Saturday 5 October 2019

A visit to the Khatyn Memorial Complex

I remember in my youth watching the television documentary series "The World at War", it was a broad ranging look at events of the Second World War. For some reason, perhaps because it was covered in episode 1, the description of the massacre at the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane by the Waffen SS made a lasting impression. A decade later in 1984 I was travelling south through France on holiday and happened to see a signpost for Oradour-sur-Glane and detoured to visit the village. The original village is now a permanent memorial and museum, a new village was established nearby. The visit fixed the village of Oradour-sur-Glane permanently in my memory.

Fast forward 35 years and I am on holiday again, this time visiting Belarus. When I am travelling I tend not to research where I am going so that I can be surprised, serendipity is what I like about travelling. After four days exploring Minsk it was time to start seeing some more of the country, the first place I visited was Khatyn (Хаты́нь).

“The Unconquered Man”
“The Unconquered Man”

State Memorial Complex Khatyn

The memorial complex is located on the site of what was once a small Belorussian village. On 22nd March 1943 the inhabitants of the village were massacred by brutal fascists, all the adults and all but three of the children perished. Unlike Oradour-sur-Glane in France the village was never reoccupied. I won't go into the details of what happened on that spring day in 1943, I could never adequately describe what happened, the events are fully described elsewhere (e.g. Memorial Complex Web site).

As bad as these events are, there was much more to discover. Khatyn was not one of a kind, more than 600 villages suffered the same fate - complete annihilation of the population and destruction of the villages, 186 of those villages, like Khatyn, were never reoccupied. In total more than 5,000 settlements were destroyed along with a large section of their inhabitants.

The complex has a number of different memorials including the specifics of Khatyn and the other villages that suffered total annihilation. There is also a memorial for all the victims that suffered in the concentration camps located in Belarus.

Belarus, or Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (Byelorussian SSR) as it was during The Great Patriotic War, suffered enormous casualties, around two and a quarter million people died - 25% of the population.

Khatyn (Хаты́нь) cf Katyn (Катынь)

When I heard about a visit to Khatyn I thought that the name seemed familiar and recalled a massacre taking place, mass executions of Polish military officers by the Soviet Union early in the war. My memory was faulty, Khatyn was as described above. However, I later discovered that my memory was not badly at fault, simply my inability to distinguish the Russian pronunciation of two similar names. There were indeed mass executions of Polish military officers but they had taken place but in the Katyn forest a couple of hours drive east and just over the border in Russia! If you want to know about that massacre take a look at the Katyn Memorial Web site.

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