By Viktar Korbut
It’s commonly heard that, during the Great Patriotic War, fascists destroyed 628 Belarusian villages and their residents; 186 have never been restored. These are drastic figures but, in fact, embrace only those settlements covered by the Khatyn Memorial Complex. Nobody really knows for sure how many Belarusian villages and residents were burnt during the war years.
In the 1980s, tragic statistics were released, stating that 9,200 villages were burnt, including 5,295 with all their villagers. However, it’s now clear that these figures need clarification. “The scale of the catastrophe is even greater,” stresses Vyacheslav Selemenev, chief archivist at the National Archives of Belarus. Not long ago, he presented a collection of compiled documents: Tragedy of Belarusian Villages: 1941-1944. The book is a joint work with Natalia Kirillova — a co-ordinator of the international Enhancement of the Status of Rescued Residents of Burnt Belarusian Villages project. The book contains many materials previously unreleased, which alter our view of the scale of genocide during the war (the 70th anniversary of its beginning was marked by Belarus on June 22nd).
While celebrating the Independence Day of July 3rd (when Minsk was liberated from the Nazis in 1944), it’s vital to recall that Belarus, as no other European state, experienced the greatest losses during WWII. It’s hard to imagine but, until 1941, the population stood at 10m (today, it is slightly over 9m); during the war years, every third citizen died. However, until now, we haven’t known the exact figure. Mr. Selemenev tells us how the names of all victims could be discovered.
Mr. Selemenev, it seems everything has been written about the fascists’ crimes during Soviet times. Are there any blank spots left?
As we’ve discovered, there are many. Until now, Belarus has lacked any special scientific research on the theme of burnt villages. We have novels based on source materials — such as Ales Adamovich’s ‘I’m From a Fiery Village’, and stories by Yanka Bryl and Vladimir Kolesnik, as well as materials from the ‘Memory’ books, but these tend to be recollections of eyewitnesses. No scientific study of the problem has ever been made.
Since 2006, there have been international conferences covering the topic of ‘German Repression and Destruction of Villages During WWII’ — organised at the initiative of Germany’s Topical Forum Foundation. Next May, Minsk is to host its fourth conference. Interestingly, Belarus — where the greatest number of villages was burnt — was only invited to the third forum. Our tragedy is almost unknown worldwide.
In Soviet times, a powerful propaganda system operated. Did it fail to spread the truth about the tragedy of Belarusian villages to the global community?
Certain researches tackled the problem of genocide but dealt with ‘general issues’. In the 1960s, a collection of documents entitled ‘Crimes of German-Fascist Invaders in Belarus’ was published twice but contained little information about the burnt villages. The recently released book includes 212 documents, with most published for the first time. ‘The Tragedy of Belarusian Villages’ includes reports, acts, references, information and special applications by local party members, state officers and partisan groups about the crimes of the Nazis on the occupied territory. It also includes eye-witness accounts from those who escaped the burnt villages and extracts from diaries. It features reports by various Wehrmacht divisions and organisations and by the police and civil occupation administration about their counterinsurgency operations against the partisans and peaceful citizens.
Where did you find these papers?
Most were in the National Archives, while some were found in regional archives and in the State Archives of Russia. They are understudied. Moreover, the National Academy of Sciences had data on the burnt villages of which we knew nothing before. ‘The Nazi Policy of Genocide and the Burnt Land of Belarus’, released in 1984, numbers the burnt villages (using data compiled by special district commissions) but, comparing this data with archive documents, we noticed inconsistencies. In recent years, we’ve been preparing an e-base of burnt villages, which is to contain the most topical information. The next generation of researchers will be able to use it in their studies. We say ‘nobody is forgotten’ so we must restore the names of all those who suffered during the occupation.