Posted: 29.03.2023 11:53:00

Memory is sacred

There are places of power, sorrow and memory in the history of every nation. Khatyn was one of these for the Belarusians. The quiet, friendly Belarusian village of Khatyn can no longer be found on the map of Belarus. 80 years ago, on March 22nd, 1943, the Nazi invaders burned it along with 149 residents, of which 75 were children. The Khatyn Memorial Complex was created on the site of the village in 1969 as a symbol of eternal memory of the burned Belarusian villages. This is one of the most revered places in Belarus. There are few places in the world where there is such a thoughtful, tense silence as in Khatyn — there is only the rustle of steps on concrete paths, only the muffled chimes of bells. Mournful silence... It hides in itself the rumble of furious fire, and children’s crying, and desperate cries of mothers, and angry curses of men dying in flames... The bells of Khatyn call us to remember and prevent a recurrence, stop fascism and preserve our identity.

Symbolic barn roof

The tragedy of Khatyn is one of the thousands of facts testifying to the purposeful policy of genocide against the population of Belarus, which was carried out by the Nazis throughout the entire period of occupation (1941-1944): more than 3 million civilians and prisoners of war were exterminated on Belarusian land; more than 377,000 people were driven into German slavery under the threat of death, many of whom died as a result of unbearable working conditions, deprivation and torture; 209 cities and more than 9200 villages and villages were destroyed and burned, including 5295 settlements that the Nazis destroyed along with all or part of the population.

Khatyn massacre

On a frosty morning on March 22nd, 1943, brutal Nazis broke into the village of Khatyn and surrounded it. The villagers did not know anything about the fact that in the morning, 6 kilometres from Khatyn, partisans fired on a fascist convoy and killed a German officer as a result of the attack. But the fascists have already passed a death sentence on innocent people. The entire population of Khatyn, young and old — the elderly, women and children were driven out of their homes and went to the collective farm barn. The families of Iosif and Anna Baranovsky with 9 children, Alexander and Alexandra Novitsky with 7 children were brought here; the same number of children were in the family of Kazimir and Elena Iotko, the youngest was only one-year-old. Vera Yaskevich was driven into the barn with her seven-week-old son Tolik... When the entire population of the village was in the barn, the Nazis locked the doors, lined the barn with straw, doused it with gasoline and set it on fire. The wooden structure immediately caught fire. Children were choking and crying in the smoke. The adults tried to save the children. Under the pressure of dozens of human bodies, they could not stand it and the doors collapsed. In burning clothes, terrified, people rushed to run, the Nazis cold-bloodedly shot those who escaped from the flames from assault rifles and machine guns. 149 people died, including 75 children under 16 years of age. The village was looted and burned to the ground.

Cemetery of Villages

6 people were recognised as witnesses of the Khatyn massacre: the only adult witness and five children. 13-year-old Alexander Zhelobkovich galloped off on a horse to a neighbouring village. Brother and sister Yaskevichi — Vladimir (13 years old) and Sonia (9 years old) hid. Three residents of Khatyn were destined to survive after escaping from the burning barn: 7-year-old Viktor Zhelobkovich, 12-year-old Anton Baranovsky and 56-year-old Iosif Kaminsky.

Khatyn Memorial Complex 

In 1969, Khatyn Memorial Complex was opened in memory of all the dead Belarusians on the site of the former village. The authors of the memorial were architects Yuri Gradov, Valentin Zankovich, Leonid Levin and sculptor Sergei Selikhanov. The memorial has become a place of national worship. Thousands of people gather here every year for memorial events.
The Khatyn Memorial Complex is an example of a harmonious fusion of arts that has no equal in the world in terms of its impact on visitors. It is the embodiment of the spirit of deep sorrow and eternal memory, a symbol of greatness and tragic heroism. The memorial tells about the courage and insubordination of the Belarusian people in a harsh and concise manner.

Bronze sculpture of the Unbowed Man

The complex repeats the layout of the lost village.
At the entrance, visitors first of all see the 6-metrebronze sculpture of The Unbowed Man, who rose alive from the fire, carried the body of a dead boy out of there. The image was created in memory of Iosif Kaminsky and his son. It is also a symbol of the whole people, who lost their sons and daughters, brought many and many lives to the altar of victory, but survived, rose, preserved the memory of the fallen. 
The black slab-roof marks the place where the barn was located, in which the inhabitants of Khatyn were burned. 
Nearby is their mass grave, on which there is a symbolic wreath of memory with the words of the command of the dead to the living. 
‘Good people, remember: we loved life and our Motherland, and you, dear ones. We were burned alive in the fire. Our request to all: let grief and sorrow turn into your courage and strength, so that you can establish peace and tranquillity on Earth forever. So that from now on, nowhere and never in a whirlwind of fires, life does not perish!’ 


The punitive operation in Khatyn was carried out by the Ukrainian Schutzmannschaft Battalion 118, formed in 1942 from Ukrainian prisoners of war, mobilised youth from rural areas of the Kiev Region, and Western Ukrainian nationalists. In addition, the wildest SS punitive unit was involved — the SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger. In 1942-1944 it took part in punitive operations in the Mogilev, Minsk, Vitebsk and Grodno Regions. Divisions under the command of Dirlewanger destroyed at least 186 villages in our country and killed about 25,000 people.
The versatility of the bloody epic of the Ukrainian battalion is confirmed in his study by the Swedish-American scientist Per Anders Rudling, “On the territory of occupied Belarus, the Schutzmannschaft Battalion 118 took part in the most brutal ‘pacification’ operations. From March to August 1943, it participated in operations Hornung, Draufgänger, Cottbus, Hermann and Wandsbeck”.
Hryhoriy Vasiura, chief of staff of the Schutzmannschaft Battalion 118, commanded the massacre of the inhabitants of Khatyn.
From November to December 1986, the trial of Vasiura took place in Minsk. By the decision of the military tribunal of the Belarusian Military District, Vasiura was found guilty of crimes and sentenced to capital punishment — execution.

The Unbowed Man

The only adult witness to the Khatyn tragedy, 56-year-old village blacksmith Iosif Kaminsky, regained consciousness late at night, when the Nazis were no longer in the village. He had to endure another heavy blow: he found his wounded son among the corpses of his fellow villagers. The boy received severe burns and was mortally wounded in the stomach. He died in his father’s arms.
This tragic moment in the life of Iosif Kaminsky was the basis for the creation of the only sculpture of the Khatyn Memorial Complex — the Unbowed Man.
The fate of Iosif Kaminsky was very cruel. He came out of the fire and survived in spite of everything, but his entire family perished in the fire shed, and he lived with this pain until the end of his days. After the war, Iosif Kaminsky lived in the village of Kozyri, Logoisk District, Minsk Region. Until the last days of his life he came to Khatyn. He died in 1973 and was buried in Logoisk.

Iosif Kaminsky surrounded by listeners, 1968

From the protocol of interrogation of Iosif Kaminsky, January 31st, 1961, “...People doomed to death, including me and my family members, cried a lot and screamed. Opening the barn door, the punishers began to shoot citizens with assault rifles, machine guns and other weapons, but the shooting was almost not heard because of the screams of the people. I was at the wall with my 15-year-old son Adam. The dead citizens fell on me, the still alive rushed about in the general crowd like waves, blood poured from the wounded and the dead. The burning roof collapsed, the terrible wild cries of people intensified even more... I managed to get out from under the corpses and burning people and crawl to the doors. Here one of the punishers... fired at me from a machine gun, as a result I was wounded in the left shoulder... My son Adam, burnt, jumped out of the barn, I don’t know how, but he fell after the shots 10 metres from the barn. I was wounded and lay motionless, pretending to be dead so that the punisher would not shoot at me... Soon I heard a signal to the departure of the punishers, and when they drove off a little, my son Adam, who was lying not far from me, about three metres away, called me to him... I crawled up, lifted him, but saw that he was cut in half by bullets. My son Adam still managed to ask me, ‘Is mom alive?’ And then he died.”

New unique museum in Khatyn

On the other side of the Crown, there is the answer of the living to the dead,
“You are our relatives. Bowing our heads in great sorrow, we stand before you. You did not bend to the fascist murderers in the dark days of hard times. You accepted death, but the flame of love for our Soviet Motherland will never go out. The memory of you is immortal among the people, as our Earth and the ever-bright sun above it are eternal.”
On the site of each of the 26 burnt houses there is a log cabin monument, inside which there is an obelisk in the form of a chimney with a bell. 26 Khatyn bells spread the bitter memory of the Belarusian land around the world. On each obelisk there is a plaque with the names of the burnt inhabitants of the house.

In the halls of the museum

Behind the monumental houses is the Cemetery of Villages. Urns with earth were brought here from 185 burned villages, which were never revived. Nearby is the Wall of Sorrow, a reinforced concrete block with niches in which there are memorial plates with the names of 66 largest extermination camps and places of mass death of people.
The memorial is completed by the Square of Memory, in the centre of which there are 3 birches, symbolising life, in place of the fourth one is the Eternal Flame, a symbol of the inhabitants of Belarus who died during the war. Nearby is the Tree of Life with a list of 433 villages burned down by the occupiers and revived after the war.
For more than half a century of its existence, the memorial complex has been visited by tens of millions of people from more than 100 countries of the world. Among the guests of honour of the complex are UN Secretary Generals U Thant and J. Perez de Cuellar; state leaders Richard Nixon, Rajiv Gandhi, Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, Urho Kaleva Kekkonen, Nursultan Nazarbayev, Robert Kocharian, Hu Jintao and many others.

Unique museum

In the halls of the museum
On the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the tragedy, a large-scale reconstruction was carried out in the memorial complex. Last year, the Head of State instructed to build a museum here and carry out all the necessary restoration work. ‘I want people’s hearts broken already before they walk here.’ 
When a year ago in Khatyn, during the nationwide subbotnik, the Head of State described how he sees the future museum, he used exactly this comparison.
These words of the President became the basis from which designers and architects pushed off when creating the project of the future museum, Director of the Khatyn Memorial Complex Artur Zelsky says, 
“Whoever does not remember the lessons of the past is doomed to experience all the hardships again. This is the main idea to which our exposition leads. We did not seek to duplicate the Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War or other museums. Our goal is to show people how terrible any aggression is, what horror and destruction it brings, how it turns human destinies into smoke. We give visitors a retrospective so that they realise, especially young people, how important it is to preserve the historical memory of the feat of the Soviet people so that we can create our future and preserve sovereignty.”
The museum has six rooms. Each is dedicated to a certain period in the history of the Belarusian people. The exhibition space gradually introduces the history of major military conflicts and the tragedies of the civilian population. The central element of the entire exposition is the ‘bloody stream’, symbolising all the victims of aggression in Belarus.

In the halls of the museum

The first hall of the museum covers the period of the history of Belarus from the 10th to the 20th century. It recalls the main military conflicts that swept across our land. Terrible figures sound: in the 18th century, more than half of the population of Belarus died in various armed conflicts. Before the people had time to recover, the World War I fell to its lot, taking every fifth. Revolutionary upheavals, occupation, economic devastation... The recalcitrant Belarusian people survived in spite of everything and created their own state in order to independently determine their own destiny.
The second hall plunges us into the atmosphere of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War: from the first days of the invasion, Belarus turned into a bloody wound on the body of the Soviet Union.
The third hall reveals the theme of occupation, concentration camps, mass executions and the survival of the civilian population in these inhuman conditions. Punitive operations began immediately, in the summer of 1941. The beginning of the policy of genocide of the Belarusian people in the occupied territory was laid by the Pripyat Marshes massacres. The museum has collected unique photo evidence. On one of them, an unknown girl is digging her own grave, and executioners are crowding around, waiting to make a fatal shot.

The fourth hall is dedicated to the burnt villages. The burnt wall of the barn reminds us about how that fateful day ended for the inhabitants of Khatyn. On it is a map of Belarus, where 216 burnt villages smoulder like red coals, sharing the fate of Khatyn.
The fifth hall is the space of memory. The names of settlements affected by the invaders are carved on the walls.
The sixth hall demonstrates historical studies of the tragedy of war, reflects the history of the creation of the Khatyn memorial ensemble. It also contains unique exhibits discovered during the investigation by the Prosecutor General’s Office of the criminal case on the genocide of the Belarusian people. 

By Olga Korneeva
Photos by BELTA, Aleksandr Kulevsky