Holocaust Survivors Oral History Project – Belarus

Frieda Raisman author of one of the biographies about the Minsk ghetto


Dr. Speckhard is the director of the Holocaust Survivors Oral History Project – Belarus. Begun in 1999 it is an ongoing project collecting oral histories from survivors of the Minsk ghetto and Holocaust in Belarus. Sixty-five oral histories have been collected to date which includes all the surviving members of the Minsk ghetto still alive in Belarus. Dr. Speckhard has written academic articles on the Minsk ghetto examining the historical and psychological issues, including long-term effects of psychological trauma in Holocaust survivors living in the former Soviet Union. She also wrote the Minsk ghetto entry for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Encyclopedia of Ghettos.

The Minsk ghetto was the largest and longest-lasting ghetto on Soviet territory. At one time it housed over 100,000 Jews. This figure included the original 75,000 Jews trapped in Minsk at the war’s outbreak in June of 1941. Added to their numbers (which continually shrank with exterminations) were the so called “Hamburg” Jews deported from many areas of Western Europe as well as skilled local Jews and their families who were saved for a time from extermination in other towns throughout Belarus and transported to Minsk ghetto to work as slaves. Unlike other ghettos that existed before the war in Europe, the Minsk ghetto was artificially created – prior to the Nazi occupation there had been no segregated territory for Jews in Minsk. Another unique feature of this ghetto is that its inhabitants were forced to serve as slaves for the Nazis supporting the front (Ehnrenbur & Grossman, 1980; and Smolar, 1989).

Some survivors of the Minsk ghetto have compared it to worse than a concentration camp because whereas in a concentration camp death occurred upon arrival or when a person failed to be productive, death squads in the ghetto were active day and night, and struck randomly all citizens of the ghetto. Forced labor also took place, yet unlike a concentration camp most of the inhabitants of the ghetto did not receive any daily food allowances – therefore starvation and disease was rampant. Likewise unlike the Warsaw ghetto no semblance of normal life or cultural activities carried on in the ghetto as it was an artificially created place where slave laborers where housed in vastly overcrowded living quarters until they were killed.

The majority of Jews gathered in the Minsk ghetto perished in a series of “actions” culminating in the final liquidation of the ghetto in October 1943. They also died as a result of unbearable living conditions. Only 10,000 ghetto inhabitants are estimated to have survived; having done so by escaping to the partisans or by being spirited out of the ghetto into hiding. Over 140,000 persons, many of them Minsk and European Jews are estimated to have perished in Trostinets, a nearby killing center (and later crematorium) just outside Minsk.

The Jews of Belarus have been silenced for many decades. Many admit to never having recorded (in any form) their personal histories during the Holocaust. After the war, many feared reprisals from Stalin’s government and kept silent about their experiences. Those who had managed to escape and fought with the partisans would sometimes make reference to their Holocaust experiences in official biographies (these were required for employment) but many others deleted this portion of their lives as though it never existed and some even hid their Jewish identities because they feared Stalin’s repressive policies.

Most Belarusian survivors recall that at first after the war, they were too afraid and traumatized to tell their stories. Over time they were busy rebuilding their lives under extreme hardships and grew accustomed to living in silence. They adjusted to rarely speaking of their ordeals. Finally, with Perestroika, a new wind of openness pervaded the culture. The historical archives were opened and a few Belarusian Jews began to collect the official lists of those who perished in the ghetto and to publish archival data in book format, including some brief first- person accounts. Frieda Raisman, the author of one of these biographies written in the nineties, recalls leaving her handwritten account of her experience in the Minsk ghetto on the kitchen table so her husband would see it in the morning. It was the first time he had learned the details of her internment in the Minsk ghetto. In over fifty years together, she had never told him about her experiences. Many survivors told us that they also had never shared their history with their family members. Collections of short survivor autobiographies in Russian appear periodically but these are nearly all self-published by the survivors themselves, or by Jewish groups and lack academic analysis.

There are only 300-plus Holocaust survivors living in Belarus today. Dr. Speckhard has interviewed 65 who represent most, if not all, of the Minsk ghetto survivors who are still physically and mentally able to handle an interview. Now that the oral histories are collected, Dr. Speckhard has assembled a team comprising three Belarusian historians from the National Academy of Sciences and the National Archives, and two historians working in the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk, and a research assistant to help her conduct research in the Belarusian archives for the historical materials to support writing the oral histories into a comprehensive and definitive eye-witness account of the Minsk ghetto and the Holocaust in Belarus.

Dr. Speckhard is currently fundraising for and writing a historical book about the Minsk ghetto entitled The Minsk Ghetto & Beyond: Eyewitness Accounts of the Holocaust in Belarus and fundraising for the development of a website related to the Holocaust history of Minsk.

The book is to be an academic work appropriate for university courses and will describe the Minsk ghetto and this period of Belarusian history through eyewitness accounts that will be corroborated by the factual historical details. This work will be much more than a technical history of the Holocaust in Belarus; it will be enriched and enlivened by the voices of the survivors themselves. The website will be more accessible to a wider audience than the book, will include photographs, and be written in both English and Russian. The project is time sensitive in that the remaining survivors are few in number and dying off rapidly; the average age of the survivors is over eighty.

There are very few accounts written about the Belarus Jews far fewer than for any of the other European countries, such as Poland and Ukraine. Most that were written have been non-academic and focused on the partisan fighters. The main reason for the paucity of historical work has been the difficulty of working in the former Soviet union and now in the Republic of Belarus.

Because of Dr. Speckhard’s commitment to this project, both time-wise and financially – self funding the majority of the research - she has been able to complete the first portion of the project without major donor funds. Now the book must be written. It is important for young people in Minsk, Belarus and throughout the world to know about these events, not just because of the inherent value of understanding history, but also so they can also understand why it is so important to millions of Jews to have a country of their own, a place where they can always find sanctity and safety. With funding, this project will be able to achieve two important objectives: a comprehensive academic history of the Minsk Ghetto and an educational website in both Russian and English about the Holocaust in Belarus. After all these years of neglect, the Jews in Belarus deserve to see this accomplished in their lifetimes.

If you would like to make a financial contribution to seeing this project to fruition please contact Dr. Speckhard at Aspeckhard@brutele.be Arrangements can be made to receive the funds through a Jewish nonprofit organization if desired. As the research has been nearly all self funded to date and the data collection, travel and professional time devoted to the project (by Dr. Speckhard and other experts ) are each expensive, all financial contributions are most welcome. Special thanks to Lufthansa, Frank and Galina Swartz, and to the Remembrance & Reconciliation Fund for their contributions to this important work.