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Political Controversy Marks Anniversary Of Minsk Ghetto's Destruction

Gravestones from a destroyed Jewish cemetery near a monument to Jews killed during World War II
Gravestones from a destroyed Jewish cemetery near a monument to Jews killed during World War II
One year ago this week, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka sparked an international uproar when he characterized the town of Babrujsk as having once been a "pigsty" because it was "mainly Jewish." Israeli officials, among others, condemned his comments as "undoubtedly anti-Semitic."

Now, Lukashenka, keen to win Western support after years of isolation, is performing a different song and dance.

For three days this week, the capital Minsk has staged processions, memorial services, and even art exhibitions to solemnly mark one of the darkest chapters of World War II: the final destruction of Mink's Jewish ghetto. Lukashenka himself launched the proceedings with a televised speech on October 20, stating that Belarus has a "great debt" to all those who fought against the Nazis.

Survivors of the ghetto, where more than 100,000 Jews from across Europe were killed, joined some 1,000 people in a procession on October 21 through downtown Minsk to lay flowers at the site of a mass burial pit.

Survivors wept openly. One of them, Uladzimier Trachtenberg, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service how as a little boy he had witnessed the Nazis executing a 10-year-old girl: "She stood on her knees, and they had the gun pointed at the back of her head. She was not even crying; she probably didn't have the strength to cry. Her mom, who was held from behind by two policemen, even she was not crying. I don't know whether they killed the mother, I can't say. But just imagine a situation where small children gather up their last strength and think how to hold their breath so the Germans will think they are dead."

Belarus was once home to some 800,000 Jews, including famous names such as the artist Marc Chagall and Israeli President Shimon Peres, who was born in 1923 in a Belarusian town near the Lithuanian border. Ninety percent of Belarus's Jews were killed during the war and fewer than 50,000 remain there today.

Questionable Motives?

For the anniversary, authorities have helped organize concerts, readings, and an exhibition on the Holocaust with art by children from around the world. There's also an exhibition at Minsk’s Museum of the Great Patriotic War. Representatives from around Europe, the United States, and Israeli have attended.

But opposition leaders say Lukashenka's motives must be questioned, as he has never really fought anti-Semitism. "Look at the numerous times criminals have defaced Jewish memorials," Nasta Palazhanka of the banned group Youth Front told the Associated Press. "The perpetrators are never caught. Authorities often even refuse to investigate."

Activist Pavel Sevyarynets agreed, telling RFE/RL's Belarus Service that authorities previously paid "scant attention" to the Holocaust, which he said was shocking considering its importance in Belarusian history. "The site where this 65th anniversary is being marked is often desecrated and the perpetrators are usually not found," he said.

But not everyone sees Lukashenka as anti-Semitic. Franklin J. Swartz, a Canadian historian living in Minsk who has spent years studying Belarus's Jewish heritage, criticized reports that Lukashenka had never attended an event marking the anniversary of the Minsk ghetto's destruction. Swartz says Lukashenka attended one such event in 2000.

“If you talk to most of the heads of the Jewish communities here, they don't feel he's anti-Semitic,” Swartz says. “I have read just that some people who were described as opposition members in an AP report were saying that this was just a public relations effort. No doubt all this is favorable publicity, but I don't think it was contrived to be that."

Swartz, who has collected hundreds of oral histories of Belarusian Jews, helped research a recently published history of the Minsk ghetto by U.S. scholar Barbara Epstein. The book, "The Minsk Ghetto: 1941-1943, Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism," chronicles what she calls a unique event in the Holocaust -- the joining together of Jewish and non-Jewish fighters in Belarus against the Nazis.

"There was a lot of collaboration between Jews and non-Jews, both in fighting the Nazis and also in helping Jews to escape the ghetto and go to Partisan units in the forest. And that was on two levels," Epstein told Pacifica Radio in California. "The ghetto underground movement was part of a larger Communist-led underground movement in the city of Minsk. So even though the ghetto underground and the underground outside the ghetto were different in many respects, they were formally part of the same organization. They worked as comrades."

In prewar Belarus, Swartz says the cohabitation of Jews and non-Jews was comparatively friendly, unlike elsewhere in Eastern European.

Although Soviet-fueled anti-Semitism grew in the postwar era, Minsk residents interviewed by RFE/RL's Belarus Service say they don't notice any today. "We have Jewish neighbors, and I don't see that we have any problems today," one woman says.

Lukashenka, despite the uproar over his remarks last year, apparently sees no problems, either.

RFE/RL Belarus Service correspondent Lubov Luniova contributed to this report

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