Browary - history and stories
The search for a solidarity partnership in times of war has led the cities of Erlangen and Jena to Browary near Kiev.
The experience of the present could not be more different for the two places: While people in Erlangen are only indirectly affected by the war in Ukraine, for example by increased gas prices or the arrival of refugees, people in Browary are still struggling with the shelling of critical infrastructure by the Russian attackers. Electricity fails regularly, and the staff of the Browary Local History Museum has also been unable to respond to questions.
The following text is therefore only preliminary and is based on information I was able to gather in Germany, including with the help of my colleague who fled Kharkiv, Vadym Zolotaryov, and my colleague who also fled Kharkiv, Maria Parkhomenko. The focus of the text is on the history of violence in the 20th century, which goes hand in hand with a special responsibility to remember.
PD Dr. Moritz Florin
Department of History
Chair of Modern and Contemporary History with a focus on the history of Eastern Europe
Browary - there is much to tell
Browary today is a small major city in the catchment area of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev. In its history, the place was characterized by contact and exchange with the big neighbor, until today this has remained so. While the foundation of Kiev can be traced back to the early Middle Ages, the first documented mention of Browary dates back to 1628. At that time, farmers and Cossacks settled there; in total, the town had about 100 houses and 700 inhabitants. The peasants were engaged in hunting and agriculture, the wealthier Cossacks in viticulture and beer brewing.
The name Browary is of Middle High German origin and probably entered Ukrainian via Polish, meaning "brewers" or "breweries". The brewing tradition is one of the connecting elements between Erlangen, Jena and Browary, even though this tradition has come to a standstill in Browary itself.
The region as a whole, including its large neighbor Kiev, was under Polish-Lithuanian suzerainty. However, as early as the middle of the 17th century, Cossacks expelled the so-called "magnates", or nobles and landowners. Thus began a period of Cossack rule, which today is also considered a first phase of Ukrainian independence. The Cossacks strove for freedom from the Polish foreign rule; they elected their ruler, the hetman, themselves. But in their struggle for independence from the Catholic Poles, the Cossacks were also dependent on support. Therefore, as early as 1654, they swore an oath of allegiance to the Russian Orthodox tsar in Pereyaslav. The town of Browary thus also came under the influence of Moscow and later Saint Petersburg.
During the 18th century, large parts of the Ukrainian territories, including Kiev and Browary, were administratively incorporated into the Russian Empire. Browary was also increasingly subject to Russian laws; under Catherine II, for example, serfdom was introduced, and in 1861 it was abolished again in the reform era under Alexander II.
The town experienced modest population growth during the 18th and 19th centuries, and by 1900 its population of about 4,300 lived mostly from agriculture, crafts, and breweries. There were also two Orthodox churches in the village. Of great economic importance was trade, as Browary was located on one of the most important trade routes from east to west. In 1817, a new post office was built in the town, which by 1851 already had 45 horses on duty.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the town became increasingly connected to its large neighbor, first in 1868 with its own railroad station and in 1913 with the opening of a gasoline-powered streetcar that ran between Kiev and Browary.
In Browary there was a Jewish community, which was closely connected with the Jews of Kiev. According to the census of 1897, 888 Jews lived in Browary, which represented 22% of the total population. Most of them were small traders or craftsmen, and in the 19th century a Jewish synagogue was established. Like all other people of Jewish faith, the Jews of Browary suffered from discriminatory policies of the imperial state, for example, they were allowed to settle only in certain regions of the tsarist empire. Thus, at times they were forbidden to settle in Kiev, which was another reason why communities grew in suburbs like Browary. The Jews of Browary were also affected by pogrom violence, first in 1648-1649 during the Cossack uprising under Bohdan Khmelnyckyj, and later in the Russian Empire in 1881.
But especially in the course of the 20th century, the inhabitants of the town of Browary suffered a series of disasters and mass crimes. The first phase of disasters began with the First World War and continued until the period of the Russian Revolution and the Civil War in 1917-1922. In neighboring Kiev, power changed 14 times between different armies during this period. Participants in the fighting included Ukrainian socialists and the Ukrainian national movement, the Red and White armies, and also German, Austrian, and Polish troops.
In 1918, the region became part of a kind of protectorate under German and Austrian sovereignty for a few months, and a German garrison was also stationed in Browary. After the withdrawal of the German troops, fierce fighting broke out. Townspeople and Jews were affected by looting and violence, while the rural population suffered from the fact that the troops passing through helped themselves to the farmers.
At the end of the civil war, the communists (also known as Bolsheviks) prevailed, and Browary, as well as much of the rest of Ukraine, became part of the Soviet Union. The 1920s and 1930s were marked first by a certain consolidation and later by a new beginning under Soviet auspices. The central Kiev airport was built in Browary and the city as a whole became increasingly connected to neighboring Kiev. With Stalin's rise to autocracy, however, the second tragedy of the 20th century took its course at the same time: the great famine of 1932/33 gripped Browary. Traditionally, the peasants of the region suffered little hunger due to diversified agriculture, but in the early 1930s the state forced the peasants into collective farms while depriving them of their grain. There are eyewitness accounts from Browary according to which almost all residents suffered from hunger, including children. Exact casualty figures for Browary itself are not available.
However, census data can be used to prove that almost four million people starved to death across Ukraine. There is also talk of the catastrophe of the "Holodomor," a term composed of the Ukrainian words "holod" for hunger and "mor" for death.
The Stalinist violence was accompanied by the struggle against an independent religious and national consciousness. In the course of this policy, in 1937 in Browary the Peter and Paul Church and the Holy Trinity Church were destroyed. In the context of the Great Terror, there were shootings and purges; in the Bykiwnja forest, not far from the town, alleged opponents of the regime were shot. Stalinism sought to stifle any form of resistance, everywhere the state and its activists suspected enemies to be eliminated.
Parts of historical scholarship also argue that the violence was a form of genocide against the Ukrainian people. In November 2022, the German Bundestag adopted this view on the basis of an expert report, and in Germany, too, the Stalinist mass violence in Ukraine is thus officially considered a genocide (or genocide). In science, however, this classification remains controversial.
The third catastrophe of the 20th century was the Second World War and the German occupation, which also massively affected Browary. First, in September 1941, the airport of Browary was completely destroyed. In 1941, the German occupiers also set up a labor camp in Browary, inmates were prisoners of war as well as the inhabitants of Ukrainian villages.
Background was the so-called partisan struggle, in which the German occupiers razed entire villages to the ground. The survivors were then taken to penal camps, some of them also sent to Germany as forced laborers. Already in the fall of 1941, all Jewish prisoners of war were taken to the outskirts of the city and shot there. But the remaining non-Jewish camp inmates were also brutally treated. There is a mass grave on the former camp grounds, and in 2011 a cross was erected there in memory of those murdered by the Germans.
The fate of the Jewish community of Browary is particularly unbearable. At the beginning of the Second World War, 485 Jews lived in Browary. Some of them managed to escape from the Germans. However, the remaining Jewish inhabitants of the village were called to report to Kiev in the fall of 1941. All those who complied were shot together with the Jews of Kiev by the German occupiers in the Babyn Yar ravine. In total, almost 34,000 Jewish people, including women and children, lost their lives there within two days. Only those Jewish inhabitants of Browary who were able to flee from the German occupiers or who fought on the side of the Red Army against the Nazis were able to save themselves.
The Second World War as a whole had disastrous effects on the town of Browary. During the fighting between German and Soviet troops, the town was razed to the ground. According to local historians, only 138 out of 2174 houses remained. Tens of thousands of people left the place or were murdered. Part of the male inhabitants fought on the side of the Red Army against the Germans, to what extent veterans of the Second World War still live in Browary would have to be found out.
During the occupation period, every single inhabitant faced difficult decisions to survive at all. When we speak of "collaboration," "resistance," or participation in mass crimes by one side or the other in memory work, it is always important to keep in mind the hopeless situation in which people found themselves as a result of the occupation.
A subchapter of this period of tyranny deals with the connections that for the first time also linked Browary and Erlangen. For during the Second World War hundreds of thousands of people from Eastern Europe and Ukraine were deported to Germany as forced laborers. Research in the Erlangen City Archives shows that a total of 36 people from the Browary region arrived in Erlangen during the war years (Erlangen City Archives, 300.Z.A.17).
It is necessary to research what activities they performed and what fate befell them in the post-war period. For the joint commemorative work of the cities of Browary and Erlangen, the fates of these people and their descendants could play a central role in the future. Until now, they have mostly been listed as "Soviet" or "Russian" forced laborers in Erlangen's memorial work as well, even though they came from Ukraine.
The history of the city after 1945 was then under Soviet auspices: No reconstruction took place after 1945, but an almost entirely new city was planned. Today Browary is characterized by buildings of the Soviet period. At the beginning of the 1970s a building boom began, parks were also laid out and a sports school was created. This serves to this day as a kind of cadre school of Ukrainian sports.
The world boxing champions Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko also attended this school. In 1970, the construction of a new hospital with 2,400 beds was completed. Soviet-era buildings dominate the cityscape, with little of the old fabric remaining. The churches that exist in the city again today were completely rebuilt in the 1990s and 2000s. There is also a small Jewish community in Browary again, but the synagogue was not rebuilt.
The history of violence and war has now recently returned to the town. A town already ravaged by war and tyranny on several occasions was again attacked and briefly shelled with artillery in March 2022. Shootings reportedly occurred in surrounding villages. However, in early April 2022, the Ukrainian side managed to push back the Russian aggressor. Most recently, at the turn of 2022/23, the region's infrastructure was under fire, and Browary was also affected by massive power outages. The war is not over yet.
The history of violence is also significant with regard to the partnership with Browary, because it goes hand in hand with a special German responsibility to remember. Both Stalinism and the German occupation hit Browary, as well as Ukraine as a whole, hard.
Although the goals of the two regimes, Nazism and Stalinism, were fundamentally different, they were similar from the perspective of the victims, for whom this period was above all a phase of violence that descended upon them from outside.
Lately, especially in the face of Russian aggression, the crimes of the Stalin era, including the Holodomor, have received particularly great public attention. However, this should not make us forget how great Germany's historical responsibility towards the whole of Eastern Europe, Ukraine and a place like Browary also remains.
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