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  • The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism
  • Sean Martin
The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism. By Barbara Epstein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 376 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

In The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism, Barbara Epstein bravely takes on the very complicated task of telling the story of the resistance in Minsk, a story that has been overshadowed by the very different stories of ghetto resistance in other cities, especially Warsaw. Unlike the resistance in Warsaw, which culminated in the armed revolt of April 1943, resistance in Minsk aimed to transport Jews out of the ghetto and into the nearby forest, where they could join partisan units who were willing to let them join the fight or protect them if they were not capable of fighting. This resistance was based largely on ties between Jews and Byelorussians, making Epstein's story a very important one for understanding interethnic relationships in Minsk and Byelorussia. Epstein explains that the emphasis on the solidarity between the two groups of resistance fighters stemmed largely from the egalitarian ideals of Communist leadership, ideals to which a younger generation of Byelorussians and Jews had already been exposed for more than two decades. Epstein also explains why the postwar Communist leadership betrayed the leaders of the Minsk resistance after the war, arresting and imprisoning them and refusing to recognize their activities officially for many years. Her comprehensive account of the underground activities of Jews and non-Jews makes for very compelling reading.

Epstein tells this story on the basis of archival sources available in Byelorussia and Israel, published accounts of underground activities in the ghetto, and extensive interviews with surviving resistance leaders and their family members. Most of this work is a straightforward account of what happened, of how resistance leaders became involved, and what they actually did to take Jews to the forest. Established on July 19, 1941, the Minsk ghetto eventually came to include an estimated one hundred thousand Jews, including many from towns outside Minsk and Jews from Germany (p. 90). After a series of pogroms, about twelve thousand Jews were left in the ghetto in July 1942 (p. 144). Epstein offers remarkable accounts of Jewish and Byelorussian responses to Nazi persecution. For example, resistance leaders went to the leader of the Judenrat and made specific demands for clothing and medicines; they were shocked to learn that he was only too willing to oblige, because he was working with the underground as well (p. 121). She also brings to light little-known stories of women like Sarah Goland, who organized [End Page 207] trips to the forest, and Chasya Pruslina, a liaison between the Minsk underground and the Byelorussian Communist Party who refused to use her non-Jewish name after the war, when she was also compelled to uphold the legacy of the resistance amid official Soviet denials. These individuals worked closely with sympathetic Byelorussians.

Outlining the development of the underground, Epstein details the formation of the Minsk City Committee, noting often the reluctance of resistance leaders to organize formally because of the expectation that an officially recognized resistance body would eventually emerge. That never happened. Indeed, the official story of why this never occurred had been published in Pravda in 1941. According to a fabricated story promulgated by P. K. Ponomarenko, chief of staff of the Byelorussian Partisan Movement during the war, an official evacuation of Minsk had been organized and so no one had been left behind to resist. The Pravda article claimed that "everyone who had wanted to leave Minsk had been able to do so" (p. 248). Thus, the presence of the ghetto resistance during and after the war was proof that Communist leaders had abandoned Minsk and so the desire of resistance leaders to talk about their activities after the war could not be countenanced.

Underground leaders did experience two significant failures during the war, the first in spring 1942. German authorities arrested a number of underground leaders, some of whom provided them with other names, leading to a wave of arrests. A second City Committee formed but fell victim to a second wave...