4 Execution site(s)
Maria L., born in 1928: "After the shooting, they [victims’ bodies] were guarded by soldiers with dogs. They [the Germans] ordered people to bring wood and put it in the pits before the shooting. The pits were full of bodies, and some were still alive. People said that the grave was breathing. The wood arrived by train at the railway station and policemen requisitioned local people, including my brother, to transport the wood from the railway station to Blagovschina [ravine] and put it in the pits. There was one layer of wood, one layer of bodies. When we were requisitioned by the Soviets to exhume the bodies [Note: after the liberation, in 1944], I saw that the wood hadn’t burned completely. We went with shovels, and the Soviets took pictures. […]
YIU: How many graves were there?
W: They [the Germans] didn’t dig several pits at once. Once one pit was filled in, they would have another one dug. When I came to the site, I only saw one pit.
YIU: Did you witness any of the executions there?
YIU: Who was shot there?
W: Anyone who was taken there would be shot; there were Jews and others. The first time they burned the bodies, then they brought another group to the site. The victims began to cry and tried to escape by running in different directions. The Germans fired at them with automatic weapons. The second time, they surrounded the pit with a high fence. We could hear nothing, but we could still see the smoke rising up. We couldn’t even go outside because of the black smoke." (Witness n°993B, interviewed in Minsk, on September 19, 2018)
“[…]On September 21, 1943, with the Red Army approaching the city of Smolensk, all the inmates of the Smolensk prison, including myself and my two daughters, were evacuated under guard to the city of Minsk and imprisoned in a concentration camp located on Shirokaya Street. Back then, the above-mentioned camp numbered about 700 inmates, and we were about 500, so the total number of camp inmates reached 1,200-1,300 people.
Many of these detainees were elderly, women, and children aged 2-10. I learned from these people that they had been arrested and imprisoned in the camp even though they were completely innocent. Subsequently, prisoners from Minsk, Bobruisk, Vileyka, and Borisov were regularly brought under guard to this concentration camp. There were many Jews among these prisoners, and they told me that they had only been arrested because they were Jewish.
I know that most of the prisoners, whose number is impossible to calculate [more than a thousand older people, pregnant women, and children], were exterminated in gas vans. Almost daily, four such vans would arrive at the concentration camp from the SD [office]; 100-120 prisoners would be loaded into them each time and taken to the village of Maly Trostenets, in the Minsk district. There, the bodies of the prisoners who had been asphyxiated by the exhaust fumes piped inside would be removed from the van and cremated. (…)
A particularly large number of prisoners were murdered in this way in February 1943. Two trainloads of prisoners were brought over from Polotsk and incarcerated in the Minsk concentration camp. At least 3,000 people were murdered between February 17 and 25, 1943. Most of these Soviet citizens were elderly, women with nursing infants, and children aged 5-10.” [From the testimony of a survivor Grigori B., born in 1887, given to the Soviet State Extraordinarily Commission (ChGK) on July 18, 1944; GARF 7021-87-124]
"Secret of the Reich!
Minsk, July 31, 1942
Subject: Fight against the partisans and Aktions against the Jews in the General District of White Ruthenia
Throughout all clashes with the partisans in White Ruthenia, it turned out that Jewry, both in the former Polish and Soviet territories, was the central pillar of the partisan movement, along with the Polish resistance movement from the East [sic: West] and Red Army soldiers from Moscow, from the East.
As a result, the Jewish question in White Ruthenia, due to the threat to the whole economy, is a remarkable political affair that will have to be resolved not from an economic perspective but a political one. Following extensive meetings with the SS-Brigadeführer Z *** and the very competent head of the SS, the SS-Obersturmbannführer, Doctor of law, S ***, we exterminated around 55,000 Jews in White Ruthenia over the ten last weeks.
The Jewry was completely wiped out in the Minsk region without any intervention from the labor organization compromising the operation. In the predominantly Polish region of Lida, 16,000 Jews were annihilated, 8,000 in Slonim, etc. […]. In the city of Minsk on July 28 and 29, 10,000 Jews were exterminated, including 6,500 Russian Jews - mostly elderly, women, and children; the rest of the Jews were those unable to work brought in from Vienna, Brünn, Bremen, and Berlin to Minsk in November, under the Führer’s order.[…]
2,600 Jews from Germany still remain in the city of Minsk. […] Regarding this obvious position on Jewry also comes the difficult task for the SD in White Ruthenia of always having to escort new transports of Jews from the Reich to their destination. This requires the material and psychological efforts of the SD men that deprives them of their principal duties in the area of White Ruthenia.
I would be grateful if Mr. Reichskommissar ould allow other transports of Jews to Minsk to be at least somewhat halted until the danger of the partisans is definitively fixed. I need SD men available one hundred percent for the interventions against the partisans and against the Polish resistance movement, both of which require all the forces of the SD units, which are incomplete. […]
I am asking Mr. Reichskommissar to stop such transports as the highest official in Ostland. The Polish Jews are, just like the Russian Jews, the enemies of Germany. They represent a dangerous political element; their political danger highly exceeds their value as specialist workers. Under no circumstances may the services of the Wehrmacht, the Army, or the Luftwaffe, in the regions under Civil administration, bring in here without permission Jews from the General government or elsewhere, who threaten the entire political work and security of the Generalbezirke.
I completely agree with the SD Commander in White Ruthenia to liquidate every transport of Jews that has not been decided or approved by our superiors, in order to avoid further concerns in White Ruthenia." [BArch 162-3407 (p.12) – 202ARZ94/1929 ; Report from the Generalkommissar of the White Ruthenia to the Reichskommissar of Ostland]
Minsk is the capital of the Republic of Belarus. It is geographically located in the center of the country, located on the banks of the Svisloch river. The emergence of a Jewish community in the city dates back to the end of the 15th century. At the time, Minsk belonged to the territory of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. It quickly became one of the most important trading centers in its region. From 1606, by order of King Sigismund III, the Jews of Minsk were forbidden to open shops or trade inside the city. In 1633, and again in 1679, they were allowed to acquire property: houses, stores, a synagogue, and a cemetery. They could also freely engage in trade and crafts. In 1766, 1,322 Jewish taxpayers were registered in Minsk. They participated actively in the commercial life of the region, particularly by being present at the fairs of Mir and Kapulia.
In 1793, Minsk was obtained by Tsarist Russia. In the 19th century, this community’s rapid development made it one of the most important in the Russian Empire. From 1847 to 1897, the Jewish population grew from 12,976 to 47,562, making up 52% of its total population. The number of Yeshivot, Jewish schools, and Hebrew printing houses increased sharply in Minsk. The Mitnaggedim was very influential, leaving little room for Hasidism. From the mid-1870s to the beginning of the 20th century, the city was a focal point for the Jewish workers and socialist movements. Zionism also took on an important dimension. For example, in 1902, the Second Convention of Russian Zionists was held in Minsk. In 1922, following the Russian Revolution, Minsk became the capital of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Under this new regime, religious and national institutions were suppressed and then replaced by institutions of Jewish culture based on the Yiddish language and Communist ideology. During the 1920s, Yiddish schools, a Jewish section at the Institute of Belarusian Culture, and a Jewish department within the Faculty of Education of the University of Minsk were created. However, the majority of these institutions were suppressed in the mid-1930s. In parallel, the city also saw the emergence of Yiddish newspapers and a Jewish theater. The Jewish population increased again, from 53,686 in 1926 to 70,998 in 1939. Thus, just before the war, Jews represented 30% of the total population of Minsk.
On June 28, 1941, the Germans occupied Minsk without resistance from the Red Army, who had already left the city. Minsk was designated as an administrative center of the Reichskomissariat Ostland. On July 19, 1941, an order was given for the creation of a ghetto. The ghetto was established on Kolkhozny, Kolkhoznaia, Nemiga, Respublikanskaia, Shornaia, Kollektovnaia, Mebelny, Perekopskaia, Nizhniaia, and Obuvnaia streets. A second road existed between Opansky and Zaslavskaia streets reaching as far as Kolkhozny. The Jews had up to ten days to move into the ghetto. Any Jews who did not comply with the order were executed immediately.
Shortly after establishing the ghetto, all Jews, including children, were forced to wear round yellow patches on their chests. The ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded. All Jewish prisoners were forbidden from leaving the ghetto, except for carrying out hard labor. By mid-1942, approximately 20,000 Jews were declared fit to work. Due to promiscuity, overcrowding, cold, and lack of food, typhus broke out in the ghetto. Hundreds of Jewish prisoners died during the winter of 1941-1942. In the autumn of 1941, the Minsk ghetto housed between 75,000 and 80,000 Jews, including 55,000 local Jews, while others were deported from different territories within the Third Reich. From November 1941 to October 1942, 24,000 Central European Jews were sent to Minsk.
As well as being subjected to horrible living conditions, Jewish prisoners were victim to constant looting, rape, and humiliation at the hands of the Germans and local auxiliaries. There were several isolated killings on the streets for not respecting German rules. The total number of prisoners varies enormously, depending on the sources.
The destruction of the Jewish community in Minsk started shortly after the occupation. The figures differ according to the source, the lowest estimates being German and the highest being Soviet. Until July 1941, it was estimated by the Germans that 5,000 Jews had perished in Minsk. By September, it is possible that an additional 6,000 more perished. From November 7-11, an estimated 6,624 to 12,000 prisoners were killed. On a single day, November 20, 1942, 15,000 Jews would die. On March 2-3, 1942, another 3,412 to 8,000 ghetto residents were killed. During this massacre, Nazi units stabbed the children from the orphanage to death. Later, from July 28-31, an estimated 9,000 to 25,000 additional Jews were murdered. Finally, from October 21 to 23, 1943, more than 4,000 were executed.
The majority of these Aktions resulted from the collaboration between the German SS and Latvian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian police. Jews who had worker status and their families could be spared from the executions. To avoid these massacres, some employers appealed to their workers to hide before an Aktion started. Jews themselves had also set up numerous hiding places within the ghetto itself. As of January 1, 2020, 669 Belarusians have been recognized as "Righteous Among the Nations" for helping and harboring Jews during WWII.
The Aktions against the Jews of the Minsk ghetto were carried out in different ways. The German authorities used gas vans; the suffocated victims, usually between 60 and 100, were then thrown into and burned in mass graves. At the same time, there were also mass shootings, in which Jews were taken directly to pre-dug pits and forced to strip naked. To avoid wasting bullets, children were thrown into these pits and buried alive. These mass graves were located in an area just outside of Minsk, in Maly Trostenets. In 1943, most of the victim’s bodies were burned by the Nazi authorities to cover up their crimes. At the same time, additional specific Aktions were being carried out. For example, ghetto authorities rounded up the most beautiful Jewish girls and shot them in the head in the ghetto center with explosive bullets.
In August 1941, resistance was organized in and outside of the Minsk ghetto. Some Jews managed to escape and joined the partisans. It is estimated that at least 10,000 fled Minsk. These escapes were hazardous, both for the escapees and their relatives left behind, who could be victims of reprisals by the authorities. On October 26, 1941, the Germans carried out a public execution by hanging 12 people accused of resistance. This execution did not prevent the partisans from carrying out successful operations. They carried out sabotage of all kinds, and also assassinations. On September 23, 1943, Wilhelm Kube, Commissioner General for White Ruthenia, was killed by partisans when a bomb that was hidden under his bed exploded.
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