ONLINE NEWSLETTER
(No. 12/2005 – November 2005)
Editor: Fran Bock

Our friend and frequent contributor, Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky, recently informed us that, The Black Book with Red Pages, by Vladimir Levin and David Meltser, a study of the Holocaust in Belarus originally published in Russian in 1996, has been translated into English.   The English-language version (The Black Book With Red Pages: Tragedy and Heroism of Belorussian Jews, by David Meltser and Vladimir Levin)  was published this year by Vestnik Information Agency,  10846 Sandringham Road, Cockeysville, MD.

 

 

Information about the availability of the English-language book will be posted on the Belarus Special Interest Group e-mail list as soon as possible.

 

We are pleased to present Dr. Smilovitsky’s review of the original Russian-language version, published in Jews in Eastern Europe, No 1 (35), 1998, pp. 72-77.  We thank Dr. Arkadii Zeltser and the publishers for permission to reprint this review.

 

© This article is copyrighted by the publishers of Jews in Eastern Europe, and Dr. L. Smilovitsky.

Reprinting or copying of this article is not allowed
without prior permission from the copyrightholders
.

 

The Holocaust of the Jews in Belorussia:

A View from America

by Leonid Smilovitsky, Ph,D.,

Diaspora Research Center, Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of the Humanities, Tel Aviv University

Review of: V. Levin and D. Meltser, Chernaia kniga s krasnymi stranitsami (The black book with red pages), Baltimore, 1996 - 573 pp

The historiography of the Holocaust has now been enriched with this valuable new study in Russian. This large volume was compiled by two authors who immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s. In Belarus, Vladimir Levin was a writer and journalist; David Meltser was a professor of history at the Belorussian State University.

     One of the reasons for the appearance of this book is the growth of interest of Jewish émigrés in their own recent past, including the Holocaust. There have been a few works that have, to varying degrees, dealt with this topic. Several major contributions have been made by scholars in Israel, who have studied both the Holocaust in Belorussia and Jewish participation in the resistance to the Nazis (1).

     In the early 1990s, Jewish topics began to be treated by Jewish historians in Belarus itself (2), although Belorussian historians basically continued to remain silent about the Nazi destruction of Jews as Jews (3) (rather than as Soviet citizens or as Belorussians). Such circumstances made the publication of the present work imperative.

     According to the authors' estimates, if one includes Jewish refugees from Poland, Jews accounted for 10% of the total population of the Belorussian SSR on the eve of World War II. They were its most educated segment and played a significant role in the Party and government bureaucracies, as well as in economic and professional life. In the 1930s, many Belorussian Jews were among the victims of Stalin's purges.

     The authors' perspective is that the annihilation of the Jews during World War II was not simply part of a Belorussian tragedy but rather one of its central aspects. Furthermore, it was in Belorussia, at the beginning of their Drang nach Ostend, that the Nazis first put their mechanism for the mass murder of Jews into operation.

    Although the authors refer to their work as a popular historical one, it should more accurately described as a collection of testimonies and documents with an introduction and commentaries. Of particular value are its generalizations and conclusions. New material includes 96 accounts of eye-witnesses to the Holocaust, many of whom were found and interviewed in the United States. The book contains a preface and nine chapters.

    As a background to the main topic, the first chapter surveys 600 years of Jewish settlement in Belorussia, including the contribution of Jews to economic life and their relations with the other peoples there. The story continues up to the twentieth century, with the participation of Jews in the revolutionary movement and in the transformation of Belorussian life in the inter-war period.

     The next chapter deals with the eve and the onset of the Holocaust itself. It includes documents about Nazi policy on the annihilation of the Jews in Eastern Europe and in Belorussia in particular. There are excerpts from orders of German commanders, reports of extermination units, and detailed statistics on the number of victims from 1941 to 1944. Such data is provided for 181 locations (previously information was available for 163). (4)  There is also a detailed account of Soviet policy on the eve of the German invasion and the first months of the war. In the process, they present an extremely negative portrait of Panteleimon Ponomarenko, (5)  the head of the Communist Party in Belorussia, whom they refer to as "Stalin's gauleiter in Belorussia."

     The chapter titled "Anatomy of Genocide" discusses the methods of mass murder, including the use of collaborators from the local population and from Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics, as well as Soviet POWs. It is followed by an account of the Minsk ghetto, which held 100,000 Jews, established by the Nazis as the largest ghetto on Soviet territory (within the 1939 borders). In addition to presenting the research of others on this much-studied topic, Levin and Meltser added material of their own -- for example, about Moshe Gebelev, one of the leaders of the Minsk underground (obtained from his daughter, who now lives in Buffalo, New York).

     A striking chapter presents brief accounts of the destruction of Jewish communities. In addition to the well known ones like Grodno (44,000 Jews), Brest (34,000), Vitebsk, and Mogilev (20,000 each), we learn about smaller ones like Rechitsa (3,000), Smilovichi (2,000), Lelchitsy (685), Kublichi (200), Uvarovichi (149), and Cherniavka (60). Another tragic chapter follows-about the fate of Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Belorussia. The majority of them did not survive. There are also accounts of the struggle for existence of some survivors who, a half-century later, are still marked by the experiences they had as children.

     A tiny ray of light is cast by stories of non-Jews who risked their own lives and those of their families to save Jewish lives. That such heroes were few is indicated by the fact that the authors were unable to write more than five pages about them.  Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Authority in Jerusalem has confirmed only 136 of these “righteous among the nations” in Belorussia (6).   

     The last two chapters relate to Jewish resistance to the Nazis during the war and the silence about this topic in Soviet historiography after the war. Levin and Meltser present evidence of various kinds: lists of Jewish partisans, military honors lists, combat reports, excerpts from contemporary letters, and descriptions of military operations. They adduce names of Jewish commanders and commissars, heads of partisan units, and fighters with the Red Army. Such information is clearly intended to counter the myths of Jewish cowardice and avoidance of military service.

     Although Levin and Meltser are right in principle, one may argue with some details. For example, they claim that there were 30,000 Jewish partisans in Belorussia, of whom a third perished. These figures considerably exceed those given by Israeli historians Yitzhak Arad (7) and Shmuel Krakowski, Shmuel Spektor, and others (8). As I discuss below, Levin and Meltser do not indicate the sources for their estimates. This fault is repeated and is a serious weakness of their work, since it makes it difficult to check their conclusions.

     Also in relation to Jewish partisans, there is one specific reference to a source which is problematic. This concerns a major issue -- the question of official Soviet anti-Semitism. More than once, the authors refer to a supposed radio message by Ponomarenko to the commanders of partisan units in Belorussia, allegedly ordering them not to accept into their ranks Jews who had escaped from Nazi ghettos. Such a serious claim requires careful substantiation. It is not a question about anti-Semitism among the partisans; this is well known (9). However, no such Soviet order has yet been found. What is beyond doubt is that on June 24, 1941, the Party and government leadership headed by Ponomarenko, fled Minsk without setting up any organized underground to oppose the Nazis (as was done in other locations). With the aid of an informer, the Nazis succeeded in uncovering the spontaneous underground that was centered in the Minsk ghetto.

     The author of this review found a document in the National Archive of the Belarus Republic, dated November 20, 1942. It was the text of a radio message sent by Ponomarenko from Moscow to all partisan units and brigades in Belorussia. The message referred to efforts by German intelligence in Minsk to infiltrate agents into the partisans' ranks. In order to prevent this, the partisans were forbidden to have contact with representatives of any underground formations or organizations whatsoever from Minsk and to arrest any of them that aroused suspicion." (10) This document contains no reference to the nationality of the German intelligence agents or any other reference to Jews.

      Also open to question is the authors' view about the alleged harm caused by the September 1943 attempt on the life of the German puppet ruler in Belorussia, Wilhelm Kube, by the underground, which is claimed to have led to the liquidation of the last 10,000 Jews in the Minsk ghetto the following month. Such logic could be used to condemn any partisan operation, since they could all be used as pretexts for Nazi reprisals. It is also based on the extremely dubious premise that the Nazis would not, in any case, have murdered all the Jews they could.

     One historical inaccuracy should also be noted. The term "Vlasovtsy" ("Vlasov's men") is used to refer to Soviet POWs whom the Nazis used in their extermination units. Gen. Andrei Vlasov (11) headed the Committee to Save the People of Russia. In November 1944 he gathered 30,000 Russian soldiers, who subsequently formed the basis of his army, which fought for the Germans against the Soviets until April-May 1945 (12). It was not possible for the "Vlasovites" to carry out reprisals against Soviet partisans in Belorussia, since the latter had already been liberated by the Soviets by July 1944. Like Soviet historians, Levin and Meltser incorrectly apply the term to all Soviet POWs who were German collaborators, including those from Ukraine, Central Asia, and the Caucasus (13).

     A final reservation concerns the authors' estimates of Jewish victims (pp. 90-94). Their total -- 700,390 for 157 locations --appears to be too high. As noted earlier, they fail to provide sources for this figure. The head of the partisan division of the Belarus State Museum of the Great Patriotic War cites a figure of 376,851 victims in 103 locations (14). A higher figure, 455,100 for 139 locations, is given by Vladimir Adamushko, chairman of the committee on archives and files of Belarus (15). However, the figures given by the latter two archival experts need adjustment. They do not include several categories of Jewish victims: those killed in jails and POW camps, Jewish partisans and underground resistance members, those killed in forests and rural areas, and those who succeeded in concealing their identity but were killed nevertheless. Finally, their estimates do not include Belorussian Jews killed during service in the Red Army.

     Despite the above qualifications, this Black Book with Red Pages does succeed in presenting a comprehensive account of the Holocaust in Belorussia. It has taken half a century for much of the relevant documentation and testimony to appear. This period of time has also allowed the book's compilers to gain perspective on material made available earlier. In short, this work can help Holocaust historians of the new generation, including those in Israel, deal with a number of questions that still await answers.

 

 

Notes

1. L. Eckman, The Jewish Resistance in Lithuania and White Russia during the Nazi Occupation, 1941-1945 (New York, 1997); J. Turonek, Bialorus pod okupacija niemiecka (Belorussia under the German Occupation) (Warsaw-Wroclaw, 1989); N. Tec, Defiance, the Bielski Partisans: the Story of the Largest Armed Rescue of Jews by Jews during World War II (New York, 1993); Evrei Belarusi: Istoriia i kul'tura-sbornik statei (Jews of Belarus: History and culture, a collection of articles), Vol. 1 (Minsk, 1997); Lucjan Dobroszycki and Jeffrey Gurock, eds., The Holocaust in the Soviet Union and the Sources of the Destruction of the Jews in the Nazi-Occupied Territories of the USSR, 1941-1945 (Armonk, N.Y., 1993); Mordechai Altshuler, "Al ha-sho'ah bi-vyelorussia ha-rnizral;1it: Qeta'im rni-protoqol shel mishpat neged poshe'im Nazim be-Minsk" (Documentation of the Holocaust in Eastern Belorussia. Yalkut Moreshet 48 (1990), pp. 151-160; Y. Arad, ed., Unichtozhenie evreev SSSR v gody nemetskoi okkupatsii 1941-1944: Sbornik dokumentov i materialov (The destruction of the Jews of the USSR during the years of the German occupation, 1941-1944: Collection of documents and materials) Jerusalem, 1996; Yakov Tsur, "Mahkane ha-hashmadah Maly Trostinez" (The Maly Trostinets death camp) , Yalkut Moreshet 59 (1995), pp. 31-52; Shmuel Spektor and Bracha Freundlich, Lost Jewish Worlds: The Communities of Grodno, Lida, Olkieniki, Vishay, Jerusalem, 1996); Yehoshua Jaffe and Yitzhak Alperovitz, eds., "Be-geto Novogrudok u-va-tenu'ah ha-partizanit" (In the Novogrudok ghetto and the par-tisan movement) (Tel Aviv, 1988); Moshe Kalchheim, ed., Be-qomah zequfah, 1939-1945: Peraqim be-toledot ha-lehima ha-partizanit be-ya'arot Naroch (Standing tall, 1939-1945) (Tel Aviv, 1991); Shalom Cholawski, "Mahteret u-partizanim mi-geto Slonim" (Underground and partisans from the Slonim ghetto), Massuah 23 (1995), pp. 185-188.

2. For a survey of works published in Belarus, see L. Smilovitsky, "Revival of Historiography of Belarus' Jews, 1992-1995," Shvut 3(19), pp. 209-219.

3. M. Kastsiuk, I. Ignatsenka, U. Vyshinski, et al., eds., Narysy gistoryi Belarusi (Survey of the history of Belarus), Vol. 2 (Minsk, 1995), pp. 297-300; B. Sachanka, eds., Belarus': Entsyklapedychny davednik (Belarus: Encyclopedic handbook (in Belorussian), Minsk, 1995, p. 791).

4. Researchers at the Belorussian Scientific Research Center for Documentation, Archaeography, and Archival Matters provided information on 70 ghettos; researchers at the Belorussian State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War, on 139; and Emanuil Ioffe, of the Pedagogical University in Minsk, on 163. See, respectively: U. Mikhniuk, Niametska-fashystski genatsyd na Belarusi, 1941-1944 (The German-fascist genocide in Belarus, 1941-1944) (Minsk, 1995), p. 292; R. Chernoglazova, ed., Tragediia evreev Belorussii v gody nemetskoi okkupatsii, 1941-1944: sbomik materialov i dokumentov (The tragedy of the Jews of Belorussia during the years of Ger-man occupation, 1941-1944: collection of materials and documents) (Minsk, 1995), pp. 169-179; E. Ioffe, Stranitsy istorii evreev Belarusi (pages of the history of the Jews of Belarus) (Minsk, 1996), p. 116.

5. Panteleimon Ponomarenko (1902-1984)-Soviet Party and government official. Ponomarenko became first secretary of the CC CP of Belorussia in 1938. From 1939 to 1961 he was a member

of theCC CPSU. From 1942 he was chief of staff (with the rank of lieutenant general) of the partisan movement of the USSR. In 1944 Ponomarenko became a secretary of the CC of the Communist Party of the USSR; in 1948-1953 he was deputy chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR.

6. "Righteous among the nations of the world"-an honorific bestowed by the State of Israel on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Since 1962 this honor has been conferred by a commission headed by the president of Israel's Supreme Court, in coordination with a special division of Yad Vashem. See: L. Smilovitsky, "Righteous Gentiles, the Partisans, and Jewish Survival in Belorussia, 1941-1944," Holocaust and Genocide Studies 11(3) (1997), pp. 301-329; Daniel Romanovskii; "Kholokost v Vostochnoi Belorussii i Severo-zapadnoi Rossii glazami neevreev" (The Holocaust in Eastern Belorussia and Northwest Russia in the eyes of non-Jews), Vestnik evreiskogo universiteta v Moskve 2(9) (1995), pp. 93-103.

7. Arad gives the figure of 25,000-30,000 Jewish partisans for all of the German-occupied Soviet Union {see Arad, Unichtozhenie evreev SSSR, p. 25).

8. The latter give the figure of 15,000-20,000 Jewish partisans for the territory of Ukraine, Belorussia, Volhynia (Western Ukraine), and the Baltics {S. Krakowski, S. Spektor, Evrei v boiakh s natsikstskoi Germaniei vo vtoroi mirovoi voine (Jews in the fight against Nazi Germany during World War 2) Jerusalem, 1995, pp. 35-37).

9. L. Smilovitsky, "Antishemmiyut bein ha-partizannim be-belorusiya" {Anti-Semitism among the partisans in Belarus), Yalkut Moreshet 59 {1995), pp. 53-62; idem, "Yehudim u-folanim ba-tenuah ha-partizannit ha-belorussit, 1941-1944" (Jews and Poles in the Belorussian partisan movement, 1941-1944), ibid. 63 {1997), pp. 83-100.

10. Natsional'nyi Arkhiv Respubliki Belarus', f. 4085, op. 1, do 1, pp. 21-22.

11. Lt. Gen. Andrei Vlasov (1900-1946) began serving in the Red Army in 1919. In 1937-1939 he was military and political advisor to Chang Kai-shek. In 1941 he headed the unsuccessful defense of Kiev and participated in the successful defense of Moscow. In June 1942, when he was deputy commander of the Northwest Front, he was captured by the Germans. Subsequently he fought with the Germans as commander of the Russian Liberation Army. After the war, he was convicted of treason by a Soviet court and hanged.

12. For more about the Vlasovites, see: B. Dvinov, Vlasovskoe dvizhenie v svete dokumentov (The Vlasov movement in the light of documents) (New York, 1950); Sh. Shtrikfel'd, Protiv Gitlera i Stalina (Against Hitler and Stalin) (Moscow, 1994).

13. A. Shneer, Plen: Kak i pochemu bolee 5 millionov soldat i ofitserov Krasnoi Armii okazalis' v natsistskom plenu, 1941-1945 (Captivity: How and why over 5 million soldiers and officers of the Red Army fell prisoners to the Nazis, 1941-1945) (Jerusalem, 1997), pp. 24-31.

14. R. Chernoglazova, ed., Tragediia evreev Belorussii v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny, 1941-1944: Sbornik materialov i dokumentov (The tragedy of the Jews of Belorussia during the Great Patriotic War, 1941-1944: Collection of materials and documents) (Minsk, 2nd ed., 1997), pp. 127-137.

15. V. Adamushko, Mestsy prymusovaga utrymannia gramadzianskaga nasel'nitstva na chasova akupiravanai terytoryi Belarusi u gady Vialikai Aichynai vainy. Davednik (places of concentration camps of the civilian population on the temporarily occupied territory of Belorussia during the years of the Great Patriotic War: a handbook [in Belorussian]) Minsk, 1996, pp. 8-13, 20-25, 34-36, 39-44, 49-54. 63-65.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2005 Belarus SIG and the publishers of Jews in Eastern Europe

 

Back to the index of the Belarus SIG Newsletters

Back to the Belarus SIG website