Read and See: Ales Adamovich and Literature out of Fire

Read and See: Ales Adamovich and Literature out of Fire

A nonverbal man sits on a bench on a village street. With his hands, he tells the story of his village. His hands say that all of the villagers were herded together into a barn. His hands say that the barn was set on fire. He uses his fingers to show that those who broke out of the burning barn were shot to death with machine guns. His fingers say that all six of his children were murdered in that fire.

This footage comes from the documentary Khatyn, 5 km, a 1968 collaboration between filmmaker Igor Kolovsky and writer Ales Adamovich. “The face of a man who survived—who tore himself by a miracle out of fire!” writes the Belarusian Adamovich (1927–94)—a former partisan in a country where every fourth person was killed during the German occupation of 1941 to 1944—in describing his encounter with this silent man, in autobiographical prose that he published later. Instead of offering the consolation of a commentary, this exclamation states the obvious. There can be no further comment. You have to come and see the face of a man who survived.

The village of Khatyn, located thirty miles from the Belarusian capital of Minsk, was the site of a massacre that took place on March 22, 1943. (This is not to be confused with the better-known massacre at Katyn, the Russian forest where a few years earlier the Soviets had executed many thousands of Polish military officers.) On that day, a police battalion formed by the Nazis rounded up nearly all of the 156 inhabitants of Khatyn, half of them children, trapped them in a shed, and set it on fire. The executioners did their best not to leave any witnesses. Afterward, they looted the village and burned it to the ground.

In 1965, when Adamovich started writing his book Khatyn—a fiction, sourced from witness testimonies, that would be published in 1971 (and later translated into English), and become a primary inspiration for Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), whose script Adamovich would also write with the director—nobody yet knew the exact number of Belarusian villages burned down along with all their inhabitants during the war. At the 1969 opening of the Khatyn Memorial, the official count was 185 fire villages. Each is represented by a tomb in the memorial’s Cemetery of Villages.

Over the next two decades, however, the count would rise to more than six hundred. Large as it is, this number includes only the most destructive raids by the Nazis. It is estimated that more than five thousand Belarusian settlements experienced various punitive actions. Thousands of civilians—women, children, and the elderly—were burned to death inside the largest buildings in their villages, usually a barn, a school, or a church. All the executions were justified with the same pronouncement: the mass murder was a punishment for unlawful partisan activity against the Nazis. For instance, in response to the killing of two German soldiers near the village of Ola, in the south of Belarus, 1,758 of Ola’s inhabitants were burned to death, including 950 children. This massacre, almost twelve times the size of Khatyn’s, is just one example of a fire village remembered in neither film nor literature.

Considering the extent of civilian deaths with no mercy to infants, small children, and the incapacitated elderly, there is no doubt that what is at stake here is a genocide.

“The reading of Adamovich’s books should be accompanied by some kind of breathing exercises, gardening, music practice, or prayer. They offer no catharsis. They testify to the failure of humanity as a project in humaneness.”

“Adamovich demotes the writer from his godlike position. After World War II, there cannot be any omnipotent puppet master writing Belarusian war prose.”

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