By Viktar Korbut
According to scientific calculations, the Nazis burnt 9,200 Belarusian villages during WWII, including 628 with their residents. Natalia Kirillova, who has been investigating this aspect of history, believes that little is known of those days of horror abroad. She is co-ordinating a new project, run jointly by the Remembrance, Responsibility and Future German Foundation, the Belarusian Peace Foundation and the National Archives of Belarus, entitled Enhancing the Status of the Survivors of the Burnt Villages of Belarus. Some witnesses remain alive — able to share their accounts with a wider audience.
“Unfortunately, the tragedy of Belarusian villages, destroyed by SS-soldiers, is unknown in the West, although there cases of genocide occurred in Czech Lidice, French Oradour and Lithuanian Pirchupis. However, these were isolated cases. In Belarus, the Nazi occupation resulted in such destruction of the local population as may be called genocide,” stresses Ms. Kirillova.
However, the victims of the Nazis from the burnt villages have failed to receive compensations. As a result, German and Belarusian enthusiasts have been helping those in need voluntarily. As part of the project, which has already been launched, they record the recollections of those who survived the fires. Naturally, it is no easy task.
Leonid Levin helped design the Khatyn memorial, on the site destroyed by the Nazis in 1943. The village has become a symbol of those many thousands of others burnt by the SS. Mr. Levin admits that witnesses find speaking of their traumatic experiences difficult. “People can’t describe their tragedy. They hide behind dates and figures, taken from books. They are afraid of looking again into the face of terrible truth. However, they must remember, telling us ‘how it was’, so that nothing similar can ever happen again.”
At the same time, a database of residents of burnt villages is being compiled, to appear on the website of the National Archives (www.narb.by) next year. In June, the Archives also plan to release a book devoted to the tragedy of Belarusian villages, containing 200 important documents, many of which are little known.
Ms. Kirillova believes that Belarus will be able to reveal the truth of its huge losses during WWII via the Internet; these include not only the burnt villages but those killed in ghettos, prisoners of concentrated camps and those subjected to hard labour in Germany.
Mr. Levin, who has created several memorials to honour those who died during the German occupation, believes that not all tourists arriving in the country are keen to explore the horrors of the past. “Evidently, some tourists have no desire to ‘penetrate’ grief and sorrow; rather, they want to see beautiful places, castles and nature. Khatyn inevitably touches your soul, as infants and elderly people died there. The same happened in thousands of other villages. It is only here that you begin to understand the tragedy of Belarus and why the war still resounds in the hearts of contemporary Belarusians.”