In Stein Gemeißelt

Set in Stone
Высечаны ў камені
Izcirsts akmenī

Memorial Sites in Minsk

German Occupation Policy in Minsk 1941-1944

Minsk was the largest city encountered during Army Group Center’s offensive towards Moscow. Just a few days after the Wehrmacht’s entry into Minsk, from late June to early July 1941, a provisional camp was established in Drasdy, five kilometers northwest of the city. At times, this camp housed around 100,000 prisoners of war and 40,000 civilians. Approximately 10,000 representatives of the intelligentsia, mostly Jews, were shot by Einsatzgruppe B not far from the camp. In July 1941, additional detention facilities were established in and around Minsk for the central victim groups in the early phase of the German war of annihilation: the Minsk Ghetto for Jews, where up to 80,000 people were crowded into two square kilometers, and Stalag 352 for Soviet prisoners of war in the suburb of Masjukouschtschyna. Sites of mass murders of Jews from the Minsk Ghetto in 1941 included the suburb of Tutschynka, and prisoners of war who died from hunger and cold were buried in the village of Hlinischtscha, near Stalag 352.

The Minsk Ghetto also became a place of detention for Jews from German cities, Vienna, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. About 7,000 Jews deported from Central Europe arrived in Minsk in November 1941 and were placed in the so-called Special Ghetto specially set up for them within the Minsk Ghetto. To make room for them, units of the Security Police (Sipo) and the auxiliary police, supported by members of the Security Police and the Gendarmerie, shot 6,624 people between November 7 and 11 and about 5,000 more on November 20 in Tutschynka.

After the Wannsee Conference, the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) continued to consider Minsk as a location for future deportations of Central European Jews. All Jews deported to Minsk from May to October 1942, a total of 16 transports, were taken to the execution site in the Blahauschtschyna forest, referred to in Nazi jargon as a „resettlement area,“ on the same day they arrived. With the expansion of the centers of industrial murder, including Treblinka, in October 1942, Maly Traszjanez was abandoned as a destination for deportations and the killing of Central European Jews. The clearing in the Blahauschtschyna forest, about 13 kilometers from Minsk, became the central execution site for the remaining Jews from the Minsk Ghetto, prison, and civilian hostages. The mass murder was organized by members of the Security Police Command (KdS). For mass executions, gas vans were used. The use of Blahauschtschyna as an execution site was halted practically simultaneously with the dissolution of the Minsk Ghetto in October 1943.

In late April to early May 1942, approximately the same time as deportations resumed, the KdS Minsk established an agricultural enterprise on the grounds of the former Karl Marx collective farm, about three kilometers from the Blahauschtschyna forest. This farm engaged in farming and livestock farming to provide for itself. Forced laborers, drawn mainly from the deported Central European Jews, were recruited for this purpose. Over time, elements of the infrastructure of a forced labor camp, such as workshops, barracks, and barbed wire fences, were established on the SD estate. The number of camp inmates fluctuated from a few hundred to around 900, mostly Jewish skilled workers such as locksmiths, carpenters, blacksmiths, etc. Sick individuals were replaced with new workers during regular inspections. The camp infrastructure and the forced laborers were used for the storage and sorting of the personal belongings of those who had been murdered. Finally, between late October and mid-December 1943, Special Command 1005-Mitte was stationed at the Maly Traszjanez camp. Using prisoners from Minsk prisons, the command opened the mass graves in Blahauschtschyna, lifted out the decomposing corpses with iron hooks, stacked them, and burned them. At the conclusion of the so-called exhumation action, all forced laborers employed in the task were killed.

In close proximity to the camp was the Schaschkouka forest. At the end of 1943, a primitive crematorium was built there as a substitute for the execution site in Blahauschtschyna. With the help of collaborators, personnel from the KdS Minsk murdered thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of inmates of Minsk prisons, including underground fighters, suspected partisans and resistance members, and simply sick prisoners by the end of June 1944. Their bodies were then burned on-site. The entire Traszjanez complex was operated by the commander of the KdS Minsk, who was subordinate to the RSHA in Berlin.

Finally, on June 29 and 30, 1944, just a few days before the arrival of the Red Army, over 100 remaining prisoners of the labor camp and several thousand inmates of Minsk prisons were shot and burned in the barn on the grounds of the labor camp. The camp buildings and its documents were then destroyed.


Soviet Commemorative Culture in Minsk

World War II is the defining historical event in the collective memory of Belarusians. Of all European countries, Belarus suffered the most extensive war damage and had the most casualties, totaling more than a quarter of its population. The experiences of suffering made the desire to avoid war under all circumstances a central component of Belarusian mentality, dominating all other notions. The ruined economy and financial shortage in the post-war period significantly hindered the construction of memorial sites. Activation of memorial practices began after Stalin’s death during the so-called thaw under Khrushchev (mid-1950s to mid-1960s). Important drivers were also the twenty-year anniversaries of the liberation of Belarus and victory over Nazi Germany in 1964 and 1965. In anticipation of the 20th Victory Day, the Soviet leadership ordered the identification of all unmarked graves of war and occupation victims, moving their remains if necessary, and erecting monuments. Memorial sites were established at numerous locations of mass murders in Belarus during that time, including monuments for Holocaust victims, often ambiguously referred to as „peaceful Soviet citizens“ in the inscriptions. The Soviet memorial canon was finally formed under Brezhnev. Its central elements include large-scale memorial landscapes and museums, a cult of war heroes, and standardized monuments for civilian victims. Examples of this commemorative culture are still numerous in Belarus today. The central locations for commemorative events related to the Great Patriotic War were Ploschtscha Peramohi (Victory Square) in Minsk and the Kurhan Slavy (Mound of Glory) memorial near the Belarusian capital. These places mainly commemorated fallen soldiers and honored their heroism. The Chatyn Memorial, opened in 1969 about 60 km from Minsk, has become a central place of remembrance for Belarusian civilians who were murdered in various punitive actions.


Post-Soviet Commemorative Culture

The development of a post-Soviet commemorative culture in Belarus began during the Perestroika period (late 1980s) and continued in the conditionally „democratic“ period from 1991 to 1994. A critical examination of the history of World War II began during this time.

A significant event in 1988 was the excavations in the Kurapaty forest on the outskirts of Minsk. Hundreds of mass graves were uncovered, revealing the remains of thousands of victims from the Stalin era. Later, a civilian memorial site called the Cross Forest (Kreuzwald) was established at this site to commemorate the mass murders that took place from 1937 to 1941.

Until the late 1980s, there were no systematic activities to commemorate the Belarusian victims of the Holocaust. They began with the resurgence of Jewish communities and especially intensified after the founding of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities in Belarus in 1991. At the same time, more and more relatives of murdered Jewish people, who had emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel, the USA, and other countries came to Belarus for visits. These processes promoted private initiatives for the construction of monuments at Holocaust memorial sites with foreign financial support.

A prominent role in the creation of the post-Soviet Holocaust memorial landscape in Belarus was played by the renowned Belarusian architect Leonid Lewin, who was the chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities from its founding in 1991 until his death in 2014. In 2000, Leonid Lewin, in collaboration with the Israeli sculptor Elsa Pollak and the Belarusian sculptor Aljaksandr Finski, created the sculpture group „Those Departing for Death,“ which complements the obelisk for the Jews murdered in the Minsk Ghetto at the „Yama“ memorial. In addition to the composition „Those Going to Their Death,“ the Alley of the Righteous among the Nations of the World was created. Here, trees are planted in honor of Belarusian citizens who saved Jewish people from Nazi persecution. Leonid Lewin was also involved in the design of other Jewish memorial sites in Minsk: On the 65th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk Ghetto in 2008, the monument „Table and Chair“ (also known as „Broken Home“) was erected on the site of the former Jewish cemetery, where approximately 5,000 Jews were murdered. Another monument was created near the location where one of the largest mass shootings of Jews took place on November 7, 11, and 20, 1941, in the former Minsk suburb of Tutschynka (now Minsk). Following Lewin’s death, his daughter Galina Lewina implemented the project „The Last Way“ in 2017-2018 according to his designs. This memorial complex is located in close proximity to the execution site in the Blahauschtschyna forest and is part of the memorial site for the victims of mass murders in Maly Traszjanez.

The first memorial marker in Minsk for the deported Central European Jews, namely for the Jewish residents of Bremen, was established in 1992. Later, memorial stones were erected for deported Jewish citizens from Hamburg, Düsseldorf, Cologne, Bonn, Vienna, Berlin, Frankfurt am Main, Königsberg (now Kaliningrad in Russia), Theresienstadt (now Terezín in Czechia), and Brno. Noteworthy are the activities of the Austrian citizen initiative IM-MER (Initiative Malvine—Remembering Maly Trascjanec), which, from 2010 until the Covid-19 pandemic, annually placed yellow signs with the names of murdered Austrian Jews on the trees in Blahauschtschyna during commemorative trips in May, creating a „Forest of Names“ in close proximity to the execution site. On March 28, 2019, the monument „Massif of Names“ was finally inaugurated to remember approximately 10,000 Austrian Jews murdered in Maly Traszjanez.

Few memorial markers in Minsk recall the Jewish resistance: in 2005, a memorial plaque for Mikhail Gebelev was installed on the street now named after him; in 2008, Mascha Bruskina’s name was added to the memorial stone near the Minsk yeast factory. The growing public interest in the Holocaust in Belarus is closely linked to the founding of the Museum of History and Culture of Jews in Belarus in 2002 and the Minsk History Workshop in 2003. The staff of these institutions actively contribute to collecting and publishing memories of survivors and witnesses, capturing and disseminating information about execution sites, and overall promoting dignified remembrance in the context of European commemorative culture. It is noteworthy, however, that the memorialization of the Holocaust in Belarus is still carried out by civil society rather than the state.


Resovietization of Commemorative Culture

During the rule of Alexander Lukashenko (1994 to the present), a resovietization of commemorative culture using the Soviet narrative of history was carried out. The foundation for the Lukashenko regime was the memory of the „Great Patriotic War,“ whose canon had been formed in the late Soviet era. Official commemoration of World War II in Belarus continues to be committed to Soviet traditions.