Andrea Simon is a writer and photographer who lives in New York City. Her 2002 book, Bashert: A Granddaughter's Holocaust Quest focuses on her ancestral town of Volchin, not far from Brest. Here is a summary from the book jacket's notes, quoted by permission:
Haunted by her grandmother's Old World stories and bigger-than-life persona, Andrea Simon undertook a spiritual search for her lost family. Her sojourn, a quest for truth, gave her tragic answers.
On a group tour of ancestral Jewish homeland sites that had been crushed in the Holocaust, she makes a riveting detour to her grandmother's village of Volchin, in what is now Belarus, where the last known family members had lived. There, she followed the trail of the death march taken by the village Jews to the place of their slaughter by Nazis and Nazi collaborators in the fall of 1942. During the same period, in Brona Gora, a forest between Brest and Minsk, some 50,000 Jews were shot. Simon was in one of the first American groups to visit this little-publicized site.
Bashert, the Yiddish word for fated, guided her through the arduous quest. With newly translated archival records, she peeled back layers of clues to confront the mystery. This story of her momentous odyssey reveals the terrible fate of her kin.
Mass shootings of Jews, particularly in the Soviet Union, have not been addressed with the same focus given to concentration-camp atrocities. Yet Simon's research reveals that Nazis killed nearly fifty percent of their Jewish victims by means other than gassing. In the historiography of the era, comparatively scant reference is made to the executions at Brona Gora. Thus Simon fills a significant gap in Holocaust history by providing the most extensive report yet given on the executions at Brona Gora and Volchin.
As she interweaves tragic narrative with evocative family anecdotes, Simon writes a story of life in czarist Russia and, within this frame, of her family's flight from pogroms and persecution. From a unique vantage, Simon's memoir discloses her dogged genealogical search, the newly perceived Jewish history she uncovered, and the ramifications of the Holocaust in the postwar generation.
View Ms. Simon's website, here.
In the process of exploring her Volchin heritage, Andrea Simon learned about the tragedy of Brest. She discovered that the fates of Brest's Jewish citizens in the execution grounds of Brona Gora (alternate spelling: Bronnaya Gora) were not well-known, and she resolved to do her part to tell the story. Here are some excerpts, reproduced by permission, with reference headings added by the webmaster:
The Jewish Population and Establishment of the Brest Ghetto
Statistics for the city of Brest, October 1, 1936, reveal the total population of 51,170, including 21,518 for the Jews -- over 40 percent of the total. By the start of the war, Brest had about 26,000 Jews; and by the time of the Brest ghetto liquidation on October 15, 1942, the Jewish population included people from the countryside, thus increasing the total to 36,000.
Brest Passport List
Though the Germans had invaded the city in 1939, it wasn't until their second invasion in the summer of 1941 that the systematic annihilation began. At first, German troops were courteous; but then the SS burst into the city. Posters were placed everywhere ordering all Jews to assemble at the city's main square to receive work orders. Those small numbers of Jews who came were taken to the fort, where they were starved and executed by a firing squad. In the next few days, during door-to-door searches, more men were rounded up and executed in the fort.
On July 12, 1941 (other sources attribute this date to June 28), over 5,000 men, between the ages of 13 to 70, were arrested. Many of these men were educated professionals. An SD squad organized their execution.
In November 1941, orders were issued for the creation of the Brest ghetto. On December 16, 1941, all the Brest Jews were forced to live in the ghetto -- actually it was two areas, one small and the other large, separated by the Warsaw-Moscow Highway. Encircled by barbed-wire fences, its three entrances were gated and guarded by round-the-clock Gendarmes. In all, 18,000 Jews were registered.
The German Kommissar Pandikov and Chief of Police Rode (Rohde) were in charge of the ghetto. Like other ghettos, a Judenrat, or special commission of affluent Jews selected by the Germans, was created to keep order. Granted a police force of Jews armed with sticks, the Judenrat was instructed to send the Germans able-bodied workers.
At first, Jews had to wear a yellow, six-pointed star. After the creation of the ghetto, this was replaced by a yellow circle, 10 centimeters in diameter. Jews were instructed to wear this on their chest and left shoulder.
Children under 10 years of age did not have to wear the yellow circles. Some of them escaped from the ghetto. They begged for food in the streets of Brest to help feed their families. They were frequently caught, and either beaten or shot.
Despite the Jews' isolation, resistance groups emerged. Some Jews joined a Soviet partisan unit. In the autumn of 1941, the Freedom group was formed in Brest, and, in early 1942, another group was created called Nekuma or Revenge, comprised of young people from the Tarbut (Hebrew gymnasium). Their main goal was to obtain weapons from the Jews who worked inside the well-equipped fort. They devoted the winter to devising the plot, yet the resistance groups were stopped before implementation. With testimony from informers inside the ghetto, the Gestapo arrested several members.
Internal passports in the Brest archives had been captured by the advancing Soviet troops in 1944. Also captured was a ledger recording the distribution of these passports. It was over 500 pages, created from a census taken by the Germans, containing 12,260 names of Jews over the age of 14 living in the Brest ghetto from November 10, 1941 until June 5, 1942.
Those from the Brest Ghetto List, and about 9,000 children under the age of 14, were transported to Brona Gora, a forest area between Brest and Minsk, and massacred.
Sketchy eyewitness reports from Brest and other regional ghettos tell a similar story. On October 15, 1942, awakened at dawn, the Jews were rounded up and surrounded by SS soldiers with dogs. Led to the railway station, the bewildered crowd was loaded onto airless cattle cars -- each car packed with 200 people. By the time they arrived at Brona Gora, 65 miles from Brest, the weakest were already dead.
The official word on the Brona Gora massacre can be obtained from the 1944 report by the Extraordinary State Commission to Investigate Nazi Crimes Committed on the Territory of the Soviet Union, based primarily on eyewitness testimonies and a special investigation carried out by members of the commission at the site of the mass murders.
The Brona Gora massacre site is located 400 meters northwest of the Brona Gora railroad station. In May and June 1942, the Germans began procedures for executions by preparing eight mass graves. They used about 600 - 800 local people a day, as well as explosive materials.
From Liquidation to Liberation
From June to October 1942, 186 railroad cars came to Brona Gora. One of the largest transports arrived in October 1942, containing 28 cars from Brest-Litovsk. As before, surviving passengers were unloaded onto a special platform, surrounded by barbed wire. They were forced to strip -- men, women, and children. Then, through a narrow corridor enclosed by barbed wire, the victims were led to their graves. Each went down a ladder into a pit, lay side-by-side, face down, and had to wait.
When the bottom of the pit was filled up, the Germans shot all of them. Without removing the corpses, they would force more people into the pits on top of the dead. Thus, the pit was filled up layer by layer. While the executions were carried out, the air was filled with screams. In total, from all the actions conducted at Brona Gora, more than 50,000 Jews were killed.
For those left behind in the Brest ghetto, the situation was bleak. Executions continued as the police and Gestapo caught Jews hiding in attics, basements, and other places. The few survivors told their harrowing tales, filled with personal sacrifice and the witnessing of atrocities.
Brest-Litovsk was liberated by the Red Army on July 28, 1944 when about 10 Jews, who had been hiding, were discovered.