- The Minsk Ghetto 1941–1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism
Contrary to its title, The Minsk Ghetto 1941–1943 does not focus solely upon the clandestine activities undertaken within the borders of the Jewish ghetto established by Byelorussia's German occupiers in 1941. Rather, Epstein uses the testimonies of former resisters, both Jewish and Byelorussian, to examine the inner workings of the extensive underground network in wartime Minsk. In the process, Epstein presents a detailed portrait of a nation whose pre-war history and wartime trajectory were both comparable to and sharply divergent from those of its more well-studied neighbors. Largely isolated from developments occurring elsewhere on the continent, these self-declared "Soviet citizens" in the Byelorussian capital forged their own path through the difficult terrain of German occupation. For the Jews of Minsk, and, indeed, for countless Byelorussians, this path led from the city to the partisan units in the nearby forests.
The first few chapters of this work explore the unique history of Minsk in comparison to that of other Eastern European cities with large Jewish populations. Of critical significance was the fact that, for two decades before the war, Minsk was under Soviet rule. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Byelorussian political parties had elected to join the new Russian federation, thus creating the Soviet Socialist Republic of Byelorussia. Largely underdeveloped and lacking a wealthy peasantry, Byelorussia was not subjected to the same violent collectivization program as was most notably implemented in nearby Ukraine. On the contrary, the interwar period saw modernization, industrialization, and the expansion of education, which helped to promote a fairly positive impression of Soviet rule. Most importantly for the nation's Jewish citizens, these developments were accompanied by the rise of a new Byelorussian-Soviet identity, which, according to Epstein, "provided an indigenous basis for an ethnically inclusive understanding of patriotism" (p. 75). Especially in the capital city of Minsk, Soviet rule had fostered "Jewish integration and had promoted an ideology of internationalism that had a particular influence on young people, leading many to regard interethnic relationships with pride" [End Page 168] (p. 31). These relationships forged under the mantle of Soviet internationalism constituted the backbone of wartime resistance in this occupied city.
On June 22, 1941, German forces commenced the invasion of the Soviet Union. Within a week, Byelorussia found itself under German rule, and, for the next three years, Minsk would serve as the capital of Reichskommissariat Ostland, which included Byelorussia, the Baltic nations, and parts of Poland. In early August 1941, the city's approximately 71,000 Jewish residents were forced into the old Jewish area in the northwestern sector of the city. The population of the ghetto soon swelled to more than 100,000, as Jews from surrounding areas were brought to Minsk following the destruction of their towns and villages. Here, they would be subjected to one deadly attack after another. In November 1941, for example, at least 12,000 Jews—mostly children, the elderly, and others exempted from labor details—were removed from the ghetto and brought to an execution site outside of the city, where they were all killed. With each successive action, the Germans constricted the borders of the ghetto and tightened the noose around its remaining inhabitants until finally "liquidating" the ghetto in October 1943.
As in other occupied countries, the Germans mandated the creation of a Jewish Council, or Judenrat, shortly after their arrival in Minsk. However, Ilya Mushkin, the first head of this Jewish Council, was hardly the compliant, malleable leader the Germans had expected him to be: from the time of his appointment in July 1941 until his disappearance and presumed death in February 1942, Mushkin doubled as one of the leaders of the Jewish underground. In fact, the three leading institutions of the ghetto, namely, the Jewish Council, the Jewish Labor Exchange, and the Jewish Hospital, all served as important centers of ghetto resistance. Mushkin and his colleagues at these institutions fostered active cooperation between the ghetto resistance and the Minsk...