When Sonia Zalesskaia returned from summer camp to her family in Minsk in June 1941, she found her mother incapable of caring for herself and four children—Sonia, Tsilia, Abram, and Roza: “She had a nervous breakdown when the Germans came; she was completely indifferent, paralyzed. When we had to move to the ghetto, I had to organize everything. I was the oldest sister. When they moved us to the ghetto, Mother did not know what was going on. … I found a peasant who drove our belongings to the ghetto on his cart. I figured I had to give him something, so I gave him our sewing machine and some fabric. That meant we had nothing left to trade with.”
The narratives of child survivors of the Nazi genocide in the German-occupied USSR help us better understand the distinct features of ghettos in the area that were killing sites rather than transitional spaces of internment. Among the 800,000 Belarusian Jews killed by Germans and their collaborators were parents, grandparents, and other relatives of thousands of young Jews who thus became orphans and struggled for survival on their own. This situation, however, often goes unacknowledged in studies of the Nazi ghettos, the so-called Jewish districts established by the German Wehrmacht or occupation administrations in Nazi-occupied countries.
Yet age did matter for everyday life within the ghetto. Adolescents were the most vulnerable group in the Nazi ghettos, suffering unduly from hunger, violence, and the psychological impact of terror. They were also highly mobile within the ghetto and able to maintain relationships with peers and adults—such as classmates and teachers—outside the ghetto, suggesting that they were an especially resourceful group. Everyday life in the ghetto thus redefined roles that children as well as women and men took on within families.
Immediately after the war, Jewish historical commissions began to collect testimonies, especially from children, in formerly German-occupied countries such as Poland and France, but no such efforts were made in the Soviet territories. Statements collected immediately after the war in the USSR, primarily by the Extraordinary State Commission, list human and material losses and German crimes but rarely included descriptions of how Soviet citizens, let alone Jews, lived under the occupation. Materials provided in the Black Book of Russian Jewry unquestionably fill some of these gaps, yet these accounts pertain to multiple locales; again, they do not provide a comprehensive view of how individuals survived under conditions of violence, forced labor, and trauma.
To complement the few accounts of ghetto life that were offered in the immediate postwar period, it is therefore necessary to analyze recently produced oral histories, video testimonies, and written memoirs. Many of the narrators remembering their experience were children and teenagers during World War II. The narrators’ age and gender shape these sources by drawing on distinct experiences, and they are thus relevant as categories for the analysis of both experience and memory.
Minsk, the capital of the Belarusian SSR, is an important site to trace such experiences. As a major city located in the former Pale of Settlement, Minsk was home to a significant Jewish population of about 71,000, and it provides a lens onto Soviet Jewish experience before and during the German occupation. Alongside the campaigns to secularize Soviet culture, including the different national cultures composing it, nationality policies of the 1920s and 1930s proclaimed ethnic equality. Whereas Soviet policies destroyed the institutional framework of Jewish life but offered alternatives, such the Pioneer organization or access to education, Nazi policies strove to erase the very livelihood of Jews along with their lives.
Minsk is an important case study for understanding the impact of the German war of annihilation on Soviet society and the destruction of Jewish people and communities by the Nazi regime. Both the rapid military advance and the beginning of the systematic killing of Jews reflect the strategies and goals of the war: to occupy Soviet territories so as to capture “living space,” appropriate resources, enslave parts of the population, and exterminate those who were considered subhuman, including Jews, Roma, mentally and physically disabled persons, or enemies such as Communists, Red Army officers, and Soviet professionals.
Minsk was fully captured and occupied by German troops on 28 June 1941, after brutal air raids lasting several days. Immediately, party functionaries, members of the so-called intelligentsia—that is, professionals—and many Jews, were arrested. Up to 10,000 male civilian prisoners, among them many Jewish men, were killed in early July.
German Field Commander Karl Schlegelhofer ordered the establishment of a ghetto for the Jewish residents on July 19, 1941, long before the city became the headquarters of the German civilian administration of the Generalkommissariat Weißruthenien, with Wilhelm Kube appointed general commissioner for the region in September. Over a period of five days ending on 24 July, about 50,000 Jews had to leave their homes, cramming into a space of about 200 hectares (494 acres). All Jews over the age of 10 had to wear a yellow patch of 10 centimeters in diameter on their chest and back. Sixty-four Jewish women were executed in September 1941 because they did not wear the patch in the ghetto. The patch stigmatized Jews who tried to move about freely and made them vulnerable: Many were thrown in jail or worse when they were discovered on their own and outside the ghetto.
The Minsk ghetto was located in the part of the city most badly damaged by air raids and combat during the invasion. Often housed in damaged properties, 10–12 people shared rooms that used to house three. As one interviewee recalled, “we slept underneath and on the table.” In addition, residents had to leave behind much of their movable property such as furniture, bedding, pots, and food supplies when they were moved into the ghetto, and they subsequently suffered from hunger, cold, and illnesses that went untreated. The territory of the “Jewish district” was surrounded by barbed wire. As elsewhere, this flexible enclosure testified to the purpose of the ghettos in Belarus, which were used—to borrow Wendy Lower’s term—as holding pens in preparation for genocide, just as they were in Ukraine. After killing operations, barbed wire fences or guard posts were quickly dismantled; in the case of Minsk, the fence was moved after mass executions, adjusting the ghetto territory successively downward to match the ever-shrinking number of inhabitants.
Internal structures and developments within the ghetto were also shaped by the prewar history of the city and its residents. The destruction of Jewish communal institutions in the 1920s and 1930s meant that there was no communal body that could have provided organized self-help. The absence of a kehilla and of schools, theaters, or other cultural institutions catering to specific Jewish audiences contributed to largely individualized ways of dealing with poverty, humiliation, and death and explains the lack of cultural mobilization and activity in the ghetto. The economic crisis in the 1930s had left many Soviet citizens without monetary savings, expensive jewelry, or other valuables, a lack that stood in the way of trading personal property for food during the war. In the context of the ensuing Nazi genocide, these developments exacerbated difficult material and ideological conditions for Jewish ghetto inmates.
On orders from the German authorities, the Judenrat, a Jewish leadership body, was established. Created by the Nazi regime, this committee was designed to help execute plans for exploitation and extermination by registering all ghetto inhabitants and organizing work details. Yet the Minsk Judenrat, especially the first under Il´ia Mushkin, also used its position and authority to assist those in need. A ghetto hospital, an orphanage, and a soup kitchen supported inhabitants of the ghetto unable to work, mostly elderly people and children.
First and foremost, however, the Judenrat functioned as a labor office. All males older than 14 years and women over 16 were considered fit for work and required to report to work every day. It was crucial to labor for the Germans, either in one of the workshops located within the ghetto or at sites in the Russian district such as the printing shop and the buildings and factories appropriated by the Generalkommissariat or the German military, in order to access regular food rations, meager as they were. Mikhail Treister, for instance, recalls that he received a bowl of watery soup and 150 grams (5.2 oz.) of bread for the day. Nonworking ghetto inmates were to receive half the amount of rations that workers received.
Mass killings overshadowed the search for food, heating supplies, or medical care and marked the beginning of the systematic extermination of European Jewry. Members of the Einsatzgruppe A, the Security Service (SD), the German police, Latvian and Ukrainian militias, and others killed ghetto inmates either directly in the ghetto or took them to execution sites on the outskirts of Minsk such as in Drozdy, Blagovshchina, Trostenets, or Tuchinka, where they shot them at trenches and ravines. Other victims were herded into gas vans, the so-called dushegubki (soul killers), and asphyxiated while the vans were driven from the town to prepared mass graves.
Drawing on archival documentation and eyewitness testimony, historians have compiled a disturbing chronology of Jewish death in Minsk. Estimates of the overall number of victims vary between 56,000 and 63,000. Between July and September 1941, up to 7,000 Jews were murdered. During a pogrom on 7 November 1941, between 12,000 and 18,000 people were killed, largely in an attempt to vacate housing for Jews from Germany and other European countries who were deported to Minsk and held in the so-called Sonderghetto, a restricted space within the ghetto. On 2 March 1942, between 5,000 and 8,000 inmates of the ghetto were killed, many of them unemployed; others were children who had been rounded up in the ghetto orphanage. In the summer of 1942, the Nazi leadership again ordered the killing of so-called “unproductive” Jews, meaning people who were not employed in producing goods essential for the war effort. Within three days, from 28 July to 1 August 1942, up to 25,000 Jews from the Minsk ghetto were murdered.
The initial wave of killings and ghetto destructions in the late summer and fall of 1941 left the majority of Jewish communities in Belarus dead by the spring of 1942. The Minsk ghetto was an exception; located in the capital of the Generalkommissariat Weißruthenien and the seat of multiple administrative and production facilities, it was maintained beyond this date. Yet the spring of 1943 saw an increase in random killings of Jews that took place daily, both in and outside the ghetto, in preparation for the final elimination of the ghetto. Between 21 and 30 October 1943, the Jews remaining in the ghetto—approximately 2,000 in number—were murdered.
The size of the city, in addition to the longevity of the Minsk ghetto, explains why the bulk of survivors of the Nazi genocide in Belarus who narrated their experiences came from this particular ghetto. An organized underground network was able to develop and collaborated with partisan formations in forests near the city; several thousand refugees from the ghetto joined these detachments; and some, but not all, survived the war there. Many of these survivors relied on the help of youngsters to escape from the ghetto. Teenagers regularly lead groups of ghetto prisoners into the—precarious— safety of the partisan zone in the forests and swamps surrounding Minsk.
The exact number of those who left the ghetto remains unclear. In a recent account, historian David Romanovskii suggests that between 6,000 and 10,000 Jews were able to leave the ghetto with help from the underground and partisans, and that half survived until the end of the war. Another 1,000 Jewish people were hidden by acquaintances in the Russian district or survived in hideouts in the vicinity of Minsk. An analyst of Soviet partisan units claims that 1,310 Jews from Minsk arrived in partisan formations. This number likely underestimates the overall number of people escaping from the ghetto, since it includes neither those who left the ghetto and died after doing so nor those who survived in hiding nor those who didn’t identify themselves as Jews to the partisan—a practice very common at the time to avoid suspicion or ostracism, or even death. Among the thousands who left the ghetto were a number of children and teenagers who eventually survived the war, and who, decades later and in old age, testified to the factors that enabled them to survive the Nazi genocide and those that made it a constant challenge.
Sonia Zalesskaia and Samuil Volk had just arrived in a pioneer summer camp near Minsk when German troops invaded the Soviet Union. Following complicated routes, they returned to their hometown, only to confront a family in disarray. Sonia’s father had left Minsk with the bread factory where he worked and was later drafted into the army, leaving behind Sonia’s mother, Nekhama Portnova, and four children. Samuil’s parents had quarreled over leaving Minsk and eventually split. His mother, Revekka, had pleaded to wait for Samuil’s return, but the father chose to abandon the family for fear of finding himself again in German captivity, as he had in World War I.
Sonia regularly left the ghetto and roamed through abandoned homes and factories in the Russian district in search of food, coal, and other essential goods. As a rule, adolescents like her did not wear the yellow patch when they were in the Russian district: Sonia and Samuil took advantage of their youth and never wore the patch, while the older Rita Kazhdan and Vera Smirnova removed it when they left the ghetto, usually in the midst of a worker column.
Young Sonia repeatedly visited her family’s previous apartment, by then occupied by a former neighbor. The old man fed her whenever she showed up at his doorstep. Yet the meager yields of Sonia’s foraging efforts were insufficient. In the fall of 1941, her mother died of starvation. Family relatives sent Sonia and her siblings to the ghetto orphanage at Ulitsa Dimitrova, 3.
Despite the Judenrat’s best efforts, food supplies were insufficient in the orphanage, and older children were encouraged to seek food themselves and return only to spend the night. Sonia continued her trips in search of sustenance: “There were many children, but these were not children, they were like living corpses. They were so emaciated … I brought food for my siblings, but my brother was already incapable of eating. The next time I came, after a couple of days, all three of them had died and had been taken away already. That was three months after the invasion.”
As Sonia roamed the Russian district for food, she saw it as a safer place than the ghetto, where raids and pogroms posed a constant threat. She shared the fear of being trapped in the ghetto with other children who left and begged for food at central public spaces. Regular raids targeting Jewish children, however, could quickly turn the Russian district into a trap. Hiding one’s Jewish identity from both German police and local residents was thus an essential strategy for the youths’ survival.
Samuil Volk’s account illustrates the different forms of violence and deprivation experienced by orphaned children in the ghetto. In the early weeks of the occupation, Samuil’s mother feared for her children’s lives and asked them to stay home. Later, Samuil went in and out of the ghetto with great caution, knowing that he must not be seen crossing the wire fence.
When Samuil, his mother, and his three siblings found themselves among a column of people being led from Minsk to Tuchinka for execution in November 1941, he understood that he should leave as soon as possible. Once his mother had nodded to him in agreement, he waited for an opportunity to escape. “So I waited until the guards weren’t paying attention. All of a sudden, I saw a woman with a child step out of the column and hide in a doorway. I followed her. I heard bullets flying over my head, and when I turned around I saw that Ziama was running after me. I waited for him and shoved him into the next barn I could find.” Samuil and his 6-year-old brother found shelter with their aunt, who also lived in the ghetto. She was unable to provide for the children, however, and sent them to the ghetto orphanage. “There my independent life began, so to speak,” Volk observed.
Like Sonia, Samuil regularly left the orphanage. He teamed up with another Jewish boy, Leva, who “had made contact with some Russian guys at the freight yard. They were cleaning toilets and shoes for the Germans and sold newspapers to them. He took me there, too, and they taught me how to clean shoes.” Laughing, he explains that he procured his equipment “like everyone else. I had two brushes, a rag, polish, a little box that served as a stool.” The laughter indicates that the supplies may have been stolen, although he did not state this openly.
Samuil and Leva slept in the basement and attics of abandoned buildings: “we tried not to go back to the ghetto because it was dangerous to stay there.” The primary danger came from the killing operations, when German and collaborating troops surrounded the ghetto and drove out anyone from a specified area within the ghetto. In these cases, ghetto residents often sought shelter in hiding places prepared in advance, so-called maliny.
Describing a common experience, Elena Drapkina narrates how she was able to survive a large pogrom on 20 November 1941, but she also draws attention to the ambiguous role such maliny played, rescuing some but endangering others:
Some men had covered the space underneath the stairs with plates of tin. In front of it, they mounted a laundry line and hung some rags and underwear to cover the plates, and they made a door. When we got there, there were already so many people that the narrowness itself was dangerous—if someone had fallen, people would have stepped on them, and for lack of air one could have suffocated. … We stood like sardines in a can. … There was a woman with an infant, and at the moment the Germans were walking up the stairs, the child began to cry. People almost jumped on her, but she began to nurse the baby and he stopped crying. … We stood like this for a whole day and the following night.
When Elena and Lenia emerged after the pogrom, Elena’s uncle had been murdered in the living room. The man was one of many older ghetto inhabitants who volunteered to close and disguise entrances to the hideouts, hoping the killers would take mercy on them, or willingly sacrificing their lives to ensure other Jews’ survival. Other accounts reveal that infants were deliberately suffocated when they started crying; sometimes children died in the squeeze.
Samuil was afraid that his brother might fall victim to a raid or one of the pogroms, which often targeted the orphanages and hospital in the ghetto. He says that he “said goodbye” to his brother—that is, concluded that he had died—when he heard that the orphanage had been surrounded and the children inside murdered on 2 March 1942. Days after the pogrom, he went to see for himself, and “there he was, running around with some other children. … He had hidden in a pile of dirty laundry. … He said to me, ‘I knew you would come at some point, so I stayed here.’” After that, the boys tried to evade danger in the ghetto by sleeping in the Russian district, utilizing, like other homeless youth, ruins, basements, squats, and even cisterns. Ziama returned to the ghetto orphanage only occasionally to wash or eat if the brothers were unable to find sufficient supplies themselves.
The constant danger fostered the bond between the brothers. After they were separated again during one of the large killing operations, presumably during the pogrom in late July 1942, the younger boy’s attachment to his older brother grew and he literally clung to him: “He never let me go; once we were outside the ghetto and one of the boys told him I would leave him, he never let me go again. Whenever I wanted to go somewhere, he started to scream and cry. Once he had a bellyache, he didn’t let me get out of bed and I had to go the toilet with him. He was so afraid I would leave him.”
One of the main places where homeless children like Sonia and Samuil congregated was the freight yard. A substantial group of youths, both non-Jewish and Jewish, gathered there every day to beg for food or offer service to wounded soldiers of the German army who arrived on hospital trains, such as cleaning shoes, selling newspapers, and performing songs and dances in Russian and Yiddish in exchange for food, money, or goods they could sell. Among the youths were several boys who had been smuggled out of the ghetto by women associates of the underground movement and placed in an orphanage in the Russian district. Historian Barbara Epstein describes these efforts in great detail, emphasizing the cooperation between Jews and non-Jews living in the Russian district, in her 2008 book The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943. The women’s rescue efforts were successful because most had known one another as colleagues or union or party activists before the war. It is impossible to determine how many Jewish children were saved by being placed in Russian orphanages in Minsk, partly because they were forced to disguise their Jewish identity, which some never reclaimed. Leonid Smilovitskii estimates that there were up to 500 Jewish children among the 2,000 in all Minsk orphanages.
The directors of children’s homes encouraged their charges to panhandle or to work for small payments to acquire food outside the ghetto. Most likely as a form of precaution against the threat of rape or other forms of abuse, however, girls were forbidden to do so. Vladimir Mordkhilevich also reports that his aunt did not allow his female cousin Zhenia to leave the ghetto with the boys, and Elena Gringauz’s mother had her daughter stay home altogether. Sonia Zalesskaia further noted that she returned to the ghetto at night after roaming the Russian district in search of food. Although none of the narrators specify the reasons for these restrictions on women’s movement both within the ghetto and outside, special danger to girls and women in the form of sexual violence is reported in other accounts.
But the boys were not safe either. German and collaborating troops were free to abuse and randomly punish children and adolescents. Beatings, denial of payment for services, and even raids against crowds of children were daily occurrences. Many children, Belarusian and Jewish, were deported to Germany to be included in the Lebensborn program, designed to “Germanize” suitable parts of the population of occupied countries. Other children were used to “donate” blood to wounded German soldiers, literally draining them of their scarce bodily resources.
Jewish boys were particularly eager to avoid arrest or close interactions with the police, since some of them were circumcised and would hardly have survived discovery. Accounts of this fear show that the religious practice of circumcision had persisted in the prewar decade despite attempts to secularize Soviet Jews before the war. As a form of protection against discovery, many took on other names: Samuil Volk went by Misha; Vladimir Mordkhilevich chose “Buratino because I was always funny and a little naughty”; and others teamed up as Zhilin and Kostylin. In addition, boys dirtied their faces with soil so as to better resemble other homeless children.
Neither the pseudonyms nor the change of appearance protected these youths from denunciations by other boys, who recognized Yiddish accents or faces from past school attendance. Their accusers thereby renounced the interethnic solidarity inculcated in them in the very classrooms they had shared with Jews.
The fear of discovery, violence, and death never disappeared; combined with living in the streets, it took a huge toll on the orphans’ physical and emotional strength. Like the two brothers, Sonia Zalesskaia spent nearly two years in and out of the ghetto, sleeping here and there, hiding from pogroms, panhandling to feed herself, sometimes supported by prewar acquaintances. The unsteady supply of food, unstable housing, and constant threat of death drained orphaned adolescents both physically and emotionally. Strong bonds with siblings or other people such as Sonia’s former neighbor were essential for surviving in the absence of official guardians.
The Nazi occupation relied on different forms of violence, several of which were determined by the victims and perpetrators’ gender. Physical violence, the infliction of injury and death, targeted women and men for different reasons and took different forms. An implicit regime of violence reflected the specific employment opportunities that at specified moments divided the ghetto population—male and female—into the living and the dead.
The Nazi occupants of Minsk directed their policies at a city population disproportionally composed of women. There are no detailed statistics available that indicate the gender of ghetto inmates. Yet it is reasonable to assume a disparity, since many young men over 18 were drafted into the Red Army when the war began. This imbalance was further, and deliberately, boosted when German arrested and executed men between the ages of 18 and 50 shortly after the invasion.
On 1 July 1941, all men of draft age were arrested and interned in a makeshift camp near the forest of Drozdy, where several thousand Soviet POWs were already being held behind barbed wire. The conditions in the camp were miserable, food was not supplied, and under an open sky there was no shelter against the hot sun or, later, rain. The horrid conditions upset even a German official, who particularly decried the small number of guards: Their paucity encouraged the ruthless use of arms to secure order. Some wives of internees and communist activists were able to rescue a number of men by supplying them with women’s clothes. The men put on the dresses and, disguised as civilian visitors, left the camp.
The German military’s internment practices soon turned into systematic murder. Selections among prisoners according to national and professional categories led to the execution by firing squad of communists, members of the intellectual and cultural elite, and Jews. In July alone, there were hundreds of Jews among the dead.
The special targeting of Jewish men continued during the first raids in the ghettos, when up to 1,500 men between the ages of 15 and 50 were arrested and executed in August 1941. Afterward, assuming that men, and especially male communists, were the prime targets of Nazi persecution, many men remained inside and avoided public spaces, hiding in attics or other concealed areas inside residential buildings or in the hospital. Securing access to food for families who had lost male relatives or could not rely on wages thus often became the task of boys, adolescent males, or female family members.
Rita Kazhdan describes how first her mother and then she herself took on the role of breadwinner. Both of her parents eventually died. Abram Fridman, Rita’s father, was murdered because the Nazi regime considered men potential resisters and saboteurs. Rozalia Fridman, her mother, later fell victim to the frantic hunt for 5,000 Jews during the pogrom on 2 March 1942. She was caught while trying to find some food for her children and friends hiding in a malina; a militiaman put a child in her arms as she was pushed into the column of those to be killed.
Rita and her 10-year-old brother Grisha were now orphans; at 14, Rita was in charge of her sibling. Rita decided to send Grisha to the orphanage to receive a bowl of watery soup every day, but she also urged him to come home immediately after he had received his meal. “First, because he was the only one I had left, and second, the children’s home was plagued with scabies and lice, dangerous germ carriers, and we had enough of them already.”
Rita, assisted by her former classmate Ania Lianders, who also lived in the ghetto, found employment at the tank factory (Panzerwerk) run by the German company Daimler Benz. Cleaning the repair shop and offices of German administrators, Rita received a piece of bread and a bowl of soup every day. Her friend Lidia Parfimchuk worked in the workshop kitchen and often put an extra portion of food into a container that Rita left in a corner near the kitchen. At the end of the workday, Rita picked up this container and took it home.
Elena Drapkina, another young woman who had lost her entire family, was assigned to work at the freight yard. As part of a column of 16 women she would clean arriving trains, remove snow from the tracks, and receive a daily food ration. She was also able to use her employment to acquire additional resources: “Whatever people had left, we took it to work and exchanged it with Russian workers for flour, pearl barley—anything, really.” Such barter was facilitated by the much greater access to food supplies outside the ghetto. Work sites served as places to exchange valuables, clothes, and household items for food, but they were also spaces of connection with the underground movement.
Rita Kazhdan regularly interacted with Russian POWs and Jewish men working in the boiler room of the tank shop. Soon enough, she was asked to collect bullets and other useful things when she was cleaning the upstairs offices.
One of the guys made a container that had a double bottom, and I put the bullets, or carbide, in the lower part, covered it, and on top of it Lidia ladled soup or whatever food was available. I hid the bullets at home until I was able to pass them on to a young man, Iuzik, who took them to partisans; in return he had promised that he would make sure my brother and I would be able to join them. … But after a while he disappeared and didn’t come back, so I was stuck with the bullets. One of my roommates found them when she was cleaning the house. They almost killed me, because if the Germans had found them, they would have killed all of us.
The danger of smuggling materials from the workshops into the ghetto became concrete for Ekaterina Tsirlina and her friend Tsilia Botvinnik, who smuggled a number of weapons out of the weapons manufactory where they worked. One day they were forced to watch three men hanged after they were caught engaging in similar transactions. Knowingly or not, Ekaterina Tsirlina and Rita Kazhdan utilized stereotypical assumptions about women to deceive the occupation regime. Notions of passivity, prominent in the stereotypical imagery of women as well as Jews, may have worked to the young women’s advantage by discouraging the belief that Jewish women would actively work against the Nazi regime.
Securing employment opportunities outside the ghetto was vital; it provided access to food and connections to potential helpers, and daily absence from the ghetto also offered a form of protection from the terror: The pogroms in November 1941 and in March and July 1942 began only after worker columns had left children, elderly, and other unemployed people behind in the ghetto. Rita Kazhdan’s description of waiting anxiously during the mass killing operation of the summer of 1942 highlights both her relief at avoiding the danger, but also her anxiety at the thought that her brother was in the ghetto:
They did not send us home from work; we stayed in the workshop, and in the ghetto there was a horrid pogrom. That time, they took everybody; they dragged people out of maliny and houses, everybody. I remember, when we left for work, the sun was shining. But then, as if nature were an accompaniment to this whole act, it started to rain. And for two or three days, I already don’t remember how long this was—to us it seemed like an eternity—the rain didn’t stop. When the pogrom was over, they sent us back to the ghetto. The ghetto was located around a hill, and as we walked up Respublikanskaia Street, blood was streaming down the road with the water. At the top we saw those who had survived, who had been able to save themselves. Grisha was among them.
Rita’s brother had survived in a malina that a family friend, the pharmacist Abram Levin, had built in his house. Trying to avoid a repetition of this terrifying situation, young Rita urged her supervisor to employ Grisha.
She succeeded, and her brother daily left the ghetto with her, working as a messenger within the workshop, receiving a daily food ration, and evading the trap that the ghetto became during mass raids.
Workplaces were sites not only of survival but also of aggression and violence. Mentioning once that she was “almost raped,” Rita Kazhdan described how a German worker named Jupp assaulted her: “When this Jupp had already thrown me onto the bed and covered my mouth so that I could not scream—but I also was afraid to scream, because technically I wasn’t allowed to clean the rooms of Germans—this Kruglenitsa [Jupp’s roommate, AW] came, and Jupp went into one corner, I into the other. But that was horrible. Another German wanted to just kill me because once I had not properly put away a broom in the workshop. Things like that, all the time. It was very difficult.”
Kazhdan’s hesitancy to detail these forms of sexual abuse and gendered violence may be attributed to shame, embarrassment, or the desire to hide the events from family members. Such omissions or distortions echo in other accounts. Mikhail Treister, for instance, describes how Sarra Friedman, a housemate, approached three German soldiers for help when the house was on fire. Promising help, they took her away and she never returned. “Even today,” Treister writes, “I try not to think about the end of this episode.” Other witnesses describe how the ghetto commander Adolf Rübe chose 13 young Jewish women, forced them to walk around the city of Minsk, then took them to the Jewish cemetery in the ghetto. There the women had to undress and dance in front of the commander and his entourage. Eventually Rübe shot them at a pre-prepared pit.
Although we cannot know whether Sarra Friedman was sexually abused, killed, or both, these options are possible and even likely, given numerous reports of the sexual abuse of women in Minsk and elsewhere in the occupied USSR. Members of the German forces and collaborating militias frequently invaded homes under cover of night to rob whatever possessions were left after confiscations and barter as well as to abuse the residents. Many women and girls were brutally raped and killed. In addition to the actual violence committed, the rapes contributed to the terror, for any woman might be next.
The assault on Jewish women continued in the context of labor assignments and selections. While providing nutrition, work for the Germans also entailed bureaucratic registration and thus increased the likelihood of summary pickup for execution. When the Judenrat refused to assemble 5,000 ghetto residents to be killed on 2 March 1942, German and Lithuanian police killed all the children in the orphanage, a number of the patients in the ghetto hospital, and randomly selected passersby such as Rita Kazhdan’s mother. They also culled worker columns returning in the evening to complete the cruel assignment.
Elena Drapkina’s work detail, a group of women, mounted a truck at the end of the workday. They were taken to the ghetto gate at the intersection of Chornaia and Obutkovo streets. There, Drapkina says: “They made us get off and line up along the ghetto fence. This was night, it was already midnight, it was a moonlit night. I will never forget this scenery. … A German guard checked the documents at the gate, and I noticed that he sent those with a skilled worker identity card [Facharbeiterausweis]—mostly men—to the ghetto; the other ones, younger people and women, to a second column.”
Drapkina explains that she took her card, which identified her as a worker—but not as a “skilled worker”—showed it to the guard, and thus passed the control. The only other woman from Elena’s column who survived the selection at the ghetto gate was Elena’s friend Oktia. “She ran away from the gate and hid in the Russian district. She could do that because she was blond and did not look like a Jew.”
A few days later, two Russian workers offered to obtain a passport for Elena that would identify her as a Polish woman and enable her to leave the ghetto. Drapkina did not go immediately, because she was afraid that she would endanger her housemates or coworkers. Frequent controls and additional marks on people’s coats, identifying the person’s residence and number of residents, helped the ghetto command detect the absence of individuals. If an absence was discovered, all residents of the building were taken hostage and killed. Elena thus waited for a suitable moment, which came after the cruel pogrom in July 1942, when the high death toll cast all data and registration records into disarray. Drapkina left the ghetto immediately after the pogrom. She passed as a gentile woman and found refuge in a farmer’s household west of Minsk before joining a partisan unit.
Leaving the ghetto and joining a partisan unit was the only way to escape certain death. Depending on their age and gender, Sonia Zalesskaia, Samuil Volk, Rita Kazhdan, and Elena Drapkina joined various detachments of guerrilla fighters that strove to sabotage and destroy the infrastructure as well as representatives of the German occupation regime.
If ever there had been a playful and unburdened childhood for young Soviet Jews in Minsk, it ended right after the arrival of German troops, who steadily increased and refined their system of violence, intimidation, and threat. As Tatyana Gildiner notes, “children in the ghetto did play, but they rarely smiled.” Jewish children who were caught under German occupation had to fulfill roles that, before the war, were largely reserved for adults: working to supply their family and themselves with food, as well as to protect themselves and others against the intrusion of strangers and violence. Schooling is not mentioned even once.
This absence points to a stark difference between the Jewish and non-Jewish spaces. Belarusian children were offered an education and other cultural activities, even if the activities and instruction offered were directed according to Nazi ideology. Starving, exposed to the elements, battling illness, and fearing for their lives, Jewish youth were physically and mentally exhausted.
How many children, Jewish and non-Jewish, fell victim to the Nazi extermination policy is hard to establish. Leonid Smilovitskii notes that children and women were often excluded from Soviet statistics of the dead, and we may thus never know. We can, however, use the existing materials—oral histories, memoirs, and others—to try and reinsert the experiences and perceptions of teenagers and other young people into the historiography of the Holocaust in the USSR.
Surviving in the ghetto largely depended on independently seeking out ways to acquire food, housing, or safety from pogroms. Children and adolescents were particularly vulnerable during killing operations. They were part of the nonworking population and thus had little opportunity to leave the ghetto legally or prove that they served the German war economy, while hiding places such as maliny were not safe for children either. Important to both individual and collective responses were informal networks, including Jewish and non-Jewish actors of different ages. Adults who formed an underground network on both sides of the ghetto fence rescued a considerable number of them. Other children and youths from the ghetto continued to interact with people whom they knew from before the war as friends, classmates, and teachers and relied on either peer support or relationships of care familiar from educational institutions.
Rita Kazhdan and, until she was murdered, her mother stand for many young and adult women who provided for their families after male family members had either been drafted into the Soviet army or murdered by the Germans. Girls and women, many of whom had been employed in the education sector and in administrative positions—or looked forward to such employment—in the prewar period, were now confined to unskilled labor, often as janitors or cooks. This not only devalued the professional training they had acquired but also made them vulnerable during selections, when skilled workers were favored and unskilled laborers led to execution sites.
The revival of traditional, gendered patterns of labor, whereby daily food provision and other forms of care are relegated to females and the domestic sphere, also facilitated survival. Whether it involved smuggling Jewish children out of the ghetto and into children’s homes in the Russian district, collecting food and clothes for those in need, or trading equipment and wood smuggled from worksites for food, women took on a significant share of the work. Ghetto inmates also benefited when women found employment in workshop kitchens, granting access to food, or took work as farm maids in the countryside after fleeing from the ghetto.
Rita Kazhdan’s and Mikhail Treister’s vague but disturbing remarks on sexual violence within and outside the ghetto encourage further analysis at the nexus of gender and memory. They had difficulty elaborating on these statements, perhaps due to shame or inability to recall or because they never knew. Their difficulty highlights the challenges to reconstructing particular histories of violence and the social nature of memory.
Postwar silencing targeted women in compounded ways. It included the denial of recognition for female Soviet war veterans, a history that has been uncovered by Beate Fieseler, and the active writing-out-of-history of a young, Jewish woman’s contribution to resistance efforts, as in the case of Masha Bruskina, whose name was reinstated and included in the memorial to her group’s execution in Minsk only in 2008, after a decadeslong struggle by scholars against Minsk authorities’ claim that her identity was “unknown.”
The special targeting of Jews during the Nazi occupation was not typically acknowledged in memory as cultivated by the Soviet state. Moreover, youth under 18 years of age were not legally considered veterans of the war and thus were not entitled to veterans’ benefits. Compounded by the denial of distinct Jewish suffering during the war, Soviet Jewish youth thus had no voice in the canon of Soviet war commemoration and historiography. The oral histories, testimonies, and memoirs introduced here, while offering a subjective and fragmentary account, thereby acquire political importance, as they place youths’ experiences in the larger context of the history and memory of Nazi occupation. They help overcome an exclusion produced by means of extreme violence that nearly succeeded in destroying even those few voices we have available.
Adapted from “Jewish Youth in the Minsk Ghetto: How Age and Gender Mattered,” Kritika–Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 15, no.3 (2014): 535-62. Reprinted with permission.
Anika Walke, Associate Professor of History at Washington University in St. Louis, is the author of Pioneers and Partisans: An Oral History of Nazi Genocide in Belorussia.