MINSK, Belarus - Survivors of Minsk's World War II ghetto, where more than 100,000 Jews were killed, joined a procession yesterday to mark the 65th anniversary of its destruction.
About 1,000 people walked through central Minsk - formerly the heart of the ghetto - to lay flowers at the site of a mass burial pit. Survivors wept, squinting into a stiff breeze.
"I didn't expect that so many people would come today," said survivor Sima Urbanovich, 75. "I came because I worry, you see, that soon there will be no one left to honor them. But having seen so many youngsters, it seems this place won't soon be forgotten."
Urbanovich said the event, though important, evoked painful memories for her. She said her mother had survived a mass shooting one night in the ghetto by playing dead, and was thrown into the burial pit by Nazi soldiers. After nightfall, she climbed out and escaped to the nearby woods, where she joined a resistance movement.
Only 7 at the time, Urbanovich managed to flee to a separate hideout and was reunited with her mother after the war.
The Minsk ghetto, known as the Yama, or Pit, was one of Europe's largest. More than 100,000 Jews were killed there from August 1941. Most were shot in the street outside their homes.
In October 1943, the Germans demolished ghetto buildings in an effort to find Jews in hiding. The remaining 2,000 Jews were rounded up and killed.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko began the memorial proceedings in Minsk with a televised speech on Monday.
"Our sacred motto is 'Nothing is forgotten, no one is forgotten.' We have a great debt to the memory of front-line fighters, guerrillas, underground resistance fighters and victims of Nazism," Lukashenko said.
Opposition leaders accused Lukashenko, who has never attended the ghetto ceremonies in his 14 years as president, of using this anniversary to curry favor with the West.
Lukashenko, who has been described as Europe's last dictator, is on a mission to improve Belarus' image in the West. Recent moves to free political prisoners have been met with praise in Europe and the revoking of an EU travel ban, a move he called a small but significant step.
Nasta Palazhanka, deputy head of the banned opposition group Youth Front, said Lukashenko's motives were suspect because he has never avidly fought anti-Semitism.
"Look at the numerous times criminals have defaced Jewish memorials. The perpetrators are never caught. Authorities often even refuse to investigate, said Palazhanka," who was at the procession.
Alexei Heistber, the head of a Holocaust victims group in Germany, said he had brought dozens of German children to Minsk to show what happened in Belarus in those tragic years.
Representatives from the United States, Ukraine and Moldova also attended the lightly policed event.
Up to 800,000 Jews - or 90 percent of the Jewish population - were killed in Belarus during World War II.
Fewer than 50,000 Jews now live in Belarus, a mostly Slavic nation of 10 million.
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