An Annual Re-Post
The Minsk Ghetto – 1941
“For God’s sake child! Flee Minsk before it’s too late!” the wounded Red Army Major she tended urged her.
“Be still!” Anya said. “I’m taking your picture.” Minsk was her city. She was born here, a Jewish girl whose real name was Mariya (Mascha) Borisovna Bruskina; she went to high school here and dreamed of being an actress, before the Germans came. “I cannot leave. We will stay and fight and wait for the army to return. We must all do what we can.”
On June 22, 1941 the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union, and in six days they were in Minsk. The girl now called Anya lost her dream at 17 years old.
Within days of the arrival of the Germans the knock had come at the door. “Raus Jews! You are moving!” She and her parents along with 100,000 Minsk Jews were marched to a ghetto and walled inside.
Her mother spoke quietly with her those first few evenings. “You must leave! Find a way out of here and disappear into the Aryan side of Minsk. Dye your hair lighter and apply some make-up…you must escape this place! They will kill us all. We are old; you are young and pretty and can pass as an ordinary Russian girl…”
Anya didn’t want to leave but took her mother’s advice and found a way to the outside, lightened her hair to a safe, Teutonic brown, bought some forged identity papers and took her new Russian name. She was no longer Mariya (Mascha) Borisovna Bruskina; she was now the Russian girl Anya.
Anya immediately joined the resistance. She was asked to volunteer at the prison hospital as a nurse and, being young and pretty, she was able to come and go without much attention other than the leers of German guards. She smiled on cue as if she spoke no German and did not have to worry about engaging in any extensive conversations. She was glad she didn’t understand all the comments passed back and forth when she walked by.
In the prison hospital Anya found that some 15 wounded Red Army prisoners were being held. She spoke with her comrades in the resistance and a plan was hatched to free the Russian soldiers so they could join the resistance. In order to make an escape they would need civilian clothes, money and identity papers.
Anya volunteered to smuggle in clothes and money as well as a camera to take pictures of the individual soldiers in order to forge I.D.s. Over a period of weeks, she carried everything that was necessary and during the night shifts was able to take the required pictures.
The escape went perfectly. Within hours the Germans were hunting for the prisoners.
It didn’t take long to find them. Within two days they were all rounded up and shot…..except for a Lieutenant who lived a bit longer when he betrayed those who had helped free him. In the end, the Germans shot him as well; a traitor twice-over, in their minds.
Anya was arrested by the Gestapo along with Kiril Trus (a World War I veteran) and a 16 year old boy named Volodia Shcherbatsevich. They were brutally beaten and tortured for information but none talked.
Anya knew she was going to die (she had quipped to her fellow prisoners that at least “I don’t have to worry about dying of starvation.”). She was very worried about her parents in the ghetto instead and passed a message to the resistance asking if they would deliver a letter to her mother.
“I am tormented by the thought that I have caused you great worry. Don’t worry. Nothing bad has happened to me. I swear to you that you will have no further unpleasantness because of me. If you can, please send me my dress, my green blouse, and white socks. I want to be dressed decently when I leave here.”
Before being executed, Anya, along with Kyril and 16 year old Volodia, were paraded through the streets of Minsk by Lithuanian Nazi collaborators.
“Before noon, I saw the armed German and Lithuanian soldiers appear on the street. From over the bridge they escorted three people with their arms tied behind their backs. In the middle there was a girl with a sign-board on her chest. They were led up to the yeast factory gate. I noticed how calmly these people walked. The girl did not look around.”
Anya, who was Mariya once again, wore a placard around her neck in both German and Russian – “We are partisans and have shot at German troops” – though she had not.
She and her fellow comrades were hanged in public on Sunday, October 26, 1941 in front of the yeast brewery and distillery plant Minsk Kristall. The Germans let the bodies hang for three full days before allowing them to be cut down. Volodia’s mother was hanged as well from the crossbar of the gates outside of the Minsk Academy of Sciences.
Anya’s mother lost her sanity and died in the Holocaust. Her father escaped the ghetto, joined the Red Army and survived the war – but he died a lonely and broken man, unable to honor his daughter.
Although the pictures of her death, taken by the Lithuanians, were well publicized after the war, Soviet and later Belarus officials claimed not to know the identity of the pretty young girl. On a memorial plaque at the MinskKristall where they died she was listed as “unknown girl”.
It was always suspected that the authorities knew full well who she was; they knew the names of the two men.
But Mariya Borisovna Bruskina was a Jew – and the authorities may have had difficulty in admitting that a Jewish girl was a resistance hero. Maybe it was just bureaucratic incompetence.
Finally, on July 1, 2009 the Municipality of Minsk replaced the memorial plaque, removing “unknown girl” and inserting her name “M. B. Bruskina”.
Her father did not live to see it.
Look at her picture and see her in your dreams.
The photos of the execution of Mariya Bruskina are readily available on the web; the photos are available here:
Warning. They are grisly.