Road to Victory
[b]Belarus was one of the first USSR republics to feel the breath of death during WWII[/b]It was a truly terrible trial for a small republic; the number of victims and grievous losses were too high a price to pay for victory over the enemy.The Nazis dismissed all international legal norms in claiming occupation of our territory and committed crimes which remain unique in Belarus’ contemporary history — in their scale and cruelty. According to specialists, Belarus suffered more than any other European country during WWII. Direct material damage stood at a sum exceeding the 1940 national budget by 35 times. The Germans burnt down, destroyed and ransacked 209 of 270 towns and district centres and 9,200 villages in Belarus.
It was a truly terrible trial for a small republic; the number of victims and grievous losses were too high a price to pay for victory over the enemy.
The Nazis dismissed all international legal norms in claiming occupation of our territory and committed crimes which remain unique in Belarus’ contemporary history — in their scale and cruelty. According to specialists, Belarus suffered more than any other European country during WWII. Direct material damage stood at a sum exceeding the 1940 national budget by 35 times. The Germans burnt down, destroyed and ransacked 209 of 270 towns and district centres and 9,200 villages in Belarus.
Cultural, educational and scientific institutions were purposefully destroyed in a barbaric fashion and, from 1941-1944, ten museums were wiped from the map, with eight more ransacked. The fascists exported many works of Belarusian, Russian and Western European art to countries in Central and Western Europe, including around 1,700 paintings and icons, over 50 sculptures, and numerous sketches, en-
gravings, musical instruments and furniture items, which were once kept at the State Picture Gallery of the BSSR.
During those war years, a famous collection of ancient Slutsk sashes was lost, which brightly reflect the unique mastery of the Belarusian nation. The most significant loss was the disappearance of the unique symbol of the nation — Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya’s Cross, created in 1161.
The systematic work of the invaders to destroy the nation was the most terrible aspect. In their years of occupation, the Nazis conducted over 140 mass-scale punitive operations, which resulted in around 5,500 villages being completely or partially destroyed. The village of Khatyn, burnt jointly with all its residents, including children, became a horrific symbol of the German invaders’ crimes in Belarus. 630 villages shared Khatyn’s destiny; 186 never revived.
260 death camps were founded in Belarus, resulting in the death of over 1.4m citizens. One of the greatest Nazi concentrated camps was located in the village of Trostinets; 206,500 people were killed there. Unlike Auschwitz, Majdanek and Treblinka, it primarily housed the local population. Moreover, Jewish ghettos were set up in 186 settlements. Minsk’s ghetto was home to around 100,000 Jews, with only a few surviving. Today, Belarusian scientists note that 763,000 Jews were killed in Belarus during the war years. Contemporary researchers agree that 2.5m-3m people died during the Great Patriotic War in Belarus — almost a third of all residents.
The people’s resistance
Hitler’s plan to invade the USSR — a ‘blitzkrieg’ — envisaged reaching the Russian Ural and Volga rivers within 1.5-2 months. However, the fascists soon found their timescale falling behind, even before they reached Russian territory. Brest Fortress, situated in the south-west of the republic, was the first to face attack from German troops as they advanced into the Soviet Union. On June 22nd, 1941, between 7 and 8 thousand Soviet soldiers were being housed in the fortress as it was attacked by the full-strength of Germany’s infantry — around 17,000 soldiers and officers. However, the Soviet warriors held the fortress for six weeks.
General Leonid Petrovsky’s unit has entered history as an example of courage and bravery. While the enemy was attacking, with all advantages on its side, the 63rd rifle corps of the 21st army, under the command of Leonid Petrovsky, liberated Zhlobin and Rogachev (in Gomel region) in July 1941 with a counterstroke. They held the towns for almost a month and the General died as he tried to battle out of encirclement.
The defence of Gomel area lasted almost 50 days and was certainly an obstacle in the fascists’ way. Gomel residents took up arms and formed people’s resistance brigades. They protected the city until August 1941, using anti-tank trenches hand dug by residents around the city. The Nazis had to weaken their pressure around Smolensk to send reinforcements.
Although Belarus was occupied by the Nazis, it remained unbowed from the first days of war. Youngsters organised a secret struggle against the new regime in cities and towns, while a powerful partisan movement grew behind enemy lines. Local people left their homes, went into the woods and united in brigades. The first partisan unit — Krasny Oktyabr (Red October) — was founded on the fifth day of war in Pinsk district. In 1941, there were over 400 partisan units countrywide, who managed to kill or injure 500,000 fascists during the war years, as well as exploding and derailing over 11,000 trains and 34 battleships. They also destroyed 29 railway stations and 948 command staffs and garrisons. Partisans and undergrounders committed acts of sabotage, crushed commandants’ offices and acquired precious information while liberating prisoners of war and local people being readied for deportation to Germany.
By late 1943, 1,255 partisan units were operating in the republic, with partisan zones — territories free of fascists — set up. There were over 20 such areas, with peasants tilling the ground, and libraries and schools operational. In 1043, they controlled over 60 percent of Belarus’ territory.
Special purpose groups also contri-buted greatly to victory by fulfilling special tasks. Khrabretsy (Brave men), headed by Alexander Rabtsevich, blocked Hitler’s plans to use chemical weapons in the Great Patriotic War. They managed to blow up a German train heading for the front which was transporting tanks of toxic gas. Samples were urgently brought to Moscow and Stalin contacted the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who gave Germany an ultimatum about the UK’s refusal to compromise if gas were used on the Russian front…
Page of heroic deeds
The Great Patriotic War was filled with heroic deeds by ordinary people for the sake of their Fatherland. In the first days of war, aviator Nikolay Gastello directed his burning aircraft towards a German tank column. His heroic deed was later repeated by dozens of crews. Alexander Matrosov, who threw himself onto a German pill-box, blocking the machine-gun with his own body, was another inspiration for hundreds of soldiers. The war didn’t take into account age and Belarusian teenager Marat Kazei joined the partisan brigade when he was just 12 and was often given special tasks. On May 11th, 1944, aged 14, he was disclosed by the fascists during a mission. Cornered, he shot back until his final bullet, then blew himself up with a grenade rather than be captured by the enemy.
The Belarusian Lizyukovy family lost three sons during the war. All were famous military commanders, with two awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union (the highest state award in the USSR). Major-General Alexander Lizyukov was the first to die in 1942, near Russian Voronezh, while battling his way out of en-
circlement. In 1944, Yevgeny Lizyukov, a partisan brigade commander, died in hand-to-hand combat with the fascists in Belarus. Piotr Lizyukov, who commanded a tank destroyer brigade, was the last to die while trying to help a neighbouring rifle division near Koenigsberg.
During the Great Patriotic War, the Hero of the Soviet Union title was awarded to the T-34 tank crew, headed by Pavel Rak, for their heroism on Belarusian territory. On June 29th, 1944, their tank broke into Borisov along a bridge over the River Berezina and they fought for 17 hours, managing to destroy the enemy commandant’s office, as well as killing command staff. They punctured two tanks and liberated 200 prisoners of war before dying in flames inside their tank.
Another heroic deed is connected with the three Krichevtsovy brothers, born in Belarus. Their tank was punctured in battle but they headed the burning machine towards a heavy German tank and destroyed it, while blocking the way, since the passage through the marshes was narrow.
Citizens of other countries were also awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title for their struggle in Belarus: Jбn Nбlepka of Slovakia, Fritz Schmenkel of Germany, Lilia Karastoyanova of Bulgaria, Rubйn Ibбrruri of Spain, and Jacques Andrй, Marcel Lefиvre and Marcel Albert of France.
It was a nationwide war against the single enemy of Nazi fascism, and is our common victory.
65 years later
Each year, fewer Great Patriotic War veterans remain. However, we pay them ever greater homage and ensure that social benefits give them a comfortable lifestyle. In addition to an enhanced state pension, war veterans are granted privileged access to medicine, spa treatments and recuperation facilities, while having their utility bills and communication services paid for.
Over the last few decades, veterans have been given annual checks of their living condition. The families of servicemen who died during the Great Patriotic War receive the same benefits. Issues of improving veterans’ housing conditions are being promptly solved too.
Today, Belarus has two significant holidays — Victory Day (May 9th) and Independence Day (July 3rd). These are widely and solemnly celebrated, with parades, demonstrations and concert programmes taking place in each city. We pay tribute to the memory of all those who endured the war years, while hoping that the events of the Great Patriotic War won’t ever repeat themselves.
By Violetta Dralyuk