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Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky
“Holocaust in Belorussia, 1941-1944” (Tel Aviv, 2000)

Preface by Daniel Romanovsky

   The book by Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky is the first careful systematic study of the history of the Holocaust in Belorussia written in Russian. The historiography of the Holocaust has been in existence for some 50 years, but in the USSR/CIS no works on the subject appeared until 1988, as in the period from 1948 to 1987 the subject had been tabooed. As a matter of fact, the Belorussian chapter in the history of the Nazi genocide of European Jews is yet to be written not only in Belorussia but in the West and in Israel as well. The historians had no sources to re-create or analyze the events: documents on the genocide of Jews stored in state archives were kept confidential while the eyewitnesses of the Holocaust, both Jewish and non-Jewish, could not have their reminiscences published.
     Today many Soviet archive documents have been declassified. However, neither in the West nor in Israel has the historiography of the Holocaust in Belorussia made its appearance. Lately, there has been a veritable rush of Western historians to the Moscow, Minsk and Kiev archives. But what they are looking for is not evidence of the Holocaust, partisan reports or materials of postwar investigations on the territories formerly occupied by the German troops. It is only to be regretted that what most of the Western historians are interested in are captured German documents kept in Soviet "special archives" (the now accessible Goebbels' diaries made a sensation in the West). The Holocaust in Belorussia and Ukraine has remained a blank spot in the historiography of the second world war.
     Serious research into the history of the Holocaust in Belorussia can be expected to come from historians for whom the subject is presumably of greater interest - those who live or were born in Belorussia or are of Belorussian descent. No Belorussian historian belonging in any of the above categories has yet published what might be called a history of the Holocaust. All that has been written on the subject in Russian and Belorussian deals, strictly speaking, with regional studies rather than history. There is a plethora of works describing events that occurred in some locality, town or settlement. Publications that have appeared in the past decade are also essentially descriptive and lack any analysis or interpretation of events. Dr. Smilovitsky's monograph is testimony to the fact the Holocaust studies have at last entered the stage of interpreting and conceptualizing the material amassed.
     There may be two ways of writing a history of the Holocaust. One way is meticulously to describe the events as they were occurring - day by day and region by region. The other way is to try to disclose the inner logic and interdependence of the events (ignoring for the time being when and where they took place), analyze, typologies them and interpret them in a wider historical context. Dr. Smilovitsky has chosen the second way. The chapters in his monograph are arranged not chronologically or geographically but according to such aspects of the history of the Holocaust in Belorussia as the impact of the Holocaust on the Belorussian Jews' demography and their survival under the ghetto and genocide conditions; confiscation of Jewish property by the Nazis; resistance to genocide and the participation of Jews in the Belorussian Resistance in general; sources and historiography; postwar efforts to perpetuate the memory of the Holocaust victims an the counteraction to these efforts on the part of the Soviet authorities. In one chapter an attempt is made at re-creating events in some localities on the basis of the meager archive materials available; there is a section devoted to Rechitsa, the author's birth town.
     The monograph is not meant to whitewash or justify any of the dramatics personae of the Holocaust in Belorussia, including the Jews and their non-Jewish milieu, which, it must be noted, is a feature of the Holocaust historiography in present-day Ukraine, Russia, Poland and some other countries. Nor does the author condemn out of hand the "Gentiles" who turned their backs on the Jews and were thriving under the Nazi regime. Censuring such people, to which Western and Israeli historiographies of the Holocaust tended in the 1970s, has found expression in Claude Lanzman's documentary "Shoa" (Holocaust) in the 1980s. Dr. Smilovitsky is not passing over in silence the tense relations between Jews and Belorussians during the German occupation but is trying to get at the root of this phenomenon. The collision between the Jewish ghetto escapees and Soviet partisans who refused to let them join partisan detachments is common knowledge today. The author attributes it to a) weakness of the partisan detachments in 1941 and early 1942 when Jews would be a burden to them; b) the misconception, widespread among the partisans, that "all Jews had already been killed and the survivors could only be German spies"; besides, partisans refused to believe that the stories of escapes from ghettoes told by Jews could be true; c) anti-Semitism of some partisan commanders and Slav nationalism inculcated by Moscow come only third.
     The author has studied and summarized in his monograph a tremendous amount of material not limited to archive documents and eyewitness accounts - most Belorussian researchers into the history the Holocaust in the USSR base their works precisely on these. He knows very well the literature dealing with the Nazi occupation of Belorussia and covering in one way or another the fate of the Jews. German documents, on which many works on the Holocaust published in the West are based, are used only sparingly, as such documents are of little use to a researcher whose sphere of interest is the fate of the Jewish victims of genocide, their relations with the non-Jewish population, and Resistance. In this sense Dr. Smilovitsky's book can be seen as a counterweight to the works of J. Buechler, J. Kraussnik, A. Streim, H. Herlach, U. Matteus, Kr. Browning and others who, while describing events which took place in Belorussia, fully ignore the fate of Jewish victims and focus on the Germans who did the killing of Jews, on their actions, official correspondence, and how they felt about what they were doing.
     Speaking of the shortcomings of the monograph one must note its somewhat fragmentary character, as it is to some extent based on the articles published in scientific journals (“Yalkut Moreshet”, “Shvut”, “Jews of East Europe”, “East European Jewish Affairs”, “Holocaust and Genocide Studies”, etc.). The logical connection between chapters is in some cases hard to trace. Some aspects of the history of the Holocaust are not mentioned at all. There are passages overburdened with details, which are only superficially typologized. The chapter re-creating events in certain localities on the basis of the documents of the Extraordinary State Commission and citing eyewitness accounts of the genocide must be supplied with a more detailed historical comment. Despite the above-mentioned, there is every ground to say that the author has successfully coped with his task. His work is a history of the Holocaust as seen by a person who was born and spent his formative years in Belorussia and who knows and understands its history. It is a history of the Holocaust as seen in Belorussia, not in Germany, the U.S. or the Jerusalem "Mea Shearim" district.
     Hopefully, this work will be followed by others. We wish the author every success.

© 2003 Belarus SIG