Opinion |

We Will Never Separate Jewish Victims From the Nazi Genocide Against the Entire People of Belarus

Belarus won’t divide by ethnic origin the blood spilt by the Nazis: Belarusian, Jewish, Russian, Tatar, Ukrainian. The 800,000 Jews killed in WWII are part of the genocide against Belarus, our common home

Evgeny Vorobyev
Evgeny Vorobyev
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Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gives a speech during a military parade that marked the 75th anniversary of the allied victory over Nazi Germany, in Minsk, Belarus
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko gives a speech during a military parade that marked the 75th anniversary of the allied victory over Nazi Germany, in Minsk, BelarusCredit: Pool Photo via AP, File
Evgeny Vorobyev
Evgeny Vorobyev

On December 14, the Belarusian Parliament adopted the draft law "On the genocide of the Belarusian people." For the first time, the fact of the Nazi genocide of the Belarusian people during the Second World War has been recognized at the legislative level.

Some historical facts. During their occupation, the Nazis in Belarus carried out over 140 punitive operations, during which they completely or partially destroyed over 200 cities and 9000 villages, many of which were burned to the ground along with their inhabitants.

There were about 250 camps for Soviet prisoners of war and 350 camps for civilians. In the village of Maly Trostenets alone, where one of the largest Nazi death camps was located, 206,500 people died, including tremendous number of Jews from the Minsk ghetto, as well as from Western and Central Europe.

Jewish ghettos were established in 186 settlements. The Minsk ghetto held about 100,000 people, of which only a few survived. About 800,000 Jews were killed in Belarus during the occupation.

During the war years, taking into account indirect losses, 2.5 to 3 million or more residents of Belarus died.

Nazi German troops enter Minsk, capital of Belarus, on June 9, 1941Credit: AP Photo

These facts - the destruction of thousands of cities and villages on the territory of Belarus, many together with people, the deaths of millions of residents (in total, about a third of the pre-war population) – would seem to invite respect for the reasons prompting this genocide recognition law.

However, parts of the Israeli media publish critical articles accusing the Belarusian authorities of historical distortion, by counting almost a million Jews killed in Belarus as ethnic Belarusians, and by alleging most Belarusians lived well during the Nazi occupation, for example an article in Israel Hayom entitled "Belarus: the Bill Registers Jews who Died in the Holocaust as Belarusians."

I suppose that such publications are often prompted by the opportunism of some Israeli historians acting as experts in writing such articles.

I would like to quote one of the experts, whose remarks were used in the article – the Israeli historian Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky, to ground my critique.

To my surprise, Dr. Smilovitsky, a fairly respected researcher of the history of Belarus Jewry, uses the same arguments used by Nazi propaganda resources like "Der Stürmer," or "Völkischer Beobachter," the Nazi party's daily newspaper, when describing the regime that occupied Belarus from 1941-1944. All the blame for the millions of deaths among the Belarus’ inhabitants he assigns to…Belarusian anti-Nazi partisans.

It turns out that, "The civilian population served as a human shield against the Germans, however from the very beginning the Nazis did not kill those who did not resist. 386,000 Belarusian children went to schools during the Nazi regime. There was a circus, there were museums, there were institutes and magazines. When the Red Army came to liberate Belarus, thousands of Belarusians decided to leave with the retreating Germans, because they preferred to be under their rule than under the Soviets."

Lanterns fly over the Soviet-era WWII war monument in Brest, Belarus, to mark the anniversary of the Nazi invasion and the resistance of the Soviet Army Credit: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Apparently the Belarusians simply flourished under the Nazi regime, and, I quote, "628 villages were burned down along with their inhabitants, 4500 settlements were simply destroyed, but this was a response to partisan operations."

As a Belarusian, I cannot understand how an Israeli historian can use the Nazi argument of the guilt of the anti-Nazi partisans in the mass destruction of the population of my country.

All the men in my family during WWII took part in the fight against the Nazis, most of them in the ranks of the Red Army; some were partisans. I always wondered what made the latter take up arms. Talking about it, they gave me three examples from the history of my extended family from 1941-1942. Let me share them with you.

In the summer of 1941, Nazi troops entered my hometown of Bobruisk. One of the German soldiers on the front line broke into the house where my then 30 year old grandmother lived with her two young children (my mother, a year old and my uncle, who was six) and their elderly great-grandmother (she was over 70).

The Nazi demanded gold and food, placing a bayonet on the body of the one-year-old girl – my future mother. My great-great-grandmother fell to her knees and held out her only gold ring. The German soldier removed the bayonet, took the ring and, having kicked the old woman in the chest with a steel-toed boot, and left. She died from that blow.

WWII re-enactors in Brest, Belarus take part in mock battles between Soviet and Nazi forces marking the Day of Remembrance and Sorrow, the anniversary of Germany's WWII attack on the Soviet Union Credit: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

In the winter of 1941, the Germans expelled old people and teenagers from the town to work in the forests, cutting timber for their troops. My grandmother's brother, 16 years old and deaf from birth, was one of them. The Germans didn't like the fact he didn't follow orders quickly enough (he couldn't hear them) and, for the edification of the others, they tied him up and threw a felled tree on him. The boy, my great-uncle, died.

In 1942, another of our relatives, a 12-year-old boy (my future godfather) was taken during a Nazi raid to the Krasny Bereg concentration camp. At the camp, the Nazis took blood from the children to use for infusions for wounded German soldiers. My godfather told me that his blood was taken as fast as it flowed from his veins. Boys and girls who had been bled were thrown outside on to the hospital porch. If they survived, they were sent to Germany to work on farms. My godfather, a tough boy, survived, and returned home in 1945.

Is anyone surprised that anyone, after the murder of their relatives, joined the partisans? I am not.

Military enthusiasts re-enact a World War II battle for the 1944 liberation of Minsk from the Nazis at the "Stalin Line" memorial, near the village of Goroshki, outside Minsk, BelarusCredit: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

It was not the partisans who caused the German repression, but the daily killings of civilians and the brazen violence of the Nazis which triggered the active unfolding of the partisan war. To understand this, I advise watching the world famous film "Come and See," based on the story of Ales Adamovich. The events depicted took place near where my family lived.

Hitler's order, forming the basis of the "Ost" plan, clearly described the approach of the Nazis to the inhabitants of the occupied territories of the USSR – genocide. "There is only one task: to carry out Germanization by bringing in Germans, and the former inhabitants should be regarded as wild Indians."

When historian Dr. Smilovitsky repeats Nazi propaganda about partisans hiding behind civilians, I cannot understand why he is doing this. It is even more difficult to understand why an Israeli newspaper is publishing this. I remember the Jewish partisan detachments of the Bielsky brothers and Shalom Zorin in Belarus: Were they also the culprits of the Nazi atrocities?

The creators of the Belarus law are accused of including 800,000 of our Jewish fellow citizens who became victims of the Nazi Final Solution policy, the practical expression of which was the Holocaust, into the total number of those killed in Belarus, without special separation from other victims belonging to other nationalities.

Frida Reizman, a survivor of the Minsk ghetto, lights a candle during the International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the Soviet army's liberation of AuschwitzCredit: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

To answer this: I would like to note that Belarus is a country where not only Belarusians and Jews but also other nationalities – Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Tatars – traditionally lived in peace and harmony. The defining characteristic of Belarus is that we regard all these nationalities as one political entity: citizens of Belarus, Belarusian people. Belarusian statehood is based on jus solis ("right of soil") not jus sanguinis ("right of blood.")

Throughout history, there have never been any serious manifestations of antisemitism on the territory of Belarus. Even during the Holocaust, the Nazis complained bitterly about the acute shortage of Belarusians willing to become the executioners of Jews. The lack of local executioners had to be made up for by importing them from other countries.

Of course, among the Belarusians there were scum collaborators who killed their Jewish compatriots. It was those fellow travelers who left with the Nazis, preferring "to be under their rule than under the Soviets," as Dr. Smilovitsky writes.

The reasons for their flight are understandable: The people of Belarus have always treated Nazi collaborators with contempt; their fate was either a partisan bullet or a noose following the post-liberation Soviet military tribunals. And those who managed to hide were sought by the Belarusian prosecutor's office, which is still collecting evidence about Nazi crimes in Belarus.

Belarus has never measured the pain of the Second World War on ethnic grounds. Even now, no one will divide that spilt blood into Belarusian, Jewish, Russian, Tatar or Ukrainian. Everyone who bled were at that time members of the same multinational family and had the same citizenship of the USSR. All of them, living on the territory of Belarus, were and remain our fellow citizens.

Together they carried the unbearable burden of the Nazi yoke, together they opposed it and together they won. This was their common home. It is to their cherished memory that this law is dedicated.

A communal worker cleans the sidewalk next to Soviet era tanks at an open-air WWII museum next to the Mound of Glory war memorial, topped with four rising bayonets, outside Minsk, BelarusCredit: AP Photo/Sergei Grits

Evgeny Vorobyev is the ambassador of the Republic of Belarus to the State of Israel

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