To remember or not to remember: the Holocaust in Belarus

Dr. Claire Le Foll

The Holocaust is not my area of expertise. However, I felt an urgency to write about it, and more specifically about the difficulty of remembering it in today’s Belarus. This urge resulted from a conjunction of circumstances: the foreword I wrote recently for the second edition of Bashert, a memoir by Andrea Simon on the fate of her family from the Belarusian shtetl of Volchin; a recent visit to Belarus; and recent news from the city of Brest.

Belarus paid a heavy cost during the Second World War. It was at the centre of what the historian Timothy Snyder calls the ‚ÄėBloodlands‚Äô, the territory between Poland and Russia where most Soviet and Nazi mass-murders took place in the 1930s and 1940s.

As a former area of the Jewish pale of settlement under the Tsars, Belarus had a large Jewish population. After the invasion of Western Belarus by Soviet forces in 1939, the Jewish population of the Belarusian Soviet Republic tripled to more than one million. The extermination of Belarusian Jews started immediately after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. Some Jews were rounded up and sent to ghettos in the major towns and cities but many were shot on the spot.

The Gate of Remembrance memorialises those who lost their lives in the extermination camp of Maly Trostenets in modern-day Belarus.

We are aware of many mass murders carried out in 1941, before the Wannsee conference, in different areas of Belarus, with the help of local populations. While the bulk of the Jewish population was murdered during the first killings, massacres continued in 1942 and 1943, when the remaining ghettos were liquidated. In the Brona Gora forest alone, 50,000 Jews from the Brest region were shot and their bodies piled in huge pits. In 1943, the SS also conducted brutal operations against the partisan movement, which was very active in Belarus. Over 800,000 Jews died in Belarus from the ‚ÄėHolocaust by bullets‚Äô, while over a quarter of the Belarusian civilian population perished from wider Nazi actions.  

Published in 2002, Bashert was the first memoir that precisely described what became known as the ‚ÄėHolocaust by bullets‚Äô and in particular the massacre that took place in Brona Gora. Less researched and less known until recently than the genocidal actions that took place in Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine (memorialized in Auschwitz, Ponary and Babi Yar), the Holocaust in Belarus has been little remembered. After the war, the Soviet authorities did not recognize the specificity of the Jewish genocide and did not allow for the official memorialization of Jewish victims. The Holocaust and the local collaborations became taboo while the official narrative celebrated Soviet heroism, commemorating the destruction of ‚Äėpeaceful citizens‚Äô by ‚Äėfascists‚Äô. Monuments at massacres sites mentioning the Jews and displaying inscriptions in Yiddish and Hebrew were established only thanks to the initiative of thousands of Jews.[1] This silence was partly broken after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but recent events have shown that the ambivalence towards the memory of the Holocaust persists, at least in Belarus.

This memorial marks the location of the former death camp at Maly Trostenets.

One consequence is the scant attention, until recently, paid to the extermination camp of Maly Trostenets. Situated on the outskirts of Minsk, it was the only death camp functioning on the Soviet territory. Often forgotten on the maps of the ‚Äėdeath factory‚Äô in Holocaust museums, Maly Trostenets stands for three sites of mass-murder: a concentration camp that functioned between the Spring 1942 and July 1944, a site of mass shootings in nearby Blagovshchina, and the site of Shashkova where bodies were cremated. Jews from the Minsk ghetto and the local area, as well as Jews from Germany, Poland, Austria and the Czech Republic, were shot or killed in gas vans there. Soviet partisans, citizens and soldiers were also murdered in Trostenets. The number of victims remains unknown. A plaque established in the Soviet style in the 1960s commemorated the death of ‚Äėpeaceful citizens‚Äô until the Belarusian government opened the first part of a vast memorial complex in 2015. President Alexander Lukachenko solemnly inaugurated the memorial complex in June 2018 in the presence of representatives from Austria, Germany, Israel, Poland and Czech Republic. Another inauguration took place in March 2019, this time to unveil the plaque and monument commemorating the extermination of Austrian Jews, in the presence of nationalist Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

I visited Trostenets for the first time mid-April 2019, full of the hope that this solemn memorialisation of the camp site was a turning point and that, finally, the Holocaust would be recognized in Belarus. While walking along the ‚Äėalley of memory‚Äô and between the remains of the camp buildings, I frantically looked for one word: ‚ÄėJew‚Äô. The word appeared only on the monument established by the Austrian government. The official plaques, written in Russian, Belarusian and English, mentioned the ‚Äėplaces of mass extermination of people‚Äô and of ‚Äėcivilians deported from European countries‚Äô. In his inaugural speech President Lukachenko also carefully avoided the word ‚ÄėJew‚Äô. In his telling, the ‚ÄėAustrian citizens‚Äô who died in Trostenets, perished because of their ‚Äėethnic origins, confession or ideology‚Äô but not explicitly because they were Jews.[2]

A recent discovery in Brest brought the Holocaust back into the spotlight once more. The discovery of over a thousand skeletons on a building site, not previously identified as a massacre site, spurred protests among local inhabitants and calls for the creation of a memorial.[3] The building of a luxury apartment block has however not been called off by the local authorities. This macabre discovery demonstrates that the Holocaust in Belarus is neither comprehensively known nor properly remembered. Too often, the memorialisation is left to the initiative of individuals.

The memorialisation of Trostenets represents a significant symbolic shift, by which Belarusian society seeks retrospective inclusion in the ‚ÄėEuropean tragedy‚Äô of the Second World War. Yet this shift away from the Soviet narrative about the Great Patriotic War is incomplete because of the lack of recognition of the Holocaust’s specificity. The persistent refusal to name the Jews among other victims can be read as part of the legacy of the politics of memory in the Soviet Union. It is also an expression of the competition of memories in a country that feels under threat and is scared of losing its independence.

This emphasis on a common European victimhood, and, at the same time, on the suffering of Belarusians (exemplified by the Khatyn memorial site commemorating the quarter of Belarusian village burnt during the war) has a troubling significance. The process of democratisation that would avoid this competition of memories has yet to fully start.


[1] See Arkadi Zeltser, Unwelcome Memory: Holocaust Monuments in the Soviet Union (Yad Vashem Publications, 2019)

[2] Mikhail Bushuev and Elena Danejko ‘Belarus: An unknown story of the Holocaust brings forgotten camp ‘back into Europe’s conscience’, 29 June 2018, Deutsche Welle, https://p.dw.com/p/30X9R [accessed 5 August 2019]

[3] Sarah Rainsford, ‘Uncovering Nazi massacre of Jews on Belarus building site’, 1 April 2019 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-47732043

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