Orsha | Vitebsk

Execution of Jews in Orsha

2 Execution site(s)

Kind of place before :
Near Jewish cemetery
Memorials :
Period of occupation:
Number of victims :
About 5,000

Witness interview

Maria M., born in 1929: “Those Jews who had money and could pay were evacuated while the poorest stayed in the town. Upon the Germans’ arrival they were all gathered on Engels Street in a newly created ghetto. The ghetto was fenced in with barbed wire and guarded by German soldiers. Our neighbor, Guinesha, was also taken to the ghetto. From time to time, she slyly left the ghetto’s territory and came to us asking for food. My mother asked her several times to stay with us, but she refused. I must say that all the Jews were marked with yellow patches, so it was rather easy to recognize who was Jewish. They didn’t stay long in the ghetto; shortly after they were all shot.” (Witness n°1054B, interviewed in Orsha, on November 6, 2020)

Soviet archives

“During the war I lived in the city of Orsha, on the Krasnaya Street n°7. On November 25, 1941, starting from 7pm, all the Jewish area was cordoned off. In order to do that Germans requested help only from the police and the Gendarmerie who surrounded the area until the morning without letting anyone come in. On November 26, 1941, at about 8am, a senior officer arrived and ordered all of the Jewish people to get outside under the pretext of the future displacement. They [the Jews] were gathered at the publishing house and former grocery store N°10. In groups of 100 to 150 people they were first searched and then taken to the Jewish cemetery where the pits in which they were shot had been dug in advance.
At about 3pm the shooting finished. They [the Jews] were all shot in one day. They were about 3,000 people. The remaining Jews were gathered little by little and shot at the same cemetery.” [Deposition given by a local resident, Petr M., to the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission (ChGK) in September 1944; GARF 7021-84-10]

Historical note

Orsha is a city located in the Vitebsk Oblast, in the north-eastern part of Belarus. It is located on the banks of the Dnieper River, about 80 kilometers (50mi) south of Vitebsk. In the second part of the 16th century, when the Republic of Two Nations had integrated Orsha into its territory, the city’s Jewish community was among the largest in the country. In 1765, 368 Jewish people lived in the town. A decade later, in 1776, the city was incorporated into the Russian Empire. Then, over the course of the 19th century, the community grew exponentially. In fact, it increased from 1,662 Jews in 1847 to 7,383 in 1897, comprising 56% of the total population of Orsha. The majority of them were merchants or artisans. During this period, the city housed four Jewish schools and a Talmud Torah. In October 1905, the community was the target of the first violence when 30 Jews were killed in a pogrom.

In 1910, 9,842 Jews continued to live Orsha. In 1922, the city was included in the Socialist Republic of Belarus. Under the Soviet rule, the growth of the Jewish community was very slow. In the interwar period, 95% of Jewish artisans were assembled into cooperatives and two Jewish elementary schools were closed. Some Jews worked in factories or government institutions. On the eve of World War II some 7,992 Jews lived in Orsha making up only 21% of the total population.

Holocaust by bullets in figures

Orsha was occupied by Germans, more precisely by 2nd German Armored Group, on July 16, 1941. Before the German arrival, many of the Orsha Jews managed to escape deeper into the Soviet Union by train, by cart or on foot. From August 1941, Orsha was under the control of Feldkommandantur 683 and Ortskommandantur I/842. Its commander, Baron von Ascheberg, and his deputy, Paul Karl Eick, played a central role in the genocide of the Jews in the region. Immediately under the occupation, the anti-Jewish measures were implemented. Jews were marked with armbands bearing the yellow Star of David, and, in some cases, star-shaped badges on their back. They were forbidden from buying food at the markets with other Belarusians. Besides that, they were subjected to paying taxes and perform forced labor such as cleaning the streets.

In early September 1941, a ghetto was created on the Engels Street, also known as Gorodnyanskaya Street. It was surrounded by the Orshitsa River on one side, and from another, by barbed wire.  The ghetto was guarded by local auxiliaries. Due to overcrowding, malnutrition, as well as diseases such as typhus, many Jews died inside the ghetto. The Jewish inmates were also subjected to robberies and rapes on behalf of Germans and local auxiliaries. 

The extermination of the Orsha Jews started in August 1941, when the Einsatzkommando 9, part of the Einsatzgruppe B unit, executed 43 people. In September 1941, another group of Jews was shot by Einsatzkommando 8, on its way to Mogilev. The ghetto was liquidated on November 26-27, when some 1,873 Jews were taken in groups of 100 to 150 to the Jewish cemetery and shot dead in the pits dug in advance by Soviet prisoners of war.  Before being shot on the edge of the pit by automatic weapons, the Jews were forced to undress. Several dozen artisans and their families remained in the ghetto until April 1942, when they were taken and shot at the cemetery. The isolated shootings continued throughout the occupation. In September 1943, the Nazi authorities attempted to erase the traces of these massacres by burning all the bodies. The Soviet archives estimated the approximate number of the victims as 6,000 people, some of them weren’t Jewish. The local civilian population was systematically exterminated in the course of several isolated killings, along with Soviet prisoners of war.

Besides the ghetto, two camps for non-Jewish civilians, who were supposed to be sent to Germany for forced labor, were created in the town. One was located in the eastern part of the town and another on the Novy But street.  

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