Today the capital of the Republic of Belarus, the city of Minsk had become one the largest and most important Jewish communities in Russia. Over 50,000 Jews lived in Minsk before the war, but by 1941 that population swelled to as much as 90,000 with refugees fleeing the Nazi invasion of Poland. The city fell on June 28, 1941 to the German invaders, who shot 2,000 Jewish men and boys in the forest during the first week.

From July 15, 1941 Jews were registered and required to wear yellow stars for identification. Five days later, on July 20, 1941, the Minsk ghetto was established. The ghetto, consisting of just 34 streets and lanes, held as many as 100,000 Jews in horrendously over-crowded conditions. Minsk was the largest ghetto in Nazi-occupied territory of the Soviet Union.

Murders of Jews by Nazi soldiers became a daily occurrence. Nazi police minister SS Head Heinrich Himmler visited Minsk in August and asked to witness the execution of 100 Jews. Himmler was nauseated by what he saw, but he had witnessed only a small fraction of the killing. The German soldiers had repeatedly murdered thousands of Jews in a single day. Himmler vowed to create a more “humane” extermination method that would cause less strain on the soldiers. Thus the Nazis began using exhaust fumes (carbon monoxide) to kill larger numbers of people. Four mobile vans were engineered to transport and murder up to 150 people at a time. 

In November 1941, the Nazis ordered that Jews from Germany should be deported to the East. To make room for them in the ghetto, 12,000 Jews from Minsk were slaughtered.  Between November 1941 and October 1942, about 35,000 Jews from Germany and Austria were deported to Minsk. Almost all were executed in major actions between July 1942 and March 1943.  Of the 999 Austrian Jews deported to the ghetto, only three are known to have survived.

Those who survived for any amount of time in the ghetto were required to endure slave labor for nearby factories. Nevertheless, Minsk is notable for its large scale resistance organization, which closely cooperated with partisan groups in the nearby forests. As many as 10,000 Jews were able to escape the ghetto and join the partisan forces fighting the Nazis. Of course, many more died trying to escape.

Nazi statistics state that by February 1, 1943, nearly 87,000 Jews had been murdered in Minsk. The final liquidation of the ghetto took place over the next six months, with large transports of many thousands of Jews taken to extermination camps at Sobibor and Maly Trostenets.