Today, the names of 15 underage prisoners-of-war have been revealed; the remaining 1,975 remain unknown. On June 28th, 2007, Krasny Bereg village hosted a solemn unveiling of a memorial complex dedicated to those children who fell victim to the Great Patriotic War. The memorial was designed by the creative workshop of Leonid Levin, Honoured Architect of Belarus and laureate of the Lenin Award.
Lyudmila Melashchenko lives near the memorial, so was able to watch it being built. She was the first guide and research officer, although her health prevents her from working today. However, the soul of the memorial has captured her heart.
Once, a group of pupils from Zhlobin arrived; despite having several strict teachers with them, the overgrown teenagers were unruly. Their teachers noted that they’d almost had to push them by force into the excursion bus. The youngsters didn’t pay attention to me, just passing me by, some chatting on mobile phones, others nibbling sunflower seeds or blowing chewing-gum bubbles. I stopped them and found the necessary words to make them turn back. The first remark I heard was: ‘Make it quick — just five minutes, as we’re in a hurry’. I responded: ‘Boys, I can finish in three minutes; just let me know when I should stop. Agreed?’ I took them on a tour for an hour and a half. They silently followed me through the memorial and, when they boarded their bus, they sat so quietly that their teachers couldn’t believe their eyes.
Ms. Melashchenko, is it difficult to talk about the children’s camp?
Yes. I’ve read somewhere that heroic deeds are not only those of brave attack but steadfast endurance. These were just children…
What did they withstand?
Krasny Bereg village had a ‘collection point’ for children — from various districts of the Gomel Region. In one book, I read that children from the Vitebsk Region were also brought there. They were sorted and those whose were fit were immediately put onto special trains. Many were brought to the estate where the German hospital for soldiers and officers was located, as the Germans needed fresh blood (from 8 to 14 year olds).
Why did they need such young blood?
I’ve asked doctors this question and they tell me that active hormonal development takes place at that age, so blood is especially health-giving and curative. Wounds heal quicker and the body recovers better. Those who survived Krasny Bereg have told us how the children were washed in a river in summer and in a banya (sauna) in winter, regardless of the weather; the Germans are distinguished by their orderliness and neatness. Then, the children were brought to a special room to have their blood drawn, placing their arm through a curtain, so they couldn’t see the needle. Then, a special tag was hung around their necks.
Are there many who remember and can speak about this?
For a long time, few people knew that there were children’s donor concentration camps. Veterans, partisans and heroes were the focus, having brought victory. Children were victims. There were five donor children’s concentration camps in Belarus, with four located in the Gomel Region and one in the Minsk Region. Only one prisoner-of-war — Zoya Kazakevich — returned from Krasny Bereg camp; she has died now but had a miraculous escape. She was brought to Germany, where a German woman dragged her out of a pit half-dead and helped her recover.
What happened to those children whose blood was taken?
In most cases they died. Blood was taken several times, leading to the children losing consciousness and failing to wake. Only a few survived, but we have no exact figures. I do know that the Germans took 3,500 litres of blood from children at Salaspils concentrated camp. Child-donors were in a privileged position, receiving soup, sweets, tea and hot chocolate on their days of blood collection. Those who weren’t fit were mercilessly killed.
How did you come across this topic?
I was already a pensioner and saw how the memorial was constructed. My husband went there to find a job as a guard and learnt that they needed an excursion guide. He suggested it to me on 23rd December 2006, and, on the 26th, I conducted my first excursion for war veterans. I wasn’t ready and was greatly worried. The only thing I knew at that time was that the memorial had been designed by Leonid Levin. I read newspaper articles to find out more and then decided that the veterans should be given the floor. They began to speak about their deeds and about the children…
There were hundreds of excursions, sometimes three a day. My heart wasn’t strong enough, so I had to leave, but I managed to collect a great deal of material about the children’s concentration camp and about the monument’s creators during my days there. I cycled all over the neighbourhood searching for anyone who could tell me about those tragic events. I found several people and have stayed in touch with them. My husband also helped me, sometimes going on foot to a remote village in winter to congratulate a witness of those days on their birthday.
What are you doing now?
I think that, if we have such a monument, all pupils should be aware of it and should know whom it commemorates. I visit schools to give lectures and have donated materials to the district library, so that they can also speak to children. I’ve never refused to speak in public. Here, at the memorial, every detail is symbolic. It’s vital to listen attentively, to look carefully and to ponder. Children usually cry; even adult men weep. You know, newly-wed couples have begun to arrive here. They take photos and read the names of children, selecting names for their future children. Such a tradition is being formed…