Posted in his capacity as one of many Nazi officers in erstwhile Belorussia of 1941, Wehrmacht Ober-Gefreite, or Lance Corporal Iohannes Gerder, in his diary of the first few months of occupation, recorded the following entry:
“August, 25: We throw grenades at houses where people live. The houses easily catch fire and burn down fast. Fire jumps over to other log huts. What a spectacular view! People cry and we laugh at their tears. We have burnt about 10 villages this way.”
This harrowing act of inhumanity did not stand alone in the three years of occupation. If anything, Gerder’s words were the ones which set the tone of what was to be the Nazi policy for the region with regard to punitive operations against the villagers, peasants and partisan collaborators. If only 3% of the villages were destroyed in the first year of occupation, 1943 saw a staggering 63% of the villages in the region get burned and their population annihilated. By late May and early June 1943, the Nazis implemented the ‘Kottbus’ operation as part of which the punitive operations saw villages in the regions of Korelichy, Novogrudok, Ivie, Volozhin, Stolbtsy among others, reduced to ashes. A total of 2, 230,000 people were killed during the three years of occupation by the Nazi forces. To wit, every fourth person in that region died at the hands of the brutal and inhumane Nazi occupation.
Amidst this ongoing genocide, the partisan forces were not one to put up with fascist occupation. With the limited support that was offered to them up until the Vitsyebsk gate connected them to the Soviet forces in 1942, the partisans were largely left to their own devices but showed courage in resisting – sparing neither effort nor their own lives. Dislodging the Nazis from villages and reacquiring territory with support from Soviet forces, the partisans had gradually brought around 60% of the territory under their control. To combat the rising tide of Soviet partisans, the Nazi forces raised punitive detachments – groups of those who had betrayed the motherland and chosen to cooperate with the fascists.
And this intersection of engaged belligerents is where the horrifying story of the Khatyn massacre begins. On March 22nd 1943, partisan forces ambushed a German convoy at the crossroads leading to the villages of Pleschinitsy, Logoisk, Kozyry and Khatyn. Hans Woellke, who was an Olympic winner from 1936 and an acquaintance of Adolf Hitler, died in the ambush along with the 3 other police officers. Outraged, the Nazi troops escalated their attacks on the neighbouring villages. Khatyn, the village which played absolutely no part in the attack on the convoy, was attacked by the notorious Dirlewanger Brigade as part of the larger Schutzmannschaft Battalion 118.
The SS-Sturmbrigade Dirlewanger or the Dirlewanger Brigade, called so as it was led by Oskar Dirlewagner, was a military unit of the Waffen-SS. Like all Waffen-SS units, it comprised of men who were either conscripted or volunteered from occupied as well as unoccupied regions. But the Dirlewanger Brigade, at the time of formation, comprised of men convicted of poaching. They were trained and structured into a unit by Dirlewanger, who himself was a violent alcoholic and repeated sexual offender from before the war. Over time, the Brigade grew in number as criminals accused of heinous crimes such as murder, rape and arson joined the unit after being sent over from Germany. If on one side, British Historian Martin Windrow sees the unit as ‘terrifying rabble’ of ‘cut-throats, renegades, sadistic morons, and cashiered rejects from other units,’ Nazi officers from the time saw the unit as ‘pure primitive German men resisting the law’.
All in all, the idea that a group of hardened criminals could make a SS unit was one that was discouraged by the Nazi party, let alone the views of the SS itself. Nevertheless, the initial doubts over the Brigade’s composition was to become the least of the concerns when it came to the acts committed by it. Of course, nobody attempted to ask the question regarding what would happen if a unit of more than 300 criminally insane men were put under charge of one himself – all in a time and regime where atrocities had become a daily activity, a habit.
The Brigade was firstly posted as a unit on guard duty at the Nazi establishment in Lublin in Poland. Their first posting gave the regiment the first chance to exhibit their atrocious character. Although rape and corruption was rampant in the Dirlewanger unit’s functioning, the posting did not last long. As far as records go, so senseless was the unlawful behaviour of the unit that the High SS and Police Leader Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger, who himself organized numerous acts of crimes against humanity and played a major role in the Holocaust, felt revolted and complained. This resulted in the transfer of the unit to Belarus in February 1942 – a little less than a year and a half after their posting in Poland.
Naturally, the Dirlewanger unit took up anti-partisan activities in the Belorussian region as this was the main opposition, if not threat, to the Nazi occupancy. In the August of 1942, the expansion of the regiment’s size was authorized. The strength of the unit increased from 300 to 700 and most of those who were recruited were criminals and military delinquents. And with an inhumane character leading a unit of inhumane individuals, the Dirlewanger unit were at the forefront of the most atrocious of all atrocities – the Khatyn Massacre.
With their death sentences already pronounced for them, the villagers of Khatyn were turned into mere passive participants in their own massacre – an act of aimless vengeance by the Dirlewanger unit. Dirlewanger’s unit invaded the village, drove out men, women and children out of their homes and into the church and sheds, all the while showing no mercy for the sick or the young ones in the arms of their parents – the youngest being a 7 week old baby. And just so a village comprising of 26 houses and around 156 inhabitants were rounded up into the confines of the sheds. Keeping in line with their previous atrocities, the unit’s men threw straw onto the sheds and poured benzene all over it in order to set it ablaze. It would be criminal to not tell the story in the words of the then 8 year old boy Viktor Andreevich Zhelobkovichone, one of the eight survivors and a prime witness out of the six. In a 1986 interview, held around the time of the Vasiura Trial, he recalls the entire ordeal as follows:
“That day before dinner my father and I went to the barn, to prepare Transianka—a mixture of hay and straw—for the cow. Suddenly we heard gunshots. We ran into the house, told all the people … to hide in the basement. After some time the members of the punitive squad broke through the door to the basement and ordered us all out on the street. As we got out we saw that they were chasing people out of the other houses as well. They brought us to the kolkhoz barn, which stood a little bit outside the village. My mother and I stood right by the locked barn doors, and I could see between the planks of the barn wall how they piled up hay against the wall, which they then set on fire. When the burning roof caved in the people and people’s clothes caught on fire, everybody threw themselves against the doors, which broke open. The punitive squad stood around the barn and opened fire on the people, who were running in all directions. We made it five or six meters from the doors of the barn, then my mom pushed me to the ground, and we both lay there. I wanted to get up, but she pressed my head down: “Don’t move, son, lie still.” Something hit me hard in my arm. I was bleeding. I told my mom, but she didn’t answer—she was already dead. How long I was lying there, I don’t know. Everything around me was burning, even my mother’s clothes had begun to glow. Afterwards I realized that the punitive squad had left and the shooting had ended, but still I waited awhile before I got up. The barn burned down, burned corpses lay all around. Someone moaned: “drink …” I ran, brought water, but to no avail, in front of my eyes the Khatyn villagers died one after another. Terrible, painful deaths. … Among the people who were in the barn only five remained alive.”
In another account, he recalled the time inside the shed before the shooting began as follows:
“I saw half-dressed and barefoot children. The Germans did not allow anybody to get dressed. The barn was 10 by 12 meters. The people calmed each other, told themselves ‘They are just trying to scare us and will let us go.’ We sat for about an hour. When someone climbed up under the ceiling to see what was going on, the punitive battalion noticed it and opened fire. The bullet passed me by. Through the cracks I could see how they gathered hay and were pouring gasoline. People went out of their minds from fear, realizing that they were to be burned.”
Another survivor, Aleksandr Petrovich Zhelobkovich, who was 13 years old at the time and survived by escaping away from the village, recalls the state of the village after the attack as follows in his testimony at the trials:
“I got up and ran to relatives in the village of Zamost’e, seven kilometers from Khatyn. I returned with my uncle, but we had to hide in the forest until darkness fell. Over our village stood a thick, black smoke, and we heard gun shots. In the morning a horrendous sight met our eyes: where the houses used to stand, only blackened fireplaces and chimneys remained. Here and there grey piles of ashes were still smoking. On the place where the kolkhoz barn used to stand, and around it, lay the burned corpses of my fellow villagers, adults and children side by side. After two days the villagers of the neighbouring villages buried all the murdered people in three mass graves. In one of them lies my entire family: my father, my mother, and my four sisters.”
The residents of Khatyn did not stand a chance against the attacking SS Dirlewanger unit and the 118 Battalion as there were 5 to 6 SS officer for each house. Out of the village’s total population, only 8 survived the attack on the village. Joseph Kaminski, the only adult to survive the attack, watched his son, fatally wounded and burned, die in his arms. The harrowing truth remains that had none of the 6 witnesses survived the attacks, the world would not know of the tragedy of Khatyn. Though the world may not become a better place with this knowledge, it does offer a just one as the officers responsible for this attack, as well as those who collaborated with them, were given sentences for the atrocity crimes in 1986.
The village of Khatyn does not exist anymore after being burned down but the memory of it was immortalized in 1969 when it was named the National War Memorial of the Belorussian SSR. The memorial complex that represents the massacre today consists many monuments and structures that recall the memories. One of those is that of The Unbowed Man – depicting Kaminski holding his dead son Adam. As of 2008, only two of the witnesses were still alive to tell the story.
When Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel claims that ‘to forget the dead would be akin to killing them twice,’ it is this memory of the dead that he talks about, which needs to be sustained. The memory of Khatyn massacre is one that has been lost, remembered, then twisted and now corrected. In a befitting way, the memorial dedicated to the massacre still recalls those who died in that senseless rage through the Square of Memory which features three birch trees symbolizing life and an Eternal Flame – for those who died.
Per Anders Rudling; The Khatyn Massacre in Belorussia: A Historical Controversy Revisited. Holocaust Genocide Stud 2012; 26 (1): 29-58. doi: 10.1093/hgs/dcs011