The Minsk Ghetto was the fourth-largest ghetto, but for many reasons, its story is virtually unknown. Most of the witnesses and testimonies relating to it remained behind the Iron Curtain for many years, or their words remained sealed in archives that were only recently opened. This is not a story about “another ghetto.” The Minsk Ghetto was unique in many respects: its location within the Soviet Union; its population, the majority Sovietized Jews who were joined by refugees from Poland and deportees from the Reich; and the strong underground that operated in the ghetto almost from its inception. This time on “On the Holocaust,” we will devote two episodes to the story of the Minsk Ghetto.
Featured guest: Dr. Daniel Romanovsky, historian and researcher at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research.
quick note before we begin: This episode of “On the Holocaust” has been adapted from an episode of Yad Vashem’s Hebrew podcast, which featured the historian Dr. Daniel Romanovsky, a historian at Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research. His research focuses on the Holocaust in Lithuania and Belarus, his country of birth. During his time there, Dr. Romanovsky collected many testimonies on the Holocaust in Belarus, which are now part of the Yad Vashem Archives. . His interview answers are presented here in English by a narrator.
The Story of the Minsk Ghetto - Transcription:
Nate: At 12:00p, on June 22, 1941, with much fanfare and a large crowd in attendance, an artificial lake was due to be inaugurated in the Minsk city center. But an entirely different announcement began spreading across the city. War had broken out! Throughout the day, Minsk was bombarded by German planes. On June 27, army forces began arriving at the city’s outskirts, and, at the same time, units blocking the Red Army’s escape routes started parachuting in. Four brigades of the Soviet infantry were met with three German armored divisions from the north and two more from the southwest, the latter two capturing the city in a pincer movement the next day. The residents of Minsk were completely stunned. A witness described the sense of chaos that gripped everybody: “There was panic, but there was no time for panic.”
The significance of the attack was particularly devastating for the Jewish population. Germany’s military invasion into the Soviet Union marked a major escalation point in the German anti-Jewish policy. The reason for this is reflected in the words of one of the senior Wehrmacht commanders, also a leader of the war on the eastern front, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein: “Since June 22, the German nation has been immersed in a life-and-death battle; the Bolshevik Jewish system must be obliterated once and for all.” The attitude toward Soviet Jews, including the Jews of Minsk, was particularly violent.
This time on “On the Holocaust,” Yad Vashem’s podcast, we’ll devote two episodes to the story of the Minsk Ghetto. The fourth-largest ghetto, it was unique in many respects, but its story… is virtually unknown.
I’m your host Nate Nelson. Let’s begin.
On the eve of World War II, Minsk’s Jewish population numbered about 70,000, roughly one-third of the city’s total population. At this point, the community had already undergone numerous upheavals over the course of the twenty years since the Bolshevik revolution. In the summer of 1920, the city had become the capital of the newly formed Socialist Soviet Republic of Byelorussia. The imposition of the Soviet regime dealt a severe blow to the independent communal and political life of Jews in Minsk, as well as in all the Soviet territories. Jewish community institutions closed in the early 1920s, a branch of the Jewish socialist party, the Bund, was disbanded, and in the late 1920s, official Zionist activity was restricted.
Dr. Daniel Romanovsky: The Yiddish culture was the only version of Jewish culture that the Soviet government recognized, and Minsk was very important in this regard.
Minsk had schools that operated in Yiddish as well as a variety of newspapers and periodicals in Yiddish. It had a theater that operated in Yiddish, and the Belorussian Academy of Sciences actually had a Jewish, rather than a Yiddish, department, because it dealt not only with the Yiddish language but also with the history of Jews in Belarus.
The great purges in the latter half of the 1930s dealt a blow to the Soviet Yiddish culture as well, and a number of its prominent writers and activists were murdered during this time. In the summer of 1938, all Jewish educational institutions were shut down. Although there was still some Jewish cultural and religious life during this period, by the time the war broke out, Minsk’s Jews had no organized, independent leadership of their own in practice. The Jewish community ceased to exist as a community.
In September 1939, thousands of Jewish refugees began arriving from Poland, having fled the German occupation. At this time, Germany and the Soviet Union were still bound by a ten-year non-aggression pact, which Germany would violate within two years of its signing.
From the testimony of David Taubkin:
Narrator I: “On June 22 we heard that war had broken out. At first I thought: “war is fun, it will be really interesting.” When I heard the news, I rushed out to the street and saw a lot of cars, Soviet cars as well as trucks. My father saw this and told all the children to go back to the courtyard. He told us not to go out into the street. We were generally obedient children, so we no longer went out into the street.”
Nate: David Taubkin was born in Minsk in 1932. He had an older sister; his father was a doctor. When the war broke out, his father received a draft notice and by the following day, had to leave for the city of Borisov (Barysaw), where he was stationed.
From the testimony of David Taubkin:
Narrator I: “Nobody could have imagined what was to come, because the Soviet propaganda was always talking about how we would easily crush the enemy and everybody assumed that the situation was temporary, that the war would be over in two or three weeks, that the Soviet army was unbeatable. So saying goodbye was easy. The next day, on June 24, the bombing began. We sat in the bomb shelter. The feeling was that everything around us was exploding. And then the explosions stopped. I went outside when they let us, and first of all, I looked at our house. Our house was still standing. Then I turned to the west and I saw that the whole city was destroyed. A pillar of smoke and fire was rising up to the clouds. The city had ceased to exist. We returned to our home. On the radio they were announcing that all citizens had to stay in place, not to panic, and to wait for new instructions. That was the order issued by the Soviet authorities.”
Nate: By June 25, the Soviet leadership had fled Minsk. But in practice, the city had been without leadership or police forces since the German invasion. The Jews began fleeing eastward. The Jewish refugees that had arrived from different parts of Poland between 1939-1941 brought with them grim news about the anti-Jewish actions of the Nazi occupiers. On the first day, it was still possible to squeeze into a train; by the next day, people had to flee by horse and carriage. The roads were packed with German tanks. Many of those who tried to flee were sent home under German orders. The residents of the bombed and abandoned city began breaking into food warehouses, seizing whatever food and property they could get their hands on. Thousands of Soviet soldiers who had been taken prisoners were marched day-after-day in kilometers-long columns along the city’s streets. The summer heat was sweltering. Any prisoner who reached out to ask for a bit of water was shot. The prisoners were confined to a number of camps in Minsk and its surroundings.
A German report prepared in late July 1941 describes the situation in Minsk during the first days of the occupation: “Three-quarters of the city was destroyed by the bombings and fires. Water, gas, and electricity supplies are not working, and all of the city’s previous administration has left.” Section 3 of the report, titled “the Jewish Question,” stated: “The high concentration of Jews in Minsk requires that the Jewish question be addressed immediately, all the more so because the Jewish element is expressly hostile to Germans.”
A few days after their arrival, the Germans issued an order instructing all men between the ages of 15 and 50 to report for registration. They were then driven into prisoner-of-war camps. One camp was set up in the Staro-Radzievsky Cemetery, where they were held for ten days without food or water. When water was finally brought into the camp, people ran toward the barrels and were shot by the Germans. After several weeks, the civilians were separated from the prisoners of war, and the Jews were separated from everyone else. Some of the non-Jewish men were released. Large numbers of prisoners of war and civilians were also confined in the Drozdy camp, which was set up in an open field.
From the testimony by Anatoly Rubin, quoted in historian Shalom Kholavsky In the Storm of Annihilation:
Narrator II: “At night, people were brought in groups to the open field. It was cold and people were lying down next to each other to warm themselves up. The night passed, and the day began. There was a large mass of people, and no food was distributed. When people tried to ask [for food], the Germans shot them. And so the second day passed, and night arrived. People were lying on the ground, hungry and freezing cold. On the following day, [they] brought another group of people. A German appears with a bucket and starts distributing water. People called to him, surrounded him, and almost knocked him over. And again, the scoundrels start shooting people.”
Nate: Most of the Jews who survived these camp imprisonments were later transferred to the ghetto. The violence against Jews, abductions, and theft had already started on the very first day of the occupation. The rampant looting of people’s homes continued; the Germans took up positions in the municipal school and shot at passersby from the windows. At night small groups continued looting. There wasn’t a moment of quiet.
Dr. Daniel Romanovsky: On the tenth day of the German occupation, the Germans assembled educated Jews – that is, intellectuals who had academic-based professions – on the pretext that they would give these people intellectual work. They simply assembled about 500 people and executed them in a suburb of Minsk. In Minsk terms you could say that this was not yet a mass murder; it was still a targeted group murder.
Nate: In early July 1941, the Germans appointed a Judenrat, with Eliyahu (Ilya) Mushkin as its first chairman. The order to establish the ghetto was issued on July 19, and on the following day, an announcement was disseminated throughout Minsk.
From the testimony of David Taubkin:
Narrator I: “Many people were actually happy to move to the ghetto because they thought it would prevent pogroms…. All the Jews went to the ghetto, taking all their possessions with them. First of all, we took food, but the food we had at home was only enough for a few days, not for a long stretch of time. We took a few jars of jam, a bit of flour, a loaf of bread, another bit of something. They led us to a house and said: "You’ll live in this house." Five families were already living in that house. We had just one corner where we could place the two beds we had brought and lie on them. I remember that when we lay there, if somebody turned over, the entire row would have to turn over. All our family members slept on those two beds. About 35 people lived in that room, maybe even 40, and in our corner, there were 12 people.”
The Judenrat’s first task was to conduct a census. All the Jews were required to report for registration, and they were issued “ghetto passports” without which they could not receive an apartment, food, and other essentials. Another task was to collect money and valuables. When these items were depleted, the Germans began to demand possessions – leather products, fur, and even electrical appliances, bedlinen, candles, and soap. In mid-October 1941, an order was issued to turn over all household property. The Jews were allowed to keep only one pair of undergarments and a bed. The order also decreed that anyone caught with other possessions in their home would be shot. This created severe hardship for the ghetto's population, which until then had survived largely by bartering posessions for food. In addition to the acts of so-called official confiscation, soldiers and policemen also randomly stole whatever they could.
Barbed wire fencing surrounded the ghetto. The entire ghetto spanned two square kilometers and included 34 streets and alleys. Part of it also housed the Jewish cemetery. The ghetto’s population was very diverse, including Jews from Minsk, refugees who had come to the city from Poland, and Jews who were brought to the ghetto from surrounding towns. At its peak, the Minsk Ghetto had an estimated population of nearly 100,000.
Jews would be abducted for hard labor, and some never returned. In addition to wearing a yellow star on their chest and back, the Jews were also ordered to sew a white triangle with their address onto their chest. This way, any Jews caught trying to escape or were outside their area of residence were placing themselves and their family members in danger. The punishment was usually death. There was another German marking that distinguished between workers whose occupation the Germans considered essential and the rest of the ghetto’s population. Red for workers. Green for the others.
Minsk had many mixed Jewish and non-Jewish families. With the establishment of the ghetto, Jews were separated from their non-Jewish spouses and sent to the ghetto. Children would go with the father. In his The Storm of Annihilation, historian Shalom Kholawski describes how reactions to this order differed. There were cases where a Christian husband would urge his Jewish wife to hurry up and leave for the ghetto. The children would plead, “Papa, where are you sending Mama?” And then the mother-in-law would intervene, taking her son’s side. Afterward, non-Jewish husbands and wives would boast that they had “got rid of their Jews.” There were other cases as well. There was a Russian husband who hid his Jewish wife and their three children, but his sister-in-law informed on them, and everyone, including the husband, were killed. There were also instances in which the couple remained together. One non-Jewish wife went with her Jewish husband to the ghetto, and later they jointly escaped to join the partisans.
The German occupation, and, even more so, the transition to the ghetto, also intensified intergenerational gaps within Jewish families, both mixed and not mixed. Young people who had received a Soviet education – and who in many respects had lost their ties to Judaism – were at a complete loss when they arrived in the ghetto. A. Movshezon stated in her testimony that “people who had received a different education looked at us with scorn. The older people told us that what was happening was punishment for having abandoned our Judaism.”
Unlike other ghettos, the violent incidents that accompanied the initial occupation continued unabated within the ghetto. Rape, looting, and pursuits, even within the closed ghetto, were daily occurrences. A large pit was dug in the cemetery, and Jews who had “sinned” were shot into it – one for walking too close to the fence, another for not removing his hat for a German, and another for not wearing a yellow star. Assaults and abductions were daily events. Roads would suddenly be blocked, and anyone who fell into the Germans’ hands would be forced onto trucks, never to return.
An estimated over 5,000 Jews were abducted and killed in August 1941, and the sporadic killing continued. The EK8 Einsatzgruppen - special action units, known mainly for their role in the systematic murder of the Jews - came to Minsk for six weeks, during which it committed seven massacres of Jews. Six of these resulted in the murder of at least 800 Jews. The seventh, at which SS leader Heinrich Himmler was present, resulted in the murder of about 300 Jews. All this occurred even before the major aktion - forced deportation to be murdered - began.
Dr. Daniel Romanovsky: Such killings continued throughout the ghetto’s existence, alongside truly large-scale mass murder. Whether it was night or day, no Jews in Minsk could be sure that they were not about to be killed, that they would not be caught and killed somewhere in the city’s outskirts.
Nate: In his book, Y. Greenstein wrote: “The Minsk Ghetto had a terrifying exterior. Several streets surrounding Jubilee Square in the old part of the city were fenced off with barbed wire. The houses had been broken into and torn up. Their fences and every piece of wood had been uprooted to be used as firewood for heating…. There were no yards, and the old wooden sheds stood in isolation…. Most of the windows had been ripped out, replaced with rags and grimy old boards.”
The housing situation was unbearable. Each person was allotted 1.5 square meters. Several families were crammed into every room, no matter how small. At night, not everyone had space on the floor. The electricity was disconnected, and candles or kerosene lamps, if available, were used for lighting. For heating and cooking, people began using pieces of wood that were smuggled into the ghetto after all the wooden fences and sidewalks had been disassembled and all the household furniture used for kindling. Anything that could burn was used for heating during the cold spells. The ghetto had no running water, and the Jews had to carry buckets with water from the pump located within the ghetto.
Every day groups of prisoners were taken out of the ghetto to serve as laborers in factories established by German companies in the city. They usually had to walk 5–6 km in each direction. Their workday lasted from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Jews performing manual labor suffered from the strenuous work, the scant amount of food they received, and the violence inflicted by their supervisors.
But anyone who did not work was doomed to starve to death along with their families.
A special fate awaited children: They faced a daily battle for survival: picking through garbage, collecting peels and crumbs, and going from home to home begging for handouts. Children played an inestimably major part in smuggling food into the ghetto. They would squeeze through the fences, sneaking out to search far afield and scavenge for food. The children were left alone while their parents worked, and they were not spared the sporadic murder and violence.
As noted, the Judenrat was formed in early 1941. Because the community had lacked a leadership even before the war, the Germans seized ten Jewish men on Karl Marx Street, took them to the administrative building, and informed them that they would now serve as the Jewish Council, carrying out the Germans’ instructions.
Mushkin, a Minsk native, was a tall, educated man who spoke Russian and Yiddish. His deputy was Moishe Yoffe. Mushkin chaired the Judenrat from the time of its formation until March 1942. Ghetto Jews referred to the Judenrat as die Yiddishe kehila (the Jewish community), viewing it in a positive and respectful way, without a hint of criticism.
Mushkin was regarded as a fair and capable man by the ghetto Jews. Unlike the situation in other ghettos, the first large-scale aktions in the Minsk Ghetto were carried out directly by the Germans, without any involvement by the Judenrat or the Jewish “Order Police.” This contributed to a positive image of the Judenrat among the community, at least initially.
Dr. Daniel Romanovsk: The massacre was on November 7, 1941. That date is an official Soviet holiday, the anniversary of the October Revolution. And the Nazis intentionally carried out the first mass aktion on that day.
Nate: The Germans’ objective was to “clear room” for Jews who were slated to be deported from Reich territories. According to a German source, the aktion victims were assembled in the warehouse of a furniture factory. From there, they were taken to a place named Tuchinka, where two ditches had been dug. The Jews were ordered to undress and lie in the ditch face downward, in the same direction as those shot before them. Then the barrage of bullets began.
Before the aktion, rumors had been circulating in the ghetto that the Germans were about to reduce the ghetto area. In the underground circles, there was news that the Germans were about to “cut off the streets.” No one knew what this meant. On November 6, hundreds of skilled workers and Judenrat employees were transferred from the ghetto to Shirokaya Camp. On November 7, Einsatzgruppen personnel stationed in the city, backed by Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian auxiliary forces, charged into the ghetto. Residents of the ghetto, having drawn lessons from the experience of the sporadic killings, had prepared hiding places in advance, which were located in cellars, attics, and between double-paneled walls. The Jews within the besieged part of the ghetto were forced to dress in their holiday clothes and march in four columns, carrying signs and red flags, singing Russian songs, and chanting “Long live Stalin!” In this way they proceeded through the city streets toward those warehouses. According to the Judenrat, at least 12,000 Jews were led to the ditches.
Daniel: As one witness describes, for example, “People were ordered to wear their best clothes and dress their children in their holiday clothes. They were even ordered to take their babies with them. Everybody was arranged in four columns and led, under guard, to Novo Krasnaya Street. Next to a small square there was a parked car, from which they photographed one of the columns. And then the machine gun began firing, and the entire column was shot.” The Nazis turned this first aktion, into a sort of … propaganda show, let’s put it that way.
Nate: During the aktion, the theft and looting took place in stages. First the Germans, then the rank-and-file police; then the siege was lifted and the hordes poured in like wolves pouncing on their prey, seizing the property of the victims. They stripped everything down to the bones. First objects and food. Then furniture. Anything they could rip out and carry – even windows and doors. Wooden houses were dismantled beam by beam. In the end, only skeletons of broken houses remained.
Thus began the phased liquidation of the Minsk Ghetto. A few individuals, who had managed to feign death and escape, returned to the ghetto and have described the events.
On the day after the aktion, the skilled workers and Judenrat employees were returned to the ghetto. With this aktion, the terror of extermination began to seep into the consciousness of the ghetto Jews. Another German measure that reinforced both the fear of murder and the division within the ghetto population, was concentrating all craftsmen and skilled workers within four streets to be protected against an aktion, a move that separated them from the rest of the population, which was concentrated in the larger part of the ghetto. The ghetto residents called those four streets “the Holy Quarter.” The expected fates of those remaining in the larger part of the ghetto was evident. These residents went crazy. Panic spread. Young girls sought men with professional certificates, young women married old men….
Only three weeks passed before the next aktion began, on November 20, 1941. More than 7,000 Jews were taken from their homes and sent to Tuchinka, where they were brutally murdered.
In his testimony, Anatoly Rubin describes this aktion:
Narrator II: “This time too, they grabbed people from their homes as they found them. In undergarments, nightshirts, barefoot. It was late November, the ground was frozen, a light snow was falling. This time a special penal battalion of Lithuanians was sent to help the Germans and the local police. The people behaved differently; some tried to escape from the column but were immediately shot. Some prayed and cried. Nobody knew how to act or what the best course of action was. I walked next to my little sister Betty; next to her was our mother, and on my right at the end of the row was my sister Tamar. As we approached Zamkovaya Street, Tamar bolted and disappeared through the gates of one of the houses. My mother called after her, “Be careful, Tamar, they’ll kill you.” Later Tamar managed to cross over to the Aryan side, where she met with members of her underground. But somebody informed on her and she fell into the hands of the police. They jailed her, abused her, tortured her, and later hanged her as a partisan. Now I was marching at the end of the row; I can’t say that I was thinking about anything because I was planning to escape. And when the Lithuanian walking along the edge turned to look behind, I bolted without realizing what I was doing. And I burst through a broken fence into a yard. The Lithuanian saw this and managed to shoot at me, and the bullet whistled past me. I reached the Aryan side. I removed my yellow patches and walked on the ice of the frozen lake. But where would I go? It was already dark. Supposedly I was in my city, the city in which I was born and grew up. Everything was familiar to me. I used to spend so much time at this lake, swimming, playing, tanning…Now I suddenly sense hostility from every direction. Everything has changed, dropped its mask. It seems to me that even the trees, the benches, and everything around me are looking at me with hate, pointing at me, “Zhid! Zhid!” Since I couldn’t find anywhere to go…I returned to the ghetto.”
Dr. Daniel Romanovsky: In both these aktions, the Nazis cleared out a certain part of the ghetto, and the part that they evacuated was used as space for a German ghetto, or as it was called in the Minsk Ghetto, the “Hamburg Ghetto.” In that month, November 1941, they brought German Jews to Minsk. The first group was from Hamburg. This is where the name “Hamburg Ghetto” comes from, the counterpart to the “Russian Ghetto,” as it was called.
Nate: After these two aktions, seven transports of Jews from Germany and Vienna were brought to Minsk. Each transport had about 1,000 people. These Jews, referred to as “the Reich Jews,” were housed in a separate ghetto, named “Sonderghetto” or “the Reich Jews’ Ghetto.” And the Minsk Jews, as noted, called it the “Hamburg Ghetto.” It was surrounded by a barbed wire fence, and passage between the ghettos was prohibited. In May 1942, the transports from Vienna resumed, and by October of that year close to 10,000 people had arrived from that city. Between June and September 1942, fourteen transports from Theresienstadt arrived as well, bringing 19,000 people. Upon their arrival, most of these people were murdered at Maly Trostenets, in ditches prepared for them in advance. The lack of a common language and the cultural differences between the residents of the two ghettos resulted in relations characterized by mutual estrangement and mistrust. Moreover, the German Jews, at least initially, saw themselves as higher class and more entitled, and they were certain that the aktions were directed solely against the “Ostjuden” – the Eastern Jews. The special treatment they received from the Generalkommissar of the district, Wilhelm Kube – who believed that they should be treated differently from the “beastly masses” of local Jews, although he still thought that they should be exterminated – reinforced their illusion that their fate would be different and fueled their aversion to the local Jews.
This impression among Reich Jews also prevented them from trying to escape the ghetto into the forests. Such escapes were occurring in increasing numbers among the Jews of the local ghetto, inspired and encouraged by the underground.
This brings the first of our two episodes on the Minsk Ghetto to a close. In the next episode we will present the unique story of the Minsk Ghetto underground and describe what the ghetto Jews underwent up until October 1943, when the ghetto was liquidated.