Postcards from Minsk

A story on the Lens blog of the New York Times caught my eye today: a 72-year-old businessman has approached the newspaper with a mysterious photo album (apparently given to him to repay a debt some years ago) that contains hundreds of pictures of the Nazi advance into Eastern Europe during the Second World War. The NYT has posted some of the images in the hope that someone might be able to identify the photographer (who was clearly trained, gifted and took a few pictures of himself) and unravel how he was able to take shoot pictures of Hitler one month and then be inside a forced labour camp the next, taking portraits of prisoners that while not obviously sympathetic certainly seem aware of their humanity.

Anyway, interesting enough, but what got me obviously was the connection to Minsk and Belarus, where many of the pictures seem to have been taken. Minsk was practically destroyed during the war: by the Nazis as they came one way and then the Soviets coming through in the other direction, onto Berlin. The place was left in pieces. When I was there in December, I had lunch one day at a no-nonsense cafeteria but took ages to reach my table because I was stayed by the photographs on the walls which did not show the destruction but the sheer, swept emptiness of the years afterwards: people walking from new apartment blocks onto plains of nothing, monuments to the dead rising from lakes of bright asphalt. I forwarded the NYT story to a couple of people who have studied the Nazi occupation of Belarus who I thought might be able to crack it open, but we shall see.

I’m in Minsk mode because the story I wrote about the Belarusian elections last December was published in Harper’s this week. It’s here, deeply inaccessible behind a paywall. I can only suggest that you buy your way in. It’s enriching, and cheap.