When Sonia Zalesskaia returned from summer camp to her family in Minsk in June 1941, she found her mother incapable of caring for herself and four children—Sonia, Tsilia, Abram, and Roza: “She had a nervous breakdown when the Germans came; she was completely indifferent, paralyzed. When we had to move to the ghetto, I had to organize everything. I was the oldest sister. When they moved us to the ghetto, Mother did not know what was going on… . I found a peasant who drove our belongings to the ghetto on his cart. I figured I had to give him something, so I gave him our sewing machine and some fabric. That meant we had nothing left to trade with.”1
Zalesskaia gives a sense of the multiple dimensions of breakdown that Soviet Jews experienced when German troops occupied the capital of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) and, within a few weeks, established a segregated residential district for Jews surrounded by barbed wire. Zalesskaia also highlights the role of age and gender for the subsequent period of violence, displacement, and starvation. Many adults were paralyzed by the speedy invasion and regime of terror—as were the Soviet authorities; many were arrested or immediately killed. Adolescents often found themselves in charge of supplying whole families with food and other necessities. In the Minsk ghetto, Soviet Jewish adolescents thus faced profound scarcity and violence alongside the breakdown of familiar relationships of support and care. [End Page 535]
The narratives of child survivors of the Nazi genocide in the German-occupied USSR help us better understand the distinct features of ghettos in the area that were killing sites rather than transitional spaces of internment. Their accounts draw special attention to the diversity of experience of the Nazi genocide, to how age and gender determined the ways in which people lived under conditions of violence and displacement.
Among the 800,000 Belorussian Jews killed by Germans and their collaborators were parents, grandparents, and other relatives of thousands of young Jews who thus became orphans and struggled for survival on their own.2 This situation, however, often goes unacknowledged in studies of the Nazi ghettos, the so-called Jewish districts established by the German Wehrmacht or occupation administrations in Nazi-occupied countries. Deborah Dwork’s 1991 study is the only significant monograph focusing specifically on the lives of children and adolescents in the Nazi ghettos, but it omits ghettos in the occupied Soviet Union.3 Leonid Smilovitskii is one of the few who devote a chapter-length study to children in Belorussian ghettos.4 Yet age did matter for everyday life within the ghetto. Adolescents were the most vulnerable group in the Nazi ghettos, suffering unduly from hunger, violence, and the psychological impact of terror. They were also highly mobile within the ghetto and able to maintain relationships with peers and adults—such as classmates and teachers—outside the ghetto, suggesting that they were an especially resourceful group. Gender was an additional factor that affected individual survival strategies under German occupation. Specific skills resulting from gendered socialization, access to various forms of employment due to ascribed gender roles, or vulnerability to forms of sexualized violence determined how [End Page 536] Soviet Jewish youths were able to respond to discrimination and violence, how they accessed food and related to people in positions of power.
War, terror, and pogroms often destroyed familial bonds, putting children and adolescents in the positions of guardians or breadwinners for remaining parents, grandparents, and siblings. Everyday life in the ghetto thus redefined roles that children as well as women and men took on within families. The ways in which these distinct groups were able to fulfill their tasks largely depended on their age; youths over the age of 14 (male) and 16 (female) were considered employable and thus had access to daily food rations, meager as they were, but younger ones had to find other means of subsistence.5 Based on oral histories and video testimonies, this essay asks how youngsters such as the ten-year-olds Sonia Zalesskaia and Samuil Volk cared for themselves and others and characterizes their decisions and choices in their quest for survival...