I would like to tell you about my country, whose name is Belarus, or White Russia, as it is also sometimes called. I want to tell you about its vast forests, numerous lakes and long rivers, about its humble, hard-working people, who have suffered under its centuries old history of hardships and ordeals. Why “white”? In the old days, people wore white clothing, woven on wooden looms, from flax, grown in their own fields, and cultivated through hard work. Arrayed in their white clothing, the people resembled heavenly angels. Also white because of the Belarusians’ bare white skin, like the white snow and the trunks of birch trees. In Belarus the people are enlightened, filled with their belief in God and of the dignity of man.
Belaya Rus, which means “White Russia,” is a tender and poetic name, which perfectly suits my country. White symbolizes light, clean, and innocent. Belarus is not characterized by the bright colors of the Mediterranean. She doesn’t have the exotic nature of Africa or the mysteriousness of the East. Belarus is a modest country, you might even say, of intellectual beauty. This is one of the few places on our planet where you can see an amazing miracle – the miracle of unspoiled nature. Here, in the very center of Europe, nature remains natural, and human and moral values are forever.
One of the main symbols of White Russia is a large white-winged stork called a busel in Belarusian. Every autumn, these birds fly south and in the spring return to their nests, which they normally build on the roofs of wooden huts or in large trees, and where they raise their young. Locals believe that if the storks do not return, trouble will come to pass. But they always come back, and life continues as normal. Storks are the guardian angels of my country. This is why Belarus is considered an “Earth beneath white wings.” Children are told that the white-winged stork delivers them to their mother and father.
One of the most beloved names in Belarus is Vasilyok, which comes from the name Vasily or Vasil, and Alesya. Vasilyok is also the name of a blue flower that grows on rye. Tiny children and young girls wear wreaths on their heads knitted from these cornflowers and other wildflowers, when celebrating national holidays. The name Alesya comes from the word les, meaning forest in Russian. Forests are considered one of the main riches of Belarus. Alesya is a melodious, musical name, just like the forests which are filled with the music of chirping birds. Belarusian women love to sing and croon beautiful, lingering tunes.
For more than 20 years, a Belarusian folk music festival has been held under the name, Slavic Bazaar. Artists from dozens of foreign countries perform at the festival. The symbol of the festival is blue cornflowers, and the event takes place in Vitebsk, hometown of the great artist, Marc Chagall.
Sometimes Belarus is confused with Russia, but Belarus is an entirely separate country which borders Russia, Po- land, Lithuania and Latvia. It also borders Ukraine, which is in the heart of Europe. The area of Belarus covers 80,000 square miles, roughly equivalent to the size of Nebraska. About 40% of Belarus is covered with forests, and about 14% is marshland. Like Vermont or North Carolina, Belarus has over 20,000 rivers and about 10,000 lakes. Perhaps it is this landscape that suggests our country’s adopted nickname: “Blue-eyed”.
The population of Belarus numbers only 9.5 million people. Most people live in villages, the countryside, or in urban dwellings. Some shtetl also remains, a shtetl being a small town with a large Jewish population. The remainder of the citizenry lives in cities and industrial centers. Our largest city, Minsk, is also the capital of Belarus. Other large cities include Mogilev, Vitebsk, Gomel, Grodno and Brest.
At one time, the nation of Belarus was part of Lithuania, then Poland and later Imperial Russia. Any attempt that the country made to become independent was cruelly crushed by these sovereign nations. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, was Belarus able to win independence and autonomy.
Since ancient times, the Belarusian population, in spite of being incorporated into other nations and forced to live under the rule of other cultures, has maintained its own language, customs and beliefs.
The genealogical branches of the family of the great Russian author, Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky, actually originate in Belarus, specifically from the Dostoyevo-Ivanovo district of the Brest region, located in Belarusian Polesie, near the town of Pinsk. Pinsk, or rather the ancient town of Motol nearby, is the birthplace of the first president of Israel, Chaim Weizmann. Another respected political leader, former Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir was born to parents from Pinsk.
In Dostoyevo, you will find a monument to Dostoyevsky. The bronze Fyodor Mikhailovich crouches, as if savoring the warmth, after a long and hard day. His words are found on the statue, “Beauty will save the world.” There is nowhere you will find more beauty than in Belarus, where with fire and swords, almost all European wars took place. Who else could value beauty and understand peace, in all senses of the word?
Belarus is an agrarian country. Fall harvest festivals called dazhynki take place as an annual tradition. On these days, locals take a break and celebrate, while showing off the fruits of the harvest. The best bakers, farmers and mechanics receive public awards and honors. Dazhynki take place after the white-winged storks fly south for the winter.
Despite its abundance of forests, rivers, lakes and swamps, Belarus maintains sound roads and a well-developed railway system. Important transport routes pass through Belarus, connecting the West and the East. Belarus lies upon the crossroads leading to and from Moscow, and also between Kiev, Lvov, St. Petersburg, and other European Union cities including Warsaw, Berlin, Prague and Paris.
It’s hard to know how many wars have taken place on Belarusian soil. The German Nazis in 1939, who unleashed World War II in 1941, invaded our country and left destruction in their wake. Thousands of citizens were enslaved by the Nazis or sent to Nazi concentration camps. The Nazis burned thousands of villages and their inhabitants. You can hardly find a person in Belarus who was not affected by the war. In fact, during World War II (we call it the Great Patriotic War), every third Belarusian perished. Think about that—every third person.
The wounds hurt deeply to this day. The legendary Brest Fortress became a symbol to the Belarusian people of the resistance to Nazism. Defenders represented nearly 100 nations of the former Soviet Union, including Belarusians. Memorials to fallen soldiers and civilians stand in almost every village and town. A more meaningful memorial than the roadside cross and obelisk would be hard to find throughout all of Belarus.
“Life has taught you patience, and patience has taught you to live,” states the founder and leader of the Spiritual Diplomacy Foundation, Mikhail Morgulis. He wisely and succinctly reflects the national character of Belarus and the Belarusian way of life. Belarusians display patience, persistence and the ability to weather life’s trials. I would compare the Belarusian character to that of the vine, a flexible plant. Scientifically, the vine belongs to the Willow family (Salicaceae). Vines bend, but do not break and can survive the most adverse conditions. This describes Belarusians almost perfectly. They endure all trials of life, while at the same time remaining unpretentious, persistent, hardworking, calm and modest. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was named Vasily (Cornflower). He took part in World War I and fought in the famous army of the Russian General Brusilov. He lost an arm at the front line. After the war, he returned to his birthplace, Khmelevka in Belarus. The name of this village comes from the word for “hops” (Humulus). Their house was burned down during the war, and the well from which they drew water was dry. Wells become barren if the water is not extracted regularly, and the villagers had almost all disappeared.
The village stood nearby a small river, and, upon his return, the first thing that great-grandfather Vasily did was go to the river bank, where many vines flourished. He cut pieces and wove them into a basket, then used the basket to catch some fish, so as to have something to eat. Then he found a shovel and began to dig a new well near the burnt house, using his one remaining hand. The ground was thick and stubborn with clay, but Vasily didn’t give up. He layered the basket with clay and bound the basket to his body using a wire hook. Afterwards he was able to use the basket and hook to compensate for his lost hand. Great-grandfather Vasily then made clay bricks and baked them in a stove, and cut down trees in the nearby forest. He built a new house upon the ashes of the old home. A wooden house in Belarus is called a hut or an izba. He fashioned the roof of the hut from bundles of straw.
Inside the house, Vasily layered the bricks he had made to create an oven. Around the house, Vasily plowed the land and sowed a crop of rye. In Belarus, the word rye comes from a word that means “to live.” When the rye is harvested, it’s cut with a sickle, then beaten with a grain stick, and then milled on a homemade millstone. These were flat stones that my great-grandfather Vasily found on the banks of the river. The grain is then made into flour and from that flour you can make bread, and that bread—is life.
My grandmother, Nastya (Anastasia) lived in this hut, and my mother, Lydia, was born there. Grandma had eight children. Each of the children, as well as Nastya herself, was born with brown hair. Six of the children died from childhood diseases or starvation. Only my mother and her older brother survived.
There was never enough bread or food, but they did have a cow, and that helped. Grandma Nastya, if you can imagine, spent her entire life working on a Soviet collective farm. For their hard work, laborers were paid practically nothing and merely received a tick mark for each day of work that was completed. At the end of the year, if there was a good harvest and the workers had received enough tick marks, they were given some grain.
When the war with Nazi Germany began in 1941, the entire male population of the village Khmelevka went to the front to fight against the Nazis. Almost none of them returned.
You might ask why Belarusians fought against the Nazis and went to their death when their lives were already so hard. Wouldn’t it have been easier to surrender to the enemy as happened in many other European nations? No, it is not that easy. We Belarusians are proud people who love freedom. We, like the vine, bend but do not break. Our soldiers did not fight for Lenin or Stalin, nor for tyrant rulers, but we did fight for freedom and independence, for our native land, our birthplaces and villages. My ancestors fought for the fields, rivers and lakes around Khmelevka, and for the right to live on our land. In fact, we fought for the same reasons that Americans fought for their independence during the Revolutionary War.
Grandmother Nastya’s husband, Illarion, died at the front, as did almost all of his brothers. Those who returned from the war soon died. Three of my grandfather’s cousins, Thomas, Alex and Luke, died in Stalin’s camps after World War II. They were sent to the northern camps because they had been captured by the Germans during the war. As the saying goes: “Out of the frying pan, into the fire.”
My father, Michael, hails from the village of Osmolovichi, near Khmelevka. He also fought against the Nazis and was awarded many orders and medals. He died in 1979 from the sickness and injuries that he had suffered.
When the Nazis occupied Belarus, including Khmelevka, they created a large number of ghettos, where they gathered Belarusian Jews. These Jewish people were then sent to their deaths at Nazi concentration camps—Treblinka, Trostinets, Majdanek, and Auschwitz to name a few.
One of these ghettos was in the town of Klimovichi, not far from the small village of Khmelevka. At that time, my grand- mother Nastya and my mother lived in Khmelevka. All of the family’s men were fighting at the front or in resistance detachments. During one raid, Nazi policemen and soldiers captured my mother’s Jewish neighbors, the Greenblatt family. All of them, Tom and Sarah and their two children, were sent to the ghetto. They were then all shot. Sonia, another neighbor’s little girl, along with her grandmother, my grandmother, Nastya, and my mom hid in the basement of the hut, where we kept the potatoes. I hid in the damp and dark basement with Sonia for a few months, until we were able to escape to a town where the Nazis rarely appeared. After the war, Sonia was found by her distant Jewish relatives, who had managed to escape the ghettos and concentration camps.
In retaliation for saving the Jewish girl, and after being reported by evil people, the Nazis sent my mother to a forced-labor camp in Germany. She spent about three years in captivity in Nazi labor camps, until she was finally able to return to our village when victory was declared in 1945.
Grandma Nastya died at the age of 97. She was a quiet woman, with light eyes and calloused hands. Her eyes shone like cornflowers, in a wrinkled field of a happy face. She knew so many folk songs and loved to sing them to us. Kids love stories where good triumphs over evil. I wonder, do American grandparents tell such stories to their grandchildren?
I definitely want to revisit the land of my ancestors. Like my great-grandfather Vasily, I want to dig a well until I find a spring, and I will drink the water under the same tree where he sat. I will build a home from logs, and I will wait for the white-winged stork to build her nest on my roof.
You can reach Aleksandr Volkovich at email@example.com