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Imperfect memory

The Jews have been erased twice from the history of Belarus. Physically by the Nazis and symbolically by Soviet propaganda. In recent times they have increasingly more space in the Belarusian collective memory.

June 25, 2018 - Maxim Rust - Articles and Commentary

Photo: Adam Jones (cc) wikimedia.org

According to different figures some 700-900 thousand Jews were murdered on Belarusian territory during the Second World War. They were murdered not only in camps, but in over 250 ghettos as well. The Holocaust in Belarus remains a relatively little researched topic with many gaps to fill. The greatest efforts to research this history is made not by the state but by Belarusian NGO’s, foreign institutions and Jewish organisations.

Erased twice

The Holocaust remained a taboo for political and ideological reasons in the post war period of the Soviet Union. The Second World War itself was a key event for Soviet historiography and was retained in the historical narrative of an independent Belarus. The approach to the conflict itself however, is different in the West and Belarus. From a Belarusian perspective the War is not a global conflict between 1939-1945, but part of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. The myth of this War was formed in part by the history politics of the Soviet Union and collective memory of the Soviet society (its commemoration started just in the late 1960s, after two decades of suppressing post-war traumas associated with the war).
It is this Soviet view of the war that to a large degree survived in Belarus (Ukraine has recently left this narrative officially). The Holocaust and genocides of other peoples on the territory of Belarus remains a separate topic. The Soviet narrative had no room for the genocide of the Jews, as all the local victims were supposed to be members of a “Soviet people” or “inhabitants of Belarus”. This approach was also prevalent for a long period after Belarus’s independence in its official memory. Until not so long ago the term „Holocaust” did not even appear in school textbooks apart from a more general connection to the War in the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. The situation has improved in the last decade, the Holocaust has become a separate topic of research, places of memory that refer specifically to Jewish victims have been set up. The official historiography however, is not ready to confront important questions that might be troublesome. The first unofficial monument to the Shoa called “the Pit” was built following the war on the territory of the former Minsk ghetto. It survived until today and became the official place of rememberance. It does not change the fact that according to researchers the Jews have been erased twice, once by the Nazis physically and then symbolically by Soviet propaganda.

A concentration camp behind a garbage mound

Where do these difficulties with Holocaust rememberance in Belarus come from? Firstly, during the war some 25 to 30 per cent of the inhabitants of the BSSR perished and this trauma has stuck for decades. The war experience has not been entirely dealt with, and could explain in part why highlighting a group from the whole of the Belarusian nation – the Jews. Until this day every pupil knows that “Every fourth person died in Belarus”. Belarus seems reluctant to accept the fact that Jews were among these deaths.
Secondly, in the beginning of the 1990s it seemed that the approach to researching the Second World War and the Holocaust in Belarus would change. This was not the case: the Belarusian authorities and official historiography copied and embraced the Soviet paradigm of the “War myth”. It was a useful tool in order to go ahead with their “re-Sovietisation” policy of public memory, that was introduced in the second half of the 1990s, in order to consolidate the regime. This is why the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 still remains the most important event of the 20 th century in collective memory. The myth of “the great victory” or “the sacrifice and victims of Belarus” in the war still remain an important element of the identity of many Belarusians. The historical memory of the War and the Holocaust among Belarusians does not take into consideration all aspects of those events: not only heroic deeds or bravery, but also utter destruction, hundreds of thousand tragic stories, the fear and chaos. These topics are left to independent researchers and historians, but some questions still remain taboo, such as collaboration with the Nazis, crimes committed by partisans and Soviet troops. Popularising such stories would threaten the myth of the Great Victory.

Until today, the Holocaust is most often put in a wider context of genocide against the Slavs in the official narrative during state commemorations. An interesting example of Holocaust remembrance in Belarus is the yearlong problem of raising a monument at the site of the former Maly Trostenets extermination camp outside Minsk. If we take into consideration the logic used by the authorities in relation to victims of Soviet political repression (the topic barely exists in the official discourse) it seems very strange that there would be an issue with commemorating the victims of this death camp. The Trostenets extermination camp was built in 1941 and was the largest such site on the occupied territory of the USSR. A little plaque was put up next to the site in Soviet times, but the first monument was set up just in the Summer of 2015. This approach is in opposition to the myth of the Great Victory and suggests the authorities in Belarus are treating their own tragic history selectively and instrumentally. Such a lengthy 70 year long wait to finally unveil a monument at the site, is the result of differences in interpreting the history of the War between official and independent historians. Until very recently the site of the camp was barely visible because it was behind a municipal waste dump.

Progress and the restaurant in Kurapaty

The last decade has brought an improvement in the form and quality of political history in Belarus. Independent historians have more freedoms in pursuing their research and official historiography is beginning to treat recent times differently. The approach to Soviet legacy and War experience is focused more on the perspective of the individual and ethnic group, and not from the position of “Soviet sacrifice”. The study of the Holocaust has also changed. There were only a few monuments in the end of the 1990s that referred to the Holocaust specifically, today there are almost a hundred. The monuments and places of memory are changing as well. Earlier the monuments were faithful to Soviet monumental styles, but today there is more room to design more in tune with modern art and architecture. There is however still no institution in Belarus that is dedicated to the Holocaust specifically.

If we can discuss some positive changes in Holocaust remembrance in Belarus, we cannot say the same about Belarusian memory politics as a whole. At the beginning of June this year, 50 meters from the hallow ground of Kurapaty outside Minsk – where mass murders occurred during Stalinist persecution of the 1930s – a new restaurant was opened… Belarus has a long way ahead if it wants to properly confront and work through its own history, including the Holocaust.

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Maxim Rust is a Belarusian political scientist and researcher of political elites. In the academic year of 2017-18, he is a fellow at the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw.

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