In memory of a ghetto

The Minsk ghetto, in Belarus, was established in July 1941 and liquidated in October 1943. One of the leaders of the resistance paid tribute to his comrades in arms and all the Jews who died without burial, not without denouncing the Soviet distortion of memory.

In 1979, filmmaker Claude Lanzmann went to Israel to meet Hersh Smolar as part of his documentary project, which would become the masterful Holocaust. The two hours of filmed interviews, in a mixture of questions asked in German by the director and answers formulated in Yiddish by one of the leaders of the Jewish resistance in the Minsk ghetto, were ultimately not included in the final version of the film.

But this moving interview, where the intact verve and energy of the former Jewish partisan shine through, testifies that meeting Hersh Smolar was essential for anyone who wanted to know the history of the Minsk ghetto and that of the Jewish anti-Nazi resistance in the Belarusian capital and its surrounding forests. It was therefore high time that, since 2022, the story of Smolar himself was finally available in French, exceptional testimony as the author of the preface, Masha Cerovic, rightly describes it.

lighting on an unknown ghetto

Indeed, this text is important and singular in more than one way. First of all, it allows us to know the specific destiny of this ghetto, the largest in the territory of the Soviet Union occupied by Nazi Germany. Above all, Smolar's precise narration transfigures the actions of the Jewish resistance into real collective testimony documentary value (p. 34), acting as both a memorial and a tribute.

Finally, the text itself, through its multiple translations of the original written in Yiddish, from the first draft written in the winter of 1945 in Free Minsk to the edition profoundly revised by Smolar himself in 1985 in Yiddish (which serves as the basis for the English and French editions) , is a reflection of narrative developments linked to memorial changes, but also to subsequent migrations of the author, of theUSSR Poland, then Israel where he spent the rest of his life, after a brief interlude in Paris in 1970.

Up to 100,000 Jews were locked up in the Minsk ghetto from July 1941, making it the fourth largest ghetto set up by the Nazis, behind Warsaw, Lww and others. However, his story remains little known to the general public. Most of the testimonies were produced in the Soviet Union, notably during the hearings of witnesses of commissions investigating Nazi crimes, where they were hardly made accessible and rarely translated. The few survivors did not have the possibility on the territory of theUSSR to testify, and few were those who were able to leaveUSSR before the migration of the first refuseniks in the 1970s.

This explains why, for a long time, knowledge of the unfolding of the Shoah in Eastern Europe was less detailed than in other regions. Remember that the publication of black bookprepared in 1944 to document the extermination of the Jews in USSR, was stopped by Stalinist censorship. The book could only circulate in partial version from the manuscript in Yiddish transmitted by the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to the United States, Romania and Mandatory Palestine, before a complete edition in the 1990s. In this collective work bringing together nearly forty authors , it is naturally Hersh Smolar who writes the part on the Minsk ghetto and the Jewish resistance.

Refugee Jews and indigenous Jews

The Minsk ghetto has long remained in the shadow of the history of the Shoah due to its singularity, which does not make it a ghetto. like the others. First, he was in the Soviet Union, which was quite rare, since in this territory occupied from the summer of 1941, the Jewish populations were essentially murdered by bullets by the Einsatzgruppen and their prior assembly in the ghetto was often short-lived, or even non-existent. Converselythe Minsk ghetto was established on July 20, 1941 and was not completely liquidated until more than two years later, at the end of October 1943.

Furthermore, the city of Minsk being relatively close to the line separating the territories under German domination and those of the Soviets, defined by the Molotov-Ribbentrov pact of August 1939, it sheltered until the summer of 1941 Jews from Poland fleeing the German occupation. For this reason, when it was created in July 1941, a quarter of the ghetto's Jewish population was made up of Polish refugees.

Moreover, Smolar himself is part of this contingent, having already spent two years in the Polish town of Biaystok, occupied by the Soviets since the fall of 1939 under the German-Soviet pact. When Operation Barbarossa was launched at the beginning of summer 1941, he fled on foot towards the East and reached the city of Minsk, which he already knew before the war due to his engagement in USSR and in border Poland.

This mixed population will be added from the fall of 1941 to 35,000 Jews deported from the German Reich. The latter are installed in a special ghetto. In his testimony, Smolar clearly shows the specific and tragic fate of German Jews, different from the rest of the ghetto population.

He also describes the complementarity between the Polish refugees, who had heard of the establishment of the ghettos and tried to warn the native Jews of the absolute necessity to resist, while the latter, initially skeptical and accustomed to waiting for orders from Moscow, were able to , once acquired the principle of the struggle, put forward their better knowledge of the terrain, the city and its surroundings and, above all, their contacts with the non-Jewish partisans outside the ghetto.

Because, and this is one of the additional specificities of the Minsk ghetto, resistance quickly becomes a central element in and outside the ghetto. unlike a city like Warsaw, where it was gradually a question of bringing in weapons to fight in the ghetto against the Nazis in January and especially in April 1943, during the great Minsk uprising, the challenge was to face the actions of almost permanent liquidations and leaving no respite for the Jewish population. For her, resistance therefore meant leaving the ghetto, because the ghetto is death as Smolar explains to all those he enlists in the resistance. The challenge was therefore to make as many Jews as possible flee so that they could reach the partisan units in the neighboring forests. In fact, these resistance actions allowed nearly 10,000 Jews to leave Minsk: around half survived.

A paper monument

The Minsk Ghetto is not only an informative testimony on the daily life of the Jews of Eastern Europe, who came under German occupation after June 1941. Smolar immediately sees his text as a tribute to his comrades in struggle and, beyond that, to all those imprisoned with him in the ghetto and who did not survive.

From the first edition of the book, published in Yiddish and Russian in Moscow in 1946, the author uses his personal memories and those of his resistance comrades to forge a story with multiple voices, the hybrid form mixing personal history and the general picture, descriptions details of as many people as possible, but also their dialogues, and even including period documents with documentary archive value, such as the ordinance establishing the creation of a Jewish quarter in the city of Minsk, the twelve articles of which are reproduced in full (p. 51-54) .

The heterogeneous character of the work is reminiscent of the yizker bikher Or memorial books written in the aftermath of the Second World War. From this form emerges not a singular voice, but a vibrant tribute to the anonymous people who worked to resist in and outside the ghetto. Entire chapters are devoted to describing their actions as precisely as possible, particularly the child guides (p. 193-197) responsible for leading the escapees from the ghetto to the forest, because they knew the way by heart. The reader thus discovers Vilik Rubejine, a 13-year-old boy who had dj blows up seven Nazi troop convoysor Simele Fiterson, 12 years old, little kid with the old woman's old face.

It is interesting to note the extent to which women are presented in the portraits of resistance fighters drawn by Smolar, which is all the more true in the 1946 version, even though they will subsequently be made invisible, including by the author himself. Indeed, in the 1946 version, he gave an entire chapter title to the resistance fighter Celia Botvinik, who only appears in the body of the text in the later reworked version, even though she played a decisive role in particular in stealing and providing weapons to the partisans.

Like many other Jewish women, she had infiltrated to work in a German-controlled arms factory and sabotaged the materials produced. The chapter on the Aryan side (p. 209) pays a vibrant tribute to Maria Gorokhova, a non-Jew thanks to whom the author was exfiltrated from the ghetto.

Tribute to Masha Brouskina

The testimony of Hersh Smolar adds a human dimension and embodies the best-known figures of the Jewish, Belarusian and female Soviet resistance. Thus, Macha Brouskina, 17 years old, nurse and messenger of the partisans after escaping from the ghetto, who was denounced, arrested by the Germans and publicly executed by hanging on October 26, 1941. She remained in collective memories thanks to the photographs of the abuses which took place. fled and served as evidence during the Nuremberg trials.

She is above all the subject of memorial struggles, between the Soviet narrative which did not reveal her name (because she was Jewish) and the historiography of the Shoah, which highlighted her to underline the valor of Jewish resistance.

For Smolar, there is no opposition between Jewish resistance and communist resistance: Brouskina is mentioned as a young Jewish girl from Minsk (p. 89), cousin of a renowned Jewish sculptorhaving inspired an entire generation of young people from the ghetto, including Emma Radova, her classmate who painted her portrait, depicting her as a strong but romantic young woman who had been active at school.

Smolar is outraged by the fact that an article published years later by the organ of the unionsUSSR completely obscured Macha’s justice (p. 90). This incision clearly shows that his story has been profoundly revised since the first version in 1946.


In what appears to be a veritable memorial palimpsest, not only the memories hot of Smolar at the end of the war, who wants to pay a vibrant tribute to his fighting friends and to the anonymous deaths of the ghetto, but also the voice of the older and more bitter Smolar.

It was Smolar who returned to Poland in 1947, certainly to build a communist Jewish life (he would become president of the socio-cultural association of Jews in Poland and the pillar of the Yiddish newspaper Folks Shtime), but above all to save ourselves from the anti-Semitic turn of the Soviet regime which resulted in the liquidation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the assassination of its members in 1952.

A Smolar who, despite his commitment, his loyalty and his hope towards the new communist regime in Poland, did not find his place there. He was in fact forced to leave the country as a result of the vast anti-Semitic campaign carried out in 1968, whose state propaganda transformed overnight the great anti-fascist resistance hero into a suspected traitor of Zionism. However, the latter had pursued only one objective all his life: that of defending a socialist model which recognized Jewish identity.

His testimony is therefore read as much as a mausoleum dedicated to the Jews of Minsk who died without burial, whose memory was obscured by Moscow, as well as as an indictment drawn up against the Soviet-Polish distortion of memory, while Smolar ended its existence in the 1980s in Israel, where the memory of the Shoah is beginning to unfold.