More background info:
First of all: this site must not be confused with
the similar looking name Katyn
(see Katyn museum
), the site where the Soviets
massacred the Polish
army's officer elite near Smolensk in Russia
Khatyn, spelled Хатынь in Cyrillic (the initial letter is pronounced like the <ch> in Loch Ness) is a State Memorial Complex in Belarus that commemorates a village of that name that was burned down by the Nazis in 1943 – it also stands symbolically for all the other villages destroyed in a similar manner during Nazi Germany's occupation of the country. In fact, such crimes against civilians including the torching of whole villages was far from exceptional but sadly rather common during that grim time.
At the Khatyn site a total of 619 names of burned-down villages are noted, 433 of these were rebuilt after the war, but the remaining 186 were permanently erased off the face of the Earth.
In the case of Khatyn, this fate struck on 22 March 1943, when, apparently in random retaliation for the killing of a German officer in battles with partisans, an SS battalion drove to the village and encircled it. They rounded up all the inhabitants (nearly 150), locked them in a wooden barn that they then torched. Anybody trying to escape the blaze was mowed down with machine-gun fire. Afterwards, the Nazis looted the village and set fire to every single one of the village's 26 houses, thus burning it to the ground in its entirety.
Of the villagers only a couple of kids survived by hiding or escaping to the forest. A single adult villager also survived, the 56-year-old blacksmith Joseph Kaminsky. Wounded and burnt he regained consciousness late at night after the Nazis had left. Amongst the victims he found his young son, badly burnt but just about alive – though he soon died in his father's arms (at least so the official legend goes). The main memorial sculpture at the memorial site today depicts Kaminsky carrying his dead son. About half of the victims were in fact children under the age of 16.
After the war, initially only a modest memorial stone was placed at the site of the disappeared village of Khatyn. But in 1965 plans were made for a larger memorial complex, and this was opened in 1969 to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from Nazi occupation by the Red Army. The complex was completely renovated in 2004.
The design of the memorial complex is full of symbolism – some of which is explained below – and now stands as one of the most significant memorials in Belarus. And it is “popular”. When I visited in August 2016, there were hundreds of other visitors (mostly Belarusians)! Whether that is always so I cannot say, but I found it remarkable to see such a place so full of visitors, when at Maly Trostenets the three of us had the whole site to ourselves.
What there is to see: From the (remarkably large) car park you approach the centre of the memorial complex along a double paved path, the two halves of which are separated by a long thin flowerbed with red blooms.
The main component you then come to is the 20 feet (6 m) tall statue of Joseph Kaminsky, the sole adult survivor of the massacre, carrying his dead son in his arms (see above).
To the right of this a short white-marble-paved path leads to a black marble sculpture that is vaguely reminiscent of a broken roof. This symbolizes the shed or barn that villagers were burned to death in. My guide told me that you're not supposed to take the path and walk up to the symbolic barn because that was the last path taken by the dead.
Opposite this, to the left of the Kaminsky statue is another large stone monument that stands atop the shallow mound of the mass grave for the killed villagers.
A short stretch further along the main paved path an unpaved path branches off to the left and right which would have been the village's main street. Along this and dotted around the whole area are symbolic foundations of the village's houses, all with a stylized chimney and open symbolic doors (standing for the hospitality of the hosts who are no longer there to welcome you inside in person). The names of the respective inhabitants are noted on small plaques on each of the house memorials. In addition, the ages of those under 16 are given.
Each “chimney” has a bell at the top. These bells ring once every 30 seconds – to indicate the rate at which Soviets were killed in the Great Patriotic War (WWII): two every minute! This is probably the most sombre aspect of the whole memorial. Rather subtle but quite effective once you understand the symbolism.
In addition, you also see little concrete roofs dotted around – these stand symbolically for the village's wells.
The next large section of the memorial complex is the field of village tombs. Mostly stretching out to the right every one of these symbolic tombs has the name of the 185 destroyed Belarusian villages other than Khatyn written on it in black marble. A large “186” sits in the middle of a boxy concrete memorial to the left. (That's the figure including Khatyn, of course.)
A bit further on you come to a row of “symbolic trees of life” sculptures. Their “leafs” are little signs that spell out the names of 433 villages that were also burned down by the Nazis like Khatyn but which since the war have been rebuilt.
Furthermore there is the usual eternal flame (no Soviet war memorial is complete without one), but here it is not only still burning (at many more neglected Soviet memorials it has long since stopped) but it also comes with an additional symbolic twist. It sits in one quarter of a black-marble square and the other three quarters each have a birch tree growing out of them in the middle. This is to symbolize the fact that about 1 in 4 out of the whole population of Belarus lost their lives in the war.
On the northern edge of the memorial complex stands another huge concrete structure with an outer wall angled forward as if in the middle of collapsing. Up some steps you then come to a row of niches alternating with symbolic windows with bars, all made of grey concrete. The niches, or alcoves, are so low that as an adult you have to bow down to look inside – probably to kind of enforce this gesture of respect.
Inside the alcoves are sculptures each stating the names of the many forced-labour camps or massacre sites in the territory of Belarus, together with the (estimated) number of victims for each one of them. Flowers, wreaths and soft toys are left in many of these niches as memento mori.
At various other points at the memorial complex, artificial flowers have been laid down as well, or stuck into gaps in the concrete.
Back at the car park there is also said to be a photo exhibition inside a house next to the administrative building, but for some reason my guide did not take us there before we got back in the car to head on. I learned about the exhibition's existence only when I got home. So I cannot comment on it.
All in all, Khatyn is certainly a very moving memorial complex. It helps having all the symbolism explained to you, as my guide did in quite some detail, otherwise much of it would be rather lost on you. So I do recommend visiting the Khatyn memorial with a guide.
Location: Some 40 miles (65 km) by road from the centre of Minsk, to the north-east in the Lahoysk (Logoisk) region of Belarus.
Access and costs: remote, requiring a vehicle (or bike) to get to; nominally accessible for free, but investing in a guided tour is recommended.
Details: The location is deep in a forest far out of Minsk, so to get there you either have to have your own private means of transport or go on a guided tour that includes transport.
I opted for the latter. I invested in the combined Khatyn and Glory Mound tour my guide offered for the price of ca. 130 USD (and he threw in a stopover at Maly Trostenets for free at the beginning of the tour). This may seem steep, but as it includes transport by private vehicle from Minsk and back and you get so much more out of all the symbolism of Khatyn with a guide, I'd say it's money well invested.
If you are doing it independently and have your own means of transport, then leave Minsk by the M3 motorway heading north-east. After passing the main exit to Lahoysk, keep going for another 9 miles (14 km) and you come to a well-signposted turn off for Khatyn (Хатынь). After another 3 miles (5 km) of road winding through the forest you get to the car park. There are plenty of spaces.
The memorial complex as such is freely accessible at all times.
Admission to the photo exhibition is 2 BYR (concession 1 BYR), opening times: daily except Mondays from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Time required: The combined private tour from Minsk to Khatyn and the Mound of Glory takes about four hours altogether, with almost two hours spent at Khatyn alone.
Combinations with other dark destinations: The way I visited Khatyn it came with its combination built into the tour, namely with the Mound of Glory – in addition I also had a stop at the memorial complex at the former death camp of Maly Trostenets worked into the tour, which was also a very worthwhile addition. And since the tour was from Minsk, the sites of that city combine well with it too. In particular the Great Patriotic War Museum is a must. It has a section about the torching of villages such as Khatyn in its main exhibition with some graphic illustrations.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: For a country as flat as Belarus, the lands around Khatyn are actually quite hilly and even vaguely scenic. You even get a couple of skiing resorts here! In the summer it's quite an odd sight to see a couple of ski jumps poking out above the treetops!
For more tourist attractions for international visitors, however, you have to head back to Minsk.
- Khatyn 01 - unmissable signposting
- Khatyn 02 - plan
- Khatyn 03 - approach
- Khatyn 04 - stark sculpture
- Khatyn 05 - broken roof monument
- Khatyn 06 - symbolic houses of the village
- Khatyn 07 - with bells atop symbolic chimneys
- Khatyn 08 - individuals remembered
- Khatyn 09 - number of destroyed villages commemorated here
- Khatyn 10 - memorial field of village tombs
- Khatyn 11 - names of rebuilt villages
- Khatyn 12 - eternal flame
- Khatyn 13 - monumental in concrete
- Khatyn 14 - modernist design
- Khatyn 15 - row of individual niches
- Khatyn 16 - looking into one of the niches
- Khatyn 17 - Minsk and its death toll
- Khatyn 18 - and that of Maly Trostenets
- Khatyn 19 - offerings of soft toys and wreaths
- Khatyn 20 - sombre place