Nigel Roberts, author of the Bradt Guide to Belarus accompanied the FRS group that travelled to Belarus in April 2014. On that visit we met with Frieda Wulfovna the Chairwoman of the Minsk Ghetto Survivor’s Association. Nigel plans to include an abridged version of Frieda's story in the third edition of his Guide to Belarus, to be published by Bradt in the Spring of 2015. Meantime, please respect that all of Nigel's text is subject to copyright.
LIFE IN THE MINSK GHETTO – FRIEDA’S STORY
It’s a cold, grey Thursday morning in Minsk. I’m standing in the snow with five Jewish families from Finchley, in an open area between apartment blocks close to the city centre. This is the site of the Minsk Ghetto, first established in 1941 during the Great Patriotic War. We’re on the edge of an enormous hole in the ground, with steps descending to the bottom, along the line of which stands a doleful memorial to the dead of the Ghetto. This is the pit into which the Nazis would throw the bodies. We’re here to listen to Frieda Wulfovna, a Ghetto survivor. For years she couldn’t talk about the things she had seen as a young girl. She didn’t think people would believe her. Then one day, whilst visiting the Jewish Centre in Minsk that had been established to record all that happened here between 1941 and 1944, she opened a book written by a fellow survivor and began to read about all the terrible things she had witnessed for herself as a young child. Screams, executions, rivers of blood. From that moment she knew that people would believe her own story, and she began to find the words to articulate her memories.
This is that story, in her own words and transcribed as translated, recalled and told on the site of the former Ghetto as the snow came down, on the edge of the pit of death.
“I was born in Minsk and I have lived here all my life. Before the war, the city was home to a large Jewish community. You could hear Yiddish spoken all over town. There were many Jewish schools and synagogues, only one of which remains from that time. It was never given back to the community and now it’s a theatre.
My family was moved into the Ghetto on the very day it was established, from our home near by. I came with my mother, my father, and two older brothers aged 15 and 17. I was seven years old.
The Ghetto itself was only a small area, perhaps one kilometre long and 500 metres wide. Within its boundaries were small, traditional single-storey homes and 150,000 Jews were made to settle here. Every room in every house was filled with as many sofas and beds as could be made to fit, with one family allocated to each. This was all the living space each family had, just a bed or a sofa, perhaps with one small table as well. The city’s water pumping system was destroyed in the early days of the war and there was no running water in the houses, just standpipes outside. Heating came from burning wood, but in 1942 the supply of wood ran out, so people started to burn furniture and anything else they could scavenge. There were no grocery shops in the Ghetto and very little food. Many people starved to death, including children. Every morning, families would take their dead out into the streets for special teams to take the bodies to the pit. For three winters the frosts were very heavy and some people froze to death in their houses.
The last time my family lived together was in a room seven metres square that we shared with other families, in a house on the edge of the Ghetto. This was our last ‘home’.
In all there were six separate Minsk pogroms, with thousands dying in each. Over time the population of the Ghetto grew smaller and smaller. Many children were orphaned and as a result, the Jewish authorities established a children’s home to give them a roof over their heads. It was the only two-storey brick building to be constructed. Although it provided shelter, there was no food. My mother was always trying to barter for food, exchanging items of clothing or possessions, and she cooked as often as she could for the children.
One morning, a rumour spread through the Ghetto that there had been a massacre at the orphanage. The Nazis had come at night, not with guns but with knives. My mother ran there as soon as she heard the rumour. It was a terrible sight. All of the children had been murdered in their beds, even toddlers and babies. There was blood everywhere. Then my mother heard a small noise. She found a little child, filthy and bloodied, hiding in an oven. By some miracle she had managed to crawl there. Mother took her out of her hiding place and cared for her. That little child survived the war and is still alive, now in Jerusalem. She was the only one to survive the massacre at the orphanage.
After two years and four months of the Ghetto’s existence, I remember a terrible pogrom that lasted four days. People were desperate to find hiding places, between buildings and behind false walls, ceilings and floors. I can recall hiding in one such place, between buildings, for all of those four days. 60 of us were crammed into a tiny, confined space. I could barely move. A little girl of four years was there. Like all of us, she hadn’t eaten for four days and she began to cry. To save the rest of us, that child’s mother placed her hands around her neck and suffocated the life out of her.
Before the Ghetto, there used to be a Jewish market within the area. The Nazis used it as a place of execution. I remember being there one day during the pogrom. The Nazis took only young girls that day. I can recall a group of 20-25 of them, some barely 18, all with their eyes covered. The Germans chose this occasion to test out new experimental bullets that exploded on impact.
It was raining that day. The streets ran red.
I saw many things in the ghetto. After it was over, I couldn’t speak about it. I didn’t think people would believe me. I was just a child after all. I thought people would think I was making it up. I kept everything to myself.
But I remember. I remember everything. The Nazis didn’t just murder people. They were cruel and perverted. They would take people as they walked through the streets near to their homes, so that their families watching from their houses would see. People were shot indiscriminately. Lorry loads of drunken soldiers used to arrive by night and open the gates, randomly butchering entire households. There were three mobile gas chambers within the Ghetto. The local Nazi commander asked for more, so that more people could be killed faster. Himmler actually came to Minsk one day in 1942, not to discuss the war with his generals, but to make a plan for getting rid of Jews more quickly.
The screams I heard every single day in the Ghetto I still hear now, as I walk the streets were once it stood.
My own father was an orphan. He was a shoemaker, very talented, and well known and respected within the community. During the early days of the war, local people who trusted one another began to talk about how they might resist the occupation. Small groups were formed, one of them headed by my father. His task was to bring arms into the Ghetto and to save as many lives as he could.
I remember sleeping on my mattress with guns and grenades hidden underneath. One morning in January or February 1942, the Nazis came to our building looking for my father. He and my two brothers managed to get out just before they came, taking the arms with them. Mother whispered to me not to say anything. The Germans forced the door open and kicked my mother as they shouted at her to tell them where my father was. I was hiding under a chair, and I knew I had to escape. While they searched for the arms, I sneaked out past the soldier on the door as soon as his back was turned. It was the middle of winter but I was only wearing day clothes. I had no coat. I jumped into the outside toilet to hide. Members of the resistance were watching from safe houses as this happened, and they waited for darkness to rescue me. I can’t remember much, but I recall that my hands and feet were frozen. I woke the next morning in a room with a billiard table, on which there was the body of a dead woman. Rats were crawling over her. This waking moment gave me terrible nightmares.
My mother had told the Germans that my father was working, so they took her out to their car for her to show them. When they left her alone for a moment she managed to escape.
My family was now in four separate locations within the Ghetto. Someone we knew found my mother and told her he would help all of us to escape. The resistance brought me to my mother and then took us together to a house outside the ghetto. We had to climb the fence to escape. When we reached the safe house, which was a very old building, one of the men whistled and a ladder descended. We climbed into a small room, where my father was waiting. He told my mother that next day, he would join partisans who were hiding in buildings close by, with my eldest brother.
This was the beginning of my survival. My mother managed to get a job working in government buildings, and we changed our names. I was blond and blue-eyed. I didn’t look like a Jew.
We didn’t know where my father and brothers were. Only after the war did I find out that my eldest brother was with a partisan group whose task was to blow up enemy trains. They destroyed 18 of them. At the end of 1943, my brother was given a medal for his exploits. One of his fellow partisans coveted it, and my brother promised to give it to him if he agreed to bring my mother and me out of the city. This man found us, and mother asked him to take me out first. I remember her telling me that the very next day, I would be escaping.
In my mind’s eye I can still see the horses standing by that day, with a cart. My mother pushed me and I ran to hide in the cart under blankets, with another boy who was 14. We were led out of the city. Suddenly there was shooting. The boy took my hand and we ran away into a nearby building. Later the man who had found my mother and me in Minsk led us out. He took me to the basement of another building, where my eldest brother was sleeping. He used to bomb by night and sleep by day. When he woke and saw me, he began to cry. He told me that my other brother had not made it out of the Ghetto. He was dead. Here was my 19-year-old big brother, now a soldier, crying like a baby. Later he took me to a nearby village. I was very ill with scabies by this time. I stayed there for several months, before my mother was brought to me, and we moved to another village. It was very poor. The people there had nothing, but they were so kind to us. They were not Jews, but they hid us and gave us their last piece of bread. We stayed there until the Red Army liberated us.
Later, my mother went back to Minsk to find out what had happened to my other brother. Only years later did we discover that he had been murdered in the Ghetto and his body taken to Maly Trostenets extermination camp to be burned.
My father survived the war with the partisans on the front line. Much has been written about him, but very little is known about his missions. He was fighting behind enemy lines most of the time.”
Footnote: Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa on the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, his avowed aim being to wipe the USSR from the face of the earth. The terrible events that took place in the Minsk Ghetto were an integral part of the Holocaust. Eleven years ago, the Holocaust Museum and Research Studio was established in Minsk, in an old Jewish house, to investigate and record all that happened in the Ghetto and at Maly Trostenets extermination camp on the outskirts of the city. At the entrance to the Museum, which has no identifying sign outside, is a memorial to the 33,000 Jews who were transported to the Ghetto from all over Europe by train. It consists of a wooden panel and barbed wire taken from one of the wagons that were used. In front of it is a square on the floor identifying the 50 x 50 centimetre space that was allocated to each person, including his or her luggage. The journey from Berlin to Minsk took four days. There was no light, no water, no food and no toilet within the wagons. One person transported from Berlin records that by the time the train arrived in Minsk, the stench was indescribable. And everyone had to pay for their ticket …
In the first pogrom, 10,000 Minsk Jews were murdered to make room for 10,000 more arriving by train. Of the 33,000 transported from other parts of Europe, only 50 survived.
In 1941 the Nazi plan was to bring transportees into the Ghetto. In 1942 the plan changed, and new arrivals were taken directly to Maly Trostenets to be murdered there. This was the fate of over 200,000 people. Of that number, only 200 names are known. Nazi groups tasked with expunging all evidence of what happened systematically destroyed all records during the war.
The Belarus government has set aside significant resources to establish a new memorial complex on the site of the camp.
Frieda Wulfovna is one of a small number of Ghetto survivors who has travelled all over Germany to tell the story of what happened in Minsk. Their story is beginning to be told at last.
© Nigel Roberts