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The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism

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The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943

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The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943
Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism
By Barbara Epstein
University of California Press (2008)
ISBN: 978-0-520-24242-5.

Reviewed by Simone Bonim - November 14, 2008

The history of the Minsk Ghetto is unique in the realm of the Jewish resistance movements and the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. In many regards, the Minsk Ghetto was not dissimilar to other ghettos such as those in Warsaw, Vilna, and Bialystok. When the Nazi's gained control of a given area, they would round up the area's Jews and forced them into small, often walled in conclaves, in the larger cities. There, overcrowding, disease, and hunger killed many of the Jews, even before the Germans could kill them personally or ship them off to concentration camps to be murdered upon arrival or worked to death. Where the Minsk Ghetto differed from its counterparts, is that the Jews forced into the Minsk Ghetto maintained contact with their Byelorussian (Belarussian, Belorussian) counterparts, who actively help thousands of the imprisoned Jews to flee to the countryside. There many of them joined forces with local partisan units. These outside contacts also helped the Jews inside the ghetto to orchestrate an effective underground resistance movement that harassed the Germans, even after November 1943, when the ghetto was transformed into a concentration camp, and the wholesale murder of the remaining residents of the ghetto commenced.

The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism was written by Barbara Epstein, a professor in the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, in Santa Cruz. Within the pages of this book she not only chronicles the history of the ghetto, but also details the lives of the individuals who suffered at the hands of the Nazis and who also fought to resist them. Thoroughly researched, Epstein has made extensive use of not only written records, but also from first hand interviews with ghetto survivors and partisans, as well as archived interviews conducted by the Oral History Project of the Institute on Contemporary Jewry, and other sources.

Shedding light on an often overlooked aspect of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, Epstein examines the creation of the Minsk ghetto, its inhabitants, and what life was like inside the ghetto. She also illustrates how their confinement became more onerous and deadly as the months passed. Notably, she examines the communist-led resistance movement developed within the ghetto, and how the movement was aided by Byelorussian counterparts. Also discussed in detail is the large number of Jews who fled the ghetto who were helped by and often joined local partisan groups. Once incorporated into these partisan groups, these survivors of the ghetto went on to fight the Nazi invaders until the end of the war.

In discussing the Jewish resistance movement and the help that they received from fellow Byelorussians as well as the partisan groups, Epstein examines how the decades of Soviet rule had helped to unify the Jewish and non-Jewish residents of Byelorussia, and how this unity helped the two groups to work in concert with each other. She also examines the failures that occurred, both in terms of the two groups working together and in not rescuing more Jews than they did.

Filled with personal accounts and an insightful analysis of the effectiveness of the ghetto underground and the Jewish resistance movement, The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism presents a powerful and moving account of the Minsk Ghetto. In writing this account, Epstein has taken pains to place the Minsk Ghetto within the greater context of the Holocaust and to compare how this resistance movement and life within the ghetto differed within the Minsk Ghetto as compared to other nearby ghettos.

Authoritative and unforgettable, The Minsk Ghetto, 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism is an outstanding addition to the body of works on the Holocaust and it is well suited for both general readers and scholars. It is also well suited for use as a supplemental text in not only courses on the Holocaust and Jewish history/studies, but also in courses on Soviet history.

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