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« Tuna 2 / 2017

What Did the 36th Estonian Front Defence Battalion Do in Novogrudok?

The 36th Front Defence Battalion evidently has the most colourful history of all the Estonian armed units that fought in the German Army during World War II. Among other things, the battalion’s fighters have been accused of participating in the mass murder of Jews that took place on 6 and 7 August 1942 in the area of Novogorudok in Byelorussia, in the course of which about 5,000 Jews were allegedly killed. Neither historians nor different law enforcement authorities have succeeded in finding any authentic documents concerning the participation of the 36th Battalion. Essentially the only concrete evidence of the battalion’s presence in the Novogorudok area at the time of the mass murder is the report of 16 August 1942 submitted to the head of the Ostland Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) by the Ordnungspolizei liaison officer Gierhake attached to the 36th Battalion. There is no mention of the murder of Jews in the report, instead pointing out that the battalion was engaged in combat against partisans. The alleged participation of the fighters of the battalion in the mass murder emerges from only the investigation files of the Estonian SSR Ministry of State Security, which are of somewhat dubious value as historical sources and are unfit for use as “incriminating evidence” from the standpoint of present-day states based on the rule of law. It is very unlikely that some of the battalion’s fighters or units participated directly in the mass murder, but it cannot be ruled out that its participation was indirect because a few recollections have also been found indicating that the battalion’s units were used among other things for guarding Jews as well. In summary, it is not possible to prove or disprove anything due to the absence of sources and the discrepancies in the existing information. Matters associated with the 36th Defence Battalion have thus developed into more a question of faith.