The Unconquered Man: Haunting War Memorial in Belarus

June 11, 2020Matt Fratus
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Memorial complex “Khatyn” – a memorial to the hundreds of Belarusian villages destroyed by the Nazis during Great Patriotic War. In the center of the composition of the memorial is a sculpture of a man with a dead child in her arms. Hatynskaya tragedy occurred March 22, 1943. The Germans rushed into the village. The entire population, they were driven into the shed, which is then burned. The only adult witness to the Khatyn tragedy, 56-year-old blacksmith Joseph Kaminsky, burnt and wounded regained consciousness when the Nazis was not in the village. Among the corpses of fellow villagers, he found his wounded son. The boy was fatally shot in the belly, received severe burns. He died in the arms of his father. This tragic moment of his life as the basis for the creation of a single sculpture of the memorial complex “Khatyn” – “Unconquered People.” Adobe Stock photo.

Six witnesses stood horrified in the ruins of their tiny Belarusian village of Khatyn, located in the Minsk region, after it was erased from existence by a division of retaliatory Nazis. All that remained were five children and a 56-year-old man named Joseph Kaminsky, sometimes called Yuzif.

When Soviet partisans attacked a German convoy and fled into the village to escape, the Germans’ commanding officer, Hauptmann Hans Woellke, a gold medalist in shot put at the 1936 Summer Olympic games, was killed. The Nazis returned on Monday morning and rounded up the entire village population, including women and 75 children. They were led into a barn that the Nazis then set aflame, killing the innocent civilians inside. The ruthless bloodshed became known as the Khatyn Massacre, which took place on March 22, 1943.

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View of the memorial on the site of a burnt house from the village of Khatyn in Belarus. Adobe Stock photo.

To remember the victims of the senseless tragedy, a sculptor named Sergei Selikhanov fashioned a bronze statue Kaminsky holding his dead son, Adam, in his arms. Erected in 1969, “The Unconquered Man” stands stoically at the entrance of a much larger memorial complex that pays tribute to the more than 3 million civilians who were slaughtered. 

The emotional and haunting displays commemorate every fourth citizen who died in World War II.

“During the three years of German occupation, more than 600 villages were similarly annihilated by the Nazis,” said Dzmitry Skvarcheuski, a tour guide of the sacred grounds. “Of these, 186 were erased permanently from the face of the earth.” 

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The “Cemetery of Villages” is a haunting display where each urn represents a village by the Nazis. Adobe Stock photo.

The memorial complex has an eerie section called the Cemetery of Villages,” which honors these formerly nameless villages that weren’t restored following the war. Within the square-shaped tombstone includes the soil taken from the grounds of each village, and it rests protected inside each urn. “The Tree of Life” symbolizes a new beginning and shows the names of 433 new villages that were built after World War II.

Another element of the memorial complex is the Wall of Sorrow, a 225-foot-long concrete wall that lists the names of the 66 death camps. The Khatyn memorial complex draws in a somber crowd, often walking in silence as they are stepping in the only village-dedicated cemetery in the world. Every 30 seconds, visitors hear the ringing of one of the 26 obelisks with chimney bells — each signifying the houses that were burnt to the ground and the overall cost of the war. The Khatyn memorial is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Belarus and has seen a growing number of visitors each year.

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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