Esther Gilbert, Editor
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
In the 1980s Sir Martin travelled to Moscow, Leningrad and Minsk meeting and recording the experiences of ‘Refuseniks’, Jews who had been refused exit visas to leave the Soviet Union. Returning to London, in 1983 he wrote a book about the people he had met, called The Jews of Hope, titled in response to Elie Wiesel’s book on his travels to meet Soviet Jews, twenty years earlier, The Jews of Silence.
The Jews of Hope is the only ‘history’ Sir Martin wrote in the present tense, recording the fears and hopes along with their history as the Jews there were living it, caught between commemorating their past and dreaming of their future.
This excerpt is from Chapter 4 ‘At the edge of the pit’:
Deep snow lies over the city of Minsk, capital of Byelorussia, the White Russian Republic of the Soviet Union. Deep snow lies in and around the pit on Ratomskaya Street, a wide ditch, perhaps fifty yards across, ten yards deep, and a hundred yards long. A few snow-covered trees and bushes dot the edge of the pit. Across the pit, at its far edge, is a wooden fence, and a cluster of low wooden houses.
At the far side, below the fence, is a tall monument, an upright column of stone, inscribed with Russian and Yiddish characters. Outlined in snow, a cluster of wreaths lies at its base. As the inscription reveals, this is a monument to the 5,000 Jews slaughtered at that very spot in 1942, during the Nazi occupation of Minsk. It seems so small a pit, so pathetic a spot, for so large and terrible a disaster.
Standing in front of the monument are two Jews. Both live in Minsk. Both stand proud guard over the tragic memory. Both have been refused permission to leave the Soviet Union: one for more than three years, the other for more than twelve years. The older man tells of how, on 2nd March 1942, at Purim, the Nazis drove more than 5,000 Jews out of the Minsk Ghetto to this spot, and machine gunned them. Children were thrown into the pit alive. No one survived.
There were other massacres in and around Minsk: earlier massacres and later ones. Many thousands of Jews had been brought to Minsk at gun-point from surrounding villages. Several thousand had been brought to the city by train from Greater Germany, including Hamburg and Vienna, told by those who deported them that there was work to be done in Minsk, building projects to be completed, agricultural tasks to be performed. No such projects or tasks existed: only the pit here at Ratomskaya Street, and the ditches and ravines of nearby Maly Trostenets.
The older man tells this story without great emotion. He has told it many times before. It was at his insistence that this monument is maintained; that each year it is the focus of one Soviet and two Jewish ceremonies, each remembering the dead. The Jewish ceremonies take place on Purim, the anniversary of the largest of the massacres, and at Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the Temple, a Jewish day of fasting and prayer.
The official Soviet ceremony here at the pit on Ratomskaya Street takes place each year on 9 May, Victory Day. Then, when wartime monuments throughout the Soviet Union are the scene of pilgrimage, speeches, wreath laying ceremonies, this monument is also honoured. The older man has insisted that this should be so. ‘Some years ago they didn’t allow visits on Victory Day,’ he says. ‘Nobody came. Just a few Jews. Now they have an official minute of silence. But they no longer allow speeches. They play loud music and don’t allow anyone to speak. But they say the ceremonies are loyal.’
The older man tells these things without bitterness, factually, and yet with emphasis. His name is Lev Ovsishcher. Formerly he held the rank of Colonel in the Red Army. In the Second World War he was wounded, and awarded six orders and twelve medals for bravery.
Excerpt from The Jews of Hope, ©Martin Gilbert, 1985
For more on Sir Martin: https://www.martingilbert.com/
For Gilbert Ghetto Guides click here