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[Page 102]

Chapter 2

Resistance to the Policy of Genocide

1. The battle in the ghetto of Minsk

This section was originally published as The Minsk Ghetto: An Issue of Jewish Resistance,
in Shvut, No 1-2, (17-18), 1995, pp. 177-199 (Tel Aviv University)

And is reprinted here with permission from:

Prof David Katz, The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center, Tel Aviv University
Prof. Yehuda Gradus, The Ben-Gurion Research Institute, Ben Gurion University


The Germans thought that Jews were a target.
They saw that the target fired back.
A number of dead Germans could have told how Jews fought.
Down with figures. Blood cannot be weighed!

Ilya Ehrenburg[1]


The National Archive of the Republic of Belarus (NARB) contains a substantial number of documents reflecting the development of the former Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic since 1917. Our research focuses on the organization and workings of the communist resistance in Belorussian territories occupied by Nazi troops from 1941 until 1944. For fifty years, the partisan struggle in the BSSR was considered honorable, important and even “ceremonial.” Many former partisan unit commanders and commissars became Communist Party and state functionaries; they headed the press organs, the republican KGB (State Security Committee) - in fact, all the top positions in Belorussia. Postwar historians presented World War II and the anti-Nazi resistance movement exclusively “in light of the present-day situation,” which meant eliminating all doubtful and contradictory elements. Frequently, this “reality editing” went as far as direct forgery. Belorussian historical science, like all Soviet Belorussian politics, could not be independent; it was incessantly and rigidly controlled by Moscow.

The principal peculiarity of the Soviet system was the presence of Communist elements in all of its structures. Therefore, the history of the Communist party is the history of the emergence, development and disintegration of the Utopia, the real consequences of which have not been perceived until now. The right to be involved in party history was strictly limited to especially trustworthy persons. Those historians who were “honored” to deal with these issues had to become party members. Their conclusions were strictly controlled; they had to receive official references in order to be published, to be recommended by scientific boards and councils in order to defend a thesis for a scientific degree, etc. In addition, special permission from the KGB was a prerequisite to access documents. Thus, having secured a total cover-up, the party and state leaders assumed that their monopoly on the truth was absolute and would not be broken by anybody.

Party cadre policy, including national policy was engulfed by an especially mysterious atmosphere. Today, this has been clarified by a large number of documents in the NARB, which inherited the archives of the BSSR Communist Party Central Committee History Institute, as well as regional party archives. These documents show a genuine Jewish face - the participation of rank-and-file Jewish communists, most of whom were neither state nor party functionaries - in the struggle against Nazism. They also illuminate the CPB Jewish policy during the Soviet-German war (called, according to official Soviet historical terminology, the Great Patriotic War), as well as the attitude of Soviet citizens toward Belorussian Jewry, toward the Nazis' policy, and toward the Jewish resistance.

Sociological Profile of the Jewish Fighters

This article is based on an analysis of questionnaires completed by 20 Jewish BSSR communists who were trapped behind enemy lines during 1941-1943. They were not just observers, waiting passively for their destruction and hoping for a miraculous liberation; they bravely withstood the enemy. The degree of their participation in the resistance depended on their age, sex, health, family status, etc.

During 1942-1943, all of them managed to leave the ghetto and join the partisan movement. Immediately upon the liberation of Belorussia in July 1944, they applied to Communist Party bodies for restoration of their membership. Besides the questionnaires, we studied applications, explanatory notes, testimonies, service records, award certificates and other documents. All these materials, along with data obtained from the Central State Archives of the Republic Belarus (former TsGAOR BSSR), Belarus State Historical Museum of the Great Patriotic War (former BGMIVOV), modern literature and the press paint a picture of active anti-Nazi resistance of Belarussian Jews.

The overwhelming majority of the respondents -18 out of 20 - did not belong to the generation of young people of steel (Stalin's falcons) who had been brought up in the pre-war spirit of communist absolutism and expectations of world revolution. Only 3% of those born in 1921-1923 survived.[2] Most of our respondents were born near the beginning of the century (1902-1910); only Zinovii Grigorievich Smol'sky and Nadezhda Grigorievna Shusser were born earlier, in 1883 and 1896, respectively. Thus, when the war began, these people were aged 30-40. They had seen and experienced much; they had been witnesses to and dramatic personae of the political campaigns and economic arbitrariness of the Bolsheviks, the NKVD organs of mass terror and the Iosif Stalin personality cult. A dozen of the respondents were workers; eight were officials. According to Marxist dogma, revolutions were performed by proletariat. So Roza Abramovna Levina began her career as a fixer at the Voroshilov plant; Esphir' Mendelevna Krivosheina worked at the Telmann shoe factory; David Ruvimovich Kiesel worked at the Krasnyi Khimik (Red Chemist) factory, etc.[3]

Nine respondents had served in the Soviet management apparatus, or as engineers, technicians, teachers, culture workers, physicians, librarians, lawyers, etc. Lea Gots was a teacher at one of the Minsk schools, Giller Shteiman was a vice-manager of the Maxim Gorky Central Culture and Recreation park; Sonia Disner was a special department manager at the Kaganovich factory; Rivka Ekkel'chik was a manager at the Krupskaia factory club; Anna Sagal'chik was a bakery technological specialist; Lisa Rys' was chairwoman of the BSSR Food Supply Administration Trade Union Committee; Maria Karantaer managed a department of the Lenin BSSR Central State Library; Matvei Dordik was the montage office manager at the Belorussia Film Factory; and Rachel Grodner was Glavlit (state censorship authority) representative at Zviazda (The Star) and Sovetskaia Belorussia.

All of them were educated at Soviet study institutions as vydvizhentsy (people promoted by worker's collectives) from their previous workplaces, and were transferred to category of sovsluzhashchie (Soviet officials). This corresponded to the state educational selection policy that forbade education for netrudovye elementy (non-labor elements) and those who came from socially alien strata--including priests, nepmans (profiteers during the new economic policy) and their children. Sovsluzhashchie, irrespective of their national origin, were to some extent deprived of the state's confidence. They were obliged to work especially hard so that they would not be suspected of disloyalty. All of the respondents were Belorussian Communist Party members. Twelve out of 20 had joined the party during the transitional epoch when the Civil War ended and the republic changed course from military communism to the New Economic Policy, which, subsequently, in turn, was victimized for the sake of Stalinist collectivization, industrialization and cultural revolution. Seven were accepted in the pre-war years (1937-1941) when the old Bolsheviks had been done away with, the purges and political “witch-hunts” had been stopped, and the party needed replenishment.

At the Beginning of the War

The outbreak of the war on June 22, 1941, came as a surprise to all of the respondents, without exception. The population was totally confused by the official Soviet propaganda after the Non-Aggression Pact between the USSR and Germany on August 23,1939, the Soviet-German Treaty about Friendship and Borders of September 29, 1939, and the TASS (Soviet Telegraph Agency) statement of June, 14,1941 (denouncing “provocative rumors” about a possible Soviet-German war). The events during the third week of June happened so swiftly and unpredictably, so paradoxically from the viewpoint of both ordinary people and the authorities, that the real situation was known to no one.

Matvei Lazarevich Kaplan, who participated directly in the events, provides eyewitness testimony. In a letter to the author in September 1993, he related that he had been in a group of prominent Jewish engineers and technicians in Minsk who were given an urgent task to erect a new command post and shelter for government and party leaders. They worked day and night for three days without a break, until the post was finished. Top officials visited the post, including CC CPB First Secretary P.K. Ponomarenko, Belorussian Military District Commander D.G. Pavlov and People's Commissar of the Interior L. Tsanava. They held a long meeting; after a barbaric bombardment by the German air force, they departed, having ordered their assistants to evacuate their families from their country houses in the direction of Mogilev. No arrangements were made for the workers, engineers and service staff; all of them were confined in the Jewish ghetto in Minsk, and virtually all of them perished.[4]

This episode illustrates the leaders' cynical disregard of the “great Soviet people” to whom they had vowed fidelity. Our respondents, like the rest of the inhabitants of Minsk, were in fact left to themselves. Nobody warned them, none of them could leave Minsk immediately. Some were waiting for special instructions from party committees, regional Soviet councils or the city's military commandant. They were reluctant to leave for fear of being accused of desertion, spreading panic and cowardice, which were punishable under wartime laws. Some believed that everything would settle down and the enemy would be thrown back and destroyed in his own territory. Some stayed in the burning city because of illness or concern for their relatives.

Some of the respondents made their escape attempts too late and were stopped by the encircling German forces; they were compelled to return to the already occupied city. Maria Karantaer had a seven year-old child, sick with pneumonia, on her hands. She waited until June 25, 1941, for his health to improve, but to no avail. So she set out on foot, but could walk only as far as Osipovichi.[5] David Kiesel left Minsk with a group of fellow workers from a radio factory when he realized that there was no one left to issue an evacuation order. He was stopped by German troops at the Koliadichi station of the Belorussian Railroads.[6]

Esphir' Krivosheina escaped from the city under bombardment with her three children, one a baby. She managed to reach the village of Bobr in the Krupki region, where she hid with her husband's relatives, but then had to return to Minsk.[7] Anna Sagal'chik fled with her parents during the ninth month of her pregnancy. In a forest four kilometers before Cherven', she went into labor on the night of June 28, gave birth to a child, and spent two weeks in a peasant's cabin; then she had to return to Minsk with the baby.[8]

Liubov' Beznosova tried to escape with two children and her blind 70-year-old father. After walking 50 kilometers along the Mogilev highway, she realized the hopelessness of the situation and turned back on July 2.[9] Nadezhda Shusser was working as a master at the Kim sewing factory until the evening of June 24. She had been extinguishing German incendiary bombs on the factory's roof. On June 25, the administration declared the factory closed and the workers disbanded. With a group of friends, she wandered the woods in search of a way through the encirclement. Out of strength and realizing that she would not be able to make it, she returned to Minsk.[10]

On June 23, Rachel Grodner received a telegram from her sister Sarah, a student at Belorussia State University, that she was returning to Minsk from her training course in the Caucasus. Her family did not want to leave without Sarah who arrived on June 27; one day later, German troops occupied Minsk.[11] Rivka Ekkel'chik had a liver operation on June 24, so she stayed at the hospital until the morning of June 28 . Realizing that the hospital staff had fled and she was alone, she left the hospital and found a temporary shelter in the Kirov kolkhoz until June 15. When the Germans arrived and she became aware that her presence endangered her hosts, she walked to Minsk.[12]

Thus, the respondents, among thousands of residents of Minsk, tried to leave the burning city at the end of June 1941. They could not save their property, and were able to take no more than a little food, some money (usually, quite modest savings), medicines, some clothes and documents. Under normal circumstances, a Party membership card was considered to be the most important document. It embodied the credit of the Soviet state. It distinguished the bearer from others, and enabled promotion in the hierarchy. To a Jew, party membership meant formal equality in rights and duties with non-Jews in the population. In pre-war Belorussia, Jews constituted almost 40% of the population.[13] They were involved in all spheres of the republic's economy and culture, and participated actively in the party, Soviet, trade union and public structures. Therefore, their Communist Party membership was quite natural; in January 1941, Jews accounted for 20% of the Belorussian Communist Party.[14]

But when the war started, carrying a party card became mortally dangerous. Word spread that the German fascists were eliminating, without trial, all political commissars, party functionaries and rank and file communists. So the respondents decided to get rid of their party documents. Some hid the cards, some gave them to relatives and acquaintances for safekeeping, but most destroyed them. Liubov' Beznosova, Rivka Ekkel'chik, David Kiesel, Esphir' Krivosheina and Liubov' Cherlova buried their party cards in the settlements in the country where they found temporary shelter, or where they were caught by the German invasion during their flight from Minsk. Anna Sagal'chik hid her card in the attic of the peasant house in Cherven' where she stayed after giving birth; subsequently, the house was burnt down. Red Army soldier Matvey Dordik was wounded in December 1941 near Viaz'ma, and lost his party card in the hospital during its occupation by the enemy. Grigory Dobin burned his card while he and his unit were trying to fight their way out from the encirclement in West Belorussia. Nadezhda Shusser, Giller Shteiman and Lea Gots destroyed the evidence of their party membership in the ghetto; Maria Zaiats destroyed hers in her Minsk apartment.

There were extraordinary cases in which people preserved their party cards in occupied Minsk, in the ghetto or in a partisan party during the war-and then, after Belorussia was liberated, handed them in to party bodies. This was what Zinovii Smol'skii and Rachel Grodner did. The latter managed not only to keep her party card, but also to preserve the party and komsomol documents of her brother and sister.[15]

Life in the Ghetto

On July 20, 1941, the German authorities established a Jewish ghetto in Minsk.[16] All of the Jews were ordered to move within five days to the streets Kolkhoznaia, Nemiga, Respublikanskaia, Shornaia, Kollektornaia, Perekopskaia, Obuvnaia and Zaslavskaia, and the lanes Kolkhoznyi, Mebel'nyi and Vtoroi Opanskii. All non-Jews were ordered, under penalty of death, to leave that area immediately. A Judenrat, or Zhidovskaia Rada (Jewish Council) was established for internal administration of the ghetto and to arrange for the fulfillment German orders. Within 12 hours after the order, the Minsk Jews were to pay the city council 30,000 tchervonets; to secure this, hostages were taken. According to an eyewitness, historian Prof. Aleksander Khatskevich, the ghetto was surrounded by thick rows of barbed wire. Watchtowers were erected and round-the-clock surveillance was established. Periodically, armed groups of police and gendarmes patrolled the fence. Those who dared to come close to the barbed-wire fence trying to trade things for food were shot on the spot.[17]

Soon, the ghetto population was complemented by Jews brought from surrounding villages. The place became terribly overcrowded. A living space of 1.5 sq. m. was allotted for each person, with none for children. Thousands of forlorn, hungry creatures, trembling with fear, huddled among the ruins of destroyed or gutted houses without floors and with gaping holes instead of windows.[18] Within a few months, 25,000 Jewish refugees from Western Belorussia and Poland arrived at the ghetto, in addition to the 75,000 Jews from Minsk. Between November 1941 and October 1942, 35,442 more deportees came from Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia.[19] Yakov Grinshtein recalls that the Minsk ghetto had a horrible appearance. Toward the end of the autumn of 1941, people were pale and shaking with cold. For firewood, they used demolished houses, fences, tree stumps. The streets were covered with dirty, trampled snow. There were no yards. The old wooden buildings looked hostile and strange, their broken windows covered with dirty rags or wrinkled cardboard. The looks of the Jews matched that of their houses. It seemed that life itself had abandoned these human beings, ragged and hungry, hardly dragging along their inhuman existence.[20] During the war, more than 100 ghettos and 150 extermination camps were set up.[21] According to General Commandant Wilhelm Kube's order, a special regime was introduced in Minsk and other cities. It was “strongly forbidden to support Bolshevik bands and their adherents, transmit information and personal observations to them, as well as give them money, food, clothes, medicines, shelter, lodging for the night, etc.”[22] The order instructed everyone to inform the authorities immediately about suspicious-looking people. Those who cooperated with the authorities were awarded money, vodka, papiroses (Russian cigarettes) and makhorka (crude tobacco). Peasants who distinguished themselves against the partisans were allotted individual farms.

A curfew in Minsk was in force from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.; in other Belorussian cities it began at 9 p.m., and in the countryside it ended at 4 a.m. All persons over 14 were obliged to carry identity cards. House and apartment owners had to prominently display a list of their residents.[23] In order to save their families from starvation, the respondents were obliged to work. Jobs were distributed by the Judenrat Labor Exchange in Iubileinaia square, but very often people just managed as best as they could. The Minsk ghetto existed until October 21, 1943. Its relatively long duration was due to two reasons. First, it was a source of cheap labor for the Germans. Second, it had a great number of prisoners whom the Germans could conveniently liquidate in repeated “actions.” by Wilhelm Kube, in his report of July 31, 1942, to Ostland Reichskommissar Gauleiter Heinrich Lose, wrote:[24]

In Minsk, the greatest concentration of Jews would be preserved in the future as well, owing to the concentration of a large number of military facilities and the exceedingly important role of the railway transport in this region... Naturally, land SD would prefer that the Jewry in the principal area of Belorussia be completely eliminated as soon as its labor is no longer needed by the Wehrmacht. Currently, however, the needs of the Wehrmacht - the major consumer of Jewish labor-should be taken into account.

The ghetto prisoners suffered from unbearable working conditions without hygiene or medical aid, and suffered beatings, hunger and humiliation. To disguise and justify their inhuman policy, the Nazis made broad use of antisemitic propaganda. They skillfully blamed the Jews for the crimes of Iosif Stalin during the pre-war years and the blunders of the Bolshevik policy. The antisemitic theme has a long and sad history. Nevertheless, even an experienced researcher cannot remain emotionless in view of the Nazis' anti-Jewish propaganda. One of the numerous leaflets distributed in Minsk and the rest of the country was titled “Who Are Your Enslavers?” The upper part asked all non-Jews “if the Yids and their communists allies were guilty of the fact that Belorussian soil was “covered with torrents of tears and blood?” That Belorussians were stripped of their last shirt? That they bereft of bread, that they were reported to the NKVD and dispossessed as kulaks? That they were thrown to rot in Stalinist camps and prisons, tortured in NKVD chambers?” The lower part of the leaflet bore a positive answer, headed by the words “NEVER FORGET!” Belorussians were told to remember forever that “Jews were the bitterest enemies” of their people, and communist propaganda was nothing but a means for the “Jewish domination of the world.”[25]

In the pre-war period, Belorussian Jewry was one of the most active social strata in the republic; the Jews participated in all activities, considering Soviet power to be people's power-including their own. It was only after the Stalinists' outrageous violations of the law and open persecution of the national culture that their faith was shattered. On January 1, 1941, the CPB numbered 72,177 members; 39,573 Belorussians 12,606 Russians, and 15,572 Jews.[26] The party included representatives of 52 nationalities.[27] Therefore, the fascist propaganda that the Soviet Union, including the BSSR, was a “Jewish kingdom,” that Stalin was “Yids' serf,” and that “Yids and Communists exploited all workers of the USSR, and themselves led a dissipated untrammeled life” were unfounded and preposterous. The Belorussian Communist Party, including the Jews, fell victim to Stalinist repression in the 1930s and on the eve of the war; the membership was reduced by 40%.[28]

Organization of Underground Struggle

Despite the cruel terror and constant surveillance in the Minsk ghetto, the prisoners operated an underground resistance struggle quite successfully. Especially active were Nadia Shusser, Roza Lipskaia, Lena Maizels, Nina Lis, Emma Rodova and Meier Feldman. A Jew, Isai Kazinets, the Minsk underground party committee secretary, communicated with the resistance fighters. When Liubov' Cherlova left the ghetto in May 1942, she was working as a cleaning woman at a German military hospital in the Kolodishchi railway station. She continued her activity there as a messenger for the partisan party Znamia (Banner), one of the Razgrom (Defeat) partisan brigade parties; in June 1943, she became a fighter in the party.[29]

As early as September 1941, Nadia Shusser organized an underground of 20 members (including Sima Teishova, Anna Fai, Nina Uman', Roza Gofshtein, Yakov Burshtein, Efim Livshits and doctors Sirotkina, Soskina and Gurvich). In December 1941, she established another group of 15 persons to commit sabotage at the Bolshevik plant. Nadia obtained all kinds of things for the partisans-food, salt, medicines and clothes - and was responsible for selecting candidates to be sent to the woods. She worked under such known heroes of the Jewish resistance as Mikhail Gebelev and Girsh Smoliar. After leaving the ghetto in June 1943, Nadia Shusser fought until July 1944 in party no.106 (commanded by the legendary Sholom Zorin), and headed the party organization there.[30]

Giller Shteiman was nominated by the Judenrat to be a ghetto guard. Using this position, he repeatedly warned the underground members about coming German actions, such as rounds-up, arrests and deportations. He helped transfer people to join the partisans in the woods. In October 1942, he left for the Zhukov partisan party of the Shturmovaia (Assault) brigade, where he fought as a private until the Soviet Army arrived. “He never lost his spirit, didn't know what panic was, and encouraged his comrades during the hardest fighting against the Germans.”[31] After Rivka Ekkel'chik escaped from the ghetto in January 1943, she became a partisan cook at the Suvorov partisan unit of the Frunze brigade. From May to November 1944 she fought in the famous Kovpak partisan formation in the Ukraine.[32] Frieda Gurvich fought in the Mstitel' (Avenger) partisan party from March 1942 until January 1943, when she, together with a group of sick, wounded and frostbitten people, was evacuated to the Chkalov region in the Soviet rear.[33] Maria Karantaer worked in the underground until April 1943. She was a member of Matvey Pruslin's group, where she carried out Mikhail Gebelev's orders. She obtained clothes and footwear for imprisoned Red Army soldiers, and furnished them with fictitious certificates in the names of dead persons which enabled them to be transferred to the partisans. She printed and bound leaflets in the ghetto, and distributed partisan newspapers and Soviet literature.[34]

David Kiesel escaped the ghetto in November 1942, and fought in the Lao party in the Dzerzhinskii brigade. From October 1943 to July 1944, he was a politruk (political commissar) of the Zhdanov party in the same Dzerzhinskii brigade. He sabotaged a German military train, destroying six wagons with weapons and personnel and damaging the locomotive. With his group, he damaged 38 kilometers of railway. He led ambushes of German troops trying to escape from the Minsk pocket in the summer of 1944, imprisoning 39 German soldiers and officers and killing 20. For his outstanding organizational abilities and individual courage, he was certified as a Soviet Army lieutenant.[35]

The fate of Esphir' Krivosheina was dramatic. On September 22, 1941, with a baby in her arms, she was compelled to go to the ghetto. Two older daughters remained with her Russian husband in Minsk. In May 1942, Krivosheina's husband was arrested for contacts with partisans and executed by the Nazis. One daughter wound up in a children's asylum, where she later died; the eldest joined her mother in the ghetto. Esphir' worked in Nadia Shusser's underground group; in September 1943, she was transferred to partisan party no.106.[36] Rachel Grodner worked in the warehouse of a truck repair shop, and sent clothes, medicines and weapons to the partisans. To the Frunze partisan brigade, for example, she delivered 14 German service jackets, 17 pairs of service breeches, three liters of alcohol, 800 packages of saccharine, radio batteries, etc. Those were transferred in various ways, such as in the barrel of a water-carrier.[37]

Roza Lipskaia lived in the ghetto until the summer of 1943. She maintained meeting places for the underground leaders and provided partisans with medicines. Ghetto physicians were officially permitted to purchase medical supplies in the pharmacies of Minsk's “Russian” area. Exaggerating their needs, the doctors were able to acquire excessive amounts and sent part of the supplies to the woods.[38] Lipskaia's courage was witnessed by Aron Fiterson, who reported that her group was one of the last in the ghetto. There were some 10-15 thousand people left; it was obvious that the end of the ghetto was near, and that people should be saved. At Fiterson's flat there was a secret cache of arms. The members of Roza's group (Botvinnik, Tsirlina, etc.,) made buckets with double bottoms and carried rifle bolts and magazines to the arms repair shop. They also carried parts on their bodies, hiding them in rubber boots, in underwear, under the bosom. Sometimes they hid parts in sacks of firewood. Before Lipskaia's group left for the woods, they had had 12 rifles, 8 handguns, 55 rifle bolts, some magazines and other parts.[39] As soon as she reached the woods, Roza was enrolled into party no.106 in the Ivenets region of Baranovichi oblast'. Until July 1944, she worked at her prewar specialty as head of the shop making shoes for the partisans.

On their way to the partisans, the respondents had to overcome dangerous situations and difficulties - of which crossing the border of the ghetto was the greatest challenge. The most popular technique was to cross at the checkpoint under guise of being workers, using forged documents such as passes, invoices and German work orders. It was also possible to cut a secret hole in the barbed wire fence. The guard system had vulnerable points that were known to the prisoners. The Nazis reckoned (with some basis) that even if the prisoners did manage to escape, they had nowhere to go. Their appearance and speech, absence of personal documents, and poor orientation in the countryside, all made it impossible for them to hide in the Russian regions for long. The local people, either scared of the Nazis or anti-Semitic, were reluctant to help the fugitives; on the contrary, they often gave them away to the authorities. Some prisoners, having miraculously survived mass executions, crawled in the night from common graves and had no alternative but to return to the ghetto, although they clearly realized the futility of this act.

The most successful escapes from the ghetto were organized flights with a partisan guide (usually a woman or an adolescent). However, there were betrayals. Rachel Grodner reported that a messenger from a partisan group near Rudensk - a man by the name Fedor Turovets - repeatedly came to the ghetto and selected people whom he said he was taking to the partisans. He led them to a wood 10 or 15 kilometers from Minsk, seized precious objects and arms from them, and abandoned them. With his gun he threatened those who tried to follow him. The people were compelled to return to the ghetto, but on their way were often caught by the Gestapo. Those who perished in this way included sisters Liuba and Asia Kaganovs, Genia Feldman with her son, and many others.[40] After Abram Rozin fled from the ghetto in 1943 and reached a partisan party in the area of the Ruzhanskaia pushcha ( thick forest) not far from Ivantsevichi, the commander Matevosian gave him a hostile reception. The leader announced to the group that the war would finish soon, “and look, a Jew comes running from Minsk and wants to reserve his place in a bear kiosk...”[41] David Karpilov, who had been an editor at the Zviazda publishing house before the war, was shot by the partisans when he came to them from the ghetto; they suspected that he was a German spy.[42] Maria Naumovna Zaiats was denied admission to a partisan party; fortunately, she was rescued by Jewish partisans from the Sholom Zorin party who picked her up in the woods.[43] Rivka Ekkel'chik fought in the Suvorov party under the assumed name of Anna Bykova,[44] Roza Levina posed as Olga Kovnatskaia,[45] and Giller Mendelevich Steiman became Ilia Maksimovich.[46]

Thus respondents who remained in the ghetto resisted the occupiers as much as they could. Perhaps they did not participate in noisy diversions in which dozens or hundreds of Germans were killed, but they nevertheless contributed to the common victory through smaller deeds such as gathering of clothes and drugs for partisans, arranging the printing and distribution of leaflets and other clandestine literature, fabricating false documents, sabotaging German armament plants, maintaining hideouts for partisans, conveying captured Red Army soldiers to the woods, etc. Each such “trifle” could cost someone his or her life.

The End of the War

The overall picture is quite impressive. Ghetto prisoners made a substantial contribution of supplies and combat to a series of Belorussian partisan units.[47] The ghetto resistance itself gave tremendous moral support to those whom the Nazis schemed to destroy. The most important accomplishment, however, was the rescue of the people. Nearly 2,500 people who escaped death in the Minsk ghetto were able to take up arms and fight the Germans. They told the world the truth about the cruelty of the Nazis, about the last days of their relatives and friends. After the liberation of Belorussia, they participated in the republic's rebuilding from ruins and ashes. They formed families and gave birth to children, continuing Jewish life in spite of the Nazis' plans.

At a terrible price in death and suffering, Belorussian Jewry survived. The respondents witnessed the defeat and banishment of the Nazis, and the punishment of the collaborators. Like most Belorussians, the Jews viewed the hardships of postwar life as temporary and surmountable. They asked the party committees of the Stalinskii, Voroshilovskii and Kaganovichskii regions of Minsk to restore their membership. For each application, a special commission was created. Over a period lasting from a few months to one year, it investigated how the applicants had acted in the ghetto and in the partisan groups, and checked their documents. Sixteen of twenty respondents had their memberships restored; four (L.V. Beznosova, Ia. S. Margolin, L. Iu. Gots and M. N. Zaiats), were refused for “having demonstrated passiveness” in fighting the enemy. On appeal, the Minsk regional party committee ordered the Stalinskii and Kaganovichskii regional party committees to issue membership cards to Gots and Zaiats.


The foregoing evidence describes the active participation of the respondents in armed resistance to the Nazis. They represent a cross-section of Belorussian Jewry during the Soviet-German war. However , the results of the Soviet military victory did not match the huge price the USSR paid in human, cultural and economic losses. Stalin's totalitarian regime began to worry that it would be charged with criminal unpreparedness for the war, costly miscalculations by the military, abandonment of millions of its civilians in the territory occupied by the enemy, and the loss of millions of prisoners of war and displaced persons who perished in Germany. Therefore, Soviet leadership decided to strike preemptively at potential opposition. One way was to conceal information about mass crimes of the German invaders in the occupied territories and the staggering number of civilian victims. It was also decided to reduce or deliberately obscure the role of ethnic minorities in the war - including that of the Belorussian Jews. The subject of Jewish involvement in the partisan war became a forbidden theme after the devastation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in November 1948, and remains underreported in Belorussian historiography to the present day. The abundance of documentation and literature published in the USSR has not yet told full story of Jewish participation in the resistance, although some of the details have appeared in historical works published abroad.[48] Following is an overview of the major works on the resistance published in Belorussia during the nearly fifty years that have passed since the war.

Studies of the underground role in the years 1941-1944 began as early as 1943 in such books as V tylu vraga (Behind the enemy lines) and Partyzansky rukh u Vialikai Aichinnai vaine (Partisan movement in the Great Patriotic War);[49] the most one can find here about Jewish participation is an extremely limited number of Jewish surnames in the text. In 1959, the CC CPB History Institute issued a monograph Partyzanska baratsba belaruskago narodu u Vialikai Aichinnai vaine (Partisan struggle of the Belarussian people in the Great Patriotic War); in 1960 it published Sovetskie partizany (Soviet partisans); in 1963, Nepokorionnaia Belorussia (Unsubdued Belorussia).[50] In them, all that concerned the Jews was either left out or placed in the miscellaneous section and thus depersonalized. In 1965, towards the 20th anniversary of the victory, an academic edition Prestupleniia nemetsko-fashistskikh okkupantov v Belorussii appeared.[51] It was prepared during Khrushchov's “thaw,” and revealed for the first time the results of the state's investigation of Nazi crimes in occupied USSR territory. The eyewitness reports and captured German documents gave numerous facts and examples of the genocide of Belorussian Jewry by the Nazis. However, any mention of the Jewish resistance was omitted as not fitting the topic of the book. During 1970s-1980s, on the eves of the thirtieth and fortieth anniversaries of the defeat of Nazi Germany, Party, Soviet and Belorussian historians made a substantial effort to investigate the organization and participants in underground activities in Belorussia. Although they revealed the structure of the Belorussian resistance, they did not comment on the findings. A careful reader, however, will note a great number of Jewish names among the secretaries of the underground regional, city and district CPB committees, the commanders and commissars of partisan groups, the underground periodical press editors, and so forth.[52]

The second half of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s were marked by new research efforts during the Gorbachev's perestroika spirit regarding historical science; they looked at the war in an essentially new light.[53] These editions contained factual material which permitted historians to see the background and actual conditions of the war years. But they failed to show anything at all connected with the Jewish contribution to armed resistance. In this respect, the tradition of party historians of the past remained unbroken. One cannot help noticing that from the very moment the Belorussian Communist Party was formed, Jews played a prominent role in it. In the prewar years, Jews constituted slightly over 6.7% of the republic's population, but numbered almost one-fourth of the party membership.[54] They constituted 23% and 23.7% of the party in 1922 and 1927, respectively, and 21.5% towards January 1941.[55]

The unparalleled genocide of the civilian population of Belorussia affected the Jews the most. Nazis selected them for physical annihilation not only on racial grounds, but also as the most outstanding representatives of the “Soviet and Communist element.” Towards January 1945, Jewish membership in the Belorussia Communist Party fell to 2,702 from 15,572 in January 1941, and constituted only 9.1% of the party.[56] Postwar antisemitic campaigns in the USSR obscured the contribution of Belorussian Jews to the partisan struggle. Even the debunking of Stalin's personality cult did not change anything in the official attitude. Jewish veterans of partisan and underground movements were told that they were merely an integral part of the Belorussian people, and that any “overemphasizing” of their national role was nothing but a “manifestation of a national narrow-mindedness, linked with Zionism.” The iron curtain isolated Belorussian Jews from their compatriots over the border from the time it was lowered in 1949 until the mid-1980s. Therefore, the Soviet public, the Belorussian public and the young generation of Jews in the republic knew nothing about the Belorussia Jews' tragic and heroic war years. A few years after perestroika started, thousands of Belorussian Jews (including former communists, soldiers in the Great Patriotic War , partisans and other members of the underground resistance) became completely disillusioned with Soviet Communism. Together with their families, they emigrated to Israel. The full story of Jewish participation in the Belorussian resistance will open anew page in the history of East-European Jewry.


  1. Jewish People in the Battle against Fascism. Materials of the III Anti-Fascist Meeting of Jewish People and III Plenum of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in the USSR (Moscow, 1945), pp. 38-39. Return

  2. Pravda, May 8, 1985 Return

  3. All of the industrial enterprises were in Minsk. Return

  4. Authors archives. Letter from M.L. Kaplan, September 18, 1993, from Minsk. Return

  5. Belorussian Republic National Archives (hereafter NARB), Fond 1 (collection), Opis (inventory) 4, Delo (file) 1070, page 3. Return

  6. NARB, F. l, Op. 4, D. 1070, p. I-7. Return

  7. Ibid., F. l, Op. 4, D. 1287, p. 3. Return

  8. Ibid., D. 2203, p. 2. Return

  9. Ibid., D. 203, p. 1. Return

  10. Ibid., D. 2869, p. 2. Return

  11. Ibid., D. 647, p. 2 Return

  12. Ibid., D. 824, p. 9. Return

  13. M. Altshuler (ed.), Distribution of the Jewish Population of the USSR, 1939 (Jerusalem, 1993). Return

  14. Calculated by the author from Table no.5, “CPB National Composition,” In: R.P. Platonov, Stranitsy istorii kompartii Belorussii. Suzhdenia, argumenty i fakty (Pages of the Belorussian Communist Party History. Judgments, Arguments, Facts) (Minsk, 1990), p.285. Return

  15. NARB F. 1, Op. 4, D. 647, p. 1-2. Return

  16. Prestupleniia nemetsko-fashistskikh okkupantov v Belorussii v 1941-1944 gg. Documenty i materially (German-Fascist invaders' crimes in Belorussia in 1941-1944. Documents and materials) (Minsk, 1965), pp.24-26. Return

  17. Aleksandr Khatskevich, “Strashnye dni okkupatsii. K 50-letiiu osvobozhdeniia Belorussii” (Frightful Days of Occupation. Towards the 50th Anniversary of Belorussia Liberation), Sovetskaia Belorussia, October 30, 1993. Return

  18. S. Ozerskaia, “Minskii Ad” (Minsk Inferno), Neizvestnaia “Chernaia kniga.” Svidetelstva ochevidtsev o katastrofe sovetskikh evreev (1941-1944) (Unknown Black Book. Testimonies of witnesses about the Holocaust of the Soviet Jews in 1941-1944) (Jerusalem, 1993), p. 246. Return

  19. David Meltser, “Minskoe getto: Uzniki i Geroi” (Minsk Ghetto: Prisoners and Heroes), Jewish World, July 30, 1993, no. 18. Return

  20. Y. Grinshtein, Or mi-kikar ha-yovel (Light from the Jubilee Square) (Tel Aviv, 1968), pp. 34-35, 38-41. Return

  21. Emmanuel Yoffe, “Tragedia i geroism” (Tragedy and heroism), Vo Slavo Rodiny , October 27, 1993. Return

  22. Archives of the Belorussian State Great Patriotic War History Museum (Subsequently, BIMIVOV), F.20, Op. lO-a, p. 4, inv. 7935. Return

  23. Ibid., p. 5. Return

  24. I. Arad (ed.), Annihilation of USSR Jews in the Years of the German Occupation (1941-1944) (Collection of Materials and Documents) (Jerusalem, 1991), p. 235 Return

  25. NARB, F. 750, Op. 1, D. 318, p. 24. Return

  26. R.P. Platonov, Stranitsy..., p. 285. Return

  27. Ibid. Return

  28. Ibid., p. 175. Return

  29. NARB, F. 1, Op. 4, D. 2708, p. 2. Return

  30. Ibid., D. 2869, p. 3. Return

  31. Ibid., D. 2854, p. 15. Return

  32. Ibid., D. 824, p. 18. Return

  33. Ibid., D. 671, p. 21. Return

  34. Ibid., D. 1032, p. 5. Return

  35. Ibid., D. 1070, p. 1-7. Return

  36. Ibid., D. 1287, p. 5. Return

  37. Ibid., D. 647, p. 3. Return

  38. Ibid., D. 1471, p. 15-16. Return

  39. Yad Vashem Archives, 0-33/2690. Return

  40. NARB., F. l, Op. 4, D. 647, p. 5. Return

  41. Author's archives. A. Rozin's letter of March 6, 1994, from Kiryat Yam (Israel); Matevosian Khachik Agadzhanovich, partisan party commander, then Chapaev brigade commander, Svisloch district (Belostok region) underground BCP Committee member, Podpol'nye partiinye organy Kompartii Belorussii v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny. Kratkie svedenia po organizatsii, structure i sostave (Underground Belarussian Communist Party organs during the Great Patriotic War. Short Data about Organization, Structure and Membership) (Minsk, 1975), p. 60. Return

  42. Yad Vashem Archives, M-41/168 Return

  43. Ibid., M-41/174. Return

  44. Ibid., M-41/173. Return

  45. NARB., F. 1, Op. 4, D. 1435, p. 3. Return

  46. Ibid., D. 1070, p. 5. Return

  47. Nine partisan parties and one partisan battalion were created and replenished from the Minsk ghetto. The parties: 5th Kutuzov, Budennyi, Frunze, Lazo, Parkhomenko, Shchors; 25th Anniversary of BSSR, 406, 106; and the 1st Battalion of the 208th Separate Infantry Regiment. In July, 1944, many partisans voluntarily joined the field forces and fought until the end of the war. Return

  48. T. and Z. Bel'sky, Der yidisher vald (The Jewish Woods) (Tel Aviv, 1946) M. Kaganovich, (Jewish Participation in Partisan Movement in the Soviet Russia) (Rome, 1948); (They Were Many) (Jewish Partisans in the USSR During WW II) (Tel Aviv, 1968); A. Abramovich, V reshaiushchei voine. Uchastie i rol' evreev SSSR v voine protiv natsizma (At the Decisive War. Participation and Role of USSR Jews in the War Against Nazism), vol. 1, (2nd ed.) (Tel Aviv, 1982), p. 510; vol.2 (Tel Aviv, 1992), p. 636; G. Rosenblat, “Evrei v partizanskoi bor'be (Kratkii obzor)” (Jews in Partisan Struggle (A Short Review)), Slovo invalida voiny, no.4, 1991. Return

  49. V tylu vraga (Ocherki, dnevniki, zapiski ob uchastii komsomola i molodiozhi v partizanskoi bor'be) (Behind the enemy lines. Documents on Komsomol Participation in Partisan Struggle) (Moscow, 1943), p. 220; P. Ponomarenko, Partyzansky rukh 'U Vialikai Aichinnai vaine (Partisan movement in the Great Patriotic War”) (Moscow, 1943). Return

  50. Partyzanska baratsba belaruskago narodu u Vialikai Aichinnai vaine (Partisan struggle of the Belarussian people in the Great Patriotic War) (Minsk, 1959); Sovetskie partizany (Soviet partisans) (Moscow, 1960); Nepokorionnaia Belorussia (Unsubdued Belorussia) (Minsk, 1963). Return

  51. Prestupleniia nemetsko-fashistskikh okkupantov v Belorussii (The crimes of the German-fascist occupants in Belorussia) (Minsk, 1965). Return

  52. Podpol'nye partiinye organy Kompartii Belorussii v gody Velikoi Otechestvennoi voiny. Kratkie svedeniia ob organizatsii, strukture i sostave (Underground bodies of the CPB during the Great Patriotic War. Brief summary of their structure and composition) (Minsk, 1975). Return

  53. P. Ponomarenko, Vsenarodnaia bor'ba v tylu nemetsko-fashistskikh zakhvatchikov (All-people struggle in the Nazi invaders' rear) (Moscow, 1986); Kommunisticheskaia partiia Belorussii v tsifrakh (CPB in figures, 1918-1988) (Minsk, 1988); Khronika vazhneishikh sobytii v istorii KPB (Chronicle of important events in the history of the CPB) (Minsk, 1989); R. Platonov, V. Lemeshenok, “Kompartia Belorussii - organizator vsenarodnoi bor'by protiv nemetsko-fashistskikh zakhvatchikov na okkupirovannoi territorii respubliki” (CPB the organizer of the all-people struggle against Nazi invaders in the occupied republic's territories), Stranitsy istorii Kompartii Belorussii. Suzhdenia, argumenty i fakty (Pages from the PCB's history) (Minsk, 1990), pp. 226-253. Pravda istorii: parmiat' i bol' (The historical truth: memory and pain) (Minsk, 1991). Return

  54. M. Altshuler (ed.), The USSR Jewish population in 1939 (Jerusalem, 1993), p. 11. Return

  55. Stranitsy istorii..., p. 285. Return

  56. Percentage calculated by the author. Return

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