When I told my Ukrainian friends, I would travel to Belarus, they all said ‘oh, it’s so tidy there’. Yes it is. But beyond tidiness, excellent roads, overwhelming hospitality and good hotels, there is also more to discover: a rich and diverse history, of which the Jewish component is an important part. For 12 days, my friends Achim, Petra, our knowledgable and charming tour guide Juliana Mikolutskaya and I explored the Jewish heritage sites in the west of the country. We started in Minsk on 19 April.
Since Belarus has a visa free regime if you imigrate via the airport of Minsk, we started our journey there. With an delay of 7 hours we arrived in the morning of April 19, after another disastrous travel experience with Ukraine International Airlines via Kyiv.
Due to the destructions of World War II I had no big expectations concerning Minsk. I expected a Soviet style city with tower buildings. Indeed, Minsk consits to a big part of this type of architecture. But there is also a charming old town with beautiful old buildings – all of them well renovated and maintained.
Juliana was so kind to guide us through Jewish Minsk. There are still some surviving synagogues and the destroyed Jewish cemetery, which was turned into a memorial park. Belarus has a distinct culture of remembrance. The country lost one third of it’s population during the war time and the German occupation. Mass killing sites and mass graves are marked, and even if the style of commemoration is often Soviet-like, this makes a difference to other post-Soviet countries.
One of the notorious mass murder sites is marked by an impressive memorial and there is a second Holocaust monument on the territory of the destroyed Jewish cemetery, now a memorial park. The most notorious – and by the same time internationally most unknown – site is Maly Trostinets death camp in the outskirts of Minsk. Approximately 200,000 people – Jews, Soviet prisoners of war and others were murdered there. Recently a huge memorial complex was inaugurated there. For me as a resident of Cologne, the site is in particular of significance. More than 1,000 citizens of my hometown – mainly children of the Jewish school and the Jewish orphanage – had been deported and shot there. They are commemorated by a memorial fountain today, wich was donated by survivors, Minsk may seem to be far away, but it is not.
Cologne – Memorial fountain for the in Maly Trostinets murdered children of the Jewish school and the Jewish orphanage
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