75th Anniversary of the Destruction of the Minsk Ghetto

Munkások Oldalt

75 years ago, on 21 October 1943, the German security forces and their collaborators surrounded the Minsk ghetto for the last time. It was the day of the final destruction of the ghetto and the day of murdering its last residents.


The Nazis established the ghetto on 19 July 1941, within a month of the occupation of the Belarusian capital. The more than fifty thousand Jews, who were not able to withdraw with the Soviet forces and remained in the city were ordered to move to the two square kilometers depleted suburban area, to be housed mainly in wooden cottages. Soon, by moving in the Jewish population from the wider Minsk area, the number of residents in the ghetto reached 100,000. The conditions were horrifying, without water and electricity supply, two-three families were forced to share the same room. 

View of the Minsk ghetto
Separate ghetto within the ghetto was established for Jews from the Third Reich and the Czech-Moravian Protectorate. In November 1941, some 7,000 German Jews were deported here from Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin and Brno. They were fenced off from the rest of the inhabitants by barbed wire. 

Arrival of Jews from Germany

The workforce from the ghetto was used in factories and workshops in the “Aryan” side of the city, in military plants and German construction companies. Being part of a labor unit meant an additional ration of 100 grams of bread a day, and more importantly the chance to gather some additional food, either by bartering valuables from the ghetto or by collecting kitchen waste, like potato peels. If caught by the guards, these activities were punished by death, similarly to any other form of communication between Jews and non-Jews. Nevertheless, every morning, thousands of these slave laborers reported to roll calls and marched out from the ghetto for work.
Mass murders of the Jewish population began even before setting up the ghetto. The murder of 2000 members of the intellectuals on the fifth day of the occupation was followed by daily atrocities claiming the life of the innocent Jewish civilians. Several particularly bloody events stand out in the endless terror. In three days of August 1941, some 5000 people were rounded up, taken to labor and “disappeared”. On 7 November (anniversary of the October revolution) and on 20 November, a large group of people were taken to Tuchinka, a site near Minsk and shot into pits. The reason for the November killings was to free the space for the incoming transport of the “Reich” Jews.
Apart from a very few exceptions, nobody was exempted from the killings, regardless of his or her position in the ghetto. All the members of the Judenrat, the Jewish Council, of the “Reich” ghetto were shot in April 1942. Ilya Mushkin, the first head of the Judenrat of the main ghetto was accused of for cooperating with the underground and executed in February 1942. Moshe Yaffe, his successor in the office was killed at the end of July 1942, in a mass-operation in which some 6500 Minsk Jews and some 3500 Reich Jews were killed, most of them in gas vans.
By the August of 1942, only some 11,000 residents remained in the ghetto, the majority of them managed to survive the massacre by staying at their workplaces during the bloodshed.  
In spring of 1943, gradually all non-working Jews, women, children and elderly were murdered. In June 1943, even the liquidation of the labor groups began. In September, 3,000 Jews were transferred to the Lublin and Sobibor extermination camps, leaving some 2,000 residents in the Minsk ghetto. In the final operation, on 21 October 1943, the ghetto was surrounded by security forces for the last time, and the residents were loaded on vans and driven to their death in Maly Trostenets,a camp some 12 km east of Minsk.
Jews of the Minsk ghetto formed a resistance movement as early as August 1941. Cooperation was established with the underground resistance in the city of Minsk itself and with the newly formed partisan units in the forests of Belarus. These efforts were supported by the Judenrat, which assisted the resistance by providing fake documents, clothing and other items needed for escaping from the ghetto. At the beginning, young men, capable for fighting were selected and assisted to reach the partisan units.
The ghetto resistance tried to help also those Jews, who were not able to fight the Nazis. A few dozen of children were hidden into the orphanages on the “Aryan” side of the city, as well as in the neighboring villages. Falsified identity cards enabled many, mostly women, to escape the horrors of the ghetto.
The Gestapo learned early enough about the cooperation between the ghetto resistance and the Minsk underground. A wave of arrests in the city reached the ghetto as well. Among the hundreds detained, there were several members of the Judenrat. Within a month, they were publicly hanged along with the members of the underground. However, the ghetto resistance managed to renew its efforts and continue with their struggle.
Estimates suggest that some 10,000 people managed to escape to the partisan bases in the forests and half of them survived the war.
Most of the Jews, who managed to survive the horror of the ghetto in Minsk, the famine, cold, degrading treatment, the atrocities and mass killings stayed alive thanks to the assistance of the non-Jewish population of Belarus. Supporting Jews in any way was punishable by death by the Nazis. Germans considered the Slavic population as lower race, Untermensch, and their lives were worthless. The Yad Vashem Authority in Jerusalem bestowed the Righteous Among the Nations honor to 650 citizens of Belarus, those who risked their on lives by saving Jews. In addition, there were many others, who provided short-term or one-off assistance, like giving some food, clothing or guiding people to the partisans. All this, at the given moment, represented the difference between life and death.
The Soviet Army liberated Minsk on 3 July 1944. Thirteen Jews hiding in the ruins of the ghetto were found alive.  

Photos of the Belarusian State Archive, courtesy of the Belarusian Embassy in Budapest.

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