Minsk Ghetto and Holocaust in Belarus
The murder of the Jews was taken into account during the preparation of the attack on the USSR and was part of the Third Reich’s war of extermination in the East. With the commissar’s order of June 6, 1941, all Bolshevik commissars of the military and internal administration, including many Jews, were executed without military trial. On the territory of Belarus the Einsatzgruppe “B” operated under the command of Arthur Nebe, Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department.
According to the last census before the Second World War (1939), there were 70,998 Jews in Minsk, almost one third of the total population of the Belarusian capital.
On 19 July 1941, the Wehrmacht issued an order to create a ghetto in Minsk. The order clearly defined the boundaries of the ghetto not far from the city centre. The Minsk Ghetto consisted of about 40 streets and crossroads and was located in the northwestern part of the city. The ghetto territory was bounded by Kolkhoznaya, Nemiga, Respublikanskaya, Shornaya, Kollektornaya, Obuwnaya and Zaslavskaya streets. After the announcement of the order, the Minsk Jews had five days to move to the ghetto. They were only allowed to take what they needed with them. After the resettlement, the ghetto was walled and fenced in, isolating it almost completely from the outside world. There were two entrances and two exits, and the ghetto could only be left if the ghetto inhabitants could prove that they were working outside. Disobedience had the most serious consequences. Jews were forced to wear the Star of David.
The administration of the Minsk ghetto was taken over by the so-called Jewish Council (german: Judenrat). The Judenrat was an institution between the German occupying authority and the ghetto inhabitants. It consisted of influential citizens of the Jewish communities, rabbis, elders and members of the intelligentsia. Among other things, its task was to regulate the registration system. In the Minsk Ghetto, it was common practice to recount the Jewish population after each punitive action.
The reality of life in the ghetto was characterized by hunger, narrowness and extraordinary hardship. Several families had to share a room, there was only one central kitchen in the ghetto. Food was allocated according to the category of work. Thus “non-working” Jews received only 150 grams of bread, 10 grams of barley and 3 grams of salt per day. Those who fell into the category of “working Jews” also received a slice of bread and a plate of soup a day. This severe situation provoked several riots. The people lived in constant fear, the basic laws of the ghetto were arbitrariness and violence.
There was no medical care, the hygienic situation was catastrophic. Due to the many deaths, which were only sporadically transported away, epidemics and diseases quickly spread.
The Judenrat also had the task of creating a police force among the inhabitants of the ghetto. The police of the ghetto, the so-called Jewish Ordnungsdienst, was the executor of the orders of the Judenrat and the German occupation authorities. This “police” was forced to collaborate with the German occupiers in actions against ghetto inhabitants.
Despite the most adverse conditions, the prisoners of the Minsk ghetto managed to organize resistance. Up to 22 underground groups were active in the ghetto at various times. The leaders of the resistance were people like G. Smoljar, M. Pruslin, M. Gebelew, N. Feldman. The underground resistance was concerned, among other things, with communication with the partisans outside the ghetto, coordination about conspiratorial meeting places, and propaganda work in the ghetto itself.
Many Belarusians risked their lives and those of their families by rescuing refugees from the ghetto and hiding them in their houses and apartments. Some took Jewish children under Russian names or placed them in children’s homes.
The extermination of Jews in Belarus began immediately after the beginning of the war. By the beginning of 1942, Jews had already been murdered in more than 40 towns and villages in eastern Belarus, as this territory was part of the hinterland of the Central Army Group. By then an estimated 5250 Jews had been killed in Bobruisk, about 7000 in Borisow, 4000 in Gomel, 3000 in Retschitza, and 6800 in Witebsk.
The surviving prisoners of the Minsk ghetto mostly remember the black days of November 7 and 20, 1941, March 2 and 31, 1942, and July 28, 1942, when the SS carried out the largest murder operations. Due to the enormous number of people shot by SS occupying forces from spring 1941 to summer 1942, the SS sought more effective methods of killing. From the autumn of 1942, so-called “gas vans” (Dushegubka, Russian: душегубка) were in use for the first time in Belarus. Post-war research refers to specially converted trucks used by the SS to gas the occupants as gas vans. There were four gas vans in the Belarusian capital, each of which could accommodate up to 60 people.
After two and a half years of existence, on 21 October 1943, the Minsk Ghetto was dissolved. The remaining 1,000 inmates were killed in the Blagovshchina forest near Minsk.
By 1942 almost all Jews had been murdered in the cities of Brest, Baranovichi, Volkovisk, Klezk and Zhlobin. In December 1942 Baranovichi was declared “Jew-free”.
In April 1942 the head of the security police of the general district Weißruthenien, Obersturmführer Strauch, announced that 130,000 of 150,000 Jews were destroyed on the territory of the general district.
In the years 1943 – 1944 the murder actions against the Jews continued in the west of the country, in Grodno, Nowogrudok, Wolozhin and other cities.
Jews from Western European countries suffered a similar tragic fate as the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. They were deported from Austria, Hungary, Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Moravia to the occupied territories in Belarus. The deportations of Jews from Germany began in September 1941 and it was planned to deport about 50,000 Jews. The first transport from Hamburg arrived in Minsk on 11 November 1941. A further 6963 Jews were then brought to Minsk from Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt-am-Main, Berlin, Bremen and Poland. Two areas separated by barbed wire and barriers were erected in the Minsk ghetto, one for Western European Jews and one for Soviet Jews. More than 19,000 German Jews died in the Minsk Ghetto.
During their retreat, the SS occupation troops tried to cover up their bestial crimes. In autumn 1943, mass graves were opened by so-called Sonderkommandoos in top secret actions and the victims of the shootings and gassings were burned.
Although the Minsk Ghetto was one of the largest ghettos in the territory of the Soviet Union at the time, little was known about its history. Only former prisoners of the ghetto took the initiative in 1946 and erected a memorial in the form of a black obelisk on the site of a mass grave in the former centre of the ghetto, where thousands of Jews had lost their lives.
Today, it is above all the Minsk History Workshop that is actively engaged in historical research. The History Workshop is a Belarusian-German project, which was founded in 2002 by the International Education and Meeting Center in Dortmund (IBB), the International Education and Meeting Center “Johannes Rau” Minsk and the Association of Belarusian Jewish Organizations and Communities. The History Workshop is located in a historic building on the site of the former Minsk Ghetto, which allows learning from history in authentic places.
The central tasks of the History Workshop are to accompany and support surviving victims of National Socialist tyranny, to develop and implement programmes of historical education and to promote newer research trends in Belarusian war and occupation historiography as well as German Nazi research.