Opinion |

The Real Reason Belarus’ Dictatorial Regime Is Downplaying the Holocaust

We cannot be naïve. The recent WWII genocide law, which falsely equalizes the Holocaust with Nazi reprisals against non-Jewish Belarusians, is as much about history as it is about today: Anchoring the totalizing repression of the Lukashenko regime

Leonid Smilovitsky
Leonid Smilovitsky
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Alexander Ivanovich Kazhura at the memorial to the Jews executed by the Nazis in the village of Khotenchitsy, in the Minsk region of Belarus
Alexander Ivanovich Kazhura at the memorial to the Jews executed by the Nazis in the village of Khotenchitsy, in the Minsk region of Belarus. 800,000 Jews in Belarus were murdered in WW11Credit: Alexander Litin
Leonid Smilovitsky
Leonid Smilovitsky

We in Belarus won’t divide by ethnic origin the blood spilt by the Nazis: Belarusian, Jewish, Russian, Tatar, Ukrainian, declares Belarus' ambassador to Israel. Every one killed on the territory of Belarus were equal victims of a uniform, undifferentiated crime: genocide, including the 800,000 Jews killed there.

Ambassador Evgeny Vorobyev gave a fighting response to the criticism directed at Belarus' recent genocide denial law by a panoply of historians, myself included, in his recent piece in Haaretz (We Will Never Separate Jewish Victims From the Nazi Genocide Against the Entire People of Belarus).

As the ambassador singled me out for opprobrium, I am taking this opportunity to respond. And I will start with this question: Why is Belarus deliberately falsifying history, claiming that terror and genocide are one and the same?

The Holocaust cannot be folded into and subsumed by a wider Belarus narrative. It was and should remain distinct. The plainest, most unarguable reason: The Nazis never killed Belarusians for being Belarusians and always killed Jews for being Jews.

When I invited Holocaust experts from 11 countries to a conference on "Preserving the Memory of the Holocaust in the Post-Soviet Space" there was unanimous agreement: Only Jews were the pre-planned victims. Everyone else had a choice between life and death.

Belarus Jews wearing yellow stars expelled from their village by the Nazis and forced to move to the Mohilev ghetto, July 1941 (recolored)Credit: Ruffneck '88/Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-138-1091-11A

That doesn’t stop Ambassador Vorobyev making an analogy between the Holocaust and the German "Ost" plan, a putative 30 year post-war program for the mass expulsion of the Belarusian nation. But by 1943, this plan was already abandoned. There is not one word in the "Ost" plan about the genocide of the Belarusians, or of the Slavs in general. In contrast, the extermination of Belarus' Jews began immediately after the Nazi occupation began in in September 1941.

This is the fundamental difference between the Holocaust and the deaths of non-Jewish Belorusians in WWII, a distinction with which Ambassador Vorobyev takes such exception.

He puts forward the thesis that the Nazi occupation was so brutal that Belarusians had not choice but to resist, and for that, they were hounded and killed. But the sequence is not quite so clear.

Until mid-1942, Belarus’ anti-Nazi resistance was insignificant; it did not have widespread grassroots support. The Belarusians did not want to fight for Stalin, the Soviet order and Soviet power.

That was hardly surprising: During the Soviet annexation of 1939-1941, Stalin's repression was in full force and tens of thousands of Belarusians, Jews, Poles and others were deported to Siberia with their families. When the Red Army retreated and the Nazis invaded in June 1941, the civilian population was passive and had to be forced to resist.

On May 1, 1942, Stalin ordered a massive centralized reorganization of the anti-Nazi partisans in occupied Belarus. From the town of Murom, a partisan "school" called the Special Belarusian Assembly sent out dozens of combat groups to sabotage enemy forces.

Stamp marking 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus: civilians greeting the soldiers of the Red ArmyCredit: Belarus Post/Wikimedia

The Kremlin needed the Soviet republic of Belarus to act as a buffer zone protecting Moscow. The small republic (225,700 sq. km) with a population of 10 million people had to delay the advance of the enemy at all costs. Stalin demanded they leave not a single grain of grain, fuel, or equipment to the enemy. The consequences of guerrilla warfare for the civilian population were not taken into account.

The actions of Soviet saboteurs in the Belarusian forests provoked German troops to punitive actions in order to ignite the fire of partisan war and force the Belarusians to resist.

The subsequent Nazi policy of retaliation left Belarusians no choice. They had to resist in order to survive. The lives of Soviet citizens meant nothing for Stalin. The difference was that the Jews were doomed to die from the very beginning, while the Belarusians and Russians were not, since they had a choice.

A group of Jews being marched through Minsk in 1941 after the Nazi occupation of BelarusCredit: Bundesarchiv, N 1576 Bild-006 / Herrmann, Ernst

To take one example of these two parallel paths: The liquidation of the Minsk ghetto. This ghetto is the key symbol of the Holocaust of Belarusian Jewry. 100,000 Jews were imprisoned there. It lasted longer than others in Belarus: it was one of the last to be destroyed.

The shooting of the last remaining 10,000 Jews at the end of October 1943 was hastened by the murder – by an NKGB sabotage group, helped by Belarusian partisans – of the of the Gauleiter of Belarus, Wilhelm Kube, on Stalin's orders. No one considered how this would affect the fate of the ghetto prisoners, although the consequences were predictable.

Nazi officers pass by piles of luggage left by Jews deported from Germany to the Minsk ghetto in Belarus, October 1941. Photo from the collection of SS Sturmbannfuehrer Joachim ReuscherCredit: Bundesarchiv BArch BILD 231

Another obvious difference between the fate of Jews and non-Jews in Belarus under Nazi occupation was how far normal life could be maintained.

The ambassador writes with disbelief that Belarusian children continued to attend school, with the charge that I was painting a picture of "life as usual" whereas he claims all Belorusians lived under the constant threat of genocide. But there is more to say.

A year into the occupation, under the control of the German civil administration, ten large educational districts were operating. Specialist professional and trade schools were open, from medical school to art schools, from tailoring schools to agricultural schools to peat reclamation courses to teachers’ seminaries, some with multiple branches.

All in all, in the General District of Belarus at the end of the 1941/42 academic year there were 3,485 schools in which 346,000 students studied and 9716 teachers taught, according to the findings of historian Jerzy Turonek. The language of instruction and the textbook was Belarusian. The Nazis wanted to positively contrast the status of Belarusians with Russians, Poles and, of course, Jews: Jewish culture in Belarus was outlawed and subject to immediate destruction.

Jewish forced laborers wearing the yellow star in Moghilev, Belarus, July 1941Credit: Rudolf Kessler/Bundesarchive, Bild 1011-1083-20

The work of schools was supplemented by the so-called Samopomich, a kind of public cultural and educational Belarusian self-help organization. According to German sources, it had up to 17,000 members and almost 80,000 members; it opened 51 houses of Belarusian culture, 46 reading rooms, 16 libraries, 67 choir clubs, 88 drama studios, 24 dance groups, 24 sports and 12 music clubs and associations.

So when Ambassador Vorobyev insists Belarusian Jews and non-Jews experienced the same dehumanization and genocide in WWII, look at the list above. Jews could not join a choir, learn a trade or borrow books: they were marked for death, and as Jews, not as Belarusians. As a result of the Nazi genocide, Belarus was left almost without Jews. 800,000 Jews were murdered.

Victims' combs recovered from the Nazi mass killing site of Jews in Blagovshchina, BelarusCredit: Vadzim Koshman

The real history of the Holocaust is absent in Belarus today, and the tangible evidence of centuries of Jewish life there is degrading day by day.

The Jewish cemeteries survived the occupation, but many were destroyed after the war. Jews’ former neighbors took matsevot (gravestones) for construction, and residential buildings and vegetable gardens were built over them. In 2015, a law was passed mandating the demolition of any cemeteries that have not been inspected for 50 years. The Germans killed the Jews, but who will watch over their graves?

For the 30 years I have lived in Israel, I have written books on the history of the shtetl, the history of censorship, Jewish national and religious life and more. However, the topic of the Holocaust would not let me go, and I returned to it.

I wrote about the Jews of Belarus as a historian, as a Jew, as the son of a World War II veteran, as the grandson of a Jewish couple evacuated from Gomel to the Urals and the great-grandson of Jews who died in the Holocaust. On November 25, 1941, in Rechitsa, in the Gomel region, the Germans shot 1,300 Jews, including 17 people named Smilovitsky – all members of my family.

Berta Yakovlevna Lesova with her great-grandson talks about her relatives who died in the Holocaust. Photo by Alexandr Litin in Mogilev, 2010Credit: Alexander Litin

There is a huge gap in knowledge about the Holocaust among Belarusians, and a huge gap in research and academic access to sources on Belarus and the Holocaust. There should be a "History of the Holocaust in Belarus" courses at schools and universities, necessitating textbooks and academic conferences; there should be grants for research, there should be a Museum of the Minsk Ghetto. But this has not happened, and is unlikely to ever happen.

Nor will there be recognition of the brave Belorusians who saved Jews: Not one of the few Jews who survived the Nazi occupation could have done so without their help.

The search for those righteous Belarusians began in Belarus only after the opening of the Israeli embassy in Minsk in 1993. Today we know of only 960 such names. To this day, there is not one memorial in Belarus honoring those heroes.

The former Ambassador of Belarus to Israel, from 2006 to 2012, was very open to deepening the understanding of the Holocaust in Belarus, and I discussed it with him many times. Ambassador Igor Leshchenya is a courageous person unafraid to express his commitment to democracy and free debate. And the Lukashenko regime made him suffer for it. He was deprived of the rank of ambassador and arrested.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko attends a meeting with top level military officials in Minsk, BelarusCredit: Nikolay Petrov,AP

Mr. Ambassador, there is no need to cast a shadow over the fence. Nobody denies the monstrous crimes of the Nazis in Belarus, the murder of thousands of civilians, the burnt and destroyed cities. Germany does not deny this either: it has made the denunciation of Nazism its state policy.

But let us not be naïve. This argument is about history, but it is just as much about today. It is about the totalizing repression of the Lukashenko regime. The recent law of the so-called "Genocide of the Belarusian people in 1941-1951" is one more tool for suppressing civil society in Belarus after the mass protests of August 2020.

The genocide law, as it is presented, is a mirage concocted by the Lukashenko regime for the international community, an attempt to take the moral high ground and a statement of ownership over Belarus’ national narrative. Its real role, though, is to deal harshly with domestic dissent.

The law states that it is not subject to any statute of limitations. In other words, even if 10 years ago you wrote something that the autocrat Lukashenko does not like today, you will be sent to prison. In today’s Belarus, in the absence of freedom of speech, an autonomous judiciary, the right to proper representation in court, the rights to life, health and property, anyone expressing independent or dissenting views can be charged under the law denying the genocide of the Belarusian people.

It is, in the spirit of its drafters, a totalitarian and revisionist law.

Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky, senior researcher at The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center, Tel Aviv University, graduated from Belarus State Pedagogical University and wrote his doctorate at the State University of Belarus.

He is head of the project, "Jews in Belarus," and a former researcher at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. He is the author of 450 acdemic publications, including "Jews in Belarus During the Holocaust" (Tel Aviv, 2021), "Censorship in Postwar Belorussia, 1944-1956" (Jerusalem, 2015) and "Jewish Life in Belarus: The final Decade of the Stalin Regime" (New York, 2014)

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