No. 8/2002 - October 2002
Editor: Fran Bock
Struggle of Belorussian Jews for the
Restitution of Possessions and Housing
in the First Postwar Decade *
by Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky,
Diaspora Research Institute, Tel Aviv University
Following the war with Germany, Soviet Jews confronted formidable difficulties in their return to peacetime life. Their homes and property had been plundered. They could not pool their efforts to fight for their rights, as this would surely have boomeranged into accusations of organized opposition to the regime. Soviet power feared such protests and was lavish in professing a policy of equal rights and freedom for Soviet citizens, irrespective of nationality. This article describes the struggle of the Jews for restitution of their property and reveals what state policy on this issue actually was. In spite of the fact that this was a problem confronting most Jewish families in the occupied territories, no research on the subject has been conducted either in Belarus, Russia, the Ukraine or any other republic of the former Soviet Union. This must be attributed to the absence of any archive material concerning attitudes of the Communist Party and other administrative and law enforcement bodies on this phenomenon, as well as to ideological taboos and self-censorship by the authors. Even Jews directly affected by the situation preferred to remain silent rather than run the risk of displeasing the authorities. It was only after the disintegration of the Soviet Union that many agreed to speak out. Some now live outside the former Soviet Union. This article is based on documents and eyewitness accounts of persons now residing in Israel, the U.S., Germany, Belarus and Russia.
Post-war Housing Situation in the Republic
The three years of German occupation wrought havoc to the republic's economy. Most factories and power plants were put out of operation, bridges and roads blown up and destroyed, communications disrupted. Hostilities had wiped out Belarus' available housing. Some three million people were left homeless. As many as 1,200,000 buildings in the country were burned down, including 500,000 public buildings and 420,996 collective and individual farmhouses. Cities were the hardest hit. Vitebsk, Minsk, Polotsk, Polessye, Moghilev and the Gomel regions sustained particularly heavy losses, accounting for 63 percent of destruction in the republic. In 38 districts of these regions, up to 90 percent of homes, cultural buildings, and utility and administrative buildings were razed to the ground. Of the prewar 1,868,000 square miles of building space in Minsk, Gomel and Moghilev, only 438,000, or less than 23 percent, was left.
The situation in other towns and townships was no better. In towns and district centers only 2,762,000 square meters of housing space remained of the prewar 10,773,000. As many as 70,000 public apartment houses and 391,000 privately owned homes were destroyed. The remaining fraction was not safe to live in and required emergency repairs. There was no public transportation and no communal services. After the retreat of the fascist troops, some of the populace moved to other areas in Belarus, to the Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Russia, all of which suffered lesser damage.
The urban population found themselves in dire conditions of sanitation. Typhoid fever, dysentery, malaria, and scabies were rife. Absence of medicines and preventive treatment in the three years of occupation had sent the death rate soaring. There was a shortage of such vital commodities as kerosene, matches, and soap. Total damage to utility services in the BSSR amounted to 4,689,700,000 rubles (1941 prices). According to the Belarus Republican Commission of Assistance to the USSR, State Special Commission for determining the damage inflicted on the economy and population of the BSSR by German fascist invaders during the period 1941-1944, people lost property amounting to 23,600,000,000 rubles, including 4,968,000,000 rubles worth of furniture, clothing and household goods (1941 prices).
Restoration of housing and utilities took priority. By 1947, the water supply in 14 of the republic's cities and towns had been restored (462 km. out of 470 km. of water mains before the war), 70 km. of sewer pipes, as opposed to 65 km. existing before the war, 162 bath-houses and 98 hotels were operating. The absence or shortage of public transportation presented a serious obstacle to restoration and construction of industrial enterprises. In 1945, trams and buses were running in Minsk, although there were only 15 km. of tram lines as opposed to 70 km. in 1941 and 7 tram trains in comparison to a previous 36. The republic had only 86 buses. Tens of thousands of people lived in overcrowded dugouts, barracks and dilapidated housing. Any premises suitable for temporary dwelling were registered. Mass volunteer work was organized on Sundays to clear debris, broaden streets, remove litter, and prepare the ground for construction. People volunteered in their free time to restore whatever had been destroyed. It was akin to a nationwide campaign. White- and blue-collar workers, students, academicians worked together side by side. In Gomel, six Sundays of volunteer work were held in the first months after liberation, in Vitebsk, eight, in Moghilev, ten, and in Brest, twelve. From October 1944 to May 1945, residents of Minsk put in 1,200,000 man/hours of volunteer work, preparing 1,100 tons of building material for use. As much as 52,000 square meters of housing area was built.
To speed up the housing solution, individual construction was launched. It was decided that 350 brick kilns processing local materials in small Hoffmann ovens would be built, each with a total annual capacity of 1,500,000 bricks. Each district in the republic was to have two kilns of this kind. In 1946, 65 kilns were commissioned. Production of new building materials began, such as ceramic bathroom and lavatory fixtures, face and fire bricks, plaster board, mineral wool, floor tiles. Over the period 1945-47, in Belorussian cities and towns 1,678,000 square meters of housing space was prepared for occupancy. With that, there was still a dire shortage of housing aggravated by shortage of building machinery, devices, and manpower. Only 31.5 percent of the plan for contractual work of the BSSR People's Commissariat of Housing and Civil Engineering was carried out. Houses were overcrowded, a greater part of the population still living in dugouts, basements and temporary structures.
The Jewish Situation
Jews did not regard themselves as different from the rest of the population. They took part in the restoration work together with Belorussians and Russians. Yet, in actuality, their situation was different in many respects. In most cases, they were lonely survivors: widows, children, elderly people, those whose relatives had been gunned down in ghettos, died under evacuation or killed in battle. Jews had nothing, not even the simplest things for housekeeping. They could not prove title on their former homes, as documents had been lost during the war. Shortage of housing, acute as it was before the war, had assumed terrifying proportions. Houses and apartments formerly owned by Jews had been either destroyed, burnt down or pillaged. Those remaining were occupied without proper authorization. In August 1944, Samuil Meltser, a Soviet Army officer, wrote to Ilya Ehrenburg that he had been to some towns in Belarus' Brest, Baranovichi and Belostok regions immediately after liberation from the Nazis and had seen "very few" Jews there. What aroused his indignation was that even Jews who identified their possessions could not get them back from non-Jews.
In July 1945, Sholom and Liubov Feigin with their children Zelik, Raya and Fira returned to the town of Vetka, Gomel Region, from Kazakhstan, to where they had been evacuated. The first thing that caught their eye were makeshift dwellings under stairwells in demolished buildings. Their house had been burnt down in September, 1943 by a direct shell hit. At first they rented an apartment, then built a new house on the site of the old one, bearing all the expenses. Upon returning to Rechitsa, two families found their homes on Karl Marx and Komsomolskaya Streets ravaged. Not only were furniture and utensils missing, but window frames and doors had been unhinged and taken away. The two families were the Chechiks, who had come back from the Buzuluk District, Chkalovsk Region, RSFSR, and the Vertkins, who had returned from the Ufa Region, Bashkir ASSR. The house belonging to Sara Semenovna Shklyar in the township of Gorodok, Vitebsk Region, had been solidly built and spacious. She had inherited it from her father Abram Girshevich who came from a family of glaziers. They had brought in mahogany furniture and elegant tableware from pre-revolutionary Warsaw. The Shklyars were the first in town to have a radio installed in their home, and neighbors often came in to listen. In 1938 they bought an upright piano, and gramophone with records. Sara's parents died in the ghetto and the house was burnt down in 1943, during the battle of the Red Army over Gorodok. Only the ground floor of the tall foundation remained, which was now the township's bakery.
Role of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee
Many letters and complaints were sent to the Moscow-based Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), reflecting the most acute problems in the formerly occupied territory. In a May 1944 letter to Vyacheslav Molotov, Deputy Chairman of the USSR Council of People's Commissars, Solomon Mikhoels and Shakhno Epstein wrote that alarming information on the plight of the Jews in the formerly occupied territories was being received by the committee every day. Jews were being prevented from returning to their former homes and claiming identified possessions. Local authorities were showing little concern for former ghetto inmates and refused to do anything to ensure Soviet conditions of life. The letter stressed the obstacles being placed on returning Jews in spite of the fact that professionals were badly needed. Jews returning to places where "their grandfathers and great-grandfathers" had lived found their houses occupied and had no roof over their heads. The employment situation and that of material assistance were no better. Even relief (parcels and donations) from the Red Cross seldom reached needy Jews. International Jewish organizations which were rendering humanitarian aid expressed great dismay over this state of affairs. Acting on behalf of the JAC, Samuil Mikhoels and Shakhno Epstein suggested that a special state commission be established to aid Jewish victims of German genocide.
Upon receipt of the letter, V. M. Molotov requested information from Secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee G. M. Malenkov, member of the USSR Council of People's Commissars' Committee for restoring the economy in areas liberated from the fascist occupation A. I. Mikoyan, Chairman of the USSR State Planning Committee A. A. Voznesensky, and People's Commissar of the USSR People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) L. P. Beriya. No further steps were taken. Towards the end of summer 1944, JAC members spoke with the commissar of Jewish partisan detachment No. 106 in Belarus Vertgeim, chief of staff Feigelman and head of the detachment's special (security - Tr.) department Meltser. The partisans said they had heard many anti-Semitic slurs by the non-Jewish population. The fight for housing had begun, and not everyone was willing to let the Jews have their homes back. Many belongings Jews had left behind were missing and no one was about to look for or return them to their rightful owners. There were job difficulties as well.
The JAC was censured for its efforts to help the needy. In May 1943, V. S. Kruzhkov, chief secretary of the Sovinformbureau, sent a letter to A. S. Shcherbakov, Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, expressing indignation that the JAC, after receiving complaints on financial issues and everyday matters, was trying to deal with these complaints and for this purpose had begun corresponding with government and Communist Party agencies. On December 25, 1945, A. A. Andreev and M. F. Shkiryatov pointed out in a memo of the Party Auditing Committee under the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party, that Jews were addressing complaints to the JAC on the housing issue and exposing a lack of concern by government and Communist Party bodies, and that some JAC members had discussed such issues with them and had given explanations. In the memo authors' opinion, this was politically harmful and could turn the JAC into a sort of commissariat for Jewish affairs, which ran counter to the objectives for which it had been set up.
Nevertheless, the JAC continued, though with some reservation, to help returning Jews adapt to normal life. Its leaders believed that Soviet leadership would not turn a deaf ear to the needs of the Jews, considering the genocide to which they had been subjected, and would support resettlement of Jews to the Crimea, with the aim of establishing a Jewish Soviet Republic there. This idea was based on certain facts. Back in the 1920s-30s, the Soviet government allowed Jews to cultivate land in the Crimea and several Jewish ethnic districts sprung up. Before the war, the 65,000 Jews living in the Crimea made up 8 percent of the urban and 3 percent of the rural population. There was another reason the project appeared feasible. In May 1944, Crimean Tatars, accused of mass collaboration with the Germans, had been deported to Central Asia and other outlying areas. In the end the project was rejected by Stalin, and used somewhat later as a pretext for liquidating the JAC.
The Minsk Situation
In July, 1944 Minsk was a scene of desolation. Apartment houses, office buildings, factories, parks and stadiums had all been reduced to heaps of debris and waste. The city center was practically razed to the ground. From the railway station, one could see the ruins of the Opera and Ballet Theatre. People found shelter in small houses on the outskirts of the city. On June 1, 1941, Minsk had 12,096,000 square meters available housing space and by May 1, 1945, it had only 4,059,000, out of which 1,849,000 were at the disposal of local Soviets. The population grew at a much faster rate than housing was constructed. On July 3, 1944, the day Minsk was liberated, its population was 30,000; on November 1 - 45,000, on January 1, 1946 - over 180,000, compared to the prewar figure of 250,000. In 1946, available housing space in Minsk was only 1.5 square meter per person.
The Jewish population in Minsk had dwindled markedly, mainly due to genocide (in 1939 Jews made up 29.7 percent of the city's residents). According to Girsh Smolyar, by August 1944, at least 5,000 Jewish partisans and their families, or half of those who had escaped from occupied Minsk, had returned to the city. Two years later, as demobilized servicemen and former evacuees returned, the number of Jews doubled. By the early 1950s, the Jewish population of Minsk had risen to 15,000, and by 1959 - to 38,800, or 7.6 percent of the total population of the city.
The first attempts to draw attention of Belorussian authorities to the Jewish situation in the republic were made in 1944. Girsh Smolyar, together with Naum Feldman and Haim Alexandrovich, were noted to have discussed problems of housing, employment and return to peacetime life. The remaining houses in the former ghetto were occupied by Russians and Belorussians. Relying on prestige and connections made during the war against the Nazis, some former Jewish partisans applied to the Belorussian government and Central Committee of the Belorussian Communist Party. Girsh Smolyar spoke with department heads of the Belorussian Communist Party Central Committee Zakurdyaev and Malinin and with First Secretary of the Belarus Communist Party Central Committee Ponomarenko. None of these high officials dealt with the problems facing the Jewish population or sought to help them in either economic, social or everyday matters, as they allegedly had no time or means to do so. Refusal by party and government leaders to take into consideration the particular circumstances responsible for the plight of the Jews was tantamount to discrimination.
The authorities tried to keep some of the housing units formerly used by Jews who had not returned. In July 1944, Boris Mlynsky of the Kutuzov partisan detachment found that the house where he had lived, at 18 Myasnikov Street (a two-story wooden structure), was occupied by staff of the Belorussian Partisan Movement. In the yard were many partisans; saddled horses were tied to the staircase. The Mlynsky family apartment had been on the ground floor. In one of its former rooms there were now desks, people writing reports and giving orders, and telephones ringing. Mlynsky asked about the fate of the former owners but received no answer. The Kutuzov detachment had disbanded and was made part of a regular Soviet Army unit advancing westwards. Boris' relatives had perished in the ghetto and he never returned to Minsk.
Many apartments and houses formerly used or owned by Jews were now occupied by high officials of the republic or by regional organizations. Matuzov, head of the Special Sector of the Belorussian Communist Party Central Committee, lived in the Nodelstein apartment; Shavrov, Deputy Chairman of the Belorussian Council of People's Commissars - in the Gimelstein house; Matveev, head of personnel of the Belorussian Council of People's Commissars - in the Kartovenko house; Smirnov, head of the Logistics Committee under the Belorussian Council of People's Commissars - in the Etus family apartment; Khonyak, Deputy People's Commissar of the Interior of Belarus - in the Troyan house; Kolyshkin and Lomtev, heads of, respectively, industrial and school departments of the Central Committee of the Belorussian Communist Party - in apartments formerly occupied by Jews but renovated by the Administrative Department of the Belorussian Communist Party Central Committee.
Those who found their former living quarters occupied applied to the authorities on various levels and when this proved useless, they wrote to Moscow. On December 13, 1945, Filimonov, Commissioner of the Party-Auditing Committee for Belarus under the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party, wrote a memo "On the heartless attitude of some leading officials of the Belorussian SSR on demobilized servicemen and families of servicemen." Jewish names made up two thirds of the list of persons cold-shouldered by officials. Specifically, it was pointed out that an order by the BSSR Council of People's Commissars on October 20, 1945, to vacate apartment houses occupied by various offices hardly produced a result. Only 1,938 square meters of housing space was vacated and used to give crowded shelter to 58 families of demobilized servicemen, 33 families of those maimed in the Great Patriotic War, and 16 families of servicemen . Despite the threatening tone of the restoration order, Moscow officials did not force their Belorussian colleagues to make decisions against their better interests. Filimonov's memo was shelved because its author also lived in an apartment formerly occupied by Jews.
There were some exceptions. In July 1945, Maria Isakovna Plavnik, wife of the well-known Belorussian Jewish poet and prose writer, Zmitrok Byadulia, her son Efim, 10, and daughter Sofia, 15, returned to find their house and possessions burnt and destroyed. First they stayed with one, then with another of their friends. Then Maria applied to Ponomarenko, chairmanof the Belorussian government, asking for an apartment or hotel room to be paid for by the republican Litfond as a temporary solution. Quite unexpectedly her request was granted.The Byadulia family was just lucky, and not because the officials liked Byadulia's works or sympathized with Jewish intellectuals. Had he not died in November 1941 but instead been arrested before the war, like Izi Kharik, Haim Dunts, Moisei Kulbak, Eli Kagan, Zelik Akselrod, Yakov Bronstein and many others, the attitude towards his widow and children would have been different.
Non-Jews Who Had Misappropriated Jewish Possessions Felt Uneasy
Some peopl e who misappropriated Jewish possessions during the German occupation were apprehensive. In a letter to V. M. Molotov of May 1944, JAC leaders wrote that Hitler's local accomplices who had taken part in the killings and plunder of Soviet people during German occupation and had not fled with the Nazis, feared surviving witnesses and obstructed the return of Jews to their native lands. In the summer of 1941, some non-Jews had taken advantage of this general chaos and paralysis of the administration to break into apartments, storehouses and shops that had escaped destruction to grab foodstuffs, consumer goods, clothing, furniture, etc.
Over the period July-September 1941, the Nazis set up ghettos in most towns and townships. Jews residing outside ghetto areas were forced either to exchange their apartments with non-Jews or to vacate them. Some Jews were allowed to take some possessions to the ghetto, while others gave them to their non-Jewish neighbors for safekeeping. The Sosnovsky family from the township of Khotenchitsy, Vileika District, had owned a flour mill. As the Germans approached, they asked "Stepka," an acquaintance living on a farmstead 1.5 km. from the township, to hide some of their possessions - grain, flour, cereals, other belongings and some valuables. After liberation, the Sosnovskys came to collect their things. All they got was an undersized sports bicycle which they later exchanged for a sack of rye flour. The rest, they were told, had been taken by Germans, policemen and partisans. There were also people who promised to hide Jewish possessions for remuneration and then informed against these Jews. One Kabanov, a peasant from Elizovo, Osipovichi District, offered to help, but upon obtaining possessions and valuables of Jews, would give them to the German authorities. In Gomel, Alexandra Zvereva, who had worked as a servant for a Jewish family before the war, turned them in and took their furniture to her native village.
The first to misappropriate Jewish possessions were policemen, their relatives and acquaintances. Jewish belongings were considered as no one's property. In Lyakhovichi, Noah Melnik's house was plundered by his neighbors, the Lukasheviches. Each tried to grab as much as possible. The Jewish Sprovsky family lived next door to the Melniks. During a round-up operation in the autumn of 1941, they hid in the basement, but one of their lodgers, Kulikovsky, brought in men from a Lithuanian punitive squad, turned them in and occupied their house. Only Motl Sprovsky, who had been drafted to the Red Army in 1940, survived. After the war he had Kulikovsky evicted and got his house back.
In Rakov, Jewish possessions were plundered by Anton Shidlovsky, Yan Tzibulsky, Vladislav Kuryan, Yan Lukashevich, Yan Aleshko and Vasily Yatskevich. In September 1941, Yasinsky, whose birthplace was a farmstead near the Alekhnovichi railway station, was appointed commandant of the Rakov police. His assistant was Survillo. Both demanded that Jews supply their mistresses with clothing and footwear. Many items of furniture, tableware and personal effects belonging to Jews were found in a barn of one Roslovskaya, a mistress of Haendel, Deputy Gebitskommissar of Vileika. In March 1942, in Dunilovichi, policeman Shakhovich demanded that Mota Lifshits give him leather gloves. As Mota Lifshits did not have them, Shakhovich turned him in to the Gestapo. In Rechitsa, one Garai, residing on Lunacharsky Street, killed an old man, Kravtsov, even before the mass killings of Jews in November 1941. He did this to have Kravtsov's cow and other property.
Sara Khodos was arrested in Krivichi in April 1942, and then released for a substantial ransom. Approaching her home, she saw that German gendarmes, Burgomaster Petr Bentskovich and policemen Mazur and Melko, were loading her things onto a cart. She tried to protest but they laughed and said that the owners of the house had long been dead.
In Borisov, distribution of Jewish possessions was supervised by police chief Stanislav Stankevich. A great part was taken by the Germans. From what was left, Petr Kovalevsky got Sheineman's house, and Mikhail Tarasevich, Grigory Verkhovodko and Ivan Kopytko received clothes, household goods, furniture and valuables: a woman's fur coat, sheepskin coat, portable gramophone, bookstand, 55 gold rubles minted before the Revolution, Soviet money, watches and clocks. Part of the pillaged possessions was afterwards sold through shops and part distributed among the needy for coupons.
Dividing the booty was not always a peaceful affair. In June 1942, in Dunilovichi, Jewish possessions were hoarded in the storehouse of the former Raipotrebsoyuz (District Branch of the Consumer Cooperative Societies Union - L.S.). Voit Evgeny Spichonok wanted a new suit which Petrovsky, director of the storehouse, would not give him. A fistfight ensued and a German gendarme had to separate them. A teenage son of Adolf Matskevich was riding on a cart and grabbing whatever came his way. Near one house he loaded a roll of leather onto his cart. Karl Ichkovsky's son saw this and, being stronger, beat the former black and blue, then took the leather. Beatings and fist fights over Jewish possessions were a daily occurrence. The Germans scoffed at their local helpers, asking who would inherit their possessions after they were dead.
What Obstructed Restitution of Jewish Property and Housing
After the war, locals were reluctant to part with their misappropriated Jewish property. Absence of witnesses, loss of documents and other reasons made filing a lawsuit difficult. When in 1943 David Zalmanovich came on furlough to the Gorodok, Vitebsk Region, just liberated from the fascists, he found his house occupied by the large family of a former policeman. Tsodik Rytov, his wife, their two-year-old son and his brother-in-law, a war invalid, returned to Cherven. Their grandmother's house was intact. Almost no Jewish possessions had remained; Jewish homes were all occupied by people from nearby villages who did not want to move out. It took the Rytovs more than a year to get what rightfully belonged to them. Nehamia and Braha Ladin had been evacuated to the Kurgan Region. In 1944, their house in Rechitsa on Sovetskaya Street was occupied by their neighbors, the Kandeevs. Yielding to their request, the Kandeevs moved out, but other property and furniture were returned only after a court ruling. The Rubinchik's house in Rechitsa had been dismantled and shipped, complete with furniture, clothes and books, to the country. After a long dispute their neighbor returned only a wall clock and bed. Shoemaker Abram Graifer got back his barn, samovar and a padded blanket, but not his house.
There were many cases of this kind. Jews always had to prove title to the property they had left behind. Significantly, claims to this property were made mainly by neighbors with whom they had lived side by side for many years. Furthermore, if the homes of returning Jewish evacuees had been destroyed, authorities and local people did their best to prevent Jews from inheriting relatives' homes who had died either in ghettos or by fighting, or who had been reported missing. When in June 1944, Abram Levin came back to Vasilevichi, Gomel Region, from his place of evacuation in Burlinsky District, West-Kazakhstan Region, he was given back his cow, bedclothes and linens, wardrobe, table and the like but was not allowed to occupy the house of Gershon Levin, his close relative. Nehama Protas had fled from burning Minsk with her baby. Close to 100 of her relatives had died in the ghetto. In 1946, she returned to Minsk and found her home on Komarovskaya Street (now Varvashenya Street) occupied by strangers. The five-room wooden house with kitchen was private property. She received, by court ruling, half the house which was in her name. The other half, made out in her parents' name, she won only after taking the case to court; only then were the people who lived there without permission evicted. Minsk residents Peisah and Sprintsa Goldin needed to hire a lawyer to get their house back. All the furniture and other belongings had been plundered.
Among the illegal tenants of remaining Jewish homes were former partisans, local government officials and party officials. In 1943, Viktor Yudin, former commissar of a partisan detachment elected Second Secretary of the Gomel City Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus, and his wife Dina, moved into the house of Reiza-Gnesa and Movshe-Leiba Fisher at 9 Thaelmann Street, Gomel. It was a small house of 30 square meters, and the only furniture left was an oak wardrobe which the marauders could not take out. In spite of the fact that Movshe-Leiba had documents confirming title to the house, which he had built in 1927, the new tenants refused to acknowledge this. The Fishers returned to Gomel in September 1944. The nights were cold by then and the Yudins let them sleep in the kitchen. Two months later, after obtaining alternative housing as a high-ranking functionary, Yudin finally moved out .
Some Jews who had fought in partisan detachments and regular army units did not rely on the help of the authorities and reclaimed their housing and property themselves. Some used arms, the argument of victors, others took advantage of their positions. The Rubenchik house in Minsk, on Zeleny Lane, was occupied by people who claimed they had bought it from its owners and even quoted the sum. In July 1944, Abram and his sister Yokha, former ghetto inmates and partisans, demanded that the house be vacated. In reply, they were told that all the Jews had been killed, owners of the house included. Yokha, who had taken part in the partisan parade the day before, then took the rifle off her shoulder and fired it in the air. It worked: the house was vacated. After the liberation of Minsk, David Berstein worked at the prosecutor's office in the Belorussian Military Zone. The entire city and especially its center lay in ruins. Only three houses on Komsomolskaya Street remained - Nos. 13, 15 and 17. Berstein's small 25 square meter apartment on the ground floor at No. 13, comprising one room, kitc hen and bathroom, was occupied. Berstein presented his I.D., indicating his prewar residential address, but this did not help. So, he brought in an army squad and evicted the impostor along with his belongings. Nobody complained; this was considered normal at that time.
In some cases the local authorities employed all kinds of tricks to prevent Jews from getting their prewar housing back. They did not answer inquiries, distorted information and even resorted to outright lies. While still under evacu ation, Zalman-Evnon and Tsivia Kogan wrote to the Bobruisk Executive Committee, asking about their house. Their return depended on this. Executive Committee officials replied that the house had been destroyed. In 1945, their son Ilya, then a journalism student at the Urals University, was doing some practical work in Minsk. He went to Bobruisk and found that their house was there but that it was occupied by the town's bakery office. He demanded an explanation from the Town Executive Committee. His press card, from The Sovetskaya Belorussiya (Soviet Belarus), produced the desired result: the Soviet Town Chairman ordered the house to be vacated. Officials took their time, however, and when the Kogans arrived from Sverdlovsk early in 1946 they were still homeless. It took several months of effort to have the order enacted. It is hard to say what the outcome would have been had Ilya not been a journalist, that is, in a position to publish what the local authorities would rather have kept secret.
Some Jews traded their belongings for information about near and dear ones. Anxious to know about her sister Nehama and niece Larissa, Basya Zhitnitskaya came to Minsk two weeks after liberation. Part of the house in which she had lived had escaped destruction and was suitable for occupancy. In reply to her questions about Nehama, former neighbors advised her to contact the Kosarevs, with whom Nehama maintained ties from the ghetto. When Basya visited the Kosarevs, they looked uneasy because in their apartment were furniture and other things from the Zhitnitsky's former apartment. Basya, however, made no sign that she saw them. During the occupation, Nina, the Kosarevs' daughter, had worked for the police and had allegedly helped Nehama obtain an ethnic Belorussian I.D. card. For some time afterwards, Nehama had lived with the family of sculptor Bembel and was then arrested. Basya's niece Larisa had been offered shelter by Nina Glebko who worked for the German radio.
Usually it took quite a while for Jews to get their possessions back. Accountant Girsh Chernov returned to Bobruisk from evacuation in Mordovskaya ASSR in the summer of 1945. The house in which he had lived before the war was occupied. Then it had belonged to ZhEK (Housing Maintenance Office - L .S.). He wanted to move into his brother Pinkus's house, whose family had perished in the ghetto, but their house on Krasnoarmeiskaya Street was also occupied. Only two years later was his right to inherit this house resolved in court. Tsira Rubina returned to Minsk in 1946. She had a long litigation with the people occupying the part of the house which was fit for living (28 square meters), on 4 Sukhaya Street, near the Jewish cemetery. Rubina had inherited this house from her mother. During the war it had been part of the ghetto territory with a hideout ("malina") in its basement. Part of the house had been destroyed, concealing the entrance to the hideout. The remaining part was the subject of litigation. The case was heard in the people's court of the Frunze District of Minsk. Tsira won the case after neighbors testified that the house had belonged to her family. During the war, Malka and Yankel Peisakhovich were evacuated to Bashkiria. In 1944 they returned to Minsk. Their house - two rooms and a kitchen - in the center of the city (6, Sovetskaya Street) was occupied. They could have it back and move in only after their title to it was confirmed in court.
In some cases the local authorities, wishing to keep the occupied houses, broke the law. On coming to Rechitsa in 1944, Ita-Seina Frenkel found that a militiaman and his family were living in her house at 43 Kalinin Street. They allowed her to stay for the night provided she and her children would leave in the morning. With the help of neighbors, she managed to get one room for herself and her children. The militiaman would not let her live in peace. Every day upon his return from work he fired a shot in the air. She followed friends' advice and filed a lawsuit against him. It was only in July 1946 that the case was decided in her favor, but by then the only item remaining in the house was an old sofa. In 1951 the Baranovichi Executive Committee renovated over 600 houses belonging to deceased Jews for the Town Housing Department, as its assets. The alienation documents contained detailed data on location of the buildings, layout of the streets, house numbers, depreciation, estimated cost, etc. First and last names of the former owners were not indicated for the alleged reason that they were dead and could not claim the housing. Rights of heirs were completely ignored. Permits to occupy the alienated houses were issued by local authorities.
Belorussians and Russians refusing to "give in," lodged complaints against the "groundless" claims of the Jews. In January 1946, Faina Nosevich, a collective farm woman from the Logoisky District, said indignantly that "Jews are evicting us from our apartments," and cited an incident of her sister being evicted from an apartment in Minsk once belonging to Jews. Such complaints sometimes resulted in decisions against the Jews, even when their case was strong. There were tragic incidents in the fight for restitution of Jewish homes. What happened in Rechitsa, Gomel Region, in 1945 shocked the town. Tsipa Kaganovich, war widow and mother of two little daughters, won a lawsuit for her house on Proletarskaya Street. She took in a lodger, a village girl working in the town. One evening there was a knock on the door. Tsipa thought it was her lodger and opened the door. She was shot dead out of the darkness. The killer was never apprehended. The incident was hushed up and the children sent to an orphanage.
There were also cases of false testimony in court. Housing titles were questioned on grounds of nationalization after the Revolution. In Borisov, the Mazo brothers Aron and Yakov had a months-long litigation with state bodies over their houses on Dzerzhinskaya Street which were being used as shops. Judge Galina Akulich, who had been the Mazos' neighbor before the war, knew very well that the family possessed ownership but did not want to admit it. The action of watchmaker Motl Goldberg was at first dismissed, but upon applying to the Supreme Court of the BSSR, he won the case. Upon receiving notification of the decision, he cabled Minsk, expressing his gratitude to the Soviet court, "the most just court in the world". The Supreme Court, on the other hand, often passed decisions to reverse rulings of the district and local courts which had been in favor of Jews and rejected their complaints. In April 1946, the people's court of the 6th precinct of Minsk confirmed Yakov Shmulevich Zyglin's title to part of the house at 11 Sukhaya Street, which at that time was occupied by Valentina Osipchuk, Petr Ovsyankin and Olga Lipai. In October 1947, the Supreme Court of the BSSR reversed this decision and returned the case for a retrial. A new trial took place almost two years later. In June 1949, the people's court of the First precinct of the Kaganovich District of Minsk again decided in favor of Zyglin, but again, in May 1950, the Supreme Court dismissed his action as "groundless".
In the latter half of 1949, with complaints accumulating, Nikolai Gusarov, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Belorussian Communist Party, instructed the Prosecutor's Office to examine court decisions and rulings connected with citizens' rights violations of personal property. In an exercise of supervisory power, 935 civil cases were studied and 87 appeals filed. Most of the cases were decided against the Jews. The Prosecutor's Office pointed out that due to absence of documents lost under wartime circumstances, some courts had taken a formal approach to the matter. After this, in Minsk alone, eleven houses were given over to district Soviets. Moisei Teif applied to the courts, asking to establish rights to a certain house which had belonged to his sister Dora Levin, who had died in the ghetto. In October 1948, the people's court of the Second precinct of Minsk's Stalin District decided in his favor, but the BSSR Prosecutor's Office appealed the judgment and it was reversed, as groundless. In the same way, following an appeal by the BSSR Prosecutor's Office, there were reversals of the people's court ruling of the First precinct of Voroshilov D istrict regarding return of a house on 22 Zamkovaya Street to citizens Kaplan, Dreitser and Liubliperman, and of a decision by the Minsk regional court (May 1948) confirming the right of Samuil Volman to the house on 27, Ratomskaya Street, in the name of his wife, Yu. A. Lukina, who had died in the ghetto. BSSR Prosecutor A. Bondar informed the republic's leaders that at some trials representatives of Soviet District Executive Committees presented doctored reports concerning ownership of the houses in question. Most of the cases cited involved Jews (confirmation by Avraamets, inspector of Voroshilov District Department, that the house on 48 Komarovsky Lane in Minsk belonged to citizen Zukerman; the handing over to the state of two houses in Stolbenetsky Lane "misappropriated" by citizen Berezinskaya), and so on.
Pressure and intimidation by the authorities were used against people trying to aid in the fair examination of such cases; they were fired and even arrested. In December 1947, Alexander Steirin , chief architect of Moghilev, was sentenced to five years in prison. The charge: illegal issue of documents allowing removal of houses from the town's Soviet books on the basis of information obtained during the German occupation. This allowed for the construction of new housing without delay. The case involving Berta Shapiro evoked the greatest anguish. Steirin was accused of helping to "fabricate" a document confirming her title to houses 23, 23-a and 23-b on Verbovaya Street. Steirin wrote a draft decision to return the houses to Shapiro and had it endorsed by the Town Executive Committee. His actions were labeled "criminal" because the houses had actually belonged to her husband Iofan who, in 1937, was convicted for "counter-revolutionary activity" and his houses handed over to the local house management administration. David Haim-Ruvimovich Kisel, prosecutor of Voroshilov District in Minsk, supported cases involving restitution of housing to demobilized servicemen and their families. In April 1949, he had been expelled from the communist party for "subversive activities" (abuse of office) and on April 27, 1949, was arrested. He was put in a solitary cell of an investigative, pre-trial prison of the Ministry of National Security and pressure was placed on him to make him "confess." His past activities with the Minsk ghetto underground and his later position of company political leader of the Zhdanov partisan detachment in the Baranovichi group, were ignored. Even intervention by the BSSR Prosecutor Ivan Vetrov could not sway the court. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and an additional 5 years of rights deprivation. He served his sentence in Mordovia camps. In 1955, he was rehabilitated, acquitted of political charges but the abuse of office charge remained.
Jewish efforts to reclaim their property and housing lost during the war were very significant. To a great extent, the return to a normal peacetime life, their ability to overcome the horrors of the Holocaust and to muster the strength for a creative existence, hinged on this. Attitudes of the local populace and authorities towards their claim to what was rightfully theirs showed Jewish-non-Jewish relationships in a true light. The scope of devastation and housing crisis further exacerbated the problem. Most of the Jewish population of the Belorussian shtetls perished. German authorities in the occupied territories of the republic immediately declared Jewish property to be no one's property, or open to plunder. After the Nazi retreat, former Jewish houses were found to be occupied by neighbors who thought nobody would claim them. Thus, the few surviving Jews met with ill-concealed hostility rather than empathy. During occupation, Nazi propaganda had succeeded in inflating anti-Semitic sentiments. Against this background, the sympathy displayed and assistance given by some of the locals, who shared what little they had with their Jewish compatriots, were hard to overestimate. However, there was no government program to aid the Holocaust victims in adapting to peacetime life. Help by the authorities to returning Jews was arbitrary. The solution of pressing problems was entrusted to local authorities who, more often than not, were uninterested in a fair solution. As a result of this attitude, many Jewish families thought it best to leave their native regions for larger towns and cities, where they had relatives, and prospects of housing, employment or study. Only a few could prove their rights and regain their homes. Decades later, when national nihilism would assume threatening proportions jeopardizing the entire existence of the Belarus nation, the republic would come to see the consequences of this policy.
1. From a report of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus to the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party on loss of life and property suffered by the Belorussian SSR as a result of the German-fascist occupation, December 1, 1946. See: Prestuplenia nemetsko-fashistskih zahvatchikov v Belorussii (Crimes of the German fascist invaders in Belarus. A collection of documents) (Minsk, 1963), p.353.
2. Rossiiski tsentr hranenia, izuchenia i documentazii noveishei istorii (Russian Storage Center, Study and Documentation of Modern History (Russian abbreviation: RTsKhIDNI), fond 17, opis 88, delo 718, list 24.
3. Crimes of the German-fascist invaders in Belarus. A collection of documents (Minsk, 1963), p.353.
4. Dostizhenia Sovetskoi Belorussii za 40 let (Achievements of Soviet Belarussia in 40 years. A collection of statistical data) (Minsk, 1958), p.13.
5. Belorusskii gosudarstvennyi archiv (Belorussian State Archive (Russian abbreviation: BGA), fond 7021, opis 80, delo 111, list 2-4, 14-17, 21.
6. RTsKhIDNI, f.17, op.88, d.718, l.24.
7. BGA, f.119, op. 212, l. 230-231.
8. A.E.Kozlovskaya, Improvement of the Economic Situation of the Working Class, 1946-1970 (Minsk, 1987), p. 14.
9. RTsKhIDNI, f.17, op. 88, d. 718, l. 24.
10. Eighth Session of the BSSR Supreme Soviet. September 9-11, 1946 (Minsk, 1946), p.167.
11. Sovetskie evrei pishut Ilie Erenburgu (Soviet Jews Writing to Ilya Ehrenburg). Ed. By M.Altshuler, I.Arad, Sh.Krakovsky (Jerusalem, 1993), p.145.
12. Author's archive.
13. Ibid. Letter of Sara Semenovna Shklyar from Ashdod of May 3, 1998.
14. RTsKhIDNI, f.17, op.127, d. 478, l. 44.
15. Gosudarstvenyi arhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (State Archive of the Russian Federation) (Russian abbreviation: GARF), f .8114. op.1, d. 1053, l. 238-261.
16. Ibid., d. 792, l. 9.
17. RTsKhIDNI, f.17, op. 125, d .317, l. 288-292.
18. Evreiskii Antifashistski Comitet v SSSR, 1941-1948 (The USSR Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee. Documented History) (Moscow, 1996), pp. 95-98.
19. G.K.Zhukov, Razgrom nemetskich voisk v Belorussii (The Retreat of the German Troops in Belarus). Moscow, 1974, p.33.
20. Natsionalnyi arhiv Respubliki Belarus (National Archive of the Republic of Belarus) (Russian abreviation: NARB), f. 4, op.51, d.103, l. 296.
21. RTsKhIDNI, f. 17, op. 88, d. 718, l. 24.
22. L. Smilovitsky, Katastrofa evreev v Belorussii, 1941-1944 (Holocaust in Belarus, 1941-1944 (Tel Aviv, 2000), pp. 30-31.
23. Girsh Smolyar, "Serdechnaya" vstrecha evreiskich partizan v osvobozhdennom Minske ("Heartfelt" Welcome to Jewish Partisans in Liberated Minsk), Vozrozhdenie (Renaissance) (Jerusalem), Nos. 4-5, 1975, pp.178-183.
24. Boris Mlynsky, Ctranitsy zhizni vremen Katastrofy (Holocaust: Pages of Life) (Hadera, 1998), p.100.
25. NARB, f. 4, op. 51, d. 103, l. 298.
26. Ibid., f.4, op.51, d.103, l. 298.
27. Ibid., f.7, op.3, d.1786, l. 47.
28. RTsKhIDNI, f.17, op. 127, d. 478, l. 44.
29. L.Smilovitsky, Nazi Confiscation of Jewish Property in Belarus. Jews in Eastern Europe, (Jerusalem) No.1(37), 1998, pp. 75-79.
30. Author's Archive. Letter of Mikhail Sosensky from Jerusalem of April 4, 2000.
31. Ibid. Letter of Mikhail Barshai from Kiryat Gat of April 24, 2000.
32. Ibid. Letter of Maya Idova from Nazareth-Illit of March 12, 1998.
33. Nazistskoe zoloto iz Belarusi (Nazi Gold from Belarus). Documents and materials. Compiled by V.I. Adamushko, G.D. Knatko, N.A. Redkozubova, V.D. Selemenev (Minsk, 1998), 413 pp.
34. Author's Archive. Letter of Noah Melnik from Sderot of May 30, 2000.
35. GARF, f.8114. op.1, d.964, ll. 245, 249, 250, 257, 322.
36. Author's Archive. Letter of Mikhail Balte and Sara Ber from Rechitsa of January 20, 2000.
37. GARF, f. 8114. op.1, d .964, l. 131, 181.
38. Alexander Rosenblum, Pamiat na krovi (Memory of the Massacre) (Petah Tikva, 1998), p.123.
39. NARB, f. 845, op.1, d. 64, l. 35; GARF, f. 8114. op. 1, d. 964, l.340.
40. Mishpoha, No. 4, 1998, p. 53.
41. Author's Archive. Letter of Tsodik Rytov from Netanya of August 4, 1998.
42. Ibid. From the letter of Maria Rubinchik from Ashdod of April 27, 1998.
43. Ibid. Letter of Sarra Levina from Ashdod of March 28, 1998.
44. Ibid. Letters of Maria Galperina from Kiryat Yam of March 18 and 28, 1998.
45. Ibid. Record of a talk with Inna Belova (Mirkina) in Jerusalem on March 31, 2000.
46. A.Rubenchik, The Truth About the Minsk Ghetto (Tel Aviv, 1999), p.161.
47. Author's Archive. Record of a talk with Mark Davidovich Bernstein in Jerusalem, March 14, 2000.
48. Ibid. Letters of Dasha Plotkina from Ramat Gan of February 7 and March 5, 1998.
49. Basya Zhitnitskaya, A Life Lived with Hope (Ramat Gan, 1998) p.44.
50. Author's Archive. Letter of Veniamin Chernov from Tiberias of February 5, 1998.
51. Ibid. Letters of Rashel Kaplan from Ariel of March 15 and April 28, 1998. \
52. Ibid. Letter of Aron Peisakhovich from Carmiel of January 12, 1998.
53. Haverim, No.5, 1999, p. 3.
54. NARB, f.1, op.9, d.26, l. 10.
55. Author's Archive. From the letter of Maria Rubinchik from Ashdod of May 3, 1998.
56. A. Rosenblum, Memory of the Massacre (Petah Tikva, 1998), p.22.
57. NARB, f.4, op.53, d.17, ll. 1-3.
58. Ibid., ll.4-6.
59. Ibid.,op.62, d.72, l.500.
60. Ibid.,f.1, op.22, d.15, l.137.
61. Chernaya kniga s krasnymi stranitsami. Tragedia i geroizm evree Belorussii The Black Book with Red Pages. Tragedy and Heroism of Belorussian Jews), by V.Levin and L.Meltser (Baltimore, 1996), p.134, erroneously gives the date of David Kisel's arrest as August 9, 1945.
*The English translation of this article was made possible by a generous contribution of the American Jewish Distribution Committee
Copyright © 2002 Belarus SIG, the publishers of East European Jewish Affairs, and Leonid Smilovitsky
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