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Focus on Safety




I remember the effect on me, when I was young, of reading something Josef Stalin once said:
"A single death is a tragedy," Stalin observed, before blithely adding. "A million deaths is a statistic."
Stalin meant to say that it is difficult for human beings to grasp the full horror inherent to an event if it involves a large loss of life; large numbers, thus.
Khatyn, the village Vladimir and I were driving to on this beautiful, early summer day, would prove Stalin to be wrong.
Belarus is a beautiful country, a land of low rolling hills and wildflower carpeted, grassy glades.
Clouds were building to the south, drifting in from the Ukraine, as we left the Belarussian capital of Minsk behind. Gone was the city of cranes and frantic construction. Found was the peace which the verdant Belarussian countryside conveys.
The busy road we travelled on was impossibly clean, not a speck of trash to be seen.
Vladimir began to slow down about 18 miles out of Minsk, He hunched over the steering wheel and peered ahead of him with great concentration. A seemingly unbroken line of conifers lined the road ahead of us and I wondered what he might be looking for, and then saw it, a tiny cut in the forest, Vladimir braked hard and swerved his Audi sharply off the highway and onto a narrow forest road.
An automobile-sized boulder was set alongside the road, a single Russian word carved into it. Khatyn. A family stood before it, posing for a photo. The father smiled, his hands tenderly around the shoulders of his two young daughters. Mother took the photo. "Russians," Vladimir said, glancing at their car's license plate.
We drove through a dark pine forest for a few miles, a coolness to the air settling around us, before turning onto an overly large, mostly deserted, parking lot. We were here.
I'd first heard of Khatyn 26 years earlier as I prepared for my first visit to Belarus, the village being cited as a not-to-be-missed example of Belarussian history. I'd wanted to visit ever since.
I stepped out of the car. A softly contoured bowl of land lay before me, rising gently from north to south. The site was ringed by forest, a mix of fragrant pines and birches.
Wildflowers grew in incredible profusion. I walked eagerly to the edge of the meadow to look at the flowers up close. A thin-stalked yellow variety grew daintily in the grass. Another, whose name escaped me--a very pretty white wildflower which grows blue in the south of France--speckled the meadow with snowflake-like blossoms. And everywhere, in great drifts, the deep blue of the lupines.
Khatyn is peaceful. Gentle. Beautiful. But it wasn't that way on the 22nd of March, 1943.
It's instructive to pause for a moment to consider a number, a Stalinesque number, if you will. The ubiquitous war memorials one encounters while travelling in Belarus drive home a stunning statistic: abut one of every four Belarussians died during the Second World War. Two million, three hundred thousand Belarussians were killed.
Were it to happen today, in the United States, we would lose more than 84 million people. A Stalinesque number indeed.
The historian, Dan Carlin, has observed that if one were to remove the fighting on the Eastern Front from the entirety of World War II--and consider it as an independent conflict--then it would still be considered the largest war fought in history.
The long, sad course of Belarussian history is replete with war. These poor people have been invaded so often, by so many. Swedes, Finns, Mongols, Napoleon in 1812, and the Germans. Twice.
The Germans were worse than even Genghis Khan's Mongols. They considered the Slavs to be subhuman and acted accordingly.
In doing the research for this travelogue I came across a manual which was given to every German soldier who served on the Eastern Front The instruction given in it is unsettling, troubling, disquieting:
""You are not able, either to take things to heart or to worry," the manual suggested. "Forget your sympathy and compassion. Kill any Russian or Soviet citizen. Do not stop at anything, whether you see an old man or a woman, a boy or a girl in front of you. Kill. It will save you from death. It will provide your family with a future. It will bring eternal glory to you."
Eternal glory. What a lovely thought...
On the morning of the 22nd of March, a Nazi motor convoy was ambushed near Khatyn by partisans, resulting in the killing of four military police officers.
Khatyn, peaceful, beautiful Khatyn had the misfortune of being only 3.5 miles away.
The entire population of the village, 149 people, 75 of them children, were driven into a barn, the doors of which were chained shut. Straw was then piled high against the structure and a match was lit.
More detail is not needed. Shouldn't be shared. Suffice it to say that everyone in the village was killed but one.
Why had I come to Khatyn? It wasn't out of morbid curiosity. I'd come because the chronicles of those who had come before me had said that Khatyn was special in a touching, spiritual way.
Standing at the edge of that pretty glade, I could feel it.
It's so still here.
"How could something so ugly happen in such a beautiful place?" I wondered as I followed Vladimir toward the memorial. The lupines, especially, were irresistible and I wandered off the path to see them up close, to take photos.
I moved from clump to clump, touching them, smelling them. And then I sensed eyes boring into me.
I looked up, knowing exactly what I would see. There she was, standing stiffly in the middle of the paved path at Vladimir's side, her eyes following my every movement.
She's one of "them," that utterly irritating group of Belorussian busybodies (always women) who make life miserable for everyone else. They're everywhere. On the street. In hotels. The directors of the state run factory which used to make the Music Makers for us (powerful men each) were afraid of them and gave them a wide berth.
The slightest offense--and only "they" define what constitutes an offense--sets them into a paroxysm of rage. Russian is not a pretty language in the way that Italian or French is, but when shrieked in public by one of these harpies it takes on an entirely different element.
I'd been careful to look for "Stay on the Paths" signs, of which there were none. Yet, gauging from the way her eyes followed my every moment, I knew I was in trouble.
I hate this about Belarus, the policing by this pack of women who have nothing better to do. She stood next to Vladimir and said something to him. Vladimir nodded hesitantly. He was afraid of her..
I had no more photos to take and turned toward Vladimir and Khatyn's self-appointed minder. I wasn't in a mood to be dressed down in public, not today, not again. If it was a confrontation she wanted, a confrontation it would be.
"I noticed you were taking photographs of the flowers," the woman pleasantly said in English. "I love flowers," she volunteered. "They make me happy. Every day, when my work is done I wander off, like you to be among them. I take their photos too. They're beautiful, aren't they?"
My shoulders sagged. What a jerk I was. She was sweet. We talked about flowers: her favorites, my favorites, and did so until Vladimir (not a flower guy) began to shuffle his feet with impatience.
"Thank you for coming to Khatyn," the old woman said, noticing Vladimir's restiveness. "You need to know that Khatyn doesn't belong to Belarus, because there are Khatyns all over the world. We want to share it with all peoples, all cultures so that hopefully, things like this will never happen again."
Her sincerity was unquestionable.
"Could I leave you with one thing?" the woman said as she turned me to face the walkway leading into the site. "There is much symbolism here. Notice the plants which line the path," she said. "They were chosen for their leaf color."
"Blood red," I observed.
The woman nodded. "The plant actually has pretty white flowers," she continued. "We pick them off by hand every day so the effect won't be diluted. And now," she continued, "You must visit Khatyn."
I thanked her sincerely. How wrong I had been to judge her.
Vladimir and I followed the footpath as it led us past a particularly huge and strikingly ugly statue, then toward the foundations of Khatyn's 26 homes; concrete chimneys symbolizing the only things left standing after the Germans had burned the log homes.
Vladimir stopped after a few moments and looked around him. "Well, I guess that's it, then," he declared. He'd seen enough and turned on his heel to leave. (He's not a big arts and museum guy either.)
But I am. "I'd like to look at the houses, if you don't mind" I said. Vladimir shrugged a "suit yourself" shrug and followed.
A smaller path branched off toward the foundation of one of the homes. I saw that a slate-colored plaque had been affixed to the chimney, listing the names of the people who had lived in this home. Had been murdered here.
Vladimir read the plaque and then stepped back stiffly, brushed his hair in nervousness, as if suddenly becoming aware of the import of all this. "Mother. Father," he said, pointing out the first two names. "And their children."
Then, a bell placed at the top of the chimney above us tolled. A single, metallic note.
I paid close attention to the bells as we walked along, stopping often to listen to them, a bell having been placed at each home site. I learned that a bell tolls about every 30 seconds, commemorating the rate at which Belorussians died during the war. The woman who loved flowers was right: there is much symbolism here.
Neither did the bells ring in any particular order. One would ring here. Another there, further away. I noticed that each bell had its own sound, probably because they had been hand cast. Some were harmonic, others were flat. I realized that if all the bells sounded alike, the deaths they represented would blend into one, and the meaning--the individuality of each life--would be lost. More symbolism.
When I returned home I researched Khatyn and was shocked to learn that it wasn't just Germans who were responsible for the crime. Belarus' neighbors: Ukranians, Latvians and Poles were involved. .
I'm Belgian, and know that many Belgians volunteered to fight alongside the Nazis in the east, no doubt creating Khatyns of their own.
"And don't forget the Belarussians," Vladimir said afterward with commendable candor. "Many helped the Germans kill their own people. We're to blame too."
The sad universality of this had me remembering Stanley Milgram's controversial "Obedience to Authority" experiment conducted at Yale in 1963. Thinking they were taking part in a study to measure the effect of punishment as it relates to learning, volunteers were ordered to administer electric shocks to unseen co-participants every time a mistake was made in the recitation of a long series of numbers.
The instrument panel in front of the people giving the electric shocks was marked with gradations; beginning with "Mild," progressing to "Painful," then "Severe" and "Potentially Fatal," with the last two stages being boldly outlined in red and marked "XXX."
No shocks were actually administered: the volunteers were pushing a dead button. And the people receiving the "shocks" were actors who yelped in surprise as the first mild shocks were given and screamed in unbearable agony as the level of shock augmented and ultimately approached the "lethal" level.
The question Milgram wanted answered was this: How far would good meaning people go when ordered to act by an authority figure? (In this case a person wearing a white lab coat.)
Would they administer a potentially lethal shock to a fellow--and completely innocent--volunteer?
Every single participant--40 of 40--gave shocks to the "Severe" level. A shocking 65% went to the limit, two stages beyond "Potentially Fatal."
The physical and emotional stress these people went through as they administered the shocks is heart-wrenching to see, even 50 years later. They trembled. They agonized. Three of them experienced "full-blown, uncontrollable seizures."
And yet, they pushed the button.
The American public was outraged. Milgram was vilified. People refused to believe that Americans were capable of such behavior. Germans did that sort of thing--not Americans.
Five years later, a new word was on America's lips: My Lai.
The nice woman who loved flowers had been right. The potential for Khatyn lies deep within us all. But so does beauty. And hope. And life.
Khatyn is flowers which make us smile. Khatyn is beautifully tolling bells which make us think. Khatyn is old women on their knees, hand-picking white flowers from red leaved plants so that people who come to visit will feel something special there. That's Khatyn.

• • • •

On leaving Khatyn I noticed a pretty group of lupines spotlighted by the sun and took out my camera, an action noticed by a Belarussian boy of about ten years old who had just emerged from the bathroom.
This boy had Young Pioneer (a militant Soviet version of the Boy Scouts, combining trips to the zoo with heavy doses of indoctrination) written all over him. Eyes wide with concern, he followed close on my heels as I walked toward the flowers. As a Young Pioneer he'd been warned about foreigners and their cameras. He knew what they were capable of.
I smiled. I was egging him on. The young boy, all skinny legs and knobby knees, followed me suspiciously. He sucked in his breath as I brought the camera to eye level--and took the photo.
The boy turned and ran frantically to his father, who stood at the side of the lavatory smoking a cigarette. I don't speak a word of Russian, but could easily guess what the boy was saying. "Dad! Dad! The American spy has just taken a photo of the flowers!"
The father wearily looked at his son, a future party functionary if ever there was one, and took a long drag on his cigarette. "Go away," he said, then turned to me and rolled his eyes. More universality.
I grinned back at him. I was in Belarus again. I'd left Khatyn behind.