Belarusian builds monument to Holocaust victims


The Associated Press

BOGDANOVKA, Belarus (AP) - Nikolai Ilyuchik was 11 when his mother first told him how the Nazis killed all the Jewish men in their Belarusian village during World War II.

Three decades later, in defiance of the local government, Ilyuchik has built his own memorial to the six men shot Aug. 2, 1941, on the outskirts of Bogdanovka. It was something he just had to do.

"I was shaken by my mother's stories, because there was almost nothing in our textbooks about the Holocaust," the 42-year-old fireman said. "I built the monument to honor the memory, not for money or glory."

The Holocaust has been hushed up and largely forgotten in Belarus, a former Soviet republic between Poland and Russia where 800,000 Jews lost their lives during the war.

Even though President Alexander Lukashenko in 2007 compared Jews to pigs, the Belarusian government denies the existence of anti-Semitism. It pays lip service to Holocaust victims while at the same time allowing the destruction of Jewish cemeteries.

"In school textbooks, the history of the Holocaust is told in several paragraphs," Belarusian Jewish community leader Yakov Basin said. "In encyclopedias and academic literature, the history of the Jews is still suppressed."

Belarus lumps Jews together with all those who died during World War II, rather than acknowledging they were victims of genocide, he said.

About one-third of its population died in the war, including about 90 percent of the Jews, who formed a substantial minority in the predominantly Slavic nation. Only about 25,000 Jews remain in the nation of 10 million.

Soviet-era monuments erected on the sites of mass shootings of Jews noted the deaths only of "Soviet citizens."

So the determination of Ilyuchik, a Christian, to honor a handful of Jews was met with deep suspicion in the regional government, which threatened to hit him with huge fines if he put up a monument on village land. But he pushed ahead with support from his family, neighbors and Protestant church, building the monument from metal and concrete in his own yard.

He then called on his three sons - 12-year-old Anton and 11-year-old twins Viktor and Vitaly - to build a gravel footpath from the village to the site of the killings, about a kilometer (half mile) away. The boys also laid stones around the monument.

"The children would come home and simply collapse from exhaustion," said their mother, Raisa Ilyuchik. "For them it was a difficult history lesson."

Before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, five Jewish families lived in Bogdanovka, then a village of 1,000 people 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of the capital, Minsk.

There is no historical record of the Jews or their fate, so Ilyuchik questioned elderly villagers and appealed for information through the local newspaper about the six men who were shot - two blacksmiths, two farmers, a trader and a rabbi.

They are honored on the monument, a black candle rising from the center of a concrete Star of David. Six red teardrops run down the side like dripping wax.

Their families were rounded up and sent to a ghetto. Ilyuchik was unable to determine whether any of the women or children had survived.

But two teenage boys who managed to escape the Nazis were saved by Ilyuchik's grandfather, who hid them in his barn for about six months. They later joined partisan forces fighting with the Red Army, where they became friends with Ilyuchik's father.

"Belarusians and Jews won this victory together," Ilyuchik said.

For support for his project, Ilyuchik turned to his pastor and fellow villagers, about half of whom belong to the same Protestant church. His pastor allowed him to keep the 10 percent of his income he usually gives to the church so he could buy the building materials.

Protestants are a small minority in Belarus. Roman Catholics make up about 15 percent of the population and the overwhelming majority belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Ilyuchik's church and Jewish groups offered to collect money for the monument, but he said it was important to him to do it himself.

So far, the regional government has not made good on its threats to fine him, and the monument has become a fixture in the village, where 2,000 people now live.

Children visit the monument on school excursions, and newlyweds come to lay flowers, honoring a Soviet tradition in which brides and grooms visit war memorials on their wedding day.

"When I see flowers on the monument I know that the memory of the murdered Jews is alive," Ilyuchik said, straightening a wreath that someone had left.



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