Sunday, March 26, 2023

Remembering the Khatyn Massacre in Belarus

80 years passed since the massacre at the Byelorussian village of Khatyn, perpetrated by the Nazis and their Ukrainian fascist collaborators. 149 people, including 75 children, were brutally murdered. 
The heinous crime was committed by the Schutzmannschaft Battalion 118, composed primarily of Ukrainian fascists, assisted by the Dirlewanger Waffen-SS special battalion. 
The massacre occurred on March 22, 1943, supposedly in retaliation for an attack on German troops by Soviet partisans. Brutal fascists rushed into the village and encircled it. The inhabitants of the village — young and old, women and kids - were driven from their houses out into the shed. The fascists roused the sick from their beds with rifle butts. They had mercy neither for the old nor for women with infants in their arms. The family of Joseph and Anna Baranovsky with their 9 children was among them. So were Alex and Alexandra Novitsky with their 7 children. Similarly, there were 7 kids in the family of Kazimir and Elena Iotko, the youngest boy was only 1 year old. Vera Yaskevich was also driven into the shed with her 7-week-old son Tolik. Little Lena Yaskevich first tried to hide in the farmstead, but then decided to take safe shelter in the wood. 

Fascists' bullets were not able to catch up with the running girl, therefore one of the fascists rushed to her and having overtaken killed the girl before the very eyes of her father who was distraught with grief. Among the perished there were also two people from other villages who by chance found themselves in Khatyn at the time. These were Anton Kunkevich from the village of Yurkovichi and Kristina Slonskaja from the village of Kameno.

None of the adults managed to escape. Only three kids — Volodia Yaskevich, his sister Sonia and another boy Sasha Zhelobkovich by name — were able to hide from the fascists. When all people were finally in the shed, the door was locked and the Nazis covered the shed with straw, spilt benzine over and set fire to it. In a moment the wooden shed was ablaze. The children were crying and suffocating in the smoke. The adults were trying to rescue them. The doors of the shed could not bear the force and the pressure of the dozens of people and so they crashed down. Horror-stricken people in their burning clothes took to heels. But the fascists with their machine guns dispassionately killed those who tried to escape from the flames of fire. 149 people, including 75 children under age were burned alive. The youngest baby was only 7 weeks old. The village was then looted and burned to the ground.

The girls from two different families — Maria Fedorovich and Yulia Klimovich — were saved by miracle. They managed to leave the shed and crawl to the nearby wood. Half dead or half alive, all burned they were found by the inhabitants of the village of Khvorosteny of the Kameno village council. Unfortunately, this village was later also burned to the ground and the tow girls were killed.

In the village of Khatyn only two children survived. They are a 7-year-old Viktor Zhelobkovich and a 12-year-old Anton Baranovsky. A young woman Anna Zhelobkovich by name was also in the shed. Together with some other horror-stricken people in their burning clothes she tried to leave the shed, which was ablaze. She was firmly holding her son Vitia's hand. A moment later she was fatally wounded and as she was falling down on the ground she covered the son with her body. The child was wounded in his arm. He lay on the ground under his mother's corpse till the Nazis finally left the village. Anton Baranovsky was also wounded in his leg by an explosive bullet. And so the fascists mistook him for a dead boy.

Inhabitants of neighbouring villages picked up all those injured and severely burnt children and brought them to an orphanage in a small town of Pleshinitsy where they were raised after the war.

The only adult witness to the Khatyn massacre, a 56-year-old village smith Joseph Kaminsky, also wounded and burnt, recovered consciousness late at night when the fascists were already gone. He had to suffer a hard blow, though. He found his injured son among the corpses of the fellow — villagers. The boy was fatally wounded in the abdomen and totally burnt. He died later in the arms of his father.

The tragedy of Khatyn is not just an occasional episode of this war. It is one of the thousand facts, which testify to the existence of the targeted genocide policy regarding the population of Belarus. And the Nazis were pursuing this policy during all those years of German occupation. Hundreds of similar disasters occurred within the three years (1941 — 1944) of the occupation of the Belorussian land. Altogether, over 2,000,000 people were killed in Belarus during the three years of Nazi occupation, almost a quarter of the region's population.

Khatyn became a symbol of mass killings of the civilian population during the fighting between partisans, German troops, and collaborators. In 1969, it was named the national war memorial of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. Among the best-recognized symbols of the memorial complex is a monument with three birch trees, with an eternal flame instead of a fourth tree, a tribute to the one in every four Belarusians who died in the war. There is also a statue of Joseph Kaminsky carrying his dying son, and a wall with niches to represent the victims of all the concentration camps, with large niches representing those with more than 20,000 victims. Bells ring every 30 seconds to commemorate the rate at which Belarusian lives were lost throughout the duration of the Second World War.

Part of the memorial is a Cemetery of villages with 185 tombs. Each tomb symbolizes a particular village in Belarus that was torched along with its population.