To this day, the suffering of the Jews in the Soviet Union during the Holocaust is something we know little about.
The German and Soviet concentration camps surround the bloodlands, from both east and west, blurring the black with their shades of grey. At the end of the Second World War, American and British forces liberated German concentration camps such as Belsen and Dachau, but the western Allies liberated none of the important death facilities. The Germans carried out all of their major killing policies on lands subsequently occupied by the Soviets. The Red Army liberated Auschwitz, and it liberated the sites of Treblinka, Sobibór, Bełžec, Chełmno, and Majdanek as well. American and British forces reached none of the bloodlands and saw none of the major killing sites. It is not just that American and British forces saw none of the places where the Soviets killed, leaving the crimes of Stalinism to be documented after the end of the Cold War and the opening of the archives. It is that they never saw the places where the Germans killed, meaning that understanding of Hitler’s crimes has taken just as long. The photographs and films of German concentration camps were the closest that most westerners ever came to perceiving the mass killing. Horrible though these images were, they only hinted at the history of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even the introduction.
The following is a true story as told by Edward Freedman in Avraham Rubenchik’s self-published book ‘Minsk Ghetto, The Truth’. We came across this book four years ago, when we were doing our research for the project we were working on, translating 27 memories of survivors of the Minsk Ghetto, now available to the English speaking world and can be read for free online. We discovered that ‘Minsk Ghetto, The Truth’, was originally written in Russian, and then subsequently translated to Hebrew. From the Hebrew, it was translated again to English. With no one to edit the English version, it was self-published in its rough draft version, simply to get the story into the wider world. The book is a personal account by Avraham Rubenchik who was a prisoner of the Minsk Ghetto. Only when Avraham was 70 was he able to write the story down. It took him 10 years to complete the book. At The Together Plan, we have plans to retranslate the book from the original Russian to English in order to bring it to a more polished and completed format, and to that end, we would welcome support to enable us to complete this task.
In the meantime, while the world is going through the COVID-19 crisis and countries are going into lock-down, insisting that people exercise measures of social distancing and self-isolation, we felt it would be a fitting time to share this story. We appreciate fully that so many people are impacted right now and it is a terribly difficult time. We pray that the world can get back on track soon, maybe even a little kinder for the experience, but this story might just help us to appreciate this temporary restriction on our daily lives. We are being urged to stay at home, so that brave people can do all they can to care for the sick and ensure that the nation gets fed. For those of us staying at home, as challenging as that is, it may not be so bad after all. We hope that this true story will help you in some way. If we support one another, we will get through it together.
Minsk Ghetto The Truth by Avram Rubinchik
An excerpt from Chapter 27, The Liberation:
‘At that time, at the end of Sochaya Street, after the tramway turnabout where the Jewish cemetery began, a small group of prisoners made a daring move: they bricked themselves up in a dug-out cave. There was only one aim, to survive at any cost in order to witness the arrival of the liberation fighters. It was a real miracle that these families survived nine months underground in total darkness, almost without food, with a scant supply of water, under the most inhuman conditions.
When I contemplate this incredible example of Jewish resistance, I am reminded of the prayer at the end of the Gomel Blessing for those saved from death:
To all brothers of Israel, to all those in trouble and imprisoned, to all those standing between land and water, the Lord will take pity on you and bring from misery into plenty, from darkness to light, and from slavery to greatness very soon in the quickly passing year.
The reader might well ask who thought of such an unusual plan? How do you build a shelter under the ground? Did these hermits know of anything similar? How did they live there? What happened to them?
I am sure that the person best able to answer these questions is someone who was in the cave. The following excerpt is from Edward Freedman, a young prisoner of the Minsk Ghetto, who is presently living in Israel. We just met before my book was about to be published.
We hid in this cave in October 1943. We were at that time twenty-eight people. The head, and supervisor of our group, was the baker, Pini Dobin. He went to the cave together with his family, his elderly mother, his wife, and two sons, Boris and Shimon. Also joining us was the coachman Eliah and his wife; my family were four. I, my mother Mariasha, myself (I was eight years old), my cousin Rasha and her son Marik Hochman. The bookkeeper Beril, an old watch maker, a middle-aged woman, Rachel and her young son Mosya and the tailor’s daughter Leah. Another two girls also hid with us, but I don’t remember their names. I have accounted for 19 people here, but there were a total of 28. No one could anticipate what would happen to us…
I particularly remember my mother’s mood. She was a pharmacist by profession. She adopted desperate measures to ensure our survival. As early as 1942, they tried to get her to join the partisan brigades and leave me at some village. However, she did not agree to abandon her son. In the ghetto we lived in many different places. Every time we moved, the first policy was to prepare the malina (hiding place). This frequently saved us from death.
I will describe in short the life in the cave. It was dug out in the Jewish cemetery under the concrete cover of a destroyed house. Two sections of shelves were arranged. Each family tried to stock up enough supplies of dried bread and other provisions. Prior to this, they prepared themselves for months for the willing imprisonment, taking with them only the bare necessities. For preserving the water, they carried several barrels containing 300 litres. In order to conceal the cover of the entrance, the baker, Pini Dobin, prepared a manhole, bricks and other building material in order to close off the hideout from the inside.
At first, feeling themselves in relative safety, everybody was civil, did not despair and believed they would soon witness the coming of the liberating Red Army. The children invented many different games for themselves. My mother Maryasha sang sad Jewish songs. Rachel told more jokes than usual. In order not to reveal our whereabouts by our conversation and the noise we created, we lead an irregular life. We slept during the day and were awake at night. With time we got used to this routine because most of the time we were surrounded by darkness. There was an oil lamp, a candle and toothpicks. Nevertheless, we tried not to use them.
Not everyone could bear this kind of life. The first to die was the oldest woman, Chaya-Sara who was buried inside the cave. She was followed by the elderly bookkeeper, Beril.
After a few months, we understood that we were bound to die of thirst. The water in the barrels had been used up and all that was left was used to wet our dry lips. The children suffered the most of all. Then, a miracle occurred. The baker Pini discovered that not far from the bookkeeper’s grave the sand was wet. He began to dig around this place. To our surprise, water from melting snow was seeping in. It seemed that the water had permeated from the layer of deep snow. We were overjoyed for many days. We filled our barrels to the full and drank water without end. Then came the fear that this water would drown us. All of us moved to the higher shelves but the water level continued to rise. Happiness was replaced by despair. Nevertheless, there is a G-d. At the end of the week, Pini discovered that the water level had started to decrease.
We spent five months there. The young people began to complain, and they requested that they be released from this living grave. The young boys and girls were ready to join the partisans, but our leader Pini Dobin did not agree to this. In his opinion, this meant that he would be sending these people to a sure death. Even his own son Boris’s arguments had little influence on him. In the end, two of the girls convinced him. Outside the cave, it was already the month of March, Spring. They promised to establish a connection with the partisans and return to take us back with them to the forests. However, no one ever saw them again after they left.
Rachel, Pini’s sister in-law, requested to be released. He believed that she would not reveal their secret hiding place. He instructed Rachel “It’s better if you go with someone”. Take Mosya with you and collect money from those who are left. It is bound to be useful. We need to buy something against scurvy”.
The escape from the underground was successful. At Jubilee Square, Mosya met a Belarusian acquaintance, Gana. Before the war, they had both worked at the shoe factory. Gana lead them to her house, and fed them some broth and bread. They ate and wept. Afterwards they could not bear it any longer, and told her that they had spent the last five months living in a cave under the ground. The location they did not tell her. Gana also wept out of sympathy. She told them that the ghetto had no more Jews. The Germans had killed them all. Gana gave them bread, onions, garlic and salt to take to help with their trip.
Later the baker Pini established contact with a woman who lived next to the cemetery. It turned out that she knew Gana. This calmed Pini’s suspicions. The next time he left the cave, he returned with good news, a partisan pamphlet. From this we all knew that the Soviet army was soon to attack. It would only be a few days until they reached Minsk. Anticipating the arrival of the Red Army, the people in the cave did not notice that there was nothing left to eat.
We learned about the liberation of Minsk only two days after it happened. Most of the thirteen people who were still alive, left crawling on all fours. The fighters who had liberated the city helped us. Afterwards the military command arrived. They ordered military doctors to help us out since we were all blinded from the constant darkness and no longer knew how to walk. I was carried out on a stretcher, dehydrated and twisted with knees that wouldn’t straighten, and was sent to the hospital. It turned out that I was sick with dystrophy. The hunger and darkness had turned me, a nine-year-old boy, into an old man.
In the city itself, the tragedy of Minsk Ghetto ended in the three last days of October 1943. This is the time, when Pini Dobin and the others had moved into their underground shelter. By orders of the Nazi Regime, the remainder of the Jewish population were sent outside the city to a place of execution where they were exterminated.
On the evening of October 20th, 1943, the ghetto borders were closed off by the secret service, army and police. On the following morning, the Jews were loaded into cars and brought to the Trostenets death camp. Those who objected or were unable to move due to malnutrition, swollen legs or illness were shot on the spot. If the soldiers had any suspicion that people were hiding in a cellar or any other ‘safe’ place, they would throw in hand grenades.
In the fifth volume of the Russian Concise Hebrew Dictionary, a historical survey of Minsk and the Holocaust is presented, which claims that by the end of the war and on its liberation, only 13 Jews were left alive in the Minsk Ghetto. These were the thirteen people from the cave.