22 January 2011


Khatyn is a symbol more than a monument to something specifically significant - it is a place where one tragedy is made to stand for many, and where scale is relative. The Russian name for the second world war is "the great patriotic war," and that reflects something of the hardship that the soviet nations endured during the conflict. Very conservative estimates of USSR war dead place the figure at more than twenty-four million - which is more than the total of all the rest of the involved countries, on both sides. Belarus itself lost about a quarter of its population, about two and a quarter MILLION people. And more than two hundred cities and nine thousand villages were destroyed. One hundred eighty-five townships were so thoroughly annihilated that they ceased, completely, to exist. This is what the monument at Khatyn was erected for - for the loss of the settlements and life that occurred here in this nation, which absorbed so much of the brunt of the war. Polotsk, a city that we recently visited, and which serves as a good example, is currently a city of about eighty-thousand people. It lost, however, one hundred and fifty thousand people during the war. Belarus, really, has never quite recovered.
Khatyn itself was a small village about fifty miles north of Minsk, which we got to from the M3 "highway," which is more a road through the woods. It was once a small village, but today is just a patch of open field in the pine forest. The memorial here doesn't reflect the size of the death toll, but rather the totality of the massacre. Nazi soldiers arrived on the twenty-second of March, 1943, after being attacked by militia four miles away. They herded everyone in the village into a barn and set the building on fire, killing one hundred forty-nine people, including seventy-five children, some as young as seven weeks old. Only one adult and five children were able to escape - either by hiding, as was the case with the children, or by some miracle, as was the case with the village blacksmith, Joseph Kaminsky.
Kaminsky was able to survive the burns that he sustained during the fire, finding all three of his children dead around him when he awoke. The focal point of the memorial is a twenty-foot high statue of Kaminsky carrying his dead son, named "the unconquerable man." It seems a strange name, and a very soviet idea of "conquering."
The twenty-six homesteads of the village were also burned, and there are separate monuments for each of them. They are simple concrete slabs with a symbolic chimney rising up from the ground - the chimneys were often the only thing that remained after the Nazis burned villages. On top of each chimney at Khatyn is a bell that rings at random times, so that the stillness of the place is broken by dramatic clanging every few minutes.
We were the only tourists at the memorial after a group of three people climbed back into their van and departed, presumably back towards Minsk. There were, however, a number of workers clearing snow and compacted ice from the walkways. They worked and talked cheerfully, and one man drove a tractor around sporadically, creating a din. One man - better groomed and dressed than the others - strolled around with his hands buried in his black overcoat, barking orders. He wore a tie under his coat, and his face and paunch showed off the difference in his diet from that of the workers.
We felt strange walking around the monument, but it was a good experience. It says a lot about the Belarusian people that they were able to withstand such incredible tragedy and continue on as a people, remaining upbeat and warm despite everything. It is hard to comprehend the utter destruction of a nation, and the unspeakable things that occurred during that war - whatever name it's called.

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