The Holocaust in Belarus in general terms refers to the Nazi crimes committed during World War II on the territory of Belarus against Jews. The borders of Belarus however, changed dramatically following the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, which has been the source of confusion especially in the Soviet era as far as the scope of the Holocaust in Belarus is concerned.
When World War II began, with the September 1, 1939 attack on Poland by Nazi Germany, the sovereign Belarus of today did not exist. The Nazi-Soviet Pact signed in secrecy led to the parallel Soviet invasion of Poland from the east on September 17, 1939. The eastern half of prewar Poland was annexed by the USSR to the two republics of Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine.
The entire territory of modern-day Belarus was occupied by Nazi Germany by the end of August 1941. American historian Lucy Dawidowicz, author of The War Against the Jews estimated that 66% of the Jewish people residing in Belarusian SSR died in the Holocaust, out of 375,000 Jews in White Russia prior to World War II according to Soviet data. By comparison, in the Baltics about 90% of Jews were killed in the same period.
The population of Belarus was around 10,500,000 people on the eve of the Second World War, and about 1,000,000 of them were Jews. These Jews fell into one of three categories:
- The Eastern Byelorussian Jewish communities who occupied the lands closest to the Soviet Union. These were Jews that were very much Sovietize-d and had lost a lot of their religion. However, these Jews were not persecuted and their success varied completely based on other circumstances in their lives.
- The Western Byelorussian Jewish communities who had been part of Poland until the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact left them under Soviet control. They too began to face oppression and suppression of religion, but their generally rich and vibrant cultural lives were still in tact for the most part.
- Refugees coming from the areas of Poland which were now occupied by the German forces and began suffering fatalities and cruelties beyond anyone's imagination.
Resulting from the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, the territory of Belarusian SSR was almost doubled in size through the annexation of Kresy. The act of aggression against the Second Polish Republic was followed by the mock elections conducted in the atmosphere of terror. Polish cities were renamed in Russian, and the new Oblasts created. Millions of Polish citizens were turned by force into the new Soviet subjects. Within two years, the Jewish population of Minsk, the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, had swelled to 90,000 due to an influx of Polish Jews escaping German occupation.
The Holocaust perpetrated by the Third Reich in the territory of Soviet Belarus began in the summer of 1941, during the German attack on the Soviet positions in Operation Barbarossa. Minsk was bombed and taken over by the Wehrmacht on 28 June 1941. In Hitler's view, Operation Barbarossa was Germany's war against "Jewish Bolshevism". On 3 July 1941 during the first "selection" in Minsk 2,000 Jewish members of the intelligentsia were marched off to a forest and massacred. The atrocities committed beyond the German–Soviet frontier were summarized by Einsatzgruppen for both sides of the prewar border between BSSR and Poland. The Nazis made Minsk the administrative centre of Reichskomissariat Ostland. As of 15 July 1941 all Jews were ordered to wear a yellow badge on their outer garments under penalty of death, and on 20 July 1941 the creation of the Minsk Ghetto was pronounced. Within two years, it became the largest ghetto in German-occupied Soviet Union, with over 100,000 Jews.
A fair percentage of ethnic Belarusians supported Nazi Germany, especially in the early years. Some nationalists out of Minsk including sworn Germanophile Ivan Yermachenka hoped for the formation of a Belarusian national state under protectorate of the Reich. By the end of 1942 the Yermachenka's group known as BNS had 30,000 members in a dozen different Soviet cities. The Belarusian Auxiliary Police was established by the Nazi authorities in the summer of 1941. High-ranking positions in the police were also kept by BNS. "Known to the Germans as the Schutzmannschaft – wrote Martin Dean – the local police were recruited from volunteers at the start of the occupation. These men played an indispensable role in the killing process." Eventually, the number of local auxiliary police in German-occupied Soviet Union reached 300,000 men.
The southern part of the modern-day Belarus was annexed to the newly formed Reichskommissariat Ukraine on 17 July 1941 including the easternmost Gomel Region of the Russian SFSR, and several others. They became part of the Shitomir Generalbezirk centred around Zhytomyr. The Germans determined the identities of the Jews either through registration, or by issuing decrees. The Jews were separated from the general population and confined to makeshift ghettos. Because the Soviet leadership fled from Minsk without ordering evacuation, most Jewish inhabitants have been captured. There were 100,000 prisoners held in the Minsk Ghetto, in Bobruisk 25,000, in Vitebsk 20,000, in Mogilev 12,000, in Gomel over 10,000, in Slutsk 10,000, in Borisov 8,000, and in Polotsk 8,000. In the Gomel Region alone, twenty ghettos were established in which no less than 21,000 people were imprisoned.
In November 1941 the Nazis rounded up 12,000 Jews in the Minsk Ghetto to make room for the 25,000 foreign Jews slated for expulsion from Germany, Austria and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. On the morning of 7 November 1941 the first group of prisoners were formed into columns and ordered to march singing revolutionary songs. People were forced to smile for the cameras. Once beyond Minsk, 6,624 Jews were taken by lorries to the nearby village of Tuchinka (Tuchinki) and shot by members of Einsatzgruppe A. The next group of over 5,000 Jews followed them to Tuchinka on 20 November 1941.
Holocaust by bullet
Resulting from the Soviet 1939 annexation of Polish territory comprising the Soviet Western Belorussia, the Jewish population of BSSR nearly tripled. In June 1941, at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, there were 670,000 Jews on the Polish side and 405,000 Jews on the Soviet side of present-day Belarus. On 8 July 1941 the SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich gave the order for all male Jews in the occupied territory – between the ages of 15 and 45 – to be shot on sight as Soviet partisans. By August, the victims targeted in the shootings included women, children, and the elderly. The German police battalions as well as the Einsatzgruppen carried out the first wave of killings.
The role of the Belarusian Auxiliary Police, established on 7 July 1941, was crucial in the totality of procedures, as only they – wrote Martin Dean – knew the identity of the Jews. The pacification actions were conducted using local Schutzmannschaft during roundups (as in Homel, Mozyrz, Kalinkowicze, Korma). The local police took on a secondary role. The ghettoised Jews were controlled by them and brutalized before mass executions (as in Dobrusz, Czeczersk, Żytkowicze). After a while the already-trained auxiliary police not only led the Jews out of the ghettos to places of massacres but also took active part in the shootings. Such tactic was successful (without much exertion of force) in places where the killings of Jews were carried out in early September, and throughout October and November 1941. In winter 1942, a different tactic was introduced - the pacification raids, conducted in Żłobin, Petryków, Streszyn, Czeczersk. The role of the Belarusian police in the killings became particularly noticeable during the second wave of the ghetto liquidations, starting in February–March 1942.
In the Holocaust by bullet, no less than 800,000 Jews perished in the territory of modern-day Belarus. Most of them were shot by Einsatzgruppen, Sicherheitsdienst and Orpo battalions aided by Schutzmannschaften. Notably, when the bulk of the Jewish communities were annihilated in first major killing spree, the number of Belarusian collaborators was still considerably small, therefore the Eastern European destruction battalions consisted in most part of Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Latvian volunteers. Historian Martin Gilbert wrote that the General-Commissar for Generalbezirk Weißruthenien, Wilhelm Kube, personally participated in the March 2, 1942 killings in the Minsk Ghetto. During the search of the ghetto area by the Nazi police, a group of children were seized and thrown into deep pit of sand covered with snow. "At that moment, several SS officers, among them Wilhelm Kube, arrived, whereupon Kube, immaculate in his uniform, threw handfuls of sweets to the shrieking children. All the children perished in the sand."
Mass murders in Nawahrudak
On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. The city of Navahrudak (Nowogródek in Polish), capital of the Nowogródek Voivodship in interwar Poland), was occupied on 4 July during the Battle of Białystok–Minsk when two armies of the Red Army were surrounded in the Navahrudak pocket. The city became part of the Reichskommissariat Ostland and Immediately Nazi occupiers staged their racial persecution and segregation policies, in particular against Poles of Jewish ethnicity, who were forced into a newly established ghetto.
According to the Polish census of 1931 the Nowogródek Voivodeship was home to about 616,000 ethnic Belorussians, or ~39% of the total population of the province, exceeding the number of ethnic Poles by eight percentage points. Prior to the war, the town had a population of 20,000, about half of which were Polish Jews.
During winter 1941-42 the German occupiers killed all but 550 of the approximately 10,000 Jews in a series of actions by bullet,. Those not killed were forced into slave labour and worked to death. Thus partisan resistance immediately began; local Jews volunteers, who later were known as the Bielski partisans, fled into nearby forests engaging in combat activity and in the same time providing shelter to Jewish families, many of whom were able to survive the war.
Ethnic Poles and Belorussians were not spared by Nazi terrorism either, in particular during 1943 when more civilians were imprisoned and subject to harsh retaliatory actions and forced labour. On 31 July 1943 11 Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth were imprisoned, and on the next day loaded into a van, driven out of town, in the woods 5 km (3.1 mi) beyond Navahrudak, killed by bullet, and buried in a mass grave.
The Red Army liberated the city almost exactly three years after its occupation, on July 8, 1944. During the war more than 45,000 people were killed in town and in surrounding areas. Over 60% of buildings was destroyed.
As of 1 January 2017, the Yad Vashem in Israel recognized 641 Belarusians as Righteous Among the Nations, including citizens of modern-day Belarus with distinctly Polish names who used to live in the territories of the Second Polish Republic annexed after the Soviet invasion of Poland, and incorporated into the USSR in 1945 at the insistence of Joseph Stalin. All of the awards were granted after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Many of the distinguished individuals came from Minsk, and are already deceased.
On 22 September 1943, Wilhelm Kube was assassinated in Minsk by his Belarusian mistress. His death was caused by a bomb hidden in a hot water bottle, which was placed in his bed by Jelena Mazanik, coerced by the Soviet agents who knew where her son was. The SS executed more than 1,000 male citizens of Minsk in retaliation, though SS leader Heinrich Himmler reportedly said the assassination was a "blessing" since Kube did not support some of the harsh measures mandated by the SS. Mazanik escaped and joined the partisans.
SS and Police Leader Curt von Gottberg was appointed Generalkommissar for Belarus on October 27, 1943 after Kube was killed by a bomb in Minsk on October 23. Gottberg developed a new "strategy" in the fight against partisans on the occupied territory of the Soviet Union, mounting aggressive operations against suspected "partisan bases" (generally ordinary villages; Gottberg's strategy seems to have largely involved terrorising the civilian population). Whole regions were classified as "bandit territory" (German: Bandengebiet): residents were expelled or murdered and dwellings destroyed. Gottberg said in an order "In the evacuated areas all people are in future fair game". Another order of Gottberg's of December 7, 1942, stated: "Each bandit, Jew, gypsy, is to be regarded as an enemy". After his first operation, Nürnberg, Gottberg reported on December 5, 1942: "Enemy dead: 799 bandits, over 300 suspected gangsters and over 1800 Jews [...] Our losses: 2 dead and 10 wounded. One must have luck".
The cruelty during anti-partisan operations, especially in Belarus, has been pointed out in the past, indicating a high degree of identification with their deeds rather than an unwilling execution. The meanness of their actions is evidenced by the means of mass killings employed by the Germans in their fight against partisans. Most of the victims were women and children, as the male population of the villages had been evacuated or drafted into the Red Army, or joined the partisans. They were also used as a labor force. Similar aspects also apply to the murder of Jews, prisoners of war, political opponents, and the ill.
The Battalion Dirlewanger on July 21, 1943, during "Operation Hermann", chased the inhabitants of the village of Dory together with the priest into a church and burned them alive there. Only men able to work were let out of the church, women only if they left their children behind. At another place hundreds of selected children, two to ten years old, were locked in freight cars and left to their fate until half of them had died. While Max von Schenckendorff in 1942 called for measures against the soldiers, the generally organized sequence of the destruction of villages shows how little was left to chance.
Photo albums were prepared for higher SS commanders after anti-partisan actions. Thus, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski readily admitted to have possessed thousands of color photographs of the fight against partisans, photos which were confiscated after the war. After "Operation Hermann" in the summer of 1943, Curt von Gottberg requested appropriate pictures for an album on partisan fighting, to be handed to Himmler. Some months later, he was sent an album featuring photos from Operation Heinrich, which Bach-Zelewski had dedicated to Himmler by naming it after him. The rank and file behaved in a similar manner. Many German participants had a camera in their backpack during the operations. The respective pictures mostly show rather uncompromising scenes, but often also the burning of villages.
Another aspect was the fact that inhabitants of the countryside were used for de-mining the roads and other pathways to partisan camps, and were massively forced to walk the ways leading there. Several thousand Belarussians were killed due to this. Such cases already occurred in Wehrmacht-controlled areas 1942, at the remote village of Uchwała, Krupki, where a total of 360 people perished. In the area of the 286th Security Division, the civilian population had to walk, plough and harrow the roads on the orders of Major General Richert from the autumn of 1942. At Artiszewo near Orsza, 28 people, 18 of which were children, perished during this operation. The LIX Army Corps had issued a corresponding order already on March 2, 1942.
Later, they also used herds of sheep. But in most cases people were used, on an ever-larger scale. During Operation Cottbus, between 2,000 and 3,000 Belarusians whom the Germans drove before them into the swamps were torn apart by mines, according to Bach-Zelewski. After preparation by artillery and flak, entering the swamp area was only possible by chasing inhabitants of the region across the heavily mined paths through the swamp. Oskar Dirlewanger's corresponding order of May 25, 1943 had read:
Roadblocks and artificial obstacles are almost always mined. So far we have suffered 1 dead and 4 wounded during removal. Thus the order is: Never remove obstacles yourselves, but always let natives do it. The blood thus saved justifies the loss of time.
For "Operation Hermann" conducted in July–August 1943 partly by Einsatzgruppe Dirlewanger the same directive applied right from the beginning. The commanders carried out the instructions. The same occurred during Operation Frühlingsfest (April 16 till May 10, 1944), which was carried out in equal parts by Wehrmacht and SS units. A corresponding suggestion is said to have come from the already mentioned Richert. But in the meantime, this method had become routine also outside the scope of major actions. It was also applied by Wehrmacht frontline troops in their direct rear area. All Belarusians had become hostages of the Germans. The 78th Infantry division ordered the whole civilian population in its area to de-mine the roads area every morning for six hours:
I thus order that all roads that must be driven on by German troops are to be walked first by all inhabitants of the location (including women and children) with cows, horses and vehicles up to the next command post, or that marching columns must be preceded at a distance of at least 150 meters by such inhabitants. The civilians must close up tightly and walk the whole width of the road.
Rear area command 532 proceeded in a similar manner, and an officer in the high command of Army Group Center wanted to recommend this procedure as exemplary to other units. As of February 18, 1944, General Commissar v. Gottberg issued a Directive for the Securing of Traffic Roads in White Ruthenia against Bandits and Mines. Therein the whole population of villages in White Ruthenia was obliged to de-mine streets and roads every day at the regional police commanders instructions. Whoever refused the de-mining and road supervision service was to be punished by death.
The pacifications, and the ghetto liquidation actions in the territories occupied by the Germans since June 1941, were conducted in a number of notable locations in present-day Belarus. The victims, including Polish Jews from the territories annexed into the Soviet Belarus from the Polish Kresy, were also transported by rail to the Bronna Góra extermination site whenever deemed necessary by the executioners. The towns (in alphabetical order) included Antopol, Berazino, Novogrudok (see Martyrs of Nowogródek), Bobruisk, Chavusy, Davyd-Haradok, Dzyatlava (see Dzyatlava massacre), Grodno (see Grodno Ghetto), Iwye, Khatyn (see Khatyn massacre), Lakhva (see Łachwa Ghetto), Lida, Luniniec, Lyubavichi, Trostenets (see Maly Trostenets extermination camp), Minsk (see Minsk Ghetto), Motal, Obech, Pinsk (see Pińsk Ghetto), Polotsk, Ponary (see Ponary massacre), Shkloŭ, Slonim (see Słonim Ghetto), Slutsk (see Slutsk Affair), Vitebsk (see Vitebsk Ghetto), and Zhetel (see Zdzięcioł Ghetto).
According to State Memorial Complex "Khatyn" created by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus, the Nazi regime deported to Germany for slave labour some 380,000 Ostarbeiters and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. At least 5,295 Belarusian settlements were destroyed and their inhabitants murdered (out of 9,200 settlements that were burned or otherwise destroyed in Belarus during World War II). According to SMC "Khatyn", 243 Belarusian villages were burned twice, 83 villages three times, and 22 villages were burned four or more times in the Vitebsk region. In the Mińsk region 92 villages were burned twice, 40 villages three times, nine villages four times, and six villages five or more times. More than 600 villages like Khatyn (see: the Khatyn massacre) were annihilated with their entire population. More than 209 cities and towns (out of 270 total) were destroyed.
The communist Soviet-era sources estimated that Belarus lost a quarter of its prewar population in World War II, including most of its intellectual elite. It is a myth believed to have been concocted by the local 1st Secretary Pyotr Masherov in a speech of 8 May 1965 according to western historians who point out to evidence of manipulation by the Extraordinary State Commission inflating the figure considerably by including victims who were not citizens of the republic. The official memorial narrative of Belarus allows only a "pro-Soviet version of the resistance to the German invaders." The Constitution of the Republic under Article 28 denies access to information about Belarusians who served with the Nazis.
In the 1970s and 1980s historian and Soviet refusenik Daniel Romanovsky who later emigrated to Israel, interviewed over 100 witnesses, including Jews, Russians, and Belarusians from the vicinity, recording their accounts of the Holocaust by bullet. Research on the topic was difficult in the Soviet Union because of government restrictions. Nevertheless, based on his interviews Romanovsky concluded that the open-type ghettos in Belarusian towns were the result of prior concentration of the entire Jewish communities in prescribed areas. No walls were required. The collaboration with the Germans by most non-Jewish people was in part a result of attitudes developed under the Soviet rule; namely, the practice of conforming to a totalitarian state. Sometimes called Homo Sovieticus.