LESSONS: THE HOLOCAUST. LESSON THREE

When the world around becomes unstable, the reaction of the majority is to maintain balance and try to save one’s small world. At the same time, social values often fade into the background, and moral principles are infringed.

They say that at such moments a true nature of a person is revealed. One can find everything in the history of the Holocaust in Novogrudok:

- fear of the inevitable and disbelief in one’s strength;
- desire to fight back and paralyzing fear of losing the very opportunity to survive, to stay alive, even if it’s illusory;
- despair and anger;
- incredible vitality of ordinary people who dug a two-hundred-meter long tunnel under the ground from a guarded ghetto and accomplished the most successful escape in the history of the Holocaust in Europe;
- belief in the highest national principles and subordination of one’s life to higher goals.

What were those people - residents of Novogrudok, of smaller towns like Lyubcha and Vselyub, and even of such non-existing today villages like Stankevichi where the Bielski family comes from? They were artisans and millers, merchants and teachers, lawyers, and water carriers, they were ordinary people who lived their everyday lives before the war. Daniel Ostashinsky, the chairman of the Judenrat in the Novogrudok ghetto, dwells in his testimony on what allowed those people to succeed in their struggle for life:

“When we start talking and thinking about the darkest of all the periods that befell European Jewry, including the town of Novogrudok, I must mention Jewish pride and humaneness that characterized people in Novogrudok.

I said this because when the war between Germany and Russia began, and Novogrudok was occupied, even before the Germans entered Novogrudok, young people - both from ordinary and educated families - almost everyone had a desire to organize themselves in order to defend their Jewish pride.

<...> during the Soviet occupation, many refugees from Poland, fleeing the Nazis to the east, settled in Novogrudok. That's why the population of Novogrudok was no longer homogeneous as it used to be for many generations until the Soviets came. And among the population there were people who did not know each other. But a common tragedy, common for everyone, united all the groups of the Jewish population."

It does not mean that people stopped thinking about their own needs. Moreover, when an underground group in the ghetto began planning an escape, Ostashinsky noted different attitude of young people and the elderly to resistance.

“The elders were afraid that escaping from the ghetto in winter would put them in troubles and they would not survive. They viewed it as a plan of suicide, and thought that if to commit suicide, then it's better to wait until the Germans attack.

<...> They called the young and active "A group that wants to die beautifully." “You want to die like heroes? That's all you want."

<...> Of course, it was shortsightedness, but from a distance of many years, and even then, we were not angry with those people. We understood that they were not sabotaging attempts of the rebel group, it was just their personal desire to stay alive."

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