Military history

CHAPTER 7

HOLOCAUST AND REVENGE

Belarus was the center of the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. After the German invasion of June 1941, its inhabitants observed, if they survived, the escalation of both German and Soviet violence. Their homeland was a German zone of occupation and a once and future Soviet republic. Its cities were battlefields of armies in advance and retreat, its towns centers of Jewish settlement destroyed by the Holocaust. Its fields became German prisoner-of-war camps, where Soviet soldiers starved in the tens and hundreds of thousands. In its forests Soviet partisans and German policemen and Waffen-SS conducted ferocious partisan warfare. The country as a whole was the site of a symbolic competition between Hitler and Stalin, represented not only by soldiers behind the lines, partisans in the forests, and policemen over pits but by propagandists in Berlin and Moscow and Minsk, the republic’s capital city.

Minsk was a centerpiece of Nazi destructiveness. The German air force had bombed the city into submission on 24 June 1941; the Wehrmacht had to wait for the fires to die down before entering. By the end of July the Germans had shot thousands of educated people and confined the Jews to the northwest of the city. Minsk would have a ghetto, and concentration camps, and prisoner-of-war camps, and killing sites. Finally Minsk was transformed by the Germans into a kind of macabre theater, in which they could act out the ersatz victory of killing Jews.1

In Minsk in autumn 1941, the Germans were celebrating an imaginary triumph, even as Moscow held fast. On 7 November, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Germans organized something more dramatic than mere mass shootings. On that morning, they rounded up thousands of Jews from the ghetto. The Germans forced the Jews to wear their best clothes, as though they were dressing up for the Soviet holiday. Then the Germans formed the captives into columns, gave them Soviet flags, and ordered them to sing revolutionary songs. People had to smile for the cameras that were filming the scene. Once beyond Minsk, these 6,624 Jews were taken in trucks to a former NKVD warehouse in the nearby village of Tuchinka. Jewish men returning that evening from forced labor assignments found their entire families gone. As one recalled: “Out of eight people—my wife, my three children, my elderly mother, and her two children—not a soul remained!”2

Terror itself was nothing new. People had been taken from Minsk to Tuchinka, in the black ravens of the NKVD, not so long before, in 1937 and 1938. Yet even at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror of those years, the NKVD was always discreet, taking people by ones and twos in the dark of night. The Germans were carrying out a mass action in the middle of the day, made for public consumption, ripe with meaning, suitable for a propaganda film. The staged parade was supposed to prove the Nazi claim that communists were Jews and Jews were communists. It followed from this, to the Nazi way of thinking, that their removal not only secured the rear area of Army Group Center but was also a kind of victory in itself. Yet this hollow expression of triumph seemed designed to disguise a more obvious defeat. By 7 November 1941, Army Group Center was supposed to have taken Moscow, and had not.3

Stalin was still in the Soviet capital, and was organizing his own victory celebrations. He had never abandoned the city, not during the initial offensive of Operation Barbarossa of June 1941, not during the secondary offensive of Operation Typhoon of October. Lenin’s embalmed corpse was sent away from the Kremlin for safekeeping, but Stalin remained and ruled. Leningrad was besieged, and Minsk and Kiev were taken, but Moscow defended itself under Stalin’s obstinate command. On the 6th of November, Stalin spoke defiantly to Soviet citizens. Noting that the Germans called their campaign a “war of annihilation,” he promised them the same. He referred, for the one and only time, to the Germans’ murder of the Jews. In calling the Nazi regime an empire eager to organize “pogroms,” however, he fell far short of a true description of the ongoing mass murder. The Minsk Jews taken to Tuchinka on 7 November (the Soviet holiday) were shot on 9 November (the National Socialist holiday). Five thousand more followed on 20 November. Traditional empires had never done anything like this to Jews. On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire.4

The German murder of Jews was never going to play much of a role in the Soviet vision of the war. From a Stalinist perspective, it was not the killing of Jews that mattered but the possibilities for its political interpretation. The German identification of Jews with communism was not just a Nazi conviction and a pretext for mass murder; it was also a propaganda weapon against the Soviet Union. If the Soviet Union was nothing more than a Jewish empire, then surely (went the Nazi argument) the vast majority of Soviet citizens had no reason to defend it. In November 1941 Stalin was thus preparing an ideological as well as a military defense of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was not a state of the Jews, as the Nazis claimed; it was a state of the Soviet peoples, first among whom were the Russians. On 7 November, as the Jews marched through Minsk to their deaths, Stalin reviewed a military parade in Moscow. To raise the spirits of his Soviet peoples and to communicate his confidence to the Germans, he had actually recalled Red Army divisions from their defensive positions west of Moscow, and had them march through its boulevards. In his address that day he called upon the Soviet people to follow the example of their “great ancestors,” mentioning six prerevolutionary martial heroes—all of them Russians. At a time of desperation, the Soviet leader appealed to Russian nationalism.5

Stalin was associating himself and his people with the earlier Russian Empire, which just one day before he had mentioned in connection with pogroms of Jews. As the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union summoned the heroes of prerevolutionary Russian history, he had to negotiate with their ghosts. By placing Russians at the center of history, he was implicitly reducing the role of other Soviet peoples, including those who suffered more than Russians from the German occupation. If this was a “Great Patriotic War,” as Stalin’s close associate Viacheslav Molotov had said on the day of the German invasion, what was the fatherland? Russia, or the Soviet Union? If the conflict was a war of Russian self-defense, what to make of the German mass murder of the Jews?

Hitler’s public anti-Semitism had placed Stalin, like all the leaders of the Allies, in a profound dilemma. Hitler said that the Allies were fighting for the Jews, and so (fearing that their populations might agree) the Allies had to insist that they were fighting to liberate oppressed nations (but not Jews in particular). Stalin’s answer to Hitler’s propaganda shaped the history of the Soviet Union for as long as it existed: all of the victims of German killing policies were “Soviet citizens,” but the greatest of the Soviet nations was the Russians. One of his chief propagandists, Aleksandr Shcherbakov, clarified the line in January 1942: “the Russian people—the first among equals in the USSR’s family of peoples—are bearing the main burden of the struggle with the German occupiers.” By the time Shcherbakov uttered those words, the Germans had killed a million Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, including some 190,000 Jews in Belarus.6

As the freezing weather came to a Minsk ghetto without electricity and fuel, Jews called their home “a dead city.” In winter 1941-1942, Minsk held the largest ghetto on the territory of the prewar Soviet Union, confining perhaps seventy thousand Jews. According to the last Soviet census (of 1939), some 71,000 Jews were among the 239,000 residents of the city. Some of the Jews native to Minsk had fled before the Germans took the city at the end of June 1941 and thousands more had been shot in the summer and fall; on the other hand, the Jewish population of the city had been swollen by Jews who had earlier arrived as refugees from Poland. These Polish Jews had fled the German invasion of Poland in 1939, but would flee no further after they were overtaken by German troops in 1941. The escape route east was now sealed. Once Soviet power disappeared from these lands, there could be no more Soviet deportations, which, deadly as they were, preserved Polish Jews from German bullets. There could be no more rescues of the kind organized by the Japanese spy Sugihara in Lithuania in 1940.7

Minsk was the provincial capital of General Commissariat White Ruthenia (as the Germans called Belarus). The General Commissariat comprised about one fourth of Soviet Belarus: the eastern part of the Soviet republic remained under military administration, the southern part was added to the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, and Białystok was annexed by the Reich. Along with the three occupied Baltic States, General Commissariat White Ruthenia constituted the Reichskommissariat Ostland. Belarusian Jews, whether in this civilian occupation authority or in the military occupation zone to its east, were behind the lines of Operation Typhoon. As the Wehrmacht advanced they were killed; as it stalled, some of them were kept alive, for a time. The inability of the Germans to take Moscow in late 1941 saved the remainder of the Jews of Minsk, at least for the moment. As Red Army divisions reinforced from the Far East defended the Soviet capital, battalions of German Order Police were ordered to the front. These were the very policemen who otherwise would have been tasked with shooting Jews. As the German offensive stalled in late November, the army realized that the boots and coats taken from dead or captured Soviet soldiers would not suffice for the cold winter ahead. Jewish workers in Minsk would have to make more, and so they would have to be allowed to live through the winter.8

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Because Moscow held, the Germans had to drop their initial plans for Minsk: it could not be starved; its hinterlands could not be emptied of peasants; some of its Jews would have to live for a time. Germans asserted their dominance in Minsk by marching columns of prisoners of war through the ghetto and through the city. In late 1941, when prisoners of war were very likely to starve to death, some of them survived by fleeing—to the Minsk ghetto. The ghetto was still a safer place than the prisoner-of-war camps. In the last few months of 1941, more people died at nearby Dulags and Stalags than in the Minsk ghetto. The enormous Stalag 352, probably the deadliest prisoner-of-war camp of them all, was a complex of holding pens in and around Minsk. A camp on Shirokaia Street, in the middle of the city, held both prisoners of war and Jews. The former NKVD facility at Tuchinka now functioned as a German prison and execution site.9

German policy in occupied Minsk was one of savage and unpredictable terror. The carnivalesque death march of 7 November 1941 was only one of a series of murderous incidents that left Jews horrified and confused about their fate. Special humiliations were reserved for Jews who were known and respected before the war. A noted scientist was forced to crawl across Jubilee Square, the center of the ghetto, with a soccer ball on his back. Then he was shot. Germans took Jews as personal slaves to clean their houses and their clothes. The German (Austrian) medical doctor Irmfried Eberl, in Minsk after a tour of duty gassing the handicapped in Germany, wrote to his wife that he needed no money in this “paradise.” When Himmler visited Minsk, he was treated to a show execution of Jews, which was recorded by movie cameras. He seems to have watched himself and the mass murder on film later.10

Jewish women suffered in particular ways. Despite regulations against “racial defilement,” some Germans quickly developed a taste for rape as prelude to murder. At least once Germans carried out a “beauty contest” of Jewish women, taking them to the cemetery, forcing them to strip naked, and then killing them. In the ghetto, German soldiers would force Jewish girls to dance naked at night; in the morning only the girls’ corpses remained. Perla Aginskaia recalled what she saw in a dark apartment in the Minsk ghetto one evening in autumn 1941: “a little room, a table, a bed. Blood was streaming down the girl’s body from deep, blackish wounds in her chest. It was quite clear that the girl had been raped and killed. There were gunshot wounds around her genitals.”11

Violence is not confidence, and terror is not mastery. For the first nine months of the occupation, from summer 1941 through early spring 1942, the bursts of murder and rape did not bring Minsk under complete German domination.

Minsk was an unusual city, a place whose social structure defied the Nazi mind as well as German experience in occupied Poland. Here, in a Soviet metropolis, the history of Jews had taken a different turn than in Poland. Twenty years of social opportunity and political coercion had done their work. The urbane Jews of the city were not organized in any sort of traditional community, since the Soviets had destroyed Jewish religious and communal institutions in the 1920s and 1930s. The younger generation of Jews was highly assimilated, to the point that many had “Belarusian” or “Russian” inscribed as their nationality on their Soviet documents. Although this probably meant little to them before 1941, it could save their lives under German rule. Some Minsk Jews had Belarusian or Russian friends and colleagues who were ignorant of or indifferent to religion and nationality. A striking example of the ignorance of Jewish origins was Isai Kaziniets, who organized the communist underground throughout the city of Minsk. Neither his friends nor his enemies knew that he was Jewish.12

Soviet rule had brought a certain sort of toleration and assimilation, at the price of habits of subordination and obedience to the commands of Moscow. Political initiative had not been rewarded in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Anyone responding with too much avidity to a given situation, or even to a political line, was at risk when the situation or the line changed. Thus Soviet rule in general, and the Great Terror of 1937-1938 in particular, had taught people not to take spontaneous action. People who had distinguished themselves in the Minsk of the 1930s had been shot by the NKVD at Kuropaty. Even when it must have been clear in Moscow that Soviet citizens in Minsk had their own reasons to resist Germans, communists understood that this would not be enough to protect them from future persecution when the Soviets returned. Kaziniets and all local communists hesitated to create any sort of organization, knowing that Stalinism opposed any sort of spontaneous action from below. Left to themselves, they would have endured Hitler for fear of Stalin.13

An outsider, the Polish-Jewish communist Hersh Smolar, helped spur Minsk communists and Jews to action. His curious combination of Soviet and Polish experience provided him with the skills (and, perhaps, the naiveté) to push forward. He had spent the early 1920s in the Soviet Union, and spoke Russian—the main language of Minsk. After returning to a Poland where the communist party was illegal, he grew accustomed to operating underground and working against local authorities. Arrested by the Polish police and imprisoned, he had been spared the experiences of Stalinist mass shooting that weighed so heavily in Minsk. He was behind bars during the Great Terror of 1937-1938, when Polish communists were invited to the Soviet Union in order to be shot. Released from Polish prison when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, Smolar served the new Soviet regime. He fled the Germans on foot in June 1941, and got as far as Minsk. After the German occupation of the city, he began to organize the ghetto underground, and persuaded Kaziniets that a general city underground was permissible as well. Kaziniets wanted to know whom Smolar was representing; Smolar told him truthfully that he stood for no one but himself. This denial seemed to have persuaded Kaziniets that Smolar was actually authorized by Moscow to work under deep cover. Both men found a large number of willing conspirators within and without the ghetto; by early autumn 1941 both the ghetto and the city were thoroughly penetrated by a dedicated communist underground movement.14

The underground subverted the organs of German control over Jewish life, the Judenrat and the Jewish police. In the occupied Soviet Union, as in occupied Poland, German rule forced Jews into ghettos, which were administered by a local Jewish council typically known by the German termJudenrat. In the cities of occupied Poland, the Judenrat was often composed of Jews of some standing in the prewar community, often the same people who had led the Jewish communal structures that had been legal in independent Poland. In Minsk, such continuity of Jewish leadership was impossible, since the Soviets had eliminated Jewish communal life. The Germans had no easy way to find people who represented Jewish elites, and who were accustomed to making compromises with the local authorities. It seems that they chose the initial Minsk Judenrat more or less at random—and chose badly. The entire Judenrat cooperated with the underground.15

In late 1941 and early 1942, Jews who wished to flee the ghetto could count on help from the Judenrat. Jewish policemen would be stationed away from places where escape attempts were planned. Because the Minsk ghetto was enclosed only by barbed wire, the momentary absence of police attention allowed people to flee to the forest—which was very close to the city limits. Very small children were passed through the barbed wire to gentiles who agreed to raise them or take them to orphanages. Older children learned the escape routes, and came to serve as guides from the city to the nearby forest. Sima Fiterson, one of these guides, carried a ball, which she would play with to signal danger to those following behind her. Children adapted quickly and well, but were in terrible danger all the same. To celebrate that first Christmas under German occupation, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the Higher SS and Police Leader, sent thousands of pairs of children’s gloves and socks to SS families in Germany.16

Unlike Jews elsewhere under German occupation, Jews in Minsk had somewhere to run. In the nearby forest, they could try to find Soviet partisans. They knew that the Germans had taken countless prisoners of war, and that some had escaped to the forests. These men had stayed in the woods because they knew that the Germans would shoot them or starve them. Stalin had called in July 1941 for loyal communists to organize partisan units behind the lines, in the hope of establishing some control over this spontaneous movement before it grew in importance. Centralization was not yet possible; the soldiers hid in the forest, and the communists, if they had not fled, did their best to hide their pasts from the Germans.17

The Minsk underground activists, however, did try to support their armed comrades. On at least one occasion, members of the ghetto underground liberated a Red Army officer from the camp on Shirokaia Street; he became an important partisan leader in the nearby forests, and saved Jews in his turn. Jewish laborers in German factories stole winter clothes and boots, meant for the German soldiers of Army Group Center, and diverted them to the partisans. Workers in arms factories, remarkably, did the same. The Judenrat, required to collect a regular “contribution” of money from the Jewish population of the ghetto, diverted some of these funds to the partisans. The Germans later concluded that the entire Soviet partisan movement was funded from the ghetto. This was an exaggeration arising from stereotypical ideas of Jewish wealth, but the aid from the Minsk ghetto was reality.18

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Partisan warfare was a nightmare of German military planning, and German army officers had been trained to take a severe line. They had been taught to see Soviet soldiers as the servants of communist political officers, who taught them to fight as partisans in an illegal “Asiatic” fashion. Partisan warfare was (and is) illegal, since it undermines the convention of uniformed armies directing violence against each other rather than against surrounding populations. In theory partisans protect civilians from a hostile occupier; in practice they, like the occupier, must subsist on what they take from civilians. Since partisans hide among civilians, they bring down, and often intend to bring down, the occupier’s retaliation against the local population. Reprisals then serve as recruitment propaganda for the partisans, or leave individual survivors with nowhere to go but the forest. Because German forces were always limited and always in demand at the front, military and civilian authorities were all the more fearful of the disruptions partisans could bring.19

Belarus, with its plentiful forests and swamps, was ideal territory for partisan warfare. The German army chief of staff later fantasized about using nuclear weapons to clear its wetlands of human population. This technology was not available, of course, but the fantasy gives a sense of both the ruthlessness of German planning and the fears aroused by difficult terrain. The policy of the army was to deter partisan warfare by striking “such terror into the population that it loses all will to resist.” Bach, the Higher SS and Police Leader, later said that the ultimate explanation for the killing of civilians in anti-partisan actions was Himmler’s desire to kill all the Jews and thirty million Slavs. There seemed to be little cost to the Germans in preemptive terror, since the people in question were meant to die anyway (in the Hunger Plan or Generalplan Ost). Hitler, who saw partisan warfare as a chance to destroy potential opposition, reacted energetically when Stalin urged local communists to resist the Germans in July. Even before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler had already relieved his soldiers of legal responsibility for actions taken against civilians. Now he wanted soldiers and police to kill anyone who “even looks at us askance.”20

The Germans had little trouble controlling the partisan movement in late 1941, and simply defined the ongoing mass murder of Jews as the appropriate reprisal. In September 1941 a clinic on anti-partisan warfare was held near Mahileu; its climax was the shooting of thirty-two Jews, of whom nineteen were women. The general line was that “Where there are partisans there are Jews; and where there are Jews there are partisans.” Just why this was so was harder to establish. The anti-Semitic ideas of Jewish weakness and dissimulation conspired in a sort of explanation: military commanders were unlikely to believe that Jews would actually take up arms, but often saw the Jewish population as standing behind partisan actions. General Bechtolsheim, responsible for security in the Minsk area, believed that if “an act of sabotage is committed in a village, and one destroys all of the Jews of the village, one can be certain that one has destroyed the perpetrators, or at least those who stood behind them.”21

In this atmosphere, where the partisans were weak and the German reprisals anti-Semitic, most Jews in the Minsk ghetto were in no hurry to escape to the forest. In Minsk, despite all of its horrors, they were at least at home. Despite the regular mass killings, no fewer than half of Minsk’s Jews were still alive as 1942 began.

In 1942, the Soviet partisan movement took on new strength at the same moment as the fate of Belarusian Jews was sealed, and for much the same reason. In December 1941, confronted with a “world war,” Hitler communicated his desire that all the Jews of Europe be killed. The Red Army’s advance was one of the main sources of the weakening German position in Belarus, and of Hitler’s newly explicit desire for the murder of all Jews. Advancing Soviet forces were even able to open a gap in the German lines in early 1942. The “Surazh Gates,” as the space between Army Group North and Army Group Center was called, remained open for half a year. Until September 1942, the Soviets could send trusted men and arms to control and supply the partisans operating in Belarus. Soviet authorities thereby established more or less reliable channels of communication. In May 1942 a Central Staff of the Partisan Movement was established in Moscow.22

Hitler’s express decision to kill all the Jews of Europe raised the association of Jews and partisans to a kind of abstraction: Jews were supporters of Germany’s enemies, and so had to be preemptively eliminated. Himmler and Hitler associated the Jewish threat with the partisan threat. The logic of the connection between Jews and partisans was vague and troubled, but the significance for the Jews of Belarus, the heartland of partisan warfare, was absolutely clear. In the military occupation zone, the rear of Army Group Center, the killing of Jews began again in January 1942. An Einsatzkommando painted Stars of David on their trucks to broadcast their mission of finding Jews and killing them. The leaders of Einsatzgruppe B resolved to kill all the Jews in their zone of responsibility by 20 April 1942, which was Hitler’s birthday.23

The civilian occupation authorities in Minsk also followed the new line. Wilhelm Kube, the General Commissar of White Ruthenia, met with his police leaders on 19 January 1942. All seemed to accept Kube’s formulation: while Germany’s great “colonial-political” task in the East demanded the murder of all Jews, some would have to be preserved for a time as forced labor. Killing actions in Minsk would begin in March, directed against the population that remained in the ghetto during the day while the labor brigades were outside the ghetto at work.24

On 1 March 1942 the Germans ordered the Judenrat to provide a quota of five thousand Jews the following day. The ghetto underground told the Judenrat not to bargain Jewish blood, which the Judenrat was probably not inclined to do anyway. Some of the Jewish policemen, rather than aiding the Germans to make their quota, warned their fellow Jews to hide. When the quota was not delivered on 2 March, the Germans shot children, and stabbed to death all the wards of the Jewish orphanage. They even killed some workers returning home. In all they murdered some 3,412 people that day. One Jewish child who escaped the bloodshed was Feliks Lipski. His father had been killed as a Polish spy in Stalin’s Great Terror, disappearing as people did then, never to be seen again. Now the boy saw people he knew as corpses in ditches. He remembered shades of white: skin, undergarments, snow.25

After the failure of the action of early March 1942, the Germans broke the Minsk underground, and accelerated the mass murder of the Jews. In late March and early April 1942, the Germans arrested and executed some 251 underground activists, Jews and non-Jews, including the head of the Judenrat. (Kaziniets, the organizer of the underground, was executed that July.) At around the same time, Reinhard Heydrich visited Minsk, and apparently ordered the construction of a death facility. The SS set to work on a new complex at Maly Trastsianets, outside Minsk. Beginning in May 1942, some forty thousand people would be killed there. The wives of German officials remembered Maly Trastsianets as a nice place to ride horses and collect fur coats (taken from Jewish women before they were shot).26

Some ten thousand Minsk Jews were killed in the last few days of July 1942. On the last day of the month, Junita Vishniatskaia wrote a letter to her father to bid him farewell. “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass graves alive. Farewell forever. I kiss you, I kiss you.”27

It was true that Germans sometimes avoided shooting younger children, instead throwing them into the pits with the corpses, and allowing them to suffocate under the earth. They also had at their disposal another means of killing that allowed them to avoid seeing the end of young life. Gas vans roved the streets of Minsk, the drivers seeking stray Jewish children. The people called the gas vans by a name that had been used for the NKVD trucks during the Great Terror a few years earlier: “soul destroyers.”28

The girls and boys knew what would happen to them if they were caught. They would ask for a tattered bit of dignity as they walked up the ramp to their death: “Please sirs,” they would say to the Germans, “do not hit us. We can get to the trucks on our own.”29

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By spring 1942 the Jews of Minsk were coming to see the forest as less dangerous than the ghetto. Hersh Smolar himself was forced to leave the ghetto for the partisans. Of the ten thousand or so Minsk Jews who found Soviet partisan units, perhaps half survived the war. Smolar was among the survivors. Yet partisans did not necessarily welcome Jews. Partisan units were meant to defeat the German occupation, not to help civilians endure it. Jews who lacked arms were often turned away, as were women and children. Even armed Jewish men were sometimes rejected or even, in some cases, killed for their weapons. Partisan leaders feared that Jews from ghettos were German spies, an accusation that was not as absurd as it might appear. The Germans would indeed seize wives and children, and then tell Jewish husbands to go to the forest and return with information if they wished to see their families again.30

The situation of Jews in the forests slowly improved over the course of 1942, as some Jews formed their own partisan units, a development that the Central Staff of the Partisan Movement eventually sanctioned. Israel Lapidus formed a unit of some fifty men. Sholem Zorin’s 106th Detachment counted ten times as many, and raided the Minsk ghetto to rescue Jews. In individual cases Soviet partisan units provided diversions that allowed Jews to escape from the ghetto. In one case, partisans attacked a German unit on its way to liquidate a ghetto. Oswald Rufeisen, a Jew who worked as a translator for the German police in the town of Mir, smuggled weapons into that ghetto, and warned its inhabitants when the liquidation was ordered.31

Tuvia Bielski, also a Jew, probably rescued more Jews than any other partisan leader. His special gift was to understand the perils of partisan warfare between Stalin and Hitler. Bielski hailed from western Belarus, which is to say from the part of northeastern Poland that the Soviets had annexed in 1939 and then lost to the Germans in 1941. He had served in the Polish Army, and thus had some military training. He and his family knew the woods well, probably because they were small-time smugglers. Yet his tactical sense was not reducible to any particular experience. On the one hand, he understood his goal as rescuing Jews rather than killing Germans. He and his men generally tried to avoid combat. “Don’t rush to fight and die,” he would say. “So few of us are left, we have to save lives. To save a Jew is much more important than to kill Germans.” On the other hand, he was able to work with Soviet partisans, when they appeared, even though their task precisely was to kill Germans. Although his mobile camp was largely composed of women and children, he was able to secure recognition of his status as a partisan leader from the Soviets. By rescuing rather than resisting, Bielski saved more than one thousand people.32

Bielski was an anomaly within a Soviet partisan movement that was ever larger and ever more subordinate to Moscow. When 1942 began, there were (by Soviet reckonings) perhaps twenty-three thousand partisans in Belarus; the number probably doubled by the time that the Central Staff was established in May, and doubled again by the end of the year. Partisans in 1941 had scarcely been able to keep themselves alive; in 1942 they were able to attain specific objectives of military and political value. They laid mines and destroyed railroad tracks and locomotives. They were supposed to keep food from the Germans, and to destroy the German administration. In practice the safest way to attack the German occupation structure was to murder unarmed participants in the civilian administration: small-town mayors, schoolteachers, landowners, and their families. This was not an excess, this was the official policy of the Soviet partisan movement through November 1942. Partisans sought to gain full control of territories, which they called “partisan republics.”33

Partisan operations, effective as they sometimes were, brought inevitable destruction to the Belarusian civilian population, Jewish and gentile alike. When the Soviet partisans prevented peasants from giving food to the Germans, they all but guaranteed that the Germans would kill the peasants. A Soviet gun threatened a peasant, and then a German gun killed him. Once the Germans believed that they had lost control of a given village to the partisans, they would simply torch houses and fields. If they could not reliably get grain, they could keep it from the Soviets by seeing that it was never harvested. When Soviet partisans sabotaged trains, they were in effect ensuring that the population near the site would be exterminated. When Soviet partisans laid mines, they knew that some would detonate under the bodies of Soviet citizens. The Germans swept mines by forcing locals, Belarusians and Jews, to walk hand in hand over minefields. In general, such loss of human life was of little concern to the Soviet leadership. The people who died had been under German occupation, and were therefore suspect and perhaps even more expendable than the average Soviet citizen. German reprisals also ensured that the ranks of the partisans swelled, as survivors often had no home, no livelihood, and no family to which to return.34

The Soviet leadership was not especially concerned with the plight of Jews. After November 1941 Stalin never singled out the Jews as victims of Hitler. Some partisan commanders did try to protect Jews. But the Soviets, like the Americans or the British, seem not to have seriously contemplated direct military action to rescue Jews. The logic of the Soviet system was always to resist independent initiatives and to value human life very cheaply. Jews in ghettos were aiding the German war effort as forced laborers, so their death over pits was of little concern to authorities in Moscow. Jews who were not aiding but hindering the Germans were showing signs of a dangerous capacity for initiative, and might later resist the reimposition of Soviet rule. By Stalinist logic, Jews were suspect either way: if they remained in the ghetto and worked for the Germans, or if they left the ghetto and showed a capacity for independent action. The previous hesitation of local Minsk communists turned out to be justified: their resistance organization was treated as a front of the Gestapo by the Central Staff of the Partisan Movement in Moscow. The people who rescued Minsk Jews and supplied Soviet partisans were labeled a tool of Hitler.35

Jewish men who did make it into the partisans “already felt liberated,” as Lev Kravets recalled. Jewish women generally had a more difficult time. In partisan units the standard form of address to girls and women was “whore,” and women usually had no choice but to seek a protector. This is perhaps what Rosa Gerassimova, who survived with the partisans, meant when she recalled that “life was actually unbearable, but the partisans did rescue me.” Some partisan commanders, Jews and non-Jews, did try to protect “family camps” for women and children and the elderly. Children who had the good luck to be in family camps played a version of hide-and-seek, in which Germans hunted Jews who were protected by partisans. This was true in their case; yet while the partisans saved some thirty thousand Jews, it is unclear whether their actions on balance provoked or prevented the killing of Jews. Partisan warfare behind the lines drew German police and military power away from the front and to the hinterland, where policemen and soldiers almost always found it easier to kill Jews than to hunt down and engage partisans.36

In the second half of 1942, German anti-partisan operations were all but indistinguishable from the mass murder of Jews. Hitler ordered on 18 August 1942 that partisans in Belarus be “exterminated” by the end of the year. It was already understood that the Jews were to be killed by the same deadline. The euphemism “special treatment,” meaning shooting, appears in reports about both Jews and Belarusian civilians. The logic for the two undertakings was circular but nevertheless somehow compelling: Jews were initially to be killed “as partisans” in 1941, when there were not yet any truly threatening partisan formations; then once there were such partisan formations, in 1942, villagers associated with them were to be destroyed “like Jews.” The equivalence between Jews and partisans was emphasized over and over again, in a downward cycle of rhetoric that could end only when both groups were simply gone.37

By the middle of 1942, the number of Jews was in rapid decline, but the number of partisans was in rapid ascent. This had no effect on Nazi reasoning, except to make the methods for dealing with Belarusian civilians ever more similar to the methods of dealing with Jews. As partisans became difficult to target because they were too powerful, and as Jews became difficult to target because they were too scarce, the Germans subjected the non-Jewish Belarusian population to ever more extraordinary waves of killing. From the perspective of the German police, the Final Solution and the anti-partisan campaigns blurred together.

To take a single example: on 22 and 23 September 1942, Order Police Battalion 310 was dispatched to destroy three villages for ostensible connections to the partisans. At the first village, Borki, the police apprehended the entire population, marched the men, women, and children seven hundred meters, and then handed out shovels so that people could dig their own graves. The policemen shot the Belarusian peasants without a break from 9:00 in the morning until 6:00 in the evening, killing 203 men, 372 women, and 130 children. The Order Police spared 104 people classified as “reliable,” although it is hard to imagine how they could have remained so after this spectacle. The battalion reached the next village, Zabloitse, at 2:00 in the morning, and surrounded it at 5:30. They forced all of the inhabitants into the local school, and then shot 284 men, women, and children. At the third village, Borysovka, the battalion reported killing 169 men, women, and children. Four weeks later, the battalion was assigned to liquidate Jews at a work camp. When they killed 461 Jews on 21 October, they used very similar methods: the only difference was that there was no need to surprise the population, since it was already under guard in the camp.38

Despite new offensives, the “war” against the Jews was the only one that the Germans were winning in 1942. Army Group North continued the siege of Leningrad. Army Group Center made no progress toward Moscow. Army Group South was supposed to secure the Volga River and the oil supplies of the Caucasus. Some of its forces reached the Volga in August 1942, but were unable to take Stalingrad. German troops did race through southern Russia into the Caucasus, but were unable to control the crucial areas by winter. This would be the last major German offensive in the eastern front. By the end of 1942 the Germans had killed at least 208,089 Jews in Belarus. Killing Jewish civilians did nothing, however, to hinder the Red Army, or even to slow the partisans.39

Lacking personnel in the rear and needing to keep troops at the front, the Germans tried in autumn 1942 to make anti-partisan warfare more efficient. Himmler named Bach, the local Higher SS and Police Leader, chief of anti-partisan warfare in the areas under civilian authority. In practice the responsibility fell upon his deputy, Curt von Gottberg, a drunk whose SS career had been rescued by Himmler. Gottberg suffered no war injuries but had lost part of a leg (and his SS commission) by driving his automobile into a fruit tree. Himmler paid for the prosthetic leg and had Gottberg reinstated. The assignment to Belarus was a chance to prove his manhood, which he seized. After only one month of police training he formed his own Battle Group, which was active from November 1942 through November 1943. In their first five months of campaigning, the men of his Battle Group reported killing 9,432 “partisans,” 12,946 “partisan suspects,” and about 11,000 Jews. In other words, the Battle Group shot an average of two hundred people every day, almost all of them civilians.40

The unit responsible for more atrocities than any other was the SS Special Commando Dirlewanger, which had arrived in Belarus in February 1942. In Belarus and indeed in all the theaters of the Second World War, few could compete in cruelty with Oskar Dirlewanger. He was an alcoholic and drug addict, prone to violence. He had fought in the German right-wing militias after the First World War, and spent the early 1920s tormenting communists and writing a doctoral dissertation on planned economics. He joined the Nazi party in 1923, but jeopardized his political future by traffic accidents and sexual liaisons with an underage girl. In March 1940 Himmler placed him in charge of a special Poachers’ Brigade, a unit made up of criminals imprisoned for hunting on the property of others. Some Nazi leaders romanticized these men, seeing them as pure primitive German types, resisting the tyranny of the law. The hunters were first assigned to Lublin, where the unit was strengthened by other criminals, including murderers and the clinically insane. In Belarus, Dirlewanger and his hunters did engage partisans. Yet more often they killed civilians whose villages were in the wrong place. Dirlewanger’s preferred method was to herd the local population inside a barn, set the barn on fire, and then shoot with machine guns anyone who tried to escape. The SS Special Commando Dirlewanger killed at least thirty thousand civilians in its Belarusian tour of duty.41

Dirlewanger’s unit was one of several Waffen-SS and Order Police formations assigned to Belarus to reinforce the battered regular army. By late 1942, German soldiers were horribly fatigued, conscious of defeat, relieved of normal legal obligations to civilians, and under orders to treat partisans with extreme brutality. When assigned to anti-partisan duty, soldiers faced the anxiety of fighting a foe who could appear and disappear at any time, and who knew the land as the soldiers did not. Wehrmacht troops were now cooperating with the police and the SS, whose main task for some time had been the mass murder of civilians, above all Jews. All knew that they were supposed to exterminate the partisans. In these circumstances, the death toll among civilians was bound to be terribly high, regardless of the particulars of German tactics.

The main German actions of mid-1942 and onward, known as “Large Operations,” were actually designed to kill Belarusian civilians as well as Belarusian Jews. Unable to defeat the partisans as such, the Germans killed the people who might be aiding the struggle. Units were given a daily kill quota, which they generally met by encircling villages and shooting most or all of the inhabitants. They shot people over ditches or, in the case of Dirlewanger and those who followed his example, burned them in barns or blew them up by forcing them to clear mines. In autumn 1942 and early 1943, the Germans liquidated ghettos and whole villages associated with the partisans. In Operation Swamp Fever in September 1942, the Dirlewanger Brigade killed the 8,350 Jews still alive in the ghetto in Baranovichi, and then proceeded to kill 389 “bandits” and 1,274 “bandit suspects.” These attacks were led by Friedrich Jeckeln, the Higher SS and Police Chief for Reichskommissariat Ostland, the same man who had organized the mass shootings of Jews at Kamianets-Podilskyi in Ukraine and the liquidation of the Riga ghetto in Latvia. Operation Hornung of February 1943 began with the liquidation of the Slutsk ghetto, which is to say the shooting of some 3,300 Jews. In an area southwest of Slutsk the Germans killed about nine thousand more people.42

By early 1943, the people of Belarus, especially the young men, were caught in a deadly competition between German forces and Soviet partisans that made nonsense of the ideologies of both sides. The Germans, lacking personnel, had recruited local men to their police forces (and, in the second half of 1942, to a “self-defense” militia). Many of these people had been communists before the war. The partisans, for their part, began in 1943 to recruit Belarusian policemen in the German service, since these men had at least some arms and training.43

It was the battlefield failures of the Wehrmacht, rather than any local political or ideological commitment, that determined where Belarusians chose to fight, when they had a choice. The summer offensive of Army Group South failed, and the entire Sixth Army was destroyed in the Battle of Stalingrad. When news of the Wehrmacht’s defeat reached Belarus in February 1943, as many as twelve thousand policemen and militiamen left the German service and joined the Soviet partisans. According to one report, eight hundred did so on 23 February alone. This meant that some Belarusians who had killed Jews in the service of Nazis in 1941 and 1942 joined the Soviet partisans in 1943. More than this: the people who recruited these Belarusian policemen, the political officers among the partisans, were sometimes Jews who had escaped death at the hands of Belarusian policemen by fleeing the ghettos. Jews trying to survive the Holocaust recruited its perpetrators.44

Only the Jews, or the few who remained in Belarus in 1943, had a clear reason to be on one side rather than the other. Since they were the Germans’ obvious and declared enemy in this war, and German enmity meant murder, they had every incentive to join the Soviets, despite the dangers of partisan life. For Belarusians (and Russians and Poles) the risks were more balanced; but the possibility of uninvolvement kept receding. For the Belarusians who ended up fighting and dying on one side or the other, it was very often a matter of chance, a question of who was in the village when the Soviet partisans or the German police appeared on their recruiting missions, which often simply involved press-ganging the young men. Since both sides knew that their membership was largely accidental, they would subject new recruits to grotesque tests of loyalty, such as killing friends or family members who had been captured fighting on the other side. As more and more of the Belarusian population was swept into the partisans or the various police and paramilitaries that the Germans hastily organized, such events simply revealed the essence of the situation: Belarus was a society divided against itself by others.45

In Belarus, as elsewhere, local German policy was conditioned by general economic concerns. By 1943, the Germans were worried more about labor shortages than about food shortages, and so their policy in Belarus shifted. As the war against the Soviet Union continued and the Wehrmacht took horrible losses month upon month, German men had to be taken from German farms and factories and sent to the front. Such people then had to be replaced if the German economy was to function. Hermann Göring issued an extraordinary directive in October 1942: Belarusian men in suspicious villages were not to be shot but rather kept alive and sent as forced laborers to Germany. People who could work were to be “selected” for labor rather than killed—even if they had taken up arms against Germany. By now, Göring seemed to reason, their labor power was all that they could offer to the Reich, and it was more significant than their death. Since the Soviet partisans controlled ever more Belarusian territory, ever less food was reaching Germany in any case. If Belarusian peasants could not work for Germany in Belarus, best to force them to work in Germany. This was very grim reaping. Hitler made clear in December 1942 what Göring had implied: the women and children, regarded as less useful as labor, were to be shot.46

This was a particularly spectacular example of the German campaign to gather forced labor in the East, which had begun with the Poles of the General Government, and spread to Ukraine before reaching this bloody climax in Belarus. By the end of the war, some eight million foreigners from the East, most of them Slavs, were working in the Reich. It was a rather perverse result, even by the standards of Nazi racism: German men went abroad and killed millions of “subhumans,” only to import millions of other “subhumans” to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves—had they not been abroad killing “subhumans.” The net effect, setting aside the mass killing abroad, was that Germany became more of a Slavic land than it had ever been in history. (The perversity would reach its extreme in the first months of 1945, when surviving Jews were sent to labor camps in Germany itself. Having killed 5.4 million Jews as racial enemies, the Germans then brought Jewish survivors home to do the work that the killers might have been doing themselves, had they not been abroad killing.)

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Under this new policy, German policemen and soldiers were to kill Belarusian women and children so that their husbands and fathers and brothers could be used as slave laborers. The anti-partisan operations of spring and summer 1943 were thus slavery campaigns rather than warfare of any recognizable kind. Yet because the slave hunts and associated mass murder were sometimes resisted by the Soviet partisans, the Germans did take losses. In May and June 1943 in Operations Marksman and Gypsy Baron (named after an opera and an operetta), the Germans aimed to secure railways in the Minsk region as well as workers for Germany. They reported killing 3,152 “partisans” and deporting 15,801 laborers. Yet they took 294 dead of their own: an absurdly low ratio of 1:10, if one assumed (wrongly) that reported partisan dead were actual partisans rather than (generally) civilians, but still a significant number.47

In May 1943 in Operation Cottbus, the Germans sought to clear all partisans from an area about 140 kilometers north of Minsk. Their forces destroyed village after village by herding populations into barns and then burning the barns to the ground. On the following days, the local swine and dogs, now without masters, would be seen in villages with burned human limbs in their jaws. The official count was 6,087 dead; but the Dirlewanger Brigade alone reported fourteen thousand killed in this operation. The majority of the dead were women and children; about six thousand men were sent to Germany as laborers.48

Operation Hermann, named for Hermann Göring, reached the extreme of this economic logic in summer 1943. Between 13 July and 11 August, German battle groups were to choose a territory, kill all of the inhabitants except for promising male labor, take all property that could be moved, and then burn everything left standing. After the labor selections among the local Belarusian and Polish populations, the Belarusian and Polish women, children, and aged were shot. This operation took place in western Belarus—in lands that had been invaded by the Soviet Union and annexed from Poland in 1939 before the German invasion that followed in 1941.49

Polish partisans were also to be found in these forests, fighters who believed that these lands should be restored to Poland. Thus German anti-partisan actions here were directed against both the Soviet partisans (representing the power that had governed in 1939-1941) and the Polish underground (fighting for Polish independence and territorial integrity with the boundaries of 1918-1939). The Polish forces were part of the Polish Home Army, reporting to the Polish government in exile in London. Poland was one of the Allies, and so in principle Polish and Soviet forces were fighting together against the Germans. But because both the Soviet Union and Poland claimed these lands of western Soviet Belarus (from the Soviet perspective) or northeastern Poland (from the Polish), matters were not so simple in practice. Polish fighters found themselves trapped between lawless Soviet and German forces. Polish civilians were massacred by Soviet partisans when Polish forces did not subordinate themselves to Moscow. In Naliboki on 8 May 1943, for example, Soviet partisans shot 127 Poles.50

Red Army officers invited Home Army officers to negotiate in summer 1943, and then murdered them on the way to the rendezvous points. The commander of the Soviet partisan movement believed that the way to deal with the Home Army was to denounce its men to the Germans, who would then shoot the Poles. Meanwhile, Polish forces were also attacked by the Germans. Polish commanders were in contact with both the Soviets and the Germans at various points, but could make a true alliance with neither: the Polish goal, after all, was to restore an independent Poland within its prewar boundaries. Just how difficult that would be, as Hitler’s power gave way to Stalin’s, was becoming clear in the Belarusian swamps.51

The Germans called the areas cleared of populations in Operation Hermann and the succeeding operations of 1943 “dead zones.” People found in a dead zone were “fair game.” The Wehrmacht’s 45th Security Regiment killed civilians in Operation Easter Bunny of April 1943. Remnants of Einsatzgruppe D, dispatched to Belarus in spring 1943, contributed to this undertaking. They came from southern Russia and southern Ukraine, where the remnants of Army Group South were falling back after the defeat at Stalingrad. The task of Einstazgruppe D there had been to cover the German retreat by killing civilians wherever resistance had been reported. In Belarus, it was burning down villages where no resistance whatsoever was encountered, after taking whatever livestock it could. Einsatzgruppe D was no longer covering a withdrawal of the Wehrmacht, as it had been further south, but preparing for one.52

The resort to dead zones implied a recognition that Soviet power would soon return to Belarus. Army Group South (much reduced and fighting under other names) was in retreat. Army Group North still besieged Leningrad, pointlessly. Belarus itself was still behind the lines of Army Group Center, but not for long.

At various points during the German occupation of Belarus, it did dawn on some German military and civilian leaders that mass terror was failing, and that the Belarusian population had to be rallied by some means other than terror to support German rule if the Red Army was to be defeated. This was impossible. As everywhere in the occupied Soviet Union, the Germans had succeeded in making most people wish for a return of Soviet rule. A German propaganda specialist sent to Belarus reported that there was nothing that he could possibly tell the population.53

The German-backed Russian Popular Army of Liberation (RONA in a Russian abbreviation) was the most dramatic attempt to gain local support. It was led by Bronislav Kaminskii, a Soviet citizen of Russian nationality and Polish and perhaps German descent, who had apparently been sent to a Soviet special settlement in the 1930s. He presented himself as an opponent of collectivization. The Germans permitted him an experiment in local self-government in the town of Lokot, in northwestern Russia. There Kaminskii was placed in charge of anti-partisan operations, and locals were indeed allowed to keep more of the grain that they produced. As the war turned against the Germans, Kaminskii and his entire apparatus were dispatched from Russia to Belarus, where they were supposed to play a similar role. Kaminskii was ordered to fight the Soviet partisans in Belarus, but he and his group could barely protect themselves in their home base. Understandably, the Belarusian locals regarded RONA as foreigners who were taking land while speaking about property rights.54

In 1942 and 1943, Wilhelm Kube, the head of the General Commissariat White Ruthenia, tried to reverse some of the basic principles of German colonialism in the hope of rallying the population to resist the Red Army. He tried nationality concessions, sponsoring Belarusian schools and organizing various Belarusian advisory councils and militias. In June 1943 he went so far as to undo the collectivization of agriculture, decreeing that Belarusian peasants could own their own land. The policy was doubly absurd: much of the countryside was controlled by the partisans, who killed people who opposed collective farming; and the German army and police, in the meantime, were rejecting property rights in a comparably categorical way, by looting and burning farmsteads, killing farm families, and sending farmers to work as forced laborers in Germany. Since the Germans did not respect the Belarusian peasants’ right to life, peasants found it hard to take seriously the new commitment to private property.55

Even if Kube had somehow succeeded, his policies revealed the impossibility of a German colonization of the East. The Slavs were meant to be starved and displaced; Kube wanted to govern and fight with their help. The collective farm was to be maintained to extract food; Kube proposed to dissolve it and allow Belarusians to farm as they wished. By undoing both Soviet and Nazi policies, Kube was revealing their basic similarity in the countryside. Both Soviet self-colonization and German racial colonization involved purposeful economic exploitation. But because the Germans were more murderous, and because German murders were fresher in the minds of the locals, Soviet power came to seem like the lesser evil, or even like a liberation. The Soviet partisans put an end to Kube’s experiments. He was killed by a bomb that his maid placed under his bed in September 1943.56

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In Belarus, more than anywhere else, the Nazi and Soviet systems overlapped and interacted. Its relatively small territory was the site of intensive warfare, partisan campaigning, and mass atrocity. It was the rear area of a German Army Group Center that would do anything to take Moscow, and the target of the Red Army divisions of the Belarusian Front who were planning to return. It was fully controlled by neither the German administration nor the partisans, each of which used terror in the absence of reliable material or moral inducements to loyalty. It was home to one of Europe’s densest populations of Jews, doomed to destruction, but also unusually capable of resistance. It seems likely that more Jews resisted Hitler in Minsk and Belarus than anywhere else—although, with rare exceptions, they could not resist Nazi rule without aiding Soviet power. Bielski’s and Zorin’s units were the largest Jewish partisan formations in Europe.57

There was no gray area, no liminal zone, no marginal space; none of the comforting clichés of the sociology of mass murder applied. It was black on black. Germans killed Jews as partisans, and many Jews became partisans. The Jews who became partisans were serving the Soviet regime, and were taking part in a Soviet policy to bring down retributions upon civilians. The partisan war in Belarus was a perversely interactive effort of Hitler and Stalin, who each ignored the laws of war and escalated the conflict behind the front lines. Once both Operation Barbarossa and Operation Typhoon had failed, the German position in the rear was doomed. Initial anti-partisan policy, like so much else in German planning, depended upon a quick and total victory. Personnel were sufficient to kill Jews but not to fight partisans. Lacking adequate personnel, the Germans murdered and intimidated. Terror served as a force multiplier, but the forces multiplied were ultimately Stalin’s.

There was a Soviet partisan movement, and the Germans did try to suppress it. Yet German policies, in practice, were little more than mass murder. In one Wehrmacht report, 10,431 partisans were reported shot, but only ninety guns were reported taken. That means that almost all of those killed were in fact civilians. As it inflicted its first fifteen thousand mortal casualties, the Special Commando Dirlewanger lost only ninety-two men—many of them, no doubt, to friendly fire and alcoholic accidents. A ratio such as that was possible only when the victims were unarmed civilians. Under the cover of anti-partisan operations, the Germans murdered Belarusian (or Jewish, or Polish, or Russian) civilians in 5,295 different localities in occupied Soviet Belarus. Several hundred of these villages and towns were burned to the ground. All in all, the Germans killed about 350,000 people in their anti-partisan campaign, at the very least ninety percent of them unarmed. The Germans killed half a million Jews in Belarus, including thirty thousand during the anti-partisan operations. It was unclear just how these thirty thousand people were to be counted: as Jews killed in the Final Solution, or as Belarusian civilians killed in anti-partisan reprisals? The Germans themselves often failed to make the distinction, for very practical reasons. As one German commander confided to his diary, “The bandits and Jews burned in houses and bunkers were not counted.”58

Of the nine million people who were on the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians). These three general campaigns constituted the three greatest German atrocities in eastern Europe, and together they struck Belarus with the greatest force and malice. Another several hundred thousand inhabitants of Soviet Belarus were killed in action as soldiers of the Red Army.59

The Soviet partisans also contributed to the total number of fatalities. They reported killing 17,431 people as traitors on the terrain of Soviet Belarus by 1 January 1944; this figure does not include civilians whom they killed for other reasons, or civilians whom they killed in the following months. In all, tens of thousands of people in Belarus were killed by the partisans in their own retribution actions (or, in the western regions taken from Poland, as class enemies). A few more tens of thousands of people native to the region certainly died after arrests during the Soviet occupation of 1939-1941 and especially during the Soviet deportations of 1940 and 1941, during the journey or in Kazakhstan.60

A rough estimate of two million total mortal losses on the territory of present-day Belarus during the Second World War seems reasonable and conservative. More than a million other people fled the Germans, and another two million were deported as forced labor or removed from their original residence for another reason. Beginning in 1944, the Soviets deported a quarter million more people to Poland and tens of thousands more to the Gulag. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country.61

The Germans intended worse than they achieved. The starvation of prisoners of war at Stalag 352 in Minsk and other prisoner-of-war camps was only a fraction of the deaths foreseen by the Hunger Plan. The clearings of peasants were on a smaller scale than the massive depopulation of Belarus envisaged by Generalplan Ost. About a million Belarusians were exploited as forced labor, though not always worked to death as envisaged by Generalplan Ost. Mahileu, where the mass extermination of urban Jews began and where the anti-partisan clinic was held, was supposed to become a large killing facility. It did not; it seems that the crematoria ordered by the SS for Mahileu ended up in Auschwitz. Minsk, too, was to be the site of a killing facility, with its own crematoria. Once the work of killing was completed, Minsk itself was to be leveled. Wilhelm Kube imagined replacing the city with a German settlement named Asgard, after the mythical home of the Norse gods.62

Of the Nazi utopias, only the elimination of the Jews was realized, although again not exactly as the Germans had planned. In Belarus, as elsewhere, the Final Solution was the one atrocity that took on a more radical form in the realization than in the conception. Soviet Jews were supposed to work themselves to death building a German empire or be deported further east. This proved impossible; most Jews in the East were killed where they lived. In Minsk, there were a few exceptions: those Jews who escaped and survived, often at the price of partaking in the descent into mass violence; and those Jews kept for labor, who died a bit later than the others, and sometimes further from home. In September 1943, some of the last Jews of Minsk were deported west to occupied Poland, to a facility known as Sobibór.63

There they encountered a death factory of a kind unknown even in Belarus, where, one might have thought, all earthly horrors had already been revealed.

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