Advanced Search

Learn About The Holocaust

Special Collections

My Saved Research




Skip to main content

Hersh Smolar - Minsk ghetto

Film | Accession Number: 1996.166 | RG Number: RG-60.5038 | Film ID: 3376, 3377, 3378, 3379, 3380, 3381, 3382

Hersh Smolar, was the editor of a Yiddish daily newspaper. After the war began, he became a leading member of the resistance in the Minsk ghetto and the commissar of a partisan group operating in the Belorussian forests. He discusses conditions in the ghetto and resistance activities.

FILM ID 3376 -- Camera Rolls #1-3 -- 01:00:07 to 01:30:17
Hersh Smolar was an editor of a Yiddish daily paper in Bialystok and left for Minsk by foot in June/July 1941 to get out. [The Germans advanced into Minsk on June 28, 1941, blocking all roads for evacuation]. He found Minsk abandoned by the Russian government with about 70,000 Jews remaining in the city when the Germans came. He believed that Communism could solve the Jewish problem, and rather than abandoning his "people" (the Jews) to take an offer of refuge with an acquaintance, he stayed in the Minsk ghetto. The Germans immediately ordered the establishment of a Jewish ghetto in Minsk on July 19, 1941.

CR2 Smolar describes how the head of the Judenrat was selected by the Germans. The Russian government "escaped like cowards". Most of the Jews in Minsk did not know what Hitler represented since it was forbidden to write about fascism in the press. There were rumors but no one believed them. They thought they could negotiate with the Germans, or simply live. The first realization came in November 1941 on the Anniversary of the October Revolution when the Germans provoked the Jews and made them hold red flags in order to promote propaganda back in Germany that Jews are Bolsheviks. Some Jews were shot and the first transports were sent away. Smolar and others established an organization in the ghetto to inform people about fascism. Responding to Lanzmann's questioning, he describes the conditions in the ghetto and forced labor of skilled workers. He suggests that there was not a quiet period in the Minsk ghetto. People were murdered daily (shooting in the streets, fighting between the military and the Nazi party, Aktions).

CR3 01:19:05 Smolar sings. Smolar was already in hiding at the time of the red flag provocation by the Germans. The slogan of the resistance organization referenced earlier was "ghetto is death"; it was established in the beginning of September 1941, just three months after the ghetto was established. The primary emphasis was to get Jews out of the ghetto. Smolar was the secretary of the resistance movement and convinced the head of the Judenrat to collect contributions for the organization and the partisans. The resistance movement was active in the ghetto for two years, with contacts from the Aryan side to find people (Communists) willing to fight the Germans. Smolar escaped to the woods in August 1942. He faced criticism because he was not given authority from the Central Committee to start an organization. He talks about the liquidation of the Minsk area and Aktions against Jews. Smolar did not witness many events in the ghetto when he was in hiding; the details were reported to him by the ghetto police.

FILM ID 3377 -- Camera Rolls #4-6 -- 02:00:08 to 02:33:58
CR4 The devastation of the Purim Aktion convinced many that staying in the ghetto meant death. So, they began to arm themselves with guns from Italians and Russians. He describes an Aktion where the Germans buried Jewish children alive under the watch of the German general commissioner Wilhelm Kube. The ghetto resistance group organized with the Soviet military on the Aryan side. Smolar tried to convince the Soviets that by saving Jews they were fighting the Germans, but anti-Semitism fueled a conflict and the Soviets turned the resisters into the Gestapo, even though the Jews had secretly sent medicine, a printing press, and clothes to the forest for the Soviet partisans. Lanzmann asks about freedom in the ghetto. Smolar suggests that Jews of Minsk were different than the Jews of Warsaw with their mission to get out of ghetto and to fight. He confirms that the Judenrat collaborated with the resisters until March 1942 (the Purim Aktion).

CR5 02:11:21 After the Purim Aktion, the Gestapo considered the Judenrat a resistance organization and hanged all the members in the street with signs saying, "Stalin's Bandits". Joffe, a Jew from Vilna, was named the new leader of the Judenrat, but there were no relations with Smolar's resistance group. A reward for "Jefim Stolarewich" (Smolar's ghetto name) was announced. The Gestapo shot 72 Jews who were questioned about Smolar's whereabouts and said they would kill everyone if they couldn't find "Jefim". Smolar hid in a Jewish hospital safe from Germans afraid of contracting typhus. Joffe showed the Gestapo a document listing "Jefim" as dead and they believed him. The Gestapo pressured and tortured the resisters' Soviet contacts on the Aryan side in July 1942. So, Smolar and his group decided to establish a Jewish partisan base outside the ghetto not only to fight the Germans but also to rescue Jews of the Minsk ghetto. Their task was to save any Jew who could escape the Minsk ghetto to the forests.

CR6 02:22:43 The police issued a false passport to Smolar so he could move about freely. The Jews of Minsk created seven detachments of partisans (more than 2,000 people), mainly in Naliboki Forest. In 1943, there were 20,000 partisans in the forest, including Jewish children. Smolar addresses trading guns in the ghetto and frightening the police with wooden guns. In June 1942, Smolar was still wanted by the Gestapo and hid in an attic for two months. Then, there was an Aktion for three days when 20,000 Jews were shot, leaving only 9,000 alive in the ghetto. A Russian woman helped Smolar leave the ghetto by an order of the Soviet organization based outside the ghetto. From her flat near Kube's headquarters, Smolar sent underground messages to help get Jews into the forest. He was discovered by the Gestapo and returned to the ghetto, where he hid in a pit, managed to escape, and created a new detachment in the forest. 02:33:48 Picture ends.

FILM ID 3378 -- Camera Rolls #7-9 -- 03:00:08 to 03:33:47
CR7 9,000 Jews remained in the Minsk ghetto after the Aktion. Jews from Germany and Czechoslovakia were sent to Minsk, and many refused to go to the forest. The relationship between Western and Eastern Jews was not great. They dealt in trade matters only. Smolar describes the primary means of murder of the German Jews by gas vans, in contrast to the Eastern Jews who were shot and burned. He expresses shock at the behavior of the German Jews and their illusions of survival. The Minsk ghetto was divided. Kube privileged the German Jews. Smolar begins to describe a plot to poison vodka sent to the German front.

CR8 03:11:28 The Soviets advised Smolar to abandon the poison plot, suggesting that chemicals should not be used in war. Smolar discusses additional methods of sabotage that his resistance organization pursued. In the forest, he led the Jewish brigade. The news of the ghetto being liquidated (received in September 1943) gave the Jewish partisans courage. German soldiers escaped through the forest in July 1944 and fought the already free partisans with force. Jewish partisan survivors were invited to march along with all the Russian partisans; those from the Minsk ghetto were selected to lead the parade. 10,000 Jewish partisans survived the war; of them, 5,200 had escaped from the ghetto in Minsk. Smolar suggests that the Soviet Jews had experience fighting as partisans. Lanzmann inquires about the death of German Jews by gas van, which Smolar again describes in detail.

CR9 03:22:40 Lanzmann asks Smolar if he still considers Communism a solution to the Jewish problem. He says that Communism was an answer in the 1920s, but now, the only alternative is a national sovereign Jewish state, which is why he emigrated to Israel. Smolar insists on being surrounded by Jews. Smolar's battle decorations include the Red Star, a partisan medal with Stalin's portrait for victory over Hitler's Germany, and a Polish officer's cross. Smolar left Poland in December 1970 for Paris to write an anthology of Jewish poetry, and eventually illegally emigrated to Israel.

FILM ID 3379 -- Camera Rolls #10A,B,C -- 04:00:08 to 04:02:44
CUs, Red Star, other medals, Polish cross, etc. [mute]

FILM ID 3380 -- Camera Roll #11 -- 05:00:07 to 05:02:44
Wartime photographs. [mute]

FILM ID 3381 -- Camera Rolls #12A,B -- 06:00:08 to 06:01:01
Photograph of a house in black and white. [mute]

FILM ID 3382 -- Camera Roll #13 -- 07:00:08 to 07:10:00
CUs of Lanzmann conducting the interview - nodding and smoking. [mute]

Event:  September or October 1979
Production:  1985
Tel Aviv, Israel
Created by Claude Lanzmann during the filming of "Shoah," used by permission of USHMM and Yad Vashem
Record last modified: 2022-07-28 22:02:33
This page: