Flight or Fight (Extract)

By MATT NESVISKY
September 28, 2008 11:27
4 minute read.

 
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Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A history of the Minsk Ghetto maintains that escape, not resistance, offered better chances for Jewish survival Minsk was different, and the experiences of the Jews confined to the ghetto of the capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Byelorussia during World War II were unlike those of most Jews under Nazi occupation elsewhere. Because much of the documentation of the period long remained sequestered in Soviet archives, the story of Minsk until now has been incomplete for readers of English. Barbara Epstein, a professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has made a noble effort to fill this gap in our Holocaust knowledge. She spent years interviewing survivors in Minsk (today capital of the Republic of Belarus), in Israel, the United States and elsewhere. She learned Yiddish and Hebrew (she had previously studied Russian and polished that up as well). She did the requisite beavering in the libraries. Now she's produced "The Minsk Ghetto," a valuable if also an irritatingly flawed book. Epstein emphatically makes the case that Minsk and its ghetto were different if not unique. Of all the large cities in which the occupying Nazi forces established ghettos, Minsk had been under Soviet control the longest, since 1919, in fact, as Byelorussia had been part of the Czar's empire since 1793. An entire generation had grown up knowing no political system other than that of Communism. For Jews this meant no competing political organizations to create division and disharmony. That is to say, unlike Warsaw, Vilna, Kovno and elsewhere, Minsk had virtually no Labor Zionists, Revisionists, Hashomer Hatzair, Bundists, Social Democrats - only Communists. This lack of division would prove to be most valuable when it came to resistance to the Nazis. (About religious Jews Epstein makes no mention whatsoever, although Minsk had a number of synagogues, two of which have been revived and are active today, serving the 10,000 Jews who still live there.) At the same time, Minsk was a diverse city of around a quarter of a million, including ethnic Byelo-russians, Tatars, Russians, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies and, far from least, Jews. According to an 1897 census, slightly more than half of Minsk was Jewish. But among the Jews, intermarriage was not uncommon. Indeed, all of the communities intermingled and got along with each other reasonably well. The unifying factor for the various populations throughout Minsk and Byelorussia was the widespread poverty: Of all the peoples of Eastern Europe, Byelorussians were probably the poorest. Like the general lack of divisions among the Jews, the general assimilation of Jews with the rest of the Byelorussian population would also prove significant in terms of Jewish resistance. As part of Operation Barbarossa, the campaign that undid the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the Nazis bombed Minsk in June, 1941 and four days later thundered into the capital. A ghetto, which would eventually encompass some 100,000 souls, was hastily thrown up in the city. Unlike most ghettos elsewhere, however, the Minsk ghetto had no brick walls - just barbed wire and sentries. In addition, dense forests and formidable swamps were virtually just outside the city gates. Those forests and marshes were soon swarming with partisans who would form the backbone of the entire Soviet underground movement. Armed and directed by Moscow, Byelorussian resistance to the German invaders amounted to far more than mere harassment. Equally significant, Byelorussia's partisans were much more likely to absorb Jews than partisans elsewhere. Epstein quotes a Nazi death squad commander in the field who lamented to Berlin that Byelorussians had no concept of "what a racial problem is," that killings of Jews "led to vicious anti-German propaganda," and that German efforts "to incite anti-Jewish feelings have not had any success." All of these factors - a homogeneous Jewish community, a porous ghetto, a vibrant and relatively well-equipped partisan movement in close proximity and not least a general population that to a large extent was sympathetic and helpful to the Jews - resulted in an estimated 10,000 Jews escaping the ghetto. Almost all of these were absorbed into partisan units. About half survived the war. Epstein notes that Western readers have fastened on the armed resistance and rebellion in such ghettos as Warsaw and Vilna as our most heartening models of Jewish response to the Holocaust. But she argues that Minsk, where the emphasis was on escape and survival, deserves our admiration as well. Fleeing certainly sounds less glamorous and heroic than opposing the Wehrmacht head on. But fleeing arguably made a lot more sense and saved more Jewish lives. It also helped that, unlike in some other ghettos, the Minsk Judenrat, or Jewish council, was totally supportive of the Jewish underground movement, until it was eventually replaced by non-Byelorussian Jews. This resulted in a significant focus of energies and objectives, including effective sabotage in Nazi-run factories, a valuable underground press, well organized trade in food and weapons and important contacts with the partisans. Ultimately, however, some 90,000 of the ghetto's residents were either shot to death in the nearby forests and ravines or transported to the death camps. Epstein documents all of this admirably, drawing heavily on accounts long held in Soviet archives and on such published memoirs as that of underground leader Hersh Smolar. Especially moving are the personal narratives from survivors, whom Epstein interviewed at length. Also illuminating is the story of how, in contrast to the Vilna ghetto leaders who bowed to Gestapo threats and turned in underground leader Itzik Wittenberg, the heads of Minsk's ghetto refused to hand over Smolar and duped the Germans into believing the resistance leader was dead. Contributing Editor Matt Nesvisky frequently writes about books. Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.

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