Maly Trostinets Camp


Maly Trostinets - Camp Entrance (Private Archive)

During November 1941, the Security Police and SD authorities in Minsk, established a new camp at the former collective farm (kolchos) of some 200 hectares, the so-called 'Karl Marx' in the village of Maly Trostinec, which was 12 kilometres southeast of the city of Minsk and 1 kilometre south of the Bolshoi Trostinec village. The camp site had been identified in September 1941, and initially the camp was intended to supply the local Nazis forces with food. In addition a mill, sawmill, locksmith shop, joinery, tailoring, shoemakers asphalt works and other workshops were built. Jews and Soviet Prisoners of War built barracks for approximately six hundred slave labourers and their guards.

The prisoners, selected for work in the camp, were kept at first in a large barn and in twenty cellars, which were formerly used by the local farmers for storing potatoes, vegetables and meat. Later they were housed in damp barracks, where bunks were constructed from thick unshaved wooden planks in three tiers. There was no bedding or mattresses, the people slept on straw.

From March 1942, the camp was surrounded by a threefold barbed wire fence, the middle fence was electrified, and wooden watch towers were erected at the corners of the perimeter, which was guarded 24 hours a day. A guardroom was located close to the entrance to the camp, and a gallows was erected. During mid-March 1942, partisans attacked the camp and killed some of the guards; therefore the Germans increased the total number of guards to 250, encircled each barrack with a barbed wire fence, posted additional guards around the barracks, established runways for dogs and placed machine-gun nests around the entire site. A subterranean bunker was built, with a tank standing atop it. Those people who were to be liquidated the following day were held in the bunker. The 150 camp personnel were free to beat, shoot or hang any prisoner without challenge from any higher authority.

Like the Aktion Reinhardt camps in Poland, the buildings in Maly Trostinets were intended to be no more than temporary structures. However, there were no fixed killing facilities. In this respect Maly Trostinets most closely resembled was Chelmno, murder was most principally committed by shooting, though mobile gas vans were also used. Initially victims were transported to Minsk, which had been intended by Reinhard Heydrich to play a more prominent part in the 'Final Solution.' However, German reverses on the Eastern Front prevented this and transports to the East from the Reich and the 'Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,' announced for January 1942, were cancelled as a consequence.

SS-men responsible for the killings at Maly Trostinets met the transports arriving at the goods-railway station in Minsk. The deported Jews were told that they would be transferred to houses and estates around Minsk, but before this, they had to leave their suitcases which would be forwarded to them by trucks. The Jews also had to surrender their Identification Cards, money and valuables, for which they received receipts. The victims were completely unaware of their fate. A group of approximately 20 -80 specialists were selected from every transport and they were sent to the Minsk ghetto or to Maly Trostinets. The remainder were taken by trucks directly to the execution site in the Blagowshtchina forest. Before they were killed, they had to undress. Then they had to march, clad only in their underwear to the 60 metre long and 3 metre deep pits, where they were shot in the neck by squads of up to 100 Sipo and SD men. A special group of Russian forced labourers had to dig out these pits, and in winter pits were created by detonating dynamite, and fill them in, after the killings. Finally, bulldozers or tractors were used to level the pits.

During the unloading of the victims the Germans were very brutal. To cover the shots and screams while the Jews were being slaughtered, music was played from a gramophone, amplified through a loudspeaker, so that the local population in neighbouring villages could not hear the executions. Everything was so well organised, the victims had no opportunity to resist.

There had been mass executions of local Jews in Minsk since August 1941, which continued in and around the city until the ghetto there was liquidated on October 21, 1943. Beginning on November 10, 1941, with the arrival of the first transport from the Reich, which consisted of 990 Jews from Hamburg, the Minsk ghetto became in effect, a transit camp for those earmarked for extermination. Most of the Jews from Hamburg were transported directly to the Blagowshtchina forest to be killed there. In April 1942, Heydrich ordered Eduard Strauch, the commander of the Sipo and SD in White Ruthenia, to kill the deportees immediately on arrival. After the first phase of deportations to Minsk had been concluded in November 1941, sixteen trains with more than 15,000 from cities in the Reich, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Poland, Austria and France arrived at the Minsk goods station between May and October 1942. However, the reception arrangements changed and from May 10, 1942, and continuing during the early morning hours between 04.00 and 05.00 hours, on Tuesdays and Fridays thereafter, most of the deportees were brought to the primitive 'railway halt' at Maly Trostinets, which was sited at a dead-end railway track in the camp itself.

From August 1942, onwards, the trains were routed via a branch line much closer to the estate itself, and from that time on, it was here that disembarkation took place. The few not chosen for immediate execution were formed into special detachments. They were kept in the camp under heavy guard, and forced to take the bodies of those killed to pits where they were buried or burned, to sort out the effects of those who had been murdered for shipment back to Germany, or on camp maintenance. From time to time these slave-labourers were subject to selection and murdered in their turn. In addition to these shooting squads, four gas vans were in operation in the Minsk area, some of which began operating at Maly Trostinets at the beginning of June 1942. These gas vans were known locally as 'Dushegubki' - 'soul killer' in Russian, and they accounted for many victims.

Tens of thousands of Jews from Byelorussia, and other European countries were murdered at Maly Trostinets. Trainloads of Jews from Austria, Germany and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia arrived and were exterminated. Transports originated from Berlin, Hannover, Dortmund, Munster, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Frankfurt am Main, Kassel, Stuttgart, Nurnberg, Munich, Breslau, Konigsberg, Vienna, Prague, Brno, and Theresienstadt.

After the first transport left Vienna for Maly Trostinets on May 6, 1942. a further eight transports containing 7,500 Viennese Jews followed, along with several hundred Austrians taken from Theresienstadt. Only seventeen people are known to have survived among the almost 9,000 Austrian Jews deported to Maly Trostinets. Between July 14, 1942, and September 22, 1942, five transports each containing approximately 1,000 people arrived at Maly Trostinets from Theresinstadt. On one of these transports that left on August 4, 1942, forty deportees were removed from the train in Minsk. The remaining nine-hundred and sixty Jews were ordered off the train, loaded into gas vans and driven to the forest and killed. Another transport of 1,000 people left Theresienstadt on August 25, twenty-two young men were taken to work on a farm; two of them escaped to join the partisans. One was killed in action, whilst one survived. All the other people in the transport were gassed in the gas vans.

Maly Trostinets also served as a killing site for the Jews of Minsk and the surrounding area. Since Maly Trostinets was only one of several places where Jews were murdered in the Minsk region, it is difficult to arrive at an accurate figure for the number of Jews killed at the camp. There were about 400,000 Jews living in Eastern Byelorussia in mid-1941. Approximately 320,000 Eastern Byelorussian Jews were murdered during the occupation. Relatively few were transported to the death camps in Poland; most were killed on the spot. In addition, the Jewish pre-war population of Eastern Byelorussia had been swollen by an influx of refugees from Poland, who were fleeing the German invaders. But Jews were not the only victims. Many thousands of civilians and partisans, as well as Soviet Prisoners of War were murdered at Maly Trostinets. Like Aktion Reinhardt in Poland, there were no transport lists to record the numbers and identities of those murdered. For this reason, and because the Germans destroyed most of the records about the camp, the estimated death-toll of the Maly Trostinets death-toll has varied enormously. Estimates place the total number of victims at 206,000 according to W.Benz: 'Dimension des Volkermords, Mordfelder. ' In 1995, following further examination of archival material, the number of those killed was revised upwards to 546,000, although this figure might refer to the Minsk region as a whole. For example between September 1941, and October 1943, mass shootings were carried out in the Blagowshtchina forest, some 5 kilometres from Maly Trostinets, where an estimated number of 150,000 were killed, before the execution site was moved in October 1943, to the Shashkowa forest, where more than 50,000 were murdered. It should be stressed that many of these estimates of the number of victims are based upon Soviet investigations organised in Minsk during 1944 and 1945. It is probable that the actual number of people murdered either by shooting or in gas vans was much lower. The German historian has estimated that the total number of victims at Maly Trostinets at 60,000. What is beyond dispute is that Byelorussia suffered the highest overall loss of life of any former Soviet Republic during the Second World War.

In the summer of 1942, Reinhard Heydrich ordered SS- Standartenfuhrer Paul Blobel, who as Einsatzgruppen 4a in Russia had carried out the infamous Babi Yar massacre in Kiev in September 1941, to erase all traces of the mass killings in the East. The exhumation and cremations commenced at Maly Trostinets on October 27, 1943, organised by Karl Harder, Blobel's deputy. The camp commandant received police reinforcements as well as 100 Jews who were ordered to undertake this hideous task, which was known as Commando 1005. The Jewish prisoners refused to undertake this work and were immediately killed in the gas vans. In their place, a group from the Minsk prison was assigned to this task. They were promised their freedom on completion of this task, but they too were gassed.

Whilst working at this gruesome task the prisoners were chained, and this applied when they were housed in their bunker at night, in order to prevent escapes, and this was a common practice within Sonderkommando 1005, wherever it operated. The witnesses were to be destroyed along with the evidence. Thirty-four mass graves - some of them 50 metres long in Blagowshtchina forest were opened, some of which contained as many as 5,000 corpses. After the cremation of approximately 100,000 corpses was completed, a team of Soviet Prisoners of War were made to sift the ashes in search of gold. The ashes were used as fertilizer for the camp fields.

A cremation facility was also built in the Shashkowa forest - some 500 metres away from the camp. in the autumn of 1943, where the bodies of those killed by shooting or gassing were incinerated. Here, from the inception, the Germans tried arranging an execution pit as a primitive crematorium. A 3 metre high wooden fence was built around the site. Six parallel rails, 10 metres long were installed at the bottom of a 4 metre deep pit, with an iron grate placed on them. The pit was supported on three sides with iron panels. The fourth side served as a ramp where the gas vans unloaded the bodies of the victims, directed by Deputy Camp Commandant Reider. The thirty workers who built the cremation facility, were then shot and burned in the pit. This cremation pit was visible until the 1960's. A nearby lake served for cleaning the gas vans before they returned to Minsk.

On June 28, 1944, as the advancing Red Army approached Maly Trostinets, Russian airplanes attacked the camp. That day, the camp guards, made up of Latvian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Rumanian, and White Russian auxiliaries were replaced by a German special SS detachment. These troops locked all surviving prisoners in the barracks. These prisoners were Russian civilians and Jews from Minsk and elsewhere. The barracks were set on fire, and the SS opened fire at all those that fled the burning buildings. Approximately 20 Jews managed to evade the fire and the bullets; they hid in the nearby forest, until the arrival of the Red Army six days later. Amongst the few survivors of Maly Trostinets, they were taken to Moscow by their liberators and then kept for two years in a camp in Siberia, before being released during 1946.

On June 28, or June 29, 1944, the chief of the Sipo and SD in Minsk, Heinz Seetzen, ordered the execution of the remaining 6,500 in the Wolodarski Street Prison and the Sherokaja Street Camp in Minsk. Between June 28, and June 30, 1944, they were locked in the former kolchos barn in Maly Trostinets, then shot and burned. The first victims had to stand on a layer of firewood, then they were shot. Their bodies were covered with another layer of wood. Then the next had to climb on the pile and were shot. This went on until the last layer of bodies reached the top of the barn. Three other funeral pyres were erected next to the barn, then the whole apocalyptic arrangement was set alight. On July 4, 1944, four days after this 'action,' the Red Army arrived at the site. The burning pyres were still visible. On June 30, 1944, the Germans had burned the remainder of the camp to the ground.

In post-war trials, conducted in West Germany, in relation to the war crimes committed at Maly Trostinets, Otto Erich Drews, Otto Hugo Goldapp and Max Hermann Richard Krahner were all sentenced to life imprisonment for their part in the killing of Sonderkommando 1005, prisoners. Other former camp personnel were given varying sentences in connection with war crimes carried out in Maly Trostinets itself and the wider Minsk area.  A number of trials took place in the Soviet Union, but it is fair to say only a very small number of perpetrators were brought to trial.

What happened in Maly Trostinets has only been researched in the west on a limited scale, it is hoped that with improved access to previously classified Soviet documentation that this anomaly will one day be rectified.


www.deathcamps,org online resource

French L. MacLean, The Field Men, Schiffer Military History, Atglen PA, 1999

Photograph - Private Archive

Holocaust Historical Society 2018