The lower house of the Belarus parliament gave interim approval this week to a draft law “On the Genocide of the Belarusian People.” The bill would make it a crime to deny that the Nazis and “nationalist groups” committed genocide against the Belarusian people during World War II and afterward. Those convicted of this crime could receive sentences of up to five years in prison. In the case of a repeat offense, the punishment would be up to 10 years.
Critics warn that the new legislation would blur the distinction between the Holocaust and the crimes committed by the Nazis against the Belarusians. The proposed law defines the Belarusian people as “Soviet citizens who lived in the territory of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Belarus during the period of World War II.” In other words, hundreds of thousands of Jews in Belarus who were murdered during the Holocaust are defined as the “Belarusian people,” who according to this law were the victims of genocide.
A statement issued by the Belarus House of Representatives says the purpose of the bill, which was sponsored by representative Lilia Ananich, was to “preserve the historical memory and national security,” and to prevent attempts “to falsify the events of World War II and its consequences.” To take effect, the law still needs to pass the upper house of the parliament, the Council of the Republic, and be approved by President Alexander Lukashenko.
The bill has advanced during a period of harsh tension between Lukashenko’s regime and Europe and the United States because of the refugee crisis on its border with Poland, along with the sanctions imposed on Belarus over the suppression of the protest against the presidential election fraud last year. The proposed law is seen as a way for Belarus to leave its stamp on the battle over the historical memory now being fought among a number of Eastern Europe nations, including Russia, Ukraine and Poland.
World War II sowed mass death and destruction in Belarus, with different estimates of how many people were killed. According to Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky, head researcher into the history of Belarusian Jews at Tel Aviv University’s Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center, about 800,000 Jews from Belarus died in the Holocaust, out of some 1 million Jews who lived there before the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 – including Jews who had fled Poland after 1939. In addition, some 800,000 prisoners of war were killed in its territory, and over 330,000 Belarussians who were deported to Germany for forced labor died there.
“During the war years, over 1,140 reprisal operations were carried out in Belarus,” said Smilovitsky. “630 towns were destroyed with all their residents, and another 5,454 towns were destroyed with some of their residents. But Belarus is one of the few countries in the world where [the government] claims an equivalence between genocide and terror. Genocide is where you are sentenced to death from the moment of birth. Terrorism is a reprisal operation for resistance. The Germans did not kill those who did not resist, as opposed to the Stalinist terror, which made broad use of preventive repression.”
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“A great many Belarusians were killed, especially in the western part of the country, near the border with Lithuania. The Germans carried out a series of reprisal operations there that in practice emptied huge areas of all the people,” said Dr. Yaakov Falkov, a Tel Aviv University historian who studies World War II as it took place in the Soviet Union. “The suffering of the Belarus population was very great, even compared to what the Nazi occupation caused in Ukraine and Russian territory, where it was also horrible.”
On the other hand, Falkov said it is impossible to describe the reprisals against the Belarusians as genocide. “What separates genocide from a barbaric and brutal treatment of the local population is the intention to totally destroy part of the population based on a certain criterion. In this aspect, the treatment of the Belarusians and the Jews was of course different. No one destroyed the Belarusians because they were Belarusians. The Nazis treated them badly – they were second-class humans, and even third-class because they were Slavs, who were supposed to become, at some point, according to the Generalplan Ost (General Plan East], ‘work animals’ and then later to be deported to the east. But this was a long-term plan and there was no intention on eliminating them to the very last one. Elementary schools and churches were opened for the Belarusians, and newspapers were published in their language.”
“It is possible to see in this bill a blurring of the Holocaust,” said Falkov. “If everything now is a ‘holocaust,’ then what is unique about the Jewish Holocaust? It is not Holocaust denial, the opposite, they say: ‘We recognize the destruction of the Jews but from now on they will also be considered as Belarusians.’ But if we place an equal sign between what they did to the Jews and what they did to the Belarusians, this is a distortion of the historical facts and a distortion of the Holocaust.”
Smilovitsky takes yet a tougher line: “Factually, it is of course Holocaust denial because nowhere in the law is a mention of Jews or of the Holocaust.” This comes in addition to a long-term policy of Holocaust denial in Belarus, he said. “As of today, as far as the country is concerned, nothing has been done in Belarus to commemorate the Holocaust. In 2015, a monument in memory of the victims of the Trostenets death camp near Minsk [where mostly Belarusian Jews were murdered] was opened. There is not a single Star of David there and the Jews of Belarus are not mentioned there. The Jews from other countries are mentioned there. Instead of the ‘prisoners of the Minsk Ghetto,’ the ‘residents of Minsk’ are mentioned there,” said Smilovitsky.
“The main goal of the law, which is being passed without any scientific opinion, is to take retribution against civil society in Belarus. They are trying to claim: You [the opposition], are waving the white-red-white flag that the Belarusian murderers waved,” referring to the Belarusian nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II. “You are fascists exactly like them and if you deny it, here is a law for you,” said Smilovitsky.
In response to a request from Haaretz, the Belarus ambassador to Israel, Evgeny Vorobyev, provided a long, detailed reply. “I do not understand what is controversial in this definition [of genocide]. I do not rule out that there are those who are willing to argue over every definition or fact, whether it is the genocide of the Belarusian people, or whether it is the fact that the Earth is round, or the American landing on the moon.”
As for the question of claims that it ignores the Holocaust, Vorobyev wrote: “Blaming Belarus for erasing the memory of the Holocaust is one of the most baseless and insulting accusations that is possible to raise against our country. There is not a single person in Belarus who does not know of the tragedy of the Jews of Europe and Belarus.” The International Holocaust Remembrance Day “is included in the Education Ministry’s calendar in Belarus,” he added.
“The first monument to the victims of the Holocaust was placed in a pit in Minsk in 1946, when it seems monuments to the Holocaust did not exist in any European country,” said Vorobyev.