Bow to the land and the people
[b]For the Great Patriotic War veterans and their children and grandchildren, who are often foreign citizens, Belarus remains a sacred place, where they come to celebrate the Victory Day in May and the Independence (Liberation) Day in July[/b]Such meetings tend to be emotional, with pain and joy intermixed. Every year, there are fewer veterans present but such is the suffering which wounded their souls that their descendants also share that pain.
Such meetings tend to be emotional, with pain and joy intermixed. Every year, there are fewer veterans present but such is the suffering which wounded their souls that their descendants also share that pain. However, some have their own pain...
Country of white angels
Each year, on Victory Day, Aslambek Ismailov of Uzbekistan arrives to see his old comrades in arms Viktor and Sergey, in Belarus: in the 1980s, they fought in the Afghan War. “We became like real brothers, so we want to see one another, having gone through so much together. We always understand each other well,” explains the former paratrooper. Words are clearly unnecessary.
I meet these sworn brothers in a beautiful location near the Vileika water reservoir, in Lyudvinovo. They sit on a grassy bank, speaking slowly, admiring a white swan on the water. Viktor is a former military pilot and retired colonel, the most senior of the three Afghanistan veterans.
In fact, Mr. Ismailov’s grandfather died in the Great Patriotic War, in the summer of 1944, freeing Belarus from the Nazis, long before Aslambek was born. He is buried in a mass grave in a village in Kobrin District (Brest Region). These three soldiers, each with their own war memories, travel there annually to pay their respects to the liberators of Belarus, laying a wreath at the memorial to all those who never returned home from Afghanistan. Minsk is home to about 5,000 Afghan War veterans, as the Belarusian Union of Afghanistan War Veterans tells me. It’s enough to populate a small town.
Grandchildren have now taken the baton of grateful remembrance of those who brought liberation from Fascism to the citizens of Belarus and Europe. Writer Chingiz Abdullayev from Azerbaijan (whose books exceed 26 million copies) is among those faithful grandchildren. Speaking at the end of last year, at the second Congress of the Union of Writers of Belarus, he recalled the past.
He mentioned Belarus and Belarusians very warmly, noting, “I can portray people of various nationalities as evil, but I cannot imagine a bad Belarusian. I can’t manage to do so. My writer’s imagination is clearly not enough. Perhaps, this is connected with my father, who passed through Belarus during WWII, fighting on the First Belorussian Front. He told me that he was welcomed in every home. Some cities of the world recall the angels — such as Los Angeles — but my father felt your land to be a country of angels. He said that he always knew that no traitors were present in the houses he visited. People only supported, welcomed and understood.”
He continued, “When the terrorist attack occurred on the Belarusian underground, my first thought was which outside force was responsible. The Azerbaijani people expressed their sincere condolences for this tragedy. Some of my countrymen said to me that, when someone kills a Belarusian, you feel that an angel has been killed. When you experience tragedy, all nations of the former Soviet Union feel your pain. The attitude towards the Belarusian people is special, perhaps due to your heroic past and for your having suffered the heaviest casualties during WW2. We are deeply grateful to you for having kept the spiritual values dear to all former Soviets, who defeated a cruel, inhuman enemy together. I beg you, remain the Republic of Angels. We’ll love and honour you.”
Soldier-grandfathers bring us closer
Several years ago, I visited Kazakhstan to meet Astana veterans parading in honour of the Constitution Day: one of the most important national holidays. Some elderly Kazakhs wore commemorative Belarusian awards on their chest and proudly explained their part in helping liberate Belarus. They added that some travel to Belarus to meet fellow soldiers, although numbers are dwindling now, due to their age.
Preparing my article on those touching meetings, I learnt that tens of thousands of Kazakh regiments passed through Belarus, where they saw their last battles. For those who liberated us in 1944, the words ‘war’ and ‘Belarus’ are forever synonymous, hung with painful memories. To mark the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the Nazis, in 2009, five thousand veterans from fraternal states received commemorative medals.
I’ve been repeatedly convinced that Kazakhstani young people revere our military history. I remember meeting grandchildren of Kazakhs who had died for Belarus. Nurlan Rskeldin guided us on a tour of the enormous new buildings in Astana and, on learning our nationality, said, “We’re almost relatives!” Both his grandfathers were killed during the liberation of Belarus, although he has no idea of their burial locations. He’d like to find the graves. He wrote: ‘Rskeldin Amanzhol Rskeldinovich, Belorussian Front, died liberating Belarus’.
The grandson of another liberator of Belarus, Igor Gabidulin, is a top manager of a company producing and selling processed cereal products. His grandfather was burned in a tank during warfare and Igor himself has served as a paratrooper, near Grodno. With Belarusian Victor Statsevich, from Vitebsk, he ‘passed through Afghanistan’. Belarus has clearly figured large in his life.
Roads of ‘Caravan of Friendship’
In May, Minsk welcomed the ‘Caravan of Friendship,’ uniting social activists from Saint-Petersburg and Leningrad Region. “We dedicated our rally to Victory Day,” explains Irina Rogova, the President of the Belye Rosy (White Dews) Russian-Belarusian Co-operative Fund. “This holiday reminds CIS citizens of the days when we stopped the ‘brown plague’. The legendary ‘Road of Life’ over the ice of Lake Ladoga saved the residents of blockaded Leningrad from starvation. We took a capsule of soil from the shore to Khatyn as a sign of our deep respect for Belarus and its heroic people.”
Meanwhile, the International Council of Vsevolozhsk District of Leningrad Region has suggested a regular ‘Caravan of Friendship’, held at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture. Its leader, Victor Malashenko, notes that other events linked to Victory Day and the Day of Liberation of Belarus are held there.
Of course, Belarus was the location of much fighting. At the end of April, in the centre of Rossotrudnichestvo, the ‘Through the Roads of Victory’ rally met, gathering veterans from Ukraine and Sevastopol. Their routes lay through many hero cities of military glory. The former soldiers met young people and unfolded a copy of the Victory Banner, reminding everyone that the terrible war was won together.
Recently, Bryansk building college students visited Belarus’ Khatyn, bringing soil from the village of Khatsuni, in Bryansk Region: there, on October 25th, 1941, 320 civilians (including 60 children) were shot. Mr. Malashenko joined the rally of airborne troop veterans from Yaroslavl in Minsk. The men originally travelled through Voronezh to Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Izmail, before heading through Austria, Hungary and France. They reached the English Channel in 1944, where the Soviets’ allies landed. They washed the wheels of their old Zhiguli car and then headed into Germany, the Baltic States and Belarus. Mr. Malashenko notes that everyone attends the meetings with pride, remembering the glorious traditions of their fathers and grandfathers to whom they owe their lives. Those brave souls thought first of their Motherland, and only then about themselves...
The Chairman of the International Council of the Leningrad Region, Yury Palamarchuk notes that public organisations are united in strengthening friendship and harmony between people of different nations, in every possible way, promoting our living together in peace and tolerance, regardless of nationality or faith. “Belarus played a great role in the victory,” asserts Mr. Palamarchuk. “We’re confident that those who remember the war and victory should visit Belarus, seeing the memorials of glory and those in memory of the victims of Fascism. Here, as nowhere else in the former Soviet Union, the importance of the Great Victory is obvious. We come to honour the memory of victims, to worship this sacred land and to thank Belarus for remembering and honouring war heroes.”
Who will come with the sword to us...
Many interesting people met at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture, with speeches given, explains the Director of Minsk school #67, Valentina Dashkevich. She notes that a museum named after the Battalion of Belarusian Eaglets has operated at the school for over thirty years. It is the regular meeting place for soldiers from the Battalion and features an exhibition on the life and fate of those whose childhood was seared by WW2. Schoolchildren show visitors around the exhibits. Interestingly, many of the grey-haired veterans of the Battalion were younger than the children are today when the war began.
Valentina tells me that the school has many friends abroad. This year’s Victory Day celebrations in Minsk saw guests arrive from Saratov, in Leningrad Region, as well as from Germany. In 2010, liaisons were established between Belarusian school students and their peers from the Johannes Rau International Centre for Education and Exchange, in the German city of Wuppertal (in Northern Rhine-Westphalia, Western Germany).
In what are these young Germans interested? They come to Belarus to gain better understanding of our cultural heritage and historical past. With young Belarusians, they tour memorials, museums and art galleries, allowing both to improve their language skills. The Historical Workshop (a Belarusian-German project to improve knowledge of WWII history in Belarus and Germany) is particularly fascinating, promoting understanding of our countries and people.
Ms. Dashkevich explains that Minsk schoolchildren explain historical events in Belarus to their German peers, while showing them around memorial sites such as Khatyn (one of many villages destroyed) and Kuropaty (a mass grave near Minsk from the days of Stalin’s terror). Meetings are arranged with the Battalion of Belarusian Eaglets veterans, allowing them to tell their own stories of their involvement in war.
School #67 traditionally hosts an international scientific-practical youth conference annually, just before the Victory Day. This year, students from Russia presented reports. “Of course, in showing our guests our memorials and school museum we are laying bare the harsh truth of war,” asserts Ms. Dashkevich. “It’s interesting for me to watch the reaction of young Germans. Can they celebrate our May 9th holiday with us or sincerely lay flowers at our monuments on this sacred day? Teachers and students (aged 18-20) come to us from Germany’s Berufskolleg Barmen Europaschule. Amazingly, the young know nothing about the war, despite their grandfathers and grand grandfathers having fought on our land. I asked the leader of the delegation, Dirk Rummel, who teaches history, philosophy and modern German literature and business, if his father fought in WWII, as my father did. His father did not (which made me calm myself a little) although his grandfather did.”
Ms. Dashkevich continues, “Of course, it’s important for the headteacher of a school to know about his own grandfather’s military experience with the Wehrmacht, such as where he was stationed. I asked him why he brings his students to Belarus and he replied, “I’m here with them for the second time, because my grandfather fought here, although he told me no details.” Ms. Dashkevich’s voice quavers. “It turned out, his grandfather commanded a division of which only two people survived; he returned to Germany without his hand and shook with fear if anyone asked him about the war afterwards. His grandson became a history teacher as he wanted to understand what really happened in the past. It’s interesting for him to see with his own eyes where his grandfather fought. To some extent, he can compensate for his ancestor’s actions by telling German children of what happened.”
Why does Ms. Dashkevich, the daughter of a WWII veteran, receive quests from Germany? “On neither side do we bring any hostility; we meet with hospitality, singing and dancing together. We teach them our Belarusian dances and sing the Katyusha with them — in Russian and German (the text was specifically translated). We also meet veterans, so they can share first hand experiences. Perhaps, they’ll remember that those who ‘will come with the sword to us remain here forever’. I think that these young Germans who have visited us will grow up to be good people. At Khatyn, you could have heard a pin drop. We met prisoners from Jewish ghettos and concentration camps, which brought the Germans to tears. They were shocked by all they saw and heard, and by the parade of veterans. Afterwards, we went together to the monument to Soviet Union Hero Marat Kazei; a traditional veterans meeting of the Battalion of Belarusian Eaglets takes place there on the Victory Day. Our guests from Germany stood in grand formation and placed flowers, with great sincerity.”
Instead of an epilogue — a time for reconciliation
A tradition already exists for the grandchildren and children of those who fought on Belarusian lands in WWII to travel here in remembrance. Some defended legendary Brest Fortress, or took part in the partisan movement, liberating us from the enemy.
Naturally, people’s modern day views on the Germans can be ambivalent. I do recall one conversation with Larisa Korotkaya, a former partisan from the Detachment for the Motherland Assault Brigade (which operated near Minsk, in Logoisk District). Reporters asked her if she ever met ‘normal’ Germans during the war and this courageous woman (who later became a candidate of philological sciences and taught at the Belarusian State University for a long time) replied in the affirmative. She even looked for some after the war, as they had collaborated with the partisans, risking their lives to supply medicine. The TV programme Wait for Me helped her in the task. Ms. Korotkaya remembers Carl Heinz Danielsmeyer and an older soldier called Erich, who admitted his desire to defect to the Soviet side. He defended her young son from abuse by young Germans in Ostroshitsky Gorodok and, while his German division was staying in the village, brought the family food. Growing trust between Erich and Larisa, who understood German quite well, led him to reveal his communist sympathies. Larisa has no idea what fate befell him.
By Ivan Zhdanovich