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Ester Lupyan

The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.

The Sonderghetto within the Minsk Ghetto

The older I become, the more vividly the memories of my crippling childhood reoccur to me. The memories of these scenes flicker in my mind one after another like moving slides.

I was five years old on July 7, 1941. At that time I was attending a summer camp in the woods near Minsk, Belarus, with other young children. The city of my birth had already been transformed into a huge heap of ruins. I could not have envisioned the city’s horrific panorama. I was far away from my parents. Suddenly our haven, in the literal sense of the word, was turned upside down. The caregivers and nursemaids who were upset by the news from the city quickly gathered the children into small groups. The staff, without even managing to help us grab our childhood belongings, shipped us off to the train station. We were taken back to our homes, to our mamas and papas, our grandmas and grandpas, our brothers and sisters.

Our parents met the train. The platform overflowed with people dashing from one car to the next, crying out the names of their children. My entire family hugged me joyfully; tears were visible in Mama’s eyes. At that time my family was still intact. There was Mama, my 11-year-old brother, Grisha, and my grandpa and grandma, as well as my mother’s younger brother, Isaac. 

Papa was not with us. He was somewhere far away. In 1936 he had been arrested as a “Trotskyite.” I found out about that much later. Mama did not know where our papa was or why he had been arrested. Everyone around us considered her to be the wife of an “enemy of the people.” But you have to take the good with the bad. Fate was kind to him. He escaped the horrors of the Minsk ghetto but did not escape the afflictions of the northern gulag in the city of Vorkuta.

The train delivered the children home to Minsk, where nameless invaders held sway. Unrestrained power was in the enemies’ hands. Threatening edicts followed one after another. If any orders were violated, people would be shot.

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I remember the resettlement of local Jews from their homes of birth to the ghetto, which was surrounded by many layers of barbed wire. My normal childhood was abruptly turned on its head.

In the memories of those who lived through the occupation, the recollection of the existence and survival in the ghetto is still frightening. I will only say that out of our family, my mother and I were the only ones to survive. 

I grew up in the ghetto from the age of five until I was seven and a half, a period of almost 28 months. As I grew older, I suffered both physically and psychologically. My relationships with the adults were not normal, including my brother, Grisha (Gregory Kaplan), who was 11 years old back then. The adults were tormented by one obsession: How to save and feed the children and themselves? 

My brother, Grisha, escaped from mother’s control early. He rarely paid attention to me. As for me, I clung to Mama seeking protection from fear, hunger, and cold. I understood that she was suffering also, even more than I. Mama was gone all day to the workplace where, with other women, she did forced labor.  I remember when she took me to her workplace for the first time.

But quite soon, the supervision by the military police became more brutal. Every time we returned back to the ghetto, we saw the aftermath of roundups or killings. In the streets there were pools of blood from slain adults and children. That was the time when I happened to hear the cryptic words “Hamburg Jews.” These words, “Hamburg Jews,” were frequently repeated and imprinted on my memory for many long years. The words held no meaning whatsoever for me at that time. We did not know who the “Hamburg Jews” were and why they had been settled behind barbed wire within the large ghetto where we Belorussians had lived. Probably teenagers like my brother, Grisha, knew something about the so-called Hamburg Jews.

On one occasion, Grisha suggested that I go with him to the inner ghetto where these unknown people were living. I was happy to go with him. I instantly agreed to go with Grisha wherever he wanted. After all, the two of us rarely had the opportunity to be together. I was a petite, thin little girl. He hoisted me on his shoulders and quickly set off.  He only told me that we might find a toy I would like. “Why do we have to look for a toy there?” I wondered but didn’t say a word. We didn’t have far to go. 

Suddenly, we were in a completely desolate place. The windows and doors of wooden houses gaped wide open. I realized that not long ago, people lived in these houses. Perhaps they had temporarily left? A deadly silence prevailed, which only the creaking doors disturbed. I was beside myself. I had no desire to speak. We walked wordlessly, affected by the eerie panorama of abandoned dwellings. 

Suddenly a boy appeared before us. He was walking around in circles as if he had lost something and could not find it. It was terrifying. The strange silence portended no good. I started whimpering and pleaded for Grisha to hurry up and go back home.

Unexpectedly, Grisha cheered up. He pointed out a doll in the sand. A toy teacup lay beside it. “Some German Jews lived here, the ‘Hamburg Jews.’ The Germans took them away. Don’t cry. Let’s go home if you don’t want these toys,” said Grisha soothingly.

We returned home bewildered. We did not tell Mama or anyone else where we had been or what we had seen. But it was impossible to forget. That episode from my childhood has left an indelible mark on me.

Many years have passed since my brother and I visited the Sonderghetto where the “Hamburg Jews” lived for a while. Now I understand that obviously we had been there at just the moment when the inhabitants of the Sonderghetto were being transported to the small village of Maly Trostinets. It was located a few kilometers from Minsk and had been turned into a killing site. At that very moment the Sonderghetto was not under guard. The gates had been opened.

What really happened to the German Jews from Hamburg, who were forcibly brought to the Minsk ghetto? They suffered a terrible tragedy. They were annihilated before the Belorussian Jews. Many years later, I learned the history of the Minsk ghetto in detail.

The beginning of November 1941 marked the arrival of the first special trains of Jews from Hamburg to the Minsk ghetto. Within the ghetto, they were partitioned off with barbed-wire fences. This divided the “Hamburg Jews” from the local Jews. A ghetto within a ghetto was formed, the so-called Sonderghetto. The Germans brought in Jews from Dresden, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt-am-Main, Vienna, Czech cities, and other places in Western Europe. The total was over 30,000 people. The general name “Hamburg Jews” stuck to the inhabitants of the Sonderghetto. 

Nobody knew why he or she had been transported to Minsk, where there was already such obvious overcrowding. The special trains arrived one after another. A solution was quickly found. The Germans murdered some of the Belorussian Jews to make room for new arrivals. The newcomers were settled in the vacated homes where the Belorussian Jews had lived earlier. Upon arrival, some of the incoming Western European Jews were placed directly from the terminal into gas vans. Then the people who died from poison gas were transported to prepared pits in the small village of Maly Trostinets.  

At the same time, an underground group was already actively operating in Minsk. It was led by Mikhail Gebelev and Hersh Smolar. The latter subsequently published the well-known book The Minsk Ghetto. There were more than 300 members of the underground organization. Among them were two members of my family. One was my brother, Grisha, who was known among friends as Grisha the Daredevil for his bravery and quick wits. The other one was Mama’s 21-year-old brother, Isaac, who had run away to the forest and joined a partisan detachment in order to avenge the death of his parents, who had been shot in the central plaza of the ghetto, and also to avenge the deaths of friends and all the Jews who perished. Both Grisha and Isaac, along with Mama’s other relatives, perished in the flames of the Holocaust.

The underground’s main objective was to save as many Jewish prisoners who had been condemned to death as possible. At night, under extremely dangerous conditions, couriers, including my brother, Grisha, led small groups of prisoners out of the ghetto into the forest. According to documented data, of the 100,000 prisoners in the Minsk ghetto, 10,000 were led into the forest. Many weak people dropped dead on the difficult way. However some were able to make the trip and save their own lives and their family.

But the fate of the Western Jews was especially tragic. It was almost impossible for them to communicate with the inhabitants of the main ghetto since they were strictly forbidden from crossing the boundary of the Sonderghetto. Besides, they did not know Russian, so they could not communicate with the locals. The German Jews died at a faster rate than the locals because of starvation and the cold weather. They were allotted a cup or two of watery coffee and a piece of bread per day, but that did not stave off hunger.

From the very beginning of the deportation of the Western Jews to the East, the Nazis deceived them. They reassured the people with promises that work awaited them to rebuild and reconstruct a new country. There they would be able to live under good conditions.

Out of the tens of thousands of Jews who were shipped to Minsk, only a handful survived. Their stories are testimonials to the brutal trauma they endured. The deportees did not know that they were being sent to distant and alien lands. They were unaware that they would be transported under subhuman conditions or that unbearable cold awaited them. They were unaware that the local inhabitants did not speak German. The Germans treated Western Jews with false civility, in contrast to the brutal relations they had with the local Jews. The Western Jews were simply duped. They would not give in to pleas of the Belorussian Jews and the underground resistance to join in the fight for their lives by escaping into the forests before it was too late. 

The main obstacle for the Western Jews was psychological. They seemed not to believe that the Nazis would be such savage demons, and so they refused to participate in the activities of the underground. They never undertook any steps to save themselves. With a peculiar Teutonic arrogance they repeatedly said, “That’s well and good for the Eastern Jews but not for us!”

The Sonderghetto Jews were exterminated before the Jews who were in the Belorussian ghetto. 

This short episode from my life in the Minsk ghetto with my beloved brother, who perished as a member of the underground resistance, remained in the corners of my memory for a long time before I was able to write it down.