Maly Trostenets – forgotten place of extermination
Unbeknown to most people, Maly Trostinets was the largest German extermination camp on the territory of the Soviet Union. Until the 1990s it was not even mentioned in standard works on the Shoah.
Work was started on erecting the camp – under the auspices of the commandant of the security police – soon after the invasion of the German army on 28th July 1941. Maly Trostinets counts the fourth highest number of victims in the Nazi extermination camps, after Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka. Civilians and prisoners of war, Jews from Poland, Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia were all murdered in Trostinets. After the war a Soviet commission estimated a total of 206,000 victims but western historians consider the figure to be more like 60,000.
The name Trostinets comprises three different locations:
- the woods near Blagovshchina, where mass executions by firing squad took place
- the actual camp, 12 km southeast of Minsk
- the woods near Shashkovka, where a provisional crematorium was erected and where mass cremations took place.
Most people were killed by firing squad. They had to undress, line up along the edge of long ditches and were shot either in the head or neck. The bodies were buried and the earth compacted with caterpillar tractors.
In the autumn of 1943, when a defeat of the Wehrmacht seemed more and more likely, the Nazis tried to obscure the traces of their crimes. An SS special unit was formed, which was responsible for digging up the bodies of those shot and burning them. This horribly inhumane task was allotted to prisoners from Minsk prisons and prisoners of war, who were then also shot and cremated. In the autumn of 1943, about 50,000 bodies were exhumed and burnt. Inhabitants of the neighbouring villages had to supply several thousand cubic metres of wood for the purpose. After the bodies were burnt, the bones were crushed and all jewellery and gold teeth collected from the ashes.
At another place nearby, in the woods of Shashkovka, the Wehrmacht built a temporary crematorium for cremating the bodies of those shot. It was a ditch with gently sloping entrance. On the floor of the ditch were six rows of rails, 10 metres long, on which lay a grating. The place where this temporary crematorium was situated was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded around the clock. It was in continuous operation from October 1943 until June 1944.
The last documented act of mass extermination took place in July 1944, just a few days before Minsk was liberated. 6,500 people were shot in the Trostinets extermination camp and then burnt in a barn. They were prisoners from the prison in the Wolodarskogo Street and from the camp in the Schirokaja Street in Minsk. On this day Stepanida Sawinskaja and Nikolai Walachanowitsch escaped death. Sepanida Sawinskaja remembers that there were many women and children between three and ten years of age among the victims.
A Soviet State Commission started work in July 1944 and discovered 34 mass graves in the woods near Blagovshchina. Some of the ditches were up to 50 metres long. When the graves were opened, cremated human remains were found to a depth of three metres and layers of ash up to a metre thick. According to Soviet information, about 150,000 people were murdered and buried in the woods at Blagovshchina, including about 60,000 Soviet prisoners of war, 50,000 prisoners from the Minsk ghetto and over 20,000 deported European Jews.
The tragic fate of Soviet Jews also awaited Jews from Western Europe, in particular from countries occupied by Nazi Germany such as Austria, Hungary, Poland, Bohemia and Moravia. They were deported eastwards under varying pretexts. For example, for settlement in the East or to work in German armaments factories. The first stop for transports from the German Reich and West Europe was in the little Belarusian town of Volkovysk (Vawkavysk). The new arrivals were divided up and were loaded into goods trains. If a train was delayed, then it was diverted to another station (e.g. Baranavichy, Stolbtsy, Koidanovo), where a similar fate awaited them as in Minsk.
The deportation of Jews from Germany began in September 1941. The plan was to deport approximately 50,000 Jews to the newly designated General Commissariat for White Ruthenia. The first transport from Hamburg arrived in Minsk on 11th November 1941. In the following months, 6,963 Jews from Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bremen and Poland arrived in Minsk. Some were brought immediately to the extermination camp, others became victims of the killings in the Minsk ghetto. Jews from Germany and West Europe were strictly separated from the Jews from the Soviet Union. There were two separate districts for this purpose in the Minsk ghetto. About 19,000 German Jews were deported to the Minsk ghetto. Till the very end, the German occupying forces maintained appearances to the effect that the German Jews were being resettled.
There was also another separate area in the ghetto: the children’s home. Here, the children were left more or less to their own devices. They slept on musty straw and suffered from malnutrition. The purpose of this children’s home was of a military nature: the children served as blood donors for German soldiers.
Like other camps, the Trostinets concentration camp was part of the brutal war of extermination. However, this extermination camp was singular in that all aspects of the killing machinery were rampant here: extermination of the civilian population and prisoners of war, planned murder and spontaneous execution of people of various nationalities and confessions.
After the war, many places where mass extermination had taken place were turned into memorials, as a reminder of the Nazi atrocities. Museums and places of remembrance were built; the public was confronted with the past. Trostinets has been largely unaffected by such remembrance processes. It was not until 1963 that an obelisk with an eternal flame in memory of the victims of Trostinets was erected, albeit quite some distance from the actual extermination site and the concentration camp, in the village Wieliki Trostinets. Two simple gravestones remember the victims who were murdered in the crematorium of Shashkovka at the end of the war. In addition, in 2002 a small memorial was erected in the woods near Blagovshshina.
In the same year, the Council of Ministers of the Republic of Belarus decided to set up the Trostinets memorial complex. Leonid Levin, a famous Belarusian architect who has created many monuments to the holocaust and the Second World War in Belarus, drafted the main design for the entire complex. Unfortunately he was not able to carry out his plan; he died in 2014 at the age of 78. In the meantime, his daughter Galina Levina is continuing her father’s work. A monument was inaugurated in Maly Trostinets in 2015.
In European archives lists of the names of many western European victims of Trostinets are still preserved. Of the Jews deported from Western Europe, the majority came from Vienna. A figure of approximately 10,000 is assumed. Of those, only 17 survived. As far as Soviet citizens are concerned, only about 600 names are known today, 400 of those being prisoners from the Minsk ghetto and 50 members of the underground movement.
To this day, relatives of the victims of Trostinets come to Minsk every year to pay tribute to their forebears and to raise awareness of what terrible things happened in this place. In this way, the subject and interest in it is passed on to the younger generations.
In this context, the History Workshop, Minsk, plays an important role. It is located in a historic building on the site of the former Minsk ghetto. The History Workshop is a joint German/Belarusian project which remembers and tries to help come to terms with the atrocities of Nazi history, implements educational programmes on this theme and supports surviving victims. It is open to visitors at all times and houses an interesting exhibition on the holocaust in Belarus and on the work of the architect Leonid Levin.
Learn more about this subject and go on a trip to Minsk with us.
The below feature video is brought to you by Dr. Aliaksandr Dalhouski. It provides you a great inside in the remembrance work around Maly Trostenets. Aliaksandr is the deputy director of the Minsk History Workshop. He leads the project „Contemporary Witness Archive“ there. In 2014-17 he was a collaborator in the project “Vernichtungsort Malyj Trostenez. History and Memory” for the preparation of a German-Belarusian traveling exhibition of the “International Education and Meeting Center Johannes Rau Minsk (IBB Minsk)” in cooperation with the “Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”. Aliaksandr is also a renowned author and published several books dedicated to the history of his homeland Belarus. His latest book on the history of the Białowieża National Park was published in 2017. For more video features around Belarusian history, check out our Youtube channel.
By the way, on our YouTube channel you can also watch an interesting story of a former prisoner of the concentration camp Buchenwald, who had to endure inhumane conditions at the camp, survived and managed to remain an unbroken and optimistic man.