The discovery of a huge mass grave in the center of Brisk (Brest-Litovsk), a city renowned for its pre-eminence in the Torah world of Lita, has become a “time capsule” into the horrors of the Holocaust. The discovery is throwing fresh light on a little-understood chapter of the Holocaust—the monstrous crimes of the Einsatzgruppen.
These were squads of SS and Gestapo police together with soldiers trained in the mass murder of entire communities by shooting. They enacted the first genocidal stage of the “final solution” beginning in 1941, after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and continued the massacre of Jews until 1944.
The mass grave found in Brisk was found to contain bones from hundreds of bodies with gunshot wounds to their skulls, in what used to be the Jewish ghetto of Brisk, a city on the Belarus-Poland border, then part of Soviet Russia. It was uncovered during the early stages of construction of a luxury apartment complex.
In the weeks since then, instead of construction workers laying cement foundations, Belarus soldiers in masks and gloves have been pulling human skeletons from the earth. The site has yielded the remains of 1,214 people, identified as the remains of men, women and children slaughtered by the Nazis after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
“The site was horrifying, I felt like weeping when I saw so many remains of women and children, a female skeleton cradling a baby,” senior officer Major Pavel Galetsky was quoted in Belarus press. “Victims had bullets in the back of their skulls, small children’s skulls or those of the teenagers.”
Although Jewish groups across the world have protested the building of apartments on the remains of the victims, construction plans continue to move forward. As a concession, the Belarus government has given “assurances” that part of the site will be marked off to memorialize the Nazis’ victims.
The Brisker Passports
The major stir caused by the discovery at Brisk is due in part to a bizarre passport registry, mandated by the Nazis, containing photographs and detailed biographical information for over 12,000 inhabitants of Brisk.
Shortly after they conquered the city in 1941, the Nazis required all Jews older than 14 to present themselves in the town hall and be photographed and fingerprinted. The Jews recorded their personal data, including names, addresses, professions and dependents.
On Oct. 15, 1942, prior to the slaughter of the city’s Jews, the town’s “Accounting Book of Population Movement” listed 16,934 Jews in Brisk. [The true number of residents was likely much higher.] On Oct. 16, the number was crossed out by SS authorities and the line left blank. All the Jews were now gone. Brisk was Judenrein.
Who were the thousands of helpless Jews so viciously cut down, with a bare handful of survivors left to recount the ghetto’s final moments? If not for a bizarre twist of history, no one would know their identities today.
Brisk was the only place in Nazi-occupied countries where a comprehensive registration program encompassing all the city’s inhabitants existed. The 560-page ledger survived intact in the archives of the municipal town hall. Soviet authorities concealed its existence for nearly 50 years, in line with their policy of downplaying the massacres of Jews, and hiding the extent of the local population’s collaboration in the genocide.
The archive was unearthed after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, when a Brisk-based researcher in the former USSR contacted Yad Vashem about its discovery. The memorial museum made arrangements to have the entire cache photocopied, and it arrived in Jerusalem in 1995. An additional copy was acquired by the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington. In both institutions, the copies are open to any individual who comes in person.
In addition, thanks to collaboration between Louis Pozez, a Brisk native who moved to the United States before the war, and John Garrard, a professor at the University of Arizona, the archive’s ledger of names has been digitalized and is now accessible on the Internet as “The Brest Passport Archive.”
Einsatzgruppen: Holocaust by Bullets
When the Nazis invaded Soviet lands in 1941, the death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblilnka had not yet been constructed in occupied Poland.
Germany’s war of annihilation against the Jews was carried out at this early stage by mobile killing squads who conducted large-scale shooting massacres in hundreds of cities and towns across Poland and the Soviet Union.
The death squads, which began with a force of 3,000 of the most fanatic Nazis handpicked by Himmler, and were later augmented by as many as 40,000 members at their peak, would follow behind the German army as it attacked and occupied a country. They would surround a community, round up Jews, communists and anyone the Nazis deemed unfit to live, cart them off to a central location and mow them down into huge death pits.
The “Einsatzgruppen” killings were often orchestrated in remote locations like a forest, stone quarry or ravine where a huge pit had been dug —by machine or by the victims who were forced to dig their own graves. But thousands of helpless human beings were also massacred on many a town’s main street, in the nearby cemetery, in the local hospital, marketplace or shul.
Unlike the crematoria in the death camps that were shrouded in secrecy, the Einsatzgruppen massacres were carried out in broad daylight, often in a carnival atmosphere with local gentiles gawking and jeering, and many collaborating in the massacres.
Nearly two million Jews were exterminated in these “open-air massacres.”
The Last of the Nuremberg Trials
Photographs of these heinous atrocities were often taken by the killers themselves, and along with precise records containing the death tallies that field commanders were required to record, were send to Berlin. The death records listed separate entries for the murdered men, women and children.
Much of this material—the most horrifyingly documented stage of the “final solution”—fell into the hands of the Soviet forces who liberated Nazi-occupied territories, or was captured by Allied troops who occupied Berlin after Germany surrendered. These documents were used by the prosecution in the Einsatzgruppen Trials that ran from September 1947 to February 1948.
The chief prosecutor in these trials was Ben Ferencz, who in 1946 had served as one of the 13 judges presiding over the Nuremburg Trials. Ferencz was the only Jew on the Nuremburg panel.
Ferencz was born in a small village in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania in Romania. He emigrated with his family to the United States when just an infant. Graduating from Harvard University Law School in 1943, he immediately joined a US anti-aircraft artillery battalion that was training for an Allied invasion of western Europe.
At the end of World War II in Europe, Ferencz was transferred to the war crimes investigation branch of the US Army. He was sent with about 50 other investigators to Berlin to scour Nazi offices and archives. This group captured overwhelming evidence of genocide carried out by the four units of Einsatzgruppen.
The documents, including photographs, death records and descriptions of the methods these rabid killers had used in the massacres, horrified the most hardened troops.
Ferencz ultimately became chief US prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen Case, in which twenty-four defendants—the most senior and best-educated of the 3000 Einsatzgruppen members—stood trial at Nuremberg. Although the trial and post-trial appeals ran for almost half a year, Ferencz presented the prosecution’s case in a mere two days.
In his opening statement, Ferencz anticipated the judges’ incredulity by showing how the staggering scale of the mass murder was possible. Records signed by the Einsatzgruppen commandants showed that each of the four murder squads consisted of 500 to 800 men, with each unit “averaging some 1,350 murders per day during a two-year-period.”
“1,350 defenseless human beings slaughtered on an average day, seven days a week for more than 100 weeks. Do the math,” Ferencz said.
But numbers alone could not convey the monstrous cruelty, torture and barbarity inflicted on the victims. Only survivors of the massacres could attempt to communicate the unspeakable horror. Ferencz, however, called no witnesses, aware that survivors were too traumatized to be subjected to hostile cross-examination by defendants’ counsel. In addition, he was convinced that the documents would prove more damning than any testimony.
In a sense, he was correct. All twenty-two of defendants were found guilty. 14 were sentenced to death by hanging, 2 were sentenced to life terms, and 5 received sentences that ranged from 10 to 20 years. But in the end, few of the sentences were carried out. Only four of the killers were actually executed. A clemency board recommended drastically reducing many of the other sentences.
With the cold war starting just as the last of the Nuremberg trials drew to a close, Washington lost interest in any further prosecutions of Nazis. The political and ideological struggle against the Soviet Union took priority and many former Nazis were actually enlisted by the United States to provide intelligence about Soviet operations. In addition, American officials wanted to line up popular support in democratic West Germany, where people were eager to put the horrors of the Third Reich behind them.
Looking back decades later in an interview with Atlantic magazine, Ferencz expressed his disillusionment with the “justice” meted out at Nuremburg, where the majority of the Einsatzgruppen killers walked free.
“There were 3,000 Einsatzgruppen members behind bars who every day had gone out and shot as many Jews as they could. We put 22 on trial and convicted 22. Only four were sent to the gallows. The remainder got out after a few years. They rejoined society with the rest of the 3000 mass murderers.”
With the last survivors slowly slipping from the scene, the discovery of the mass graves at Brisk opens a new window on the “hidden Holocaust,” where, apart from the most infamous massacres such as at Babi Yar, millions of Einsatzgruppen victims have been forgotten.
Over two million Jews —the Jews of Poland, Belarus and Ukraine—of Pinsk, Slutzk, Slonim, Grodno, Eyeshishok, Vilna, Vitebsk, Volozhin, Minsk, Zhitomir and thousands of other shtetlach, were butchered in cold blood before the death factories began operation.
They were dead by 1942, massacred and buried half-alive in death pits, or choked to death by carbon monoxide from internal combustion engines pumped into gas vans and gas chambers at the smaller-size death camps of Treblinka, Bełzec, and Sobibor in occupied Poland.
Thousands of mass graves holding hundreds of thousands of corpses remain unmarked and for the most past unknown. Their millions of victims have been all but marginalized from the memory of the Holocaust.
The process of obscuring their annihilation is aided by search engines like Wikipedia that describes the slaughter as “depopulation.” As if the demographics changed due to the natural dislocation of populations during wartime.
Brisk’s Final Hours
Brisk was the first target when Hitler launched his surprise attack on Belarus (then part of Russia) on June 21, 1941. The town fell to the Nazis a day later. Before the war, almost one million Jews lived in the territory of present-day Belarus. Some 800,000 were slaughtered between April of 1942 and the winter of 1942-943.
In one of the first aktions (military assaults) on July 10, 1941, 6000 Jews were rounded up in trucks, taken out of the city on the pretenses of being put to work, and then shot or bayoneted into open pits.
From December 1941, the remaining Jews were enclosed in a ghetto. There they worked under starvation conditions and suffered random executions until the morning of Oct. 15, 1942, when the ghetto was emptied. By the time of the Brest ghetto liquidation on October 15, 1942, the Jewish population included people from the countryside, thus increasing the total to 36,000.
The extermination was carried out in several stages. Hospital patients and small children were shot outright. Two large massacres of 4 to 5 thousand Jews each were carried out in the ghetto.
In May and June 1942, the Germans began procedures for executions by preparing eight mass graves. They used about 600 – 800 local people a day, as well as explosive materials to excavate the pits.
From June to October 1942, 186 railroad cars came to Bronya Gora. One of the largest transports arrived on October 15, 1942, containing 28 cars from Brest-Litovsk. Eyewitness testimony from a survivor described what happened next, causing the mind—and the pen—to recoil from the unspeakable horror.
Surviving passengers were unloaded onto a special platform, surrounded by barbed wire. Men, women, and children were forced to undress. Then, through a narrow corridor enclosed by barbed wire, the victims were led to their graves. Each went down a ladder into a pit, lay side-by-side, face down, and had to wait.
When the bottom of the pit was filled up, the Germans ringing the trench armed with rifles and machine guns sprayed the victims with bullets. Without removing the corpses, they would force more people into the pits on top of the dead, filling the pit layer by layer. The screams of the victims were drowned out by the explosions from the guns and from grenades tossed inside the pit. All together, an estimated 40-50 thousand Jews were massacred here.
For those left behind in the Brisk ghetto, the chances of survival were bleak. In continuous raids, police and Gestapo caught Jews hiding in attics, basements, and other places. Only 15 people were still alive when Soviet troops liberated the city.
Pages From a Ghetto Diary
The following rare document penned by survivor Osher Zisman takes the reader into the final days of the Brisk ghetto. His account offers an uplifting glimpse of Rav Simcha Zelig Riger, the revered dayan of Brisk hy’d, and how, at the gates of death, this kodosh rose above the horror and continued to support and lead his people. The author also captures the glory of ordinary Jews who, as the ghetto was being liquidated, used their last few moments on this earth to pray and to perform mitzvos.
“5,000 kedoshim have disappeared from our midst—Jews taken for slave labor who will never return,” begins the Zisman diary. “The German Commandant announced that Jews will be severely punished for spreading “rumors” that they were murdered.
“Every day brings new plagues: forced labor, savage beatings, hunger and thirst. Terrible news from nearby towns and cities. The murderers have liquidated the Jews of Kobryn, Zhabinka, Drohycyn and Antopole…
“Shmuel Pomerantz met with one of the Brisk askonim in Koval who told him dozens of Brisk refugee families there are preparing to return to Brisk because life in Koval is even more terrible. The commandant there is a wild beast who declared it was a waste of bullets to shoot Jews –one should beat them to death with iron bars.
“In an old house on Listowska St. lives an old man, the dayan of Brisk, Rav Simcha Zelig Riger and his son-in-law, Rav Moshe Reuven. They hold secret minyonim in their home. Before Pesach, these two organized the secret baking of matzo and its distribution to the needy… The rov, Rav Ze’ev (Velvel) Soloveitchik, is in Vilna. His house is on the Aryan border. The rebetzin and her children live there.
2nd June 1942.
In Ratner’s yard on Dluga St., the Germans are forcing Jews to dig a huge pit. Panic sweeps the ghetto—this must be for a mass grave! An order comes for all people over 50 to report to the Gestapo. Anyone violating that order will doom the whole ghetto. I hid my mother in the attic; for that I was arrested and sent to Kobryn to be shot. The Gestapo promise that if I reveal my mother’s hiding place, they’ll release me. I refuse.
“Before they can shoot me, the entire ghetto population in Kobryn is ordered to present themselves at the exit gate to the ghetto, where the Gestapo makes a “selection.” In that black hour 3,000 Jews are sent to the left and driven away in trucks, among them a dozen Brisk families who had taken refuge there.
“Those of us sent to the right are driven back to Brisk. We then find out that Rav Simcha Zelig, together with his son-in-law and Rav Eliezer Klepfish, are busy with a project: they and other askonim, including Yaakov Rosenbaum, Nachum Savaniuk and Avraham David Feder, passed the word around that they were forming a committee to provide hot cooked food to starving ghetto inmates. People have very little, but every household is asked to contribute some of its food to provide communal meals for the paupers.
September 2, 1942
“The Jews of Koval are no more. Locked up in the Koval school building before being murdered, they cut themselves and dipped their fingers in their blood to scrawl their names on the walls. My uncle, Leibl Lieberman, wrote that they are being led to their death. He begged the Brisker Rov, Rav Velvel, to say Kaddish for them.
“Everyone is preparing bunkers, attics, hiding places in cellars and under stairs, or digging tunnels to the Aryan side. I’ve been digging a pit under Gordon’s house in Dluga St. The entry is through an opening next to the stove, which will be concealed with the floorboards and thick firewood.
The Last Rosh Hashana
Rosh Hashana 1942
“Small secret minyonim are held on Dluga St. They used sifrei Torah that had been rescued. They also have a Torah in the small ghetto on Jagiellonska St. and they prayed in a small room at Motetski’s. Gershon Rosenberg, the son of Michael Rashes, led the prayers. From his throat came soft moans and wails, “Ovinu Malkeinu, hofeir atzas oiveinu!” Despite the terrible fear, the prayers strengthened us and lifted our spirits.
Succos and Simchas Torah 1942
“In the lanes between Siroka and Petrowska Streets there are camouflaged succahs topped with grass and straw. There are no luavim or esrogim, and hardly any bread. More deportees from the surrounding towns and villages arrive in Brisk. The ghetto is unbearable. People walk around like shadows, unable to work or take care of themselves, weeping brokenly. The large square pit that we are digging is almost finished.
October 15, 1942
“The courtyard of the Mizrachi building on Dluga St is full of people in a state of panic. It is whispered that the destruction of the ghetto will begin tonight…. Those who returned from the Aryan side report that the police were massing and preparing to surround the ghetto. Many have bought vials of poison to prepare for the worst possible eventuality, such as torture or being buried alive.
“The senses are dulled…we wait for death. From our hiding place we can hear Jews being herded like cattle into carriages to Bronya Gora. Nine people lie in our hiding place. It is already two months that we are lying here tightly squashed together, filthy, hungry and thirsty. We ran out of water when the murderers filled the well in the courtyard with stones and wood.
Who Will Live…?
“From outside, terrible screams reach us. The police discovered a hiding place. I can see them dragging a woman and small child – it’s Hannah Nussenbaum’s daughter with her little daughter and other Jews! Their cries are deafening. We whisper Shema Yisroel followed by viduy. Several shots are fired. Someone sings out hoarsely, “Mi yicheh umi yomus and breaks down sobbing. Another voice cries that we should have died together with all the other Brisker Yidden.
“In the streets, human beasts are celebrating in a drunken orgy. One of them brags to his friends, ‘I got 5 kilos of sugar, sausage and lard for a Jew I caught.’
“Hiding here for almost two months with a handful of people: myself, my wife, Baila, and her mother, Rebetzin Klepfish and a few others. My father in law, Rabbi Avraham Klepfish, died before the liquidation of the ghetto.
January 3, 1943
“Local gentiles discover our hiding place. We plead to be allowed to live, bribing them with whatever valuables we still have left. They agree. We flee, tearing through the barbed wire. We are now on the outside of the ghetto on Dabrowska St., speaking only in hushed Polish. It’s snowing. The icy cold cuts through our bodies, which are infested with lice and worms…We are now in the woods where we feel safer with wild animals than with German beasts.”
[His flight to the woods prevented the author from witnessing the mass murder of Jews in the ghetto itself, described in The Life and Times of the Brisker Rov, based on the testimonial of L.Winograd excerpted below.]
“Many Jews were murdered in the ghetto itself,” writes Winograd, “witnessed by the Katsaf sisters who were hiding in a stable under a pile of garbage, the Golumbovitch brothers and Boaz Tennebaum who gave me the following account.”
Winograd goes on to quote Tennenbaum: “The Hitlerites took a large number of Jews and separated them – men on one side, women and children on the other. Gestapo men with automatic machine guns surrounded this terrified mass of people and began firing at them point blank. In the pandemonium, several people managed to flee, among them the Golumbovitch brothers.
“The second liquidation in the Brisk ghetto was in the courtyard of Ratners’ building at 128 Dluga St. There the murderers assembled 4000 Jews and lined them up in rows. The Jews were given shovels and ordered to dig a long and deep grave. When the work was complete, the Germans ordered them at gunpoint to undress. They did so without resistance. Only the children could be heard crying out, “Mama, it’s so very cold!” Their mothers soothed them by saying that they would not be cold for long.
“At first they gunned down the first row, leaving many wounded but still alive. The second row was ordered to push those in front who had not fallen into the grave. This happened with each row. When the grave was filled and covered, cries were heard from those buried but still alive.
These two mass shootings and the later annihilation of some 30,000 Jews in the forest on October 15 1942, wiped the Jew of Brisk from the face of the earth.”
The Zisman Ghetto Diary Continues:
January 10, 1943
“The gentile owner of a small bathhouse on Listowska St. tells us we can stay there for several weeks and that no harm will come to us. Can we trust him? We have no choice. We want so much to live!
“He tells us between October 15-18, all the remaining Jews of Brisk were driven out of the ghetto through Dluga and Kosciusko Streets and shipped 50 miles away to the forest of Bronya Gora. They were unloaded from the cattle cars scores at a time, positioned at the edge of huge pre-excavated pits and shot into the pits with automatic rifle fire and machine guns.
“Later we learn that Rav Simcha Zelig and his son-in-law, Rav Moshe Reuven and their families, were taken to Bronya Gora with the rest of the Jews of Brisk, including my father and one of the heads of the Kaminetzer Yeshiva. They went to their deaths with dignity al Kiddush Hashem. Hy’d!
“Hiding in the roof of the bathhouse, listening to the noise of splashing water as the murderers are bathing… We hear people say the Red army is advancing and the Germans are starting to retreat. The Russians rain down bombs from the skies, filling our hearts with hope.
“The roar of machine guns and tanks – we hear Pinsk is liberated! I deliberately cut my face with a razor blade and cover the wounds with iodine as if I had been wounded in the war. Leaning on a cane, I stumble along, helped by my wife and mother in law, both dressed like Polish women. In this disguise, we cross the bridge out of the city and arrive at the village of Krinki.
“The German soldiers fall like flies as the enemy advances. To see the “master race” – beasts of prey –groveling in the dust! Shouts of “Comrades, comrades, we are free!” fill the air. We emerge from our hiding place. Some of the soldiers greet us in Yiddish. Jews! We joyously embrace.
“…Later, I walk through the destruction of my hometown with a broken heart. I reach the great shul of Brisk and pick up pages from the ripped holy books scattered on the ground. I kiss them, wetting them with my tears. A mass grave marks the courtyard of Ratner’s building, filled with victims who were forced to dig their own grave before being butchered. Another 5000 martyrs are buried between Kotelne and Zegielnia Streets…
“There is not even a minyan of people left to say Kaddish. From my choked throat, the words “Yiskadal V’yiskadash” arise. My trembling lips utter the ancient words of Kaddish, the souls of the slaughtered hovering in the air.”
The Rabbinic Dynasties of Brisk
Situated on the Bug River bordering Poland in what is present-day Belarus, Brisk has a long Jewish history dating from the second half of the 14th century, where it reigned as the largest and most important of the first five Jewish settlements in Lithuania.
Despite centuries of persecution and expulsion, the Jews of Brisk flourished there for 600 years. The list of rabbonim and roshei yeshiva who made this city a Torah citadel include Rav Shlomo Luria (Maharshal) and Rav Yoel Sirkes (Bach) in the 16th and 17th centuries, and generations of rabbonim from the distinguished Katzenellenbogen family who led the community in the 18th century.
In the post-World War I period continuing until the Holocaust, three generations of the Soloveitchik family headed the renowned Brisk yeshiva in addition to presiding as rabbonim of the town. The Brisker Rov, Rav Yitzchok Zev (Velvel) Soloveitchik, was the last rov.
His father, Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, had been rosh yeshiva in Volozhin. After the closing of the yeshiva, the family moved to Brisk where Rav Velvel’s paternal grandfather, Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, held the post of rov. The position then passed to his father and later to Rav Velvel himself.
When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, the Brisker Rov was recuperating from an illness in a rest home. In 1941, he and eight of his children escaped from Vilna and miraculously made it to Eretz Yisroel, then under British rule.
According to his biographer, Shimon Yosef Meller in Harav MiBrisk (in English, The Life and Times of the Brisker Rav; Feldheim, 2003), Rav Velvel managed to secure legal documents for his wife and the remaining children in Brisk to follow him, but Rebetzin Hendl, for reasons not clear, chose not to use them. Meller suggests she was afraid they would be used as a pretext to arrest her.
The rebetzin and her elderly mother, along with 3 of her children, 15-year old Gittel, 5-year old Shmuel Yaakov and 4-yearl old Label, remained in the Brisk ghetto, and suffered the terrible fate of the rest of the community.