The experience of Jews in the area that is now Belarus has its rightful place in Sir Martin Gilbert’s histories of the Holocaust. The Together Plan is working with communities, historians and individuals in Belarus to tell the story of the Belarus Jews which will become the Belarus Jewish Heritage Route. The story of the Jews of Belarus is rich and tragic. One of the darkest times in this history was the years between 1941 and 1944.
Each month The Together Plan features a short excerpt from the writings of the late Sir Martin Gilbert which focus on one of the cities, towns, villages, and forests where Jews tried desperately to escape the Nazi German murder machine.
Lady Esther Gilbert, the wife of the late Sir Martin, selects and submits these excerpts for The Together Plan’s newsletter.
Introduction by Esther Gilbert
From The Righteous
In 2003 Sir Martin published his book The Righteous, Heroes of the Holocaust, about non-Jews throughout Europe who had risked their lives, and in many cases the lives of their families, to help Jews escape and survive their intended destruction. The story in Belarus was no different, and the risk was enormous. Sir Martin writes:
As many as twenty-six thousand Jews were living in the former Polish city of Brest-Litovsk when the Germans captured it from the Russians in June 1941. Almost all of them were murdered, many being taken by train to Bronna Gora, seventy-five miles to the east, on the Brest-Minsk railway line, and shot in huge pits specially dug to receive them. “A tiny percentage – about one person in a given thousand – survived the Holocaust in Brest,” write John and Carol Garrard, historians of the destruction of the Jews of that city, and they add: “Given the terror inspired by the German occupying forces and the hostility expressed towards Jews by most of the Polish and Ukrainian population, it is a wonder that any agreed to help the Jews.” Yet despite the fact that helping Jews “was a crime punishable by the death of the entire family involved,” the names of ten Righteous have been recorded. Among them were Pyotr Grigoriev, known to the Jews as a “precious human being”; Floriya Budishevskaya, who saved the life of a ten-year-old Jewish boy (she was later shot by the Germans for her connection with the Soviet partisans); and Polina Golovchenko, who saved two young sisters and a young boy, and also hid a brother and sister, Khemie and Lily Manker.
On one occasion Polina Golovchenko learned that neighbours had denounced her to the Germans for hiding Jews, and that the Gestapo were on their way. She immediately took the Mankers to another hiding place. The Garrards describe how, when the Gestapo arrived at her home, she “calmly handed them all her keys, and told them they were welcome to search her house and grounds. After combing her property for hours, they left, uttering more threats and imprecations.” She then “went serenely to the hiding place, and brought the Mankers back into her home, even though she knew she was under constant surveillance by neighbours seeking the bounty for handing over a hidden Jew”
After the destruction of the ghetto of Brest-Litovsk, several hundred Jews survived in hiding places known as “malinas”, mostly in cellars and outhouses. Outside help was also essential for survival; a local couple, Ignacy Kurjanowicz and his wife Maria, helped the young Moshe Smolar to survive by giving him food to eat and to take back to his hiding place. “The Kurjanowicz family took me in for a week,” he later wrote, “and I was invited to visit them once a week on a regular basis. For greater safety, and in order not to make me look too obvious in the streets of the town, he accompanied me to the ghetto fence and from there I sneaked into the den (malina). From that day, I came there regularly for a full day once a week, until 4 January 1943, when peasants discovered my hideout and I had to leave it for good. Then the Kurjanowicz family, after discussing the matter, decided to keep me in their house until there was a chance to escape.”
Moshe Smolar’s account continued: “I remained in their house till March 20 … about three months. Needless to say, all this time they were risking their lives every day. They did all this without any remuneration, financial or otherwise. On the contrary, keeping me in their home cost them a lot of money, and they had to cut down on their own rations to share their daily bread with me. When I ask myself what were their motives, I can only attribute their good deeds to their humanitarian feelings originating both from their compassionate feelings toward the Jews, deep emotional empathy with the persecuted, and truly deep and pure religious feelings. All these factors nourished their deeds, and helped them withstand the risk of paying a high price for what they did – if caught.
When Ignacy and Maria Kurjanowicz were being considered at Yad Vashem for a Righteous Among the Nations Award, someone noted on their file: “This is a story that touches the heart – a real and dear Righteous Gentile.” Moshe Smolar’s family did not survive the war: his father, mother, sister and two brothers (one of them with his wife and three children) were murdered during the liquidation of the Korzec Ghetto.
For more on Sir Martin: https://www.martingilbert.com/
For Gilbert Ghetto Guides click here
Click here to find out about the Brest-Litovsk Jewish Cemetary project.