Tag Archives: #belarus

No Opposing View to the Holocaust!

“You make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have a book that has an opposing view,” a Carroll County,Texas, administrator recently told a group of educators during a training session on what books were allowed in their library. Fierce backlash resulted in an apology and an investigation, but to many it hammered home the fear, denial, and outright ignorance that surrounds the teaching as well as recognition of the reality of the systematic murder of six million Jews. For that reason, there will never be “too many stories” about the Holocaust, including that of Galina “Golda” Goldin Gelfer (Z’L).

On June 22, 1941, Golda woke up on her 14th birthday to a beautiful sunny day in Glusk [now known as Hlusk], Belarus. Despite her family’s status as Jews in a highly anti-Semitic country, she and her family—her father Meir, her mother Elke, her eight year old sister Malke, and a large extended family— were happy in their small shtetl. Then, their world changed when news that Germany had declared war on the Soviet Union. Five days later, Nazis marched into their town. Soon after, Golda’s older sister, Chaisoshe returned home to join her family after Minsk University was evacuated, walking the last 30 miles with a friend. With limited means of escape, the entire Jewish population was trapped.

All Jews were registered and forced to wear yellow stars on the clothes and post the yellow stars on their homes. A Judencrat (Jewish council of three men) was formed to organize labor. While Chaisoshe remained hidden in their homeMeir and Golda worked long hours in menial jobs: cleaning and plowing the streets, digging up bricks, and mucking out horse stalls. All other work by Jews was forbidden.“We performed useless task mainly to make us feel we were slaves,” Golda later wrote in an autobiographic essay in The Holocaust DID Happen. (Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, 2010) 

For the next five months, as reports of mass executions of Jews in neighboring villages were reported, Golda and her family lived in absolute fear. On December 2, 1941, their worst nightmare was realized when they learned in the early morning hours that Nazis were beginning to round up all the Jews in Glusk for a “death march.” As the Goldin dressed in multiple layers of clothes and hastily packed bundles of food, they made plans to split up, run, and hide. Chaisoshe and a college friend were first to leave.“ You have some friends,” Elke told her husband. “Take a child. You may survive.” As Meir took Golda’s hand, Golda grabbed Malka’s. But Elke insisted that her youngest child hide with her in their shed.

Meir, Golda, and another relative they found in the street began frantically knocking on the doors of their Russian neighbors, begging for places to hide. But they were repeatedly turned away because of fear, ignorance, or indifference.The circle of Germans, politsaislocal collaborators, and dogs surrounding them grew tighter.

The three finally found refuge in the attic of an abandoned store on the main street. They climbed up to a loft filled with hay and silently watched the street below. The streets were soon filled with dushegubka, trucks modified to divert engine exhaust into a sealed internal gas chamber, As the Nazis forced women and children into the black-topped vans, Golda recalled in 2010 Yad V’Shem video, could hear a single woman screaming in agony as the van moved towards a former hospital that the Germans had converted into the slaughterhouse.

When these precursors to the gas chambers used in the concentration camps could no longer keep up with the number to be killed, the remaining Jews were herded together by Germans and the politsais. They were helped by local residents who joyfully made a game out of rounding up anyone trying to escape. “Jude! Jude,” they would yell to the Nazis, who would then shoot the “offender” and leave the corpse on the street. The numb, terrified victims could do little but march to their almost certain deaths.

Throughout the terrifying day, Meir, Golda, and the cousin heard the sounds of gunfire from Myslotino Hill, an area two and a half miles outside of Glusk. They learned later that over 1000 Jews men, women, and children were killed in a volley of bullets and then thrown in pits prepared earlier by the Germans. 

At two a.m., all was quiet. Praying that somehow members of their family had survived, the three fugitives descended from the hideout and began walking to the town’s outskirts.They narrowly missed falling into the hands of a roving band of Russian murderers who were “drunk on blood and vodka” and bragging about the number of Jews they had killed.

The threesome began their trek through deep snow and bitter cold to Zhivun, a village 23 miles from Glusk. As Meir had been born, raised, and, as an adult, done business there, they hoped to find help. While in route, Meir and Golda hid in the forest while the relative attempted to enlist the aid of friends. The two heard a volley of bullets, and the cousin never returned. 

Meir and Golda had better luck. For the next six months, Golda stayed with the local peasants helping with housework and, when necessary, being spirited from home to nearby forest to another home to escape discovery by the Nazis.Meanwhile, in between trips back to Zhivun, Meir worked with the partisans, members of the resistance movements who lived in the forest. The war had not lessened their anti-semitic feelings as they were initially reluctant to accept Meir into their circle. Meir, however, proved to be worthy comrades, helping the partisans to bomb railroads, ambush German convoys, and do whatever they could to fight the German forces.

During this time, two eleven year olds they encountered in Zhivun who had also escaped from Glusk gave Meir and Golda the bad news regarding the Goldin family. The two children initially had hidden with Elke and Malka until Elke told them to go back into the village where she correctly believed their blonde hair and blue eyes would help them blend in with the Gentile population. Two days later, a Belarussian neighbor and his son, with whom the Goldin had had a close relationship before the Nazi invasion, came to search for valuables and steal the cow. They found Elke and Malka hiding in the hay and turned them over the Nazis, who killed them. Chaisoshe and her friend met the same fate two days later when four local teenagers found their hiding place and turned them over to the Germans for bounty money. Meir and Golda later learned that 32 members of the Goldin family they had left behind had been killed.

Once he was established with the partisans Meir went back to Zhivun to get his daughter, who was at fifteen now old enough to participate in the guerrilla warfare. In addition, a Jewish doctor who joined the ragtag group enlisted the help of Golda and a 17-year-old Jewish refugee in providing needed medical assistance. (The two woman remained lifelong friends.)

Meir and Golda survived in the forest for the next two years, living as did the real-life partisans portrayed in the 2008 movie Defiance. They finally gained their “freedom” on July 4, 1944, when Belarus celebrated heir victory over the Germans (The Germans and Soviets continued fighting through May 1945).“Freedom,” however, still had its limitations. When they first met with Red Army soldier, their initial comment was, “I thought the Nazis killed all of you Jews!” Meir, Golda, and the new families they created after the war lived in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, when, upon Golda’s insistence, relocated to the United States.

Golda’s story has been saved for posterity in her two hour interview in Russian as part of Steven Speilberg’s Shoah project. In addition, her descendants continue to carry on her and the Goldin legacy through their family reunions, Zoom meetings throughout the pandemic, and through their sharing this story with me. No, Texas, there is no “opposing view to the Holocaust.” Just ask those, like Golda, who lived to tell their tale. 

To be continued….

First published in (Capital Region NY) The Jewish World, December 16, 2021.

Belarus Holocaust Memorial Project

How does one keep the memory alive of the 800,000 Belarusian Jews killed during the Holocaust? For two Jewish families with links to Florida., along with a couple from England, the answer was simple: One monument at a time. 

In the first half of the twentieth century, the Jews in Belarus were its third largest ethnic group in this Eastern European country. The population of cities such as Minsk, Pinsk, Mahiliou, Babrujsk, Vitsyebsk, and Gomel was more than 50% Jewish. Tragically, some 800,000 Jews—80% of the Jewish population—together with transports of Jews brought for extermination from the remaining communities in Western Europe, were killed in Belarus during the Holocaust. Many were killed by mass shootings, or “Holocaust by bullets,”  in which executioners massacred the victims in their own villages before the eyes of the neighbors.

In 2006 Dr. Michael Lozman, a Capital District orthodontist,  introduced Dr. Warren Geisler, a Capital Region dentist, to the Holocaust By Bullets in Belarus. As a one time partnership they, together with personal donations with the help of community donations as well, built a memorial to the 433 victims of the Holocaust in Grozovo, Republic of Belarus. The late Dr. Miles Kletter, a Capital District dentist and philanthropist as well as a dear friend of Geisler, generously donated to the site.

“Miles and Warren felt strongly about the injustice of the Holocaust and the tragedy of the Shoah,”said Marilyn Kletter. “They knew more needed to be done to remember the victims and serve as a warning to the future generations of what hate and bigotry can create when the people fall silent.”

Kletter researched and located Michael and Diana Lazarus in London, England, who had been building these memorials since 2003 through their Simon Mark Lazarus Foundation. After multiple discussions, Miles and Marilyn Kletter and Warren and Beverly Geisler and their respective families each formed foundations in 2008. Their donations, together with the Lazarus family, would be placed into what was called the Belarus Holocaust Memorials Project (BHMP) through the American Jewish Committee in New York City. 

These three foundations, together with Jewish communities and organizations across Belarus, established the Committee for the Preservation of Holocaust Victims’ Memory in the Republic of Belarus. The Committee, comprising dedicated and steadfast members of the community’s representative bodies, provides crucial support in identifying the locations and coordinating the construction of Holocaust memorials. 

In 2012, Cary and Joni Kletter, the son and daughter of Marilyn and Miles Kletter, took over their father’s work when Miles died of cancer. They are involved with BHMP on many levels: facilitating the foundation’s financial involvement, designing and managing the BHMP website; traveling to Belarus for ceremonies; coordinating with officials in Belarus; and working on the content and layout of the website.

The Geisler family is no longer is involved with the BHMP as Geisler is now   dealing with serious health issues. The Kletter children now manage the project. “The Geisler family was part of an incredible existential exercise into replacing the lost humanity on the ground,” said Geisler. “It was an incredible learning experience bonding with the Belarus Jewish Community. I walked the talk. No regrets.”

Beverly and Warren Geisler and Marilyn Kletter now split their time between homes in Upstate New York and Florida,  in West Palm and in Boyton Beach respectively.

Through research and the help of those individuals who lived in the area during the war, over five hundred mass killing sites have been identified. The number of Jews that died at each site ranges from 2  to thousands. Each year, the Belarus Holocaust Memorial Foundation selects up to six sites to place a memorial. As of May 2018, 110  Holocaust memorials designed by Belarussian architect Leonid Levin have been erected at Holocaust massacre sites in cities, towns and villages throughout the country. The goal of the BHMP:  To have memorials at every site.

At each killing site, a black granite tombstone, set on a flagstone platform mounted on a pedestal. Each contains inscriptions in three languages – Belarusian, English and Hebrew – stating that this monument was erected in memory of the victims of Nazism. Where known, names of the victims are noted.

On July 26, 2009, a plaque was placed on a bridge abutment by a river  where 3,400 Jews  from the Baranovichy Ghetto were pulled off the cattle cars, shot, and dropped in the river in the Zeliony Most region. Another memorial has been placed in a rolling field near Bagerovo, Belarus, village  in which where approximately 4,670 Jews were forced to strip to their underwear, lined up, shot and buried in an anti-tank trench.

Dedication ceremonies drawing hundred of people are held at each killing site upon completion of the memorials. Many are from Belarus: representatives of the local authorities, members of the Jewish community, and representatives of Jewish  organizations functioning in the region. The Israeli ambassador to Belarus as well as ambassadorial staff members from Germany, United States, Great Britain, Israel, and the United States have also attended. Kletter said that at a dedication in 2017 the ambassador from Germany to Belarus publicly apologized to him and all the attendees for the atrocities that were committed.

Representatives of the Geisler, Kletter and Lazarus families have attended every ceremony, “Families suffered unspeakably tragic losses in Belarus during the Nazi occupation,” said Cary Kletter. “It is our earnest hope that knowledge of these memorials, in the cities, towns, villages, farmer’s fields, and forest clearings, the very sites where the massacres took place, will afford some small comfort.” 

Geisler said one his most unforgettable moments was when the last living survivor of the Minsk ghetto came to a dedication. After introducing himself, he thanked Geisler and BHMP for what they are doing to make sure that the Holocaust would not be forgotten.

Those who lost relatives or witnessed the atrocities also attend. A member of one of the grieving families said, “Now we have somewhere where we can stand to remember and mourn.”

Participants in the ceremony light candles in memory of the victims, say prayers, including Kaddish and El Malei Rachamim, and place flowers and stones on the monument. “It is a Jewish value to honor the dead,” Kletter said. “I feel like I am fulfilling a mitzvah.”

Geisler stated that there is urgency to build more of these sites as survivors and witnesses to these crimes of humanity pass on. Along with the 500 recognized sites in Belarus, more than 1,200 exist in the Ukraine alone. “There should be a memorial for the people, a memorial for where it happened,” said Kletter. “If nothing is done, these locations are lost to history.”

The rise of anti-Semitism in Europe has been disconcerting, noted Dr Geisler. In 2014, the Belarus Government requested that a memorial be placed at a site where 2,500 children from the Orsha Ghetto were killed in November 1941 soon after their brutal separation from their parents. The dedication was attended by numerous Belarus government officials and was broadcast on national television. Within a short time, the site was burnt and vandalized. Although it was rebuilt, the specter of hatred remains.  

“Let the world know this insanity must never be tolerated again,” said Geisler at one of the many dedications he has attended. “ Hundreds of years from now,  visitors of future generations coming to these  killing sites will bear witness to what happened.”

Further information regarding the Belarus Holocaust Memorials Project can be found at its website http://www.belarusmemorials.com.

Remaining part of bridge where 3,400 Jews were shot and thrown into river. Geisler and Kletter families.