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      Date Last Updated: 25-Feb-2022

Vitebsk and the Holocaust


The Holocaust  (232)

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Before WWII, there were 50,000 Jews living in Vitebsk (233).

There are few that are able to tell of the Holocaust, for no survivor of what happened in Vitebsk was found (234). It seems that the Nazis succeeded in Vitebsk. Reports were kept by the Nazis in their archives, which were of help in understanding what had happened (235).

The Second World War was a great ordeal for the Belarus. Belarus was one of the first areas to be invaded by the German troops (236).

The Germans used many methods of propaganda (237) against the Jews. The local Vitebsk population didn’t help them (238). Many Polish refugees came to Vitebsk in 1939 (239). The physical conditions were difficult. There was a shortage of food. Since the Jews were predominant in local Soviet government, anti-Jewish feelings grew among population, which then tended to regard the oncoming Germans as deliverers (240). In July 1941 the Vitebsk region, once again, became an area of fierce battles.  It was clear to all that Vitebsk was the gateway to Moscow (241). German troops had crossed the border to the Soviet Union on July 22, 1941. The German air force heavily bombed the city, and aimed to enter the Soviet Union. By July 3, the German advance had been stopped at the line of the Western Dvina for a week, because of the local forces. Then municipality ordered the evacuation of the city (242). The local population and industry were then evacuated, to the East, by the Soviet regime; many others tried to escape (243). Part of the Jewish population, most of them municipal workers, was evacuated. Part of the Jewish population fled to the interior of Russia (244). Many men were drafted into the Red Army. Many of the evacuees were forced to return to Vitebsk, due to the quickness of the German army, and the fact that many escaped by foot, due to the absence of train coaches (245). Then the German Command used aviation and tank corps, and by July 10, the Nazis had captured Vitebsk, despite the resistance of the Red Army and the town's volunteer combat units.

Vitebsk was completely captured by the Germans on July 11, 1941 (246). Before retreating, the Red Army destroyed the city by starting a fire (247). Parts of the city were destroyed and burnt because of the fighting (248), including much of the old city (249). Immediately, the Jews suffered persecution, forced labor, and murder (250). During the following week, the German soldiers already murdered tens of the Jews of Vitebsk (251). Afterwards 27 Jews were caught, and found guilty of not showing up for the hard labor (252). They were shot to death in the center of the city (253). About 40 Jews were murdered on the bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina River on July 18, 1941 (254). Many refugees were arrested on July 24, 1941. Most of them were Jews. They were murdered outside of the city limits. Every day Jews were kidnapped for forced labor. One day 300 young people were chosen from those who had been kidnapped. They were found guilty of starting fires and put to death. Jews, between the ages of 16-56, were ordered to work for the Germans (255).

During the first weeks of the war the Judenrat (256) was organized.  The members were both men and women. At first the Judenrat was the responsible for filling the quota of Jews to be sent to forced labor (257). This task included the organizing of groups of workers, providing them with tools and food, bringing them to their work, and making a list of the Jewish population including those of mixed marriages (258), including children and grandchildren of mixed marriages; and afterwards (259) all the Jewish organizations inside the Ghetto. During the first two weeks of the war the Jews were concentrated in a few places, and on July 25, 1941 they were all ordered to go to the Ghetto within the next two days. The Ghetto was situated on the right bank of the Zapadnaya Dvina River, near the train station and the metal workers center. This was a neighborhood that was made up of mainly ruined and burnt houses. At first the Ghetto wasn’t fenced in, but soon after it was enclosed by a wooden fence; and a barbed wire fence and gate were put up on September 8, 1941. Thus the Ghetto was established in the town and 16,000 Jews were imprisoned there (260), in this small area (261). While Jews were crossing the river on their way to the Ghetto (262), the Germans drowned about 2-300 hundred of them. Belarus policemen guarded the Ghetto (263).

There were continuous murders of individuals and of groups of people (264). The Jews were ordered to wear the mark of recognition, the yellow badge, on their chests and on their backs. During these first weeks of the War, the Underground, that served this area succeeded in sending 25 Jewish families, by way of the front, into Russia (265).

The Germans selected approximately 300 men, between the ages of 14 to 55 for hard labor. They were all murdered in the Mazurino area, which is near the city, for they were accused of setting the city on fire on July 24, 1941 (266). The Ensatzkommando 9 (267) rounded up and murdered 332 Jewish intellectuals on August 12 (268).

Jews who had previously been in a camp for citizens, who were prisoners of war (269), were found guilty of organizing a revolt and 397 were killed on September 4, 1941. Any Jews who weren’t in the Ghetto were killed whenever they were found (270).

The Jews that went to the forced labor received a daily portion for 300 grams of bread. Aside from bits of soup, the other residents of the Ghetto didn’t receive any food from the Germans. Many Jewish youths tried not to go to the forced labor and hid in the Ghetto, for it was known in the city that many that went were murdered. The Ghetto was quite crowded, some lived in dilapidated houses.  Some even lived outside. The conditions got even worse when Jews from the neighboring villages and Jews that were found hiding in the city were brought there. Therefore the physical and sanitary conditions were quite hard there. The only Jews that remained outside of the Ghetto were tradesmen who worked for the Germans, eight Jewish doctors, a few pharmacists and the families of the Jewish committee (271). 

Local Belarusians entered the Ghetto during the first weeks and traded food for belongings. The Germans constructed a pipe, by which water was sent into the Ghetto. The Germans forbade these Belarusians to enter the Ghetto on September 16, 1941, and therefore the situation got worse. Even though it was forbidden for Jews to leave the Ghetto without official permission, many Jews, especially youths, did leave in order to find food. In September, the Germans caught and murdered Jews that were trying to leave the Ghetto, by way of the sewers (272).

On September 30, 600 Jews of the Vitebsk Ghetto were shot in a ravine. The children were buried alive (273). There were very few Jewish men remaining in the Ghetto.

On October 1, 52 Jews, refugees from the city of Gorodok (274) who lived in Vitebsk, were murdered (275). A Nazi ambushed all these Jews who were on their way from Kornitz to Vitebsk (276). Young Jews fled to the forests in the area and joined up with the Soviet Partisans (277), although this was very hard in the winter.

The conditions in the Ghetto were hard; there was famine, and sickness (278). The systematic liquidation of the Vitebsk Ghetto began on October 8, 1941; on the pretext of epidemics that allegedly emanated from the place; and this was a basis for the beginning of a plague (279). In the course of the three-day (280) mass murder (281) Aktion, 4090 (282)Jews were taken by truck to the Vitbe River (283), where they were shot and their bodies hurled into the water. Thus the Vitebsk Ghetto was liquidated and more than 1600 Jews were killed. 

The local population was witness to this; however the people claimed that they just looked. Babies were taken to a different place. The Nazis reported 4090 Jews were murdered on December 19, 1941. This means that many were murdered or died previously. There was a camp for prisoners nearby. The 207 Jewish prisoners were taken out and murdered. It seems that there were Jewish Partisans in the vicinity in January 1942 (284).

A few Jewish doctors and pharmacists remained in Vitebsk after the liquidation of the Ghetto. Some of these were murders in 1942, after they had fled to the Partisans. The number of Jewish that were murdered or died in Vitebsk at the time of the holocaust is evaluated to be between 6500 and 8000.

According to the plans of the German Command, Vitebsk was to become a strong point of the German Army in the East. The Secret Nazi Police, the Gestapo, Security Service (CD), a large garrison, headquarters and hospitals functioned there. Repression spread on a large scale. The inhabitants, especially the Jews, were shot by thousands. They were buried in common-graves.

The underground resistance movement developed, and its goals were reconnaissance, propaganda and sabotage. It was supported by partisan detachments that were very active in rural areas.

At the end of 1941 the Red Army launched a counter-offensive and won back a large amount of the territory. As a result, the famous (Vitebsk gate), - a 40 km gap between the German army groups (Nord and Center), was created in the wooded and marshy area, 60 kilometers the northeast of Vitebsk (285). The Red Army was able to communicate with the partisan detachments through this gap. The Partisans aided the underground. The underground resistance spread on a high scale, underground workers exploded military trains and bridges, killed collaborators and got intelligence data. There were about 60 underground groups in Vitebsk during the entire occupation. In 1943 the Vitebsk underground numbered 847 underground workers. The German Security Service arrested about 130 underground workers from February through October 1943, and therefore put an end to much of the underground activity. Then the Nazis killed approximately a third of the underground. The underground resistance continued until Nazis (286) declared Vitebsk, a fortress and all the population had been removed from the town.

By the summer of 1944 the Red Army became stronger. An attack against the central part of the German front line began on June 23 1944. About 900,000 soldiers from aviation, tank and artillery corps took participated. This was called the ‘Belarus operation’.  Vitebsk was attacked by the 43rd Army commanded by General Beloborodov from the northeast, and by the 39th Army commanded by General Ludnikov from the southeast (287). Their plan was to encircle and destroy the 3rd German tank corps, which was situated in Vitebsk area. The German Commander General-Colonel Reinhgart realized that the this unit could be exterminated, and therefore on the morning of June 24, he asked Hitler for permission to surrender. Hitler ordered that Vitebsk must be held. The 206th infantry division was to hold Vitebsk and the 53rd infantry corps was to break out  of the encirclement. The German troops weren’t able carry out the order or even leave Vitebsk. Fighting began in Vitebsk on June 25. Vitebsk was seized by the Soviet troops, after fierce street fights, by the following morning. The town was razed to the ground. Only 15 buildings survived. On the morning of liberation, the population of Vitebsk numbered 186 people. On the whole, during the war 240,000 inhabitants of the Vitebsk region, nearly a third of its population, were killed in action or in the Nazi concentration camps (288).(289)

When the Russian army freed the city on June 26, 1944 no Jews were found there (290). The exact number of Jews from Vitebsk that were murdered in the Holocaust is not known (291).

There is a Memorial Forest in Netiv Halemed-He, near Jerusalem (292).