There are tragedies in life that are never forgotten. One of these is the brutality of German Nazis and their collaborators in the Belarusian village Khatyn, during World War II. The Nazis and a collaborating Ukrainian Nazi-police unit, composed mostly of criminals, locked 156 villagers, including 75 children, in a barn and set it ablaze. The trapped people managed to break down the front doors, but in trying to escape, were killed by machine gun fire. The village was then looted and burned to the ground.
On the site of the torched village, Belarusians have created a memorial complex, where they have placed plaques with the names of people that died. Every plaque symbolizes a house, and the number of houses that were burned was 26! Next to each plaque, a small bell is installed which rings with a sad lingering sound every 30 second. The sounds of the bells resemble the hearts of the innocent victims of Nazism in Belarus. There is also a bronze monument commemorating the single surviving villager Joseph Kaminsky, who is carrying his dead son Adam in his arms. As the only adult survivor of the Khatyn massacre, 56-year-old blacksmith Joseph Kaminsky, also wounded and burnt, recovered consciousness after the executioners had left. He supposedly found his burned son, who later died in his arms.
There is an eerie feeling at the site, one that suggests that something more than a village was lost. Khatyn is an everlasting symbol of something much more horrific. For on-site, there is also a monument with 185 tombs, and there were only 149 inhabitants in Khatyn. These tombs are actually not for individual lost souls, but instead each tomb commemorates another village that was torched by Nazis. The tragedy of Khatyn is one of thousands, attesting to the deliberate policy of genocide that was implemented by Nazis and their collaborators towards the people of Belarus. Of 100,000 villages found in Belarus at the time, 9,200 were burned down during the war. Most villages were left without a single home standing, and without a single soul to share memories of happier times. The cruelty of the war, felt strongly at the memorial complex, brings a deep sorrow to one’s heart. A lesson that cannot be unlearned. Feelings that are not easily felt.
“The tragedy of Khatyn is a lesson to the whole mankind, and monuments such as this on the site of the burned village, are needed not only in order to honor the memory of the dead. Such monuments are needed for the living to remember and never permit a repeat of anything like this,” Andrei Kobyakov, head of the Presidential Administration of Belarus, said in 2013 at the commemoration, dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the tragedy.
Viktor Zhelobkovich, a seven-year-old boy, survived the fire in the barn, under the corpse of his mother. He described the horror of what he went through that fateful day:
That day, before dinner, my father and I went to the barn, to prepare transianka—a mixture of hay and straw—for the cow. Suddenly we heard gunshots. We ran into the house, told all the people… to hide in the basement. After some time the members of the punitive squad broke through the door to the basement and ordered us all out on the street. As we got out we saw that they were chasing people out of the other houses as well. They brought us to the [farm] barn, which stood a little bit outside the village. My mother and I stood right by the locked barn doors, and I could see between the planks of the barn wall how they piled up hay against the wall, which they then set on fire. When the burning roof caved in, the people and people’s clothes caught on fire, everybody threw themselves against the doors, which broke open. The punitive squad stood around the barn and opened fire on the people, who were running in all directions. We made it five or six meters from the doors of the barn, then my mom pushed me to the ground, and we both lay there. I wanted to get up, but she pressed my head down: “Don’t move, son, lie still.” Something hit me hard in my arm. I was bleeding. I told my mom, but she didn’t answer— she was already dead. How long I was lying there, I don’t know. Everything around me was burning, even my mother’s clothes had begun to glow. Afterwards I realized that the punitive squad had left and the shooting had ended, but still I waited awhile before I got up.
The barn burned down, burned corpses lay all around. Someone moaned: “drink …”
I ran, brought water, but to no avail, in front of my eyes the Khatyn villagers, died one after another. Terrible, painful deaths. …
Another boy, 12-year-old Anton Baranovsky, was left for dead, due to a leg wound. They were taken care of by residents of neighboring villages. After the war, the children were brought up in an orphanage in the town of Pleshchenitsy.
The small village of Khatyn was just 30 miles away from the hustle and bustle of Belarus’s capital city, Minsk. Yet, this memorial remains a large reminder for all people, both near and far. Khatyn reminds the world that any land, big or small, if given to false ideological and physical monsters, can be filled with the blood of innocent people.
On the white marble slab, the written words, symbolizing the grief and thoughts of killed people, address the living:
Good people, remember:
We loved our lives, and our homeland, and you, our dearest.
Our request to all:
Let grief and sorrow turn into your courage and strength,
So that you can maintain peace and quiet in the land forever
So that, from now on, life will not die anywhere in a whirlwind of fire!