Heroism in the Forest

Zeev Barmatz
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Zeev Barmatz

The Fate of the Jews of the USSR in WWII

Nearly five million Jews lived in the Soviet Union in 1940. About three million of these arrived as refugees seeking shelter during the years between the two World Wars. About 1.5 million Jews lived in Eastern Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which were absorbed into the Soviet Union between 1939-1940. During the beginning of the war, 300,000 Polish Jews fled to the USSR in hopes of escaping the Nazi occupation. The majority of the Jews lived in Russia, the Baltic States, Belarus, Volhynia (now western Ukraine), Ukraine, and Bukovina (now Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine). However, the terror did indeed catch up with them: The high concentration of Jews throughout the Soviet Union allowed the Nazis to quickly and efficiently imprison thousands of Jews inside ghettos, and – along with willing assistance from the local non-Jewish populations – they were able to all but eradicate the Jewish community. The Jews of Belarus were nearly all exterminated.

The Soviet Policy of Ignorance

After the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression Pact by Germany and the Soviet Union in August 1939, there existed in the USSR a policy of silence regarding the Nazis’ actions against the Jews. The Soviet media never reported on the atrocities that were being carried out in Germany and Poland, and this led to a disaster for the Jews living in the USSR, as they never imagined the danger that would befall them. On June 22, 1941, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was rescinded as Germany invaded the Soviet Union, yet the millions of Jews living there, who had been kept in the dark regarding the fate of their people in the rest of Europe, were fatally unprepared.

Invasion and Resistance

One hundred and ninety German divisions gathered at the western borders of the Soviet Union. One hundred and fifty- three of them were trained in modern warfare. Within three weeks of the invasion, most of Belarus was captured. About 70 million Soviets lived in the areas captured by Germany – around 40% of the population.

Defense of the Brest Fortress

The fortress in the town of Brest was built in 1833 during the reign of the Russian Empire. Located where the Mukhavets and Bug rivers meet and also at the junctions of the roads leading to Warsaw, Moscow, and Kiev, it was considered an important and strategic base on Russia’s eastern border. The fortress was the site of the first major battle of Operation Barabossa – Germany’s break with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its invasion of the USSR. With many troops, tanks, artillery, and warplanes, the Germany army launched a surprise attack on Brest on June 22, 1941.

One of the commanding officers of the Soviet army leading the defense was Yefim Moiseevich Fomin, a Jew from Kolyshki. Fomin was looked at as a brave leader who motivated his men at all times. For several days, the Soviets bravely fended off the invading forces, even while under siege with little food or supplies. On June 30, German troops were able to capture a number of forts and the Soviet army’s hold on the fortress was lost.

The Germans suffered heavy losses, as defense of the fortress held out for much longer than they had anticipated. Some 500 German soldiers died in the battle – about five percent of all German fatalities on the Eastern front until 1941.

Most of the Soviet troops died in battle or were taken as prisoners, while some were able to escape to the forests and even join the Partisans. Some remaining defenders were reportedly still fighting for weeks later.Major Ivan Zubachyov and Fomin, his second-in-command, had led a failed attempt to break the siege on June 26. Zubachayov and Fomin were both captured. The Germans immediately recognized Fomin, and knowing he was Jewish, executed him on the walls of the fortress. In his dying breaths, it was reported that he shouted: “Don’t lose your spirit! We will be victorious!”The Defense of the Brest Fortress became a symbol of Soviet resistance and the fortress was renamed “Hero Fortress” in 1965. On January 3, 1957, Fomin was posthumously given the Order of Lenin and a memorial commemorating his bravery was placed at the site of his death.

Summer 1941

Alfred Rosenberg was appointed as the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern territories, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Rosenberg proposed to divide the territories into four districts:

1. Ostland – the Baltics and Belarus

2. Ukraine – Ukraine and nearby territories

3. Kaukasus – the Caucasus

4. Moskau – Moscow and the nearby territories

In July 1941, Wilhelm Kube was appointed Generalkommissar of the Belarus subdistrict (with its seat in Minsk), and under his rule, German soldiers were ordered to kill any Partisan or other resistor they found.

At least 13 million Soviet civilians were murdered by the Nazis. In addition to their systematic killing of European Jews, the Nazis also targeted any civilian who did not cooperate with their rule. They were also able to take advantage of the various local populations’ hatred for one another.

Fascist Ukrainians and Belarusians held the hope that the Germans would bring independence from Communist Russia, but were gravely disappointed when the Nazi regime put into effect its “restructuring” plan of Eastern Europe. The Russian Carpathians and Transylvania were annexed to Hungary and in return, Romania (whose army fought side-by-side with the Germans) received control over Transnistria – bordered to the West by the Dniester River, in the East by the Southern Bug River, and in the South by the Black Sea.

The Ukrainian city of Kharkov was annexed to Russia and in exchange, Ukraine seized control of the Belarusian cities of Brest and Pinsk. The areas of Grodno and Bialystok, which had been part of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, went under the control of the Third Reich. As compensation, Belarus controlled the areas in the East up to Smolensk.

The Partisan Movement Arises

June 29 1941 – The Central Committee of the Communist Party ordered all party organizations to encourage Partisan warfare throughout the Nazi-occupied territories, and specifically in Belarus, where Nazi advances were strong.

July 3, 1941 – Stalin calls on the Soviet people to join the Partisan fight.

July 16, 1941 – Hitler responds to Stalin’s speech, saying that the Partisan movement gave the Nazis the excuse to destroy anyone that opposes them.

July 18, 1941 – The Central Committee of the Communist Party “expanded and concretized” its June 29th directive, and informed party committees to lead and spread Partisan activity against the enemy.

Belarus played a central role in the Partisan front due to its strategic position between German-controlled Poland and Soviet Russia.

August 1941 – Six thousand Soviet soldiers were stationed in Belarus in order to support and expand the Partisan war.

May 30, 1942 – The State Defense Committee establishes the Central Command of the Partisan Movement, with Panteleimon Kondratevich Ponomarenko as its chief.

September 1942 – Partisan commanders and commissars met in Moscow and officially established the Belarusian Command of the Partisan movement.

Partisans as Instigators of Change

Trains were bombed and derailed, German soldiers were shot and killed, food deliveries and ammunitions factories were set on fire – these acts were just a part of the Partisans’ actions, which caused great havoc to the German army.

The response was swift. The Germans threatened and punished peasants who had any connection with the Partisans, especially those who supplied food or helped them evade the German army. This sort of assistance had a tough consequence: Houses or even whole villages would be burned to the ground.

But rather than dissuading the resistance, the Partisan movement only grew as the Nazis increased their campaign against Partisan collaborators and of course against Jews, homosexuals, Roma, the disabled, and political prisoners. British research analyst John A. Armstrong contends that the Soviet Partisans helped thwart Hilter’s plan to defeat the USSR and also allowed Britain and the United States to prepare themselves against the German army.

Many Belarusians and former Partisans do not agree. Despite the brave efforts of the resistance, the Partisans did not have enough military strength to stop the highly trained and impassioned army, whose actions were fueled by the Führer’s words. And if so, it was only towards the end of the war, when the Partisans were better equipped and supported by the USSR, not during the first stages of the movement.

Indeed, history has shown that the Russian winter was the greatest factor in the Nazi defeat, as the power of nature brought the German forces to their knees. It may be stated that the Partisan movement’s unique contribution to the war effort was in raising the morale of the civilian population. This did not happen overnight, but rather took time as the public’s trust in the Partisan fighters had to grow along with the movement. At the beginning, much of the rural population – who had had Communism forced upon them – welcomed the anti-Soviet Germans, hoping they would bring freedom and prosperity. But once the murderous face of the Nazi regime showed itself, particularly against the Jews but also against the general populace, local sentiment turned away from the occupiers and support grew for the Partisan effort.

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