Published in Waves, 1985. Note that the village here is Khatyn, in Belorussia, not the infamous Katyn in Poland. For other stories see www.acolinwright.ca
THE BELLS OF KHATYN
by A. Colin Wright
In the memorial village of Khatyn a bells tolls every thirty seconds from one of the twenty-six symbolic chimneys. The twenty-six symbolic gates do not open: the cottages are missing, the names and ages of their former occupants etched into plaques of marble.
...and Gerhardt Schiller, B.Sc., Dipl.Ing. (construction company in Toronto, Ontario), surveys the empty desolation of a vast clearing in the woods. And thinks
It wasn’t like this. It wasn’t like this!
—The stones we’re walking on mark the main street. Imagine the happy villagers, youngsters playing... However often our guide repeats the words she can’t control her anger for the people she might have known, for the children who, had they lived, would now be her contemporaries.
Slavs: like wasps, you thought then. You felt no hatred, just anger, just... but my God it was fun, was that it? Like spraying a wasps’ nest in your garden, and still they keep flying, so take aim individually, waiting for them to fall. Sometimes you finish them off with another burst as they writhe in the grass; sometimes—since they’ll die anyway—you don’t bother. But remember: some will sting if you don’t do it properly.
A weak sun shines on the peaceful concrete and marble commemorating the absence of a village amidst the mixed forests and undulating grassy fields. Gerhardt Schiller’s eyes, like those of the rest of the group, are moist. Might have been then, only it wasn’t like this.
—In the three years of the occupation two million two hundred and thirty thousand citizens of Soviet Byelorussia perished: one in every four of the population... Her voice, a little sanctimonious like Soviet newscasters you’ve heard, falters as though in disbelief.
They sounded the same, in Germany, then: the same sincerity, the same outrage. And shit, all you wanted was for life to be exciting, different from the dreary integrity of your parents in an age of changed ideals—of your father, maligning as hoodlums your brown-shirted friends. But be like others, an innocent tourist now, and admire through your tears the stark symbolism of a huge cemetery complex. Eternalizing the memory of
Snow, melting in the heat. Of night, of anger. A time when Gerhardt Schiller, with all the rest, shrieked different words. Anger, power, was that it? Drive them into the barn (meeting-hall, church, whatever). A woman won’t go, points at her kids, shouts words you don’t understand. Kerchief on her head, thick padded coat, a face which has potato blight. Hit her with your gun, it’s war, think I want this either, move bitch move! Captain’s watching and I’m desperate for promotion, shit, woman, get it over with. Fire in the mud at her feet, she grabs the kids and moves.
—Nine thousand two hundred villages destroyed (her statistics go mercilessly on): one hundred and eighty-six of them together with their entire populations.
Were you here or not? So many villages: who can remember all their unpronounceable names? Hating us because we’re young, the new race who’ll rule mankind. We need their bread, their cows, their horses, the booty for ourselves to make our sacrifices bearable. Fuck them all for getting in our way. I’ve a family as well, two children I adore: Ilse, blue eyes, the Aryan ideal; Jürgen, tough little bugger, sentimental like his dad. It’s them I’m fighting for, and my warm-bodied wife Liesl, in a land that’s proud again. What are my chances of getting back? Think you’re not angry when your pals fall to the partisans? Teach them all a lesson, it’s us or them—Slavs, inferior as everyone knows.
We walk on. Small groups of architects, construction engineers: a builders’ convention on its afternoon excursion from Minsk. Lamenting the destruction with pompous professionalism. In Canada, it’s said, one man in ten beats his wife. Where I sometimes wake, trembling, from a dream... that I murdered someone. Where, since my divorce, Ilse, Jürgen and their children know me as an ageing, kindly introvert, pottering in his garden. But there’s
Tent caterpillars. What else can you do but burn the nest?—while the children on the street come running to watch them writhing in the flames. Wood burns easily, of course: grenades are quickest, or put straw around and drench with gasoline. Don’t ask me to have pity when my friend Heinz... my best friend Heinz... but then, he got promotion and I didn’t.
Now Rudi, sure, enjoys it, when I think I’ve had enough. Loves to hunt, pheasants, duck, anything. Somewhere it was in day-time and we’re driving them into a barn (meeting-hall, church, whatever) and a kid, a girl, runs away. Look at her, Rudi says, just like a jack-rabbit, lets her get past the cottages almost to the trees, then bang and she’s down, two more to make sure of her. Rudi’s always loved sport, still hunts occasionally; me and the boys and my beer, has slept round too in his time. I take a couple of shots so they won’t think me odd, show I’m a man like the rest, and Captain Schmidt’s watching again, his fat belly quivering in a mirthless laugh.
—T o your right is a symbolic barn of black marble. There, on 22 March 1943, all in the village—every man, woman and child in Khatyn—were herded together, straw was placed round the barn, soaked in gasoline and set alight. One hundred and forty-nine souls were burnt alive. Soldiers surrounded it to shoot any who escaped.
And where were you, I think at her defiantly. Confusion, cries of infants, insults, shots for those who can’t make it. Move, damn you! Out of your houses! Carry those who can’t walk. All into the barn (meeting-hall, church, whatever). War purifies, they say, and we’re the bosses now. On the banks of the Rhine, in the sun, we grow grapes: in the new Germany to be, reborn from the defeatist chaos my father’s decency led to. To avenge Versailles, we reminded them. And yet...
Gerhardt Schiller remembers the statue at the entrance to the memorial complex. In the hundred-metre walk towards it from the buses he’d tried not to look, while its jagged bronze towered above: a man, haggard, scrawny, with staring eyes, carrying a dead child like a drooping letter M.
—They were largely the women and children, the old, the sick, the helpless. The young men were at the front... She’s almost crying too, not for them but sentimentally, at the idea of it.
And the others, are they watching, wondering about Gerhardt Schiller, B.Sc., Dipl.Ing.—who has a construction company in Toronto, and understands that it was terrible? SS Corporal Gerhardt Schiller screams inwardly that it wasn’t like that. They were our enemies, sheltering the partisans, hindering our work, our great ideal. It was only a small massacre after all, no worse than thousands since the world began. Sure we’re murderers, who isn’t? Ordinary people, justified, angry. Was your Russian Civil War any better, the Americans in Vietnam, the French in Algeria? The British in Cyprus, and now the Israelis—as if the Jews haven’t made fuss enough!
Slav peasants they are, that’s all, not like you. They force you into it, make it difficult by resisting, hitting back. And then, well yes, it’s exciting, I admit.
...as she shows us
A black marble wall with openings like prison cells. Commemorating those from each town or village who died in the camps. No names, just figures. Beyond this a cemetery for every village destroyed, stretching out of sight: the graves three metres square, with an urn, a red flower, a black stone. Each village’s name in the angular backward capitals of an unreadable alphabet.
СТАРИЦА, НОВОСЕЛЬКИ, БЕЛАЯ ЛУЖА, ЗЕЛЕНЫЙ ЛОГ, ЛАДЕЕВО, ДРЕМЛЕЕВО…
...In September 1942, drunken SS soldiers—she spits the words—drove into Dremleyevo. They forced everyone into a cow-shed, plundered the cottages, then set fire to everything. Two hundred and eighty people were burnt alive or shot, including a hundred and twenty-five children. Only three escaped.
What did I tell you?—it was only a small massacre in Khatyn. I knew all about the thousands killed, the burning piles of corpses. And the Gestapo, they got my father too...
Such, you see, were my orders. Captain Schmidt, his eyes glistened, his belly heaved as he read them. —Pity, sympathy, nerves: no place for them in war! Kill every Soviet Russian, old men, women, girls, boys, all of them. Animals. That way you’ll save yourselves and assure the future of the glorious Aryan race. Schiller, repeat!
—I magine the barn as it filled with smoke, the despair as they realized they’d never get out alive... (An involuntary, uncomprehending shudder.)
You repeat without question. He thinks you’ve a stake in the culture because your name is Schiller. So be zealous like the rest, don’t stick your neck out, that’s how to get promotion. Like Heinz, whom I loved as a friend, and hated, hated, when he made it and I didn’t.
But the squealing disturbed me at first. Even of the pigs when we slaughtered them. I’m sentimental, you see. The first time I heard children trapped in the flames I nearly threw up. But others were watching.
—The sacrifice made by those one in four who fell to the fascist barbarians—she’d translated the plaque where we’d got off the buses. No mention of those ordinary people who suddenly discovered they’d been murderers all the time. No memorial marks the passing of Gerhardt Schiller, who also died in Byelorussia. Or earlier. Dear God, I didn’t mean it!
Remember how, as a child, you loved staring into a fire, imagining a different world of cities and flaming buildings? When a cottage burns you see a flickering in the doorway and windows, until the whole inside’s alight. It flames up around the jambs, through the roof, and suddenly it has a hold on the walls, the flames shoot higher, so beautiful; the wind carries the sparks into the sky, the heat scorches your face, the snow’s already melted. Later, there’s nothing but the brick stove and chimney, a desolate, accusing finger in the smoke. Now, from another symbolic chimney
You lie with the others as the barn blazes, the heat searing your eyes, the blood throbbing in your ears. Shoot anyone who gets out. Some always to, children crawling between the adults’ legs. Their clothes on fire, so they’re better off shot anyway. But sometimes, if no one sees, you let the others do it. It’s that way now. You hear the shots but keep your eyes closed, thinking how it’s really a shitty job and not even exciting any more—praying you’ll somehow survive and get back to Liesl and your children.
Open your eyes and there’s this man walking straight at you, burning like an avenging god. Ageless: grief, suffering, dirt makes them look all the same. The dead child he’s carrying could be four, or six, or eight.
Oh God it wasn’t like that it wasn’t like that it wasn’t like that. You tried—once—to condemn the nazi excesses, but what’s a Party without discipline? You had your share of ordinary pride and patriotism. The Führer well in secret we could make fun of him but it stirred us just the same when Europe shuddered at our might, while old-fashioned liberals shook their frightened heads. Just ignore the fanatics, stay clear of the Gestapo you know full well is necessary. Some have to be sacrificed for a new and greater society. The power and the glory, the soul-stirring marches, the thousand-year Reich, the mass rallies in a common cause: it brought tears to your eyes. When was it that the excitement, the intoxication, the glory, gave way to lassitude and despair? To realization...
But if you still want promotion go along with everyone else.
—Only one man escaped alive from the barn.
(Meeting place, church, whatever.)
The Captain’s alarmed. —Schiller! Fire, damn you!
You can’t. He lifts his pistol, points it at you, you’re terrified, think you’re going to die, he shoots it into the ground so that the mud splatters against your face. —Fire, Schiller!
Close your eyes and fire. Then open them.
It’s as though he hasn’t noticed. Still he comes on, clothes on fire, staring ahead of him, the child hanging limp in his arms.
...for the times you try no longer to think. That play by Shakespeare: You are in blood stepp’d in so far that, should you wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er. So many terrible things it’s too late to change, nothing you’ll ever do can be worse. So shut your eyes and shout with the rest that someday it will be different in the new society most of us no longer believe in. Grab what you can, make the most of your power. Some still enjoy it. Rudi, Captain Schmidt. It’s exciting, you see, the adrenaline, the blood pounding in your veins. Then, if it has to be done, get it over with.
You fire. Still he comes. Again, and now you’re firing crazily, while the bullets just don’t seem to touch him, why won’t he die! On he comes, you fire again and again, another moment and you’ll turn and run. But he stops, barely five metres in front, falls to his knees, still holding the child; sinks over it, collapses, and Rudi goes to finish him off with his rifle butt.
—In Lesiny, she tells us, they grabbed all the children who weren’t in the barn and threw them down a well.
The simplest way. And somewhere else a spring flood washes up the bodies buried in a ditch. Over three thousand, and we have to go out in boats and catch them all. Then make the locals bury them again. Later, we’re told to dig them up, rotten as they are, and burn them. German efficiency.
Snow, night, wind, fire. In Munich, after the war, I meet Captain Schmidt in a beer-hall. We recognize each other straightaway.
—It wasn’t like that at all, he tells me. I didn’t enjoy it any more than you. I’d have been shot for disobeying orders. And you, Schiller, didn’t help. You’d never have got your promotion.
You didn’t believe him. Whose fault was it then? Yours?
—When you wouldn’t fire I was so angry I could have killed you myself. Only then I’d have had to shoot that man. And for a moment the boy reminded me...
Butcher, murderer. He believed in it to the end. He shows you photos of his podgy children, a tiny wife, and himself eating candy-floss. He doesn’t suggest you meet again. Were you ever like him?
—Afterwards, she says, in springtime, the storks returned to Khatyn. There was nowhere for them to roost anymore
...and they circled, puzzled, before flying away for ever.
Why am I here in the wilderness of Byelorussia?
It wasn’t like this
A bell tolls
A bell tolls, a bell tolls, a bell tolls
...so that, dear God
—It should never be forgotten or forgiven. And we, in the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, have solemnly sworn...
Gerhardt Schiller, builder, of Toronto, returns with the group to the waiting buses.
The radio blares forth its news about the brotherly assistance the Soviets are giving the Afghan patriots. The guide explains she has a brother in the army there. She believes, as I did; as they all do, wherever they live.
—It’s so terrible for them, fighting for freedom. So that this—she looks back towards the memorial complex, where the bells still toll—will never happen again.
Soon, thank God, you’ll be home again. A peaceful man who, in a new country, finds solace in his garden and an understanding Canadian second wife. While your grandchildren, with Ilse and Jürgen, visit you unsuspecting in your flawlessly decorated house. A civilized neighbourhood, respectable friends paying off mortgages and lamenting the sex and violence on television.
The buses leave, turn onto a road you must have patrolled many times, watching for partisans. A solitary accusing finger-like sign points back to an empty clearing in the woods:
Now it’s a major highway and, since we’re an important delegation of builders, we’re preceded all the way to Minsk by a medical vehicle with a flashing light, warning oncoming traffic to move to the side of the road.
A.Colin Wright's novel Sardinian Silver can be ordered from any bookstore, from www.amazon.com and other amazon sites, www.barnesandnoble.com, and www.iUniverse.com.