was made for the Jewish specialist workers. An order of a SS cavalry brigade from September 28, 1941 stated, “It is obvious that craftsmen may be temporarily preserved.” However, ghettos were not organized in each place of the Homel Voblast. In some places the Jewish population was almost completely gone, and in others, the Jewish population was resettled to larger villages. Ghettos were not created in Brahiń, Vetka, Zhuravichi, Komarin, Kopatkevichi, Łojów, Narovlia, Svetilovichi, Uvarovichi, Terehov, Turów, Chojniki, and some other places. Regardless of this, men in these places were sent to perform compulsory labor and were subject to daily punishments and religious Jews were forced to have their beards shaved. Wehrmacht soldiers sometimes informed Jews about plans of the mass shootings. In Turów, the Wainblat sisters, Czasja (15 years old) and Bronja (13 years old) peeled potatoes at a German kitchen in exchange for food. Ilya Goberman remembers that an Austrian soldier warned him that Germans were annihilating all Jews. “Run, the faster, the better,” he used to say.
Methods of carrying out actions
The destruction of a ghetto was planned in advance and carried out as a carefully prepared operation. Usually it was done in two stages. First, young and strong men were selected and led out of the ghetto under the pretense that they were completing some kind of a job. Then they were forced to dig a ditch and were killed. That is how the ghettos were rid of people who were ready and able to resist. This included former Communist Party of Belarus, Soviet and Komsomol workers, or simply healthy men, and sometimes women. The active part of the ghetto was not large—young men of military age mostly were already in the Soviet Army. The Germans carried out the first killings by exerting force, using experienced guards and all necessary precautions (in Homel, Mozyrz, Kalinkowicze, Korma). The Belarusian police took on a secondary role in the first stage of the killings. The rest of the Jews were crushed and deprived of the will to live—women, children, and the elderly—was killed with the Nazis’ bare hands (in Dobrush, Chechersk, Żytkowicze). After a while, police, composed of locals, and a minimal convoy, led these remaining Jews out of the ghetto to their place of death. Such a tactic was successful (without much exertion of force) in places where the liquidation of Jews was carried out early September, October–November 1941. In winter 1942, a different tactic of killing was used—raids (in Zhlobin, Petryków, Streshin, Chechersk). The role of Belarusian Auxiliary Police in killing Jews became particularly noticeable during the second wave of destruction, starting in February–March 1942. By that time, it had been converted into a more organized force, while the Germans, experienced a greater need for a personal cadre of executioners, as more people were needed at the Eastern Front. During the process of an action, local police forced Jews out of their homes, convoyed them to a specific place, surrounded them with guns, and pulled the triggers. After the mass shooting, the police actively searched for the hiding Jews and were distinctive in their cruelty, compared to the Germans.
Thirty thousand Jews were murdered over the three days in Minsk ghetto in July 1942, and tens of thousands more were killed at other times, even as more Jews were forced into the ghetto. Only a handful survived. Minsk was re-taken by the Soviet troops on July 3, 1944 during Operation Bagration. Altogether, 2,230,000 people were killed in Belarus during the three years of German occupation. Some recent estimates raise the number of Belarusians who perished in war to "3 million 650 thousand people, unlike the former 2.2 million. That is to say not every fourth inhabitant but almost 40% of the pre-war Belarusian population perished (considering the present-day borders of Belarus)." Almost the whole, previously very numerous, Jewish population of Belarus which did not evacuate was killed. One of the first uprisings of a Jewish ghetto against the Nazis occurred in 1942 in Belarus, in the small town of Łachwa (see Lakhva Ghetto). In July 1941, in the wake of the German occupation of the western parts of the Soviet Union, Wilhelm Kube was appointed General-Commissar for Generalbezirk Weißruthenien (Belarus), with his headquarters in Minsk.
In this role he oversaw the extermination of the large Jewish population of this area. The historian Martin Gilbert records that Kube participated in an atrocity on March 2, 1942 in the Minsk ghetto. During a search of the ghetto by German and Russian policemen a group of children were seized and thrown into pits of deep sand to die. "At that moment, several SS officers, among them Wilhelm Kube, arrived, whereupon Kube, immaculate in his uniform, threw handfuls of sweets to the shrieking children. All the children perished in the sand." On 22 September 1943, Kube was assassinated in his Minsk apartment. His death was caused by a bomb hidden in a hot water bottle, which was placed in his bed by a maid, Jelena Mazanik. In retaliation, the SS killed more than 1,000 male citizens of Minsk, though SS leader Heinrich Himmler reportedly said the assassination was a "blessing" since Kube did not support some of the harsh measures mandated by the SS. Mazanik escaped the reprisals and joined the partisans. SS and Police Leader Curt von Gottberg was successively promoted as the head of SS and police for Belarus between October 1942 and June 1944 due to Himmler's sponsorship. He was delegated with the duties of the Generalkommissar for Belarus on October 27, 1943 after Kube was killed by a bomb in Minsk on October 23. Von Gottberg developed a new "strategy" in the fight against partisans on the occupied territory of the Soviet Union, mounting aggressive operations against suspected "partisan bases" (generally ordinary villages; Gottberg's strategy seems to have largely involved terrorising the civilian population). Whole regions were classified as "bandit territory" (German: Bandengebiet): residents were expelled or murdered and dwellings destroyed. Gottberg said in an order "In the evacuated areas all people are in future fair game". Another order of Gottberg's of December 7, 1942, stated: "Each bandit, Jew, gypsy, is to be regarded as an enemy". After his first operation, Nürnberg, Gottberg reported on December 5, 1942: "Enemy dead: 799 bandits, over 300 suspected gangsters and over 1800 Jews [...] Our losses: 2 dead and 10 wounded. One must have luck".
Belarusian collaborators participated in various massacres of Belarusian villagers. Many of these collaborators retreated with German forces in the wake of the Red Army advance, and in January 1945, formed the 30th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Belarusian).
On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Belarusian SSR and Navahrudak was occupied on July 4. The Red Army was surrounded, what is known as the Navahrudak Cauldron. Prior to the war, the population was 20,000, of which about half were Jewish. During a series of actions, the Germans killed all but 550 of the approximately 10,000 Jews. Those not killed were sent into slave labor. During the German occupation the city became part of the Reichskommissariat Ostland. Partisan resistance immediately began, with most famous Bielski partisans formed of Jewish volunteers operated in the region. On July 31, 1943, without warning or provocation, 11 of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth were imprisoned, loaded into a van and driven beyond the town limits. The 11 nuns were killed on August 1, 1943, in the woods 5 km (3.1 mi) beyond Navahrudak, and buried in a mass grave. After the execution, Sister M. Malgorzata Banas, the community's sole surviving member, located the place of the martyrdom, and remained the guardian of their common grave until her own death in 1966. The Church of the Transfiguration, known as Biała Fara, or "White Church", now contains the relics of the eleven martyrs.
The Red Army liberated the city almost exactly three years after its occupation on July 8, 1944. During the war more than 45,000 people were killed in the city and in the surrounding area, and over 60% of buildings was destroyed.
The cruelty during anti-partisan operations especially in Belarus has been correctly pointed out in the past. It indicates a high degree of identification with their deeds rather than an unwilling execution. The meanness of their actions is already shown by the means of killing massively employed by the Germans in their fight against partisans. Most of the victims were women and children, as the male population of the villages had been evacuated or drafted into the Red Army or was with the partisans. Or then they were useful as a labor force. Similar aspects also apply to the murder of Jews, prisoners of war, political opponents and the ill.
The Battalion Dirlewanger on July 21, 1943, during Operation Hermann, chased the inhabitants of the village of Dory together with the priest into a church and burned them alive there. Only men able to work were let out of the church, women only if they left their children behind. At another place hundreds of selected children, two to ten years old, were locked in freight cars and left to their fate until half of them had died. While von Schenkendorff in 1942 called for measures against the soldiers, the generally organized sequence of the destruction of villages shows how little was left to chance.
Photo albums prepared after anti-partisan actions for higher SS commanders. Thus Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski readily admitted to have possessed thousands of color photographs of the fight against partisans that were confiscated after the war. After Operation Hermann in the summer of 1943 Curt von Gottberg required appropriate pictures for an album about partisan fighting to be handed to Himmler. Some months later he was sent an album about that murderous operation Heinrich, which Bach-Zelewski had dedicated to Himmler by naming it after him. The rank and file behaved in a similar manner. Many German participants had a camera in their backpack during the operations. The respective pictures mostly show rather uncompromising scenes, but often also the burning villages.
Another aspect was the fact that inhabitants of the countryside were used for de-mining the accesses to the partisan camps and massively forced to walk the ways leading there. Several thousand Belarusians were killed due to this. Such cases there were at first in the Wehrmacht area already in 1942, at the remote village of Uchwała, raion Krupki, where a total of 360 people perished. In the area of the 286th Security Division the civilian population had to walk, plough and harrow the roads at the orders of Major General Richert since the autumn of 1942. At Artiszewo near Orsza 28 people, thereof 18 children, were killed in this. The LIX Army Corps had issued a corresponding order already on March 2, 1942
Later they also used herds of sheep. But in most cases people were used, on an ever larger scale. During Operation Cottbus between 2,000 and 3,000 Belarusians whom the Germans drove before them into the swamps were torn apart by mines, according to Bach-Zelewski. After preparation by artillery and flak entering the swamp area was only possible by chasing inhabitants of the region across the heavily mined paths in the swamp. Oskar Dirlewanger's corresponding order of May 25, 1943 had read:
Roadblocks and artificial obstacles are almost always mined. So far we have suffered 1 dead and 4 wounded during removal. Thus the order is: Never remove obstacles yourselves, but always let natives do it. The blood thus saved justifies the loss of time.
For Operation Hermann this directive applied right from the beginning:
In order to avoid own casualties through mines it is convenient to have panje carts going in front along the road or to use auxiliary mine clearing devices.
The commanders of the operation carried out these instructions. The same happened during Operation Frühlingsfest (April 16 till May 10, 1944), which was carried out in equal parts by Wehrmacht and SS units. A corresponding suggestion is said to have come from the already mentioned Richert. But in the meantime this method had become routine also outside the scope of major actions. It was also applied by Wehrmacht frontline troops in their direct rear area. All Belarusians had become hostages of the Germans. The 78th Infantry division ordered the whole civilian population in its area to de-mine the roads in its area every morning until 6 hours:
I thus order that all roads that must be driven on by German troops are to be walked first by all inhabitants of the location (including women and children) with cows, horses and vehicles up to the next command post, or that marching columns must be preceded at a distance of at least 150 meters by such inhabitants. The civilians must close up tightly and walk the whole width of the road.
Rear area command 532 proceeded in a similar manner, and an officer in the high command of Army Group Center wanted to recommend this procedure as exemplary to other units. As of February 18, 1944, General Commissar v. Gottberg issued a Directive for the Securing of Traffic Roads in White Ruthenia against Bandits and Mines. Therein the whole population of villages in White Ruthenia was obliged to de-mine streets and roads every day at the regional police commanders instructions. Whoever refused the de-mining and road supervision service was to be punished by death.
- Bielski partisans
- Defiance (2008 film)
- The Holocaust in Lithuania
- The Holocaust in Poland
- Operation Ostra Brama
- Reichskommissariat Moskau
- Reichskommissariat Ostland
- Ukrainian-German collaboration during World War II
- Vitsyebsk gate
- Doron Halutz (7 March 2013). "U.S. historian revives controversy in Holocaust studies" (Internet Archive print option). Yale professor Timothy Snyder examines the killing policy that entwined the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Haaretz.com. Retrieved 17 March 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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- Northeastern territories of Poland were attached to Belastok Voblast, Hrodna Voblast, Navahrudak Voblast (soon renamed to Baranavichy Voblast), Pinsk Voblast and Vileyka (later Maladzyechna) Voblast of Byelorussian SSR
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- Gosudarstvenny arkhiv Rossiiskoy Federatsii (State Archive of the Russian Federation, GARF), fond 8114, оpis 1, delo. 965, list 99.
- Yad Vashem Archives (YVA), Jerusalem, collection M-33/476, p. 18.
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- Reidlinger 1960, p. 157, as quoted in Turonek 1989, p. 118.
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- See also The history of children in the Holocaust
- Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde. Die deutsche Wirtschafts- und Vernichtungspolitik in Weißrußland 1941 bis 1944. Studienausgabe, pages 955 and following
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