Small and Lesser-Known Camps: The Example of Bobruysk and Other Camps

The majority of camps were small and sometimes are almost unknown. These included camps belonging to sub-camps of larger camps, camps run by the Waffen-SS and the SS, camps attached to factories or municipalities, etc. As Holocaust historiography has often dealt with the larger and more known camps such as Dachau, Ravensbrück, and Auschwitz, the historiography of small camps has remained in the shadows. Yet, investigation of these camps is very important allowing for the general research on camps to be more balanced and the variegated aspects of Nazi policy to be seen within the different camps as well as in the life of the inmates. Such research on the smaller camps is needed for both the eastern countries, particularly those which were located in the former USSR, and in western countries, such as for the Gurs and Pithiviers in France. One of the major methodological difficulties in conducting research on small camps is the scarcity of sources, whether German, local, and Jewish. The following is an example of research conducted on one small camp.

The Example of Bobruysk

At the beginning of the 1970s, in order to collect testimony about crimes committed in a forest camp (Waldlager), the prosecutor from the city of Hamburg appealed for help to the Israeli police unit responsible for the investigation of Nazi crimes. The Nazis had established this camp near the city of Bobruysk in Belarus. This appeal by the prosecutor was related to an investigation that was underway in regard to SS Obersturmbannführer Rudolf Pannier, who had been commandant of the Waldlager from June 1943. The investigation had already revealed that a Judenlager, a camp for Jews, had been set up in this location which served as the main supply base for the Russland-Mitte front under the command of the Waffen SS. In the process of the investigation, the Israeli police drew the attention of staff members of the Yad Vashem Archives Division to the fact that a number of Jewish youths had been transported from the Warsaw ghetto to the camp at Bobruysk.

Until the investigation, the staff at Yad Vashem’s Archives had not encountered a single survivor of the camp at Bobruysk, nor did the Archives hold any single testimony about the camp. Moreover, there was no reference to the camp in the International Tracing Service (ITS) files in Bad Arolsen, Germany in 1949, or in Yad Vashem’s catalogue of concentration and labor camps in Nazi-occupied territories. The 1969 International Red Cross Yearbook [1] had only a few references to the Jewish youth camp at Bobruysk. In view of this background, one may ask what we do know today about this camp. What was its function? What was the period of its existence? To which institution was it subordinated and what do we know about the Jews who were sent there and about their fates?

A Military Base and a Judenlager

Because of their occupation of territories in the USSR, the German army needed to establish a central supply base for the Waffen SS in central and southern Russia. For this purpose they set up a central supply base in the forest camp close to the village (in Russian the sovkhoz, or state farm) of Kissyelevichi, eight kilometers southeast of the city of Bobruysk, in an area under military administration, in early 1942.

The first commander of the camp, in charge of its construction and operation, was SS Standartenführer Georg Martin. Martin required manpower for the construction of the camp and for its continuing operation. This necessary manpower was, however, not available to him from the German military forces serving in this location. Therefore, he decided to use Jewish laborers under the authority of the Main Office of Security of the Reich (RSHA), with the head of which he had close relations. Before the Jewish laborers arrived, a unit of 60 SS men who had been tried by SS courts and punished for various infractions were sent from the SS camp at Dębica in Poland to the forest camp in Bobruysk. The assignment of this SS unit was to prepare the camp for the arrival of Jews and to guard them afterwards.

The Jews arrived at the camp in two separate transports. The first group was made up of approximately 1,000 Jewish males from the Warsaw ghetto, including about 150 youth between the ages of 13 and 16 who had been held in the ghetto jail on Gęsia Street. They had been apprehended by the Jewish Order Police on orders of the German authorities and held in one of the ghetto's police stations. From here, they were transported on 28-29 May 1942 to the camp in Bobruysk (for an overview of these deportations, see Prais, Chronicle). This, in fact, was the first mass deportation from the Warsaw ghetto.

The second transport left the Warsaw ghetto at the end of July 1942, during the first week of the "great transport" of the Jews of this ghetto to the death camp of Treblinka. Most of the hundreds of young men in the second transport had been apprehended on the street or taken from their homes. Once arrested, they were sent to labor camps, where they were promised decent conditions and good food. According to a July 1942 report of the Judenrat of Warsaw, 1,413 workers were sent from the ghetto: 413 to a work camp in the Lublin District and 1,000 to Luftgaukommando Moskau (headquartered in Smolensk), and to Minsk (see the Report of the Warsaw Judenrat, July 1942). It turns out, in fact, that the latter group was not sent to Minsk but to Bobruysk. Thus, two transports of approximately 1,400 Jews were sent to Bobruysk from the Warsaw ghetto.

The Jewish camp was surrounded by a fence that enclosed an area of 150 sq. meters with four stables and a number of barracks, including ones for prisoners who were forced to clean, build, dig, load wood and coal, work as assistants in the supply depot, tend to pigs, tailor, make shoes, cook and assist other Jews with special skills. Their numbers declined daily. The vast majority of them were killed in two murder pits that had been dug in the neighboring forest.

In mid-September 1943 the Jewish camp was liquidated, although the military camp continued to function, mainly as a base for actions against the local partisan fighters. At that time, about 90 Jewish prisoners remained alive. They were transferred first to Minsk and then, about a week later, to the Lublin District, where they were dispersed among several concentration camps.

The Sources

Of the comprehensive research conducted on various types of camps, one can point to the research on forced labor camps by Wolf Gruner (Gruner, Labor) and Bella Gutterman (Gutterman, Bridge) as well as the more recent work, mainly on survivor testimonies, written by Christopher Browning on the Starachowice camp (Browning, Survival).

It should be stressed that information about the Jewish camp in Bobruysk derives only from survivor testimonies. There are no other sources. However, in contrast to research on Starachowice, which was based on a critical mass of 292 testimonies and a considerable number of eyewitness reports, the amount of testimony regarding the Jewish camp is small. It is, however, proportionate to the contemporary testimony from the survivors of the Soviet Union in general. Most of the testimonies relating to the Jewish camp were created by the objects of the post-war criminal investigation themselves, a small group of low-ranking SS men who tried to conceal the roles they had played - either by assumed amnesia or by denial of responsibility. Under interrogation, they tended to reply, “I didn't know, I didn't see, I had no connection with this matter." Nevertheless, much of the information about what took place in the camp comes from them (for file numbers, please refer to the list of sources under Zentrale Stelle below).

An additional potential source of information about the Judenlager in Bobruysk is the protocol of the war crimes trial of Johannes Loyen, a Dutch member of the Waffen SS. The protocol is located in the NIOD Archive in Amsterdam, but at present it is not available to researchers abroad on the grounds of protecting the privacy of individuals.

An issue concerning the testimony of Jewish survivors is that, while they too were often hesitant to share testimony, it was for an entirely different reason than for the previously mentioned SS members. Rather than to remain silent to protect themselves, the Jews were slow to share detailed testimony in an attempt to avoid re-experiencing the pain of the past. In the course of his legal investigation, the German prosecutor succeeded in finding 26 Jewish survivors around the world, specifically in Europe, Israel, and South and North America. The majority of them replied directly to the questions that were posed, but did not add any further information. Only seven provided information to various institutions concerned with documentation (see the testimonies by Zisholtz, Lublinitzki, Wachsman, Fabishevitz, Mane), while two witnesses offered information to historical commissions (Wasserstein, Leizerowicz) immediately after the war. One of these two testimonies amounted to just three lines. Other testimonies were later received at Yad Vashem, after the formal investigation by the German prosecutor had concluded.

By its very nature, testimony was not uniform among those who gave accounts. Three of the testimonies deserve particular attention: those of a gravedigger, a cook, and a youth or rather a boy, because Avraham Fabishevich was only 13 when he was deported to Bobruysk

Previously, Fabishevich had arrived in Warsaw with his parents and his brothers as refugees from the town of Pruszków. In Warsaw the family fell apart because of the desperate situation and the impossibility to fulfill their basic needs. In order to eat, Fabishevich used to sneak out of the ghetto, and on one occasion he was caught and sent to jail on Gęsia Street, where he was given a sentence of two years imprisonment. In his testimony, he recalled how he had wept when he heard the verdict. Afterwards, he was deported to Bobruysk in the first transport. Fabishevich's recollections of his life in the camp were partial. He mainly remembered the first selection, during which the Germans ostensibly offered the young men the chance to return to Warsaw, but actually intended to kill those who volunteered for this "opportunity." As he reported, in a fraction of a second he decided to join the group of potato peelers and, therefore, saved himself from being murdered right then and there.

By contrast, the cook, Yitzhak Wasserstein was the only survivor to provide several detailed accounts of the time he spent as a prisoner in the camp. In comparison to contemporary documents written in Warsaw, Wasserstein's account was quite precise and in agreement with that of the Huberband chronicle referred to above. Wasserstein, a young man from Warsaw was quite fortunate. He became a cook in the camp, and there is no doubt that this contributed to his survival. In addition to the comprehensive testimony he provided, he wrote memoirs about his experiences during the Holocaust (Wasserstein, O.33/5272 and O.93/20149; Wasserstein, Rampe).

Shraga Zisholts was 18 years old when he was deported in the second transport to Bobruysk. The SS forced him and another prisoner, who did not survive, to dig graves in the forest. They were kept extremely busy at that task. Zisholtz provided testimony twice, in 1972 and in 1994.

On her own initiative Miriam Peleg, who worked in the Testimonies Department in Yad Vashem's Archives Division, collected testimonies about what took place in the Jewish camp. She wrote as follows in her introduction to this material:

"The witnesses were questioned by the police before they gave their testimony to Yad Vashem and they were not able to repeat [for us] the terrible experiences they had undergone. In a particular way one felt a lack of emotion in the testimony of the camp gravedigger Shraga Zisholtz, who had much to relate. However, after he was questioned by the police, horrible memories returned to him and he was not able to sleep at night or to recount again in detail what he himself had seen in the Bobruysk camp, that was essentially an extermination camp even though this function was camouflaged by its being referred to as a labor camp."

Although Zisholtz's second testimony was more detailed than his first, it reflected an attempt to distance himself emotionally from the events, as was evident in the expression on his face.

Many questions remain about what took place at Bobruysk because most of the testimonies, including that of Wasserstein, are rather one-dimensional. That is to say, most testimonies focus on the atrocities themselves perpetrated against the survivors and those who did not survive. The perpetrators, however, whose names were never known or forgotten, were not mentioned in the testimonies.

Only to a small extent, if at all, do the sources tell us about the daily life of the many hundreds of young men in the camp and the ways they attempted to cope. There is little testimony about the types of bonds that were created between the prisoners in the conditions they suffered together: hunger, humiliation and murder during the period of over one year.

Returning to one of the problems noted at the outset, one of the reasons for the lack of mention of this Jewish camp in the list of camps is the fact that this camp near Bobruysk was not subordinated to the administration of the concentration camps of the SS Economic and Administrative Department (SS-Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt- WVHA), headed by Oswald Pohl and Theodor Eicke. Further, Bobruysk was not connected to camps that were associated with factories, nor was it subordinate or connected to the Schmeldt or Todt labor organizations. Emmanuel Ringelblum, the Polish Jewish historian who is well-known for his notes from the Warsaw ghetto, had erroneously believed that the Jewish camp near Bobruysk was a work camp affiliated to the Todt organization. However, according to the Hamburg persecutor's investigation, as it was affiliated with a military base of the Waffen SS, it would therefore have been subordinate to the SS Leadership Main Office (Führungshauptamt), headed by Hans Juttner.

Finally, one would like to know how many camps for Jews were established on German military bases of the Waffen SS and how many of them there were on Nazi-occupied territory in the USSR. As yet, there are no answers to these questions. However, the fate of the Jews sent to these camps is not difficult to surmise. The German wartime need for manpower did not prevent their murder, whether by execution or by being worked to death.

One may add that, in addition to the deportation to Bobruysk in July 1942 and its rapidly fatal results, 500 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto were deported to the headquarters of the Luftwaffe in Smolensk. The details of the fate of the latter group of Jews are not well known, since only three survivor testimonies have been found.

Dr. Lea Prais



1. Miriam Peleg who worked in the Yad Vashem Archives and collected testimony from prisoners in this camp wrote in December 1974 in an introduction to these testimonies: "During all the years of my work in collecting testimony from survivors of various camps, we have no [sic] come across a single survivor of the camp in Bobruisk [sic], nor did we find any interview information on this camp in the Yad Vashem Archive in Jerusalem. Also in the two volumes of the major catalogue on concentration and labor camps on the German occupied territories that was published in Arolsen in 1949 there is no mention at all of the camp in Bobryusk and only in the 1969 Yearbook of the International Red Cross on p. 466 can one find the most brief information" (See: Yad Vashem Archive {YVA] 03/3757).


Quoted sources and literature

Report of Head of the Warsaw Judenrat, July 1942 (YVA, O. 51/143)

Testimony of Shraga Zisholtz, YVA, O. 3/3757l;

Testimony of Shlomo Lubinitzki, Ibid, 3754;

Testimony of Shlomo Wachsman, ibid 3755;

Testimony of Avraham Fabishevitz, ibid. 3641;

Testimony of Moshe Mane, ibid. 9301


Testimony of Yitzhak Wasserstein, YVA, M.1.E/232;

Testimony of Melech Leizerowicz, ibid M. 1.E/ 1706.


Testimony of Yitzhak Wasserstein, O.33/5272;

Wasserstein’s testimony to the Shoah Foundation, YVA O. 93/20149;

Bundesarchiv -– Zentrale Stelle der Landesjustizverwaltungen, Ludwigsburg I 202 AR-Z 12/66, YVA, TR.10-2859; YVA, TR.10- 814; YVA, TR.10/829.


Christopher Robert Browning, Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave Labor Camp, W. W. Norton, New York, 2010.

Wolf Gruner, Jewish Forced Labor under the Nazis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.

Bella Gutterman, A Narrow Bridge to Life: Jewish Slave Labor and Survival in the Gross-Rosen Camp System 1940-1945, New York, Berghahn, 2008

Lea Prais: "An Unknown Chronicle – From the Literary Legacy of Rabbi Shimon Huberband, Warsaw Ghetto, May-June 1942", Yad Vashem Studies (38) 2010, pp. 92-97

Issak Wasserstein, Ich Stand an der Rampe von Auschwitz , Trochtelfingen; Selbstverlag, 2011.