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
June 22 marks the anniversary, in 1941, of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, including the area of White Russia, now Belarus. Sir Martin writes, in his history, The Holocaust, The Jewish Tragedy, of what this invasion meant to the Jews:
Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union launched on 22 June 1941, marked a tragic turning point in German policy toward the Jews. In the twenty-one months before Barbarossa, as many as thirty thousand Jews had perished. Of these, ten thousand had been murdered in individual killings, in street massacres, in punitive reprisals, in outbreaks of savagery in the ghettos, and in the labour camps. Twenty thousand had died of starvation in the Warsaw and Lodz ghettos. But in no Jewish community had more than two or three per cent been murdered, while in Western Europe, the Jews had been virtually unmolested.
From the first hours of Barbarossa, however, throughout what had once been eastern Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, as well as in the Ukraine, White Russia and the western regions of the Russian Republic, a new policy was carried out, the systematic destruction of entire Jewish communities. These were the regions in which the Jew had been most isolated and cursed for more than two centuries, the regions where Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Ethnic German and Jew had been most marked in their distinctive ways of life, in which language differences had been a barrier, social division a source of isolation, and religious contrasts a cause of hatred. The German invaders knew this well and exploited it to the full. In advance of the invasion of Russia, the SS leaders had prepared special killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, which set about finding and organising local collaborators, Lithuanians and Ukrainians, in murder gangs, and were confident that the anti-Jewish hatreds which existed in the East could be turned easily to mass murder. In this they were right.
In the East, throughout July, the first victims were carefully chosen so that the communities immediately lost their natural leadership. In Minsk, within hours of the German occupation, forty thousand men and boys between the ages of fifteen and forty-five were assembled for ‘registration’, under penalty of death: Jews, captured Soviet soldiers, and non-Jewish civilians. Taken to a field outside the city, each group was put into a separate section. For four days all were kept in the field, surrounded by machine guns and floodlights. Then, on the fifth day, all Jewish members of the intelligentsia – doctors, lawyers, writers – were ordered to step forward. Some two thousand did so, not knowing for what purpose they would be needed, perhaps as administrators or functionaries, or in their professional capacities. Many non-professionals were among those who stepped forward, believing that this group was to be given some privileged work or position, and wanting to be a part of it all. All two thousand were then marched off to a nearby wood, and machine-gunned.