As the Nazis conducted the Holocaust, they established over 1,150 ghettos throughout German-occupied eastern Europe. Among them was Mir.
A Project of the Miles Lerman Center
Mir is located 88 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Minsk. Just prior to the German invasion, the Mir raion had approximately 3,000 Jewish inhabitants, of whom some 2,300 lived in the town of Mir.
The German army occupied the Mir Rayon at the end of June 1941. The German occupation authorities began recruiting a local police force within a few weeks of their arrival. The police force was initially composed of about 30 local men, mainly Belorussians aged between 25 to 35 from the villages surrounding Mir.1 On July 20, 1941, German security forces carried out an Aktion against the “intelligentsia” in Mir in which 19 Jews and 3 non-Jews were selected. The Germans transported the victims out of town by truck and killed them in a nearby forest.2
Initially the local military commandant in Stołpce was responsible for the administration of the Mir Rayon. From August 1941, this was Leutnant Göbel of the 8th Company, Infantry Regiment 727. The military authorities imposed a number of restrictions on the Jews during the first weeks, but no ghetto was created at this time.
In October and November 1941, the 8th Company, Infantry Regiment 727, organized collections of valuables from the Jews of Turzec and Mir, and also carried out mass shootings assisted by local police in which roughly 2,000 Jews from Mir and Turzec died.3 Some Jews were sent to a labor camp in Nowy Swierzen.
A few days after this massacre, the first German Gendarmes of the Order Police (Orpo) arrived in Mir.4 The Gendarmerie commander in Mir was Meister Reinhold Hein, who had about 12 Gendarmes under him and also gave orders to the local Belorussian police. Oswald Rufeisen, a Jew from western Poland who arrived in Turzec just after the shootings there, pretended to be a Pole and was recruited to the police as a translator because of his excellent German. Soon he became the secretary and translator for the Rayon police chief, the Belorussian Semion Serafinowicz, who brought him to Mir. Here Rufeisen recognized some former Jewish acquaintances from his stay in Vilnius from 1939, including Dov Reznik, and he resolved to help the nascent Jewish underground as much as he could from his position under cover within the police.
According to the recollection of Cila Zakheim, “within a few days of the November Aktion the first ghetto was formed. It was not a building but a collection of houses that had survived the invasion and included Zavalna, Tartarskaia, and Wisoker Streets. There was no barbed wire fencing or guards surrounding the Mir ghetto.”5
Available survivor testimony indicates that no ghetto was established in Turzec, although a Judenrat had been formed there prior to the massacres. In Mir a new Judenrat had to be elected in November, as several members of the first one, formed a few weeks after the German occupation began, had been murdered on November 9. Eliezer Breslin, who served in the second Judenrat, recalled the names of other members: Leiber Menaker, Shamay Berman, and Rabbi Eli Baruch Shulman, its head. The Judenrat, consisting of about 10 persons, continued to pass on German orders for forced labor and distributed food to the ghetto population. The Jews who worked received rations of 125 grams (4.4 ounces) of bread per day, which they collected from a shop on a weekly or monthly basis. Forced labor tasks consisted of cleaning streets, repairing roads, clearing snow in winter, doing agricultural work, and even performing domestic service for local officials.6
The German authorities ordered the transfer of the remaining 800 Jews to the closer confinement of the run-down Mir castle building just outside of town in May 1942. The castle was well suited for use as a ghetto, as there was only one entrance, blocked by barbed wire, and the windows were placed at a great height. Only about 4 Jews worked in the Jewish police force that guarded the entrance once the work details returned. In fact the guard was generally quite lax, as Hein would hold the Judenrat accountable if any Jews escaped.7
Fearing the liquidation of the ghetto, the Judenrat paid the first installment of a bribe to the local Belorussian mayor, Bielanowicz, in June 1942, when he promised in return that he would protect them. In fact, he had no such power, as the German authorities in Baranowicze had already ordered the liquidation of the ghetto by this time. Surprisingly, an attempt by the Judenrat to bribe the Gendarmerie Meister Hein was refused. He could only promise the Jews that they would die a humanitarian death.8
After the mass killing on November 9 in Mir, younger Jews formed an underground organization and made preparations for resistance. Efforts to obtain weapons, however, proved difficult, and several Jews were betrayed while doing so. Only Rufeisen’s quick thinking prevented any more Jews from falling into a trap laid by Serafinowicz.9
In the end, though, the underground members were fortunate in being able to organize their escape without a battle. In particular, they received vital assistance from Rufeisen, working from within the local police. In June 1942, Rufeisen overheard part of a telephone conversation between Hein and the Captain of Gendarmerie in Baranowicze, Max Eibner, which revealed the date of the planned “liquidation” of the Mir ghetto. Acting on this information, Rufeisen not only succeeded in smuggling more than 10 weapons into the ghetto, but he also managed to send nearly all the Gendarmes and local police on a wild-goose chase after non existent partisans just before the ghetto liquidation was due to take place.10
Nevertheless, many within the ghetto were reluctant to follow his advice to flee. The situation was hotly debated within the ghetto. Some feared that escape would only hasten the end for those who could not leave. In total, about 200 of the younger Jews decided to try their luck in the forests.11 They did not join the partisans immediately. But most of those who survived joined the partisans at some stage, either as fighters or in the family camps, especially those organized by the Bielski brothers.
Meanwhile, Rufeisen also managed to escape, probably thanks to his good relations with the Gendarmes. Shortly before the ghetto’s liquidation he was betrayed by one of the remaining Jews and confessed to Hein, “I am neither an enemy of the Germans nor a Pole. I will tell you the truth because so far I have always worked with you openly and honestly, but nevertheless I consider the planned anti-Jewish operation to be very wrong for I myself am a Jew. And this was the only motive for my action.”12 Nevertheless, the guard on him remained lax, and he was able to slip away without great difficulty. One Gendarme recalled, “[W]hen Rufeisen escaped, I had just come off duty. I was probably the first to see it. However, because we had such a good relationship with Rufeisen, I only reported what I had seen when Rufeisen was far enough away.”13
The shooting of the remaining Jews followed shortly afterwards on August 13, 1942, as planned. A grave was prepared in advance in the nearby Jabłonowszczyna Forest on instructions from Serafinowicz. On the eve ning before the liquidation, a reinforced guard of local police with machine guns was set up around the castle. The next morning a number of police auxiliaries (including Latvians and Lithuanians) from Baranowicze appeared in Mir. The remaining 560 Jews, mainly elderly people and women with children, were loaded onto trucks and taken to the killing site. Members of the Gendarmerie guarded the route and were ordered to ensure that no Jews escaped. Local police also took part in the shooting.14
The process of searching for those in hiding continued for some time after the Aktion. According to a report by Hein, some 65 of the escaped Mir Jews had been captured and shot by August 20, 1942. Investigative records reveal that 4 Jews were found in the cellar of Mir castle about three weeks after the ghetto liquidation. Local policemen from Mir dragged them out and then shot them nearby.15
Not only the police but also other local inhabitants continued to be active in tracking down escaped Jews over the following months.
A number of former local police collaborators were convicted by Soviet and Polish courts after the war. The German authorities opened investigations into the activities of the 8th Company, Infantry Regiment 727, and members of the German Gendarmerie post in Mir in the 1960s but did not have sufficient evidence against named individuals to initiate criminal proceedings. Mainly thanks to Rufeisen’s assistance, more than 50 Jews from the Mir ghetto managed to survive the war. Among those who gave evidence at the pretrial hearing against Serafinowicz in Dorking near London in 1996 were David Protas, Ze’ev Schreiber, Lev Abramovsky, Michael Breslin, Menachem Shalev, Israel Shifron, and Shmuel Cesler. Serafinowicz was deemed unfit for trial on medical grounds in January 1997 and died shortly afterwards. The memorial gravesites in and around Mir were restored with new inscriptions in the 1990s, once survivors were able to visit their former homes.
The main secondary works are Nechama Tec’s In the Lion’s Den: The Life of Oswald Rufeisen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), which provides an excellent biography of Oswald Rufeisen based on extensive interviews with him; and Martin Dean, Collaboration in the Holocaust: Crimes of the Local Police in Belorussia and Ukraine, 1941–44 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), which has several pages on the anti-Jewish Aktions in the Mir Rayon. Important also are the yizkor books for Mir: Nachman Blumental, ed., Sefer Mir (Jerusalem: Entsiklopedia shel Galuyot, 1962); and for Turzec: Michael Walzer-Fass and Moshe Kaplan, eds., Kehilot Turets ve-Yeremits: Sefer zikaron (Tel Aviv: Irgun yots’e Turets ve-Yeremits be-Yisrael uve-Artsot ha-Brit, 1978). Also see the memoir of Yehuda Gesik, The Turec Jewish Community, 1900–1944 (Tel Aviv, 1958).
Thanks to the large number of survivors from Mir, there are many useful testimonies at Yad Vashem (YVA) and also an early Rufeisen statement at the Jewish Historical Institute (AYIH) in Warsaw. Contemporary German documentation and Soviet Extraordinary State Commission reports are located both at GARF and at GABO, which also holds a number of Gendarmerie reports from Mir, including reports concerning Rufeisen’s arrest (995-1-7). German postwar investigations of Lt. Göbel (Sta. München) and Eibner (Sta. Oldenburg) were examined in both of those cities and also at the Zentrale Stelle in Ludwigsburg (BA-L). The main source for the activities of the local police is the extensive investigation into the activities of Semion Serafinowicz conducted by the Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit, New Scotland Yard (WCU). In particular, transcripts of the committal proceedings held at Dorking in 1996 are in the public domain. Other material was obtained from IPN (SWKsz 72-4); BA-BL (R 2104); and AAN. The Scotland Yard investigation was given access to a number of Soviet Criminal Case files for former Mir policemen, mostly from the KGB Archives in Grodno (AUKGBRBGrO).
Series: Resistance in the Smaller Ghettos of Eastern Europe
Critical Thinking Questions
- Learn about the lives of the Jews in Mir before the German invasion.
- Why did the Nazis implement a system of ghettos?
- What obstacles and limitations did Jews face when considering resistance? What pressures and motivations may have influenced their decisions and actions?
- Examine the realities and choices faced by Jewish council members in the ghettos.
- What pressures and motivations may have influenced the actions of the local population?
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933-1945. Vol. 2, Ghettos in German-Occupied Eastern Europe, ed. Martin Dean. Bloomington: Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2012.
WCU, Serafi nowicz case, Dorking committal proceedings (Dorking), Ivan Yatsevich, March 21, 1996; GARF, 7021- 148- 364.
WCU, S171B, S173C, S97, D3684, S175B, D1766, S87A.
BA-BL, R 2104/13, pp. 92– 99.
BA-L, B 162, 202 AR 149/63, statement of E.F., October 11, 1966.
WCU, Cila Zakheim, April 22, 1993, Yoel Mazorevich, August 9, 1995, and Eli Miranski, September 5, 1993.
WCU, Joseph Harkavy, December 5, 1991, Eliezer Breslin, May 22, 1995, Michael Breslin, April 11, 1995, and Lev Abramovsky, February 24, 1993; Miriam Swirnowski-Lider, “The German Occupation and Liquidation of Our Little Town,” in Blumental, Sefer Mir.
WCU, Oswald Rufeisen, March 1995 and February 23, 1996—Rufeisen dates the move to the castle as May 2, 1942; see also Eliezer Breslin, May 22, 1995, and Jack Sutin, May 13, 1995.
Tec, In the Lion’s Den, pp. 134– 135.
Tec, In the Lion’s Den, pp. 129– 131.
WCU, Oswald Rufeisen, March 1 and 5, 1995, and February 23, 1996.
AAN, 202/III/7, vol. 1, pp. 183– 187, and 202/III/8, vol. 2, pp. 158– 162; these reports of the Polish underground estimate 150 escapees from the ghetto. WCU, Eliezer Breslin, May 22, 1995, said that he counted 188 people leaving the ghetto. Israel Shifron, in April 1995, estimated that 220 Jews escaped.
GABO, 995- 1- 7, pp. 211– 212, Hein Report, August 20, 1942.
BA-L, ZStl, 2 AR-Z 16/67, vol. 8, W.G., July 24–25, 1969.
GABO, 995- 1- 7, pp. 211– 212, Hein Report, August 20, 1942, and p. 237, Gend. Captaincy Baranowicze Report, August 26, 1942; WCU, Sonya Damesek in July 1992 and Krystyna Szulc in October 1994; BA- L, ZStl, 2 AR- Z 16/67. Sta. Oldenburg 2 Js 138/68, vol. 1, pp. 60– 62, A.F., February 14, 1969, vol. 6, pp. 1146– 1155, E.F., March 13, 1969, vol. 8, W.G., July 24– 25, 1969, and B.R., July 28, 1969.
GABO, 995-1-7, pp. 211–212, Hein Report, August 20, 1942; AUKGBRBGrO, Criminal Case 35133, Archive File No. 696.