Only twelve Jews remained alive in Minsk of the 80,000 Jews who lived in the city and of the 39,000 who were brought there from Berlin, Vienna and Prague, the correspondent of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency established today upon arriving here.
Ignatz Burstein, one of the twelve who miraculously escaped Nazi extermination, told the JTA correspondent how the Germans annihilated the 119,000 Jews in Minsk during the three years they held the city. He related his gruesome tale in front of a charred building where the twelve Jews, all of them highly-skilled technicians, were forcibly employed repairing German military vehicles.
In 1941, Burstein said, the Germans deported thousands of Jews from Lodz to Baranovichi, which is a short distance southwest of Minsk, where they were placed in a ghetto. A total of about 12,000 persons were confined there. Although forced to work for the Germans, the Jews were not molested until March, 1942, when the Nazis suddenly divided the ghetto into two parts and drove all the inhabitants into one section, leaving the other empty.
Then they began distributing green “tickets of life.” These were work cards. Failure to obtain such a card meant death, since only those who were deemed fit to work were to be allowed to remain alive. From 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. the Germans called out the names of the fortunate persons who were to be given cards. Twelve thousand desperate people attempted to claw their way into the building where the cards were being distributed. Women and children were trampled. Distraught persons whose names were not called attempted to snatch the permits from those who had obtained them.
ORDER JEWISH LEADER TO SELECT VICTIMS FOR EXECUTION
Towards the end, the Germans handed all the cards that remained to a local Jewish lawyer named Isaacson, who was head of the ghetto council, telling him to distribute them as he saw fit. This last bit of cruelty – compelling the Jews, themselves, to decide which of their number were to die – was the invention of a S.S. leader named Wolf. When all the cards had been distributed, those possessing work permits were herded into one section of the ghetto, separated from the others.
At six o’clock in the morning, large trucks drove up to the ghetto and the unlucky 6,000 were loaded into them as their families and friends who had been spared were forced to stand by and watch. Isaacson and several Jewish policemen who were compelled to assist the Germans – to maintain a pretense of legality – were shot that same evening.
This was the first pogrom in Baranovichi. The second occurred in the Fall of 1942, when 3,000 were killed, leaving another 3,000 survivors. All but 200 of these were murdered in a third pogrom on December 17, 1942. The 200 who were spared were highly skilled workers, among them Burstein and his companions. They were taken from the city shortly afterwards to a penal camp and then to the Trostinetz camp, about eight miles outside of Minsk.
JEWS FROM BERLIN, VIENNA, PRAGUE SENT TO “DEATH CAMP”
Trostinetz was a “death camp” for Czech, German and Austrian Jews, 39,000 of whom arrived by train between September, 1942 and October, 1943, in transports of 1,000 each. Of the 1,000, only about five to 30 persons were allowed to live; these were skilled workers. The others were asphyxiated in portable gas chambers and then lumped into pits a few miles away. Some of the portable gas chambers were mounted on
Only about 500 people were kept alive at the Trosinetz camp. Most of them were engaged in sorting out the clothes of the thousands of murdered Jews for shipment back to Germany. Others, among whom were Burstein, worked in the auto repair shops in the university buildings. They were taken to the city each morning and returned at night.
LIQUIDATION OF MINSK GHETTO STARTED LAST YEAR
In the Fall of 1943, the Germans began liquidating the Minsk ghetto. They deported 8,000 Minsk Jews to Lublin where they were killed, while several thousand others were executed at Trostinetz.
At the same time, the advance of the Red Army towards Minsk necessitated the services of more auto mechanics. Burstein and about 200 others, including 13 women and four children, were quartered in the garage building where they lived as slaves. In June of this year, Burstein noticed great excitement among the Germans, and indications that they were preparing to evacuate the city.
From hints dropped by their chief, the slave laborers realized that they would be executed before the Nazis quit Minsk. They decided to escape. On the morning of June 28, the twelve men fled from the garage and hid in the cellars of the university buildings.
They had nothing to eat, After several days of starvation, they slipped from the cellars and lowered one man down a chimney to the kitchen where he stole some food.
WOMEN AND CHILDREN BURNED ALIVE BEFORE NAZIS RETREATED
On the Sunday before last, July 2, which was the day before the Red Army broke into the city, all the Jewish mechanics who had not escaped, together with the women and children were taken into the charred building we could see behind us and burned to death. One woman who broke out of the building was beaten and hanged.
At 5 o’clock on the morning of July 3, Burstein locked out of a crack in the basement wall and saw a Red Army man standing before the ruined government building where a statue of Lenin had once stood. Burstein shouted: “Red Army men, Red Army men,” but his companions did not believe him. Then as they all rushed to lock, a column of tanks bearing the Red Star rolled down the street.
Shouting deleteriously, the twelve men – the only Jews alive in Minsk – rushed cut into the streets, where they were halted by the peremptory challenge of a Red Army man. They soon explained who whey were.
Today Burstein and his companions are working at repairing damaged German trucks making them serviceable for use by the Russian troops.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.