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Matus Stolov (10/7/2022)

Matus Stolov lived in Minsk, the capital of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic of the former Soviet Union (now Belarus, an independent country), with his mother and older brother, Boris. His mother was a university professor and the head of the German language department and his father passed away in 1937 in Minsk.

At the time, all religions were officially forbidden, and all Jewish schools and colleges were closed in the late 1930s. However, the Jewish population at large did not feel “government” antisemitism before World War II. Deep-seated Antisemitism was suppressed by the official Soviet policy of “friendship between all nationalities.”

World War II started in September 1939, when Germany and the former Soviet Union occupied and divided Poland. On June 22, 1941, Germany invaded the U.S.S.R. In 1941 Matus finished sixth grade at thirteen years old. His brother, who was twenty years old, finished three years of Minsk Medical School in the summer of 1941. They lost all of their possessions when their three-story apartment building burned in a fire caused by German bombardment on June 24, 1941, and also as a result of arson by infiltrated Germans. On June 26 Matus and his brother, Boris, jumped on an open platform of a moving cargo train going to the East. His mother could not make it, however, so Matus jumped off the train in order to stay with her. Boris eventually became a military doctor and was found missing in action at the front in December 1942.

Matus and his mother were left in Minsk and watched the first German troops entering the city in the late afternoon of June 27, 1941, only five days after they had crossed the borders of the Soviet Union. Within only fifteen to twenty days of capturing Minsk, the Germans ordered all Jews to move to a ghetto in the assigned area around Yubileynaya Square in July 1941. In accordance with this order, any Jew found in the Russian district would be killed. Several different families were forced to live in one single-family house and/or share one room. The local population quickly occupied the houses and apartments of evicted Jews.

The Germans officially created the Minsk ghetto on August 1, 1941. It was the second-largest ghetto in the occupied Former Soviet Union. About eighty thousand to one hundred thousand Jews were in the Minsk ghetto before the first massacre occurred. The ghetto was surrounded by barbed wire fences that had only two gates (later, only one), through which guarded columns of Jews went out to work each day in the Russian district and then returned to the ghetto. The Germans organized the Judenrat (the ghetto’s “city hall”) and the ghetto militia to maintain order in the ghetto, to use Jews for all kinds of heavy and dirty work in the Russian district, and to find and isolate people who had infectious diseases, etc. The next German order required all Jews to wear a yellow star on their clothing so that everybody would recognize them as being Jews.

Young men in black uniforms soon appeared on the city streets and in the ghetto. They were Byelorussian local militia formed from the local population who were organized and supervised by the Nazis. Everybody called them Polizei. They robbed the Jews in the ghetto. Later they actively participated in the mass murder of Jews and hunted for Jews on the streets in the Russian district. Special Lithuanian and Ukrainian battalions also massacred Jews. Crossing the barbed wire fences was not difficult, but if the local militia or some local people recognized you as being a Jew, you could be executed on the spot or brought to the local militia station or to the German Gestapo. For Jews there was no safe place to go. Matus said that the only option was to wait to be killed.

During all this time in the ghetto, Matus was in touch with his prewar friend Lena in the Russian district. She was involved in the underground fight against the Germans and had connections to the partisans’ detachments. His mother helped them through her knowledge of the German language. As a result of a cooperative effort between the ghetto and the Russian district undergrounds, and between the Russian district underground and partisan activities in the forests, some Jews were able to escape from the ghetto.

It was very difficult to get food in the ghetto. The majority of the ghetto population traded their possessions for food at the fence or during the workday in the Russian district. In the beginning, Matus and his mother shared one room (15 square meters or 160 square feet) on Nemiga Street with the Idel’chik family—two parents and their daughter, Esfir, who was seventeen or eighteen years old.

Nobody believed that very soon the Nazis would start killing Jews. In the beginning of November 1941, however, there began to be rumors that the Nazis were preparing a big “action.” Matus, his mother, and Esfir, risked their lives by going through the barbed wire and spending several days in Lena’s apartment in the Russian district. They were allowed to take Esfir with us, but not her parents. Lena risked her life by allowing them to hide in her apartment. After the November 7 pogrom (“action”) they returned to the ghetto. About twelve thousand Jews from Matus’s part of the ghetto had been killed in this action; among them were Esfir’s parents. Matus’s mother became like a second mother to Esfir. During this action the Germans and local militia escorted columns of Jews under guard through the Russian district during the daytime. The Jews were being taken to the mass killing place, Tuchinka, and the local population witnessed their walk to death.

This part of the ghetto later was used for Jews who had been transported from Europe. Matus said he remembers very well the arrival of thousands of European Jews in the Minsk ghetto at the end of 1941. They called them “Hamburger” Jews because the first arrivals were from the German city of Hamburg. This Sonderghetto also was secured by barbed wire and guards. Mass killing liquidated the Sonderghetto in summer 1942. After this November action, Matus found a room on Kollektornaya Street, also located at the ghetto’s border. One night in March 1942, they heard a vehicle stop near the house, people speaking German, and a barking dog. All of the people who lived in this house went down into the cellar. They were scared they would find them and kill them. They heard shooting, but nobody entered the house. They were afraid to leave the cellar. The next day they heard a voice crying, “Come out! Come out!” They left the cellar and found that it was Esfir who was looking for them. Outside was a pile of thirty or forty corpses of people from the house next door as well as puddles of blood.

They could not stay any longer in that house and found a small room, about 80 square feet, in a house on Shornaya Street, which also was located at the ghetto border. Zyama, his wife, Ida, and their five- or six-year-old-daughter lived in a bigger room. Zyama built a second wall in their room to create a hiding place (called a malina). The entrance to the malina was above the kitchen hearth. On July 28, 1942, they heard the noise of vehicles, dogs, and loud conversations and orders in German and Russian. Matus’s mother was somewhere in the ghetto, and he was alone with his neighbors. Zyama and Ida immediately placed clothing and water into a washtub next to the hearth, blocking the way to the top of the hearth and the entrance to their malina, and then opened the front door. They wanted to give the impression that they had left the house in a hurry. They also hoped to make it inconvenient for the invadors to climb on the hearth and find the entrance to the malina. They listened as Nazis and local militia entered the rooms, searched them, and left. They were lucky that they did not bring dogs into the rooms. Afraid to go out, they spent several days in the malina. Finally, his mother and Esfir came to the dwelling and called their names. They left the malina and hugged each other in tears. They had escaped death again.

After this massacre, their only choice was to risk their lives by trying to escape from the ghetto. In the beginning of November 1942, Lena provided them with false documents that identified them as Russian, and she helped tem meet four people (Vladimir Kazachenok and others) who were on their way to the partisans. They could not take an extra person, so Esfir was left in the ghetto. They asked Big Lena to help her to escape from the ghetto.

They got through the ghetto fence and met these four people far away from the ghetto. They identified themselves secretly by exchanging some gestures rather than assembling in a group. They hid in the forests during the day and walked at night to avoid the Nazis and militia patrols, and finally reached the partisans. After several weeks the partisans’ commander—with Matus’s mother’s consent—sent them with a group of people (Kazachenok was the appointed leader) across the front line to the non-occupied Soviet Union. He told them that the configuration of the front line in northeastern Byelorussia allowed groups to cross it—the so-called “Vitebsk corridor.” Only Kazachenok knew that they were Jews. If they had been captured by Nazis or by the local militia, they would have killed them immediately.

Hiding under inhuman conditions, suffering from cold and hunger, constantly afraid of being killed by the Nazis or local militia, walking at night and trying to find friendly peasants to get some food, they walked to northeastern Byelorussia. After six weeks to two months of walking and hiding in German-occupied territory, they reached the last point before the front line. They saw a lot of peasants and partisans suffering from cold and hunger. The “corridor” was closed. In spite of this fact, the group leader decided to cross the front line anyway by joining an armed group of partisans.

Matus said that he remembered that before the last dash through the front line, the group leader told them to run, despite being under fire from the Germans. His mother told him to run and not to wait for her because she could not run as fast as he could. Matus, along with many others, crossed the front line under German fire, and then waited for the rest of the group, not knowing if all of them would make it. His mother came soon, and once again they realized happily that we were alive. Finally they reached the cherished forest. Matus said he will never forget meeting the first Soviet soldiers in their uniforms. The soldiers and officers poured out from the dugouts located deeper in the field. There were kisses, handshakes, and tears. They had escaped from the Nazis, and nobody would kill them because they were Jews. They crossed the front line at night in January 1943.

The rest of Matus’s story is continued in the Illinois Holocaust Museum’s new online Holocaust in the Soviet Union exhibit. I recommend checking out the rest of Matus’s story as well as the other stories on the website.

Unfortunately, Matus Stolov has passed but his memory lives on. He was a great man who always wanted to share his story whenever he could. He wanted the world to know that the perpetrators were not the Nazis alone, the collaborators (in his case in Belarus) had a large role in the atrocities committed. We all have the capacity for evil, which is why education is so important.

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