The Khatyn lie

For those two confused sounds – [x] and [‘k] – it was worth grinding the ashes of 149 people, erecting a mausoleum, a car park, an access road and publishing albums on smooth paper in fifteen world languages. Oh, indeed, it was worth it.

“...The priest seemed really doubtful where to begin, and at last he said again:
‘Where would a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest.’
The other did not answer.
‘If there were no forest, he would make a forest. And if he wished to hide a dead leaf, he would make a dead forest.’”

So much for Father Brown, the character created by Gilbert Chesterton in the short story “The Sign of the Broken Sword”. It opens with dialogues phrased in the likeness of Buddhist koans (“Where does a wise man hide a pebble? – On the beach”; “Where does a wise man hide a leaf? – In the forest”), to ultimately lead readers to the truth about the betrayal – and the corpse, hidden by the murderer on the field of the battle he caused.

Smoke and mirrors

Yes, General Sir Arthur St. Clare from Chesterton’s story turned out to be a murderer and a traitor. But what to call those who chose one of the thousands of burnt-out Belarusian villages and erected a grandiose “Memorial Centre” on its ruins – to weave together the clues that would lead to their crimes, to hide the truth in understatements, fogs, reverberations and false reflections?

Katyn – Khatyn. To the Polish eye and ear, the difference is clear. Of course, this is primarily due to the cultural context. Already several-year-olds – at least those with whom their parents talk – may associate “Katyń” as “the place where the evil Soviets killed defenceless Polish soldiers”. But even in writing, the ‘K’ and ‘Ch’ look different. The second name, directly derived from the word “chata” [hut], sounds different and soft. While the word “Katyń” is strong and blunt as a clonk “KAT”, followed by “tyń”, light as the clanking against brick or clay of a tin shell.

But to the English eye “Katyn” and “Khatyn” look like two variants of the same word, with someone making a typo in one of them (but which one?). And one might as well not notice the difference, that’s just the way it is with words written in an unfamiliar language. There, I reach for a map of Iceland and the first village that catches my eye counts, like Khatyn before the holocaust, a little more than a hundred souls. Litli-Árskógssandur and Litli-Árskósgsandur: how long does it take for the eye of the Polish reader to grasp the difference between the two entries? Especially if he or she does not know to look for the difference, and the reader is not a professional proofreader.

And those sounds so strikingly gentle

And in speech, things get even more confusing: in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), these two names are written as [ˈkatɨɲ]) and [xaˈtɨnʲ], respectively. Try asking an Anglo-Saxon friend to pronounce both (certainly neither of them will be able to articulate it with ease), and then ask him or her to tell you in good conscience whether he or she hears the difference.

Answering this question will be an Anglo-Saxon who knows he is talking to a Pole, presumably more than curious about the past, and wonders what the experiment is all about. So, looking at the IPA transcript, he will pronounce the words particularly clearly, as if he were passing an exam for a radio presenter. Now imagine the billions of people in the world – Indians, Brazilians, Egyptians – listening to the BBC evening news on longwave in the early 1970s. They listen with one ear, preparing dinner for the children, with the barking of the dog, the sizzle of oil and the whistling of the radio in the background: “Today Richard Nixon, the president of United States, during his visit to USSR visited Khatyn Memorial…”; “Hoje Richard Nixon, o presidente dos Estados Unidos…”

And so it goes on, in many variants, I’m afraid to even inquire what the difference between “Katyn” and “Khatyn” sounds like in Pushtu or the Cantonese variant of Chinese. Goes in one ear and out the other, the dog barks, the pancakes burn. But if an Indian or a Brazilian came across one of these Poles a few weeks or months later with their perpetual lamentations and resentments to the whole world, what did he learn, he said nothing, he could in good conscience reply:

. – Kh… – how do you pronounce it!? Katynj? But the Soviets built a mausoleum, cemetery and memorial there, I heard it myself on the BBC, what are you still on about?

And that was exactly the point. Not of the Poles: of the Soviets. For those two sounds, [x] and [‘k], it was worth grinding the ashes of 149 people, erecting a mausoleum, a car park, an access road and publishing albums on smooth paper in fifteen world languages. Oh, indeed, it was worth it.
On the left, the Katyn Memorial in Russia, next to the plaque of the Katyn memorial in Belarus. Photo: PAP/Wojciech Pacewicz and Aschroet – Own work, CC0, Wikimedia
The nightmare of war in the lands of Belarus is far too little known. Sometimes something will break through from monographs such as Leonid Grenkevich and David Glantz’s work The Soviet Partisan Movement, 1941-1944: A Critical Historiographical Analysis, sometimes from essays such as Kresy. Ars moriendi by Agnieszka Rybak and Anna Smółka. But in general, few people realise that this was the epicentre of “Bloodstained Lands”. Heart of darkness. Bellum omnium contra omnes.

Reich Commissariat Death

Belarus was the only Soviet republic to be fully occupied by Third Reich troops. The vast majority of it became part of the Reich Commissariat East, scraps from the south were assigned to the Reich Commissariat Ukraine, the Belastok Voblast came under the supervision of the East Prussian Gauleiter, several districts were transferred to the General District of Lithuania. But the rest, the General District of Belarus, was one big training ground. And a jungle.

  The Einsatzgruppen went into the field, even earlier than in the General Government, to practise on local shtetls before the Holocaust began. Ghettos were established, the pre-war killing field of the NKVD was taken over in Maly Trostynets near Minsk to establish first a starvation death camp for Red Army prisoners of war and then a classic extermination camp there. Belarusian historian Ihar Kuzniacou is of the opinion that before that, in 1940, some Polish prisoners of war from the so-called Belarusian Katyn list may have been buried there. But it is difficult to carry out excavations in a place that has been a landfill since 1956.

For Moscow, the loss of the Belarusian lands was, of course, a slap in the face – but also an opportunity to create its own training ground: as early as May 1942, the Central Headquarters of the Partisan Movement was established, headed, not coincidentally, by Panteleimon Ponomarenko, the first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Belarus, temporarily deprived of the capital. It was in Belarus that the densest intelligence and military network was set up: nearly 400,000 partisans, supplied and parachuted in from behind the ever-closer front line, who tirelessly blew up trains and railway lines, bridges and stations.

Heart of darkness over Pripyat

But not only that. They also tried to drag the German forces, which were trying to build local self-governing structures, into the logic of a war of attrition, of relentless retaliation. The Germans did not need to be particularly provoked: of all people, the subhumans of Weißrussland do not need to be particularly pitied. Instead, they could be used as cannon fodder, so General Commissioner Wilhelm Kube was keen to create a self-defence force out of prisoners and collaborators: poorly equipped, operationally completely subordinate to the Wehrmacht, but completely sufficient for round-ups and pacification.

And yet there were still the structures of the Home Army, expanded within and outside the borders of the Second Polish Republic, pursued and liquidated by Soviet partisans. There were formations made up of ghetto escapees, supported, infiltrated and, in time, directly controlled by the Central Headquarters of the Partisan Movement. There were local units whose commanders dreamt of a post-war independent Belarus. There were Lithuanian-inspired units, and there were (with the tacit blessing of Berlin patrons) underground structures of “white” Russian émigrés operating in and around Minsk. And there were, most numerous, the most completely local units, formed within a single village, with a single operational directive: chase out all those who could bring misfortune on us. Survive.

Civil war, a war of all against all. A heart of darkness lying in the basin not of the Congo, but of Berezina and Pripyat. No one described it better than Józef Mackiewicz in The Road to Nowhere. No wonder five thousand villages were burnt down during this war.

How to identify a Russian troll? Pro-Kremlin strategies on the Internet.

In this war Moscow has perfectly prepared divisions whereas we have poorly equipped guerilla fighters.

see more
The terrible fate of Khatyn was by no means unique. On 22 March 1943, at dawn, Soviet partisans from the “Avenger” unit attacked at the junction of the Pleshchenitsa-Lahoysk and Kozyry-Khatyn gravel roads a car at the wheel of which sat Capt. Schutzpolizei Hans Woellke. In a chaotic shootout, the driver and several militiamen from the 118th police battalion, commanded by Woellke and composed mostly of Ukrainians hoping that cooperation with the Third Reich would pay off, were killed.

Memorial to a dazed father

Unluckily, the officer killed was an athlete in civilian life, a medallist from the Berlin Olympics, who was presented with the gold in the stadium by the Führer himself. Yes, the years had passed, the “avengers” from the Lahoysk grove had no idea who the balding blond man in uniform was and it was doubtful that they had heard of the Olympics, but an attack on the prestige of the Reich should be punished particularly severely. Therefore, not only was the entire 118th battalion mobilised, but also a special task force: SS Sonderkommando, commanded by Oskar Dirlewanger, who was so well known to Varsovians.

The partisans were not even attempted to be pursued, it was too tedious and dangerous. The battalion and the sonderkommando, having hung a few lumberjacks along the way, simply headed towards the nearest village. It was surrounded, after which all its inhabitants, including old people and children, were herded into the village’s largest barn. It was doused with petrol and set on fire, firing short bursts into anyone who managed to scratch out an escape route through the thorns and sheathing: this is, after all, a modus operandi well known to the bloodied lands. 149 people burned, including 75 children. The survivors were two girls (one in a potato store, the other in the bushes – only to die a year later in the annihilation of the neighbouring village of Khvorosten, where relatives had taken them) and the badly burnt local blacksmith Josif Kamiński. It is he who is depicted on the Khatyn memorial as he carries, stunned, the half-charred body of his son, which he found in the ruins of the barn.

A nightmare. Not unlike the case of – as calculated by post-war historians – 5,294 more Belarusian villages that experienced pacification actions in the course of the war. 627 were burnt down or demolished “to the bare stone”, like Carthage. In the case of 186 of these, the central authorities gave up on rebuilding: no survivors, access roads soaked into the mud. It was simpler to build a new kolkhoz.

For 26 years, the podzolic lands of Khatyn were overgrown with grass, perch, pines and birches; too barren soil for bent. In places, nettle sucked greedily on the debris.

And then – at least that’s what we can presume – a philologist came to the KGB Board in Minsk. Or, at least, someone with an ear good enough to have flicked through the documentation and spotted this deluding resemblance: [ˈkatɨɲ]) – [xaˈtɨnʲ].

. Miss Harriman’s heels

. This was after the publication on 24 January 1944 of the final communiqué of the Burdenko Commission, which concluded beyond reasonable doubt that the Nazi invaders were guilty of murdering Polish prisoners of war. After a visit to Katyn that January by the US Ambassador’s daughter, Miss Kathleen Harriman, who also had no doubts. After the hanging on 30 October 1947 by unknown perpetrators in a barn in Somerset County of Ivan Kriwoziertsev, a farmer from the “Goat Mountains” who was the first to point out the location of the Katyn pits. After the report of Lieutenant Colonel John van Vliet, who had been brought to Katyn by the Germans as an American prisoner of war in May 1943, was stolen from the Pentagon archives sometime between 1944 and 1946, 22 diaries extracted from officers’ uniforms were confiscated by the NKVD in a Kraków monastery in January 1945.

After the burning of nine crates of Katyn memorabilia at Radebeul station near Dresden on 27 April 1945. After almost all members of the medical commission established in 1943, from Sofia to Oslo, were caught and forced to withdraw their testimony. After the drafting on 3 March 1959 by KGB chief Aleksandr Shelepin of a memo addressed to the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, in which he recommended “the destruction of the records and other materials kept since 1940 concerning the prisoners of war and interned officers, gendarmes, policemen, settlers, landowners, etc. of former bourgeois Poland who were shot that year”. Despite the decision of the Central Control Office of the Press, Publications and Public Performances for “unconditional elimination of the names and mentions of their work” of Goetl Ferdinand, Czapski Józef, Mackiewicz Józef, Sukiennicki Wiktor and others. That hard “KAT”, that quiet “tyń” – they echoed too strongly.
The memorial was planned with aplomb and, above all, with vision. The end of the 1960s was no longer the time of broad-shouldered heroes. The team of architects (Yuri Gradov, Leonid Levin, Valentin Sankovich) and sculptor Sergei Selikhanov were able to give room to their imagination and take care of the meaning.

The outline of each of the burnt huts – cast in white concrete. In the middle of the empty space left by the hut, where the remains of a brick chimney usually stand after the passing of a penal company – a bell tower. Dozens of belfries, enough for one of the bells to ring every 30 seconds. Every 30 seconds – to raise awareness of how often (according to the arithmetic average) the inhabitants of Belarus perished between 1941 and 1944.

Wedding cake triangle

Because the memorial in Khatyn is meant to remind us not only of the fate of one village – but of the tragedy of the entire Soviet Belarusian nation. So, next to the contours of the cottages are placed the names of their inhabitants. But the 185 graves in the cemetery are not the graves of the villagers – but a reminder of the 185 villages that, like Khatyn, were never rebuilt. And the 433 branches of the “tree of life” bear the names of the 433 villages that were rebuilt after all. And at the entrance to the village – a six-metre-tall Yosif carries his son in his arms. And in the middle of the memorial – three tall birch trees sway, growing in an unfinished square. And instead of a fourth – an eternal flame. Why so? Because one in four residents of Soviet Belarus died during the war.

And next to it is a car park for coaches and tours, which have been coming from all over the Union since the first week. They continue to do so today – in 2011, according to Wikipedia, nearly 200,000 organised and individual tourists arrived there. Khatyn is ranked among the top ten tourist attractions in Belarus.

Nixon and Rajiv Gandhi, Fidel Castro and Jiang Zemin were guests here; delegations of all levels, from all parts of the world, came here. Delegations from the Communist Poland have visited the site too, and an album and postcards have been published in Polish. Khatyn-Katyn, the birches rustle, ˈkatɨɲ – xaˈtɨnʲ. According to a custom that has survived the official end of the Soviet Union, newlyweds come to bow down to their fathers-grandparents, to reflect, to have a photo shoot. 13 years ago, at a confectionery exhibition in Minsk, one of the main prizes went to the wedding cake “Khatyn”. On a base of sponge cake layered with jam and covered with a light glaze, the confectioner carved from chocolate a miniature version of the monument (Yosif with his charred son in his arms) and, at the foot of the monument, the happy couple.

Just a few years ago, Viktor Suvorov wrote that the latest version of Word for Russian underlines the word Katyń (Катынь) in red: an error! And if you run autocorrect with the F7 key, the program prompts you: correct for Khatyn (Хатынь). And there goes the problem.

Blonde’s joke

In the Russian and Belarusian school forums, a plethora of questions sound like from an old joke about a blonde asking: “So what is it finally spelled, Iran or Iraq?” “Are Katyn and Khatyn one and the same?” – asks Diana. “What is the difference between Khatyn and Katyn, after all?” – Ludmila gets annoyed. – “I heard about the former over and over again while I was still at school, and the latter has only recently caught my ear. What is the geographical difference between the two and what is it all about: who died there, when and why?”

And on school forums, as on school forums – they answers are varied. Some write about the Germans, others about the NKVD. And still others add the infamous status from Facebook: “it’s complicated”.

– Wojciech Stanislawski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

– Translated by jz
Main photo: Military delegations at the anniversary of the Minsk offensive. On this occasion, they visit the memorial to Nazi victims in Khatyn, depicting Yosif Kaminsky carrying the charred body of his son, which he found in the ruins of a barn. Photo Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia
See more
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Pomeranian Crime: Whoever is Polish must disappear
Between September and December, 1939, 30,000 people in 400 towns of Pomerania were murdered.
History wydanie 22.12.2023 – 29.12.2023
Escape from Stalag – Christmas Eve Story 1944
Prisoners sought shelter in a German church... It was a mistake.
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
New Moscow in Somalia
The Russian press called him "the new Columbus".
History wydanie 15.12.2023 – 22.12.2023
Anonymous account by Witold Pilecki
The friend with whom they had escaped from KL Auschwitz was killed on August 5. He died with the words: “for Poland”.
History wydanie 8.12.2023 – 15.12.2023
Journalist purge to restore media monopoly
Only “trusted people” were allowed to work; over 100 employees were interned.