In August 2005 I returned from a two-year mission as head of the Jewish Agency in Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. In my work with the Jewish Agency I visited Belarus several times. As is typical of visits by senior officials, I saw very little but heard a great deal.
Shortly after my return I received a request from Yad Vashem to head a project to find and collect the names of Jews, who had been murdered in the Holocaust by Nazis and their collaborators in the occupied territories in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945.
There was good reason for initiating the project at all and especially at such a late stage. Yad Vashem had begun collecting names of Holocaust victims in Europe immediately after its inception in 1953. More precisely – in the western part of Europe. The Soviet Union was closed for documentation and commemoration of Holocaust victims in its territory – approximately 2.7 million of the 6 million who perished in the Holocaust. In fact, in the Soviet Union the Holocaust was simply wiped out of the collective consciousness.
It was only in the wake of the changes brought about following ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’ in the period Gorbachev and the dissolution of the Soviet Union into separate states that the founding of Jewish organizations and communities and the slow but consistent revival of Holocaust remembrance became possible.
In 2005, the new museum at Yad Vashem was inaugurated and opened a website with a database of names. In advance of translating the database into Russian in 2006, the Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev and names project sponsor Yossi Hollander appealed to Jews living in the former Soviet Union to try to collect the names of Holocaust victims and manage to do so while direct witnesses were still alive.
I approached various Jewish organizations in the states of the former Soviet Union and established an extensive network of volunteers. We started to locate witnesses of the World War II period and collect evidence of the names of the murdered and transfer them to the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem.
The business of collecting names took me to many places where Jews were murdered by Nazis.
I discovered the “Land of the Unknown Holocaust” in the major cities like Odessa, Kiev, Lvov, Riga, Vilnius, Zhitomir, Vinnitsa, Mogilev, Gomel, Poltava, Donetsk, Dan Pro, Kovno, Minsk, Kharkov, Rostov and many more as well as in small towns, hamlets and villages. Once, I even drew up a list for myself of places I had visited. I met with the witnesses and interviewed them, travelling to some 160 cities, towns and villages in all the Nazi-occupied areas, from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south and to the outskirts of the Caucasus Mountains in the southeast. This huge area is much larger than all of Western Europe.
According to the findings of the historian Dr. Yitzchak Arad, the former head of Yad Vashem and author of the comprehensive monograph on the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, some 2,800,000 – 2,900,000 were under Nazi occupation. About 95% of them were murdered.
Dr. Arad was instrumental in establishing the “Valley of the Communities” at Yad Vashem. When you study the territory occupied by Belarus, the Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Union you discover the hundreds of places where Russian-Jewish civilization was wiped out.
On my travels in Belarus, I met Dr. Inna Gerasimova, the founder of the Belarus Jewish Museum in Minsk; a woman of boundless energy and an outstanding athlete in her past, Dr. Gerasimova has organized dozens of locations where names can be recorded in almost every town on a provincial level, many dozens, in all.
We conducted many trips around Belarus with Dr. Aaron Weiss, the Special Advisor to the JDC and created a sizeable network of “Holocaust Remembrance Collectors” – volunteers from the Jewish communities, employees and directors of local museums (each city district has a local history museum), secondary school teachers and students.
I discovered a phenomenon that was new to me. In many places, people, mostly Belarusians, were working to discover, collect and preserve the memory of Jews, who were murdered in their cities, towns and villages. Documents and studies published in Belarus by researchers and historians report more than 500 incidents in which some 800,000 Jews were killed in Belarus. To my amazement, not even one film showing the systematic range and depth of the tragedy of the Holocaust in Belarus has been produced and this also applies to other regions of the Soviet Union.
A sense of obligation crystallized to restore the disappearing collective consciousness of the past and finally, it was decided to produce a movie that would present a direct and faithful picture of the events of the Holocaust in Belarus.
That is how I got involved in making “The Remembrance Guardians” – a documentary about the Holocaust in Belarus and the people, who preserve the memory of the Jewish Holocaust.
The Opening Data: Selecting the Story and Style
Firstly – there is no archival film stock of the Holocaust in Belarus. A few individual still photographs do not enable the construction of a consistent narrative. Of course, it was out of the question to illustrate the Holocaust by making use of materials that had been used elsewhere.
Another obstacle was the lack of awareness and knowledge in the general public about the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. Except, perhaps, for the murder of Babi Yar in Kiev, there is no familiar site or symbol of the likes, for example, of Anne Frank, Janusz Korczak, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Auschwitz, Treblinka and Eichmann. The comparison is difficult but, I had to face the facts and find a way to address the process and the space.
The most important issue was the witnesses. Those who remain are few and very old and without them it is impossible to tell a credible and moving story.
I was lucky. In the course of our travels on the names project, I had made contact with dozens of Jewish communities as well as many local historians and other researchers. Over the past 25 years they had accumulated information about witnesses – Jews and Belarusians – and the events of the Holocaust in their areas.
As an additional source of witnesses, I used my contacts with the Israeli organizations of ghetto and camp survivors and of people who originated from Belarus and cities of Belarus with which I was well acquainted from my tenure as Director General at the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.
I absorbed the historical background from a series of background discussions with members of Yad Vashem – The Holocaust Research Institute, the Archive, the Historical Museum and Visual Center.
I sought and received historical advice from Dr. Yitzchak Arad, Prof. Ilya Altman of the Holocaust Center in Moscow, (the editor of “The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in the Soviet Territories” and discoverer of the original copy of “The Black Book”) and from Dr. Leonid Smilovitsky of Tel Aviv University (the author of the comprehensive monograph on the Holocaust in Belarus).
I had collected many of the puzzle’s components – only one small problem remained – how to put the pieces together?
Reconstruction of an Event – and the Sequence of Events
I had / have to structure a premise when the materials in my toolbox are meager and limited and the minimum requirements demanded for the job are high. I have to:
- Present a methodical approach, preserve the sequence of the unfolding events of the Holocaust over time.
- Explain that the mass extermination of Jews in the Soviet Union actually began almost immediately after the German invasion.
- Refer to the distinction that was made in the first stage when Jewish men were murdered automatically on suspicion of being communists, supporting communists or being potential opponents in the rear of the German forces.
- Refer to the double hatred of the Nazis towards the Jews in the Soviet Union as Jews and as the founders of the Communist evil empire. German propaganda defines the Jews as “Jewish Bolsheviks”.
- Depend on shooting the film in the present without archival material.
- I have at my disposal witnesses of very advanced age who only have a limited capacity to relate events.
The Solution Came Naturally
It was decided to build a chronological sequence of events, each in a different place, with different emphasis than that placed on other incidents and to maintain the geographic spread of events. We would show the various methods used in the killing of Jews and integrate data about the murder of Jews in Belarus.
We would reconstruct an event with the help of witnesses, even Jews if there were any and Belarusians. Our condition was to have at least one direct witness who could testify to the specific event. This condition limited the selection of witnesses but enhanced the credibility of all the stories. Another source was the combination of “remembrance guardians” with scholars, journalists and experts from Belarus museums, who dedicate themselves to their local Holocaust remembrance.
This is how the “remembrance track” of the film was created.
Places and People
A personal introduction, based on research materials I filmed on behalf of the “Names Project” tour in Belarus for Yad Vashem and a special trip in 2013.
The opening tells of my learning about the killing sites in Belarus during the “Names Project” and the phenomenon of the extraordinary response of Belarusians and their massive mobilization to memorialize and research events and maintain the mass graves. Focus is placed on the summer and early fall of 1941 – the start of the mass annihilation.
The story covers the first phase of extermination up to winter 1941/42 when (Soviet) Eastern Belarus was made “Judenfrei” (free of Jews).
Minsk – November 1941. This is the story of the first pogrom (the first action) in the Minsk Ghetto. I found one female witness in Minsk and 4 in Israel. These were witnesses who were present at the November 11th pogrom. Unfortunately, it was only possible to film two of the witnesses in Israel.
Already, in this sequence, the special cinematic language stands out – the testimonies and stories at the site of the events described, the season of the year, the weather at the time of the events against the natural background of the contemporary everyday environment creates an atmosphere that is faithful to that which prevailed at the time of the incident.
Bobruysk – November 1941. Every year Maya Kazakevics holds a memorial for the 10,000 Jews of Bobruysk. The moving story of the emptying of the Jewish streets of the city during the action gets an unexpected twist. It turns out that the family of our cinematographer, Ron Katzenelson, came from Bobruysk and most of them were killed there. Ron discovered this when were already on our way to filming there.
Mir – November 1941. This Jewish town was famous for the Mir Yeshiva. Rabbis and yeshiva students fled to Vilnius when Western Belarus was annexed to the Soviet Union following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. With the help of Mrs. Tamara Vershitskaya, the local museum director in Novogrudek, we found two witnesses: Nina, aged 94 and 84 year-old Lydia. They were the only two, who were capable of telling about the pogrom, which killed about 1,500 Jews at the famous castle and 700 more at the other end of the town. I also met Victor, the founder of a local private museum which contained fascinating Judaica. In this sequence the reconstruction is exclusively based on the testimonies of Belarusians, which appear as the axis of local memory, throughout the film.
Luban – a unique story of murder – about 700 Jews from Luban were killed on December 4th 1941 by a high voltage electric current. Only Zinovii Kennel survived thanks to the rubber galoshes he wore over his boots. Aged 89, Kennel was filmed in the studio especially designed for witnesses who were taped later, in Israel.
Novogrudek – Winter 1941/42. This sequence is based on the character of Tamara Vershitskaya. About twenty-two years ago, she discovered that Novogrudek had once been a very Jewish city and almost all the Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. It is a painful example of how the Holocaust was left outside the public discourse during the Soviet era. Tamara began collecting all possible information about the local Jews and dealt with the perpetuation of four murder sites. Four years ago, she founded a Museum of Jewish Resistance against the Nazis – the first of its kind in the former Soviet Union.
This sequence in the film raises the question of the possibility of restoring memory and, in particular, the emotional connection with the Jewish past as part of the history of Belarus.
Tz’rven – is a small town some 55 km east of the capital Minsk. On February 1st 1942 the Germans took all the prisoners, about 1,500 men, women and children, out of the ghetto to a snowy field on the outskirts of the town and shot them. Decades later Irina Vibishevitz, a researcher at the local museum, began recruiting students and teachers to hold a regular annual memorial ceremony. There was one man left in Tz’rven called Vladimir, who as a child saw the convoy on its way to its death on February 1st 1942. Irina is joined at the memorial service by Leonid, who serves as Commissar of the local Fire Brigade. At the end of the ceremony he makes a pile for 2,000 matches and sets them alight in memory of the Fire Brigade Band, who were all Jewish and were murdered that day.
Suhari – a village, some thirty kilometers east of Mogilev. One day in February 1942, as part of its operation to rid Belarus of its Jews, an action took place here, too. Anna Byskow remembers the day. I reached them through Nikolai, the former head of the local council. About 30 years ago, during the preparation of a book on the first kolkhoz in Suhari, Nikolai discovered that almost all the members of the kolkhoz were Jews. They all had disappeared at the time of the war. He decided to follow up on this for himself and find out about the Jewish history of Suhari and in the end he prepared a map of his own on which all the houses were marked with the names of their original Jewish owners. In my view, this sequence symbolizes the answer to the question as to why contemporary Belarusians are trying to revive the past.
Kolishki – is a village in north eastern Belarus not far from the city of Vitebsk. This is the last story of our journey in the footsteps of the events of the period. Arkady Shulman, a journalist, author and researcher of the Jews of Belarus, documented the moving story of what occurred in Kolishki. His voice will accompany the filming at the site and will integrate with the story of Olga Notkina, aged 88. Her family and a few others survived the action, apparently the last one in the ‘Jewish’ Eastern Belarus.
This sequence concludes the first phase and sums up the story of 400,000 Belarus Jews who were killed to that date. Another 400,000 were to meet their deaths by the summer of 1944, the date of the liberation of Belarus from German occupation.
Minsk. A place called the Yama Pit. Some 5000 people from the ghetto were murdered here in March 1942. When the ghetto was liquidated in October 1943, their number would increase to around 100,000. Here, the architect Leonid Levin erected the central monument to the Holocaust victims in Belarus. It depicts a row of faceless people of varying ages descending into the pit. Here, together with Ilya Altman, I will try to sum up our journey and touch on the unanswered question that gives us no peace of mind. Why did the Soviet government deny us the memory?
Indeed, through the personal testimonies and stories of the Guardians of Remembrance, the chronological journey reveals the method, scope and spread of the first phase of the Holocaust in Belarus. This, the first story, as important and significant as it is in itself, is only the basis for the principal issue – the question of the ability/possibility of restoring the memory of the Holocaust after the disconnection of decades. Revival of what has been lost and pushed aside and the restoration of collective awareness with the help of volunteers and communities operating on a public basis and supported only by donations is an impossible task in a world which is saturated with stories, characters, institutions and images of the Holocaust. No other country affected by the Holocaust in Europe has had to struggle with a similar situation.
I cannot promise to have all the answers to all the questions – but I will address them all with the help and by means of the participants in this film.
When, Who and How Much:
The fall series was filmed in November 2013, the winter series in February 2014. The movie was filmed with a RED 4K camera. The cinematographer – Ron Katzenelson, Editor – Lilia Tzwokbankel, Producers – Zvi Shefy and Boris Maftsir, Production – Zvi Shefy Productions & ch.8 (Israel) in partnership with NONSTOP MEDIA (Belarus) – Sergey Zdanovish – Yuri Igrusha.