A hundred-dollar bill. Well, that’s what I first thought last Saturday when Martina Westmoreland brought me the green piece of paper she had found in ABC’s women’s restroom. A second look told me that the number 100 was all I could make out, because all the writing was in a foreign language which I didn’t recognize. I showed the bill to a couple of other people, and someone noticed that the letters were in “Cyrillic Script,” which is used in Russia and other Slavic countries of Europe. I couldn’t stop there because this might be a treasure; our 100-whatever bill might be worth a million dollars. I had to find out, and I looked at individual letters to try to identify a word that would lead to the country that issued this currency. Finally, I saw a word that looked like it began with “bE,” followed by an upside down “V” and an “A.” Somehow, that shouted to me “Belarus!” A little on-line search for “Belarus currency” and I’d found my 100-ruble bill, which with the current exchange rate, is worth just over half a penny in US money.
I couldn’t stop there for two reasons. First, I realized I knew nothing about the small country of Belarus, and my curiosity was driving me further. Second, I was really bothered that some people in central Europe, not even in a Third-World region, could be living in such economic difficulty that their money was worth only one twenty-thousandth of the dollars in my wallet. How poor was the average Belarusian? How rich was I?
So, I spent all Monday morning researching the nation of Belarus, its history and its people. Here are some interesting things I found:
Belarus is a land-locked nation surrounded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, its total size is about that of Kansas, its population is about 9.6 million, mostly living in urban areas, while 40% of the land area is forested. The Belarusian people are a Slavic group who immigrated from the Balkan regions, north of Italy and Greece, more than 1500 years ago. Because of the ebbs and flows of European power struggles over the centuries, the population also includes large minorities of Russians, Poles, Ukrainians and other groups.
In the ninth century AD, Belarus became Christianized under two actual physical brothers remembered as St. Cyril and St. Methodius, who were priests and missionaries of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and that has been the dominant religion ever since. In the 10th century, the Vikings dominated Belarus and made it an important part of their trade with the Byzantine Empire.
Belarus, just west of Russia proper, has also been known as White Russia and has been a significant part of the history of Tsarist Russia, the Russian Revolution and the formation of the USSR as one of the primary Soviet Socialist Republics. The current political leader is President Alexander Lukashenko, who has been “re-elected” repeatedly since 1994 and is referred to by some as “Europe’s last dictator.”
Minsk is the major city of Belarus. Located about halfway between Warsaw and Moscow, it became the host to thousands of Jewish refugees during the 1920s struggle between Poland and Russia. By the time of the beginning of World War two, more than 50% of the population of Minsk were Jewish.
Hitler began his war on the northern frontier by attacking Poland and Belarus. His blitzkrieg against Minsk which started June 28, 1941, was called “Operation Barbarosa,” and it was described by Der Fuhrer as “Germany’s war against Jewish Bolshevism.” It was at Minsk that the Nazis established the largest Jewish ghetto in Europe, with 100,000 “residents,” who were really prisoners. As new Jews were brought in from outlying areas, people were systematically shot in waves because of the overcrowding. Others starved because no food was provided.
One story of cold cruelty particularly stands out. General-Commissar Wilhelm Kube, commander of the whole northern Nazi army, personally participated in the March 2, 1942 killings in the Minsk Ghetto. During the search of the ghetto area by the Nazi police, a group of children were seized and thrown into a deep pit of sand covered with snow. “At that moment, several SS officers, among them Wilhelm Kube, arrived, whereupon Kube, immaculate in his uniform, threw handfuls of sweets to the shrieking children. All the children perished in the sand.”*
In all, over 800,000 Jews died in Belarus during the holocaust.
I looked at my nearly-worthless 100-ruble bill again. I said, “God, this is why you brought this piece of paper to me. You wanted me to follow its trail through history to the day when a heartless general wearing a swastika stood at the edge of that pit and mocked screaming, dying children. Then you wanted me to think about that gang of privileged young Americans who, just last week in Charlottesville, shook their fists, proudly sporting the same swastika General-Commissar Kube wore and shouted obscene insults and threats against Jews.” SMH
— Pastor George Van Alstine
*Gilbert, Martin (1986). The Holocaust: the Jewish tragedy. Cited in Wikipedia, “The Holocaust in Belarus.”