Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A day in the death camp

Joe Lowry spends a harrowing last day in Belarus, at the site of the Maly Trostinets extermination camp

Partizansky Prospect, Minsk 2004.
“Over there is a wonderful bread factory”, said the octogenarian chairlady of the city Red Cross branch. “And there’s the tractor factory” (its ornate entrance recalling more a Mogul palace). “That was the tank factory, and there’s where they made rifles.”

Will she ever say anything bad about her city, I wonder.

“And over there, in those trees, was an extermination camp where a quarter of a million people died”. The words hit me like a stone.

Partizansky Prospect, Minsk 2010
Six years pass. Six years connected to Minsk through my wife and her family, who, like every family in Belarus shrank by 25 per cent during the war, the great patriotic war, which was neither great nor patriotic for many. The same partisans for whom the long, dull prospekt was named, hated by many, worse than the Nazis for their brutality, their oppression of peasant families.

But I read (present tense) more about the war. I read a massive tome on Stalin and another on the Nazis and on Hitler. The war, I begin to realise, may have spared Ireland’s soil but it splashed Belarus’ in blood. Every inch of the fertile land bubbled and oozed with rotting entrails, brain material, and bright red blood of soldiers and civilians. It soaked into the land, forever permeating it, befouling it, cursing it with a greater poison than even the millions of tons of radioactive waste dusted onto it in 1986 when nearby Chernobyl spilt its guts on the jinxed land.

And I move to Minsk. I know all about Babyan Yar in Kiev, where I have spent many years, how the Nazis threw sweets to the children they had machine-gunned, how the voices under the bulldozed dirt cried “Mummy, the sand is in my eyes”. I saw and gasped – really, my breath left my body in a whoosh - at the doll monument, whose limbs, akimbo, are welded on at unnatural angles. A broken doll, tricking the eyes.

The Holocaust is alive and well in Kiev. Well chronicled. Unforgettable. With a Jewish lobby noisily keeping the memory, even with the Holodymyr, the great Stalin-created famine of the 30s arguably claiming more lives.

But in Minsk, poor Minsk, where not a wall seems to have survived the neither great nor patriotic war, only clues remain. An internet site shows some horrors, and reveals that the pretty, re-antiquated main square in the old town was once Adolf Hitler square. That the Nazis brained Jewish babies against street corners in the Minsk ghetto (right).

But no memory seems to remain of that abysmal place, buried now under hotels, tower blocks, malls. (No Polanski films, no anniversaries a la Warsaw). Where people were allocated two square metres each, not including children. Which was cleared in a massive mass murder.

And I realise, that the smiling faces, or the strife-worn faces, the pretty faces and ugly ones I see every day on the Metro, at work, in the local shop, are the same – two generations on - as the ones that had the foulest, scariest, most repugnant jobs of all. When the Nazis left Minsk, civilians and prisoners, were used to find and burn up to 100,000 bodies.

Maly Trostinets. As fell and as foul Belsen, as grim as Auschwitz, this was the last generation of concentration camps. A death camp. While some sites pronounced “Arbeit Macht Frei”, there was no need for such an illusion in Maly Trostinets. A train went into the forest, disgorged its human cargo (many of whom were already dead) and the work of extermination began. (The condemned were transported from the “General Governorate” directly, or via a spell in the squalid Minsk Ghetto).

From “The killing process was conducted as follows: most of the victims were lined up in front of pits, 50 meters long and 3 metres deep and shot to death. After the executions the pits containing the victims were levelled by tractors. The operation was conducted by a unit of thirty to one hundred SS men commanded by an officer named Rider.

“Beginning on the 10 May 1942 and continuing every Tuesday and Friday Jews were brought to Minsk from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Austria, Germany and driven by truck towards Maly Trostinets. Some of the trucks were gas vans, and after they had been gassed a sonderkommando took them out of the gas vans and threw them into deep pits.

“One such transport destined for Maly Trostinets was from Theresienstadt in Bohemia Moravia. On the 4 August 1942 a train with a thousand Jews left the Theresienstadt camp. Six days later it reached Maly Trostinets where it stopped in open country.

“Forty “experts” were removed from the train at Minsk. The remaining 960 deportees were ordered out of the train and into vans for the next stage of their journey, and were driven off towards the Blagovschchina forest. The vans were gas vans, once they reached the forest the doors were unlocked and the bodies of the gassed deportees were thrown into open graves.

“Of a thousand Jews sent from Theresienstadt to Maly Trostinets in a further deportation on the 25 August 1942 only twenty-two of the younger men were taken to work at an SS farm. The rest entered the gas vans and were murdered.” (photo above called "Tormenting Jews in Minsk" from the Holocaust research project archive).

My time in Minsk passes, and I vow, before I leave, to see Maly Trostinets, or what is left of it. We set out on an early autumn day, the leaves still green at the edge of the city. Jouncing over the unkept asphalt we get lost several times before stopping at the end of the road. In eyesight are the 70s apartments that ring every former Soviet city, almost overlooking these anonymous scruffy few fields, lanes, hedges.

And then I see it. A simple concrete structure, that from a distance looks almost plastic. “Dedicated to the Soviet citizens that perished here”. There are flowers, someone still cares. (I am glad to have had my phone to take a picture; there is nothing on Google.)

It’s one of those moments. The sun is warm, a light breeze stirs some dust, a rangy dog mooches around. There’s plastic bottles scattered hither and yon, and the poplars sway gently. The sort of day when I first saw the World War One graveyards as a teenager, the sort of day “The Green Fields of France” was written for:

“But young Willie MacBride it all happened again, and again and again and again and again.”

No drums beat, no fife plays. The silent soundtrack in my head a poignant reminder that genocide, or ethnic slaughter surrounds us all, marking the worst our species is capable of. Defining us. From Ireland to Armenia, from Ukraine to Belarus, Poland to Rwanda, to the countless flashpoints – Kashmir, Casamance, Palestine, Darfur, the Niger Delta, Kyrgyzstan.

And the horrible, sickening thought – if the gun was in my hand and it was them or my family…

I mutter a prayer. No tears come. This place is not for the living.