As we mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, RFE/RL is looking again at some of the factors that determined the course of the struggle and shaped the new world that emerged from it. World War II wrought death and destruction across Europe. But few countries suffered as much as Belarus. Up to one-third of the country's population perished during a three-year Nazi occupation. Virtually all of its Jewish population was exterminated. In the process, the war and decades of Soviet rule dashed the tiny country’s hopes for fully independent nationhood.
Prague, 4 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Freida Raisin was 8 years old when invading Nazis hanged her mother in central Minsk, leaving her body dangling in public for more than a week.
As the Germans went about exterminating most of the Belarusian capital’s Jews, Raisin also saw a group of teenage girls dragged from their homes, beaten, and shot in the head. The sight of their blood spilling into the street is one of many memories that sill haunt Raisin, now 70.
"There were several things that we were always thinking about -- to be always on the alert, because death was around the corner at any moment, and hunger, constant hunger, where to find food," she says.
On 9 May, world leaders gather in Moscow for celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in the “Great Patriotic War.” But for many in formerly multiethnic Belarus -- Jews, Poles, Belarusians themselves -- that victory was bittersweet.
It was not just that Belarus, then divided between Poland and the Soviet Union, was thoroughly devastated. As the famous Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau noted shortly before his death in 2003, the conflict also killed the hopes of Belarusians for independent nationhood. Belarus was swiftly reincorporated into the Soviet Union, then led by brutal dictator Josef Stalin.
“I think that the victory was really taken away both from the Belarusians and the Russians, and not only from them. This happened right after the victory. It was taken by the great idol of these nations -- the ‘Great Stalin,’” Bykau said.
Proportionately, Belarus lost three times more of its population -- up to 30 percent, or 3 million people -- than any other nation. About a third constituted nearly its entire Jewish population.
Canadian Franklin J. Swartz directs the Eastern European Jewish Revival Project, a Minsk-based organization engaged in recovering the region’s Jewish heritage. He says the country’s wartime devastation is still felt today. “[Up to] 30 percent of the population were killed on the territory of Belarus, and 80 percent of the towns and villages [were destroyed]," Swartz says. "Of the towns and villages destroyed, approximately 470 of them were intentionally destroyed by Germans, along with their inhabitants. The inhabitants were usually locked into a barn and the barn was burnt down along with the rest of the village. About 180 of those villages never came back to life. So that gives you an idea of the extent of the destruction and the nature of the very personal experience that many people had here in relation to the war. It’s very much still a living memory.”
And a complicated memory.
Belarus arguably was invaded by two different powers. After Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Soviet Union grabbed the Belarusian half of Poland. Under the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Stalin and Adolf Hitler had agreed to divide Poland, which included parts of present-day Ukraine and Belarus.
Among the war’s first victims in Belarus were 20,000 Polish officers and professionals taken prisoner by the Soviets in western Belarus in 1940. They were slaughtered, many in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk, in a crime blamed on the Nazis -- and not acknowledged by Moscow until 1990.
Hitler turned on Stalin on 22 June 1941. In Operation Barbarossa, Germany attacked the Soviet Union -- and within a week, Minsk had fallen to the Nazis.
As the front moved eastward into Russia, the largely anti-Nazi population of Belarus waged an all-out partisan war on the occupiers. Belarus counted nearly 400,000 partisan fighters, including Jews who had dodged the Holocaust by fleeing to the forests to join the resistance.
The partisan history is the stuff of legend. Bykau’s whole opus is centered on the experience. It often involved entire families, as a woman from the town of Rudabielsk recently recalled in an interview with RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service: “We took families, children, and ran to the forest. We were in a guerrilla unit. There was nothing to eat, we were hungry. We would go to the village and ask for some food. When we managed to get some potatoes, we would grate them, put them in water together with skins, boil, and eat once a day. We wanted to eat, so we sang to reduce the hunger.”
The partisans were hailed as vital to the Allied victory. But they also helped facilitate the country’s destruction. The Nazis flattened towns and villages and liquidated inhabitants in retaliation for attacks by partisans and collaboration with them.
Some nationalists seized the occupation as an opportunity to try to throw off both the Polish and Soviet yokes and achieve independence. Later, Soviet authorities branded such activity as collaboration.
And during the war, tens of thousands of Belarusians were forcibly deported to Germany as slave laborers. When they returned, they were often met with hostility by the Soviets, who sent many to the gulags of Siberia.
Volha Niakhaj is a leader of Los, a Belarusian organization of Nazi victims. “In all countries, people who had survived foreign concentration camps were awarded with medals," he says. "But when we came back, they forgot about our deeds, forgot that we had been victimized and we became people of the lowest class.”
In Belarus today, opponents of the regime say they are also considered of the lowest class by the government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
In perhaps his last interview, Bykau told RFE/RL that while the rest of Eastern Europe is enjoying freedom after communism, Belarus remains mired in its postwar state -- as a de facto subject of Moscow. For him, the war’s legacy is alive and well.
(Aleksey Znatkevich of RFE/RL’s Belarusian Service contributed to this report.)