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A moment for truth: Pioneering Holocaust remembrance in Belarus

Slonim is converting its hulking, decaying synagogue into a center of memory and community-building
Aerial view of the Great Synagogue of Slonim, undergoing renovation. (Courtesy)
Aerial view of the Great Synagogue of Slonim, undergoing renovation. (Courtesy)

June 29,1942. 5 a.m. Slonim, Belarus. By the time the trumpet blast sounded, and the lorries creaked through the ghetto gates, the Jews knew better than to run. In November of the previous year, 10,000 men, women and children — nearly half of the ghetto’s population — were rounded up in the marketplace and driven eight kilometers out of town to the nearby village of Czepelova. There, they were stripped naked, lined up in groups of 10, and shot in burial pits by a drunken group of Germans and Lithuanian auxiliaries. The child observers to these massacres, many of them requisitioned by the killing squads to perform tasks that day such as cooking, entertaining the Germans, and sifting through clothing, describe a mass graves that “lived” for days as the muffled cries of victims buried alive persisted long after the day ended.

No. Today the Jews would hide. As hundreds of hooligans streamed through the ghetto’s gates — Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians and Ukrainians among them — “all of them shouting for the final battle with the Jews of Slonim,” they would find hardly a soul in the streets. The Jews had entrenched themselves in makeshift shelters dug into the foundations and basements of their homes. While the crowd ran through the ghetto yelling, “Jews, out of your hiding places!” trucks wound through the narrow streets and sprayed gasoline on the squat buildings. [1] Within minutes, the ghetto was ablaze. Human candles streamed out of basements and were shot. Babies were thrown into fires still alive. Those who emerged from their homes were marched in a long column back out to Czepelova or another killing field at Petrelovitch Hill and shot as their neighbors had been the previous year. Somewhere in this column, perhaps — we will never be sure — marched my great-grandmother and a great-aunt. Survivor Nachum Alpert describes a group of the town’s Christian residents, dressed in their festive clothes for a religious holiday, watching the event from outside the ghetto gates.

Two weeks later, with the smoldering ghetto in ruins, the destruction of the 700-year old Jewish community in Slonim was near-complete. What we know of these final moments comes from Jews who, presumed dead and suffocating from the weight of the corpses above them, crawled their way out of the pits and ran to the forest, many surviving the balance of the war in partisan units. The remaining 200 or so Slonim Jews designated as “useful” by the Germans and allowed to remain in the ghetto would be shot at the end of 1942.

The Great Synagogue of Slonim undergoing restoration: From the survey. (Courtesy)

Yet, even with the extermination campaign finished, the assault on Slonim’s Jews was far from over. The effort to assassinate their memory would now begin. Driven by an understanding that they would not be able to hold parts of the East and fearful of potential war crimes prosecution, the Nazis frantically returned to the burial pits in Slonim in June of 1944 as part of a covert operation called Aktion 1005, a campaign painstakingly detailed by German historian Andrej Angrick. With the Red Army fast approaching, they requisitioned locals to open up the graves with hooks, stack the corpses on funeral pyres, and incinerate the bodies, hiding evidence of their barbaric acts. As a final step in the cover-up, the local diggers were shot, eliminating the final non-German witnesses to one of the darkest chapters in human history.

What happened in Slonim wasn’t special or unique. Between 1941 and 1942, more than 1.5 million Jews were killed in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and other republics of the USSR as part of what Father Patrick Desbois has termed the “Holocaust by bullets.” As Desbois illustrates in vivid detail, these Jews were not gassed under the high walls of industrialized killing centers like those of Treblinka, Sobibor or Belzec, but shot in broad daylight by the Einsatzgruppen, German mobile killing squads and their eastern European collaborators. Their bodies now sit in largely unmarked graves right outside the towns where they used to live, if even that far. It is common to find these graves desecrated by robbers, a kolkhoz (collective farm) built on top of them, a drainage ditch dug through them, human bones scattered through a Ukrainian or Belarusian field.

For four decades after the war, public discussion of the Holocaust in these areas was suppressed under Soviet rule. Historical narratives of the period of German occupation were focused on acts of wartime heroism of Soviet partisans in the “Great Patriotic War.” Where discourse was allowed on Nazi atrocities, the Jewish-specific nature of these massacres was frequently obscured, history books preferring to identify the victims as “Soviet citizens,” rather than members of a particular religious or ethnic group. With 20 million Soviet civilians killed during World War II, the Holocaust was regarded as a mere chapter — brutal, for certain, but one of many — in a grim era of German occupation.

The Imperative

How does one go about reconstructing the memory of a community that has been so totally eradicated — first spiritually in the toppling of its institutions and the enslavement of its population, then physically in the extermination of its citizenry, and finally historically in the obscuring of the events of the Second World War by the victorious Soviet regime? Can this one little Belarusian town serve as a launching point for a new type of Holocaust remembrance, one that seeks an accurate retelling of the past, while acknowledging that the absence of a native Jewish population requires local ownership? Can Jewish history be celebrated as part of a shared multiethnic heritage, as something of relevance to a society that no longer has a Jewish presence?

That is our imperative. A mission this massive begins with a single building.

The Great Synagogue of Slonim, as it was back in the day, and before World War II. (Courtesy)

Bearing witness to the events of Slonim is the Great Synagogue, a majestic baroque structure built in 1642 and located in the center of town. Pictures from the turn of the 20th century show market days in a prosperous village that was 70 percent Jewish, the square brimming with vendors, selling textiles, grain, all other wares from horse drawn carriages. This square was also where the Jews were regularly rounded up, humiliated, beaten, and marched out of town during the various extermination campaigns. In 2019, the imposing synagogue sits behind a wooden fence in decrepit condition, defaced by graffiti.

What do the residents of Slonim think, as they walk past this beautiful, rotting behemoth every day?

The Slonim Synagogue Restoration Project

Two years ago, a group banded together with the goal of saving this structure and formed the Slonim Synagogue Steering Committee. It is a collaboration that fuses together three diverse strands: those of us who have family ties to Slonim, experts in restoration and Jewish history (represented by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage), and a group focused on reinvigorating the fledgling local Belarusian Jewish community around this project (represented by The Together Plan). In partnership with the City of Slonim, the Steering Committee plans to harness these three elements — the stories, the stones, and community — to convert this hulking, decaying structure into a center for a new type of Holocaust remembrance.

The Stories

In 2017, I immersed myself in a far-reaching family history project which brought me into contact with a number of the other Slonim descendants. As affected as I was by the discoveries of what my family had to endure, I was further moved by the vivid anecdotes passed along and documented by others — children left to fend for themselves in the forest after witnessing the murder of their parents, teenagers who only survived a massacre by fainting into a burial trench at the exact moment of gunfire. It has been said that the unfathomable nature of genocides is the precise condition that allows their continued existence — if people cannot contemplate the execution of millions of people in a short period of time, might they doubt that these events actually happened? Rather than imagining the eradication of an entire population, it is therefore perhaps easier to picture one’s child, mother, or father killed 1.5 million times. For these reasons, the preservation of family stories, and the incorporation of personal narratives into a physical restoration project, are an absolutely vital component of our project.

These families are represented by steering committee chair, Simon Kaplinsky, whose father was born in Slonim. “We must avoid allowing the heinous deeds of the Nazis from obscuring the long and intertwined history of the Jews and Christian peoples of Belarus. Although there was friction at times between the two, there is also a long history of tolerance and prosperity. I hope that our saving of the synagogue will not just be a memorial to the Jews of Slonim. It needs to be a facility for the people of the City to remind us all of the common history of all the citizens of the City over the centuries.”

The Stones

The physical restoration of the property is being overseen by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, a British charity focused on the preservation of historically important sites throughout Europe. Having mapped over 3,000 historic synagogues throughout Europe and ranked them in terms of significance and danger of deterioration, the Foundation identified the Slonim synagogue as one of the three most critical structures, prioritizing its preservation campaign. “Often the last physical evidence of vanished Jewish life is the former synagogue building. Through preserving the remarkable Great Synagogue in Slonim, we have the opportunity to create an important site of education that can have an impact across Belarus and beyond, commemorating, and celebrating, a centuries-old vibrant Jewish presence that was in the town — and in the country as a whole. While the building no longer serves as a synagogue given the tragic loss of its community of users, it can still serve as a profound place of meaning,” said Michael Mail, the CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage.

The Great Synagogue of Slonim undergoing restoration: Internal cornice paintings. (Courtesy)

Our immediate task is to perform emergent repairs to the structure itself, an objective on which we have made progress across the last year, repairing the roof and conducting a comprehensive survey of cracks. After the building has been structurally secured, we plan to initiate a feasibility study to evaluate the universe of options for what this building could become: a center for cross-cultural exchange, an event space, educational center, a memorial, a multi-religious prayer hall? With the feasibility study complete, we will initiate the final, substantive renovation phase of this project.

The Community

Strong local ownership is crucial to the success of this project. The Together Plan, a British charity centered on reinvigorating Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, is working with community leaders to ensure that the project is a celebration of a shared national identity, rather than perceived — or enacted — as a form of western imperialism. Belarus is, quite literally, a country built on top of Jewish graves. There were 800,000 Jews killed in the country of Belarus between 1941 and 1944. The bones are everywhere — wherever there was a village, there is a mass grave. Earlier this year, a construction crew building a parking lot in Brest, Belarus unearthed a burial pit containing 1,000 Jewish corpses. It was not the first such exhumation and will certainly not be the last.

While the destruction of the Jewish community was near-absolute, some 20,000 Jews still exist today in Belarus, primarily in Minsk. Debra Brunner, the Director of the Together Plan, said, “In Slonim, our focus is on creating dialogue around the Synagogue and it’s future potential. The aim is to give voice to representatives from the local community — the municipality, historians, heritage experts, teachers, librarians, museum curators and Jewish and non-Jewish people living in Slonim. It is critical that we work alongside the people of Slonim and the Belarus authorities to help them find their voice so that the Slonim Synagogue, an edifice of such strategic and vital heritage value, becomes a building that can tell its own Jewish story, whilst playing a central role in bringing life, creativity and value to the civil society of Slonim, of Belarus and beyond.”

Moment for Truth

Only since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 has open dialogue and examination of the Holocaust in this region been permitted. As opportunities gradually emerged to reconstruct a historical narrative that included Jewish elements, revisionist histories also began to take hold. In 2018, Poland officially criminalized the assignment of any blame to the “Polish nation or state” in the destruction of the country’s Jewish population. Latvia annually commemorates the Latvian Legionnaires, its local Waffen-SS unit, who oversaw the murder of 90% of the country’s Jewish population, with an annual march. Slonim’s own museum does not mention the events surrounding the extermination of the town’s Jews during the Holocaust.

With the youngest Holocaust survivors now in their 80s, there will soon be no one left to tell the stories of what transpired in this dark era. As a wave of ultraconservative movements sweeps Europe once again, the likes of which has not been seen since the Second World War, reminding the world of the dangers of fascism and ethno-nationalism has never been more urgent. In Slonim, we are being given a moment for truth, an opportunity to tell the story as it happened. In this endeavor, we will need all the help we can get.

[1] Glickson, Jerry. (2017) The Hill at Petrolowicze. Middletown, DE. Skillbites, pp. 38-39.

About the Author
Ezra Mehlman is a healthcare investor and an adjunct professor at Columbia University. He is on the steering committee which is restoring the Great Synagogue of Slonim. He holds a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis and an MBA from Columbia Business School.
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