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Ilya Kuksin


Minsk ghetto, established by Nazis during their occupation of Belarus, was one of the biggest in Europe with more than 100,000 prisoners.

There books on the history of Minsk ghetto are relatively scarce. Majority of them are memoirs. The only publication based on an official report, is a book by Grigory Smolyar titled “Ghetto avengers”. The book was published in the USSR first in Yiddish and then in Russian in 1947. However, at first the book was banned by the Soviet censorship. It was published in English in the USA in 1989. Surprisingly, the book was only published in Belarus after 1990.

To commemorate 65 years of elimination on the ghetto in Minsk the book “The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943 .Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism” was published in the USA. Its author, Barbara Epstein, became the first foreign researcher to receive a permission from the Belarusian authorities to use archive materials that had previously been in secret archives. She spent a lot of time in Belarus, where she interviewed more than 50 former ghetto prisoners and witnesses of the events.

Before the war Minsk was a multi-national city, where Belarusians lived in peace with Russians, Poles, Tatars and Gypsies. Jews constituted about a third of the population (98,000 people, according to census in 1939). After the German invasion many people tried to escape but the invasion was so fast that many of them had to return. A week after the war began the city was occupied by Nazis. Three weeks later, on July 19, 1941, all the Jews had to leave their houses and move to the ghetto. The ghetto was surrounded with barbed wire and guarded. The prisoners who tried to escape were immediately shot. Germans did not make attempts to conceal the murders of the Jewish ghetto prisoners. Frequently, thousands of people were just taken to trenches and shot.

For over two years the ghetto in Minsk was a camp of slave labor and a death camp at the same time. Stronger prisoners were sent to work every day. Germans first began killing the people that could not work. Later they began large-scale pogroms, which slowed down only by the winter of 1941 – 1942 when it became problematic to dig trenches to bury the victims.

Within a month after the ghetto was established, a secret organization appeared to help prisoners escape from the ghetto. Its participants were Grigory (Girsh) Smolyar – a Polish communist, and Minsk communists Mikhail Gebelev and Matvey Pruslin. They helped the prisoners reach partisans and provided them with weapons. They helped save Jewish children and sent them to Belarusian families.

There were also people who gave away Jews to Germans. The first big pogrom in the ghetto took place on November 7, 1941. The number of victims constituted about 12,000 people. The following was on November 20. Thousands of people were killed in the ghetto, which allowed fascists to constantly bring more prisoners from other European countries. They lived separately from Belarusian Jews and then also killed. After a big pogrom in July 1942 only 9,000 people remained in the ghetto.

All in all, about 10,000 people managed to escape from Minsk ghetto. In October 1943 the ghetto was eliminated completely with only 13 survivors who hid themselves in an underground shelter.

In 1944 the territory of Belarus was cleared from Nazis completely. The party leaders that returned to Belarus, failing to find any justification to their inaction during the war, had nothing to do but declare the partisan group in ghetto as traitors. Thus, immediately after the war, mass arrests of former ghetto partisans began. The “traitors” were sent to GULAG and rehabilitated only after Stalin's death, many of them posthumously.

Jewish settlements in Minsk region

MinskBerezinoBobrBorisov DolginovoDukoraDzerzhinsk Ivenets Myadel NesvizhObchuga Pogost Rakov Seliba Slutsk Svir Uhvaly Vileika

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