polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

A Void in Minsk

by Rebecka Gordan

Its surface is alluring. Meticulously tidied streets, impressive palaces and the broadest sidewalks I’ve seen. Fancy stores, grand squares, verdant parks and a bike lane along the river. The buildings of Minsk shimmer in the dark, illuminated by thousands of spotlights. But there is something missing in the capital of Belarus, and it will take me four days to find this absent core, located in a paved pit on Melnikaite Street.

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, Minsk was bombed immediately and soon came under Wehrmacht control. After years of heavy fighting, the city was recaptured by Soviet troops in June 1944. At this point, factories, municipal buildings, power stations, bridges, most roads and 80 percent of the houses had been reduced to rubble. After the war, Minsk was rebuilt, but not necessarily reconstructed. The historical centre was replaced in the 1940s and 1950s by Stalinist architecture, which favored grand buildings in classic style, broad avenues and wide squares. More recently, an effort has been made in reconstructing the old city center, and now everything from convents to market places arises from their original drawings.

On a cold Sunday noon in late October, I am walking down Melnikaite Street in the north of central Minsk. Green fields with modernist housing complexes border the sloping road. Further ahead, I can spot the famous Hotel Yubileynaya, where Belarus’s first casino opened in 1992. I must confess I feel stupid, having imagined something else. Two or three storey brick buildings, narrow inner courtyards, time-stained facades. Just like the ones on my grandfather’s childhood street in Budapest, still standing to this day. But this central street of the old Minsk ghetto, at that time named Radomskaya Street, bears no witness to its painful past.

In 1941, Minsk had a population of around 240,000 people, approximately forty percent of them Jews. Three years later, about 50,000 inhabitants remained. Of the Jewish population, very few survived. Most of them had been temporarily housed in one of the largest Nazi-run ghettos in World War II, and many of them killed within its walls. One of the large-scale murder raids in the Minsk ghetto occurred on 2 March 1942, claiming at least 5,000 victims. Children and adults were shot or thrown alive into a deep pit that had been dug on Radomskaya Street.

Today, there is a memorial on the spot. I am standing in the middle of it. It is a paved pit surrounded by modernist buildings. From this point, they look surreal. Bright colored plastic flowers on the ground. A blackened brass sculpture along the only stairway in the shape of a line of people. A fiddler on top is gazing at me. There are houses missing in Minsk, blocks decided never to be rebuilt. There are people missing in Minsk too. I can feel them underneath my body. I am their daughter and I tell them: I am alive.

Credits: Image of people in the ghetto from Deutsches Bundesarchiv, www.bild.bundesarchiv.de. Images of memorial from Rebecka Gordan.

Sources: www.ushmm.org; www.ne.se; Donald L. Niewyk, Francis R. Nicosia, The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust, Columbia University Press (2003); Lonely Planet: Russia & Belarus, 3rd Edition (2003). Barbara Epstein, The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism, University of California Press (2008); World and Its Peoples, Marshall Cavendish Corporation, (2010).