Igor Kanonik. The Minsk ghetto through the eyes of my father (part 1)

The story is written in a form where the events of 1941-1944 sometimes overlap with the events of the early 1970s. This is a real and true story of two families, Kanonik and Goberman, of which 32 people died in the Minsk ghetto. History unfolds in two time planes. Oddly enough, the past is connected with the present by the chain of events arising from one another.

The story was written in 2013, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto, and corrected in 2019. Some photos are published for the first time.


On June 28, 1941, the Germans, not meeting much resistance, entered Minsk. The family of my father, David Kanonik, lived before the war near the Chervensky tract on Krupskaya Street. It was a large area of private houses behind the train station. All lived together in his house: grandfather Efim (Khaim) Yakovlevich Kanonik, born in 1903, grandmother Liza Davidovna Kanonik (maiden name Goberman) born in 1906, the elder sister of my father Luba, born in 1926, my father David, born in 1929, and grandmother Gita, the mother of grandfather Efim. Also in this house lived grandmother Esther, the sister of grandmother Gita. Both of two young children: father’s sister Rita, born in 1931, and brother Marat, born in 1938, died of dysentery before the war.

For several days, the Kanonik’s could not decide whether to leave to the east or stay in Minsk, and left the city only on June 26. Many families who left Minsk on June 23-24 managed to go far, and to cross the bridge over the Berezina River. But father’s family traveled only 40 kilometers when German troops in the uniform of the Red Army were dropped directly onto the refugee column.

My father David Kanonik (1929-1999, died in Israel). He spent more than two years in the ghetto; since September 1943 he was a partizan

Saboteurs told the refugees so that everyone would return to their homes, that in front of the Berezina River, there is no bridge and no opportunity to cross to the opposite bank. The bridge was indeed blown up on June 25 by Soviet military units during the retreat in order to detain the Germans on the Berezina River. Therefore, many refugees, including Jews, turned back to Minsk.

As early as on June 24, the top leaders of the republic and the city, hastily and secretly fled from Minsk to Mogilev, without informing the population that they needed to leave. Their escape caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, and first of all the complete destruction of the Jewish population of Minsk and its environs, who ended up in the Minsk ghetto. It was a real betrayal of the city population.

Almost a month later, in mid-July, an order from a military commandant was posted throughout the city. All Jews were ordered to leave their homes and relocate to the ghetto area from July 20.

My father and his family got there and for more than two years they were prisoners of the Minsk ghetto – from July 20, 1941 until the beginning of September 1943. When my father managed to escape to the partizan detachment, the last 3,000 Jews remained in the ghetto. It was a month and a half before the last ghetto destruction action. On the twenties of October 1943, the Minsk ghetto, the largest of two hundred Jewish ghettos in Belarus, ceased to exist.

According to the archives and museums of Germany, about 150 thousand Jews died in Minsk, more than 40 thousand of them were Jews from Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. Foreigners were clustered in the “Sonderghetto”, a special one inside a larger ghetto. There is a memorial in the park on Sukhaya Street, on the site of an old Jewish cemetery, in the territory of the former ghetto, which is dedicated to the Jews of Europe.

The only place where it is noted that 150 thousand Jews passed through the Minsk ghetto is the Berlin Holocaust Museum. Even on Wikipedia, the data is not accurate.

Of the 250 thousand pre-war population of Minsk, more than 100 thousand were Jews. The Minsk ghetto lasted two years and three months. Throughout this time, all those who died and were killed in small pogroms, which took place almost constantly, were buried in common grave-ditches in the territory of this cemetery. The cemetery existed from the middle of the 19th century; Jews were buried there after the war, until the early 1950s. In the early 1970s, the cemetery was closed, and in 1990 it was razed to the ground.

Father told how after the war they paved cobblestone on Collectornaya street (former Jewish) on the site between the street Nemiga (during the war it was called “Khaimstrasse”) and up to the street Sukhaya, and how they laid a road straight through the graves.

The convoy that left Berlin on November 14, 1941 was the third convoy of European Jews to the Minsk ghetto. The first, according to the German archives, was a convoy train, which left Dusseldorf on November 10, 1941. The second was a convoy from Frankfurt, sent on November 11, 1941.

And today, walking along the old part of Dusseldorf, right at the houses where the Jews lived, you can see copper square tablets. They, like in Berlin, are walled up on the sidewalk with the names of former residents deported to the Minsk ghetto. Later, in the winter of 1941–1942, there were many more trains from Hamburg, Berlin, Bremen, Cologne, Bonn, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt and Vienna – all to the Minsk ghetto.

These data are from Berlin museums and archives in Germany. It is better not to argue about statistics with the German pedants. In Soviet times, the number of Jews who died in the Minsk ghetto was belittled. For example, on the territory of the Khatyn memorial complex, created in 1969, there was a memorial plaque-niche in a long wall (I think it is still in the same place), which lists several streets that entered the Minsk ghetto region, and it says that 75 thousand peaceful Soviet citizens died there.

The Holocaust of Jews in the territories of the former Soviet Union remained a secret for several decades after the end of the war. For ideological and political reasons, the Soviet regime did not recognize the uniqueness and scale of the extermination of Jews by the Nazis. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union the documentation and perpetuation of the memory of Holocaust victims become possible.

… Father told me that at first they lived in the ghetto on Ostrovsky Street, not far from the entrance gate from the side of Nemiga Street. Almost every day three enormous gas chambers drove into the ghetto; they stopped near a public park on Ostrovsky. There followed a raid on the Jews – those who did not go to work or could not hide in the pre-prepared “malinas.” “Malina” was the name for hiding places under the floor of the house, between the floor and the ground, or for a small secret room, which was obtained after making an extra large wall. Policemen caught all who came across, and driven them into the gas chamber. Cars drove the Jews to “Maly Trostenets” and burned them there.

The first commandant in the Minsk ghetto was Major Richter, he often liked to go around the ghetto, accompanied by policemen and with a whip in his hand. And God forbid if someone does not take off his headgear when he met him, or catch his eye with a poorly sewn armor. These were round yellow stripes on the clothes, front and back, which should have been worn even by children from 12 years old. Later, under the yellow stripes, they forced to sew a small white ones, but only on the chest. Last names and numbers corresponding to the house number in the ghetto were written on these small stripes, since all the houses were numbered. It was a kind of residence permit.

During the next, largest, fourth pogrom (July 28-31, 1942), in which about 30 thousand Jews died, the elder sister of my father Lyuba died. Police officers, as usual, walked the ghetto streets and handed out leaflets. Lyuba told her mother that she would go outside and take the leaflet. Her mother tries to dissuadedher, but Lyuba came out and no one saw her since than…

My father’s sister Lyuba, b. 1926, Photo1939

It turned out that like this the policemen lured people from houses and shelters, where there was still the opportunity to hide.

Also during this pogrom, died grandmother Esther, the sister of grandmother Gita. When everyone who was in the house managed to hide in the “malina”, she closed the hole, laid a rug on top and sat on the bed in the bedroom. She told to the Germans and policemen who entered, in Yiddish that she is blind and can not see nothing. Then a German took her arm and slowly led her out into the street towards the gas chamber. And thus Esther left, taking away the danger from her family…

July 28, on the first day of the great pogrom, my father and grandfather Efim, as part of the work team, managed to leave the ghetto to work at a meat factory early in the morning. On the way to work, a group of Jews was constantly accompanied by several policemen. They met a large convoy of Ukrainian policemen (from July 10, 1941, several convoys of the 1st Ukrainian police battalion stationed in Minsk), which marched towards the ghetto. Soon after, shots were heard from the ghetto.

By the end of the working day, all Jews were informed that they will not return to the ghetto, but remain at work for the night. The same way they spent the next two nights. The pogrom in the ghetto ended at exactly three in the afternoon on July 31. When father and grandfather returned to the ghetto in the evening, they realized that only mother, Liza, was alive, but the sister and two grandmothers were gone. This was the fourth large pogrom planned by the Germans.

Liza Kanonik (Goberman) born in 1906, my father’s mother. She escaped from the ghetto in early August 1943. Almost a year was a cook and worked in the hospital of the partizan detachment. Photo taken in 1946

It is officially known that in Maly Trostenets, the Germans killed 206,500 people, and more than half of them are prisoners of the Minsk ghetto. It is also known that this figure is greatly underestimated.

The outstanding German intellectual-historian Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm in his book “Operational Group A of the Security Police and SD 1941–1942 ”confirms and reliably states that in 1942, 1,000 Jewish transports (railroad cars) were observed in the vicinity of Minsk. This German historian claims that the number of foreign Jews deported to the Minsk region in 1942 is, according to conservative estimates, 75 thousand people. Most of these European Jews, bypassing the Minsk ghetto, went directly to the extermination camp Maly Trostenets.

But even earlier there was a third big pogrom. There was a large sand pit in the ghetto. And it was there that in 1947, with funds raised by surviving Jews, one of the first monuments to the victims of the Holocaust was erected on the territory of the entire Soviet Union. The inscription on it was made in Yiddish. But at that time, for well-known reasons, they could not write on the monument that these 5,000 Jews were the victims of the third pogrom, organized on the Jewish holiday of Purim on March 2, 1942.

The pogrom began by shooting 200 children of the orphanage, along with teachers and medical workers. The orphanage was located on Ratomskaya Street (later Melnikaite) next to the quarry. The Gauleiter of Belarus Wilhelm Kube was present when they were shooting the children, he threw candy to them. After the execution of 5,000 Jews, the Germans did not allow the quarry to fall asleep for several days. Father said that after the execution, the snow fell, and the executed Jews lay for several days, covered with snow.

Unfortunately, even in 2000, when the “Pit” Memorial was created on this site, they also forgot or did not want to indicate the total number of Jews who died in the Minsk ghetto.

There was one more place of mass executions of Jews from the ghetto – the victims of the first two large pogroms were mostly shot there. The first big pogrom, dedicated to the holiday and due to the lack of space for the resettlement of European Jews, took place on November 7, 1941. The Germans “loved and tried” to organize large-scale pogroms for the Soviet or Jewish holidays. They forced the Jews to form columns and walk along the central square of the ghetto, Yubileynaya square, as in a demonstration. These columns immediately after the “parade” drove to Tuchinka. Thus perished 12 thousand Jews.

The second big pogrom, connected with the urgent preparation of a place for the resettlement of European Jews (“sonderghetto”), took place on November 20, 1941, in which another 20 thousand Minsk Jews died. All this happened in the village of Tuchinka, in clay quarries on the territory of three old brick factories. Over 30 thousand Jews were shot there on the outskirts of Minsk during the existence of the ghetto.

Unfortunately, in the postwar years this place was forgotten. Perhaps one of the reasons for oblivion is that before the war, the 6th NKVD colony was located next to Tuchinka. That is, both Germans and Chekists inherited there. Today it is a territory near Kharkovskaya Street, in the direction of the Calvary Cemetery. A modern Tuchinka park barely overlapes this territory.

All the surviving ghetto prisoners had a peculiar psychological syndrome for 25 years after the war. They walked around the streets where the ghetto was. They didn’t tell anyone about this, and in general they tried not to touch the ghetto subject. Of course, the postwar state policy contributed to this. Persecution of Jews in the late 1940s. The murder of Solomon Mikhoels in Minsk in January 1948 (there were rumors in Minsk that the death of Mikhoels was an officially organized murder). Destruction of Jewish culture, August 12, 1952 in the cellars of the Lubyanka were shot 13 members of the JAC – the “Jewish Antifascist Committee.” An anti-cosmopolitan company that acquired anti-Semitic forms. The “doctors’ plot” at the beginning of 1953. And state antisemitism, which intensified in the late 1960s and in the 1970s.

How did Minsk Jews manage to perpetuate the memory of their fellow compatriots in the years when no one wanted to hear about the Holocaust?

The first organized Jewish rally at the Pit took place on Victory Day in 1969. Fifty people gathered, mostly Jews who lived close to the Pit, and their relatives. My father’s brother Edik Goberman, born in 1945, lived with his family in Zaslavsky Lane.

Not many Minsk residents know that the first two flower beds on both sides of the monument were made by Jews living near the Pit. But in front of the round flowerbeds, two large flowerbeds were made in the form of Magen David, this was in the early May 1969. These flower beds did not stand even a day, there even did not manage to put flowers. It remained a mystery how the KGB found out about them, but in the evening of the same day four persons in gray suits immediately went to the house of the organizer of these community workers in the Pit.

In the courtyard, where the Chekists entered, stood dozens of shovels and a rakes. KGB officers said they were aware that work was underway at the Pit to clear the area. And then it sounded in an imperative tone: “Get rid of these flower beds of yours until the morning!”

It had to redo the six-pointed flower beds into round ones at night. And when on May 9, 1969, the Jews first rallied at the Pit, everyone saw two round flower beds with flowers.

A few words about the organizer of the community workers. This was one of the first Minsk Zionists, everyone called him Feldman, perhaps this was not his real last name. According to the stories of his former neighbors, he was like a bone in the throat for the KGB. At the end of 1972, he was taken to Moscow and put on a plane flying to Vienna, from where he allegedly flew to Israel. In the early 1990s, after almost 20 years, his former neighbors searched for him in Israel, but never succeeded…

During Brezhnev’s time the Jews, who had something to lose, were afraid to come to the “Pit” on Victory Day. I myself have seen many times how Jewish intellectuals walked from Yubileynaya Square down Ratomskaya Street (later Melnikaite) past the market, constantly looking over their shoulder. It was rumored that disguised KGB officers photographed people. But every year more and more Jews came to the Pit.

Translation from the original by Igor Shustin

(to be continued)

Published 04/12/2020 02:19