By Jan Maksymiuk
World War II
Within the framework of its "Belarus at War" series of programs to mark the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, RFE/RL's Belarus Service on 28 March 2005 broadcast an interview with Valyantsin Taras and Jan Zaprudnik.
Valyantsin Taras, born in 1930, was an adolescent participant in the Soviet guerilla movement in Nazi-occupied Belarus in 1941-44, which has been glorified in Soviet historiography as a major contributor to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. Taras, who graduated from the Belarusian State University in 1955, is a writer and translator who has been published in both Belarusian and Russian. He lives in Minsk.
Jan Zaprudnik was born in 1926 and attended two high schools opened under Nazi patronage in Belarus. Zaprudnik left Belarus in 1944, graduated from the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium) in 1954, and obtained a doctorate in history from New York University in 1969. He has written extensively on Belarus and spent 37 years with RFE/RL's Belarus Service as a correspondent, producer, and editor. His major publications include "Belarus: At A Crossroads In History" (1993) and "A Historical Dictionary Of Belarus" (1998). He lives in the United States.
The interview, which provides an insightful, non-standard view of Belarus under the Nazi occupation, was conducted by RFE/RL's Belarus Service correspondent Yury Drakakhrust. Below are translated excerpts from this program prepared by RFE/RL Online journalist Jan Maksymiuk.
RFE/RL: Mr. Zaprudnik, some of those who collaborated with the Nazis have explained this by saying they fought for Belarus's independence by taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the occupational administration to conduct Belarus-oriented work, no matter how modest those possibilities were. But because of that collaboration, don't those people share responsibility for the Nazi terror, the Holocaust, the extermination of partisans, and punitive operations against the civilian population?
Zaprudnik: It's a very complex question. Speaking about the moral responsibility for collaboration with the Nazis, we need to take into account the entire historical context. Simultaneously we need to recall the axiom that a man is morally responsible for his actions only if he has free choice. When we speak about life under the German occupation, I think that moral responsibility rests primarily with those who initiated the war -- with Hitler in the first place. But let us also recall that Stalin was Hitler's de facto ally in 1939-40.
The category of collaborationists needs clarifications. A man was told during the German occupation: "Harness your horse up. You'll take [German] soldiers for a raid against [Soviet] partisans." Was there any real choice for him if he had only two alternatives -- either obey or get a bullet in his head? Only a few can choose voluntary death. So the man harnessed his horse up and set off driving -- and there you had a collaborationist.
There were thousands of such collaborationists. After the Soviets returned to Belarus, they drove all of them into the Gulag, including not only village heads and office clerks, but also cooks who earned bread for their families working at German kitchens. After the end of the war, the people who had been compulsorily moved to Germany were transferred to Siberia without a stopover [in Belarus]. My wife's sister-in-law, Khima, who was taken to Germany as a girl, was sent to Siberia for 10 years without a stop in Belarus when she was returning home after the victory.
Speaking about collaboration, let's not forget about the sentiments of people who still had fresh memories of dispossession of the kulaks, the Stalinist terror of the 1930s, and deportations to Siberia from western Belarus in 1940-41. The issue of moral responsibility for people's actions under the German occupation is closely related to the issue of moral responsibility of Stalinist collaborationists for their actions under the Bolshevik rule.
I want to attract your attention to one more aspect -- the moral responsibility of an older generation of Belarusians for bringing up the youth. It was unadvisable for Belarusian national activists to do nothing and wait for the Soviets' return. It was necessary to organize schools, prepare appropriate schoolbooks, open cultural institutions. Soviet propaganda labeled all this as collaborationism with the Nazis (Belarusian propaganda has been doing so until the present day). But teachers from my junior high school and commercial school in Baranavichy, who taught me math, the Belarusian language, and merchandising, were they collaborationists? My teachers in junior high schools were two brothers, Anton and Yurka Lutskevich. The Bolsheviks starved their father, Anton Lutskevich, to death in prison. Had they to join the Soviet partisans or to look for some other way out during the military conflict between the Bolshevik dictatorship and the German fascism? They made a choice -- they put their stake on Belarus, which they wanted to see free and independent. This, too, was a moral choice, which cost each of them 15 years of slavery in Siberia.
All what I said does not discard the issue of responsibility for actions under the German occupation. Moral responsibility lies with those who killed innocent people, contributed to the Holocaust, burned villages, provoked the Germans into burning villages, moved civilians to compulsory work in Germany, robbed civilians, and acted as informers.
RFE/RL: The same question to you, Mr. Taras. Those people who collaborated with the Nazis for possibly higher purposes, for Belarus's independence -- to what extent were they responsible for what was going on in Belarus?
Taras: I agree on many points with Mr. Zaprudnik. I agree that many ordinary people -- beginning with cleaning women and ending with schoolteachers -- were categorized [by the Soviet authorities] as collaborationists. My aunt was such a "collaborationist" -- she washed plates and bowls in a German canteen. My grandmother, Hela, was such a "collaborationist" -- she worked as a nurse's aid in a German hospital. Painter Mikalay Huseu, my father's close friend, was also such a "collaborationist." During the occupation, Huseu lived on his profession -- he painted portraits of German officers and fed his family with this job. After the war he got four years.
But we should not forget that there was ideological collaborationism as well. It was one thing to command a police detachment and quite another to teach in school under the occupation.
RFE/RL: Mr. Taras, we spoke about the responsibility of collaborationists, now I want to approach the issue from the other side. During the Nuremberg trials [Nazi ideologist and politician] Alfred Rosenberg said that partisans killed 500 village heads in Belarus in 1942. A lot of facts have been made known about how partisans killed those who collaborated with the Germans or those who were just suspected of such collaboration, how they killed teachers and confiscated food and livestock from peasants. There were murders and violence from one side, as well as murders and violence from the other side. So, why was one side better than the other? Can we speak about the responsibility for such actions of those who fought on the side of partisans?
Taras: I won't deny that partisans committed violence -- they killed village heads, I personally witnessed such an execution in the village of Nyalyuby in Valozhyn Raion. But we need to remember one thing. The point is not to determine which regime, Stalinist or Nazi, was a lesser evil; there were no principal differences between them. Both of them were stones of the same mill that ground our people. At that time, however, the deep-seated character of a war on occupied territories was determined not by Stalinism but by the people's resistance to the alien invasion, the people's struggle for their historical and physical survival.
Yes, partisans shot people to death, sometimes without any good reason, just because of suspicions. But not all partisans were responsible for that.
As regards food provision by partisans, I'll tell you one simple thing. Partisans were not a regular army, they were not provided with necessities under some centralized system. When your boots wore out, where could you get new ones? In a village, from a peasant. Partisans confiscated horses, cows, and pigs from peasants. In the eyes of an ordinary peasant, armed people who came at night to take his trousers, a pig, or a loaf of bread he kept for his kids, were nothing more than bandits.
Incidentally, there is a myth that has survived until the present day: So to say, there were partisans who derailed trains and fought Germans, and there were bandits who robbed peasants at night. They were the very same people. Bread did not grow for us on trees, and we could take new shoes only from peasants.
Zaprudnik: The problem of responsibility of ordinary people, such as Mr. Taras or myself or our parents, is not appropriate [in this context]. We can speak about responsibility for atrocities, when [Belarusian] policemen killed Jews or resorted to violence. We need to take a broader historical and political context to look for those responsible. [Radaslau] Astrouski [head of the Belarusian Central Council, a self-governing body that collaborated with the Nazis in Belarus] can be regarded as responsible [for collaborationism]. However, Belarusian collaborationism did not have a theoretical foundation, like collaborationism in Petain's France. Petain's France put its stake on Germany as a future European empire and tried to secure a place for itself in the so-called "new Europe."
The Belarusian intelligentsia under the German occupation took care about the patriotic -- one can say, nationalist -- upbringing of the youth. We were nationalists in the positive sense of the word; we wanted freedom and independence for Belarus. It is possible to deny this argument by saying that there were no realistic prospects for such a desire to be fulfilled under the German occupation, but the desire was exactly like this -- we wanted to see Belarus as an independent, self-governing country.
Taras: I don't fully agree with Mr. Zaprudnik that many [representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia under the Nazi occupation] were just nationalists. Healthy nationalism is a natural thing, I have nothing to say against it. In my opinion, many of them were simply Nazis. What they wrote [in Belarusian publications allowed by the Nazis] was Nazi propaganda, in the Hitlerite spirit.
There is a myth saying that had it not been for partisans, the Germans would not have touched us and would not have burned our villages. It is untrue. I remember how the Germans entered Minsk on 28 June 1941 and three days later herded several tens of thousands of people into a big camp on Shyrokaya Street and kept them there for 10 days without food and water. It was a particular selection, they wanted to shock people in order to suppress any thought of resistance in advance. I saw that with my own eyes.
RFE/RL: Mr. Zaprudnik, do you agree wit Mr. Taras's assessments? And a more specific question: In your opinion, to what extent the partisan movement in Belarus was inspired and organized by Moscow, and to what extent the Nazi terror was provoked by Soviet partisans?
Zaprudnik: The German terror had a theoretical foundation asserting that the Slavs were an inferior race, let alone the Jews, for whom the Germans developed a meticulous plan of extermination.
As regards the nationwide resistance [to the Nazi occupation in Belarus], I would put a question mark over this issue. The memory of Bolshevik atrocities, deportations, the extermination of Belarusian national democrats, and forced collectivization in the 1930s, were fresh during the occupation, and this memory partly motivated people to take revenge during the war. So, the whole picture was much more complex.