What do Belarusians remember about the Holocaust?
In the Polish town Oświęcim, on the eve of the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the district court passed sentence. The case concerned a nude performance last spring near the memorial to the Nazi death camp. Twelve people in their 20s, among them five Belarusian citizens, had slaughtered a lamb, stripped and chained themselves to the gates of the former camp where more than one million innocent people perished during World War 2.
Although intended as a pacifist protest, the performance made little sense to spectators. The unfortunate choice of location cancelled out the anti-war message, bringing on the protesters charges of desecration.
Though of a different nature, a distinct lack of reflection over the largest tragedy of the 20th century marks the mainstream perceptions of the Holocaust in contemporary Belarus. Here, the Holocaust serves as a background for narratives of wartime heroism. The commemoration often depends on individual initiatives and support from abroad.
The lost world of Jewish Belarus
On the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Jewish population was the third largest ethnic group on Belarusian territories, often making up about 50 per cent of the urban population. Ancestors of Isaac Asimov, Kirk Douglas, Shimon Peres, Menachem Begin and many others were born on Belarusian soil.
Yet most Belarusian Jews perished in the Holocaust. Historians estimate that over 800,000 Jewish people died in Belarus during WWII, among them about 90,000 European Jews deported from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, France and Poland. In contrast, today only about 30,000 Jews call Belarus their home.
One of 240 ghettoes on Belarusian territory, the Minsk ghetto was also one of the largest in Eastern Europe. American historian Barbara Epstein says that the strong ties between the ghetto, the underground, and partisan movement became a unique feature of Minsk during wartime. Connections to the partisans helped many Belarusian Jews to survive.
The prisoners of the Navahrudak ghetto succeeded in digging a 220-metre long tunnel through which 250 people fled into the forest. Jared Kushner’s ancestors, who later emigrated to the United States, numbered among the survivors of that daring escape. Now, the Kushner family provides financial support for the tunnel memorial in Navahrudak, currently under construction.
Since 2007, Navahrudak also houses a small Museum of the Jewish Resistance. Financial support for the museum comes from Jack Kagan; a former prisoner in the ghetto and later a partisan in the famous Bielski Brothers’ unit.
The challenges of Holocaust education
Many Belarusians do not know this history since Belarusian school textbooks still lack comprehensive coverage of the Holocaust. The current political regime eagerly uses the themes of the Great Patriotic War and the partisan movement to construct a specific state ideology, which is based on positive references to wartime heroism.
In this context, independent initiatives expose deficiencies of history education in Belarus. The case of a history teacher from Asipovičy, Neanila Cyhanok, provides an illustration. In an attempt to expand Holocaust history’s place in the school curriculum, she spent the last ten years of her life collecting oral history materials on Jews and their saviours. Yet Cyhanok also admitted that she encountered antisemitic stereotypes in reaction to her involvement with the memory of the Holocaust and extra-curricular activities.
Holocaust memorial sites often appear through individual initiatives or with the support of Jews from abroad. Last year, businessman Siarhei Koval from Navahrudak supported the creation of a monument to the children who perished during the Holocaust. The monument depicts a Jewish girl from Navahrudak, Mihle Sasnouskaja, who managed to escape from the ghetto, only for the Nazis to shoot her later.
Since 2003, the Simon Mark Lazarus Foundation in cooperation with Belarusian Jewish organisations has erected 110 memorials in an effort to commemorate over 500 massacre sites across the country.
Belarusian society: coming to terms with the Holocaust
The focus on the partisan struggle and developing a cult of the last war leaves little space for the Holocaust in official memory politics. For instance, the rebuilt Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Minsk hardly focuses on the extent of Jewish suffering during WWII, referring to victims as merely civilians in its main exhibits.
The museum’s description of artefacts from the Maly Trascianec death camp states that it was the 4th largest Nazi death camp, after Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka. Yet the museum visitors only learn that ‘in three years, more than 200,000 citizens from the Soviet Union and occupied countries of Western Europe were killed there.’
Nevertheless, in recent years the official Holocaust memory politics showed signs of positive changes. In 2015, President Lukashenka unveiled a new memorial on the territories of the former death camp Maly Trascianec. Until recently this remained a forgotten site in the vicinity of the Belarusian capital. Historians note that Stalinist executions took place at Trascianec from the late 1930s through to the summer of 1941, which might explain its oblivion.
From March 2017, the joint German-Belarusian exhibition ‘Death Camp Trascianec: History and Memory’ tours both Belarus and Germany, telling the stories of Maly Trascianec’s victims. In January 2018, it opened in Mir Castle – a famous tourist landmark that used to be a Jewish ghetto during the WWII.
So far, no sociological data exists to evaluate either public knowledge or perceptions of the Holocaust within Belarusian society. The brutality of the war and the extermination of the entire ethnic groups, such as the Jews or Roma, still awaits a proper commemoration. In this respect, a comprehensive discussion of the Holocaust as part of the school curriculum might pave the way towards a better understanding of the past.
Belarusian industrial enterprises: authorities invest, citizens protest
The construction of a new factory in the town of Svetlahorsk sparked protests at the beginning of January.
Authorities’ support for the pulp-bleaching plant in Svetlahorsk has ignored concerns about damaging health effects and residents’ opinions. Environmental activists have little influence on the situation, meeting with disregard and being prevented from access to local people.
In pursuit of job creation and foreign investment in the economy, the Belarusian authorities increasingly ignore issues of environmental protection and public health.
Why is the pulp-bleaching factory near Svetlahorsk dangerous?
The constructors planned to open the pulp-bleaching factory near Svetlahorsk back in 2015. The plant became a joint project between China CAMC Engineering and the Svetlogorsk Pulp and Board Mill. It aims to process 2.5 million cubic metres of timber and produce 400 thousands tons of pulp per year. However, due to construction delays, the factory only started to work in January 2018.
The plant has already drawn much criticism from environmental activists. The NGO Ecadom describes the method of pulp bleaching used as dangerous. Greenbelarus writes that authorities prefer this method for cost-saving reasons and remain reluctant to conduct progressive industrial reforms.
Since Soviet times, Belarus has prioritised profit over environmental and health issues in industrial construction. The Svetlahorsk pulp bleaching plant will involve chlorine dioxide bleaching, which the EU banned back in 2006. This type of pulp processing strongly pollutes the air and water through its use of poisonous materials, such as vitriol acid and methanol. The constructors and authorities disregard the fact that WHO statistics list Belarus in third place in the world on the death from air pollution per 100,000.
Citizens’ voices fall on deaf ears
At the end of 2017 discontent about the factory’s construction became visible again when testing work started. During recent years, construction workers have shared stories about construction violations and the poor quality of equipment, reports greenbelarus.info. On 25 December, the residents in the village of Yakimava-Slabada, the closest residential area, protested and complained about the ‘horrible smell and air’ that the factory generates. In interviews with Belsat, an independent Belarusian television channel, people say that they have to go into the city (Svetlahorsk) for walks with their children to escape the smell.
The reaction of the local authorities in the Svetlahorsk region complicates the situation. In 2012, when 10,000 citizens appealed against the construction of the plant, the authorities displayed a reluctance to compromise or agree to hold a public hearing. Since then, locals have applied to various agencies with complaints about the smell, environmental damage and smoke emissions from the plant. At the beginning of January, someone from the construction firm claimed that the plant operates with the latest technologies and that the smell should disappear within one month.
Environmental organisations wield no real influence, being restricted by state legislation and often working while unregistered. In 2013, the environmental organisation Ecadom filed a suit against the constructor building the pulp-bleaching factory. However, the court found that the construction complied with environmental laws. The NGOs Ecadom and Green Network have received few results from their attempts to influence the construction of the polluting Belarusian-Chinese industrial park. Since the Svetlahorsk plant project will bring economic profits, the authorities step back from any compromise with citizens and decline from reviewing the technologies used at the plant.
Why does Belarus continue to use dangerous industrial technologies?
Belarus lacks resources for economic development, and so the government banks on attracting foreign investment. Environmental-friendliness is a secondary consideration. One of the largest investors in Belarus remains the Austrian company, ‘Kronospan’, which invests in timber processing. In 2015 the company received four fines for environmental pollution according to t-styl.info. This was despite the fact that the population in the nearby town of Smarhon repeatedly complained about pollution of air and water by the factory.
The economic interests of Belarusian authorities still dominate over issues of nature protection and human health. It allows the creation of new jobs and mitigates social tensions linked to unemployment and low wages.
It also puts extra money in the budget at the expense of taxes, and sometimes at the expense of exports by established foreign-owned enterprises. Western investors fear an unstable business environment in “Europe’s last dictatorship” and do not appear eager to invest in Belarus. Thus, the Belarusian government tries to attract investors from Russia and Asia.
More than a half of the total amount of foreign direct investments in the Belarusian economy in 2017 came from Russia ($10.586 bn). The largest Chinese investment ($1,5bn) in Belarus funds construction of the “Big Stone” industrial park. However, China is investing not only in the development of Belarus’s high-tech sector but also in environmentally-questionable enterprises, as in Svetlahorsk.
Profit vs. environment – what wins?
While prioritising nuclear power and high-polluting plants, Belarus also works increasingly on developing its alternative energy sources. For example, the Belarusian company Velcom invested $25 million in the construction of a solar plant at Brahin, the town most contaminated by Chernobyl.
The plant, opened in 2016, became the largest environmentally-friendly plant in Belarus. The solar farm aims to bring more jobs to a region that offers poor conditions for agriculture while improving the environment.
In spite these positive developments, the share of high-polluting factories remains much larger. Looking for profits, both Belarusian companies and authorities ignore safety aspects of construction.
Accidents at the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant have caused death and injuries. In July 2016, an accident at the ammonia production factory in Hronda killed two people and seriously injured three others. Local authorities and constructors, however, conceal this information and avoid admitting the dangers, and sometimes even the accidents themselves. Many plants remain situated in urban areas, which seriously increases the potential damage in the event of accidents.
Despite the active participation of local citizens in protests in small towns like Svetlahorsk, so far the profit motive wins arguments for environmental protection.