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[Page 7]


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.

[Page 21]

Author's Foreword

The extermination of Jews in the occupied territory was one of Germany's major objectives in its war against the Soviet Union. Their physical annihilation was seen by the nazi regime as a way to crush the Soviet state and prepare the ground for making it a German colony. Nazi propaganda presented Jews as enemies of the German people, and bolshevism as a veiled form of Jewish dictatorship. Hitler declared that the extermination of Jews first in Europe and subsequently throughout the world was his goal. Following the signing on August 23, 1939, of the treaty on non-aggression between the two countries (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact), the German anti-Semitic policy began to be hushed up in the Soviet Union. The underlying doctrine of the Red Army was not defensive action but an offensive war waged on the enemy territory. Therefore, no provision for the evacuation of the population had been made. Immediately after the war broke out Belorussia became the scene of fierce fighting as it was the territory on which the Centre group of the German armies were advancing to Moscow, the main direction of their thrust. The swiftness of the German offensive made it impossible for most of the Jews to flee. Besides, they identified themselves with other Soviet people. In the newly-annexed areas of Western Belorussia and Western Ukraine, in the Baltic republics and Bessarabia the frontier guards did not let the population across the “old border”. The time factor was very important because it was only after some time that people began to realize the imminent danger. Minsk was occupied on June 28, 1941. Its leadership secretly left the city on the evening of June 24, 1941, without declaring evacuation. As a result, nearly 100,000 Jews were killed. The figures for some other cities and towns are: Vitebsk - some 20,000 out of 37,000 (occupied on July 11, 1941), Moghilev -10,000 out of 20,000 (occupied on July 27, 1941), Gomel - 4,000 out of 40,000 (occupied on August 19, 1941).

It was in Belorussia that the nazi mechanism of wholesale murder of Jews was first tested. At the same time, many ghettoes became centres of resistance. Underground organizations were active in the ghettoes of Minsk, Baranovichi, Bobruisk, Brest, Grodno, Slonim, Vileika and others. Ghetto inmates maintained contacts with partisans, collected medicaments, weapons, ammunition and intelligence and smuggled combat-capable young people out into the woods. In some ghettoes, uprisings erupted on the day preceding mass executions: Nesvizh (July 22, 1942), Mir (August 9, 1942), Lakhva (September 3, 1942), Kamenets (September 9, 1942), Kletsk (July 21, 1943). Inmates offered armed resistance in the Glubokoe, Kobrin, Novogrudok, Lyakhovichi and other ghettoes.

Partisan movement played a significant part in saving Jewish lives. However, until the spring of 1942 the situation of the partisans was desperate. Their small, poorly armed detachments lacked liaison and the backing of the population. They acted separately, taking shelter in remote areas difficult of access. Moreover, meeting partisans did not always mean salvation for Jews. As often as not, they were seen as a burden. Old people, women and children, the sick and the undernourished were ill-suited for life in the woods and impeded the actions of partisans. Knowing that to escape death was well-nigh impossible for the Jews, partisans often suspected them of being German spies sent in to poison wells and kill partisan leaders. A great number of partisans sympathized with the Jews and regarded them as their comrades-in-arms. Still, anti-Semitism was rife in their ranks. Throughout the war, the Soviet leadership in Moscow kept extolling Russian patriotism, thus enhancing the nationalist slant in Soviet ideology which in a certain way found expression in the activities of partisans in Belorussia in 1941-1944.

Jews who had escaped from ghettoes joined the ranks of many Belorussian partisan detachments. They took part in combat, the “rail war”, ambushesand reconnaissance, gathered intelligence, did propaganda work, acted as physicians and radio operators, repaired weapons, got provisions, mended shoes and clothing, worked in laundries and took care of the wounded. One form of their resistance was family camps and detachments, something no other European Resistance had. It was the idea of Anatoly (Tuvya) Belsky of Novogrudok who organized the escapes from many Western Belorussian ghettoes to Naliboki Forest. Another big Jewish camp, under Sholom Zorin, operated 30 km from Minsk. Their main objective was not only resistance to nazis but also saving Jews. Many of such family camps suffered heavy losses and were ultimately destroyed. Some could stand their ground and survived. The composition of partisan detachments in Belorussia reflected the multinational character of the republic's population. In the western regions there were Polish, Belorussian and mixed Belorussian-Polish detachments with Jewish fighters in each of them. Part of the Polish antifascist groups cooperated with Belorussian partisans. The “Armia Krajowa” and the “Narodowe Sily Zbrojne” (People's Armed Forces) acted independently. They treated the Jews as pro-Soviet elements. In the summer and spring of 1943, they victimized Jews in the forests of Lipichany, Naliboki, Rudensk, Naroch and Bryansk.

The fate of Jewish children is an inalienable part of the Holocaust history. Lack of experience and physical strength made them the most vulnerable victims of anti-Semitism, which hit them hardest. They could not explain the phenomenon of anti-Semitism but felt that they were doomed. Death was stalking children of mixed marriages: the Nazis demanded that they should be given away. At the same time, children had an edge on the adults because their reactions to changing situations were quicker. In some cases they had a stronger striving to survive than the adults and the behavioural habits they had developed often made their actions more useful. It is not fortuitous that partisans often used children as guides, scouts and liaison men who got into the ghettoes and took adults out to the woods. After the war ended, great-power Russian chauvinism became more pronounced. The authorities obstructed the re-evacuation of Jews and return of their property, and limited their job opportunities. A shortage of housing, acute as it was before the war, had dramatically increased. Communal services and amenities did not function, the housing resources were only a fraction of their prewar level. Hostilities had made some three millions people homeless. The situation was hardest for the Jews. Most of them were all alone, having lost their relations who had either been killed in action or executed in ghettoes. They were mostly widows, children or old people. They did not have any property, not even the essential things for daily life. Houses and apartments in which they lived before the war had been either destroyed, burnt down or looted. The housing that remained suitable to live in was arbitrarily occupied either by non-Jews or by state organizations. The absence of documents lost during the war made it very difficult to prove one's right to certain living quarters. For Jews, reinstatement in their possessions was an important factor in adaptation to peacetime life.

In the post-war years Jews had to cope with new problems: refusal to admit that the Holocaust had taken place and that by fighting on the battlefield and working at munitions factories in the rear Jews had contributed to victory over Germany. Various groundless obstacles were raised to perpetuating the memory of the Jewish dead. In many cases, the burial place of the genocide victims remained unmarked. In others, instead of the word “Jews”, the standard monuments erected by local authorities on common graves bore the inscription “peaceful civilians” or “Soviet citizens”. Whenever the relatives of the Jewish victims made an attempt to perpetuate their memory on their own, the local authorities refused to take the prospective monuments under state protection and were trying to make them do without the words “Jew” and “ghetto”, as well as inscriptions in Yiddish, let alone Hebrew. The Russian Federation and Ukraine pursued the same policies.

Listed in the concluding part of the book is Ilya Ehrenburg's hitherto unknown address to the session the of Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (Russian abbreviation EAK) held in Moscow on July 26, 1944. He spoke about the Holocaust in Belorussia. The document was found in the State Archive of the Russian Federation (Russian abbreviation GARF) in 1998. The EAK's mission was to inform the world public about the German policy of genocide of the Jewish people  and raise funds for the war effort. After the committee was disbanded in November 1948, all its documents were confiscated and then kept in the archive of the USSR Ministry of State Security for decades. In 1944, Ilya Ehrenburg was among the first witnesses of the wholesale murder in Trostenets, fourth largest death camp after Auschwits, Majdanek and Treblinka. He visited Minsk, then Rakov, Ivenets, Molodechno, Smorgon and Vilno. His account of this trip produces a tremendous impression and adds to the gruesome picture of German genocide.

Until the late 1980s, the Holocaust was a subject carefully avoided in the USSR. The traditions of professed Soviet internationalism ran counter to highlighting a catastrophe of some one ethnic group. It was taken for granted that Russia and other former soviet republics had lost so many Russians, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, etc., that it was improper to focus on the genocide of Jewish people. The extermination of Soviet Jews was regarded exclusively in light of the USSR-German confrontation and the term “genocide” was avoided for the 15 years immediately following the end of the second world war. The mass murder of Jews was ascribed not to their belonging to a definite ethnic group, but to the fact that they were Soviet people.

In Belorussia, whose losses during the war were heavier than in any other Soviet republic, the German policy of genocide of civilians had been studied comprehensively enough. Yet, no special mention of Jewish victims was made. Belorussian historiography persists in its methodological mistake by claiming that the tragedy of the Jewish people was part of the tragedy of the Belorussian people, even though the nazis never killed Belorussians just for being ethnic Belorussians. The subject of the Holocaust has long been drawing the attention of researchers. The first publications, essentially memories, appeared in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian and English back in the late 1940s and in the 1950s. They describe the experience of former ghetto inmates who went all the way from the ghetto to freedom and participation in the Resistance. These works are in many respects naive, superficial and tendentious. However, they contain invaluable factual material, convey the atmosphere of the epoch and arouse the reader's empathy. The 1960s-1990s decades saw monographs and serious studies on the Holocaust published mostly in Israel and in the West. They can be divided along several lines: the period immediately preceding the Holocaust, publications of documents and materials on the nazi policy towards the Jews, history of ghettoes, Jewish Resistance, and acts of genocide.

In what was the Soviet Union, literature on the history of the Holocaust did not appear until 1991. Lacking archive materials, Western historiography had to keep away from the subject in the immediate postwar years. The result was an information gap which was being quickly filled in the 1990s. The most valuable research was made by Israeli scholars and their colleagues in Western Europe and the United States. Articles, reviews, reminiscences, collections of documents and monographs on the Holocaust published in 1996-1999 differ from the earlier works a great deal as regards professional level, depth of analysis, understanding the purport of events, and authenticity. The most striking contrast present works written in Belorussia. They combine serious research and emotions. A great part of the cited facts are based on oral accounts unsubstantiated by documents and are difficult to check. The relations between Jews and non-Jews on the occupied territory is an entirely new aspect in Russian-language historiography. Access to archives since the mid-1990s has greatly enriched the Holocaust historiography in Belorussia. Documents on the history of the Holocaust, lists of ghetto victims, descriptions of partisan actions in which Jews took part, lists of monuments on common graves, etc., began to appear in the Pamyat' (Memory) series of documented chronicles of Belorussian towns and districts which have been published since 1987.

On the whole, despite no dearth of literature on the Holocaust in Belorussia, only the first steps have been made towards serious research on the subject. Conceptual works are conspicuous by their absence. Those published are largely descriptive and lack an insight into the far-reaching implications of the phenomenon. There are no teams of researchers and no international cooperation of scholars working on the subject. Joint effort could promote mutual understanding and help arrive at common conclusions. We are yet to establish in what way the Holocaust in Belorussia differs from the Holocaust in other areas of the Soviet Union and East European countries, find an explanation to the relations between Jews and non-Jews in the occupied territory, show the contribution of the Jewish people to the Resistance movement, count the losses suffered by the Jewish population of Belorussia, and do much more.

The monograph The Holocaust in Belorussia, 1941-1944 contains the main text, a collection of documents, references, a glossary of the main terms and names mentioned, and geographic and name indexes. The research is based on archive materials deposited in National Archive of the Republic of Belarus, region archives of Minsk, Brest, Grodno, Vitebsk and Gomel, Archive of the Belarus State Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War, State Archive of the Russian Federation, Russian Centre for Storing and Studying Documents of Modern History, Russian State Archive of Economy Centre for Research and Documentation of East European Jewry, Archive of the Institute of the Contemporary Jewry of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Central Archive of the People of Israel, Central Zionist Archive, Yad Vashem Institute Archive (Jerusalem). Along with archive materials, data obtained from periodicals, collections of documents, statistics materials, recollections of eyewitnesses and participants in the events of the time, results of the polls conducted by the author, and monographs by scholars from Israel, Great Britain, United States of America, Germany, Belarus, Russia and other countries were used.

Valuable help and moral support in organizing my research came from scholars: Professor Mattityahu Mintz, Professor Ya'akov Rio's, Professor Aharon Opрenheimer, Professor Dina Porat, Irena Kantorovich (Tel Aviv University), Professor Benjamin Pinkus (Ben Gurion University in the Negev), Professor Mordehai Altshuler, Dr. Shaul Stampher, Dr. Mikhail Beizer, Dr. Israel Koen, Daniel Romanovsky, (Hebrew University in Jerusalem), Dr. Shmuel Krakowsky, Dr. Itshak Arad, Dr. Aharon Shneer, Rita Margolin (Yad Vashem). I am extending my heartfelt gratitude to them. Important advice and suggestions were made by Dr. Howard Spier (London Institute of Jewish Policy Research), Dr. Miсhael Gelb (the Research Institute, United States Holocaust Museum), Dr. Pinchas Agmon (Beit Lohamei ha-Ghettaot) and Eliahy Valk (first Israeli Ambassador in Belarus).

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