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World War II
Since the early days of the occupation, a powerful and increasingly well-coordinated Belarusian resistance movement emerged. Hiding in the woods and swamps, the partisans inflicted heavy damage to German supply lines and communications, disrupting railway tracks, bridges, telegraph wires, attacking supply depots, fuel dumps and transports and ambushing German soldiers. Not all anti-German partisans were pro-Soviet.
To fight partisan activity, the Germans had to withdraw considerable forces behind their front line. The Operation Heinrich, a large-scale anti-partisan operation during the occupation, carried from October 3 to November 18, 1943 under code name "Heinrich" (after Heinrich Himmler), which was carried out under overall leadership of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski commissioned by Himmler for anti-partisan struggle. The Operation Heinrich was a punitive operation directed against the Partisan Republic of Rasony to wipe out the Soviet partisans in the region of Siebież, Pustoszka, Nevel, Polotsk, Drysa, Aświeja, Krasnapollie, Idritsa, a thinly populated area of about 4,000 square kilometers southwest of Pustoshka on the southern border of the Pskov Oblast.
This was carried out by slaughtering the population of the villages and farms located in this area. Most of the houses were burned down. Cattle and food stocks were collected and taken out of the area. The battle group of von dem Bach included the police battle group Jeckeln (after SS- und Polizeiführer Friedrich Jeckeln) and the police battle group von Gottberg (after SS- und Polizeiführer beim Generalkommissar für Weißruthenien Curt von Gottberg). Jeckeln's task force included among others: 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade, Polizei Füsilier Bataillon 286, Polizei Füsilier Bataillon 288, Lettische Polizei Front Bataillon 313, Lettische Polizei Front Bataillon 316, Lettisches Freiwilligen Polizei Regiment 1 Riga - the group of Gachtel, Schutzmannschaft/Lettische Polizei Front Bataillon 283 (719 people in the 24 strong points), the forces of the local police service (600 people in 22 settlements), 1 Latvian motorised infantry platoon (1/78), 1 squadron of the reserve Lettische Polizei Front Bataillon 317 - the guard group of de:Walther Schröder. They participated in the combat with partisans, shootings of innocent civilians, robberies, destruction of entire villages. It claimed 5,452 victims.
In September 1943, when the 3rd SS Volunteer Brigade was ready to battle, it was inspected in Dębica by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler with SS-Brigadeführer Johannes Soodla who was the units' Inspector General. The inspection lasted for two days and during this time Himmler was pleased with the brigade and announced in the speech given at the end of his visit that the 3rd SS Volunteer Brigade will soon be sent to the Eastern Front where it will replace the 2 SS Infantry Brigade.
The former SS-Unterscharführer Leo Sipelgas remembers: "In mid-September 1943 Himmler came to Dębica for two and a half days to inspect our brigade. The headquarter's company defiled to him. I was standing in the first line because I could speak German. It was interesting to see the SS leader so close, we didn't know much about him before…He stopped in front of us, smiled and said: 'I am proud of this kind of soldiers!' and kept walking with Augsberger and Kurg. The next day the whole brigade marched in front of Himmler. When we had lunch, Himmler spoke with us too, asked if we wanted to go to the front already, etc. The officers later told us that he was pleased with the brigade."
When the Waffen-SS units were numbered in October 22, 1943 the unit became the 3rd SS Volunteer Brigade. The former 1st grenadier regiment became the 42nd and the 2nd regiment became the 43rd. The other units of the brigade were marked with the number 53. In October the same year the 3rd SS Volunteer Brigade was sent with the railway-echelon to Army Group Nord command and was subjected to Nord's homefront security units' leader.
In October 1943 the 3. SS Freiwilligen Brigade went from Riga to Belarus to participate in the Operation Heinrich. Its aim was to crush the Partisan Republic of Rasony in Połack-Krasnapollie-Pustoszka-Idrica-Siebież area. Two battle groups were formed: Police battle group Jeckeln (after SS- und Polizeiführer Friedrich Jeckeln) and Police battle group von Gottberg (after SS- und Polizeiführer beim Generalkommissar für Weißruthenien Curt von Gottberg).
The 3rd SS Volunteer Brigade was subjected to SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the leader of the anti-partisan units. By October 1943 the front situation had become extremely dangerous for the nazi forces in Nevelsky District because of the Red Army's successful breakthroughs and also because of the Belarusian partisans' units in the forest behind the front. During the nazi attack the partisans were led by the Red Army officers left in the Rasony Raion forests and the leaders of the All-Union Communist Party (bolsheviks). This formation of the partisans was called the Partisan Republic of Rasony. The 3rd SS Volunteer Brigade received an order to destroy this republic.
The former 42nd Regiment's 1st Battalion leader, SS-Hauptsturmführer Harald Riipalu, gave an overview in his memoirs about the Partisan Republic of Rasony: "What happened was the following: the Germans had simply passed this area of land, which was hardly passable, during their attack of 1941, and they left the retreating Red Army units behind in good hope that the latters will die of hunger and come out. But the Russians kept living in the woods. The Germans' eastern politics brought more and more people from the surrounding counties and the more the Eastern Front moved towards West step by step, the partisans' army's military importance increased. The 'Republic' itself had received its name from the Rosson village, where the Red Army's headquarters had probably been. There were talks that the whole army's strength had increased to several thousands who were led by one Russian officer."
SS-Obersturmführer Argo Loorpärg, the leader of the 42nd Regiment's 14th Anti-Tank Company's 2nd unit, recalls: "The company was unloaded from the train in Siebież station. Two roads went to Idrica. The units had received a warning that the partisans had blown up all bridges on the eastern road. When SS-Obersturmführer [Bernhard] Langhorst was looking for the road that they had to take from the map, he accidentally chose the wrong road. Unfortunately he didn't consult with us, his unit leaders. After a few-kilometer long hike, the company column was facing a bridge blown up by the partisans. Once SS-Obersturmführer Langhorst realised his mistake, we could see he was upset. Any moment the column could have been attacked by the partisans on the highway wall. There was a thick forest next to the road. Langhorst called me to the beginning of the column and ordered me to take the Zündapp motorcycle and drive to the village road that heads left from bridge and was supposedly connecting both roads heading towards Idrica. We needed to make sure this road was passable. For some reason the 1st unit leader, SS-Obersturmführer [E.] Telk, who was standing right next to us, said he will drive there himself. After all, he was the deputy company leader. Mine and his messengers joined him on motorcycles. Telk was sitting in Zündapp's sidecar. His messenger was driving in front of him and my messenger was behind him. They managed to drive about three hundred meters. Then we saw how the first motorcycle drove on a mine on the road and blew into pieces. Shortly after this the second mine exploded under Zündapp's wheel. With his hands spread, Telk flew right to the field, Zündapp and its driver flew left. My messenger, who was the last one, managed to make a u-turn and drove back. When we got there, it became evident that the first motorcyclist was killed immediately, Zündapp driver's right leg was badly injured. Lieutenant Telk had no wounds. We carried him to the column. Telk gained consciousness, but was unable to speak. He was strongly shaken and probably had internal bleeding. We put both wounded men into the car and sent them back to Siebież hospital. The next day we received an announcement that SS-Obersturmführer Telk died in the hospital because of internal bleeding. The Zündapp driver survived. Telk and his messenger were the first killed men in the 42nd Regiment, and probably in the whole 3rd SS Brigade…"
The Operation Heinrich stood out for the extermination of many large villages by the nazi units: Sosni, Mamolja, Lopatki, Zauswetje, Bakanicha, Perewoz, Zawszcza, Rudnja, Baranowo, Gorbaczewo, Kanaszonki, Weruselimka, Skarbuny, Weratino, Kowali, Lisna, Welikoje Selo, Aświeja, Malaszkowo, Zaluga, Borkowiczi, Widoki, Latygowo, Juzefówo, Dieży, Kobylniki... Descriptions of nazi cruelty, for instance cramming women and children into burning houses, spread rapidly among the civilian population.
SS-Obersturmführer Argo Loorpärg: "During the hike, which lasted about a week, the 3rd SS Volunteer Brigade passed roads that seemed endless, once flowing through the forest and then passing the swampy lands and went through the villages that were completely empty. In some houses, warm food was still on the table, but there was no one to eat it. The partisans knew of the attack against them and the villagers had escaped to partisan camps. In the attack in an area, which was inhabited by the partisans, the biggest threat to the SS Brigade was the land mines placed on the roads. When the partisans were afraid of armed meetings with the SS Brigade, they often mined the roads. Sometimes this was done very quickly, using the time in between the moving of the SS columns.""
By October 31, 1943 the police battle group Jeckeln was south of Siebież-Idrica-Pustoszka railway line and battle-ready. The operation began on November 1. The battles with the partisans lasted for five days in the forests of Rasony. The 3rd SS Volunteer Brigade invaded the partisans' main point in Albrechtowo, which was a relatively large place considering the surroundings.
Akulina Semionowna Iwanowa, Rudnja, Rasony Raion, Wiciebsk Region: "...My husband was in the detachment. We would collect milk and cart it to the detachment. And we had just come back from the detachment. We all carried milk to the partisans. We had taken some there and come home. And I had only just started to light the stove when Shchedrov, our neighbour, comes running and says: 'The Germans are coming!' Then I quickly carried some things out of the house, and then the shooting started. And they went around along the edge of the woods, those Germans, and the shooting started. And we came out of the woods then and headed for the double-track section. We sat down there, lay there, and the Germans immediately surrounded us. They went and drew us up. 'Well then,' they say, 'well then, if your husbands are not with the partisans, then the partisans will shoot at you, but if they are with the partisans, then they won't shoot at you.' The partisans stopped firing. Their machine-guns there got out of order or something. The shooting died down. So the Germans herded us away... QUESTION: Where did you say they drew you up? Right where the double-track section is. And they drew us up right like this, on the side, at the edge of the road. So the partisans would see us. And they themselves are standing there. And Poltorenko. He hugged and kissed one of them who had a big cockade... Who's Poltorenko? He pegged out not long ago. It was him who sold us to the Germans. He was from our village, used to be the trackman here."
SS-Unterscharführer Leo Sipelgas continues his memories: "I can recall from the battles near Rasony that we conquered a relatively large partisans' camp. We lost five men, who were killed, but took twenty to prison and got ten horses, several carriages, a number of pigs and cows, few casks of vodka, mundungus, radio station, field hospital and printing house. We found thousands of copies of underground newspapers, German-Russian dictionaries and potato bags full of rubles from the printing house. During the battles a large number of partisans managed to hide in the surrounding forests, nevertheless, I had never seen so many dead bodies before. Some naked Russians were imprisoned while they were in sauna. We were in great mood - everyone wanted to keep storming on after the first victory. Young men like us believed that victory is waiting for us…"
Akulina Semionowna Iwanowa, Rudnja, Rasony Raion, Wiciebsk Region: "And so they herded us into Rudnja. And drove us into the bathhouse. And we sat in there. They started to interrogate us. Well those they interrogated they'd take out there and begin flogging them. The flogging went on in Osipov's house. My sister was there, too. They caught my sister the next day in the field and brought her in. And they rounded up all the cows took them away. They interrogated one woman interrogated another and let them go. Well, I think, they'll let us all go. We can see out of awindow in the bathhouse. And then they ran after them and brought them back. Then they summoned Dyubenchikha. Each family separately. And flogged them with a lash. They summoned Djubenczicha, they summoned Szarpenczicha, they summoned Bychowcowa... Each family separately. And - they don't come back. They summoned them - and they don't come back. Then I had to go with my kids. They summoned me. QUESTION: How old were your children? One boy was born in thirty-three, the other in thirty-seven. Well, and as soon as they'd summoned me there, into the house, they Ain Mere immediately said: 'Say where your husband is!' I says: 'He was called up in the first mobilization.' 'Speak, you, partisan scum! Where were you today?' 'Nowhere,' I says, 'I cooked some food for the kids, washed some laundry. I didn't go anywhere. 'Speak at once!...' He grabbed me by the hair and threw me to the ground. Started to thrash me. They brought a jar of sand, this big jar of dry sand. 'Hat it,' he says, 'you, partisan bitch!' They poured it onto the table. And I ate that sand. It was dry, wouldn't go down. There was manure there and everything. There's no way I can eat it. And all the same I ate it - I was choking, couldn't breathe. I ate it all up. He started to thrash my head like mad with the lash. 'Lick it clean, you, dog, lick up that sand.' I licked it up with my tongue. Then: 'Stick out your tongue! Onto the table!' I'm standing there like that, and he tugs away at my head by the hair. Then pulled out my tongue and started to pierce it with a big needle. Everything just went numb, I didn't feel anything... Then - my hair... One twisted, then the other twisted my hair - how they tugged at it, how they tugged at it!... They tore all the hair from my head. Then they laid me down, one of them stepped on my head, the other on my feet and they started to flog me with lashes. They flogged and flogged me... They would have flogged me to death just like my sister and Djubenczicha... But they brought them something to eat. Bread spread with butter and these mess-tins. They grabbed up that food and went out into the street. And a German dragged us to the shed. He dragged us right up to it and motions to us - he covered us with sacking and rags and motions to us: don't get up. And he himself went off and didn't come back for some time. He comes leading a horse. This great big horse. They start leading it over the people, to trample them. The kids - with that horse... An officer brought it, the interpreter. A German. But people say: 'You're doing wrong ... mister interpreter.' 'Why,' he says, 'am I doing wrong?' 'My husband was called up in the first mobilization... What are you punishing us so for?...' Then the interpreter started to look how people were lying - who was alive. It was already rather late. And those polizeis... They sure had their fun with us!... First of all they took Lida Bychowcowa and dragged her along. And stuck her boy with a bayonet. And they threw them right into the pit - and shot them. Well, and then came Szarpenczicha. Then Djubenkina's family. And Djubenkina's daughter was there, she was called Janina, sixteen years old she was. A German came, an officer, and says: 'If you agree to be with me, you'll live, but if you don't agree, we'll kill you.' And she goes: 'Kill me!' She huddled up behind her mother, who was already dead. 'I'm not going anywhere!...' Then they took them to the pit and shot them. And now my older boy is going... And I couldn't feel with my legs any more whether I was walking over the earth or sky. I'm burning all over, all covered with lash-marks, my hair is all torn out, my tongue swole up. They lead us to the pit. And my older boy calls out: 'Don't shoot, dear sirs!' And the younger one... I was carrying him in my arms... I don't remember anything more... I found myself in the pit. There was just a flash, this fire... He shot my older son first, then me, then the younger boy... Well, then they buried us - I don't remember anything, but I hear - the sand at first goes sh-sh, sh-sh, sh-sh... They started to throw in sand. Ants crawled into my mouth and nose. It was awful there in the earth. They buried us, I heard them leave - stomp-stomp, stomp-stomp... That I seemed to remember. But how I got out and crawled off a ways, like from here to that little house - I remember nothing about it. I remember that when I got out I thought: 'I'll crawl over and drown myself in the stream.' That I remember. But then, when I'd collapsed, I'd raise my head - and couldn't go on. I didn't know, see, that I'd been shot. I don't remember anything. They say I was shot through: I was shot here in the back of the head, and the bullet corned out. They flew in that ... doctor from behind the front line, to the Selyavshchina airfield. Uh-huh. I only got back my memory on the ninth day. The woman at whose place I stayed, Belkowa, told me that. Well, when the Germans left, the partisans came here. And I crawled off, a ways, lay down, and a pool of blood, people say, collected there... I was lying in that blood. I hear someone starts to speak. From Sosni, this man who lived there. Waszen was their last name, the Wasznjows. The old man ran up and says: 'Some woman is lying here, a dead woman. Semionowna! Collective farmers, over here!' They came running. And I heard his voice, raised myself up backward like this - I hit against the ground and blood poured out from my mouth, from my ears - all over. They lifted me up on some rags and carried me to the Belkows' house. It's only afterwards they sent for the doctor. My husband tame from his detachment - sent for him. That doctor came and got the sand out of me. Both vomit and sand came out. He got everything out - both sand and water... He put something on those wounds on my tongue, then here, on this wound... Nurses came from the detachment so the wound wouldn't fester. But my head kept going bom-bom-bom... No ways it would stop. And he came later, opened my skull, and there was blood on the membrane of the brain, and he took out that blood with some kind of little spoon. When he'd removed the blood from the membrane... QUESTION: You say the doctor flew in from behind the front line? To Seljawszczina, to the airfield. They wanted to fly me behind the front line. But the surgeon says: 'To save yourself, you need a pail of poppy-seeds and honey mixed together. You must grind the poppy-seeds, pound and grind them with the honey and eat it. You've lost all your blood. Then you'll get well and be able to leave your bed. But if you don't use this... They won't give it to you behind the front line. Wartime.' So then. That's how I got well. The inhabitants brought me a pail of poppy-seeds within a day, and we had our own honey, we had our own bees. That's what. I got back my memory only on the ninth day and started to eat that, and only got back on my feet after four months."
The SS Brigade was not able to stay in Albrechtowo for long because at the same time strong Soviet Union regular armies were breaking through the front quite near. They also mentioned the panic that had spread, even among the hardened Belarusian Auxiliary policemen. On November 6 an order came to move towards east near Lake Nieszczarda because the Red Army had broken through the front in Newel area, and stop the Operation Heinrich during which at least 5,452 people were murdered.
The 3rd SS Volunteer Brigade's next assignment was to bar the breakthrough and fight their enemy, who this time was the Red Army's regular units, back to its initial positions on the Nieszczarda and Lake Mieszno's line. During the repositioning the 42nd Regiment's Commander, SS-Standartenführer Henn-Ants Kurg, was badly injured - his car drove on a mine on Idrica-Siebież highway. Kurg died a few days later. SS-Sturmbannführer Paul Vent was appointed to his position. The 42nd Regiment's 1st Battalion leader, SS-Hauptsturmführer Harald Riipalu, recalls: "While we were on the edge of the forest in front of Albrechtowo, we suddenly received an order on one November evening: 'The enemy has broken through near Newel. The Brigade must stop chasing the partisans and has to break through until Lake Nieszczarda as quickly as possible!' This breakthrough can also be called a cut-through. The road from Albrechtowo until Gorbaczewo and Mieszno villages near Lake Nieszczarda, which was some ten kilometers long, was supposed to be cleared of the trees that were on the road. The Brigade had reached the front. It had reached the eastern border of 'Rasony Republic' and was facing the regular Red Army."
Aljona Iwanowna Bulawa, Bereznjaki, Żytkawiczy District, Gomel Region: "Oh, just what was this! - it was not war, but just... Well, those that are at the front, well, they go and kill those people - but they were fighting, weren't they ? But what about a poor little child ? A little boy and he, poor thing, hasn't been anywhere. They killed them, too... This little child is running - what do they want to kill him for? He's little, he's small child, he's rolling like a little apple... And they - shoot at him. Sparks are flying!... What was it, what had made them like this? - I don't know. They were wild beasts, not people. They weren't people, they were - beasts..."
On 22 June 1944 the huge Soviet offensive Operation Bagration was launched, Minsk was re-captured on 3 July 1944, and all of Belarus was regained by the end of August. Hundred thousand of Poles were expelled after 1944. In total, Belarus lost a quarter of its pre-war population in World War II - mainly Poles and Jews - including practically all its intellectual elite. About 9 200 villages and 1.2 million houses were destroyed. The major towns of Minsk and Vitsebsk lost over 80% of their buildings and city infrastructure.
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