Letters From Minsk: The Deathly Hallows

pasted-image.jpeg

Fragments from the extermination camp of Maly Trostinets on the outskirts of Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

This is the ninth in a series about train and bicycle rides from Switzerland to Belarus, in those carefree days before pandemic lockdowns.

A little after 6 a.m. (it was still dark) I got directions to the city center, where I began hunting for the Garni Hotel. As the crow rides, it should have been a ten- minute bicycle ride from the railroad station, but it took me 90 minutes to find the hotel, just down the street from the Europa Hotel (one of the places where I stopped to ask directions). Minsk is a you-can’t-get-there-from-here kind of place (directionally and politically).

Lost in Space

The obvious solution was to flip on my phone and follow the disembodied directional voice of Google maps. In my case that would be “Jill”, who sounds as if she is saying, “So how come you never take me out to dinner?” or “So what are we doing in Belarus, smart guy?”

In my haste to leave home, I had skipped out without a data plan for Belarus, arriving only with a fistful of printed maps, all of which—in the great Garni hotel hunt—were no more useful for navigation than would have been a sextant or a plumb line.

During my predawn ride, I queried cab drivers, studied sidewalk tourist kiosks with maps, waved around my compass, and asked any number of pedestrians, although there were not many about early on a Sunday morning (except gangs of tottering drunk kids). No one’s directions got me close to the Garni.

The first person I asked, a cab driver with a smart phone, was almost parked, I now realize, in front of the Garni, but he sent me off to shopping-center Minsk, an Armageddon of Stalinist modernism, with endless dead ends and no through streets. I was biking though a nightmare of Escher designs.

It didn’t help that there were rain showers and a biting wind, nor that I was tired from sleeping on the overnight train.

Finally, with help from the front desk clerk at the Hilton Hotel, I found the Garni; not that it did me any good.

The check-in time (a concept I loathe) was 2 PM, and the desk clerk would not amend my online reservation so that I could pay extra and get into the room earlier.

He did say the room was free, and he understood that I had pre-paid for five nights, but improvisation is not in the Belarus five-year plan. (Authoritarian rigidity is behind much of the current political unrest, and the government of Alexander Lukashenko can be understood as a dictatorship of stubborn and occasionally violent desk clerks.)

Conceding travel defeat, I left my bags behind the desk and went around the corner to a McDonald’s, where there’s always early check-in, even at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning in Minsk. Too bad it’s an imported concern and can’t serve up local democracy.

The Killing Fields at Maly Trostinets

Fortified by coffee and a McSandwich, I lost interest in taking asylum at the Garni and decided to ride my bicycle about ten miles out of town to the vestiges of Trascianiec death camp, which was one of the most lethal centers in the Nazi constellation of Jewish extermination.

Although largely unknown in the West, Trascianiec—located in the Minsk suburb of at Maly Trostinets, which was then a village—was comparable to Majdanek and Sobibor in terms of the numbers of its victims, but forgotten after the war as few of those responsible for its killing fields were ever held to account.

I followed a main boulevard to get there, spending most of my time riding on an undulating sidewalk; at least it kept me away from the traffic.

This time I had clear directions and a detailed city map, and I found what’s left of the camp, now a memorial park that opened in 2015, amidst a housing project on the edge of the city.

Except for two wooden rail cars that transported prisoners and a rebuilt watchtower, little of Trascianiec has survived.

With the approach of the Russians in June-July 1944, the Germans killed most of the remaining inmates (a few escaped into nearby woods) and destroyed the camp.

Trascianiec

Many victims at Trascianiec came from Minsk (the Jewish community was estimated at around 88,000), but other prisoners came from as far away as the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, and Czechoslovakia.

Gas (operated by trucks) was used at the camp, but most victims were shot beside open pits, here and in the nearby Blagovshchina Forest.

According to a sign on the walkway as you enter the park, some 206,500 people were killed at Trascianiec.

In all the camps around Minsk, the Soviets, who liberated these sites, estimate the victims as totaling more than 400,000.

As in Pompeii, what you see at Trascianiec is the outline of a building’s foundation, demarcated with stones, bricks, and plaques to indicate the former use of a particular building.

One plaque marks the death camp’s greenhouse, with these bitter words: “…after cold-blooded extermination of people the Nazis went to admire flowers in the greenhouse.”

The Minsk Ghetto

From Maly Trostinets I rode my bicycle back into the city, navigating along the wide boulevard until I passed an entrance for the city’s metro, and decided to give it a whirl, bike and all.

Getting a ticket was easy, but as I rolled my bicycle through the station toward the platform a policeman started chasing after me (as that Pinsk policeman shouted at Irv Irving: “Igor Kalinski, I’ve got you now…”), although the moment I folded up the bike, he was all smiles and pointed me toward the trains, down a grand marble staircase suitable for an opera house.

I rode the metro (it’s similar to the one in Moscow) until I figured I was close to the former location of the Jewish ghetto.

Above ground, I started riding randomly (a waterlogged map was in my pocket, and it disintegrated when I tried to consult it), this time in search of a memorial known as The Pit, which is where, in 1942, 5,000 Minsk ghetto residents were rounded up and executed.

Perhaps tired from my short night on the train, and now in need of a late lunch, I went in circles through a high-rise, socialist realist neighborhood that was built over the ruins of the ghetto.

As I didn’t know the Russian word for “Pit”, I was on my own, in terms of directions.

Eventually off a main street, by chance, I came across the memorial, an amphitheater with a brick floor and trees lining the surrounding grass mounds. In the gloom of late March it had the feeling of a black hole.

The Yama Memorial

The centerpiece of the Yama Memorial is a large bronze sculpture showing a line of ghetto residents (faceless, as if sculpted by Alberto Giocometti), including mothers and children, descending into the Pit, as if on a stairway to hell.

What’s particularly gruesome about the site is that it’s where the Nazis delivered the residents of a nearby orphanage for execution, killing 200 children.

At both Maly Trostinets and the Pit, I learned that during the Soviet era in Belarus, Holocaust remembrance hardly existed. In official Belarusian history, the only victims of Nazi aggression were Soviet citizens.

Not until 2002 was there even a plaque at the site of Maly Trostinets; it was just a suburban field where “bad things” once happened. Likewise, the Pit was little more than a neighborhood park.

For many years, the only Holocaust memorial in all of Belarus was a plinth at the Pit, which was put up in 1948, to commemorate the Jews from the surrounding ghetto who were killed there.

Now there are more, but to understand the conflict in Belarus about remembrance of the Holocaust, keep in mind that the Pit memorial is occasionally vandalized.

Lukashenko Goes Wild

After checking into the Garni Hotel, I began to feel better about Minsk, although some things I never mastered, such as the local proscription that bicycles can only be ridden on sidewalks.

In New York City, you get fined for that. Here when the cops find a bicycle in the street, they huff and puff, and wave you away with a stern warning. It happened more than once.

Leaving aside my many traffic infractions, in Minsk I ate (lots of mushroom soup) and slept well, went everywhere on my bicycle, and enjoyed the routine of plotting my course each morning and the setting out to find what I was looking for.

I went to art exhibitions, a writer’s guild, war museums, and even managed an appointment at the presidential offices, where there is an Aleksandr Lukashenko museum, of sorts.

For example, in 2005 Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota (and a former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination) gave the Belarus strongman a “Certificate of Recognition” for being a hockey fan of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. Aleksandr had it framed, and it is now on display in his museum.

Outside of Minsk I also inspected the so-called Stalin Line (a Soviet defensive barrier, similar to Maginot’s, built prior to World War II, which the Germans swept aside) and the Berezina Crossing, which in 1812 was both the last great hope and death knell for Napoleon’s grand army on his retreat from Moscow.

Lee Harvey Oswald’s Hometown

Perhaps most to my liking in Minsk was that I was able to track down the apartment building in which the Soviet Union stashed the American defector, Lee Harvey Oswald (the alleged assassin of President John F. Kennedy), when in 1959 Oswald emigrated to Russia and renounced his American citizenship.

Oswald lived in Minsk until 1962, when he returned to the U.S. embassy in Moscow and said he wanted to go home. There a U.S. diplomat found Oswald’s passport in a drawer and lent him $450 in travel money, so that he could return to the United States, with his new wife and baby.

Back home, at least according to the Warren Commission, neither the CIA nor the FBI had much interest in questioning anyone with a military background who had defected to the Soviet Union and threatened to divulge U-2 secrets, lived for three years in Minsk, and had come back with a Russian wife (whose uncle was a cog in the KGB machinery). Why should they?

Next: Lee Harvey Oswald in Minsk. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.